Buy an Audio Research SP10 MkII or an SP11 MkII ?


I love that big image, valvey pre-amp sound but I don't know which pre-amp to choose ... an SP10 or SP11..... Quandry ! What do you think ... or should I be looking for something else .... help.

I have ...
Audio Research D115 MkII *2
Kinergetics SW800
CAL Tempest MkII
Oxford Crystal Reference Turntable with Airtangent and Koestsu Rosewood Signature

Have fun
The SP10 Mark II is one of the truly great vintage preamps. While it might not hold up compared to the very best available today it is wonderful. The SP11 is not in the same league. I would buy it in a heartbeat if I were you. Good luck.

For the sound you're describing, Wendell is correct, the SP-10 is what you want--it has a very good phono stage too. The 11 is a hybrid design, and sounds more neutral but definitely more like solid state than tubes. If you want to spend more, a Jadis JP80MC, particularly an earlier model, would also fill the bill (I assume you want a phono stage along with the line stage in your preamp).
My still-good friend and I were in the high-end-audio business in the early- to mid-'80s, and he knew LOTS more than I about these things. Here's what he said:

"If he’s looking for a preamp with a vacuum-tube signature, then the SP-10 is his best bet. That said, the actual sound quality’s very much tube-dependent and as I recall, they require replacement at fairly short intervals. (As an aside, the low-level tubes came from ARC with rubber damping rings installed, an idea that the SP-10’s designer, Jack whatever-his-name-is, “borrowed” from me after a long discussion we had about various methods to address the microphonic qualities of tubes when he called TJA late one afternoon to buy some capacitors because ARC’s usual supplier had run out…)."

Based on all comments so far, the SP-10 is definitely your best choice. Also, you may be in serious pursuit of NOS or premium current-production tubes if you buy one. Looking here , the -10's fono section has SEVENTY-TWO dB of gain, plenty enough for that Rosewood Signature.
I agree on the Jadis JP80MC. Without a doubt the finest tube preamp I have ever heard but a whole lot more money than the SP10. I would love to own one but it is more than I can afford.

The SP11 was too cool, clinical if you will, for me. I've been using my SP10II for over 20 years and nothing else has tempted me. Tubes are an issue, you need quiet and rugged tubes.
I have owned both and have kept my SP10. it will never leave me as I have not found anything that comes close for my personal taste. When I first received my SP11 many years ago, I fell in love with it. But after a while, there was something about it. I would like to say it was solid state like but I want to avoid that argument. To me, it didnt seem as "real". I ended up selling it and guess what. I didnt even miss it. When I first received my SP10, it had Sovtek tubes in it. I then put in Siemens E188CC and it blew me away. I have owned many tube pieces, some are less sensitive to tube choice. But I always call the SP10 a tube microscope. Changes in tubes make a big difference. If you find the right combination for your tastes, this unit will shine. I love my SP10 and unless financial circumstances dictate otherwise, it will never leave me. I managed to stockpile 2 complete sets of siemens tubes for future use. I have owned an incredible amount of systems and have finally identified pieces that I wont sell unless I have too. With these units, I have pretty much stopped chasing the audio upgrade because I have found units that allow me to focus more on listening than chasing audio perfection. This doesnt mean I have others I dont want to sell :)) I guess you will find many different opinions and there are some reportly good offerings out there from Manley, BAT and others. But I figure I wont do much better spending $2500 on an SP10 compared to $7000 on a Manley. If its worth it to you and you have the bucks, go for it. I wouldnt object to owning a Manley Steelhead. If nothing else but for the support and postings I see from EveAnna backing their products. That is also important to me. But its not in my budget range and these days, i would rather spend the money on picking up music or comfortable chair for listening or more tubes for my beloved SP10. Good luck in your search.
Another vote for the SP-10 if you are dead set on this or the SP-11. I owned the SP-10 for 8 years and loved it, even with its rolled-off frequency extremes, rather high noise floor, and yes, constant replacement of the phono-stage tubes. But oh man, the midrange bloom and dynamic contrasts to die for at the time. The ultra-low noise RAM 6DJ8 tubes worked beautifully in the 80s.

When ARC returned to all-tubed preamps in the early-mid 90s, the LS5, one listen to this with the companion solid-state PH2 and my SP-10 was for sale.

