ARC LS1, LS2, LS3 , or LS7, which to buy?

Oh great and knowing Audio Research mavens, I have around $750.00 to spend on an ARC preamp. The models listed above are all in my price range. Can anyone sort out the sonic characteristics a bit for me, I have no way of auditioning any of these. Balanced outputs are not required. This is the start of a new system, so info on solid state power amps that have a synergy with the ARC preamps would be appreciated as well. Thanks, Marty.
Viridian, I have used an LS2B from 1992 to Jan 2006. Into an Aragon 4004 Mk. 2 via RCA until 1998, then into Rowland 7M monoblocks via XLR. LS2B has always performed flawlessly without a single glitch. Lots of gain. . . Could only turn the volume up max 2/5 of the way. Great soundstage; slightly warm sounding; very pleasing, perhaps without the super detail and extremely extended top you can expect in the newest designs. it contains a single 6922 tube. I never experimented with premium or NOS tubes, but only used stock tubes supplied by ARC. I suspect that a good Amperex 7308 or perhaps a 6H23 would do wonders for this unit. I still own mine. One of these days I'll do some experiments with fancy tubes. Sorry I do not have any info about the other fine ARC models in your wishlist.
I have great respect for Guido on this site, but my experience with the LS2 was opposite to his comments here. It's going to take a lot more than a special tube from Jupiter to bring the LS2 into greatness....or even musical enjoyment for me. When I heard the LS3, it did not fare any better.

Once ARC started its trend into the analytical zone with the introduction of the SP-11, it only got progressively worse with the SP-15, LS1, then LS2 and LS3. Only with the introduction of the LS5 did that magical ARC sound of the SP-10 and before return.

Interestingly enough, the LS7 has a little bit of this classic ARC sound but with more of a budget-based system in mind. This would easily get my vote. And perhaps with some DIY efforts to upgrade to the latest Dynamicaps, which are $10-20 each, you might take this unit to a most exciting level.

Forget about the 'B' suffixes on older balanced ARC line stages. The LS5 was the first unit to be truly balanced. The LS2B and LS3B had XLR connections but these units went through additional circuit stages to do the conversions to/from balanced. I never understood the benefits of this as such extra stages can only be a detriment to the signal.

Guido and John, thanks so much, the guidance is greatly appreciated. It does not really surprise me that there are divergences of opinion in these matters, system context and sonic preferences being the greatest contributors to our audio likes and dislikes. That's why I only asked about sonic characteristics rather than actual preferences.

I am still a bit on the fence, though my preference would be for a drier more solid-state sound. My guess is that ANY of the preamps will give me that within my context, which is coming from the conrad-johnson side of the fence.

John, would you steer me to a SP9, certainly within my budget, and has the added bonus of a phono stage,? I do start to get worried when gear is past a certain age, which is why I did not mention this one.

Guido, two questions, if I may, would you recommend the Mondial amps? And what did you replace the LS2 with.

Thanks to you both and regards,
Marty Kohn
Portland, OR
Marty - If you're considering a unit with a phono stage, that changes many things. I understand your concern over the older units, but the LS2/LS3/LS7 are all 10+ years old so these do not guarantee much over the units from the 80s.

It comes down to the kind of sound you seek. If you like the rich and full tube sound that ARC was so famous for back in the 80s, the SP-8 or SP-6 would be my choice. But these will only handle MM cartridges. The SP-9 I believe handles higher output (1mv+) MC's which alone could be a deciding factor. And the SP-9 moves away from the olden days tube sound. The SP-9 is more tonally coherent whereas the SP-8 favors the middle 6-7 octaves.

Of all these models, I would jump on an SP-8. But like the SP-10, this has become somewhat of a collector's item; they are not seen often. And when they are available, they are in the $800-1000 range. This would be another unit where changing a handful of passive components could take this to another level of performance. After what I have heard dynamicap updates do to newer models, these could help to resolve the SP-8's frequency extreme weaknesses and not affect its awesome portrayal of space. None of the other ARC units here compete with the SP-8 in this regard.

If you are considering units with a phono stage, I would also look into the CJ PV5 and PV7 as well as the solid state CJ Motif MC8 and more expensive MC7 models. Interesting that one of each of these is for sale now. Quite amazing how the MC7 has maintained its value....but it was a very highly regarded piece.

