That question comes with its own bulls-eye target. The answer to your question of "whether I would experience all of the sound of the phono stage," is: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Or in "audiophile-speak," let your own ears be the judge.
Assuming that your turntable, arm, and cartridge are close to the level of the AR system, my answer will be absolutely. But remember that the dealer's system is possibly not like yours, so there will be differences at home. However, AR reference phone is very nice indeed. I heard it with AR REF 250 amps, REF 5SE pre-amp and Wilson $200,000 Speakers and they were wonderful. TT was SME's top of the line. Wow!
Assuming you'd be willing to buy from your dealer if you like it, see if you can get your dealer to lend it to you for a few days, then you'll be able to hear what it sounds like in your home. I see a few dealers selling their demos right now, maybe your dealer would sell his to you.
The dealer doesn't let the reference products go out for demo. I've always enjoyed it there, and my TT, arm, and cartridge were purchased as a demo from the reference room, so my set up does do well with it. Anyway, market tanked last two days, so I'll have to wait
At this price level it's ridiculous for the dealer not to allow an in home trial of at least a couple of days.
I had the ARC ref 2 phono and was thinking of upgrading to the SE version. I was investigating trading up to the SE but decided to try out some alternatives first. I was using a BAT 52se.
I tried the Allinc H3000 but preferred the ARC, then tried a used Dartzeel 18NS pre which has built in phono. I sold the ARC and BAT to finance the Dart.
I own the REF2SE because the dealer let me take it home. If yours doesn't do that, he's a fool. Find another dealer. Yes, you should be able to enjoy it's wonderful qualities even with a SE system, if as suggested, your system is good enough.
No way am I making a purchase of this significance without taking the unit home and auditioning it in my system at home. Any dealer worth their salt will take your credit card information and let you take the demo unit home for at home listening. For that kind of money, if they won't, walk.
Well at least you guys have ARC dealers around to huff and puff about. Also, since I usually buy preowned or factory refurbished, I don't shop in B&M stores because I am uncomfortable taking up a salesperson's time if I do not intend to buy from him/her.
Kinda put's me between a rock and a hard place. So far, I think I'm doing ok since I stick with ARC gear. Risk is reduced -- not eliminated. Could I do better sound- performance wise? Yes ... possibly. I don't drink the Kool-Aid, so I accept the possibility that other brands sound better. But access is limited.
That's why the OP is aking the question about the brands mentioned: all good brands. Regardless of what he chooses, he'll be ok, as long as he doesn't pick an incompatible componenent. That risk can be reduced by calling the brand manufacturers.
My favorite store, Stereo Design in San Diego, CA is 120 miles from where I live. I have established a good relationship with them over the many years. There are many dealers/stores in the LA area where I live. I just don't have any relationship with them and quite honestly, I'm good driving to San Diego to listen. I visit many times per year with absolutely no intention of purchasing anything. Just to talk, listen to music and discuss the audio and audio equipment fields with them. They know I know what I'm doing (hopefully) and I appreciate their insight and knowledge. My point is that establishing relationships is very important to have trust and understanding. They also know that when I do like something enough to purchase it, I buy from them. If I was serious enough to finally think about purchasing the AR REF 250 amps that I really like, they would absolutely let me take them home for a week, like they have for other equipment. So for me, as I mentioned previously, for that kind of money, if they won't let you take it home for an audition or guarantee a full refund if you don't like it, then I would walk. You are the customer. I would also call the manufacturer to see if they or another authorized dealer they recommend would like you take equipment home or ship it to you for audition. We are not talking about a $200 receiver here. Some dealers will actually bring the equipment to you. hook it up and let you demo it for a few hours in your home also.
I also have absolutely no problem taking up a salesperson's time with serious questions and listening. That is their job. If they don't take me seriously or treat me as if they want my business, then again, I walk. That kind of attitude from dealers/salespeople have ended many a store.
Most dealers I have dealt with that didn't know me initially almost always are snotty at first and ask the obvious questions. What equipment do you have? What type of music do you listen to? When they hear my background, likes and dislikes and equipment, I typically see an immediate change in their attitudes.
I can make you a better phono preamp than the ARC and I will send it to you for a listen.
..What many of us need is top-notch 100% tube head amp
like a modern version of the Counterpoint SA-2. So many preamps have great line stages and MM stages, but then rely on step-up transformers for that last 20-26 or so of db gain for MC. Any ideas?
I can design a tube head amp based on Counterpoint SA-2. I would make a better power supply using tubes and chokes in a separate chassis. The main circuit should be similar to SA-2 with improvement in bias circuit, with point to point direct wiring. The gain should about 25 dB and no setup transformer needed. All parts used would be premium grades. Teflon tube sockets, gold plated RCA sockets, etc.
Using MC transformers would sound better if the transformers are designed right. MC transformers have better air, sound stage and are more musical than a tube head amp, but some people think MC transformers have more coloration than tube head amp. The choice is a matter of taste, but one thing sure is MC transformers have better noise level than tube head amp.
You can get all tube phono stages from Jadis (in their JP80, JP200 and JPS3 units) or Shindo (from the Monbrisson on up), and probably also Aesthetix; however, those will cost a good amount. I generally agree with Bigkidz on the noise issue, though my Shindo is surprisingly silent.
I have the Aesthetix Rhea, and the sound is organic and wonderful. When the tubes are new, the noise level is tolerable considering 54 db of gain from the tubes. About 8 months in to use, the noise level between tracks is noticeable at the listening chair. The AR does use FET for the initial gain stage, and that would explain the quietness.
Yeah the FET in the initial stage can help to make the preamp quiet. But using a better quality power supply can make a pure tube preamp sounds quiet. It's just that tube is tube, and transistor is transistor. Pure tube always sounds better, period. (IMO).