Audio Research Reference 5 Preamp

So I see on the Audio Research Data Base website they listed the new ARC REF 5 preamp for $12000. Does anybody have any details about it?
There is a discussion on audioasylum and avguide I believe. Valin ( among others) makes some comments.
I heard from a reputable source at ARC that the Ref 5 will have the same tube compliment as the ref 3. Totally new circuit boards with some circuit changes. The board is horizontal instead of vertical. The sound improvement is said to be quite substantial. Deeper, more articulate bass and more extended top end is probably the first thing you will notice, but this improvement is across the whole spectrum. There is an additional finish combo with silver knobs/handles with the natural finish. I'm sure it will sound amazing, I just placed my order and delivery is about 4 weeks out. I'll let you know more when it comes in.
What happened to Ref 4? Did it blow up?
When will the Reference 7 preamp appear?
The model number 4 seldom appears in hi-end audio products, at least not from companies that want to sell any of those products in Asian countries. The number 4 represents bad luck.
Now I know why all the REF 3's were up for sale, nice upgrade path.
Rx8man - Consider the REF 5 the 'REF 3 MkII' - an expensive 'upgrade' where you send your REF 3 to someone else and receive the REF 5 back for 12k minus the money you got for selling your REF 3.
I read the discussion on AVguide as well on the Ref 5.

While I am sure it will be glowing review when they (TAS and Stereophile) review it as soon as it goes to production.
How could it not be?

Sorry, but I cannot help but think...this is a 12K + this economy...who the heck can spend this kind of jack on components at this time??
Isn't it amazing that after all this time and effort, there's still room for "substantial" improvement in even the most expensive products?
You have to hand it to ARC. They sure know how to extract cash from their clientele. They know that a certain percentage of there Ref-3 owners will trade up for the new model. I guess that's how they stay in business.
Thats pretty much how "everyone" stays in business.
No Money,

I know companies have to come out with new gear to create sales. But ARC is notorious for coming out with 2 or 3 versions of the same unit. Example Vt-100 mkl mk2 mk3. They also change models very quickly. Other companies don't change their lines every few years.
I don't question everyones love for music. But I think that we get bored listening to our familiar songs or familiar music after a while and we need the thrill of some new piece of gear to "rediscover" our collection. That's what manufacturer's are banking on. My wife just rolls her eyes everytime I tell her that this is it. The size and cost of our upgrades are proportional to our budgets. When I see ARC Ref 3's on the market, I think that would be the end all be all preamp for me, but obviously people are looking for something even better. It's just like a drug addiction- our bodies build up a resistance and we need a stronger dose. I guess at some point we have to go through detox- sell all our gear and listen to FM radio/MP3 players for a couple of years and then ease back into the hobby with a Marantz 8B and a pair of studio monitors.
I don't get much time to listen these days, but knowing my system is there and ready to be fired up gives me comfort. So I won't lie to myself and claim I could sellout any time I want.
Oh, I understand the "like a drug addiction" aspect :o) Trust me.
For me I am just trying to understand the escalating costs of these components, especially in this crappy economy. Are people still able to fork out 12K for a pre-amp??

Even with a sale of a ref 3 which is about 5K or so on this site, your still talking about dropping ~ 7K, not to mention if someone purchased a Ref 3 for 10K new...hell that is a cool 17K in 5 years since the ref 3 came out...