One other unit that gets a lot of praise is the Audible Illusions Modulus 3 but I found this not to be competitive to the others here in terms of dimensionality. And it did poorly at the frequency extremes so I never knew the attraction here. It always comes down to what reference point we have and for me it was the SP-10 for 8 years and the LS5 for another 7 years.

It is quite amazing the value of some of these older models. Some may be 10-20 years old, but with a small investment in a handful of updated parts, they can be transformed. I have become a huge fan of modifying gear rather than constantly chasing the new piece.

One thing you can consider is to try and get a good deal on one or maybe two models here. Do a shootout and keep the one that locks in for you and sell the other for what you paid for it. It can be a pain, but this is a strategy that has worked for me many times.

John, the last ARC preamp I owned was a Julius Futterman upgraded SP3 (now you know how old I am) and I hated it. So soupy sounding. I loved my CJPV2AR, CJ PV5 and my CJ PV12, but really I wanted to move to a more solid-state kind of sound, with a better handling of the leading edges of the waveform. More than anything, that was the failing of the above mentioned units.

I suppose that my listening bias puts a lot of value on dynamics, pace and presence but not very much on soundstaging. I prefer a lean bass to the conceit of the units above, though that is really not a deal breaker for me. I have a nice phono stage, but having an intergrated phono stage would be great as well. Perhaps the SP9 is the middle ground that I seek, or perhaps a leaner sounding preamp might not be bad either.

I had a LS2B and my LS5B MKIII was much better in every way. Now it has been modded by GNSC and is even better.

Suggestion: I may be crazy, but am a convert to Walker Extreme SST on the tube pins, XLRS and PCs.

Bob Wood
Marty, John is absolutely correct about the balanced design of the LS2B being half baked. The device has XLR and RCA outputs, but only RCA inputs. The XLR outputs are using some kind of technical alamagoosa to fake the balanced signal. . . . and regardless whether its sound were 'pleasing' or not, it does lack the phonostage you are seeking.
I have replaced my LS2B January last with an ARC Ref 3.
I have had only experience with the 4004 Mk. 2 in the Mondial lineup. While it is a competent unit, better than the Bedini, Hafler and PS Audio I had the opportunity of auditioning at that time, it is fuzzy and unmusical, when you compare it to top ranking brands of the same period. If you were looking for a solid state amp of the mid to late 80s vintage, I would suggest 1st or 2nd generation Rowland monoblocks. price point will not be staggeringly higher than Aragon 4004, but you would find yourself musically in a different world all together.
Guido and Bob (wow, that Bob Wood, thanks for weighing in) I appreciate the continued guidance. Since I no longer sell black tar heroin and rob casinos, I am afraid that the LS5 and Rowlands are out, at least for now ;^). Viridian is a shade of green, as in green with envy over some of the rigs that you guys are running. And Guido, I am not looking for a phono stage, I am happy with the one I have, I was looking for a line stage. If the SP9 came highly recommended and had phono all the better, but it really wasn't on my shopping list. Thanks for the amp info as well!
Hi Marty - I think we all have a more clear view into your budget....looks like the $500-700 range? The ARC pieces in this range are at two extremes: warmth and dimensional but lacking detail that I sense you are after, and the other end which is very analytical and flat. You know the CJ sound of this same time period and that has not worked. What about some of the older Classe or McCormack models? These units were consistently rated as a sound somewhat in the middle. And I have to believe many are in your price range.
Thanks John, yes, in my original question I listed the budget at $750.00. I had a Classe 40 I think it was, once, junk really, but the McCormack is a really good idea, I was concerned that the active buffered one has no gain, any thoughts? Great steer, all of the input is greatly appreciated.
If you are looking for a vacuume tube sound your not going to find it in the LS preamps u mentioned, since they are hybrid designs. I used to own a SP-6B and liked it alot, although working on it is a rather big chore. The 6B has a lumpy frequency response. If you could find an 8B that would be better or a used SP-3 and get it updated when u have more money to spend to a 3C. That has to be sent back to ARC but they totally replace the power supply, tube sockets, coupling caps and volume control as the stock control was a noisy sucker. In this preamp u have defeatable tone controls, a nice feature. It might even drive a high output moving coil, or find a used step up device. BTW Im not a big fan of the SP-9/SP-14 unless their upgraded but they are still hybrids. G.Garfield
I would refer to the LS-2 as the best solid state preamp ARC has made, even though it sports 2 vacume tubes. The line stage is quite a bit more accurate than my SP-8 or SP-10. If a head to head shootout were done on the direct input of the LS-2 versus the line of the SP-10,11, 8, 6 or SP-3,most would find this to be the case. Amazingly, the SP-3A-1 Line stage section is quite a bit more transparent than the 6, 8 or 10 in any iteration.(but coloration is too high) Do I find the LS-2 to be sonically delightful? No,not enough to recommend it.......But, it will more than hold its own against many units at the used asking price. Link it with a D90B series or before 1983 ARC tube amp for best results.
Regarding ARC, I can't remember myself thrilled with any offerings; as John (jafox) I had singled out sp10. The 9 wasn't bad -- but I believe this opinion was linked to its much more reasonable asking price rather than performance...

