Audio Research Ref. 3, Ref. 5, or the Ref. 5se.

I am looking to add a Audio Research preamp. Looking at the Ref. 3,5,5se. The 5se is a bit high in price.

I have a Wadia S7i CDP up front with Pass Labs XA100.8 amps. I am using Vandersteen Quarto Wood CT speakers. Witch Audio Research would make the best sense to go with.

Thanks for the help Russ.


 Conventional wisdom, is that the Ref 5, is'nt a great advance on the 3, but the 5SE was a big step up. The logic of that is, if the 5SE is to expensive, which it would be for me, then choose the Ref  3. I have to say, I have heard the 3 and 5 SE, extensively, but not the 5.

 The alternative would be the LS27, which I have heard against the 3 and I think, is better than the it. That can be bought second hand at a comparable price to the 3, I believe.

  Having said all that, I bought the Modwright 36.5, which I consider very well made and better sounding than the Ref 3, at a cheaper price.

 Returning to the Ref 5, I personally can not understand, why a large reputable company like ARC, keeps producing Pre and Power amps, which have to improved by an SE upgrade a short time afterwards. I understand to an extent, with my Ref 75 Power amp, where the change was to accommodate the better KT150 tube. This doesn't seem to apply to the Ref 5. A cynic would say, this is to make more money on upgrading.

ARC business plan has always been about upgrading. They come up with a new power and pre-amp on a fairly regular basis and within 12 to 24 months they are offering an upgrade. From a marketing point of view this is ingenious. They keep people on the proverbial treadmill on a constant basis. And since they have such a loyal following a good percentage of their customers will upgrade. When it comes to the upgrade business no one is more successful than ARC. 


What dose the Ref. 5SE do better than the Ref.3 I have no place to go to audition in my area. Is it worth the extra $$$.

Thanks Russ

No one can answer the question is it worth the extra money but you. On the used market you are looking about a 3000.00 difference in price between the Ref-5Se and the Ref-3. Like everything thing in audio it is all subjective


I would not settle for any model less than the Ref3 SE.

Clearly, the best is the Ref5 SE. At any rate, try the pre-amp in your system, your room prior to any purchase. Keep me posted & Happy Listening!

I think the Ref-3se is extremely rare. In fact I don't think I have ever seen one for sale.

Agree with David12 comments about the differences between the Ref 3, 5 and 5 SE. I owned all three and currently still own the  Ref 5 SE.  The only caveat I have is that all the ARC Ref preamps require that the input impedance of the amp NOT be less than 20,000 ohms. 

I too never heard about a Ref 3 SE model, although I understand that ARC made about 2 dozen  Ref 3 LE versions, which had upgraded coupling caps.

I am a big fan of ARC gear.  I suspect that any of the Ref preamps will match just fine with the rest of your system, which is very impressive.  Just confirm that the Pass input impedance is over 20K ohms.

Btw, ARC just released a Ref 6 preamp.  I surmise that the release of the new model will put a downward pressure on preowned Ref 5 SE pricing .... but in any case, if you can stretch a bit, IME, I would recommend the Ref 5 SE.  



The Ref 5se was significantly better than the Ref 5. It added heft to the images (only after hearing the Ref 5se does one realize that the Ref 5 is a bit too diaphanous) and made the presentation more natural in every way. Do NOT miss the opportunity to get a used 5se if you can.
Asking which ARC gear is better, the cheaper or the more expensive, you're going to get these kind of responses.  In defense of the Ref 3, I emphatically state that it is a bargain at the used price.  In fact, with the money I saved I upgraded to (used) Nordost Frey 2 and Tyr 2 IC's.  That's an upgrade I would do before jumping on a Ref 5SE any day.  I would love a 5SE or Quatros  - I have 3A Sigs.  Until and if I can afford them I'm in no way unhappy - the Ref 3 is that good.

I just wanted to thank everyone for there input and advice. I need to make a choice on the route.

Thanks Russ

+ 1 wlutke I have the ref 3 with pass xa 160.5 they work together beautifully with my Marten speakers you shouldn't have any problems with your Vandys. The ref 3 with nos 6h30dr's  is a vast improvement over the stock 6h30's more clarity and very special in the midrange. Best of Luck
the guy who designed and built your speakers thinks pretty highly of the 5 SE
i believe the advice he gave me was along the lines of giant killer...
2640 hours on mine.
ARC bashers for improving the product abound...
if you love your model keep it.
want an upgrade go that route..
my only beef was the cheap plastic remote..i sprung for metal 3 years in....

At a retail price of 13k I don't know how anyone could call it a giant killer. And I am not an ARC basher. I currently own 2 pieces of their gear. 

Hi Guys

I wanted to get input on running my Wadia S7i directly driving my Pass amps. VS. putting in the Audio Research Ref. preamp.

Thanks Russ

maybe they were stunted giants Taters.....
Hansen <Ayre> has some interesting things to say about the sonics of skipping the pre but he sells a few preamps.
Best sound I have heard from a Wadia ( which was incredible BTW) was thru a CJ GAT.....
what does your trusted Vandy dealer say Russ ?

I just asked him that question today and he is a firm believer in having a preamp.(tube). He use to be a ARS Dealer.
 He is know a VTL dealer. He wants to sell me a VTL 5.5. I would rather go with a ARS product used.


Do you mean ARC?