Please, please do not take my post as being confrontational or bitter...not the case. Just posing the question...
I admit it, I'm addicted . I get quite a rush out of opening a brand spanking new preamp. The smell of a new circuit board as I pop the seal on the plastic for the first time and slide out a pristine piece of top notch audio gear. Oh yeah! Thats what I'm talking about. Ok enough, I need to chill out I still have to wait another 4 weeks. The best preamp ever is the one that on its way.
It can be an expensive hobby- no doubt. But the nice thing is- there is always room for improvement. Consider that some people put remarkable sums of money and time into dedicated listening rooms. What are the chances that another audiophile will come along when it is time to sell and buy your house at a premium because of the listening room?
As long as we all get something back out of it, then it is worth it. It's all about giving up something else to fuel our passions.
The best is when a friend or neighbor stops by and assumes it is a nice $1000 system. After-all, a really expensive stereo would have graphic displays and lots of knobs and lights. What's the point in trying to explain? They say wow, I didn't know records could sound so clear and I say digital is evil and then they leave and never come back.
The least that could (should) ? be done is allow for modular-type or similar upgrades, so you don't lose your a$$ so bad on your current unit.
Lougiants: I feel your pain but $12K is not as outrageous as some of the top of the line preamp offerings from BAT, Ayre, VTL, MBL, etc which are pushing $20K. A bigger concern for me is why are these companies still charging that amount and not providing an integrated phono section for that amount. A curious exemption IMO given the resurgence of interest in vinyl....
Hi Russellrcncom, yep, I agree with you on all points.
I guess my main point in this( looking back I misread a post...sorry guys) but in this economy, especially on wall street NY, NJ and LA where the high $$ incomes have gone down the tubes, the loss of jobs...then take a look at the $$ speakers reviewed in TAS last month, and the price of the components reviewed in the last Stereophile.

I just find it perplexing with all the dealerships that are struggling(I know one personnaly) where the demand for high $ components has dropped considerably.
But yet all I see is higher $$ components still being reviewed and mentioned...
Maybe it's just me on the list who can't afford a 12K pre-amp let alone a 20K+ BAT REX, or feel I am being scammed by the every 4 or 5 year changes...then to read how many or most ARC fans say the older stuff sounds better.

Sorry, guys...I'll drop out. Please continue on with the discussion of the Ref 5.

As a note, every ARC system I have heard I liked.
Lougiants - You are correct in what you say.........

However - If the REF 5 is a 'significant' improvement over the REF 3, the "nudge" in price from 10K to 12K will be justified, regardless of the economic climate. I doubt they would have priced the REF 5 the same as the REF 3 or only 1K more, for that matter. The 'price point' of the REF 5, given the current economy, must have been a concern for ARC and they may have decided to be conservative with the increase, hoping for more unit sales rather than bigger profit per unit.....I'm only just guessing, I'm not in the manufacturing business.
Apparently Mr. Johnson has been working on this new design since the REF 3 was introduced. Whether it was ready then or only until recently, only ARC knows.
As a point of reference, when the ARC SP-10 was first introduced in the early 80's, the MSRP was 5K, a lot of money then as comparatively 12K is a lot of money now.
Despite the economy, there are those who have not been affected as much or at all, to whom the hi-end market appeals. Some are buying the REF 3 used now. Some will wait and buy the REF 5 used in the near future..........
Patience can pay off.
>>> Are people still able to fork out 12K for a pre-amp??<<<

To be blunt, likely only a small percentage of people that shop and chat on audio forums about their internet purchases--me included.

However, I just got back from my niece's wedding in Newport Beach. We took a harbor cruise for rehearsal dinner and drove around the neighborhoods in and around PCH 1, Laguna Niguel etc. The sheer number of million $ homes, boats and properties was _overwhelming_, not to forget about Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Chapel Hill, the Hamptons etc etc.

There are a lot more ultra wealthy folks in his country than you might realize--who are still ultra wealthy. Old money still runs our society and will always be there. Obviously the % that purchase HE Audio gear remains small but they are out there and don't forget overseas where the HE markets dwarf that of the US.

ARC is a great company that makes great products. Hopefully we wont lose any long standing, respected companies like theirs or we'll all be the worse for it
taters, the REF 3 was released 5 years ago and there have been no MK1 or MK2 versions.
Not to be political or anything ... but the way the FED is counterfieting money, we had all better buy our REF-5s now, because this time next year the price will be over 15k.

Anyone want to by my REF-3? :o)
Have any of you seen, heard bla! bla! the Ref3 Limited Edition. I saw one at a dealers the other day, didn't even know one existed, appearance rise it has silver handles and clearly marked "Limited Edition" I was told parts etc. trickled down from the Ref5 to construct this.

I'm looking foward to hearing the Ref5 and comparing it to my Ref3, it would be nice to hear from anyone who already has one and what your take is on it compared to the Ref3.
I have about 60 hours on the new Ref 5, enough to know that the differences and improvement between the new model and the Ref 3 are striking; almost to the point that the two seem to have been from different ends of the same line...

