Audio Research preamp ratings & sound differences

I have not had the opportunity to listen to Audio Research preamps, but there seems to be a few good ones to hold onto for the long term: SP10, SP11, SP14, SP17, LS17, LS17SE, LS25 MKI, LS26, LS 27, Ref 3 & 5

how do these sound? rate?
I am not an ARC guru, but this is what I understand about the hierachy of recent ARC Pres. I am sure others will pile in and disagree. My understanding is the LS26 has a relatively poor response. The LS 27 however seems rated slightly above the Ref 3, as a newer model. The Ref 5 of course is top dog. I have heard the 27, 3 and 5, but not at the same time, so could'nt comment on sound differences
I've only heard very good sounding setups with ARC amplification on numerous occasions. Cant say that about many companies products, so that is a good omen.

The sp16 I use has been well reviewed and sounds lovely.

Which is best will depend on many things I suppose. But for the most part it all seems to be a pretty good place to be in general. Specs and personal preferences will of course vary widely and end results case by case will of course depend on many factors beyond the just the amp or pre-amp used.

I have not had any major issues other than tube replacements to-date but ARC customer service has been solid to -date as well, which means a lot. Good gear isn't worth much if it does not continue to work well over the long term. Older ARC gear seems to manage to stick around forever and retain decent value, so that says a lot as well.
Had Sp8,SP10 and SP15(with Great Northern Sound updates) my Thoress preamp is much better better stage,imaging,bass and detail.
I wouldn't claim to know the line-up/history well enough to rank the listed models, but my own impression is that somewhere around the introduction of the original LS 25 (which I own), the overall sound of ARC gear got a little leaner. Some might call it more analytical while others would say more neutral, but I do think there was, for better or worse, a subtle shift in the ARC "house sound" that moved further away from the classically romantic character that some associate with tubes. BTW, I don't think that ARC ever had a ton of that, but I do hear even less of it in their more recent models.

Just MHO.
Dvdgreco - Since you ask about 12 different pre-amps from the same company I think you be better off locating some long time (20+ yr) Audio Research dealers. Ask them their opinion of sound quality and price to performance ratios. After 3 or 4 dealers I would think you would get an idea. But remember you will get 3 or 4 different sonic preferences.

Best of luck
Over the course of "n" years, I owned quite a few ARC preamps; namely: SP-9, SP-16, SP-17, Ref-3, Ref 5 and finally the Ref 5 SE. IMO, the there were significant incremental improvements in sound quality across the board as I climbed the ladder from the SP-9 to the SP-17.

The Ref 3 was in a totally different league. Surprisingly, I wasn't blown out of my listening chair when I traded up to the Ref 5 from the Ref 3. IMO, the Ref 3 is a very special preamp that will stand the test of time as a classic.

Having said that, I think the Ref 5 SE upgrade was a noticeable improvement as compared to the Ref 3. But make no mistake, another league ... another universe ... transformational change, ... I think not. Better?? Definitely yes. But in no way was the Ref 3 relegated to the audiophile garbage bin.
SP-9 Mk3...didn't like it at all.

LS-10...blackest background I ever heard. This preamp was so
good, I bought it twice. When this preamp was good, it was
incredible, but could be inconsistent on certain recordings.
Extremely rare, they only show up for sale on the used
market once every five years or so.

Ref-1...loved it, except for periodic mid-bass bloat on some

Ref2 Mk2...excellent preamp, solid from top to bottom.

Ref3.......Game-changer. Head and shoulders above the very
excellent Ref2 Mk2. I still have it and love it.
I started my HiFi journey with ARC LS1 in the 80's. It replaced my Adcom solid state preamp at the time. I was so happy with the result and stayed in the tube camp until now.

I recently changed from 40th Anniversary to Ref 10. The improvement is also very obvious. To me, ARC preamp is the best product from the factory. I have also used other ARC products but preamp stands above the others.
I agree with Bifwynne's response.

SP9 MKII nice. SP 11 was impressive. SP 17 wasn't impressive to me, but I was considering upgrading from the SP 11 and the SP 17 was actually the entry level pre-amp that someone suggested I try. Wasn't close to the SP 11.

REF 3 was a substantial upgrade that presented the sound in a very nice way. The SP 11 with new tubes was actually close, but the REF 3 was better in such a way that it justified (interesting word) my upgrade.

