While the LS26 is an excellent preamp, the REF 3 is indeed a step or two up the ARC food chain.
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Another possibility that's at roughly the same price point as the Ref 3 is the LS 27. Some have written that the LS 27 sounds as good as the Ref 5 (sans SE). I owned both the Ref 3 and Ref 5. Frankly, I thought the Ref 5 was NOT in another league as compared to the Ref 3. I later upgraded my Ref 5 to the SE version. I think it is an improvement.
Either way, Ref 3 or LS 27, it's a win-win.