Comparatively, looking back the Ref 3 has more of a classic tube design pre-amp sound. It imbues music with great body, texture, warmth and dimensionality in the midrange and has good if slightly overgenerous mid-bass, gently losing authority and articulation toward the lowermost octaves.

The Ref 3 treble had nice extension with emphasis on lower and mid treble contrasts. Sharply drawn upper octave information was present but pushed back and warmed up a bit. Finally, recreating realistic dynamic shifts, timing and that "you are there" sense of immediacy are realistic but not what I would term SOTA through the Ref 3.

Going to the Ref 5 was very much like marrying the best qualities of ultra-linear or solid state mono's to a tube based amp design. Pitch articulation in every frequency range was dramatically improved. Through the lower octaves it was as if new amps were at play with greater damping factor and control over the Maxx 3 woofers. This in turned opened up and better defined the lower midrange. Imaging became more specific and instruments more whole, more completely realized within the frame of the sound stage. The sound stage itself expanded and contracted on cue per recording and sounded as real to each different recording as I have experienced.

Overdubbed recordings and voices with added reverb were more obvious as were differences in recording techniques, mic's etc. The sound on all recordings is entirely more vivid and sharply drawn without sounding lean, forced or bright. That holographic three dimensional quality of the Ref 3 is still apparent and made even more believable by what must be a measurably, dramatically lower noise floor. Low-level, quietly drawn micro detail and the decay of sound in space raised the hair on the back of my neck, even on familiar recordings. The treble is far more extended with more tonal shades and varied timbral signatures becoming obvious upon contrast with the 3.

Having gone from the CD-7 to the CD-8 a few months back I was impressed at the definable improvements the new CD8 model brought. This Ref 5 difference is in another class from that. The Ref 5 improvements are more dramatic and all encompassing-- system wide. As stated earlier, I would have guessed from listening that the upgrade was to higher current, all around better performing mono-blocks instead of a pre-amp change.

At only 60 hours thus far, I expect things will get better. There are a lot of great all-time classic designed pre-amps out there of course. I haven't heard them all but I have heard enough to at least class this among the greats.
Samuel - It's nice that you have moved "up" from the REF 3 to the REF 5. Your review of the latter is all positives without any seeming drawbacks, unless I missed something. The former top of the line REF 3 now seems to be "from a different end of the line". Would that be the ARC line or different ends of a spectrum from tube to solid state? Is there any room for improvement in the REF 5? Enjoy.

I am sure there is "room for improvement", like anything. Nor am I saying it is the "end all" of pre-amps. I am sure there are those who might listen and prefer another pre in a host of different contexts and systems.

My comments were merely a comparative opinion as a Ref 3 owner. In that context no, I did not notice any downside to the Ref 5, it was better in all respects in the areas I mentioned and others. As well, the cosmetics are improved with the matching brushed "natural" anodized handles.

My "different ends of the line" comment was a means of qualifying the improvements between the two units as estimable. Overall there was noting "solid-state" like with the Ref 5 other than its tight pitch articulation, background silence and a perception of improved extension at frequency extremes. My apologies if that was not made clear.
Hello Samuel,

Which power cord did you decide to use with your new ARC REF 5? If you do not mind, please share with us how your aftermarket cord of choice compared with the stock ARC cord?

Also, did you decide to stay with ARC amplification?


Samuel, how do the new REF5 compare to the vaunted Ayre KXR?
It’s not a surprise that the owner of Shunyata (not disclosed here btw) is endorsing the Ref 5 with such lavish praise.

Afterall, ARC uses his cables for shows and demonstrations purposes. See his website for more info.

Must be a coincidence.
Unoear, I am not sure why that question is relevant but since you asked, the power cord used was the same for both the Ref 3 and Ref 5. No, I did not run any stock vs. after market power cord comparison.

Since you likely already know I am the marketing and sales director for Shunyata, the power cord question strikes me as disingenuous. I am currently using the terrific Berning Quadrature Z amps, which are also _listed_ in the system link below my name.

Wadav, I did not perform any comparison with the KXR but I am sure that is a great pre-amp from its reputation among friends who have tried it. If there were a comparison I am sure the two units are sufficiently different that it would make for an interesting article.

