The ARC Reference 2—William Zane Johnson’s statement phonostage and only the second ARC phono preamp to be designated a “Reference” product in this decade—arrived about three weeks ago, replete with new features never before seen on an ARC phonostage. One look at the remote control will tell you how different the Reference 2 is.
The push-button loading for moving coils (including a “Custom” setting that ARC will factory-set to any value you want) is a variation on an old theme (the PH7’s remote allows you to do virtually the same thing). But those Input 1 and Input 2 buttons are new (this is the first preamp from ARC in a long time that makes provisions for more than one arm or turntable). Completely unparalleled is the bottom row of buttons labeled “RIAA,” “Columbia,” and “Decca.” In the better than thirty years I’ve been an ARC fan I am not aware of another Johnson preamp with alternative EQ settings. Although I haven’t yet experimented extensively with these different EQs, I know that ARC spent a lot of time fine-tuning them. At the very least, they give analog-hounds the flexibility that was once only available with the FM Acoustics and the Zanden phonostages.
On the outside the unit looks impressive—it’s larger than the Reference 3 preamp and is the first ARC unit I’ve seen that has a silver chassis and silver handles (although it can also be had in ARC’s traditional two-tone silver and black or all-black).
On the inside it looks more like a Reference 3 than a phonostage, in part because it uses the same tube complement as the Reference 3—four 6H30 dual triodes, and one more 6H30 and one 6550C in the power supply.
Gain is user-selectable—51dB in the low gain setting and 74dB in the high gain setting (using the preamp’s balanced outputs). Not only does this mean that you can use moving-magnet cartridges in addition to moving coils; it also means that you can use very-low-output moving coils (which has not always been the case with previous ARC phonostages). In fact, the Reference 2 is a superb match with the very-low-output (0.17mV) Da Vinci Reference Grandezza cartridge that I currently favor.
Bandwidth is claimed to be very wide—within +/-2dB of RIAA from 10Hz to 60kHz, with 3dB down points at 0.5Hz and above 300kHz. I have no way of confirming or challenging these claims but I can say, on the basis of listening, that this phonostage has the deepest, clearest, most natural bass of any tube phonostage I’ve heard.
It takes at least 200 hours to break in the Reference 2’s capacitors, so prepare yourself for a long wait before it begins to sound its best. However, its best is most assuredly worth waiting for. This is, far and away, the finest phonostage ARC has ever made—and the most realistic tube phonostage I’ve ever heard.
Low-level resolution, transient response, timbre, and transparency to sources are phenomenally lifelike, making this one of those rare analog products that reveals new details (and recasts old ones) on every cut of every record in you entire collection. I am still collating when it comes to the Reference 2—and still a little agog at how superb it sounds—but I can already tell you that this isn’t just a half-step or even a whole-step better than the (excellent) PH7. There is an entire octave of difference between the Reference 2 and its little brother. This is just a superb bit of engineering, and Audio Research has every right to call it a “reference” product.
I will have more to say about the Reference 2--its sound, its EQ settings, now it fares against the competition--on this site and on our Golden Ear Club site in the near future.