Mark Levinson 32 or Audio Research Reference 3

My next upgrade will be a preamp and I want a Reference. After doing some research I have narrowed it down to these two. Can somebody who had both shed some light in how they compare in sound? I have Levinson gear at home so I am excited about the 32 however I can't ignore the possibility that I might be losing out if I don't go with the Audio Research Ref 3. Need help, Thanks

My System:
Mark Levinson 23.5
Mark Levinson 27.5
Proceed AVP2
Dynaudio Confidence 5
Dynaudio 1.3SE
Meridian 508.24
DH Lab Air Matrix Cable
Monster M1 Cable
Both , in terms of pride of ownership/ overal design i would go for ML 32
I have a ARC Ref 5 now and have had much experience with the ML 32/326. The difference is huge. The ML is neutral and relaxed, the Ref 5 will give you some tube warmth and bring you into the music more.

Do you want a tubed or SS preamp?

The analog section of the AVP is OK, and the value of either pre should easily allow you to try both for little outlay, so you will have to be the one to answer which is best for you.
I never had a Tube component in my house before. The AR REF3 is priced right and it seems to be a safe purchase. The Levinson 32 is a little harder to find and costs a little more. They are both Reference preamps, I don't know what to expect since I never heard either of them, that's why I could use some help from anyone who had a chance to compare them, both these preamps are highly desired. I can't afford to buy them together so I am hoping to hear from enough users about their experience with these preamps, this way I will be able to make my final decision, currently I am a little bias towards the Levinson 32.
The proceed AVP2 sounds great, I can only imagine when a real reference preamp would do to my sound, I want to get this purchase right and lay back.
I ve both heard them multiple times although not in my own set unfortunately.
The ml 32 in a high resolution system can produce a certain neutral pure livelike velvet sound i have not heard from competitors.
My favorite together with zanden , my nagra is also very neutral and is a very good analogue engine .

Indeed its a tube versus SS decision as mentioned before
I have the 23.5 powering my upper panels on my Martin Logan Monolith IIIP's and a ML3 powering my woofers and I use a Ref 3 as my pre-amp. I find the Ref 3 works wonderfully with my setup. I have not heard the ML 32, but knowing the Mark Levinson quality, it is probably on par with the Ref 3. Take both home and listen to make an informed evaluation and purchase. Most stores will allow you to take units home for evaluation if you give them a credit card. do not change anything else. Don't play with cables or other components. Do a directly comparison and hear the differences.

I owned the #32 and switched to the Ref 3 and never looked back. The Ref 3 sounds more real to me. The 32 did sound great in it's own way.
Hello Trance .. I owned the Levinson #320S and then went to the A.R.C. Ref 3 . The A.R.C.s sound was superior , but not it's built quality . It was less than 3 years old when I started to have issues with it . The A.R.C. just had more life , I have owned many Levinson pieces and the only negative I can think of is , they had a slightly dark sound . I am now using Ayre's KXR and cannot say enough about its sonic virtues . It seems to be a good match for my Levinson power amp .
I own a Levinson No. 32 preamp (includes phonostage cards). It is currently a back up unit (my primary unit is an Emotive Audio Epifania with remote control). I really like its flexibility and incredibly useful remotely controlled features. As far as the sound, frankly, there is something missing. Yes, it is a pleasant sounding unit and does not do serious damage to the sound (the same cannot be said of the pre-Reference 3 AR linestages which sound extremely bleached and unpleasant to me). However, the No. 32 is a touch too "polite" sounding to me and slightly less lively sounding than the better tube units.

I've only briefly heard the Ref. 3 and Ref. 5, so I don't know their full capability, but, I do know they are substantially better sounding, to me anyway, than prior AR gear.

If you can do without remote control, the Audionote (uk), Kondo, and Shindo stuff should be auditioned. These tend to be on the warmer side of neutral, but, don't suffer from being sluggish sounding as a result.

I only briefy heard the Veloce (battery powered tube linestage) at an audio show, but, what I heard was enough to make me at least think about it as a possible purchase (it is remotely controlled, a must for me).
I would be extremely reluctant to purchase an expensive used Madrigal product unless you have a solid preexisting relationship with them - there have been a lot of nightmare stories reported on this and other forums over the years about Harmon's service involving used Madrigal gear (it seems the problems started when the Madrigal facility in Connecticut was closed six or seven years ago).

That said, I tend to prefer top-shelf solid-state preamps over tubed ones because they layer space as well as the best tube pre's, but are quieter, the noise floor in amplification components being of paramount importance in the very high-resolution systems these pieces tend to be used in. While I understand that the Ref 3 is very quiet for a tubed unit, the 32 regenerates power and is dead quiet, something you will clearly hear and come to appreciate quickly.

