Has anyone heard the Ref 3?

Just curious if anyone has had the opportunity to copare Audio Research's new Ref 3 preamp with the older Ref 1 or Ref 2 or even LS 25 Mk II.
I brought my Ref 3 over to a friends house just one week ago and we did a comparison to his LS 25 MKll. He frequents this forum and I'm sure once he spots this question he will give his opinion about the two.
I have listened to the ARC Ref 3 and compared it to a VAC Renaissance Signature II. To make the story short. .. I am in lust with the Ref 3. You will find my rather detailed findings starting at:
I'd love for you to post your opinions about the ref 3 as well.
Yes, Agaffer was kind enough to bring his Ref 3 over for a comparison to my LS25 MK II. I was anxious to hear whether all the excitement about the Ref 3 was significant enough for the substantially higher cost. Also, I have not done a head on head preamp comparison before and was curious how noticeable the differences might be.

Here is my system: CD 3 MK II (running balanced), Teres 265 with PH5 (running single ended), the LS25 MK II, and VT 100 MK III into the Vandy 5As. Each piece is on a separate 20 amp star grounded circuit with power conditioning. The room is large with a cathedral ceiling (33 D, 18 W, 13.5 ave. H).

We started with the CD 3 and LS25 MK II listening to a variety of jazz and vocals. The imaging of the system is moderately forward, incredibly detailed with very precise imaging of each artist from left to right, and throws a soundstage which is very high, and frequently well outside of and behind the 5As. The sound is quite uniform and neutral, benefiting from the extremely high coherence of the 5As.

After some acclamation, we switched to the Ref 3, and repeated the same material. It was clear from the outset that the Ref 3 was distinctly different. It has a slightly deeper (but not wider) soundstage, and more noticeably, has much more refined and “rounded” instrumental and voice images. They seem to have more depth and realism, like being a cylinder instead of a plane. The overall presentation was more liquid and musical.

We then switched to the Teres and went through the same process. This time the effect was even more dramatic, and so obvious that I think I could have picked the Ref 3 every time in a blind test. I can’t explain why, however, it might have had something to do with the fact that the CD 3 was using XLR and the PH5 was using RCA. At any rate, my vinyl had never before sounded so incredibly real. We could easily hear instrumental artifacts that were much more articulated and distinct with the Ref 3. I found the overall presentation more natural, musical, and refined.

At this point we just began to enjoy the Ref 3 with a variety of vinyl such as “Genius Loves Company” with Ray Charles, “The Well” with Jennifer Warnes, and “Chester and Lester”, with Chet Atkins and Les Paul. Getting lost in the music was taking precedence over any further comparison.

Later that evening, I went back in alone to listen to the LS25, and confirmed it now seemed a bit disappointing, with a somewhat flatter, less engaging sound. A test like this is a dangerous thing to do, since I was quite happy with my current system and now can’t stop thinking about what is missing.

My conclusion is that the excitement over the Ref 3 is real and ARC has made a significant step in the right direction. Others have reported a similar improvement over the Ref 2s. So, now I need to start saving my pennies.
Zargon, I know what you are talking about when you speak of the Ref 3. I have been questing a replacement for my valiant ARC LS2B for the last 5 years: Spectral (do not remember which) seemed full of artifacts, ARC LS25 II was not involving enough, ARC Ref 2 Mk. 2 was a mixed bag, VTL 7.5 was too soft, Bat VK51 SE was too dark,Boulder 1012 I liked, VAC Ren Sig II I found shrill, Vac Ren II I found truly lovely instead. . . but when I heard the ARC Ref 3 I truly fell in love. One final audition in October on my own system this time, as well as on a friend's system to compare with his fabulous VAC Ren II. . . and it will be decision time.
Over the past week I've had the LS25mkII and Ref3 in my system, as I'm looking to upgrade my SP16L. Sources are a hard drive feeding an ARC DAC5 and a VPI Scout feeding an ARC PH3, and an ARC VS110 drives my Totem Hawks. I'm very happy with my system, but I'm looking for upgrades that make it sound "bigger".

Like Zargon, I found the Ref3 to be more detailed in nearly every respect. However, in the context of my system the LS25 had a far smoother and more balanced sound. It sounds to me like the rest of Zargon's system was up to the standards that the Ref3 sets. For me, I'm probably going to wait a while because I feel that the Ref3 can be ruthless.

