Audio Research Reference Phono 2 (TAS 199)

Equipment report
Audio Research Reference Phono 2
Audio Research Reference Phono 2 (TAS 199)

I listen to music almost every day. Which is to say, I hardly ever listen to CDs.

Call me a Luddite but I’m married to the sound of vinyl. No, it’s not because I enjoy the rituals and routines of analog playback. I don’t thrill to the agonies of setting up a new tonearm or cartridge, I don’t spend hours minutely dialing in VTA for each and every disc, I abhor disc-washing, and I’m not even wild about coaxing forty-to-fifty-year-old LPs out of plastic bags or paper sleeves, slipping them onto spindles, tightening down record clamps, and cueing up tonearms. Yeah, record jackets and liner notes are cooler than jewel-case booklets or metadata readouts, but if fetishism were all there were to LP playback I’d drop the whole enterprise in a heartbeat. I’m married to the sound of vinyl because, at its best, it comes closer to the sound of the real thing than any digital medium I’ve heard, high-res or low. Just lately it’s come even closer, thanks in part to the little number I’m about to review.

In its long history the Audio Research Corporation has made many phono preamps. Indeed, ARC built its sterling reputation on a succession of preamps primarily intended to boost and equalize the low-level signals of moving-magnet, moving-iron, and (eventually) moving-coil cartridges. Back in the day that was virtually all they were designed to do. The SP3, the SP3a, the SP3a-1, the SP6, the SP6b, the SP8, the SP10, the SP10 Mk II, the SP11, even the budget SP9 were primarily phonostages. Then the CD came along and finished what guys like John Curl and Mark Levinson started—it broke the preamp in two. One of the first unintended consequences of Perfect Sound Forever was the ascendance of the linestage preamplifier. The lowly phonostage was exiled to its own box, and as time went by those boxes generally got smaller and smaller until some of them finally shed their chassis altogether and turned into plug-in cards or…disappeared.

If you want to know why I’ve been an ARC loyalist these many years, it is partly because William Zane Johnson didn’t give up on the LP. Oh, he split his preamps in two, like everyone else. He had no choice if he wanted ARC to remain competitive in a CD world. But he kept designing new and better phonostages, even when the future of the LP looked grimmest. (Funny, isn’t it, that, a few decades down the road, the LP is still holding its head above water, while the SACD sleeps with the fishes—and the CD may soon join it?) When ARC slapped the label “Reference” on its most advanced products at the turn of the last century, there was a bigod Reference phonostage—the Reference 1 Phono—to go alongside the Reference 1 linestage. However, when the Reference 1 Phono was phased out in 2005, Johnson and Company gave us the marvelous (and wholly superior) PH7 as a replacement—but no Reference 2. A few of us wondered if that spelled the end for “Reference” ARC phonostages, especially since the PH7 was so good it was going to be hard to top. But, no, WZJ and the crew at ARC were merely playing possum.

Actually what they were doing was five years of intense R&D. The results of which should put to permanent rest the notion that ARC isn’t still as serious about vinyl as it was on the day when the SP3 first saw light. The Reference Phono 2 may have been a long time coming, but it is unquestionably worth the wait. Quite simply, this is the most ambitious, the most versatile, and, at a cool $12k, the most expensive phono preamp Audio Research has ever concocted. It is also, I am delighted to say, the most completely successful—a fitting capstone to nearly a half-century of engineering excellence.

Since its start, ARC has been trying to bridge the gap between the virtues of solid-state and the virtues of tubes. With the Reference Phono 2, that gap has been narrowed to an unprecedented extent. The things that tubes traditionally give away, wholly or in part, to solid-state (things that even the wonderful PH7 gave away, albeit far less of them than previous ARC phono preamps)—grip, definition, and rhythmic clarity and precision in the bottom octaves; grip, extension, and power in the top ones; transient speed, dynamic impact, and lower noise overall—the Reference Phono 2 does not give away. Here, for the very first time in my experience, is a tube (well, tube-hybrid, as you will see) phonostage that doesn’t melt in the bass like a candle dripping wax or flicker out into wisp-of-smoke softness in the treble, that doesn’t lock up the brakes on starting transients, that doesn’t flood the soundfield with soft plush grain. Here is a phono preamp that will not only reproduce the guitars of Peter and Paul—the sweet interplay of which almost exactly duplicates the gorgeous harmonies of their tenor and baritone voices—on “Don’t Think Twice” from PPM’s superbly recorded LP In the Wind [Warner], but that will also resolve Edgar deHass’ buried-in-the-mix standup-bass lines with a clarity that not only reveals each note of his tasteful accompaniment but also reveals the way each note is being played. Here is a phonostage that can (and does) clearly resolve each word of the whispered refrain of Ricki Lee Jones’ “Just Walk Away, Renee” (from Girl At Her Volcano [Warner]) or Leon Redbone’s Foghorn Leghorn delivery of “Sweet Mama, Papa’s Getting Mad”—lyrics that were previously almost impossible to hear (although no small credit also has to be given to the utterly transparent Soulution 720 preamp and Soulution 710/700 amps)—and, at the same time, will literally make you jump out of your seat on a hard, quickly damped timp strike, like, oh, the fabulous one toward the close of Dorati’s Firebird [Mercury], which it delivers without any of the initial lag and subsequent overhang-like blur of typical tube phonostages. Indeed, here is a phonostage that sounds so much like a great solid-state phonostage, albeit with sweeter more fully resolved timbres and textures, that I was at first nonplussed. Out of the box the Ref Phono 2 just didn’t sound ARC-like. Indeed, it sounded too much like solid-state—darker in balance and flatter in aspect than the admittedly grainier, but also bloomier, airier, more color-neutral PH7.