If you want what the SP-10 offers, I suggest you use the same $2500-3000 or so and listen to an LS5 II or III and keep your eyes out for the matching PH2 on the used market. This combination has ALL (yes, all) the strengths of the SP-10 but has refinements across the board. The SP-10 really is only good for phono playback as its line stage is mediocre at best. I realized how true this was when the LS5 destroyed the SP-10 for line level sources. So if CD playback is also a big part of your listening session, I would consider other options.

Concerning the SP-10's claimed gain of 72db, I would be skeptical of this claim relative to newer products. What good is the gain if there is so much more noise in the background. The LS5 II has 30db and the PH2 48db for a total of 78db and this combination had far more gain and S/N than the SP-10 when I made the change. The SP-10 just barely worked with cartridges at 1mv so I stayed with such models: Sumiko Virtuoso and Shinon Red in the 80s and early 90s. The Benz Glider of today would be a comparable output cartridge.

When I upgraded to the Koetsu Rosewood Signature 2 years ago, the LS5/PH2 combination was not enough to handle this so I changed to the BAT VK-P10 and then Aesthetix Io phono stages which have upwards of 70db each! But I ran each of these at 54 db - the extra 6db over the PH2 was what I needed. There is no way the 0.6 mv Koetsu will work well with the SP-10 unless you have found miracle tubes and the unit has gone through a major upgrade of parts.

I have to disagree with Jafox on the gain. I am currently using the SP10 with a Spectral MCR at around 0.2 mv. Also used it with other cartridges in that range. While I will agree it will be better with higer output cartridges, I have gobs of gain at 12 oclock volume setting. The real issue is if your amp is not enough power for your speaker sensitivity, then there will be an issue.
On the line stage, yes I think there are better. I personally do not use my SP10 for line stage. But the reason is not sonics. Its tubes. I dont want to "waste" the tubes in my SP10 for non-phono listening. I use a Cary SLP98 for my CD stuff. The 98 has a decent phono stage but not up to the caliber of the 10. Also, one other note. If you plan to make CD from your records, you cant use a low output cartridge on your table with the SP10. That low output is all your gonna get at the tape record terminals. You need high output if you are going to record your vinyl. I make CD /digital of my records for use in my Ipod (great for travel) and for my car.
Holy cow, I never could have had success with a 0.2mv cartridge with my SP-10. Mine was an unmodified MK II, and like I mentioned above, used RAM tubes. Perhaps the Sovteks or other available tubes of today are quieter which allows for higher gain. But still, the SP-10 was simply too noisy for me after I switched to the LS5/PH2. And, I kept the low noise RAM tubes when I sold the SP-10 and used them in the LS5 which worked mighty well. But again, they were not used in a highly critical phono stage. So it could indeed come down to quieter tubes of today.

Yes, the SP-10 was an outstanding product, but much has happened in the 20 years since then and to spend $2500-3000 here, unless you are a collector, just makes little sense.

One thing to note is that while the LS5 is a great product-I still like it better than virtually every line stage ARC has made because it has the tube-like qualities they seemed to move away from in the SP 11, SP 15 and LS 2 hybrid designs-and an excellent alternative (with a good phono stage) to the SP-10, it is a balanced only output design, as I recall (Jafox, am I correct in my recollection?) so you'll need a balanced setup, something I couldn't do in my system. There are adapters available from companies like BAT and I'd imagine ARC, but they will to some extent degrade the sound. Of course, you could always replace the amp with the VT150s that ARC came out with around the same time as the LS5, but I didn't get the impression that the original poster wanted to do much changing to the rest of the system.
So if I look at a LS5, should it be Mark I, II or III and what should I use for a Phono stage, Audion Research ???
oh ... and one more thing ... does the LS5 do the same holographic sound stage thing as the SP10 ?
Within six months of purchasing the SP-11 I had purchased a Vendetta SCP-2 phono amp which ate the SP-11s phono stage in terms of musicality and noise.......I would go for the SP-10 which is very musical and quiet enough for medium output moving coils......
Rcprince: Yes, with the LS5 being truly balanced XLR ins/outs only, this does have the potential to change things for someone whose system is all RCA connections. At the beginning, I used adaptors for my single-ended CD player and tuner. The '-' phase input is simply grounded so only the '+' is used and this worked mighty fine. Just about any amp these days has balanced inputs. And whatever you do, stay away from those BL1,2,3 conversion boxes. The extra stages and interconnects do far more harm than the benefit of converting single-end/balanced.