I also run my non-tube amp components 24/7 and do not know whether the 6550 in the Ref 3's power supply would hold up in 24/7 use (very possibly, but I would need to know), and if it doesn't, whether it is absolutely safe at the time of failure, whether failure of that tube takes out a resistor requiring soldering, etc. I have no fear about the small signal tubes in that preamp, but output tubes are another matter and can arc and engage in other scary pyrotechnics when they die. Does anyone know what kind of voltage the 6550 sees in the Ref 3's power supply?

Finally, the vast majority of tube preamps (ones not using output transformers, which is 99% of them) have difficulty driving long interconnects to the power amp without causing bass rolloff, so if your power amp is more than, say, 3 meters away from your preamp, this could be an issue. Tube preamps also have much higher output impedances than solid-state preamps, causing mismatches with certain amplifiers that again result in bass rolloff. The ARC Ref 3 claims an output impedance of 600 Ohms, but as is usually the case, no frequency range is given with this spec - 600 Ohms is almost surely the nominal rating and it will be significantly higher at low frequencies. If the input impedance on your amp is above 50 kOhms, or if your amp is just a few meters from the preamp, then you're probably okay.

Here is one of many threads that addresses Harmon's service:
A slight correction to Raquel's characteristically knowledgeable post.

Long interconnects will cause upper treble rolloff, not bass rolloff, if driven by a preamp having high output impedance (at high frequencies). The higher the capacitance per unit length of the particular cable, and the longer the length of the cable, the greater that effect will be.

Interconnect cable parameters and length have no relation to bass rolloff, at least to the extent that cable effects are technically explainable and predictable. As indicated, bass rolloff will result if all three of the following conditions are present:

1)Power amp input impedance is low, e.g., significantly less than 50K.
2)Preamp output impedance is high.
3)Preamp output impedance rises significantly as frequency decreases and approaches 20Hz.

Those three conditions most commonly occur when a tube preamp having a coupling capacitor at its output (as most do) drives a solid state power amp.

-- Al
And I might add that there are tube preamps (with direct-coupled outputs no less) that can drive 100 feet of interconnect with ease.

So why is it down to just these two preamps? Is it a price thing?

As I mentioned above, I own a Ref. No. 32, though I don't think it delivers "ultimate" performance. It is, quite decent sounding, and my observation of its sonic merits come from listening to it in a system that does not have other Levinson components. As a general observation, manufacturers design their products to work well together, so a Reference No. 32 in a system with Levinson amplifiers will probably work better than the Levinson works in my system.

I have had the opportunity to try different combinations of gear. One of the things I've noticed is that the combination of a tube linestage with solid state amplifiers tends to be the most unpredictable of combinations. I know there are a lot of people who think that one can get the best of both worlds this way, but, often I find otherwise. It is just hard to predict the final outcome. Yes, I've heard such combinations work well (e.g., Veloce linestage into the incredibly expensive Soulution amps), I am just saying the result is unpredictable.

As Raquel mentioned above, there are also practical issues with mixing the two. I don't like to keep tube gear on all the time. On the other hand, I think solid state amps take forever to warm up and are best left on all the time. Unless you can effectively mute either the amp or linestage, you would have an issue with turn-on/turn-off noise if you were to turn off the linestage while keeping the amp fired up.
I would like to thank everyone for the input. I chose these two preamps because they have an excellent resale value and they are highly praised and desired. I read the reviews all over the internet and these two units received the highest remarks. They are also priced within my reach. It seems the ARC REF3 comes around frequently, I can always find one for sale, however the Levinson 32 is a harder find.
I stand corrected about the issue regarding tube preamps driving long interconnects.

To be more specific about potential impedance mismatches between preamps and power amps, the general rule of thumb is that the input impedance of the amp must be at least ten times the worst output impedance of the preamp. A problem is that tube preamp manufacturers don't usually tell the whole truth about preamp output impedances. If they simply provide a number without stating the frequency response at which that impedance was measured, assume the impedance is much higher in the low bass frequencies - a stated number of "400 ohms" probably refers to the impedance when measured at 1 kHz., while there's an excellent chance that it's 4,000 ohms in the deep bass. Taking, then, an output impedance figure of 4,000 ohms, the input impedance of your amp would have to be at least 40,000 ohms (i.e., at least ten times the worst output impedance of the preamp) in order to avoid matching issues. Tube amps typically have input impedances of 100,000 ohms, so they usually don't pose a problem. Solid-state amps, however, can be 600 ohms or lower (examples include vintage Rowland and many studio amps). If you are running a Goldmund preamp with a 10 or 20 ohm output impedance (or Rowland or darTZeel preamp with 50 ohm output impedance), you won't have to worry about mismatches. If you are running a tube preamp, however, you can face an issue, particularly if your amp is solid-state.

