GNSC mods of ARC gear.

Happy Holidays to all!

I've seen that many are very happy with their Great Northern Sound Company modded Wadia and Resolution Audio digital gear. I know that Steve Huntley also modifies Audio Research equipment, but I cannot find any threads in the archives from anyone who has had this done. So I'm looking for any one with experience, particularly with ARC preamps, like the Ref 1.
If you own, or have any experience with Steve's modified ARC preamps, I'd like to hear you thoughts.

Are they a worthwhile investment? What mod did you have done? What improvements did you notice?

How do they stack up with the current top preamps like the ARC Ref 3, BAT VK-51SE, or Aesthetix Callisto? Would you recommend upgrading through GNSC or just move on to a more current preamp?

John, I have run across some comments here about GNSC/ARC mods (very favorable BTW) so keep looking.

Otherwise, Steve is such a cool guy, if you just write him and ask for some customer references, I'm sure he could put you in touch with someone(s) who have had him mod similar equipment to yours.
Customer references are on Steve's site under testimonials.
Read them you will find a couple of ARC comments there.
Also have you tried Audio Asylum? might be some there.
The best way is to give Steve a call you have a better chance that way of getting a hold off him,I know he has been very busy.
I have an LS-25 Mk I with GNSC's reference level mod. It came with a quad of Siemens 6922s recommended by Steve. I had compared it to a friend's Ref 2 Mk II in his system. The Ref 2 Mk II still had more air and detail, but it was not night and day. Later, I replaced the Siemens with a quad of Amperex 7308 white labels. THAT made a huge improvement! Those tubes brought out the missing air and detail out of the modded LS-25. It can compete head to head with the Ref 2 Mk II, if not better it. But then, the cost of buying a used LS-25 and getting it modded will cost roughly about the same as a used Ref 2 Mk II.

John, there are lots of positive things said about GNSC.
There are few things to consider when you do mods. One of them and it's major, is that a resale value is very low. You would most likely not be able to recover 1/2 of the money spent. That is of course if you don't like the unit and want to sell it. I've gone through some upgrades and ended up loosing a nice amount of $ when I sold these, so from now on, basically my personal approach is to get another preamp instead of upgrading. But that's just me.....
I would also like to chime in that Steve is a class guy and if you decide to go the modification route, I don't think there is a better company to make the right kind of ARC mods. Steve is also pretty transparent with these kinds of discussions and may be able to give you some advice that wouldn't normally come up in the AudioGon discussions. Good luck!
Thank you all for the replies. I know Steve, as we have talked before, and I've owned some of his work (bought second hand, yes I'm aware of the low return on investment). He is one of the classiest modification services out there, IMHO. I'm going to put this thread on the back burner though, because the Ref 1 I was going to buy and ship to Steve has been sold. I still may find another piece of used ARC gear in the future, and still persue this, I was just curious as to if anyone had compared say a GNSC Reference modded Ref 1 to a current Ref 3 and what their thoughts were.

I've been talking with my dealer, who carries BAT, ARC, VAC and Aesthetix, and he is trying to work a good deal with me on a new unit. The question is which one. It looks like I'm in the Aesthetix Calypso, ARC LS-26, BAT VK-32SE ballpark new. These are listed in order of ascending price. I left the VAC out due to previous experience and the fact that is not fully balanced.

Thanks again for the replies, and happy holidays!

I,and a friend had our gear upgraded by GNSC.Fabulous,"carefully done" work.Highly recommended.
The LS26 is a big improvement over past preamps form the ARC line. Read the review on the Ref 3 in Absolute Sound and you will know how the LS 26 sounds. The 26 sounds very close to the Ref 3, just a tad bit smaller. The 26 is about 85-90% of the Ref 3 in proformance. Totally different in sound as past preamps. IMO this is te best bang for buck in their line.
Thanks Brouch. I'm glad you are enjoying your LS-26. Did you get a chance to hear it next to a Aesthetix Calypso? I know you couldn't have compared it to the BAT VK-32SE, since it is not released yet. What amp(s) are you using with the LS-26?
My dealer was tempting me with a free in home audition of a ARC Ref 3, but I was afraid to take it home.....I might love it. He didn't have a LS-26 on hand. He uses the Ref 3 as his personal demo unit. He has sold some LS-26's, but he has never heard one himself.