The REF 5 was just not that much better than the REF 3 to justify an upgrade to me. However, the REF 5SE was really nice and when I can, I will obtain one. It was a very nice unit that was "that" much better than the REF 3. Don't get me wrong, the REF 3 to this day still is better than most pre-amps out there.

I have heard many of the other AR pre-amps you listed, however, I would like to caution those that have not done direct A/B comparisons, to be careful in their descriptions as you are going by memory and not actually physical A/B comparisons.

The best thing to do when considering a new component is to take it home and simply remove the existing component and replace it with new and listen back and forth to your favorite music and see/hear if the differences justify purchasing the new one.

Mistakes that people make.
1. Purchasing based on someone else's opinion and not your own.
2. Not taking the equipment home for a direct in-home demonstration and see/hear for yourself. Then after purchasing without in-home demo first, taking it home only to find disappointment.
3. Letting someone pressure you into purchasing, when something inside you is telling you to slow down.
4. Being in the amp of the month club and purchase based on peer pressure.

Yes, whatever you call it, the modern ARC sound I hear is not the traditional tube sound one would hear with older tube gear. Its hard to distinguish from good SS gear. Not overtly "tube" sounding. Just very clean and effective. VAC gear I have heard has also struck me this way. What others? Are there two camps of tube sound really, the more modern/detailed/neutral and the older smoother more rounded one?
Hi Dvdgreco - are you looking for a linestage -no phono? I can provide an opinion anyway as I have owned ARC products for 25 years.

From ARC in my room SP8, SP10, REF3, SP11MKII

The SP11MKII when run in ARC's HOTROD mode with bypass engaged and direct outputs stood on its own performance wise from the others and has remained with me all this time. Sounds most like a clear window to what's in front and behind it. It disappears providing reliable dependable service.

My particular situation is that it sits right beside my listening chair in a dedicated music room, within my arms reach, so I do not require a remote. The SP11MKII was built in the heyday of vinyl with digital also in full swing as well. This resulted imo in an excellent line and phono stage.

SP11MKII is unique in three ways.

1) The mentioned ARC HOTROD mode.
from manual.
"Bypass Switch - In "Bypass" position, directly connects the Gain (volume) control to the output of either the RIAA compensated phono amplification circuitry or a selected line-level source (such as CD). The Balance and Mode controls, as well as the "Monitor" Switch are removed from the active circuit path when this Switch is in operation. The Bypass switch is provided for use with audiophile-quality program material or whenever maximum fidelity to the input signal is desired."

(note the sp10 has a bypass mode too but it only works only with the phono stage)

2) Variable Gain control separate from volume. To deal with the varied source material recordings - especially digital.

3) On the fly impedance loading for cartridges on the front panel using a special heavy duty multi gang toggle.

Doing some online research ARC appears to have re-introduced on the fly variable loading with the Phono 5. The values changed however as the newer preamps are loaded at higher values. The SP11mkII could go down to 30, 10 and 3 ohms.

A negative is it sounds like shite until warmed up for a few hours. It has been very very easy on tubes. (knock on wood) Mine went down some years ago, a problem with the separate power supply unit. It was taken to a good tech and the power supply was beefed up during the repair.

My first AR preamp was the LS3B, a wonderful, pure sounding unit and built like a tank. Next, I bought a used SP14 and found it's sound to be, overall, a little less forward and otherwise very much like the LS3B (I didn't use the phono stage). Ultimately, I kept the LS3B, because I preferred its wider soundstage. I auditioned the SP16, SP17 and an LS25 mkII, all of which sounded incrementally better. I settled on an LS26, which is dimensional and organic, with great micro and macro-dynamics. I'm not sure what David12 meant by ascribing a relatively poor response to the LS26. I have not heard such things and my own experience has been enthusiastically positive.
11-20-14: Ebm

Jump on ARC NOW!!!!!

ok EBM here you go....just for you.

click me

I believe it comes with remote too.
I agree with EBM.

When in doubt just determine your budget and needs, and jump on ARC. Its hard to go wrong.

I have listened to the newer ARC pre-amps over the last 3 years and would conclude this;
If you seek the best of the newest gear- look no further than the Reference5/5SE.

Otherwise, feel free to audition some of the older pieces for a comparison. All of this will be very dependent upon your gear and cables/cords. Keep me posted.
Happy Listening!