Growlar: The Mk I had 2 types of tubes for the 10 total. This was at the time when a shortage of 6922 was thought to become a reality. The II switched to 10 6922's when these tubes, Sovteks, were suddenly plentiful from the former USSR. There was a claimed reduction in noise. Both of these models had a switchable 30db/12db gain. But I always ran my II at 30db as the 12db setting had a reduction in 3-dimensionality.

The MK III took the audio circuit from the Ref 1 and amazingly retained all of the II's sonics. How they did this was beyond me, but it was far more neutral on the top. The I/II had a little excessive sibilance in the upper freqs that can be a bit annoying once you hear the III seconds later. But the II has a little more bass weight and authority. The III's strength of more natural tonal balance and its higher resolution, especially in the mids, won me over after owning the II for 7 years. The III typically was factory set as 12db, but a change of 8 resistors takes it up to 18db. I changed mine to 18db and this worked much better for phono sources. And ARC claimed the noise level to be a little lower with the 18db.

As for the holographics of the SP-10, oh man yes, the LS5 in any version has this in spades. Without it, I would have abandoned ARC as none of their other products had this. The LS2/15/22 all failed miserably in this area. If you're a fanatic of harmonic richness, 3-dimensionality, long decay of notes, for the money, the LS5 is unbeatable.

As for a phono stage, it's pretty tough to find one that has the same magnitude of strength in terms of bloom and decay unless you start to get serious at expense. I have an Aesthetix Io and this with Telefunken tubes brings on a level of decay and 3-dimensionality that simply was far ahead of the solid state ARC PH2 and tube BAT VK-P10 phono stages I had before.

I wish there were a way for you to hear the SP-10 vs the LS5 for line sources so you could hear for yourself how dated the SP-10 is here. For me the LS5/PH2 really did it all that the SP-10 did. I was not wanting for more bloom with this pair following my 8 years with the SP-10. But something like the LS5/Io or even more so, my current BAT 31SE/Io destroys the LS5/PH2 in the magic. But now we are way beyond your budget.

I have heard that people use the SP-10 for its phono stage only, using the tape out lines to drive a line stage. That could be an ultimate option for you by starting out with the SP-10. But still, you have to keep the line stage tubes in the SP-10 to keep its power supply stable.

Ultimately, if you want that tube phono magic, and in the line stage as well, it's going to cost you no matter what. Just try and listen to these products, next to each other in the same system so you can hear for yourself their strengths/weaknesses.

One final thing to remember, just because a unit has tubes does not guarantee anything that you will get the tube magic warmth, bloom, decay, etc. You have to listen to hear it for yourself.

Sorry for rambling so darn much.