If you can't pull the trigger on a new (or used Ref 30 go for the LS26 as it is a terrific pre for the price.

IMO however the Ref 3 is in a league of its own and no modded Ref 1 will even come close to it let alone an LS 26
Well, actually, on paper the LS-26 appears closer to the LS-17 than it does to the Ref 3. The LS-17 and LS-26 both use (2) 6H30's in a hybrid FET/tube audio circuit and both have a solid state power supply.

The Ref 3 uses (4) 6H30's in a all tube audio circuit, and uses a 6H30 and 6550 tubes in the power supply.

FWIW, the Aesthetx Calypso is an all tube audio circuit with a solid state power supply. The BAT VK-32SE is a all tube audio circuit with tubes in the power supply as well.

I'm still contemplating the ARC Ref 3, even though it's out of my price range. Yes, if pushed I could afford the Ref 3. However, my main concern is the ripple effect. That buying a Ref 3 would make me want to upgrade sources, amps, cables, speakers, etc, which I cannot afford.

I'm still debating on the trial though. I mean how can I turn down a free in home demo of what many claim is the best preamp in the world? I'm just afraid of the possible chain reaction it could set off.

At this point though I have to admit that I'm leaning towards a BAT VK-32SE over a ARC LS-26.
"At this point though I have to admit that I'm leaning towards a BAT VK-32SE over a ARC LS-26."

Well I don't want to say that I told you so however, if you can get an in house demo of the Ref 3 then " I will tell you that I told you so"
I would be very skeptical on the claims that the LS26 is 90+% the performance of the Ref3. If the Ref3's P.S. is tube regulated, this could be a major performance benefit.

The Aesthetix Callisto has a tube regulated P.S. I suspect this has more to do with its significant performance improvement over the Calypso rather than other differences of their respective designs. I have heard both directly in my system and another system, a number of times, and the Calypso is not at all 90% of the Callisto. The Callisto portrays space, decays and harmonic textures that the Calypso does not even approach. These are the sonic attributes that I suspect the Ref3 runs away from the LS26.

One thing to also not get trapped in is that the latest model is their "best" model ever, whatever that means. I owned the ARC SP-10 for 8 years in the 80s, and the SP-11 and SP-15 that followed it, and claimed to be "better", were not at all to my ears. It took the LS5/PH2 to displace the SP-10 after hearing so many ARC designs come between these and result in what I considered rather boring sonic results. The Ref1 followed but I never understood the praise here. In many shootouts, I stayed with the LS5. The LS25 II (6H30 based) had more life on the top but did not sway me enough; it was a tad too artificial. The BAT 31SE was the clear winner here but it had a bit of a soft top end.

Once I heard the Callisto Sig, I knew I had a product here that was miles ahead of all I had ever heard since the case with the SP-10 nearly 20 years before. Some products go far beyond "just the next upgrade", and in fact redefine our reference point. The Callisto Sig did this. And from all the praise on the Ref3, it sounds like this might do the same. But with the inconsistent "improvements" along the way with ARC preamps, I would need to hear the Ref3 for myself instead of having any faith just because it is the current top product in their line.

IMO however the Ref 3 is in a league of its own and no modded Ref 1 will even come close to it let alone an LS 26

I would not be so quick with a statement myself. If I knew then (when I owned the LS5) what I know now about tubes, capacitors, power cords, etc., I have no doubt I could take the LS5 to levels unimaginable. To replace those horrible Sovteks 6922 with a combination of Tele 6DJ8/6922 or Amperex 7308 variations, replace the caps with Sonic Cap Platinums or V-Cap teflons, put an IEC and run with a Purist Dominus or Stealth M5000 or Dream PC, the LS5 would be so very impressive.