Not intent on steering you away from ARC, I nevertheless remember comparing a sp10 with that an old mark lev pre at s/one's house. The ML was much better in dynamic presentation and frequency extremes (esp upper). Please note: I "remember".
I CAN'T remember if it was the ML1 or ML7 (probably the latter). I'd expect prices to be similar were you ever to consider such a machine (OTOH, mark lev used different connectors which means you'll have to solder a bit).
The issue of "accuracy" comes in many ways. If we are talking about tonality, tonal coherency, and such, I would agree that the LS2 is more tonally coherent than the SP8 and SP-10 line stages. I owned the SP-10 and realized how compromised its line stage was 10 years later when I went on a quest to upgrade this.

If we investigate other sonic attributes to determine accuracy, the LS2 is so far away from accurate it is not even funny. Listen to a piano, saxaphone, even human voice with the LS2 and take notice of how quickly tones terminate in space. This is not accurate nor natural at all. Notes with the LS2 occupy little to no space; the presentation is very one-dimensional. It only takes me one trip upstairs to hit a piano key and to know a piano does not sound like this.

As much as I wanted the LS2 to work for me, it was such a huge disappointment. Staying with the SP-10, with all of its tonality colorations and such, was easy as it at least conveyed the dimensionality of the performance that the LS2 failed miserably. Fortunately the LS5 came alone and retained the SP-10's strengths and brought on a huge refinement in tonal coherency, frequency extreme coverage, lower noise and thus greater resolution over the SP-10.

We all tend to speak in our own absolute terms. But our comments are relative to what we have owned or heard elsewhere. Had I not owned the SP-10 for many years, and had also not been so impressed with the LS5 vs. LS2 audition at the ARC dealer, the LS2 may have survived less scrutiny. But I also heard the magic in the MFA and CJ preamps and line stages; I knew how flawed the LS2 truly was.

Concerning some comments above, the LS2 uses one tube, not two. The LS1 and LS2 are hybrid designs, the LS3 is all solid state and the LS7 is all tubed.

I have no experience with the ML models as mentioned by Greg, but I did hear the ML38s directly against the LS5, and the ML sound was way way way too analytical for me. The Klyne was much more to my liking and was much less than the ML. The Krell KRC at the time was as dreadful as the ML38s.

For me, a component's tonal coherency only has relevance once it passes through the dimensionality, harmonic structure and decays in a believeable manner. And unfortunately, it is darn tough to find such a product in Marty's price range. The "modify" route would be the way to go here. Marty: you have a tough job ahead of you.

