As a long time McIntosh guy I recently decided to add a tube pre-amp to my combo HT/2ch system. I wanted "unity gain" and considered the C2300 and if budget permitted the C500. I was told by a number of Mcintosh owners, dealers, etc., that the C2200 far exceeded the performance of the C2300. But the C2200 doesn't have unity gain. So I looked at BAT & VTL briefly and long story short I bought the LS26. My dealer and I discussed the benefits of the LS17 to the Ref3. He basically told me if the difference from where I was, with all solid state using a McIntosh MX135 as Pre-Pro for both HT and 2Ch, was measured in inches. The differences would be LS17 2", LS26 8" and Ref3 10" with 10" as max difference in that scenerio. So it was easy. 6K vs. 10K
and the C500 would be 12K. So I saved at least 4K and can tell you if you do search on LS26 that you will find where I had some issues with the LS26. First one was DOA second one (replacement) had a Mute relay that was faulty. But all is well and I don't see me changing pre-amps anytime soon. The LS26 offers the best value in sound for buck investment out there in my opinion. Sure, I would love to have a more expensive peice, but this was a great investment and works extremely well with my MC402 amp.
I will add thet both the dealer and Audio Research have been really responsive and good in keeping me in music through all of this. I would not hesitate to buy Audio Research again.