The winner is ARC SP 10 MkII!
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It's not easy to take such a review of the SP11 vs Ref1 very serious based on my ownership of some ARC preamps over the last 15 years. I owned an SP10 Mk II for 8 years and just loved it. It had poor frequency extreme extension on both ends, it had mediocre resolution due to noise and it had a terrible line stage for CD playback. But for LP playback, it had a most incredible musical presentation of midrange bloom and 3D that no other preamp at the time could match.
With all the faults, the SP10 was a musical product. I did hear the SP11, and yes it had some refinements over the comments above, but the SP10 was preferable to me for sheer musical involvement.
After listening to numerous preamps during that time, I finally heard the LS5/PH2 combination. For the first time ever, an ARC preamp came along that brought back all the SP10's magic but with a new level of refinements that finally made it clear how dated the SP10 had become. The SP10's ambience and bloom was there and so was a wealth of information never heard before on my LPs...both in the bass and treble. And gone was that very high noise floor.
I have since heard the later versions of the LS5 and the Ref1 (I prefer the LS5) but still I know the Ref1 is miles ahead of the SP10 as a line stage. I have a hard time believing the SP11 trounced the Ref1 in all areas. Any time I compare two products, it is very rare that one product takes the show from another in all categories. The Ref1 like the LS5 and later preamps has far more resolution than the older SP series could ever have.
If the rest of the system is not up to the latest preamps, then its strengths would probably not be very obvious. Without knowing the context of the rest of the system for which these 2 preamps were compared, the blanket statement, "the ARC SP-11 MkII outperformed the ARC Ref. 1 in every ways." has very little meaning to the readers of this forum. What was the source?....what was the interconnect from preamp to amp, what was the amp.....etc?
I do agree that the LS1, LS2, LS3, LS15, LS22, do not have the SP10 or SP11 magic. And yes the SP10 and SP11 were phenomenol products at their time, but today, they are simply no match to some of the later preamps such as the LS5 & Ref1. I can only assume the LS25 and Ref2 MK II versions go yet another level.
I own an LS2 MKII with a D200.
I have auditioned the Ref 1, LS22 and the LS5 mkii at home in my system
The LS5 is clearly more resolving and involving
The Ls2in my system is a hair bright and just doesn't have the musical depth and drama that the LS5 had.
The Ref1 and LS22 are not in the same league as the LS5 but are not as bright as the LS2
unfortunately one has to deal with all balanced inputs to make the jump but I'm off to an LS 5
and I thank Jafox (see post above) for calling my attention to my preamp as my weakest link in my system 6 months ago, it's people like this that make audiogon such a great place to be.
The old SP11's are true remarkable preamps. They have gone out of fashion but that really doesn't matter. At one time, I owned a CAT Ultimate, a Jadis DPMC and the SP11 Mk II. I was able to compare them at my leisure. Overall, I thought the SP11 was the clear winner. The CAT I did not care for one bit. It sounded thin and pinched with absolutely zero tonal bloom even after several months of break in. The Jadis had tons of bloom but softened the leading edge of the attack to the point that it negated the urgency of the music. I will have the chance here shortly to compare the Ref Mk II and Ref Phono to the SP11. It should be interesting.
I have heard the SP10 in my system and thought it was wonderful through the phono section. However, to use a line level input, one has to take it out of by-pass mode which robs the transparency of the SP10 considerably. This is where I think most of the complaints are against the SP10 (along with being hard on the many tubes it uses). With a little work to simply the front panel clap trap, I think the SP10 could one of the best ever.
The SP-11 MK2 is a remarkable product. Especially if you upgrade the caps, install the tube rings and replace the Soveiet 6922's with Siemens 6DJ8/6922 tubes. It has a more "muscular" sound versus the SP-10 MK2's more "romantic" sound. The SP-10 has more of a traditional Conrad Johnson type sound.
Compared to the Ref 1, SP-11 is not as quiet and the resolution is not as good. However, the over-all sound is more pleasant and more dynamic than the Ref 1. Reference 2 MK2 is much better than the SP-11 in every area, even after modifications and NOS Siemens tubes.
I had a similar experience with an Agon seller A/B-ing his ARC Ref 3 against his SP-11 mki that he had listed for sale. On his system, the Ref 3 was marginally better, but it was so very close. I'm glad he sold me his SP-11. It's been a workhorse in my system for both analog & digital playback though I'm partial to my SP-10 for the phono stage. At least the 11 isn't as hard on tubes as the 10.