What has changed, you might well ask between the Reference Phono 2 SE and the Reference Phono 10 to make it so much more colorful, dimensional, and powerful—while also asking, as I did, what has changed enough to make the Reference Phono 10 cost more than twice what the Reference Phono 2 SE costs?
Well, the answers to these questions will be obvious as soon as you see the unit(s). Although ARC has ocasionally marketed two-chassis full-function preamps and linestages in the past, the Reference Phono 10 marks the first time in the company’s long history that it has offered a two-box phonostage—one chassis for the power supply, the other for the preamplification circuitry.
As is also the case with the two-box $30k Reference 10 Line Stage, the Reference Phono 10 is a completely dual-mono pre-amplifier with totally independent signal paths from its power supplies through its preamplification stages. Of course, the single-chassis Reference Phono 2 SE is also a dual-mono design with (as noted) exactly the same, zero-feedback, Class A, 6H30P dual-triode-based circuit as the Ref Phono 10. The chief difference is that the added real estate of the Reference Phono 10’s second chassis has allowed ARC to beef up the power supplies themselves with separate high and low-voltage transformers for each channel and what ARC claims is enough energy-storage capacity to fuel “a serious amplifier” (better than twice the capacitance of the Reference Phono 2 SE). The added capacitance is said to improve “dynamic headroom,” and, brother, does it ever—not only with large-scale orchestral pieces like Iberia but with every kind of music.
As I said in my first sentence, just put on any well-recorded LP—say Acoustic Sounds’ marvelous two-disc, 45rpm reissue of The Doors’ L.A. Woman (remastered by Doug Sax, no less)—and thrill to the Ref Phono 10’s newfound density of tone color, which gives the bass range, the power range, and the midrange the black marble solidity and three-dimensional substantiality—the wall of sound—that you only hear when listening to rock live (preferably in a small club with good monitors, good acoustics, a mixer who knows what he’s doing, and a really tight four-or five-piece band). Not only does the Ref Phono 10 add lifelike tonal weight and body to kickdrum, bass, and keyboard on a song like “L.A. Woman”; it also does wonders for Jim Morrison’s voice (“I did a little down about an hour ago”), which through the Ref Phono 10 sounds fuller and more immediate (which it should, BTW, since he reputedly recorded this vocal in the studio bathroom precisely in order to get a fuller sound) than it does through the lighter-weight Reference 2 SE or solid-state.
However...as great as this injection of tonal weight, color, and body is, what happens to dynamics is just as sensational. To put this plainly, you’re going to be lifted out of your chair when you hear and feel the impact of John Densmore’s rimshots, the tires-on-the-freeway throb of Jerry Scheff’s sensational Fender bass, and the almost-Morrison-like abandon of that glorious Robby Krieger guitar solo at the climax of “L.A. Woman” (after Mr. Mojo rises), which never, ever, fails to cause my mojo to rise, raising goosebumps on my arms and sending chills down my spine. What a great friggin’ song! As good as rock gets, IMO. And though I’ve heard it ten thousand times, it’s never thrilled me more on LP than it has through this Reference Phono 10 phonostage.
I could go on citing musical examples ad infinitum—from the way the Reference Phono 10 showcases the constant dynamic and rhythmic variety of Webern’s intensely expressive Five Movements for String Quartet to the sheer driving power it brings to the rhythm section of Janis Joplin’s band on “Try” from Kozmic Blues, which (here) really does have the sock-in-the-chest weight and power of a real-life rhythm section.
Suffice it to say that in every sonic regard—from timbre, to dynamics, to image focus, to dimensionality, to soundstage width and breadth, to perceived realism—this is the best ARC phonostage yet. And not by a little bit.
So it’s analog perfection, right? Well, not quite.