LS-7 wasn't bad as I remember I listened to it before I bought the LS-15. I believe the LS-7 has no remote control though. If that's not an issue, what John recommended with the Dynamicaps upgrade makes a lot of sense. I upgraded the caps in my LS-15 to Dynamicaps and the preamp is a different animal now.
I stand corrected regarding the LS-2 tube complement it was 1and not 2 (confused it with the SP-9). I am puzzled though at the overall condemnation of the LS-2 circuit, that Jafox seems to elicit on all his threads. This circuit right or wrong, was closer to a CD player strait into an amp than all previous ARC offerings including the SP-11/9 linestage. Of course the decay time on reverb ambient cues was not in league with the SP series that preceded it, but in real world listening (to CD sources), you could not go back. This is based on the original 1991/92 offering of the LS-2.
JAFOX, is your experience with both the original LS2 and with the later LS2B? I can definitely fault my LS2B for lacking top-2-bottom extension, harmonic definition, and for sounding relatively hazy, but not really for lack of staging. Furthermore, I confirm I find the sound of my LS2B to be somewhat warmish, with a moderate bloom in the midrange, rather than dry. Is it a case of the two of us hearing/judging thing differently, or could unstated design variability on the same product version account for some of our differing perception?
Frap - My comments on the LS2 are directly in comparison to the LS5. After I sold the SP-10 in the Spring of 1995, I went on a quest to find a line stage to match with the ARC PH2 phono stage I had just bought. And I was sure the LS2 would be THAT model. Afterall, Stereophile had given it the coveted ClassA rating. Unfortunately as I came to learn, such ratings had little meaning compared to back in the 80s when JGH ran the magazine.

Interestingly enough, another ClassA rated line stage that I also wanted to hear so much was the SonicFrontiers SFL-2. Had anyone told me I would not end up with one of these I would have told them that was impossible.

I drove to the SF dealer and borrowed one for the weekend. Oh yes, I had tonal coherency and extension with the SF but gone was the magic of the aged SP-10. I was so unprepared for the disappointment. And ARC had convinced me that the PH2 was their best phono stage to date so I held off any judgement here as CD playback did not fare much better with the SF.

Back went the SF and then over to the ARC dealer. With checkbook in hand, I was all set to drop the LS2 into my car. But of course, I had to hear it first and learn about it from the salesman. He had LS2 and the LS5 on another shelf both warmed up when I got there.

We started with the LS2 and everything was there except the involvement. I guess I had been spoiled all too long with the SP-10. And my thoughts of ever getting that magic again were quickly dwindling. The salesman knew my disappointment. But he said he had one more shot to throw at me....the LS5.

I had read the LS5 review from 1994 but it was really out of my budget at $5k for the MK I and $5500 for the new MK II. But he had a MK I demo for $2600 as he got the MK II that week so my timing was so lucky. It only took a dozen seconds with the LS5 and man oh man, there was the SP-10 with a ton of refinements. It was sooooooooo incredible.
Of course I went with the LS5 and then later with various upgrades to the III which I finally sold in late 2002.

And when I got the LS5 home, this along with the PH2 was so far beyond the SP-10's phono playback. I was a happy camper for many many years with this pair.

That the LS2 and LS3 remainded ClassA rated and the Counterpoint 5000 only ClassB rated was so ridiculous after hearing the LS5 and the Counterpoint which were both in a totally different league than the LS2 and LS3.

My comparisons to the LS2 were the SP-10 and LS5. I did not care how it fared to the other ARC models as they never did anything for me each and everytime I heard them against the SP-10.

As for using a CDP straight into an amp, so very few such players have as good a volume control and circuit to drive an amp like so many good line stages. Even the very good Audio Aero Capitole CDP with a volume control greatly benefitted in a friend's system when we tried my BAT 31SE and Aesthetix Callisto Sig line stages. Both of these brought on greater dynamic contrasts, tonal coherency and dimensionality with only a very tiny loss in detail; you had to listen hard to notice the latter. And much of this can easily be due to the extra IC which I have learned much about lately.

Guido - As stated above, the LS2 sessions were with current models in 1995 so this was a MK II and it was a LS2B as the dealer was driving the huge and phenomenol balanced Gryphon amp.

I have not heard the Ref3 but my gut feeling is that it is more into the analytical/neutral zone than the SP-10, LS5 and Ref2 MK I. So perhaps the Ref3 and LS2 have a similar sonic palette? If so, I will stay with the Callisto. But I still would like to try the Ref3 here. Once I get things settled down here, I will work with JD (A'gon jadem6) and w can try this in our two systems. Stay tuned.

