Audio Research Ref 3 VS Mark Levinson 38s

Im thinking about upgrading my preamp. Right now i have the Mark Levinson 38s preamp. What will be the differences in sound between them. Would this be upgrade ? 
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A friend of my purchased the 380s pre-amp and I at the time owned the REF 3.  I can tell you that both are excellent.  Quite open and detailed.  I don't know about the 38s but, I imagine that it would be close to the 380s with the 380s probably being better than the 38s.

However, I also compared the REF 3 (with new tubes) with a REF 5SE and I have to tell you they were very close.  It definitely was not a jaw dropping difference between the two, and my REF 6 is not far away from the REF 5SE.  I had all three in my house at the same time to compare.  That was fun.

The REF 3 with new tubes is very hard to beat and for the money, impossible to beat.

Don't get me wrong, the 380s was excellent and I would take either one. if the 380s is an upgrade to the 38s, then the REF 3 would definitely be better than the 38s.


minorl , that was good reading from you , yes the 380s was an upgrade from the 38s. I was considering at one time upgrading my 38s to the 380s but i thought it might be somewhat kinda close in comparison to spend the extra $$$$. That is why i was thinking of the ARC Ref 3. 
I've owned both of those preamps, though not at the same time. I had the 38S for about a month, around 15 years ago. Then I spent about 3 years with the ARC Ref 3, and sold it about 8 years ago.

In my system, to my ears, there was no contest at all. I much preferred the ARC Ref 3, more resolution, more musical, more natural.

Again, that is just my opinion, and I have been known to prefer a tube preamp. Very few SS preamps have sounded natural to me, with Klyne the possible exception.

The 38S stood out to me as a very HiFi sounding unit. It checked many boxes, good bass, good highs, but it never sounded relaxed or natural to me. Could have been system synergy, or whatnot, I can't really recall what else was in my rig back 15 years ago, but I did turn around and resold it rather quickly, and the guy who bought it really liked it, so whatever. That's why they make so many flavors.

That's just my $0.02.
The REF 3 with new tubes is very hard to beat and for the money, impossible to beat.
It is quite good, but I've heard better for less. I prefer the ARC over the 38S as well.
i’d consisider the ml 326s . imo it is much superior to the two units in question and can be purchased used for a good price. i had both back to back and thought the 326s much superior.,just an opinion though. 
I agree with 4425.  I’ve spent a lot of time with the REF3 and while it’s a great unit I prefer my 326s for a variety of reasons.

I would definitely think about the 326s.  If the REF 3 and 326s are close in price (relative that is). 

Mark Levinson company (don't know if this was Mark Levinson the person or the new company after he sold it), made/makes excellent equipment.

As Ralph (Atma-Sphere) also said, there are some pre-amps at or better than the REF 3 for the price.

But, you can't go wrong with the REF 3, 380s or 326s.


4425, jim_swantko   Would you please list your variety of reasons you would go with the ML 326s over the ARC Ref 3? I really would like my next preamp purchase be my last . Thanks...
smooth and refined sound with excellent detail wo any etch. tight punchy bass. beautiful build and ergonomics second to none. reliable. 
infinitely better looking and not an empty box like the ref 3. finally the 326s will easily drive a subwoofer plus main amp whereas the ref 3 will not

A piece of advice DO NOT  base your purchase on someone else’s opinion. Let your ears be the judge because it’s you that will have to live with it. Come on man I know we all want information but jeez. You will not have his speakers or listening environment or source of music. Do your homework and base your decision on what’s appealing and satisfying to your ears. 

i agree w 41 to a degree. however good is good and a neutral product such as the 326s fits anyone. demoing different products is virtually impossible for many of us.
I agree with 4425's assessment and add dead silence and an inky black background.  I also am not a fan of replaceable items which deteriorate and impact sound over time - tubes.

The 326S projects a big, deep soundstage that is rock solid and stable and I simply prefer solid state electronics that are consistent over time.  Just my preference.

Listen to both and buy the one that speaks to you.
A piece of advice DO NOT base your purchase on someone else’s opinion. Let your ears be the judge because it’s you that will have to live with it.

+1. As the OP can see, there are those here who feel the ARC is a much better choice, and there are those who feel the ML is a much better choice.

In the end, you are paying your own money, you need to choose what sounds best to you, not what sounds best to someone else.

In my post above, I actually had 4 "high end" brand preamps in my home at the same time for a couple months so that I could choose which one I liked best. Along with the ML 38S I had a Krell KRC-HR, BAT VK-51SE, and a Conrad Johnson Premier LS-16 mk II.
In my system, to my tastes, they finished in this order:

1) BAT
2) CJ
3) Krell
4) ML

I am sure that order could be made up in many different orders.
The point is, choose what sounds good to you, not what sounds good to someone else.
quick point. the 326s is light years beyond the 38s in sound quality. imo. i had both
Thank you all for your sound thoughts and advice. For those of you that said let your ears decide and listen to both would be impossible . I am lucky enough to buy one of these preamps let alone 2 and listen to them both to compare. That is out of the question. Now the question is ARC REF 3 or ML 326s . Would the ML 326s be worth the extra 2 grand or so ? 
Nobody is saying buy them both... can't you audition them?
The 326S is an excellent preamp; I enjoyed having it in my system.  Don't think you can go wrong with it - it is really tough to beat for the price. 
Would the ML 326s be worth the extra 2 grand or so ?

Only you can make that decision.
I am sure that you will be happy with either one though.

I would think that if you are paying an extra 2 grand, the price is either really good on the ARC Ref 3, or really bad on the 326S.
I see them selling for about the same price, unless the 326S has the optional phono stage, and even then it's only about $600-$1,000 more.

Now that is judging by sold prices on HiFiShark, not asking prices in current ads.
So if you are seeing a 2 grand difference, either the asking price for the 326S is too high, or the asking price for the Ref 3 is too low.
Completely agree with @jmcgrogan2  that there shouldn't be a $2k price difference.
Im thinking about the ARC Ref 3 with the speakers i have being the B&W 800 matrix. The majority of the music i listen to is classic rock. That being said, alot of classic rock recordings are not the best. I think introducing a tube preamp to my system will take some edge off the recordings.