If nothing else, I would suggest that you talk to Steve at GNSC about his input on how mod'd ARC preamps stack up to other stock models. He took my Aesthetix Io to a new level of clarity, dynamics and frequency-extreme coverage. I have considered having similar work done on the Callisto. But for now the sound is so impressive. With ARC as his area of specialization, he would have a ton of knowledge on the pros/cons of what you might be considering.

In the meantime, I would try to audition the Ref3 vs. the LS26 at the dealer for an hour or so to hear for yourself the relative differences here. And then go ahead with the opportunity to hear one or both in your own system. Perhaps your dealer might even bring them both to your home during off-business hours. I too will soon audition a Ref3 and compare it to the Aesthetix Callisto Sig, and then report back on my findings.
Thanks John for a very informative post. I wish I could demo all of these options, unfortunately I can only demo what my dealer offers. He is a small dealer, but has treated me very fairly, so I deal with him almost exclusively. He does not stock these items, for the most part everything is ordered. I usually wait a couple of weeks after I order something. He does have a few, limited items in his one demo system.
That's why although he carries the ARC line, and has sold a few LS-26's, he has never heard one himself. Obviously this means I cannot demo a LS-26. He does have a ARC Ref 3 in his reference system, and has offered me the opportunity to listen to it in my system for a week or so.
He also has a BAT VK-32SE on order, though it hasn't shipped yet. He has also offered me a in home demo on this model. However, I have no opportunity for an in home demo of the LS-26 or anything in the Aesthetix line.

As for the GNSC mods, these are still a possibility, and I have heard that the LS-5 series is one of the best ARC has ever released. I do believe that the LS-5 does not have a balance control though, does it? This could be a deal breaker for me, as I mentioned in another thread, I find a balance control and polarity inversion to be almost mandatory bells and whistles for preamps I'm considering. If the LS-5 does have a balance control, feel free to set me straight.
It seems that no one has experience with both a GNSC upgraded ARC preamp and the ARC Ref 3. So this will continue to be a one sided debate, some reco'ing the GNSC mod and some reco'ing the current ARC offerings. I can't say this is unexpected, I knew it was a stretch to find someone with experience in both directions, but I thought it was worth a crack.

Anyway, thanks again for your excellent post. I wish I could demo a Aesthetix Callisto and/or Calypso, but we can't have it all.

Well I don't want to say that I told you so however, if you can get an in house demo of the Ref 3 then " I will tell you that I told you so"

While I appreciate the reply, I would be a lot more willing to try the Ref 3 if I knew it wasn't going to make me then crave $30K amps like your Lamm's. If the Ref 3 is the end of the upgrade path, I'd be more willing to try it. I get a bad feeling that it would only make me want to upgrade other items, digital sources, analog sources, amps, speakers.
So if the Ref 3 were to be the crowning jewel that let me live happily ever after, I'd be more than happy to try it. However, if it takes my system to levels that the rest of my gear can't match, and is prone to starting upgrade fever, then I'd be better off never having heard it. This is the conundrum.

BTW, I know that you have experienced some very nice gear over the years. Have you had the BAT VK-51SE and/or the Aesthetix Callisto in your system? If so, how did they compare?

The new BAT series 32/52 are supposed to be a radical departure from previous designs, just as the Ref 3 was. In fact, just like previous ARC Ref's cannot be upgraded to a Ref 3, BAT cannot upgrade the 31/51 to 32/52 status. It looks as if all of these companies are ending the upgrade paths now.
A close friend of mine has all Aesthetix front end gear including the Callisto which is a fine piece of equipment. I have not auditioned it in my system however he has auditioned the ref 3 in his and likes it very much, so much so that he has modified it so that all of the caps are the same as those in the Ref 3
John, The LS5 indeed does not have a balance control. So it sounds like this would not work out for you. I was not much of an imaging fanatic when I had the LS5 but perhaps today I might be more particular to get the image correctly positioned. I can adjust this now by slightly tweaking the bias pots on the SoundLab A1 speakers. The Callisto's dual volume control would allow for such an adjustment too....but more of a pain than the one time adjustment on the speakers.