Hmm, is ruthless the right word? Perhaps not, maybe unbalanced is better, but regardless I'd recommend thinking carefully about the context you place the Ref3 in otherwise you may find yourself in rapid upgrade mode to bring the rest of your system up to what this amazing preamp can do.
Gunther, the term 'ruthless' is probabably ruthlesly accurate when speaking about the Ref 3. The creature reveals so much information that shortcomings up and down the chain may become more apparent. By the way, was the Ref 3 fully broken in? If it were not, that may have accounted for some residual grit.
Yes, that sounds like a better description - ruthlessly accurate. The tubes had just over 400 hours on them, so I assume it's well into the break-in period.

I read in another thread here last night that there's an upgrade to the LS25 due soon (LS26) that takes a lot of cues from the Ref3 in terms of sonic quality.
Gunther, your info about an upcoming LS26 jives with what I heard. LS-26 is likely to be based on Ref 3. I haven't seen anything on the ARC external database, though.

Yes - I've heard both the Ref 2 and the Ref 3 in the system
of Audiogon member "oneobgyn":


I believe "OB" thinks the Ref 2 --> Ref 3 was a very worthwhile
upgrade. From his response of 8/20/05 to Guido:

"To sum up in a nut shell and to avoid flowery and prosaic
paragraghs, what I have noticed with the upgrade on the
Ref 3 is a better, tighter and more articulate bass and a
smoother more enjoyable high frequency. It is however the
change in the bottom end that was the most apparent
(switching to the 6550C output tube). Adding the four bypass
caps produced a more subtle change in the upper range.

As much as I liked the ARC Ref 2 Mk ll which I previously
owned the newer ARC Ref 3 eclipses it by a huge margin. I
knew that you would like it as well. Remember that these
changes are merely rolling line changes and if ordered now,
will come with the upgrades."

I believe "OB" is quite happy with the ARC Ref 3. You can
ask him for more details in the discussion area of his
system page. He is most helpful in all things audio.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
I would agree the Ref 3 is significant upgrade to the Ref 2. The Ref 3 is less colored, more transparent and gets out of the way of music more. Owners of the Ref 3 can get another improvement by replacing the stock Svetlana 6550c tube with a NOS Genalex KT88. The difference in terms of tonality, involvement, and imaging were substantial in my system.
KT88? Is this tube supposed to be a compatible replacement with 6550C? Did you experience hiss before or after the rolling in the KT88?
KT88s and 6550s are usually compatible in the same circuit. The hiss existed before and after changing tubes. This pre really sounds quite a bit better with the Genalex in my opinion.
I haven't heard the Ref 3 yet but had the LS2BMKII for years and now a tweaked LS5MKIII - I can say you'll not miss the LS2B once you step up!

Bob Wood
Looks like I'm getting a Ref 3.

Thank goodness for stock options. :o)
I own a Ref 3 and IMO it is simply the best preamp I have ever owned. Prior to that I owned a Ref 2 MK ll which I thought also to be excellent but when put up against the Ref 3 it sounded broken.

Those who pontificate about preamps rate the Ref3 as one of the top 3 in the market today--the other two being VTL 7.5 and the CJ ACT 2. Bear in mind that ARC recently did a rolling line change on the Ref 3 by adding 4 bypass caps and switching from the 6L6 tube back to a 6550C

Here is a look at the Ref 3 in my room


I ordered mine yesterday. Stay tuned...
>>Oneobgyn writes .....Those who pontificate about preamps rate the Ref3 as one of the top 3 in the market today--the other two being VTL 7.5 and the CJ ACT 2.

Obviously you haven't heard the Audio Note Kondo M-77, Supratek Grange, Lamm L2, and Aesthetix Callisto or you wouldn't have made such an uninformed post. I'd be more careful about posting absolutes; they are seldom correct.
Judy426: "Obviously" you like to put your foot in your mouth. The "uninformed" pot is definitely calling the kettle black. Before posting such ignorance, why don't you ask Oneobgyn about his experiences with the other preamps to which you make reference.
Actually I have heard them. I had the Lamm L2 in my system and even though I own Lamm L 2.1's and figured that there would be an obvious synergy the preamp was cold, dark and sterile. The Ref 3 eclipsed it by miles.

One of my closest friends owns the Callisto in an all Aesthetix system with dual power supplies and a Sirius 3 TT. It is excellent but he told me that he prefers my Ref 3 better.

I briefly heard the Kondo and felt it to be only just OK.

As far as posting absolutes, those comments came not from me but rather from an owner of an extremely high end manufacturer who has had opportunity to listen to every SOTA preamp out there.

I will reiterate, that until you hear the Ref 3, you haven't done your system justice. I must admit that I was dying to own the L2 and it couldn't come close to the Ref3 in my system. Bear in mind it is all about flavors. I prefer the sonic signature of the Ref3. I also owned a Ref 2 Mk ll as well and thoroughly enjoyed it as well.
I find it amusing that Judy426 is accusing someone of "posting absolutes". This is an individual that consistently has made sweeping derogatory statements about virtually all Audio Research products.

