If you're looking for the one that has the best of the tube-like qualities, go with the LS5. The rest of them, save the 16 and the 25, are far more solid-state like in character. I personally think the LS5 is the best of the line stages ARC has ever put out, though that's my taste and may not be yours. I assume that you're using all balanced connections, though, snce that's what the LS5 uses.
I like my REF 2 mk1. Uses tubes in the input and output stage. (Not a hybrid like the mk2). Sounds great with my Maggies.
Agree with Rcprince, the LS5 is the one to get.
LS-5 mkII is outstanding...even better after GNSC mod.
The LS-5 is very nice if all of your other equipment has balanced inputs and outputs. I myself like the LS-25 Mk II.
Another vote for the LS-5 mkII. I have owned several of the others on your list and prefer this model over the rest for a quality tube sound. Adding premium Amperex tubes will greatly enhance the sound as well. Don DCCA Audio
I'll vote for the LS25mk2 as well. It takes a lot of money to significantly better it. You may want to pick up both an LS5 and LS25 and sell the one you don't like.
I go for LS5 MKII or III.
i think you are better off looking for an earlier audio research such as the sp 10. yes i know it is a full function preamp. also consider one of the earlier sp3 models. i think the newer models do not have the signature of tubes. perhaps, you can get lucky by finding some nos tubes with the ls5.
If you ever consider and Audio Research solid state preamp, you must try the LS-10. Truly an excellent preamp... it was their best ever solid state preamp.
If you ever get the chance to audition one, you'll be pleasantly amazed.
I've been an ARC dealer for about 11 years and a fan for much longer. I've owned the LS5mkI, mkII, and mkIII, Ref 1, Ref2, and the Ref2mkII. I've also spent years listening to and selling all of the others you've listed. Generally, the newer models have always been better in a few ways. They are more transparent, more detailed, more extended at the frequency extremes, and more neutral in their tonal balance.
Some may prefer the sound of an LS5mkII to a REF2mkII, but they are choosing a more colored sound and are, I think, in the minority of ARC fans. ARC is a company known for neutral (read: not overly tubey) sound. If you want tubey sound, there are tons of other manufacturers to choose from. Once you get used to life with a REF2mk, the LS5mkII sounds too dark, muddy, opaque and dynamically restrained by comparison.
Personally, I prefer the REF2mkII to any previous REF, including the "all tube" REF2mkI. I like the LS16mkII and LS25mkII much better than the MK1 version of either. The sound improved dramatically with the change to the 6H30. Many of the people who claim that the MK1 versions sound better may not have access to both units side-by-side as I do. Some also just like the ability to play with NOS tubes, something you can't do with the 6H30 (with the exception of NOS versions for $50). I will even go so far as to say that the LS16mkII is better in certain important ways than the LS25mkI. Sure, the LS25mkI will be superior in that is has more weight and slam due to its bigger supply, but the LS16mkII will beat it in terms of clarity and transparency. So in the end, there are trade offs.
PS. For the record, the VT100mkIII is much better sounding than the MKII for all of the same reasons.
BTW, the VT100mkIII also sounds much better than the MkII for the same reasons.
If you think you may want to do some tube rolling, then cross out the 16MkII and 25MkII as they use 6H30 and there is no tube rolling there, to the best of my knowledge.
LS-5 is an all balanced line stage, no SE connections. Although it does come with XLR-RCA adapters.
I can recommend LS-25MkI. I own it and like it a lot.
Put some nice NOS tubes in there and it is hard to beat.
Second the LS5 mk2 with GNSC mod. No dark or muddy, a huge improvement in dynamic. I preferred this pre over the Ref2 mk2 that have got for one week in my room syde by side, in my system and to my taste.
I have also a Supratek Cortese to compare to my Ls5 GNSC mod , both two great sounding pre although being so different.
Please allow me to get some advice about the SS/ LS9. Some stated it was not details due to high frequency roll-off. Some loved it for it warm sound. Thanks in advance.
Haven't heard all those amps, but I am an owner of the Ref 2 Mk I for 5 years and bought it used. Never had a problem. I have been auditioning the Ref 3 and will probably purchase that soon. However, the difference is subtle. In comparison, I recently replaced the PHSE3 phono with the PH 5. WOW. And I more recently replaced the CD 3 MKII (upgraded) with the CD 7. WOW, WOW. Point being that if you go for the Ref II MK I, while it is not as coherent or musical as the Ref 3, (now considered by many to be amongst the 3 or 4 best line stages regardless of price) you will not be disappointed. Go for it.
Please forgive me for hi-jacking this thread. Since this thread seems have attracted a lot of Audio Research enthusiasts, I thought I might inquire about another, albeit more modest Audio Research offering; the LS 8 Mk II. Any thoughts or opinions on this less ambitious model?
bump for the best sounding line stage under $3,000
If cost was no object, up to the Ref 6, the best sounding ARC linestage was the Ref 40th Anniversary, though it’s unclear if the Ref 6 would pip it overall.
On a budget, I’d pick up an SP-11 Mk2 any day of the week & get it modded/refurbed by a high end AE with topline Mundorf or Jupiter caps, upgraded internal wiring, matched cryo’d NOS tubes, a Furutech IEC, WBT rca connectors & use the spare change to buy a set of Stillpoints or Pro Audio Bono iso feet. My 2c.