The LS25 Mk I is also 6922-based and does have a balance control. I suspect mods to this as I described above could easily compete with the LS26. With the 6H30 tube, what you hear is what you get. With the vast choices of tubes for the LS25 MK I, you can adjust for dynamics, tonality, dimensionality, etc., with any number of tube types. It is quite amazing to hear the differences, and can be very rewarding when a tube locks in with the system.

As my system has become more refined with cable changes and other system upgrades, there has been no need to have to chase down a new preamp to re-obtain "synergy" with the updated system. I have been guilty in the past to choose cables to balance out the tonality of the system. This can be very expensive and time consuming. Chances are very good now that as I finish the progression to re-cable my system (in the name of higher resolution), I can achieve the needed sonic change with a simple swap of 1-2 pairs of tubes, to retain the tonality I had before. And I can do this on the CAT amps too. No more need to find another amp compatible with the speakers because it no longer has "synergy" with the system.

It's amazing the time and money we spend to redo our entire system because we have only upgraded one component. With the Aesthetix/CAT/SoundLab setup, I have no desire to play such a game any more. But I do wish I could reduce the number of preamp chassis.

As the next generation of super resistors and capacitors come along, with all the room under the hood of the Aesthetix pieces, I can so easily replace parts to take these to the next level if such parts replacements indeed do this. Talking with Steve at GNSC is a good place to start to determine if it makes sense for the component under consideration for upgrade.

You might try to locate other people in your area to determine what preamps they are using. This would give you greater exposure to many models that you otherwise would not likely hear from the local dealers. And hearing them in your own system is THE only way to come down to a final decision.
Oneobgyn and Jafox, thanks again for your comments. I haven't ruled out the Ref 3, and I'm sure it is incredible, I haven't heard a bad word about it, but I really doubt that I will strecth that far financially. I could say 'it's only money', but I have to draw a line somewhere. As for the LS-26, I'm of the opinion that this is a considerable step down from the Ref 3, since it's design is very different.

John, about the 6922's, I'm not completely sold on them either. I do have about a dozen NOS Amperex and Mullard's, and the 6922 provides more mid-bass warmth and liquidity, but the 6H30 designs provide more dynamics and power, and replacement tubes are much less expensive. If I did have a LS-25 mk I, Ref 1, or Ref 2 mk I, I would be using 6,8, or 10 6922's. That could get very pricey to re-tube with NOS tubes once my stash runs out. Figure around $200/pair for NOS tubes, that could run $1K or more just to re-tube. Re-tubing with 6H30's is less expensive. Plus, as much as I like Steve, I don't like being the first one to pay for a mod, as it really is a terrible investment should you ever sell the unit. I know, read my feedback, I can't deny who I am, and I change equipment more than I should. :)

I've been on both sides, being the original mod invester, and buying a modded unit second hand. I'd prefer to buy second hand a 25 cents on the dollar.

As of right now, I have my dealer's BAT VK-3iXSE due in on Wednesday. I'm not really considering buying it, but I had sold my integrated amp, and did not have a preamp to use. My dealer was/is still willing to loan me a BAT VK-32SE when one comes in, but at this time all he had on hand for loaners were the aformentioned BAT VK-3iXSE and the ARC Ref 3. I was really tempted, and still may regret it one day, but I picked the BAT for two reasons. First, my dealer is still hopeful that I will demo and buy the new VK-32SE, so he was willing to loan me the VK-3iXSE for an extended period, probably until the VK-32SE gets in. He was willing to loan the ARC Ref 3, but mentioned that it would be a limited audition, probably around a week. So if I borrowed the Ref 3, in a week I could be without a preamp again, until the VK-32SE came in. Of course I could buy the Ref 3, and I think he was hoping I might do that, I'm just having a real hard time choking on that price.

I know, it's very confusing, and I know, I shouldn't have sold my integrated before I picked my new preamp, but here I am now.
I'm not committed to the VK-32SE, but the design certainly does seem to have more potential to me than the ARC LS-26. The 32SE has a full tube audio stage and tubes in the power supply, similar to the Ref 3. The LS-26 has a solid state power supply and a hybrid audio stage.

