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.
Oregonpapa, you obviously have a great system. I am just wondering if your cartridge is really up to par with the gear you are using. I figure between your amp, pre-amp and phone pre-amp you are into it retail price of 29k. But then you are using a 500.00 cartridge. I would think with the kind of gear you are using you would of at least have a 2k cartridge. They always say an audio system is only as good as it's weakest link.
04-04-15: Wolf_garcia
Incidentally, the (to me anyway) stupid high prices of some gear is not so you can "get one whenever you want," (a patently lame reason, but sort of funny) but simply to supply company owners/shareholders with as much profit as possible which is simply the way the business world works.
Incidentally, prices are not stupidity high if there's enough demand to support a business.

It's only stupidity high if one cannot afford it or more than market will bear and push a company to ch11 (to me anyway).
I'm sorry but one should take any "review" from any 76 year old with a friendly grain of salt. Unless the reviewer publishes hearing tests to accompany the review. I don't mean to sound harsh in any way, ... but it is what it is, and there's no getting around it.
Taters, price of gear has IMHO NOTHING to do with ability. The higher the price, one thing is probable, the higher the profit. Nothing to do with the higher SQ. This supposed dictum...price rates to quality and SQ, is NOT an absolute in our hobby, although I know that most a'philes like to think so. ( ok, my flame suit is on).
Abrew19, since when is age any predicator as to one's ability to a) determine the accuracy of sound reproduction compared to the perception of the "real' and b) determine what one likes in their reproduced sound. IMHO, Oregonpapa has just as much ability ( if not more) to "review" a piece of gear as the next guy...and maybe more, since his experience level will most likely be a lot greater!
Taters ...

Thanks for your comments re: cartridges. I admit, the OC-9 MKIII isn't the end all in cartridges, but I like what it does, especially on mono records. I've had more expensive cartridges ... the Clavis comes to mine. Yes, it gave me more detail ... but did it give me a more accurate musical presentation? I love the Audio Technica sound. The next upgrade I make will be to the AT ART-9. Based upon what others have said about it on these boards, its like an OC-9-III on steroids. Same musicality, but a lot more refined.

Abrew19 ...

I can appreciate your take on my hearing. There is no doubt that someone my age has lost some high frequencies, but all of the other accoutrements that you enjoy about high-end audio are still intact. I've had more experience than most when it comes to hearing live music .. and a lot of it close up. I readily recognize the proper tonality of a soprano saxophone or the shimmer of a brushed cymbal for example. There is no problem recognizing front to back depth, or side to side sound staging. I know "live" from reproduced very well ... and that's how I judge any audio system, mine or the other guy's. Here's the true test of any audio system: When you listen to a jazz group on a good system, do you think to yourself: "Damn, this SYSTEM sound great, or do you think ... Damn, THOSE GUYS sound great? Again, I can tell that difference, and to me, that's the important thing. Its all about the music.

Daveyf ...

I agree with you on the price of equipment. I've heard systems costing 100-200k that seem to get a lot right ... like the soundstage all the way to the back corners, all the depth you can imagine, and transparency to die for ... but after 20 minutes or so of listening, you want to be doing something else. Why? Because it isn't making music. Its boring. On the other hand, I have a little bedroom system that's driven by a Sherwood 7100 receiver built back in the 70s that makes music ... and it has a great headphone amp built in too. I can listen to that cheap piece of crap for hours while doing my computer work. The thing makes music. The price? Twenty bucks at the local thrift store. *lol*