Any comments about pre-amp performance like most things, has a lot to do with the system it is used in and what it was directly compared to. Since my full system is listed and the context and comparisons were explained, I don't understand where the power cord and KXR questions come from. The short answer is, I did not run those comparisons.

I have listened carefully with enough top tier pre-amps to feel comfortable saying the Ref 5 belongs in an elite Reference class of pre-amps. However, I have not performed multiple direct comparisons so my opinion like any, is FWIW.
Thank you for your reply Sam, your review has me looking forward to hearing the REF5 myself.
You making such a weak connection is ridiculous. My affiliation with Shunyata is listed in my system link and every time I reference our products on-line. That ARC uses our products is of absolutely no consequence and represents no unique distinction.

There are over thirty manufactures, distributors and designers of electronics, racks and speaker systems that use and endorse our products, some of which you represent and sell. I do not own products from all of them, half or even a quarter.

I chose to use ARC for the same reasons I chose to use Berning amps (who have _no_ affiliation with us)--they sound amazing and are extremely well made. I have access to many products and have sampled and owned a great many. I make purchase decisions based on my trials. You trying to fit me with some kind of trench coat is laughable. Someone here asked after Ref 5 experiences. I took the time to write mine down as honestly as I could since no one had.

I am not the owner of Shunyata but I directly and _explicitly_ referenced my affiliation in the post above yours. Given all the enmity you carry around with you I'm not surprised you missed that entirely.

That said, my opinion is just that, one opinion. I have qualified it, explained it and added full context. Whether you take it as an honest appraisal is entirely up to you. I don't think anyone who knows me would ever accuse me of subversive promotion of any kind. This is one of those "dammed if you do or if you don't" instances. Precious.
Samuel "Well done"
Hello Samuel,

At the risk again of being disingenuous...sorry, for not being more specific in my previous post. Is your power cord of choice the Shunyata model Anaconda CX or the King Cobra CX? There is no reference to which power snake that you are using. BTW, the ARC Ref 210's are still listed on the system link below your name. The Berning amps are a great fit with your Wilson Maxx 3 speakers.

Thanks for the clarification, Unoear. I did not mention the power cord because I don't believe it is relevant to the results I obtained. Were I comparing both units with stock power cords I believe the comparative results would stand unchanged.

Also, I never discuss our products on this or any other forum unless I am correcting erroneous information or responding directly to unfounded criticism, which is rare. Otherwise, I prefer to share general audio opinion and information like anyone else here.

I find it amusing that someone could call themselves jujubee and be afforded endless latitude to submit reviews and wax poetic on what might be their uncle Elmer's DIY tone-arm, while anyone with a disclosed affiliation gets questioned and denigrated.

Please do not be disuaded from posting your experiences and opinions. Out of the 35 posts currently, yours was probably the only one that was helpful in addressing the OPs question.

People should always take any free opinion FWIW, but at least it gives them a reference point in trying to improve upon their own system. I have acquired gear which I would not be aware of without detailed assessments from other's personal experience.

What doe ARC know now that they did not know then to make the Ref 5 a marked improvement of the Ref 3? Is it improved capacitors and resistors or power supplies? A totally different circuit design that was not conceivable then? I would have thought that there best thinking would have gone into the product five years ago, what has changed? Is there really a new state-of-the-art in preamp design, or have the fundamentals been in place for a long time already in terms of circuit design and improvements will come when there are truly better passive parts available. I'm not sure what has changed in five years.
I concur with Rob. Thanks for the review, very helpful.

Samual, I think your posts have been very professional. Thanks.
Thanks, Sam. You have provided the first "meaty" assessment of the Ref 5, ignore the spoilsports.
Hi, Samuel ...

As long as you've compared the Ref 3 and the Ref 5 with the same power cords, who cares what cords you used? Same-o, Same-o, no?

Thanks for an excellent review. I was considering upgrading my CD-7 to the CD-8 before reading your review. Instead, I'm opting to upgrade the Ref-3 for the Ref-5 instead.

An audio buddy of mine tried the Ref 3 and did not like it (in his system). Two of my other friends had both upgraded from Ref 2 to Ref 3.