I had nothing to fear, of course. It only took a dozen or so hours of break-in to turn the Ref  Phono 2’s tonal balance from a shade dark to a dead-center neutral that made even the very neutral PH7 sound tipped a little toward the treble, and to add so much air and bloom and dimensionality that the soundfield became a virtual diorama (assuming, of course, that an LP permits such depth of stage and image). Wed this solid-state-like speed, grip, impact, and extension to tube-like textures, timbres, air, bloom, and soundstaging and you’ve got what is, overall, the most lifelike and transparent-to-sources phonostage I’ve ever heard in my life. The best of it is that this realism is no longer restricted primarily to the midband; the Reference Phono 2 is realistic everywhere—bass, midband, and treble.

Clearly things have changed in this circuit—noise has been lowered, transient speed has been accelerated (although not at the expense, as is sometimes the case with solid-state, of the full utterance of the note, the scanting of steady-state tone and decay), resolution has been raised. ARC appears to have accomplished this via a literal mating of solid-state and glass audio. Although the Reference Phono 2, which is a big phonostage (twenty-seven pounds!), has the exact same tube complement as the new linestage Reference 5 (four 6H30s in the gain stage and a 6550C and another 6H30 in the power supply), it also uses “high-gain, extremely low-noise” FETs in the input stage (instead of a transformer). While there is nothing particularly new about this wedding of tubes and transistors chez ARC, the parts (ARC is using “proprietary” new capacitors and transformers throughout) and their implementation (the power supply in the Reference Phono 2 boasts eleven stages of regulation) must be markedly superior; there is no other way to account for the obvious gains in transparency, resolution, and realism.

While the sound of the Reference Phono 2 as an RIAA phonostage is the lead story, there is another story. The Reference Phono 2 is the first ARC phonostage to offer alternative EQ curves. (It also has two phono inputs—for separate tonearm/cartridges—and two phono outputs, one of which is balanced, as well as the usual panoply of ARC conveniences, such as remote-controllable cartridge-loading at a wide number of settings from 50 ohms to 47k Ohms, remote-conrollable phonostage gain, remote-controllable everything.)

Alternative EQ curves (the Ref Phono 2 offers an RIAA, a Columbia, and a Decca curve) are a bit of a hot-button topic, about which I’ve written on-line. Optional EQ curves made sense back in the early fifties before the RIAA curve (which is essentially the RCA New Orthophonic curve) was supposedly adopted as a standard in 1953. Before this, recording outfits EQ’d mono LPs to “house” curves that had different hinge points and different amounts of cut and boost in the bass and the treble than RIAA/RCA. While a great sounding blue-label Columbia—like the 1950 mono recording of Lou Harrison’s gorgeous suite for Harp and Cello—still sounds great via RIAA equalization, it unquestionably sounds better via Columbia’s own curve. Ditto for the Decca curve with Decca group, DG, EMI, and Philips mono LPs from about 1950 to, maybe, about 1955. The trouble—if that’s the right word—comes at the dawn of the stereo era.

As far as I can see—and I’ve looked into this question—every major record company, here and overseas, used RIAA equalization for its stereo LPs, starting with the very first stereo releases in 1958. There is, admittedly, controversy about this, with certain folks claiming that Columbia was still using its own EQ right through the late sixties/early seventies and that Decca was doing the same thing. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to prove this outside the evidence that your ears provide.

ARC has made a sterling effort to precisely duplicate the Columbia and Decca curves—and it is to be congratulated for providing mono-LP hounds with these resources. At the same time, to have made what is, IMO, far and away the highest fidelity RIAA phonostage in company history and then to leave certain users with the impression that they might be better off trying out alternative curves with their Columbia and Decca stereo LPs is, well, debatable. The problem with alternate EQ is that some poorly engineered stereo LPs (the assumption that RIAA EQ was correctly applied in every instance is clearly and audibly false) may, indeed, benefit from different equalization—I have heard this myself, most recently with a stereo recording of the Miaskovsky String Quartets on Melodiya, which definitely sounded more like real music via the Decca curve than via the RIAA curve. My problem is this: Am I re-equalizing a poorly recorded record, acting as a virtual mastering engineer after the fact, and making a “poor” record sound “good,” or am I actually applying the correct equalization—the equalization that Melodiya itself used—and hearing the record they way it was supposed to sound? I’m afraid there is no answer to this question.

