Based on your stated preferences, I believe you would find the ARC Ref3 to be the better choice.
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No contest for me. REF3.
The McIntosh unit was nice but the REF3 was at an entirely new level.
You already have a PH5 phono unit which is not bad at all. Also, you have a Benchmark DAC. Although I'm not familiar with this DAC, I wouldn't get the Mac solely because it has the phono and DAC built in. That tends to lower the quality of the reproduction of the sound.
Separates usually make for a better system.
Another thing, is how old are the tubes in the REF3? If they are close to the useful life, the sound may be compromised.
With new tubes, not much comes close.
The REF3 and the REF5 however are so close in sound and quality that I would not upgrade to a REF5. However, the REF5SE on the other hand is entirely different. A really nice unit noticeably better in sound (enough to justify upgrading) than the REF3.
In my opinion, the Mac unit isn't on the same level.
Vdosc, Both of these companies make great gear. To add another point of view here, I have the C2500 that I use with a Levinson 331 amp, Transparent cables throughout and Wilson Sophia 3s. Music is streamed from the NAD Bluos system. The Hybrid system works beautifully for me. The Mac has added musicality to the Levinsons precision. Imaging is crisp and listening is non fatiguing. I respect both the Mac and ARC Brands and had a similar choice not long ago. I chose the Mac because it is multifunctional and its' connectivity really future proofs my pre-amp for a long time. If you use the internal DAC, it's actually quite excellent. Believe me, no rap on ARC. If I went that route, I'm sure I'd be singing its praises. There's no wrong choice here. Find a dealer that carries them both and take a listen. How bad can a Mac tube pre-amp with an awesome Mac ss amp be? Best of luck and have fun in your quest.
I have to chime in here as I am a McIntosh guy. I have McIntosh amps and have had a number of McIntosh amps and Pre-amp and Pre-Pros. I currently have a LS26 and would say the REF3 without question. As much as I wanted to by a C2300 when I bought my LS26, it took a moment of self control and honesty to depart from an emotional attachment.
Yes the REF3 will bring you much more musical pleasure.
The Ref 3 is a great preamp, (and I agree with Minor1 about the Ref 5 & Ref 5SE). However, IMHO, it does not really have that classic tube midrange sound that you said you want. It uses the 6H30P tubes, which are very neutral sounding, and very quiet, but don't really have that classic tube midrange. (Personally I like it, as I like a very neutral sound myself.)
I recommend that you check out some of the VAC preamps, (there are a few for sale here on Audiogon). The VAC house sound has a bit more of the tube midrange that you said you want, at least IMHO.
Good luck in your search.
A number of years ago, I switched from Mac C1000 3 piece (tube,ss, ps) pre to Ref 5 and felt the Ref 5 crushed it. This caused me to unload my Mac amp for an ARC amp which was of equal or greater importance to the overall gains in my SQ. The only area where Mac combo was better than the ARC combo was on impact in the very low end. But, the bass on the Mac was also somewhat diffuse and not nearly as tight and well defined as the ARC. All in all---no contest. Not the exact comparison you seek but I think instructive of the house sound of each. Ref 3 will be more refined than LS26 and tube magic will be there in the midrange, but more transparent than Mac.
Hate to tell you cause I know your amp well, but I highly recommend going all ARC or all Mac. For a time, I had ARC Ref 5 and Mac amp which I thought was the worst of both worlds. An all Mac system gives you smooth, rounded, burnished and pleasing but not very transparent sound. Never bad, never great. An all ARC system brings huge soundstage, great color texture and bloom. Rarely bad (recording has to be awful) but often sublime.
I'm not surprised by your VTL / Mac experience as VTL is closer to Mac sound so this would not produce the worst of both worlds. Any chance you can try an ARC amp in your system to see what I mean?
By the way, all of my experimenting with ARC and Mac (also VTL, BAT and Lamm) came when I had Watt Puppy 7s.