Ralph (Atmasphere) asks a good question - why is your choice limited to Audio Research and Levinson? Do you live outside of the U.S. or Asia, where other high-end brands are frequently not distributed? Both the Levinson and the Audio Research are fully differential balanced - do you want an ARC Ref 3 or Levinson 32 because your Levinson amps are balanced? Used balanced tube preamps available for approximately the same price as a Ref 3, and that have equal or better performance than the Ref 3, include the BAT 52 and the Atmasphere reference preamp (the Einstein comes to mind, too, but it will be more expensive and there are very few on the used market). Many people also prefer the earlier Audio Research reference preamps, as it is much easier to try different brands of tubes (the Ref 3 uses the 6H30 tube, for which there are only a couple of brands).

If you are willing to consider balanced solid-state preamps other than a Levinson 32, and with sound and build quality that is as good or better, I would consider the Rowland Coherence II (it uses a battery power supply, like the darTZeel and ASR) or the best Pass preamp from a few years ago. I have a Coherence II.

If you do not require a fully differential balanced preamp, then there are at least a dozen single-ended tube preamps available used that are as good or better than the Ref 3. As for single-ended solid-state preamps, there are very few truly great ones. If you can live without a remote control and if you don't mind dual volume controls, the Lamm L2 is superb (it uses a tube in the power supply, but the circuit is fully solid-state). Naim's reference preamp is also superb, but like the Einstein tube preamp, there are very few available used.

Trance: I just saw your last post. Be very careful of equipment reviews, as many are unreliable, including reviews in the well known magazines. Equipment reviewers do not perform controlled blind reviews in laboratories - their reviews are subjective and depend upon the other components in their systems, the type of listening room that they have, the quality of the A/C power supplying their systems, the type of music that they listen to, whether they judge equipment on the basis of vinyl or digital, whether they still have good hearing, etc. Also remember that audio reviewers often review equipment that has been "loaned" to them by the manufacturer or distributor on a "long-term basis", and review a lot of equipment of manufacturers that advertise in their magazines. I'm not saying that all reviews are bullshit, but in addition to reading reviews, you need to get to know people who work on high-end equipment for a living, get to know musicians who also happen to be audiophiles, get to know manufacturers, dealers and distributors, get to know audiophiles who have very carefully assembled systems installed in good rooms who listen to recordings of unamplified acoustic instruments, etc. Finally, be very careful of what you read on Audiogon - like the idiot who was talking about bass loss in the event of long interconnects driven by tube preamps, many, if not most, of the people posting here do not know what they are talking about - asking a question in an uncontrolled Internet forum is like screaming out a question in a mall parking lot.

Good luck.
Thanks Raquel, very informative, you just made it more complicated, I had 2 preamps to choose from now I have over 10 after reading your post, lol.
I use balance interconnects at home, I never experienced Tubes before, always had solid state, the usual Krell, Mark Levinson stuff. Don't mind going for a good Tube preamp, I would rather take a short cut and hear from users who had a few reference preamps to avoid the upgrade merry go round. I will look into some of those units you mentioned. Thanks
Can't say about Harmon in general , but Levinson's customer service is back to normal , very good the last year or so , you can call them direct with any and all problems or questions .
The ML 32 is an excellent pre-amp and has an excellent build quality. What I beleive is that it really comes down to is do you like the Levinson sound? For me, as much as I dreamed about owning levinson gear in the past, when it came to how good does it sound to me, it wasn't my top choice. To put it another way, there was no soul to the sound!

Why aren't you considering the REF 5 instead of the REF 3? It seems the REF 5 should be on par from a price standpoint to the ML 32nd and a big step up from the REF 3?
As an alternative to the 32 (which I've heard), I would suggest the 326s. The 326s shares the same build quality and overall transparency of the 32, but to my ear is more neutral top to bottom.

As always, it comes down to system matching as I've had the Ref5 in my system and much preferred what I heard coming from the 326s. The Ref5 sounded a tad warm and lacked the overall ease and bass control of the 326 when feeding my MC501's. And although the Ref5 did have a bit more presence through the mids, the 326s gives up nothing in terms of detail, dimensionality and overall coherence.

Regardless, the Ref5 is a worthy audition and without a doubt will be a better match on some systems. It all comes down to personal taste.

Happy Listening.