Nice russ-

I would like to demo the VTL someday...
Wlutke ... as a former owner of the Ref 3, let me go on record that I think and always thought it was a terrific linestage ... no qualifications.  I think the Ref 3 **IS** a bargain and it still holds its value on the preowned market.  There are (were) a couple of Ref 3s for sale on A'gon in the $5K range and they are, as stated, holding their value.      
There is a REF 3 at the ARC dealer in WA DC for $5k.....

Thanks Everyone for the help. Still not sure if I should put out the extra bucks and go for a Ref. 5SE. or settle for the Ref. 3. I see there are a couple of 3's out there. Again thanks.


Russ ... as I said above, the Ref 3 is a fine linestage ... no quibbles there.  That said, if you can stretch for the bucks, I think the Ref 5 SE is better ... that's all.
I could not pass up the deal I received on a new inbox Ref 5SE. If you do buy the Ref 3 you will most likely be happy but still have that "what if I had bought  the Ref 5SE" question in the back of your mind. It sounds like in your heart you want to buy the Ref 5SE? It has made a huge improvement in my system. The layers in the soundstaging along with amazing imaging all over the place. Instruments and voices are floating in space. The better the recording the more it flushes out. My unit has started to really give that 3 dimensional stage after 400 hours on it. The bass is very powerful and dynamic yet articulate when defining those instruments both acoustic and electric. I have always wanted a tube preamp and the Ref 5SE is the one. Not really liking the cosmetics of the Ref 6 preamp. 
I tend to go with the 'save a little more and stretch for the 5se' advice.

statman...If you haven't already? I would highly  recommend replacing the  7amp Slo Blo with an Synergistic Red, and the Sovtek 6550 with an NOS or 100%er GE 6550, IMHO the Sovtek sounds hard, glassy and 2 dimensional *In comparison*

Out of curiosity, why have you discounted the VTL?  They make some outstanding line stages.


what is a 100% ge ?


SR doesn't make a 7 amp slow blo in the red version. The closest they make is an 8 amp.

tomic601.... an General Electric 6550A measuring ideally 100% emissions.

taters.... My apologies, I was still in Ref10 mode, USA Ref5se takes a 5 amp slow.
Got it and on it ! Will advise how it sounds vs. factory, which I replaced about 100 hours ago w another factory ARC tube.

Buy the Ref3 now.  It is an outstanding line stage.  Whenever you get ready to move up to the Ref 5SE, you can always trade up... or you just may find yourself content with the Ref3 with no desire to trade up.
After auditioning the Ref5 SE, he will want to move up...

Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
If you buy a REF 3 or 5 just replace the current used tubes by 6H30P-DR
and the powerreg. tube by a NOS Tungsol 6550 black plate . Do add the
powerbank upgrade as used in the REf 5 SE , and you will be amazed !

Much appreciated on the tube replacement advice. In regards to  the fuse replacment, I'm not going to touch the fuse, I am happy the way it is! No offense, but I am no longer OCD driven and am content with my system within reason. However, I must add I am sort of let down by the Sovtek 6550 tubes that were with the unit upon purchasing. I developed a noise in the right channel attributed to a noisy output stage tube. Not the intermittent burps tubes occasionally develop, this was constant! This only after 150 hours on the unit. I called Audio Research and asked for 2 replacements just in case I had another issue.

 I replaced the right channel tube and was back to happy listening when suddenly around 300 hours the left channel did the same exact thing! I then replaced it with the spare tube. I am glad I asked for two instead of the one that they were going to originally send out. Since replacing the two that were bad, I have not had any other tube noises since then. I have around 480 hours on the unit now. 

Thanks everyone, I just picked up a ARC Ref. 3. Should get it this week.

Thanks Russ.

Congrats Russ!  You are going to love it.
Please come back to this thread and give us a review.
I tend to recommend the GE 6550A as it is to me the best *All Rounder* its accuracy and neutrality certainly makes an excellent choice for Classical, Rock, Popular, Singer Songwriter, Film Scores etc .etc.

Were I to be contemplating an evening of Sinatra, Ella, Lady Sings The Blues, Jazz, Blues, etc. Etc. then I might swap out the GE for an Tung Sol Solid Gray Plate or an late 50's Black, introducing a touch more palpability, Tonal density and Harmonic bloom 
Great exchange of info here guys. Russ, keep me posted as you receive & break-in your Ref3. Happy Listening!
Jafant, that Ref3 should be ready to rock right out of the box.
It's at least 5 years old and fully broken in.
One hour of warm-up...and SHOWTIME!
I'm torn between buying a REF 5 or the Ayre KX-5 Twenty. I have ARC DS-450M. Seeking some advice?

Did we lose Russ?
Just wanted to say I am very happy with the Ref.3. It is amazing what it did for the sound of my system.

 I keep thinking, yes, ARC make great Amps, but the Pre's  seem expensive compared with other brands. I own the ARC Ref 75SE Power amp and although it is expensive, it seems great value for what it does. The Reference 5SE or 5 are well north of $10000 and the 6 is I believe, about $16000.

 I was planning on the Ref 3, as an ARC Pre I could afford second hand, but I compared it with a Modwright 36.5 and I preferred the Modwright by a small margin, but a big cost saving. That is as an Ex dem Modwright against a second hand Ref 3. 

ARC REF 6 priced at $14,000, a $1000 increase over the 5SE. With the early reports coming in so positively an upcharge of 1k seems reasonable, at least in that context.