My friend shared with me his lengthy discussion with ARC regarding the use of the super tube (6H30). He currently uses a pair of BAT VK-75 monoblocks and had some discussion with Viktor at BAT who has been a champion and, I dare to say, an authority on the super tube (6H30). I think through the experience of switching Ref 2 and LS-25 from 6922 to the 6H30, and developing the Ref 3/PH7/LS-26, ARC has been gaining some experience and better understanding of the super tube (6H30) and how to best implement designs based on this tube.

I suspect that Ref 5 was a result of that experience gained. It's nice to see companies continue to push the advancement. But damn, I need to win the lotto just to keep up.

FrankC (still using his trusted GNSC modded LS-25 Mk I)
I've hard "negative" comments about 6H30, many folks thinking that is where ARC went wrong, right after your LS-25MKI. So I wonder if the "improved" implementation of 6H30 is starting to sound as good as the great 6922 preamps, but maybe with some other advantages (whatever they may be) of the 6H30. What you say makes some sense though, it proabably does take time evolve with a tube that was essentially new to the market.
Samuel, thanks for your time to share your review on the new Ref5.I have upgraded my CD7 to 8 and is thinking of going for the Ref5.
I'm sure the Ref5 is a killer preamp. But, the Ref3 was the first preamp that I've owned where I haven't felt that there was something missing or wished that there was a little more 'something'. I'm still as blown away by it as I was the day I first took it out of the box 3 years ago. So, I have no desire to even audition the Ref5. I'm happy with what I've got. I'm waiting for the Ref6 before I upgrade my preamp again.
Pictures exposed a 2 weeks ago (scroll down the link)?:
Thanx Samuel. I had the pleasure of discussing high end audio with you at the Stereophile show in nyc a number of years ago and found your insights to be valuable then. Your insights are no less valuable today. Keep on calling it as you hear it.
It's interesting to note that the implementation/architecture of the REF5 resulted in what has to be a much cheaper raw cost of labor and parts--versus the REF 1,2,3 designs. At one point I had a REF 1 and was very impressed with the layout and realized a significant cost of the ref linestages is attributed to the mechanical design. In looking at the REF 5:

Regarding the REF5 I don't see any obvious details that ARC has built mechanical dampening into the mounting of the main PCB. The older reference linestages utilized three smaller main boards in a vertical orientation, and each mounted on their own frame. Now why would one want to do that? Why mount the PCB's vertical rather than horizontal? Noise and vibration come to mind. Just how different the electrical design is vs the REF3 is something only the holders of the latest schematics can tell, but it's just interesting to see they have raised the price 2K, and reduced build cost, i'm guessing at least by 25% (profit margin anyone?).

I used to have a BAT VK5i, and I was absolutely floored by the mechanical design of that...I've had several ARC linestages, and all of them have very underdamped (read: very basic corners-of-the-board type of mounting) PCB's. On every ARC linestage if I tapped the main board I could hear buzzing and noise vibrations all over the place. The BAT PCB was mounted to a thick plate and resulted in a highly mechanically damped PCB--resonances were moved much higher in frequency. All of the ARC linestages sounded excellent in their respective ways, as did the BAT VK5i. In the realm of overkill audio, perhaps spending significant portions of the design budget to squeaking out the nth degree of vibration control does not pay off. Perhaps they figured this out at ARC. The REF 5 does look awesome, regardless. I love the simplicity of the layout.

Just a silly observation, nothing more. I'm not picking on ARC (I happen to love ARC sound) or stating BAT is superior.

Have a great week.
Dpac996 I have to agree with you on this one, it seems a little strange. I'm a happy REF3 owner and I have been looking foward to the new REF5 but after finally seeing it I have to say I'm kinda left scratching my head feeling the same way especially after getting to finally see the actual exterior which looks just like my Ref3 except for the handle color change and then looking at the interior humm!!!!!!

As per my post earlier I saw at the dealers a REF3 "Limited Edition" and the exterior looks identical to the REF5 appearance wise, don't know what it looks like inside but now I'm wondering.

No one did reply regarding my question about the REF3 "Limited Edition" any one care to shed some light.