Ref-75-SE delivered ...

It arrived late yesterday via UPS. I had company over last night so I didn't hook it up 'till this morning. I had it playing by 7:30.

I sold the REF-75 early last month and was using my spare, which is a great sounding ARC- Classic 60. Man, if someone is looking for a musical amp at a reasonable price, the CL-60 would be a good way to go. It kind of has that vintage tube sound. Listening to music through it, is kind of like watching a good Technicolor movie. Hey, who doesn't like watching the original version of The Wizard of Oz? Its not right, but its beautiful. I mean, when you walk outside, Technicolor doesn't hit you in the face ... reality does.

Which brings me to the REF-75 and the REF-75 SE.

I bought my original REF-75 over two years ago, brand new, with KT120 tubes. What struck me about that amp was the lack of grain, the soundstage and the tonality. It played big and it played beautifully. That's what I thought until I swapped out the KT120's for a new quad of KT150's. Now that brought the amp up to a new level. Audio nirvana, I thought. Hummph, silly me.

Enter the REF-75 SE.

Fist thing, I let it cook for about a half hour in order to get the amp to stablize so I could check the bias. Good thing too because both sides needed biasing. The right channel was all way over to the "Caution" level.

Upon initial listening, I was really taken by how quiet this amp is ... I mean QUIET!! Not digital quiet, that kind of quiet just sounds totally artificial to me. What I mean is ... its a natural quietness unlike any tube amp I've ever heard.

For the first two hours, it was better than the REF-75 it replaced by maybe 20% or so. At the two hour mark, things really started to open up. Here's what my notes say:

Decay of notes.
Leading edge of notes.
Weight in the lower registers of the piano.
Sustained notes - has me hanging on a thread.

So how does this play out when listening to music?

Like most of us, I have a little section of records (among thousands) that I use for reference purposes. They are the ones I listen to first when evaluating new equipment. I know every nuance of these records. Listened to them hundreds of time.

First up - Sue Raney on the Discovery label. The SE allowed me to hear the volume of air, and the force and reduction of force that was coming out of Sue Reney's chest and up through her throat. On the third cut, there is a triangle that the percussionist delicately hits. With all previous amps, I thought there was just one triangle. Turns out, there are three. For the first time, I could hear the slight difference in the notes. That was hidden before.

Second up- Sammy Davis Jr. Sings. Laurindo Almedia Plays. Reprise RS-6236.
Again, like the Sue Raney album, the air coming out of Sammy's chest and across his vocal chords and all of the subtlety of that was in his total control. Then, I realized that all of the really great singers do this and that's why they have the great instruments they do.
The guitar work being done here by Almedia is superb. Not my favorite guitarist, but on this album his playing grabs you by the emotions. BUT, through this amp ... a different world. The leading edge of the notes and the subtle decay of those notes make this album extra special now.

Keep in mind that we are only two hours in on this new amp at this point. The sound stage is still constricted and the 3-D imaging is on a par with the Classic 60, and not as good as the old REF-3.

Over the course of the day, I continued listening for a couple of hours each time. The more time that passed, the better the amp got.

Next Album .. about 4 hours in: The Norman Luboff Choir .. "But Beautiful" Columbia CS-8114. This is a demo quality record that has a tremendously wide sound stage. Its fun. The chorus is spread behind the speakers and goes from wall to wall. And now, I'm getting a 3-D image like never before. The articulation in each chorus member's voice has never sounded better ... not even close. There is a female soloist named Betty Mulliner who has her place behind and just to the left of the right speaker. With all other amps I've had, she has sounded diffused. The original REF-75 brought her out of the mist ... but not like the new SE. Now, she is in total focus and its like I can see her head move and hear her lips smack. I can get a true sense of her personality. Same thing on every vocal record I played today. Get this album if you like beautiful classic pop music from the 40's and 50's

Next: John Williams Paganni:Guitar trio - Hayden: Guitar Quartet. Columbia MS 7163. Again, this is a sound stage spectacular. I love this album, not just because I'm a classical guitar freak, but because its a great test of equipment when looking for correct tonality. Like the once vague female soloist in the last album, there is a cello in the right rear of the sound stage that keeps getting more refined as my system improves. With the REF-75SE .. gone is the vagueness. All of it. That cello is now in the room, tonally correct, and very moving. And John Williams? For the first time, I heard the strings of his guitar vibrate. The decay of the notes seemed to last forever. How may accolades can I pile onto Mr. Perfection on the classical guitar? Buy this album, you won't regret it.

Finally a mono record to die for: Dave Brubeck's Jazz Impressions of The USA." This record never came out in stereo. Near as I can tell reading the liner notes, it was recorded sometime in '55 or early '56. This is Paul Desmond at his very best. Not as hard boppin' as the Oberlan College album ... but man 'O man ... the second cut "Summer Song" has Paul Desmond right there in the room. Its never sounded better than today.

So, that kind of gives you guys a hint of what was going on at my place today. The amp burned in for 12 hours, and toward the end the sound stage has filled out nicely, dynamics are startling, musicians were in 3-D relief, and most importantly to me, the instruments all sounded tonally correct.

My source tells me that at this point, the amp is only scratching the surface. He says ... wait until 200 hours has gone by before seriously writing any review of the new amp. I couldn't wait ... its that good. Bottom line for all ARC REF amp owners ... even at this early stage, I can honestly say... the SE kills the old amp. Go for the upgrade.
David 12, makes a good point. The baby boomers are at retirement age and most are not going to make big purchases anymore. The generation after the baby boomers have no Interest in high-end. They didn't grow up with it. I have no Idea what these high-end companies are going to do. They definitely have a serious problem. I could see them going on for about 10 more years the way they are doing business now. If they want to survive they are going to have to change. If not throw in the towel.
Whilst I would agree that the price point for upgrading the REF75 within CUSA is almost compelling, for owners of an REF150 and in particular REF250's perhaps the exponential cost of upgrading may require a little more consideration.

It also remains to be seen whether the SE upgrade pricing structure elsewhere in the world will be reflective of market currency rates, as for instance, should it prove to be £5000 / EUR 5000 and £9000 / EUR 9000 respectively, then even more of a serious consideration for some.

There is also a point with regard to the 1 year warranty as mentioned in the recent announcement, which as per par for the ARC Crazy Golf course is not exactly definative in the detail as to whether this purely covers the specific element parts of the ES upgrade alone, or an additional 1 year warranty on the amplifier as a whole ?

For the time being, I think that I shall remain on the fence with this one.
Of course the goal is to know what was in those glasses, and whose lips were sipping from them. That's transportation.
Timrhu ...


Would you believe that I actually smelled Paul Desmond's tobacco breath?

I didn't think so.