EQ can make vast differences in the listenability of any recording. The question becomes: Do you want to hear what you were intended to hear (even if those intentions were not well executed) or do you want to hear something different? You will have to decide for yourself, although I can tell you that I generally use the Columbia and Decca curves with early monos. (Which, BTW, confers no small advantage in playing them back.)

Does the Reference Phono 2 have any sonic “weaknesses.” Well, none I consider major. It is a little “forward,” as all ARC gear is. (By this I mean that it starts imaging a little more towards the plane of the speakers; this does not affect stage depth or width, which are phenomenal given the right disc.) It may not be as finely detailed in the heart of the heart of the midrange as something like the superb tube/transformer Audio Tekne TEA-2000, which, for example, resolves every quaver of Alison Krauss’ tremolo with a microscopic clarity that the Ref Phono 2 doesn’t quite match. (OTOH, the Ref Phono 2 kills the Audio Tekne in the bass and the treble and large swaths of the midband.) It doesn’t have the sheer heft and solidity of something like the Soulution 720 phonostage (nor is its noise level quite as low). It sounds better, IMO, with its top cover removed. And…well, that’s about it.

As you know, I’m a huge ARC fan. I like and strongly recommend everything they make. However, I can honestly say that if I were forced to keep a single product from the Audio Research line—and thank God I’m not—it would be the Reference Phono 2. Given my analog bias, this isn’t entirely surprising. But it is also a testament to the exceptional quality of this masterpiece, which is simply the most neutral, the most transparent, the (for the most part) highest resolution, and most persuasively lifelike phonostage I’ve had in my system. Now, go forth and audition one.

Specs & Pricing

Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono preamplifier

Frequency response: ±0.2dB of RIAA, 10Hz to 60kHz: 3dB points below 0.5Hz and above 300kHz
Distortion: .002% at 1.0V RMS 1kHz BAL output
Gain: Selectable 51dB (Low), 74dB (High) at 1kHz BAL; 45dB (Low), 68dB (High) at 1kHz SE (MC & MM compatible)
Input impedance: 47k Ohms and 100pF SE.
Additional selectable loads: 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50 ohms, and Custom Phono equalization: (Selectable) RIAA, Columbia, Decca.
Polarity: Non-inverting.
Output impedance: 200 ohms SE, 400 ohms balanced. Recommended load 50K–100K ohms and 100pF
Maximum input: 250mV RMS at 1kHz (680mV RMS at 10kHz)
Rated output: 0.5V RMS 10Hz to 20kHz, 100k Ohm load
Noise: 0.22uV equivalent input noise (High Gain) (65dB below 0.1mV 1kHz input)
Tube complement: (4) 6H30 dual triodes, plus (1 each) 6H30, 6550C in power supply
Dimensions: 19** x 7 x 15.5**
Weight: 27 lbs. net
Price: $12,000

3900 Annapolis Lane
North Plymouth, MN 55447
(763) 577-9700

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Loudspeakers: Magico M5, MartinLogan CLX, Focal Diablo Utopia
Linestage preamps: Audio Research Reference 5, Soulution 720, BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Reference 2, Audio Tekne TEA-2000, Lamm Industries LP-2 Deluxe
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 610T, Soulution 700, Lamm ML-2, BAlabo BP-1 Mk-II
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond record player, AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci turntable with DaVinci Grandezza and Nobile tonearms
Phono cartridges: DaVinci Grandezza, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Clearaudio Goldfinger v2
Digital source: dCS Scarlatti with U-Clock, Soulution 740, ARC Reference CD8
Cable and interconnect: Tara Labs “Zero” Gold interconnect, Tara Labs “Omega” Gold speaker cable, Tara Labs “The One” Cobalt power cords, MIT Oracle MA-X interconnect, MIT Oracle MA speaker cable, Synergistic Research Absolute Reference speakers cables and interconnects, Audio Tekne Litz wire cable and interconnect
Accessories: Shakti Hallographs (6), A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and corner traps, ASC Tube Traps, Symposium Isis equipment stand, Symposium Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks, Symposium Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment stand, Walker Prologue amp stands, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray power distributor and Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX power cables, Tara Labs PM 2 AC Power Screens, Shunyata Research Dark Field Cable Elevators, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Winds Arm Load meter, Clearaudio Double Matrix record cleaner, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses