Audio Research Preamp Experts?

Aside the from the notion that the latest is the greatest, which 3-4 ARC preamps from the past would be among ARCs best linestages? From the 3A forward. I don't care about phono performance, though I will consider the preamp even if it has phono built into it. Any sleepers from the past to compete with today's linestages?
2B or 6C
Sp-6 and sp11mk2
SP10mkII (more tubey), SP11mkII (more neutral). Though in general not as resolute nor quiet compared to their current breed, in top operating condition, they will still hold their own nevertheless.
I understand that the SP16 was based on the 6s with there use of 12ax7s, is the older version a better sounding linestage, or did the improvement in parts surpass the older model, even though the 16 was an entry-level model. I also understand the LS5s are outstanding. The marketing engine says things are getting better, but I really do wonder some times.
Sleepers in the ARC line include:
LS2B, LS12, SP8, SP6E
Ethaby, could you compare the SP8 and 6E a bit more? That is the range I was thinking of. Not sure what changed between the E and the 8.
If you don't care about phono performance, it makes no sense to chase something like the SP-6, 8 and 10. They were outstanding in their days with phono, but their line stages are dreadful compared to the clarity, lower noise and greater dynamics of today's line stages.

As for the LS2 being a sleeper, this was hands down ARC's most sterile product of all time. If you want some 3D in your music like those older SP series units, but want much in the way of refinements over those, the LS5 is the way to go. The LS22 and LS15 later were sounds that went back to the LS2 signature.
I have a SP16 and find in to be a great match with my speakers and other components. I think you need to define what it is that you are looking to combine with your system. What is your goal?
"clarity, lower noise and greater dynamics of today's line stages'

Clarity, low or no noise, and excellent dynamics accurately describes my sp16.

Not an ARC guru but I would be surprised if older models had all these attributes to the same extent. It is a very modern sound that is difficult to distinguish as involving tubes to my ears.
The LS5 is the best I have owned. I could never get into the REF series (not rich enough), plus I could never figure out why such a big box is so empty?
The LS5 is XLR only (no RCAs) so that may be a stopper for some.

I don't really like the newer pres with the digial display and no more aircraft toggle switches- I thought that was an ARC staple!! (they do sound great thought)

As for the LS2B, I have always saw it as the overprice sibling to the LS3 because it cost about a grand more and gave you one whole tube!!-wow. I did not think it sounded that much better.

The LS3 played through the "direct" input is about as nutural as things will ever get. No need to go any farther if you don't want extra sound added. You just hear the recording (imho).
I was an ARC dealer for many years and have personally owned almost every preamp/line stage that they have made.

My vintage favorites:

Are you going to buy an Audio Research amplifier? Some ARC preamps work better with certain amplifiers. The earlier tube units like the SP-8 MKII and SP-10 seem to work best with ARC tube amplifiers. I disagree with earlier posts. These older tube preamps have a very clean, neutral and low distortion sound quality when in proper working order with the right tubes and you won't know if it is working properly unless you send it back to ARC and have it checked out.

Next came the hybrids and they seem to work with a variety of amplifiers. I love the sound of an SP-11 MKII with a Levinson 23.5 amplifier. The SP-11 MKII also works well with ARC Classic Series amplifiers.

My favorite ARC preamps include:


If you don't leave these hybrid preamps on 24/7 you will never know what they have to offer because they change dramatically by day three. You won't think its the same preamp.
True that match to amp is a huge factor and very important to address up front.

Not just any SS amp will do. Same true of most tube pre-amps, not just ARC.
I would be using it with a Music Reference RM9 Special Edition. Over time, I have noticed great regard for the LS5 series. My understanding is that the LS5 is all balanced inputs and outputs, but my Merlin VSM BAM has simgled-ended outputs and the amp too is single ended - is this a problem? I am looking for bloom, 3-d, and expansive staging from the preamp. I've used the CAT SL1, Lamm LL2, and Joule LA150 Signature Edition. I use a Lightspeed Attenuator with the Music Reference amp in my set-up, but what to have a tube preamp under 3K to throw in every once in a while. I also want to own a "classic" that I can enjoy and admire from an early period.
Impedance matching between components from source through amp is the main technical spec that can be used to determine likely better matches producing better dynamics, lower distortion, etc..

10:1 ratio or higher of input impedance to output impedance upstream is generally considered good.

Tube gear like tube pre-amps has higher output impedances than SS making meeting this goal less guaranteed without checking first.

I suspect Merlin Bam to be tube friendly, so I would not expect a problem in general with tube pre-amps there, but BP would be the one to say for sure.
I recently upgraded to a remote controlled AR REF 3 pre-amp from my SP-11. I was allowed to take home an SP16, 17 model, and I also compared the retubed SP-11 with all of them and other AR LS models along with Boulder's top-of-the line, Krell's and others.

The SP-11 retubed is very close and a wonderful pre-amp. Better than most in AR's line with the exception of the LS model directly below the REF 3 (can't remember the number), REF 3 and above.

So, for the money, the SP-11 and SP-15 would be the way to go. If you have a little extra, the LS model directly below the REF 3 or the REF 3 are better. But, money is always a factor.

system integration is an important factor. However, compare apples to apples and remember, companies make their products and money based on price points. Therefore, "typically" similarly priced components should be compared and swap one component only and listen. don't change cables, tubes, etc. If you are evaluating a pre-amp. Listen to your favorite, most revealing music through your existing system, then swap the pre-amp (Only) and listen to the same music again.

However, if cost is a factor, and a REF 3 or above isn't in the cards, you can't beat an SP-11 or SP-15 for the money and you get a decent phono stage to boot.

So you feel the LS25 or 26 (The ones below the REF series), is better than the line stages from the earlier years? Like LS5s or SP10 or 11s etc. Is there pretty much consensus on the idea that ARC has simply improved over time? Is the LS25KI an improvement over the LS22? Feelings about those two? I understand that many prefer the LS25MKI over the MII (6922 to 6H30?)
How would the line stage in the SP-3c compare to the aforementioned "favorites" ??
Can you clarify also what would be considered a worthwhile upgrade from sp16 and why?

Minor1, SP-15 is different, no tubes in the line stage.

SP-11 MKII is the better choice.
The LS-5's are extremely high-value preamps, particularly if your system is balanced.

The LS-3 is one of the great "cheap" preamps available used, especially, as the above poster notes, if it is used through its direct input. Me and my dealer preferred it to the LS-2b. I bought one fifteen years ago and while it's been out of my system for many years now, I pull it out every now and again - it sounds really good for a moderately priced preamp, and is one of the very few moderately priced solid-state preamps that sounds really good.
The LS-3 is very very good for the money...
Key words, "good for the money". That's like saying its in great condition for its age.

I just noticed the high asking prices on SP-11 MKII preamps. If these are merely asking prices and not an indication of actual price the SP-11 is still a solid recommendation, but I would think long and hard before spending $5,000 on a 25 year old preamp that will soon cost you a fortune in maintenance.
The solid state LS-10 is a killer preamp. It is almost never for sale here on the 'Gon. The blackest background I've ever heard. So quiet it's scary.
low/absent noise level with sp-16 is similar. I did not think tubes could be that quiet.

When there is even a minor tube issue though, you here it. My sp16 developed a very low level whine when I first hooked up the BC monoblocks. I thought it was the new amps at first. Shuffling the 6 12AX7's internally eventually eliminated the issue somehow. Back to dead silence ever since.
I don't get the fortune in maintenance for the SP-11 MkII. I recently had mine completely serviced by ARC authorized tech (High End Audio Repair in Brooklyn) and it was very reasonable even if I did supply the NOS tubes (Telefunken CCA for phono and the rest Mullards). I did not know that they had become so expensive, though. Unless you upgrade so frequently that you don't keep a piece for long, maintenance is required for any gear (except my Kenwood tuner :-).
Well my direct comparison between the REF 3, SP-11 retubed and SP 16 and other AR preamps were very revealing. I did not play with tube rolling or change cables, etc. I simply listened to music with one unit, unplugged it and connected the other and listened to the same music. The SP-11 (retubed mind you, with AR supplied tubes) was wayyyyy better than the the SP-16. It was not even close. I would even classify the Sp-16 as being a lower high-end or upper mid fi pre-amp. I'm not kidding. It wasn't close. However, the SP-11 was close to the REF 3 to the point where I seriously questioned buying the REF 3. The REF 3 was better, don't get me wrong, but the price difference, wellll, was it worth doing it. In my opinion, it was! I find myself no wanting to stop listening. However, I sold my SP-11 for around $2,300 and that was a fair price. So, whom ever is listing an SP-11 for $5,000 or even over $3,000 is asking way too much.

I have not heard a direct comparison between the SP-11 and the SP-15, but people who's opinion I respect tell me the SP-15 is on the same level as the SP-11 MK II.

Minor, what is the rest of your system you are auditioning ARC pre-amps with?

I've heard a lot of high end systems and I am quite pleased with the sp16 in most every regard. What specifically did you hear different between it and other more expensive ARC pre-amps?
Wow. Great question. My system consist of, Sota Star Saphire TT, with SME IV arm and Blackbird cartridge into an AR PH-3 phone stage, AR REF 3 pre-amp, McIntosh Labs MS 300 music server into a Theta DSPro Gen II DAC, Pereaux TU-1 Tuner, Pioneer Elite DV-09 DVD/CD player into a Theta DSP Gen V DAC, Martin Logan Monolith IIIX electronic crossover, into a Mark Levinson ML-3 amp for the bass drivers of my ML Monolith IIIX speakers and either 1) Audio Research VTM 120 Mono Amps or my Mark Levinson 23.5 Amp driving the upper panels of the Martin Logan Monolith IIIX speakers. Cables are MIT, XLO, Transparent, Canare, etc. Also, for the naysayers, the Pioneer Elite DV-09 is in my opinion one of the best transports I have ever heard and I have heard some really good ones. It is built like a tank, really, seriously overbuilt, vacumed sealed and compared to the seven (really!)cd player/transports that I have listened to into the DAC, it blew each and every one of them away.

Now to the sound of the SP-16 compared to the SP-11. The SP-16 was constrained, not open, soundstage was small, bass was not good. Sorry, but my audiophile vocabulary is lacking. When I played, Eva Cassidy or Marilyn Scott, or Pat Metheny, etc. on the SP-11 and then played the same on the SP-16, it was the biggest difference I have ever heard in comparisons. Also, my when I was speaking with my Dealer about possibly getting a remote controlled pre-amp to replace my SP-11 (possibly) he told me that the SP-16 would be close. He later admitted that he forgot that the SP-11 was the top-of-the line AR pre-amp of the time and that the Sp-16 was basically AR's entry level pre-amp. Fortunatly, his store routinely allows me to take equipment home for a week at a time and audition before I buy. I kept coming back to the REF 3. It was really smooth.

minor, thanks for that.

i'll go out on a limb and suppose that my ohm speakers may compensate for any deficiencies in imaging and soundstage that might occur with the lower end sp16 compared to higher models. the ohms are champs in this regard with most any amplification.

i have also used mit ics but now run dnm reson ics which i find superior in most every regard and really delivers results that just sound right.

there are many ways to achieve a certain level of performance. areally good pre in general can only help. i think the arc gear in general is a fantastic one to build a system around.
It depends on your amps and your pre-amp actually. I have found that some equipment is very forgiving as opposed to others. The SP-11 in my opinion was very forgiving of bad recordings. (I didn't know they were bad until I got the REF 3). Now several of my recordings are absolutely terrible sounding because the REF 3 revealed just how bad the recording process was. I would never have thought that were true. When you get a chance and you leave your wallet at home. Take a week long listen to a REF 3. you will really enjoy the experience.

I've worked hard to get most all recordings to sound good enough to be worth a listen, even if I am initially unfamiliar with the material. The sp16 fits the bill for that in my rig.

I used to think a lot of recordings were bad, ie not worth listening to for me prior to recent upgrades including the sp16. I have difficult with the concept that better gear makes some recordings worse. I do not want that because I like listening to most anything, at least once.

When I hear that I wonder if there is really still something amiss in the rig and/or perhaps expectations for a certain kind of sound or recording quality are just not realistic.

I know its a subject of debate. I have no upgrade bugs currently because I can listen to almost anything and enjoy it, even though most have their limitations. That's exactly where I want to be. The good recordings sound exactly the way I think they should, and lesser ones sound good enough to enjoy almost all the time. At least part of it is managing expectations. Few recordings sound alike and most have at least some enjoyable elements.
I know what you mean. It sucks when some of your favorite recordings all of a sudden don't sound good. However, the other side, is the really good stuff sounds so much better.

And I also agree that being in the amp of the month club, constantly upgrading is not fun for me. I hope you really enjoy your SP-16.

