I am seriously considering buying an ARC Reference 3 preamp to introduce an element of "tube sound" character into a SS system. I understand this preamp is somewhat transparent which is not necessarily a bad property, but is it so transparent that it would defeat my purposes? Lexicon LX-7 amp and Legacy Whisper speakers. Thanks!
FWIW, 'transparent' means, to me, a lack of anything additive to the source, i.e. grain, distortion, variations in FR such as added warmth or an increase in selected frequency gain to inhance the appearance of 'increased detail' or 'resolution' (Gee Ma, I can now hear so much that I could never hear before I got this thing. Wow. The 3 months or less later you see a post to the effect - 'I get fatigued in long term listening, how can I cure that. Maybe a new cable, source, tweak'.)
So, to answer your question - You can't have too much transparency, but you can get a FR response that is not synergistic with your other equipment or your tonal expectations.
If you want a 'warm' system and think a tube pre-amp will do it, just fess up and seek one out. ARC stuff is typically neutral and some of their units are voiced on the cool side of neutral if anything. If you expect them to warm up the tonal balance of your system it is likely you'll be disappointed. Not as opposed to SS just what is available in other tubed pre-amps.
"Tube Sound" as I perceive it To me, a "tube sound" has the following characteristics (with some exaggeration for descriptive purposes): 1. Strong soundstaging; soundstage seems more forward and instuments closer 2. Music is rendered with a warm musicality; enrichment of musical note's textures and colors 3. Excellent instrumental timbre 4. Nonfatiguing treble 5. Beautiful midrange but soft/weak/thick bass 6. More easy = less edgy 7. Rich lingering harmonics perhaps at the expense of resolution. I would like (probably unrealistically)to introduce the positives with as little of the negatives as possible. Would the ARC Ref 3 be a good choice? If not, thanks for any other recommendations.
Tvad has read my mind. To get what you are looking for I'd suggest your considering some older, perhaps even vintage, pre-amps even if you have to have them reconditioned. Early ARC like my SP10II might do, or MFA's or CAT's which were close to SOTA in the late 80's thru the early 90's. Some good CJ's too.
If that isn't your cup of tea then consider matching a currently high end tubed pre such as those from Lamm and focus on getting all of the rest of the sound qualities that you want from a tube amp. At least that is I would do. A great neutral pre-amp is ageless - even my old SP10 sounds dammed fine but it has been bettered in transparency in its line stage which improves soundstage depth.
I own a Ref 3 and concur with TVAD and Newbee. The design goals of Ref 3 -- which has been optimized for balanced operation -- seem to have been to be as even handed across the audible spectrum as possible without particular emphasis to any band. The mids are well developed but not bloomy, the bass is deep but well pitched and never fuzzy, the treble is extended but hardly ever screachy -- or at the opposite glossy. Staging is well defined but not in your face. Harmonic development and decay is clear but not 'new agy'. The effect is of general 'transparency' but not of etched anorexia. The overall sound is 'musical and full bodied' but not syrupy. I have selected it over: BAT VK51SE, VAC Renaissance II, VAC Renaissance Sig, Aesthetics Callisto, ARC Ref 2, ARC LS25 Mk.2, VTL 7.5 Mk.1,and a few other ones. The Ref 3 is neither a stereotypical tube-lover's-delight nor a forensic instrument for the 'clinical' crowd. Rather, because of its relative neutrality, it is very revealing of changes induced by components upstream/downstream and to any changes in ICs, speaker wires, PCs. You can make it 'warmer by switching its SED Winged 6550C in the power supply with a Tungsol 6550, but. . . why bother?! My quest for preamplifying nirvana is logged in some detail at: http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?aamps&1123254379&openmine&zzGuidocorona&4&5#Guidocorona See in particular my audition findings for mid August 2005.
Rather than seeking something 'different', I now start to wonder what could out-Ref-3 a Ref 3?
You could probably better be served/pleased(based on your description of what you like) by a unit that could be stuffed with some of the British tubes(IE: Mullard, Brimar or Ediswan), or perhaps the RCA grey plates from the 60's. I always think of a sugary kind of glaze(picture donuts) when I hear those. Most of the pre-2000 preamps and amps used 12AX7/12AU7/6SN7 type drivers and/or phase splitters. There are plenty of NOS tubes(in those families) available from those companies that can provide the flavors you enjoy. The units that use the 6H30 will all probably be too un-colored for your tastes. Happy tube-tasting.
I agree fully with Guidocorona's assertations of the ARC Ref 3, and yes I am an owner. If you are looking for tube-like sweetness, this is not the preamp for you. It definitely has the 'fuzz on the peach' tube like palpability to me, but is not 'sweet' by any stretch of the imagination.
I've heard the VAC Renassaince mk II, BAT VK-32SE and CJ Premeier LS16 mk II, all sounded much 'sweeter' or 'tubier' than the ARC Ref 3, IMHO. Maybe one of these will please you.
I agree with Chadnliz. . . CJ sound is musical and sweet; it has loads of the best attributes of tube designs without stereotypical flaws of woolliness in the nether regions or obvious lack of extension at the top. Furthermore CJ are truly single ended devices optimized for that mode of operation. I did listen to a CJ ACT2 on a system with Wilson Alexandria speakers and it sounded magnificent in its own way to my ears.