I agree with the recommendation for the Ref 3. All I would add, is that the LS27 is a definite step up on the Ref 3, having auditioned both together and both can be found second hand.
Another thought if you are looking for a "tube" midrange, is Conrad Johnson. I used a CJ 17LS for years and just loved it. You only get Phono, not XLR outputs of course.
having heard all pre-amps plus the ARC Ref5 SE models in your query, I can very strongly suggest (w/o hesitation) the ARC Ref 5SE. This is the one you want! Save your time and money on the rest. Oddly enough I felt the Ref5 SE sounded best when mated w/ a Bryston power amp on Wilson loudspeakers. Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
This is all great information! If I could afford to, I would have two or three different pre-amps (or complete systems) here at one time to really compare.
Although I would never get anything else done ;) I don't have any good dealers near me that cary either brand much less both to try and compare, so I must buy to try. Also I still have my older ARC VT100MKII power amp, which is not bad at all, however I like the Mac 402 better with the Wilson WP6. It may not sound as "warm" in the mids as the ARC but It has gobs of clean power , which translate to better attack, tighter bass, also there seems to be better imaging, and decay on instruments and reverb, etc. I have not had a ARC REF amp in my system yet, and I am sure it would be great, but they are at this time not in the budget. Also I really like the look of the Mac!
Can't speak about the MAC, but I used to own the Ref 3. Wow ... what a piece of kit.
I also agree with the comments above re the Ref 5. I moved up to the Ref 5, but was quite surprised that it was NOT in a different league as compared to the Ref 3. I since upgraded my Ref 5 to the SE and think the improvements are very noticeable.
So I vote for the Ref 3 ... or if you can find an LS 27, another good choice.
I happen to agree with the comments that ARC tube gear does not sound tubey. It is warm, neutral, open and very enjoyable. Some may call that analytical, but I think the use of terms is just quibbling about taste.
If your budget permits, I would think about upgrading your phono pre to the PH-7. Forget the PH-8. Not worth the bucks. Also, keep an eye peeled for a nice deal on a CD-5, which is the SS version of the Ref CD-8. I own the CD-8 which is a very nice CDP. The CD-5 and CD-8 both use the same Burr Brown DAC chip set.
But the bottom line is that either the Ref 5 or the LS 27 would make for a fine center to your rig.
We can talk about amps in another thread.
A further thought on ARC vs McIntosh in general. I have heard a lot of demos with ARC components vs McIntosh components. These are two great companies with loyal followers. My personal experience, however, has been that with the exception of some of the McIntosh tube gear, in most cases ARC performs in a whole different dimension than McIntosh. I love the McIntosh retro look and their pricing should put their products alongside the best out there, but folks, we're talking about a major league difference in what ARC components are capable of. I'm really not trying to trash Macs, but let's get real here. ARC has always been about pushing the boundaries of what is possible in high-end reproduction. McIntosh has never been taken seriously in the same way. This admission has been acknowledged even by many of the dealers who carry both lines (in their more truthful moments). Personally there are other reasons why I might own Macs, but not because I would expect them to be as resolving and tonally accurate as ARC products are and have been for a very long time.
I have the REF-3 and loving it. The time for me to upgrade preamps will be when ARC comes out with a new preamp that takes advantage of the technology found in their two-box 30 series. Don't know when that will be, but knowing ARC ... you know its going to happen.
And, I have the pH-8. It makes the PH7se that preceded it sound broken. Especially with these tubes:
During most of the 1970s I sold high end hifi equipment. I worked for two dealers, both McIntosh and one that also sold ARC. When I left the business it was with a full complement of ARC equipment for my own use. Today I own CJ, but still like the sound of ARC a lot and would be more than happy to own it again any time. With that said, the day is far off when ARC equipment would measure as well McIntosh. The fact is, when we say that ARC is our preference, what we are really saying is that we like the distortion that it adds, more than we like the distortion than McIntosh equipment adds. If we decide that ARC or any other tube gear is more tonally accurate, what we are really saying is that we find the inherent 2nd order harmonic distortion typical of tube gear to be preferable to the higher order harmonics that are more likely to be found in transistor stuff. I wish we could get away from the euphemisms and nonsensical poetry of the hifi press. When someone writes that one piece of gear is more "resolving" than another, that is meaningless. I expect a more sophisticated group here. Come people. Work with me on this.