If the VK-32SE doesn't impress me, maybe I'll try the Aesthetix Calypso next (sorry, no room for more than one chassis). If that also dissapoints, I might just bite the bullet and go for the Ref 3.

That's the game plan as of tonight. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

John, your logic on the cost implications of the 6922 preamps is possibly flawed. Firstly, I only use Amperex A Frames in the first two preamp positions and less costly tubes in the later positions. The Sovteks are horrible! The improvement in the Ref2 is not subtle. Secondly, I listen to my system about 650 hours a year. That says my preamp tubes probably need replacement every three or four years. If you put the $5000 price differential between the Ref3 and Ref2 in a bank at 4% interest, You'd get $600 plus in compound interest in three years. Besides the 6922 option gives a way to customize the performance of your preamp.
Go with the Ref 3 and find out what the real deal is.

You raise a valid point, I could keep costs down by not filling the entire preamp with NOS tubes. I agree that Sovtek's are bad, which is one of the reasons I think some folks never really warmed to the sound of the 6H30 tube. As there are no Mullard/Telefunken/Siemen/Amperex/etc 6H30's. It's basically a russian tube, period.

FWIW, there is no price difference between the Ref 2 and the Ref 3, in theory. In the real world, the price difference would be about $3K, not $5K, but still a considerable investment. There are also other things to weigh though, like service/warranty issues. A Ref 2 would be used and older, thereby more likely to require service (cap replacement, etc) and have no warranty. The Ref 3 would be new, with all new parts and a 3 year warranty.

Another possible cost is the threads title, a GNSC mod. I'm curious as to if you've heard and/or considered having Steve mod your Ref 2. A Ref 2 w/ GNSC Reference mods would be in the same ballpark pricewise with a Ref 3. I'm curious as to whether anyone who has heard both of these units feels which sounds better. I've already established that those with GNSC mods think they sound terrific, and those with the Ref 3 think they sound terrific. The mod path could provide greater sonic gain, but is riskier. Have you considered it Jeff? If not, why not? Are you perfectly happy with your Ref 2 mk I?

Thanks for your input,

LOL. Oneobgyn, it's like I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on my other, both telling me to do different things. I not sure though, which one are you?

Buy the best/Spend wisely/Buy the best/Spend wisely.

Decisions, decisions.......and no, both choices do not lead to the Ref 3. That's the 'buy the best' option.

John :)
Well I suggest you audition the Ref 3 and then let me know
I have three components modded by G.N.S.C.. A Ref 1, Wadia 861se and and ARC VT-200. All were statement upgrades and I cannot recommend Steves work more highly. My belief is that due to Steves reputation, work done by Great Northern Sound will hold value perhaps more so than with other modders. Just my opinion. With that being said with Great Northerns work on on a Ref 1, you'll get more and better of what the unit does. This IS a very good pre-amp albeit a little noisey but, that is in direct comparison to a REF 3 which I also own. The Ref 3 is quiet as any solid state unit I've owned and certainly more quiet than the Pass XO.2 I traded to get the Ref 3. No, the two don't sound alike and the Ref 3 is everything the reviews say it is. Everything just sounds right with the 3. I heard it the first time I demoed it and it was love at first listen. Even a modded Ref 1 doesn't have the balance & ease of a 3, I think Steve would concede that point but boy he can make a Ref 1 sing. I can't imagine selling mine even though I have the 3. It's like having two incredible but different sports cars. Both are fun to drive but both have their own unique traits. I can't speak to the ugraditis issue cause' I've got the bug too but, the with a Ref 3 you'll love what the rest of your system can do and it won't be held back by the Ref 3.

Happy new year
I have a modded gsnc ARC sp14. I purchased it because there was not anything I liked new.
After Steve modified it I really am not looking for anything else right now.
Of course if I dropped $10k on a line stage I would expect it to have the latest and the greatest.