Do the bad recordings really sound worse or just sound that way more relative to the good ones?
I really enjoyed the LS2B MKII, mine had remote control and was one of the few preamps I wish I had held onto. Although the LS2B has one tube (6DJ8), Martin Colloms stated that Audio Research somehow has found the perfect marriage between tubes and solid state. However from earlier discussions in the forums I was advised that the LS5 was by far the best preamp in the LS series. Ironically I have an SP11 MK II that I purchased on Audiogon three years ago and worked well for the first two months and then quit, It now resides in my attic till I can figure out if I want to spend the cash to get it fixed since a local tech said there was a problem with the power supply. This no doubt will cost several hundred dollars or I can put the money into a newer AR preamp like the SP16.
Any thoughts as to the LS15 and where it ranks in the ARC lineage? Expecially compared to the LS2s.
I was the fortunate recipient of Minorl's SP-11 and would concur with his assessment that the SP-11 was very close to the Ref 3. Over the past year, I've been A/B-ing the SP-11 with an SP-10 (with ARC stock EH tubes), and SP-9 mki (with the stock Chinese ARC tubes changed out to a pair of Siemens Cca with great results) and an SP-8 mkii (with various NOS 5751, 12AX7 and 6DJ8/6922 tubes rolled in/out). As you wrote, if the phono stage isn't that critical to you, then I would rank them as follows:

SP-9 (with the caveat that the stock 6922 tubes be replaced)
SP-8 mkii

I've also read great things about the LS-5 mkii/mkiii but have yet to hear it first hand.

hey Closdesducs; Wonderful that you are enjoying the SP-11. Some new music for you if you haven't already obtained it. Eva Cassidy, at the blues alley (wonderful), songbird also. enjoy the SP-11. Keep in touch.

Mapman; In my opinion based on my direct comparisons, some equipment is much more forgiving than others. However, remember, that there really are some terrible recordings out there. A lot of recording engineers really don't care about sound stage, etc. They use compression, multiple tracks, terrible mikes, bad mike placement, bad cables, etc. Its funny. my friend brought some of her favorite music over and we played it through the SP-11 and it sounded good. We later played it through the REF 3 (that was the only change), and it was really bad. But the well recorded music that we owned sounded great on both. I have changed equipment and have heard other equipment being revealed as not so good also. A well designed and constructed piece of equipment will not color or distort. It is only if one already knows what the music sounds like or does an A/B comparison with a particular piece of equipment, that you can really tell.

I have to admit, that many of my older cd's really suck as far as recording quality goes. Same for some of my albums.

Well, I spent alot of time reading up on all the previous ARC pres. I;ve concluded I will focus on the LS series, though the SP-11 sounds like it would be a great unit, but too much gear and too many tubes given I don't have any need for phono. So I am at the point where I need to ask is there any kind of consensus (that will be the day) that the LS26 is superior to any previous generation of ARC linestages? I think it hits the sweet spot at its used price, which I imagine will drop a bit when the LS27 comes out. Most say it is better than the Ref2s - but I have no idea if that is true.
Well, I heard said that the LS26 is one step below the REF3 if that helps. Take a listen for a week or so at your house to tell for sure.

Actually find the physical scale of the Ref 2 and 3s to be to large, I prefer the format of the smaller unit. The LS26 since to be well regarded, the other competitor in my mind is the LS25 MKI as a viable option. Opinion on the 6H30 linestages seemed a bit mixed compared with the 25MKI using 6922 - some prefering it as more musical and allowing for some tube rolling. But I have narrowed it down to LS25MKI and LS26. Any comments on those familiar with both would be appreciated. I have an Atma-sphere MP3 that works incredibly well with my Atma M60 amps, but I also have a Music Reference RM9 Special Edition that is single-ended, so I am looking for a pre that can work both singled-ended with the RM9SE and balanced with the M60s.
I had the SP-14 for many years and really enjoyed it thoroughly. At the time, I was mostly a vinyl guy ... guess I still am. On a good night, with the lights out, the entire back wall would just disappear and the sound stage seemed to have limitless depth and wall to wall width. At the time, I was using Acoustat Fours (modified), with Atma-Sphere 60 watt mono blocks. My Well Tempered table (modified) and Clavis cartridge really was a great match as well. Today, SP-14s are selling really cheap.