Exclusive First Review: Audio Research's NEW Reference Phono 2SE Phonostage Preamp

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Exclusive First Review: Audio Research's NEW Reference Phono 2SE Phonostage Preamp

About a month ago, Warren Gehl, the Golden Ear at Audio Research Corporation who has done the voicing of ARC’s latest (and top-to-bottom superlative) line of electronics, called me up with some bleak news: “You need to return the Ref Phono 2,” said he.

Since I listen to vinyl about 99.9% of the time, this had all the makings of a catastrophe. There was, however, a silver lining. “We’ll turn it around in about a week,” he went on, “and when it comes back it will have been updated to a Ref Phono 2SE.”

“What’s changed?” I asked.

“A lot,” Warren replied.

And he was right.

Not only does the 2SE (Special Edition) look different than the Ref Phono 2, with its new circular push-button faceplate and special damped plastic (as opposed to metal) top plate—both derived, as is much of the improved power-supply circuitry from the late, lamented, rather unbelievably short-lived Reference 40 Anniversary linestage preamp—but it sounds different, too. One look inside—and you will have to take the top plate off (and I advise you to leave it off, if kids, pets, or spouses don’t make that impossible) to install the tubes—will tell you why: lots of large Teflon capacitors that weren’t there before. My first thought was, “This is going to sound like a Ref Phono 2 on steroids.”

But the difference in sonics actually goes beyond the massively beefed-up power supply, which now has twice the energy storage of the original Ref Phono 2. The thing isn’t just faster (although it is faster), harder-hitting (although it is harder-hitting), or more extended in the bass and treble (although it is these things, too), with excellent bass-range grip and explosive impact on big transients—the benefits you might expect from a stiffer power supply. It is also markedly lower in noise and grain, higher in resolution (and the Ref Phono 2 was no slouch in the detail department), richer and more natural in tone color, more tightly defined in imaging, and more immersive when it comes to ambience retrieval. It is, in short, less tube-like (in the “coloration” sense), more neutral, less there-in-its-own-right than any previous ARC phonostage I’ve heard. [A further important word about the 2SE and ambience retrieval: With the right speakers and electronics--currently, in my case, the Maggie 3.7s and the c-j GAT and ART--and the right recording [typically a live concert], this phonostage has the uncanny ability to reproduce voices and instruments as if they are embedded within an acoustic space that is audibly different than that of your listening room. These instruments and voices don't sound, as they so often do with less high-resolution gear, as if they are standing in front of an acoustical space that stretches out behind them, like actors filmed in front of a projected backdrop in a 40s film. They are, instead, reproduced within the space, like actors filmed in a location shot. The ambience is integral; it surrounds them, permeates their very timbres, locates them and their voices, in three dimensions, in a space and time that sounds dramatically different than the space and time of your listening room. In order to reproduce the very air of a hall or club in this utterly realistic immersive way, a component must be capable of extraordinary resolution, as well as very very low noise. The not-yet-broken-in Ref Phono 2SE already fits this bill better than any previous ARC phonostage or, frankly, any other phonostage I've yet tested. BTW, this incredibly realistic effect--transparency at its finest [pun intended]--is something that I seldom if ever hear in digital playback.)

As is always the case when the presence of electronics (and if you’ve got good ones, source components and speakers) is diminished, the presence of what is actually on the recording is proportionately increased. For a fidelity-to-mastertapes/absolute sound listener like me this is paradise. With great LPs, you will not only hear more of what is actually in those grooves (and recent experience suggests that we haven’t come close to the end of mining that vein, yet); what is in those grooves will, if the augurs are right, sound significantly more realistic.

I’ve already mentioned—in my Acoustic Signature Ascona blog (http://www.avguide.com/blog/the-acoustic-signature-ascona-turntable-new-contender-0) —the kind of previously unheard (and undreamed-of) fine detail about instrument and engineering that the ARC Ref Phono 2SE is capable of reproducing (when sourced by a truly low-noise, high-resolution front end like the Ascona/Kuzma 4P/Ortofon A90 or the Walker Black Diamond Mk III/Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement or the Da Vinci Mk II/Benz LP S-MR). This subtle but significant bonanza of added musical and recording detail is probably owed to the fact that, unlike the original Ref 2 Phono, the Ref Phono 2SE isn’t very slightly softening (with very fine grain, somewhat less incisive focus, and reduced energy) and warming (with tubier lower mids and upper bass) the astonishingly neutral and high-in-resolution (some might say slightly clinical) signature of the Ortofon MC A90 or, for that matter, the near equally high-in-resolution but more robust, more energetic, more gemütlich signature of the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement or the sweet, gentle, diaphanous one of the Benz. It is reproducing what comes ahead of it with greater discernment and less editorialization than previous ARC phonostages.

As has long been the case with every successive iteration of ARC products, the Ref Phono 2SE appears to be incorporating more of solid-state’s undeniable virtues—its lower noise, its wider bandwidth, its superior transient speed, its dynamic impact, its tighter focus, its more neutral tonal balance—without sacrificing the tube’s ability to more fully and naturally reproduce very low-level details about instrumental and vocal timbre, texture, and dynamics, or its ability to see into the stage without flattening images or dimming the lights, or its magical way with instrumental bloom. When you can not only hear the obvious differences between the “chick” and the “shimmer” of percussionist Butch Miles’ stickwork when he plays with his hi-hat closed and open (on Reference Recordings’ swell From the Age of Swing LP), but can also actually hear him opening and closing that hi-hat as he plays, you’re getting the kind of resolution of instrumental detail, playing style, and lifelike timbre, texture, and dynamic that makes for astonishing realism. Ditto for Attila Bozay’s harp-zither on the Hungaroton LP that I talked about in my Ascona blog—both its timbre and the “locational” cues that tell us how it was played (and how it was miked). Double ditto for Joan Baez and her guitar on Joan Baez in Concert Part 2 [Vanguard]. Her occasional head movements (toward and away from the central vocal mike, which cause her voice to shift a bit right and left as it is picked up by the mikes on the audience/hall and on her guitar) are more apparent than ever before, as are her finger (and fingernail) work and the timbre and texture of the separately miked guitar’s strings and resonant body. Triple ditto for the delicate harp pizzicatos in the second movement of Stravinsky’s Three Movements for Orchestra [Decca] or Steven Hunter’s marvelous chucking rhythm guitar on “Rock ’n’ Roll” from Rock ’n’ Roll Animal [RCA].

Understand that I’ve only had the ARC Ref Phono 2SE for about a week and a half. It is obviously still breaking in (those caps!) and, based on previous experience with the new generation of ARC gear, I’m sure there will be many further riches in store. I’ll continue to blog about the unit (and other new ARC goodies) as time goes by.

So’s you know, the new Ref Phono 2SE is exactly $1k more than the original Phono 2—$12,995 instead of $11,995. IMO, the sonic difference is well worth the difference in price. (I’m not sure what ARC policy will be about Ref Phono 2 upgrades, if it plans on such a program, but I’ll find out.) Also, so’s you know, the features of the original Ref Phono 2 remain the same, i.e., the unit still allows you adjustable RIAA curves (RIAA, Decca, and Columbia) and the convenience of remote-control operation (and of remote-controllable loading of moving-coil cartridges).

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