I actually borrowed the Ref Phono 2 from my local dealer this weekend (this is the second time I have auditioned it in home) and spent almost two full days listening. I also brought home the Ref 5 PreAmp to see how the two AR pieces sounded in my rig at home.
I still like the Ref Phono 2 more overall than the internal phono in my Hovland HP-100. However, I did notice one item this time that I missed on the first go round. If I had one complaint on the sound of the Phono 2, I would say that it is a little 'loose' in the lower region. I didn't really notice it too much until I pulled-out my copy of Nirvana's 'Never Mind'. To me, in my rig and room, the drum whacks and lower guitar bass tended to be just a little less than fully taunt. I think that the Hovland's Phono is a little tighter down there although it is not a 'big' sounding as the Ref nor does it project as much total energy (or what I call 'grunt')... I have a good feeling that this effect is very dependent upon the speaker(s) used and the room setup. (I used Magnepan 3.6's with SS amplification and 1988 KHorns with VTL tube monoblocks). Perhaps a minor quibble overall, but again we are talking about AR's Ref product and it is not exactly inexpensive at $12k. Would it keep me from making a purchase; not 100% sure on that yet but I will take a closer look now at some of the other leading 'reference' phonos...
As to the Ref 5 Preamp, I was less impressed with it's performance overall in my rig. I actually preferred the Ref 2 Phono/Hovland combo more than the complete AR set used together. In my rig, using both AR pieces gave me a little too much of the AR 'house' sound I believe. I'm not knocking the Ref 5 it's a very fine piece, it just doesn't provide the right overall balance for me in my rig.
Ah, the trial and tribulations of finding the RIGHT phono; it's not that easy to do... :)