Audio Research SP3A-1 or Conrad Johnson PV11

I am in the process of switching to a different preamp. I have been using the Quicksilver Full-Function preamp for some time now, and I am after a less digital-sounding preamp. I am interested in hearing opinions of the Audio Research SP3A-1 versus the Conrad Johnson PV11.

I have been able to borrow both of these preamps for short periods of time, and they seem to have their strengths from imaging, dynamic range, and sound stage. One thing that seems to entice me is the speakers seem to disappear with the SP3 preamp, but the highs and lows seem better with the PV11. Not sure others would agree with this assessment? The SP3 was recently updated with a new power supply (original design…it was the last SP3 power supply board ARC had) and Wima caps were used throughout the driver board. The PV11 is all original. It might be my imagination, but the SP3 seems to take 3-4 hours of playing to really “open up”. Again, I might be imagining this.

I sure would appreciate others opinions. I have one friend tell me that the PV11 seemed to lack dynamic range, while the other said it he liked the PV11 over the SP3 because of the soundstage and how it played jazz.

FYI; I can only buy one more preamp or my wife will kill me.


-Quicksilver Mini-mites, Telefunken 12AX7 driver and GE 6l6 Output tubes
-Dynaudio Contour 1.1 on Dynaudio Stand2’s
-M&K subwoofer
-Sony SACD player
Audioquest Jaguar Interconnects with Kimber Kable 4TC Speaker Cable
-I listen to everything from jazz, Dire Straits, to even Chet Atkins
I have owned both the SP3A, updated by Julius Futterman and the PV11, but not both at the same time.

My take is that both will need extensive upgrading at this time, and the more preferable unit may very well be the one that is upgraded to a greater, or more artful, extent.

Upgrading will, by nature, change the voicing of the preamp so parts selection will be very critical. I would put more emphasis on the upgrade than which unit I choose.

That said, I prefer the PV11 for its greater clarity and liquidity, YMMV.
I had an SP3A-1 back when they were still made, mid 70's and it was better
than just about anything else, save perhaps, for a well-tuned Marantz 7
(tube) preamp. It had a holographic quality, which was rare in preamps of
that era, most of which were solid state. By today's standards, I think it
would sound pretty 'old school' tubey, but I haven't heard one in years. I
never owned any C-J equipment- not that I have any dislike for it- it
seemed then, as now, there were strong adherents to one or the other- just
can't comment on the PV11.
I do agree that any preamp the age of an SP-3 is going to need some
attention. I got rid of mine for an SP-10mkii, which, at the time had a terribly
sweet phono section. Even that preamp, by today's standards, would
probably be euphonic and noisy.
Having something from that period would be cool though. I still have the
amp that matched my SP-3. For some reason, I never got rid of it, even
though I hardly ever turn it on.
From the op comments buy the one which:'made my speakers disappear"
The other may have audiophile 'bling' but the ARC has the goods which will keep you happy.
"I have been using the Quicksilver Full Function preamp for some time now and I am after a less digital sounding preamp."

So, you think a tube preamp is digital sounding? Now I've heard everything.
Perhaps my choice of terms was not accurate. I should have said I am interested in a preamp that has a more 'old-school' tube sound? The warmth that is often associated with audio equipment designed by the electronics experts coming out of the military after WWII? There is a marked difference in the sound from the SP3, PV11, and the Quicksilver, and I am just curious of others opinions on the units.
Thanks Bob
When SP3A first came out, it was considered to be less tubby than old-school tube and was described as "refreshing" at that time. If you like old-school tube sound, you might want to consider a vintage McIntosh C22 instead.
Bobby, I have owned an Audio Research SP-3A-1. I can say it is a little sweeter than the later preamps and if you are trying to decide between the SP-3 and early CJ I would recommend the SP-3. Although my opinion is biased because I have never been a fan of the early CJ sound. I have also owned the Quicksilver Full Function preamp and you can dramatically alter the sound with different tubes especially the 12AU7 and rectifier depending on which version you have. If you have the 5AR4 version I can loan you a vintage Mullard to experiment with. When I owned the SP-3A-1 I used it with an Audio Research D-75A. I am not sure how it would mate with other amps. The Quicksilver will work well with any amp due to its extremely low output impedance of only 12.5 ohms.
I was wondering if switching tubes would have a dramatic effect on the sound of the Quicksilver preamp. With the Minimite amps, the choice of tubes makes a huge difference, but I never touched the preamp. I am unsure which version of the Quicksilver preamp I own (will check tomorrow when I get home), but it is an older version with the black face plate. I am curious how the sound would change.
The SP3 seemed to match well with my little amps, but I have also heard it with the ARC D-75 amp. As expected, there was a huge difference!

Thanks for everyone's comments. I appreciate all the suggestions thus far. Rather enjoyable reading comments by people with far more knowledge and experience than I will ever possess.
Rrog, you and I had the same electronics, for me this was circa 1975. I used the SP 3-a-1 and Dual 75a with a pair of Quad ESLs. What about you?
Bob, you may be interested to know that prior to producing his own preamp, Mike Saunders, the QS designer, used the SP3A with his QS monos at home.'
From my experience the QS pre has a very direct sound, the SP3 more old school, but top/bottom end and detail can be improved significantly with updating the signal caps to something better than the Wima. I would suggest MIT multicaps which are quick and coherent sounding, they excel on timing.
Bobbyk04, The earlier version has two 6x4 rectifiers and the later version has one 5AR4 rectifier. If you have the 5AR4 rectifier I can loan you a Mullard. If you have the 6x4 rectifiers you will have to look for GE 6X4s. I tried them all and the GEs are by far the best to my ears which was also confirmed by Mike Sanders.
Whart, I used the SP-3A-1 and D-75A with Maggies. That was a popular combination back then. I would bet they sounded good with the Quads too.

Preamp capacitor mods = Less music and lower resale value.
ARC SP-3C (power supply upgrade) hands down....
I have heard both and preferred the ARC.



After reading your OP again, I change my opinion. I think the CJ will give you a more lush, old school sound.