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Reference 3 preamplifier
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
By accurately and elegantly bridging the sonic divide between tubes and solid state sound, the ARC Reference 3 is to music, as ballet is to dance, as opera is to musical theater, as diamonds are to gems, and as love is to poetry. The Ref 3 is that magical piece of audiophile wonder-gear that unites all the pieces and bits of the system while creating a whole musical performance dramatically more splendid than you can ever imagine. After searching for the ideal preamp to bring the music to life with no colorations—real or imagined—it is gratifying to be able to report here, in these pages, that such a product exists.
There are other contenders for the best of the best …I've heard nearly all of them…and most cost much more and are less flexible. None have a better musical pedigree than this from ARC. After having owned the ARC SP3, SP3A, SP3A-1, SP11, SP11 Mark2, and Ref. 1, the Ref. 3 is a stunningly sophisticated achievement and a treat for the ears. Let me explain how the Ref. 3 sounds in a complex audiophile system and ways to maximize its performance.
With a startling combination of tubes and solid-state devices [including a 6550 pentode!] in its very stiff power supply, and four 6H30 dual triodes [each with the output power of 2 6DJ8s] in the output stage, the fully balanced Ref. 3 is fascinating stuff. The fluorescent display is big, bold, and easy to read from across the room. It is mightily flexible with all features available from the remote. You can even invert phase on the fly. One can easily address 7 sets of inputs …all single ended or balanced, mono and channel balance, processor loop, dim or brighten the display, mute, even check the number of hours on the tubes. You can do all those things from the preamp's front controls. With output to a claimed 200khz, ARC has built a real ergonomic beauty and it sounds even better than it looks!
Let it warm for 45 minutes or so and add the finest ancillary gear, like the balanced E.A.R. 890 amplifiers and the E.A.R. Acute tube CD player. I also tried the single-ended ModWright Sony 9100 SACD/DVD/CD player with tube power supply and the balanced E.A.R. 324 phonostage being fed by the tweaked out VPI Scout with VPI speed controller, which now accommodates the ZYX Airy 3 Silver via balanced-wiring. All gear is connected with the superb Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnect, speaker, and AC cables. Even the Ref. 3 sports a 20 amp Emotion Power Cord. The Emotion AC cord was the best I found at maximizing the overall performance of the Ref. 3. The speakers are the Avalon Eidolons with REL Stadium 3 Sub crossing in at a low 24HZ.
The overall definition, sense of depth, soundstaging, and micro and macro dynamics are fantastic and unsurpassed. The range of excitement and power of this preamp is unlimited. Nothing seems to blur or disturb its performance. No instrument, choral passage, organ note, or trumpet blast phased it. The human voice was both powerful and as delicate as needed. Imaging was precise and as whole quite 3D. Instruments sounded grainless and solid. In fact, I detected no grain at all. This is a first for me.
The Ref. 3 is the nuance king. "Delicate" is the most revealing and hardest sonic characteristic to do correctly. The Ref. 3 did delicate in spades. Add endless definition and the wonderful flow of musical nuance and this baby is grand fun. I was listening to the new recording of Kullervo from Telarc and I was more than entertained. You are simply there in Atlanta at Symphony Hall. I tried listening to the E.A.R. Acute CD player direct to my amps without the preamp. It was less detailed direct! There was more music, more realism, and better imaging through the Ref. 3.
As of this writing, [the unit had over 1000 hours on it when it arrived], I detect no reportable colorations. Nothing. Nada. Zero. It sounded like the music and whatever lied ahead of it: its source, its cables, you name it. The Ref. 3 added nothing I could discern. What it did seem to do, and it did so it in state of the art manner, was to bring all the parts together and create a whole performance. The Ref. 3 then stepped aside and became invisible in every sonic way I know of. Its high band, mids, and bass are authentic, powerful, delicate, or bold, and the deep bass is superb. It is without aberration in frequency response being even from top to subterranean bottom.
I'll tell you one thing, phono heard through the Ref. 3 is killer! As good as my CD sources are, my new ZYX Airy 3 Silver is shockingly authentic sounding. What a joy to hear records done exquisitely well. Nevertheless, great digital sources are well served here because, maybe for the first time at least to these ears, there is no overlay of discernable distortion by the preamp. The Ref. 3 adds less, less than I thought possible by an active device. I just heard a fantastic passive preamp from a top manufacturer that had more coloration than the Ref. 3!
Suggestions. Use a top line power cord. I loved the Kubala-Sosna 20 amp AC Cord with the Ref. 3. The Ref. 3 will sound its best—according to my audiophile friend Marty—after 500 hours. He's one of the smartest audiophiles around and owns a Ref. 2 as well, but in my experience, 50-100 hours should do the trick.
The Ref. 3 does not sound as open or dynamic on its own feet! This is important. Use a good equipment stand and put the preamp on the isolation cones of your choice. Use three not four cones for top performance. If the preamp sounds a tad dull or fat, lacking sparkle and snap, change the cones! A top power conditioner is recommended as well. My World Power PowerWing worked splendidly. I listened to both balanced and single-ended outputs. They were very close, but the balanced sounded the best. Even so, I still recommend the Ref. 3 for single-ended systems.
I've spent a lot of time with the Ref. 2, and the Ref. 3 is a significant improvement with the Ref. 2 being more colored and a bit grainier by comparison. Imaging is less precise as well and the Ref. 2 sounded a bit brighter. I'd trade up if you own the Ref. 2. The Ref. 3 is much better particularly on loudspeakers with extended and flat high band response. I am as surprised as the next audiophile, but ARC has made a genuine breakthrough in their house design and they should receive kudos!
With trend setting definition, no discernable coloration, gorgeous dynamics, and musical nuance to die for, the ARC Ref. 3 is a stunning achievement. Possessing a sonic signature as low as passive, it brings together the best elements of your system and creates a sonic picture of true musical verisimilitude. This is state of the art performance and a fantastic value at even a steep $9995. I'd be hard pressed to name the competition that is equal to the Ref. 3's level of performance and flexibility regardless of the price. It may have tubes and solid-state devices on board, but it sounds like neither. This is ARC's best effort to date and has blown me away. Most highly and musically recommended! Robert H. Levi