You have one hell of a good looking system

Like you I use the Walker SST and now the Extreme SST and amazed at the sonic change in my system. Sorry to be off topic.
Oneobgyn, your poor experience with the L2 was unfortunately my fault. One of the XLRs I brought over and had been using turned out to be faulty causing a significant compromise to the sound. When we listened to your Ref 3, Vahallas were used bypassing this problem. Consequently, I dont think your experience with the L2 was accurate.

A few weeks ago, I had a Ref 3 to compare in my system and to me, the L2 was superior. The Lamm was more natural and transparent with a lower noise floor. I felt like it was more pure while the Ref 3 had a slight agenda. The differences were not drastic, as expected with components at this level, but evident under critical listening.
Well Ethan we should try the demo again because I would still have to disagree. I am uncertain what you mean that the Ref 3 "has a slight agenda"
Hi Oneobgyn, I would be glad to bring over the L2 again. To fair, we should probably use the same cables on both pres this time. By "slight agenda," I meant I noticed some coloration that accounted for the difference.

I might ask you--how do you know it wasn't your L2 that was colored and the Ref 3 wasn't?
Well all this is subjective but one test I did was run my Lamm phono stage directly to my Lamm amp to hear what the L2 was doing to the sound. From what I can tell, the L2 was quite neutral.
we should have another a/b test then to give it a second chance.

You attributed the lack of performance that day to the type of cabling used?
One XLR was bad causing one channel to be muffled and muted. For a long time, I could not understand why my system imaged poorly. One day I played a mono record and noticed one channel was louder and clearer sounding. After a lengthy troubleshooting process, I discovered it was the bad cable. I dont know if you'll like the L2 more than the Ref 3 but I think you'll have a better impression of it.
Looking forward to it.
The Ref 3 came in yesterday. Got it unpacked, tubed, and hooked it up last night. At least to the Ref Phono.

Right out of the box, it blew the ARC LS 25 mk ii away. There is so much more acoustical information on all the instruments. And so much air around each. The timbral accuracy is uncanny. Can't wait to get it fully broken in.
You will find that much to your amazement the sound will muddy down for the next 100 hours or so. Typically ARC gear sounds terrific out of the box and then needs a break in.

I owned a Ref 2 Mk ll and now the Ref 3 and IMO the Ref 3 is the finest preamp that I have ever owned
Congradulations on your new Ref 3. I second Oneobgyn's statement, it is also the best preamp that I have owned.
Out of curiosity, did it come with the 6550 tube? I only ask because my experimenting with it seemed so much different then Oneobgyn's. I felt it degraded the sound, my dealer felt that it didn't change the sound, and Oneobgyn felt that it was a significant improvement. I am tempted to send the tube back in exchange for another, or at least have ARC test it and make sure it wasn't a bad tube.
Agaffer, does your ref 3 also sport the bypass caps upgrade? It is my understanding that the 'factory rolling update' includes both caps and power supply tube.

The initial tube they used was also very decent. The 6550C merely adds a bit better bottom end
In answer to your question, no. I first heard of the possibility of changing the caps and the one tube on this forum when Oneobgyn mentioned that he did it. Since changing the tube didn't require sending in the preamp or making any modifications I tried it first.
I still haven't come to a final conclusion on changing to the 6550C tube. The one I tried in my preamp made a difference, all for the bad. But, I listened to the REF 3 at my dealer that had been modified and when we changed tubes back and forth I couldn't hear the least bit of difference when changing tubes. I can't comment on what changing the caps did, if anything. I guess that I should take the 6550C tube that I tried over to my dealer and see if it has the same negative effect on his preamp that it did on mine.
Originally I thought Oneobgyn had to be out of his mind. Based on what I heard when I tried the 6550C tube. Now, I am leaning toward I tried inserting a bad tube.
The bypass caps make for a slightly better upper end. It is worth doing.
I can only make a guess, but perhaps the 6550 has a slightly higher gain than the original power supply tube. In both Ref 3's I listened to, all with original layout, one powering a Rowland 302, the second a Theta Dreadnaught, I had to raise the volume to 70 and 76 respectively to obtained the realistic sound level I am used to with my old LS2B with volume at approx 43%. Not a big deal though, because above 78 volume became too loud on the Ref 3 anyway.

It did come with the 6550 and the caps.

It is without question the best preamp I have ever heard. I have it hooked up to an ARC VT 200 driving Maggie 1.6's. I listen to phono at about 72, cd at 65.