John, I am mostly in agreement with your observations as I sold my LS 2 rather quickly. My opinion of it was formed using the most lush and euphonic amplifiers from ARC,s 76 thru 82 era. I partnered the PH-1 with the LS-2 and on some LPs, it was like hearing them for the first time vs the SP-10 (which I still own). Yet as you stated, there was too much uninvolvement. But it did beat any Spectral,Cello, Levinson or CJ that I had heard back then. The LS-5 would have been automatic had it not been for the all balanced sockets with the added hassle of a matching component to be purchased if single ended use were to be done properly. Still yet more interconnect to get me away from direct connection status.......and the strange use of a bank of 12BH7 tubes.....and a Martin Colloms condemnation, led me to never even hear one. Sounds like a real loss on my part. I currently still use a modified SP-10 for Phono because it has 2 phono inputs (something the current Ref series phono stages dont even consider) and the sound still does it. I still do not have a suitable Line stage for my CD that betters the strait in approach, and refuse to pay the current mega inflated prices.
Guidocorona: I must ask you, can such a drastic reduction in tube complement from REF 2 to REF 3 not lead to the very same conclusion that happened 20 years ago between the SP-10 and the SP-11? I have seen this company do this back and forth change in personality more times than I prefer. ARC is once again in a state of analytical hell I fear. You see the trouble with the ARC sound is that when its great, they are the industry leader, but rather than constantly retaining the original philosophy/sound, they feel the need to make a radical "breakthrough" with solid state components every 4 years or so......and then back to tubes This is Very frustrating and usually a letdown.
Frap - You nailed it with the rollercoaster effect on ARC's house sound changing from product generation to generation. This too never made any sense as I would have expected to hear refinements from one product to its successor. You had to skip over a few subsequent models to finally get a refined taste of the great past.

I think the use of the 12BH7 tubes was due to a concern for the availability of 6922 tubes. But the huge supply of Sovteks to quickly come relieved this. And the LS5 MK I to II resulted in the use of 10 of these instead of a mix of 12BH7 and 6922. But it did not matter - the LS5 I or II was so phenomenol that how any reviewer could have comdemned and praised the other ARC models made no sense.

I had stocked up a lot of 6DJ8 and 6922 tubes from the SP-10 days so I used these in place of the tubes that the LS5 came with. And now that I know even more how poorly the Sovtek tubes can sound compared to the Teles and Mullards, just imagine how the LS5 might sound fully loaded with Telefunken. WOW! Much of that edgyness on the top would very likely be gone.

I have since learned to try a lot of different tubes in a product before I dismiss it. With 6H30-based products, there's not much you can do here.

Concerning the issue of only being able to use balanced sources with the LS5, I used a single-ended CDP with the LS5 for a few years with great results. Just a simple adaptor with the "-" phase input grounded meant I was only using half the circuit for this source, but it sounded excellent. There was no need to use a bandaid converter box and its associated IC to run such a source. And unfortunately reviewers used these boxes when they evaluated the LS5 with single-ended sources. That was unfortunate .... especially with the mediocre quality of most ICs back at that time.

In hindsight, had I known then what I know now, I would have kept the SP-10 and used it straight into the LS5 from the SP-10's tape out jacks. Someone good with a soldering iron could replace all the caps in this, retube it with the great tubes still available, and drive a state of the art line stage. Maybe with the LS5 II's 30db gain, this could be a killer combination for someone with a <1mv cartridge. And the support for two TT's would be mighty cool.

I purchased new a SP9MkIII in 1996, just after manufacture was ceased, and found it utterly reliable - it was in my system until last year. At the time it was compared with the MkII and it was markedly better, especially in regard the phono stage; also the LS7 which, from what I remember, was good but not quite as open and, if anything, more analytic despite having a larger complement of tubes - the store staff seemed to have a soft spot for the MkIII, to the point where, on a visit to Sydney by Bill Johnson in 1997, one asked him whether any were tucked away in the factory, and he offered to construct one from spare parts, which ARC did in fact do! The reviews, professional and informal, seem to favour the MkIII too. I think it should be in your budget. If you listen to vinyl, it really is tremendous.
I'm sorry but I haven't listened to the LS 1 through 3s. The more recent ones, such as the LS25, sound great, but cost far more. The only one which I would avoid is the LS22, which even the store staff could not recommend.
As far as SS amps the only one I've tried, and that briefly, was an old Gryphon S100 - terrific, but rare, expensive, only balanced inputs, and not necessarily reliable.
Good luck.
I will vote for the LS7 also.