Big Difference: Audio Research Corporation Anniversary Edition Reference Preamplifier

Solid-state preamplifiers
 Big Difference: Audio Research Corporation Anniversary Edition Reference Preamplifier

Some of you may have wondered why my TAS review of the ARC Reference 5 preamp was relatively succinct. There were two reasons actually. First, I knew that the Anniversary Edition Reference preamp was waiting in the wings, and since I expected it to be special, I wanted to leave room for it, critically speaking. Second—and more importantly—as good as I think the Reference 5 is (and it is my reference preamp), I didn’t think it was as big an advance over ARC’s Reference 3 preamp as, say, the Reference 3 was over the Reference 2. Although better in every way than the Reference 3, the Ref 5 was not fundamentally different-sounding than the Ref 3; it was more like a “hot-rodded” version of it.

The Anniversary Edition Reference preamp is fundamentally different-sounding—not just than the Reference 3 or 5 but than any preamp, tube or solid-state, I’ve heard. The Anniversary Edition Preamp is also more realistic than any preamp I’ve yet heard (save for one other that I will come to anon). Of course, at $25,000 the ARC Anniversary Edition Reference (hereafter the Ref 40, since the anniversary it commemorates is ARC’s fortieth) ought to be better than ARC’s previous efforts, but this much better? Frankly, I didn’t expect it; I doubt if anybody could have; differences this big and basic don’t come along everyday.           

It’s pretty easy to describe what the Ref 40 does that sets it off from the long long line of its distinguished forbears (right back to the SP3), and you won’t need “golden ears” to hear it for yourself.

Quite simply, this is the most holographic preamp I have (and, I am willing to bet, you have) ever listened to. Although ARC has long held a patent on dimensionality and bloom—and dimensionality was one of the two areas in which the Reference 5 was markedly improved over the Reference 3—folks, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

What the Ref 40 does that no other preamp does is reproduce instruments and vocalists with a three-dimensional “solidity” (the very meaning of the word “stereo,” BTW) that is simply mind-boggling (and unparalleled in my experience). Instruments are so rooted in space, so solidly “there,” and the stage is so clear and orderly, it is almost like having a third center-channel speaker in the room. The difference is that dramatic.

A plethora of improvements have gone into making these far more solid and lifelike images. First there is a sheer density of tone color such as I’ve never before heard from any ARC preamp, which, in the past, have tended toward a lighter presentation of timbre, usually caused by a slight characteristic recessiveness in the upper bass and lower midrange and a slight characteristic rise in the upper mids (though both recessiveness and rise have been reduced to minims in recent ARC units). Not the Ref 40, whose weight and fullness of tone color bespeak unusually realistic upper bass, lower midrange, and treble response and are a large part of what makes those instrumental and vocal images so shockingly solid and holographic.

Usually, you have to give up some transient speed and transparency to achieve this kind of density of timbre. Not with the Ref 40. In fact, I’ve never heard a tube preamp and only two or three solid-state preamps that have the transient speed of this one. Plucked sting instruments, such as the kotos and violins in Christopher Campbell’s Sound the All-Clear, have the electrifying string-against-wood report of the real thing in a real space. Ditto for sharply struck drums and cymbals. What’s amazing is that these instruments don't just have lifelike attack; they  also have the body and sustain of the real things. The Ref 40 does not trade off timbre and duration for speed, or vice versa.

And then there is the Ref 40’s dynamic range. It is literally shocking (and goosebump-inducing) to hear how realistically this preamp reproduces powerful instruments, like the big brass choir on the right hand side of the stage in the third movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta [Denon]. Outside of a concert hall, I don’t think I’ve heard a mere stereo system reproduce brass with such lifelike authority. Ditto for solo piano. On good recordings—such as Orion LP of Ingolf Dahl’s muscular sonatas—the Ref 40 makes a concert grand more "there" than any other preamp I’ve had in my system. As with timbre, there is a solidity to the Ref 40’s presentation of dynamics—a continuousness, if you will—that makes other preamps sound like they’re peaking or losing steam or breaking up at various points along the dynamic continuum.

Don’t even ask about soundstaging. When individual instrument are this “rooted” in place—this solid and realistic in color and dynamic—it becomes a lot easier to visualize them on stage, even when they are parts of large choirs.

As for retrieval of low-level detail, the Ref 40 is clearly superior to the Reference 5, which was the most detailed ARC preamp I’d heard. Whether it will equal that champeen of low-level resolution, the Technical Brain TBC, remains to be seen (or heard). Frankly, until the Ref 40, I’d never auditioned another preamp that could reproduce whole sets of data I hadn’t heard before from familiar discs with the regularity of the Technical Brain TBC. But when it comes to holographic imaging and realistic timbre and dynamic authority and lifelike solidity, the Ref 40 clearly does the same thing. It is genuinely thrilling to listen to a piece of gear that makes instruments and vocalists on familiar records sound consistently and unmistakably more like real instruments and real singers. In fact, I didn't think there is a bigger thrill in audio.

I will have more to say about Ref 40 and its chief rivals as time passes. What makes this sort of scary is that the 40 isn’t even fully broken in yet—and it’s already this good!