Thanks for the reply, that's the first comparison of a GNSC ARC product with a current design, and it sure seems as if you prefer the current design.
I was unaware that GNSC performed Statement mods on ARC gear. It isn't listed on the website. According to the GNSC website they offer Standard and Reference mods on the ARC products, and the Statement mods are only for Wadia gear.

Just as an update, I received the BAT VK-3iXSE today from my dealer. I didn't buy it, it's just a loaner. I'm still hunting, and I guess the ARC 3 is still not ruled out, though I would like to try a BAT VK-32SE first. My initial impressions of the VK-3iXSE are it is a decent little preamp. Warm, punchy, musical and throws a large soundstage. However, I would prefer a preamp that is a bit more revealing, and the bass, though prodigious, is a bit loose for my tastes. The unit is brand new, so I'm sure burn in is required.

At times I regret choosing to demo the little BAT over the Monster ARC, but not at this moment. As both of my kids college tuition bills came in this week. So if I had loved the Ref 3, I would have had to let 'er go anyway.

C'mon year end bonus.....

Happy New Year to All!!!


You're correct. Steve did a couple of extra things, in other words, he threw everything he could at the Ref 1 which I refer to as Statement. Sorry for taking liberties.
Just an update for everyone who replied to this thread. Thanks for your input, I have finally received my final preamp (don't laugh). After trying several others, I've chosen the ARC Ref 3. After 100 hours burn in, all I can say is WOW! Sound is incredible, and who would have ever thought that a tube preamp could operate this quietly?
FWIW, I have found the Stealth Dream to be an amazing power cord when combined with the Ref 3.

Anyway, thanks again for your help.

Are the Kids still attending school? Did you try the Callisto with the remote option(Albert Porter sez it's the Best-in-the-world)?
John,just as I told you....

There was never a doubt in my mind that you would go with the Ref 3

Just my opinion but I feel it to be the best preamp in the market today
As I said.."just my opinion"

I have a very good friend who has a Callisto and changed the caps in it to those that are in the Ref 3 because he felt the Ref 3 was a better preamp
Good choice! The friend with Ref 2 Mk II that I compared my modded LS-25 to just upgraded to the Ref 3. I think that was a right move.

John, can you be more specific about the power cords you are using with the Ref 3? Who makes the Stealth Dream pcs?
04-25-07: Tabl10s
Are the Kids still attending school?

Well, some sacrifices had to be made, so I did pull the one boy out of college. :)

Yes, Oneobgyn, your were right, thanks. :)

FWIW, I did hear the Calypso, and it probably is a better value, at less than half the price of the Ref 3. I also heard the BAT VK-32SE. However the Ref 3 is a better preamp, quieter and more revealing than either. No I didn't hear the Callisto Signature w/ remote option, that cost even more than the Ref 3. I can hardly justify a $10K preamp, I can't imagine spending more $$$. I've heard some say the $25K Shindo is the best, but the Ref 3 satisfies me, I have no intention of going any higher.

Tbooe, right out of the box, it sounded very good, but after reading all of the hype, I was somewhat dissapointed.
I actually think changing the power cords had more to do with it than burn in hours. I went with the stock cord for a week. Then I changed to a RSAD Alethias! Signature, not much of a difference. I then tried a PAD Dominus Rev. C w/ Fluid, some increase in spatial cues, a nice improvement. A week later I switched to a Virtual Dynamics Revelation, big difference. Much improved dynamics, now it's really starting to sound impressive. A week later, I changed to a Stealth Dream, case closed. Pure magic now. I have a friend who swears by his PAD Anniversary cord on his Ref 3, I may try one of them one day if possible, but I'm very happy with the Stealth Dream at this time. FWIW, he wants to try the Dream too, so maybe we'll just switch someday, that would be interesting.

Stealth Audio Cables are a cable company based in Maryland , lead designer is Serguei Timachev. Their most famous cable is probably the very expensive Stealth Indra interconnect. You may find some more info by searching the archives for either the Dream or the Indra.

What cord are you using?


BTW, I have heard that some Ref 3 owners are rolling the 6550 tube in the power supply with great success. Anyone here tried that? Possibly some NOS Tung-Sol's?