Old thread. Good discussion but without a proper technical answer. Clearly ARC is the winner in popularity for resolution/pure performance.
However, the REF 3 requires a high input impedance power amp to sound best (ARC power amps are typically 200K). Matching to a 10K input impedance power amp will have a slightly rolled off treble and higher distortion. (ARC 3 rises to 1400 ohm output impedance at 20KHz and distortion rises dramatically into lower impedance amps)
The Mcintosh has much lower output impedance and will work with lower impedance power amplifiers (as low as 5 K).
The ARC design is indeed outstanding and close to the best SS in performance with the advantage of a hint of tube 2nd harmonic warmth. However, a high input impedance power amp will be more susceptible to ground loops/hum. The Mcintosh is not as bleeding edge in terms of performance and appears to lean more towards old school “tubey” sound (warm and rich). The Mcintosh can be expected to be more robust and workable with a wide variety of power amps.
Mcintosh is like Mercedes (built for comfort & ease of use). ARC is more like Ferrari (built for speed but not as easy to use). Frankly I would avoid 200K input impedance power amps like the plague - with this design you are almost guaranteed to have RF/hum/ground loop issues from very tiny stray current which may show up as hiss - nevertheless a Ferrari is a Ferrari and when everything is going well for Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes is looking at the back of a Ferrari - like at Bahrain.
No material difference between 100K or 1000K input resistance. Both are high enough such that any stray micro-amp current could generate a voltage input to the amplifier.
You need to get to 10K or below input impedance to start making a difference. This means the preamp needs to have a stronger drive output - all good stuff as anything that increases the need for a stronger line level signal means less noise as the end result.
Very old gear used 600 Ohm as standard and was immune to the kinds of noise now affecting high impedance gear but that standard actually came from transmission line theory for telegraph wires so it had other issues.
Another solution to noise on input is to go balanced (this means each signal wire to ground should have the same impedance) - this ensures that RF/EM hum/ground loops are affecting both wires equally and cancel out. However even balanced works better 10K and below for noise suppression.
So as a general rule, ultra high input impedance is a bad design if you care about noise. If you wanted to deliberately design an amplifier to detect very low level signal noise then I can guarantee you it would have a very high impedance just like an oscilloscope input.....
Very good explanation shadorne, and I would agree completely.
Whichever path one chooses, I believe it is best to have the Pre Amp and Amp from the same manufacture and from the same era for optimal pairing and experience the complete sound that each manufacture has to deliver. That being said I went from an Audio Research LS26 and Audio Research VT100MKII, to now a McIntosh C2500 and MC402 ( also an MC275 tube amp ). Many of you would say that was a backwards move but my experience was this:
Both sound very good, the ARC combo is probably "better" in that it is more detailed were as the McIntosh is a bit "softer" and "creamier" if that makes sense. So why did I switch? Because I found that with the ARC I was only able to enjoy a very few pieces of music. Ones that were very well recorded and with the McIntosh everything sounded good. My music preference is mostly old classic Rock recordings of which many are not the full high resolution of some of the best audiophile pieces out there. example old David Bowie was un listenable on the ARC but sounds wonderful on the Mac. But again an Audiogon Jazz Sampler in Hi-Rez was better, more detailed on the ARC. Also with the additional power of the MC402 to my Wilson WP6's, it has dynamic headroom and "punch" for days. I of course would love to hear a Ref level ARC pre/amp but also it would cost more than twice as much.
Also recently added Shunyata Sigma NR power cables to the McIntosh and it takes it to a whole new level of 3D sound stage.
Just my experiences