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.
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.