Ramble on John:
You're absolutely correct, I owned an LS-5 for about a year and a half.
I shipped it off to ARC for an update, never got there.
When I called the shipper about it, they told me it was stolen during transit and my insurance was "insufficient" so I lost big time.
Sorry to side track, my current pre is a Counterpoint SA-5000A w/NOS tubes.
Growlar, FWIW, and as sort of a counter point to John's comments on the differences between the SP10II and the LS5, if you are really anal about hearing the last enth of detail and extension his advise is worthwhile. But if you want to listen to music which is well served by audio the SP10 is an excellent way to do it. Regarding the units phono stage noise floor I would agree that this unit is not the best for a very low out put cartridge, a medium one such as the medium out put Benz Glider is just fine. By the time I get noise on my phono stage with the Glider I'm way beyond overdriving my system and my room. Regarding the noise floor of the line stage, much depends on the efficiency of your speakers and input sensitivity of your amp. With efficient speakers (+90db) and high input sensitivity (.5v) the line stage noise will be noticible in a quiet room. IMHO, the only real downside of the SP10 is that its not easy to experiment with tube rolling - it is demanding of rugged, low noise tubes in the phono stage especially, less so in the line stage. Finally, if you like the sound of that D115, you'll find the SP10 and excellent match. I had one for a number of years.
All hail to audiogon ... it is so brilliant to find like minded people on this planet. I used to use a Micromega CD with Pink Triangle De Capo DAC because this is the only way I could tolerate CD as I found it exhausting to listen to over a period of time (even though I enjoyed the convenience and the loss of the black disk foibles). The CAL Tempest II gives me a sound that is more dimensional and without hardness (but looses some of the analytical detail that I know others crave). The reason for my pursuit of the SP10 and now perhaps LS5/phono is that the analogue side always shocks with it naturalness and huge 3 dimessional soundstage. I love it when the boundaries of the room disappear and I am surrounded by sound coming from both the near and far distance. This makes my sensibilities feel that they are listening to music rather than a HiFi. Oh mi Oh mi calm down G !!! I am having great trouble tracking down an SP10 Mk II ... so if anyone knows of one PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE SHOUT. From the hugely informative discussion so far (again many thanks) I feel I would love to experience the procees of evolving to LS5/phono rather than jumping straight there as sometimes the journey is as much fun as getting to the destination ...
Growlar: I like your idea of the evolution process. You will indeed enjoy the heck out of the SP-10. And then some day if you have the itch, persue that next level of refinements. But I guarantee you that so many newer products that you will audition will not make you dance and smile like the SP-10 causes you to do. Half the fun is discovering such a special product. So just go for it!
I've owned both the SP10 & SP11 with a D115. Overall, my preferance is the SP10 even though I ended up getting rid of it. As others have said, the line section of the SP10 is not up to par with the phono section. This is not really the line section per say but rather that to use the line stage, you have to switch off the by-pass which engages all of the front panel clap trap. The reason I got rid of mine in the end was I got tired of feeding it tubes. If I ever win the lottery, I will buy another of these and have it rebuilt by Great Northern Sound. It is a classic.
I owned an SP-10 and SP-11 too.I was not experienced enough at the time to really determine superiority of either unit.I did ultimately get an SP-15(I can hear the "HOOTS" from the tube crowd already).What I can say,with confidence,is that after sending this unit to Great Northern Sound,for a complete rebuild(their ref update),I have to laugh at some of the prices asked for todays top contenders.I now have a supremely quiet,and neutral linestage,coupled to an unbelieveably high quality phono section.Tube rolling(3 tubes in phono section)does not cost an arm and a leg,and does make a big difference.I now have a very high quality Avalon based system,and find the pre/phono to have NO signature,tube or solid state.That is the way I want it.I have a friend who had the exact upgrade done and is also ecstatic with the results.He is an experienced tube lover(as I have become),but both of us realise that a truly neutral sound that can be nudged one way or another(for vinyl)by only three tubes is a pleasure to listen to.Good luck.
I'm confused ... what does Tube Rolling mean ? I've got that Homer Simpson far away look on my face.
put the tubes on the floor and roll... which tube goes further wins : )

What sirspeedy means is swapping different brand and model of tubes (like tires on your car) and you'll get different performance. Some do better in (wet, ice, dry pavement, sand..) clarity, body, extension, and presence.
It takes a lot of lab test ( trial and error ) to get the best performace you want for your taste of music.
It took me over 50 different 6DJ8/6922/7308 (except CCa because they're too expensive) tube families to get the way I like on the SP-11 MK II. I'm not big fan of SP-10 because it sounded a little slow and thick for my taste.
I'm the guy Jeffrey Behr referred to above and while it's been almost 20 years since I last heard an SP-10 (and 14 years since I heard the SP-11 Mk II I stashed in boxes back in 1991), having read this thread, I'll offer one more suggestion: If your amp is sensitive enough and your phono cartridge has enough output and you don't load it down too far, you just may be able to get away with using only the phono stage of the SP-11.

I was able to do this with HP's reference system back when I worked at TAS as well as my own system (just remember to invert phase at the speakers to make it an equal comparison) and if my memory serves me correctly, the stripped-down, "hot rod" version of the SP-11 was clearly preferred to the SP-10 that sat alongside it by pretty much everyone who heard the comparison.

YMMV, of course, but if you find a good deal on an SP-11 -- and come to think of it, mine might well be for sale -- it's an alternative you may wish to consider.
Have run my D115 MkIIs with both the SP10 MkII and Sp11 (with a Siemens tube upgrade on the phono side and telefunken on the line). The tube upgrade on the 11 was a noticable improvement. The line stage of the 11 is much better than the 10 IMHO. The phono side of the 11 was also more detailed; I noticed this difference between the 11 and 10 right away.

But if you play LPs, the 10 is the pre for you. Yes, the tubes are expensive (I've gone the amperex route with my 10, but have not noticed nearly the improvement that the siemens upgrade brought to the 11), but the difference in the music between the 10 and 11 was immediately heard. The 10 just sounds better, to me -- way better. I still have the 11 and use it for CDs upstairs, but in my listening room (filled with LPs) is the 10.

BTW you may have already made your decision, if you have, how did you go?