The Hub: The preamp that made Audio Research.

You already know this one: I've mentioned it once directly, and alluded to it another time. Just as the Audio Consolette put Marantz on the map, this preamp MADE Audio Research Corporation.

Minneapolis is fertile ground for electronics; the home of 3M and Honeywell has become a center for small audio manufacturers. Now there's Atma-Sphere, Bel Canto, Magnepan, Van Alstine, a relocated Triplanar, and several others. Before them all, though, there was Electronic Industries. Who?

By the time Dick Schulze opened his hi-fi store Sound of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1966, William Zane Johnson had been running Electronic Industries in Minneapolis for fifteen years. Schulze's store became locally successful, opened several locations, and eventually, the name was changed to Best Buy. Just as Sound of Music didn't become famous until it changed its name, Electronic Industries became better-known in its next incarnation.

Electronic Industries repaired gear and built amplifiers onesies-twosies in the back, while selling hi-fi in the front. Johnson patented a number of circuit innovations for vacuum-tube amps, eventually selling Electronic Industries to a local company in 1968. Johnson stayed on as Director of Research, but as often happens when entrepreneurs are absorbed, things didn't go well. Luckily, Johnson managed to liberate both himself and his patents.

In 1970, Johnson started his new company, named Audio Research. The name may have been calculated to bring to mind Acoustic Research, at that time as well-known as Bose is today (and far more respected!). As Johnson told Stereophile's Robert Harley in 1984, he didn't feel he had any choice in his direction: "I really didn't know anything else--all I knew how to do was design amplifiers." (Full text of the interview may be seen here)

Dynaco had their PAS (PreAmp, Stereo), and Audio Research came out with their first SP (Stereo Preamp), the SP-1, in 1970. Several tweaks and redesigns later, the SP-3 appeared in 1972. Both HP and JGH hailed it as the best preamp available, even at its then-staggering price of $595 (you may recall the furor Mark Levinson's even-higher priced JC-2 caused, shortly therafter). An uncommonly effusive JGH wrote, "...after having lived with one for several months, it has occurred to us that we just can't do without it. We can't afford it, but we can less afford to be without it." (Stereophile, Summer/Autumn, 1973, Vol. 3, #5)

Thirty-six years later, it is difficult to imagine any component receiving such an accolade, much less totally dominating its field, but that's exactly what the SP-3 did. The revised SP-3a and SP-3a-1 (as shown here) only widened the gap. As new challengers appeared from Mark Levinson, conrad-johnson, Theta, and others, the sales-pitch was generally, "as good as the SP-3" or, "BETTER than the SP-3". And yet, no other preamp of the time stands out as did the SP-3.

When I wrote about my exposure to Bozak Concert Grands, I mentioned the Magneplanar Tympanis in the dealer's other room. The Tympanis were driven, of course, by an ARC SP-3 and Dual 76. My first exposure to modern tube gear was puzzling, for me: the sound was more real than I was used to, as smooth as old tube amps but far more dynamic. The sound didn't have the headache-inducing edge I was used to from friend's systems (especially a toxic LaScala/Kenwood combo). Initially, I thought there was something WRONG with the amplifiers. Eventually, I realized it was all the OTHER amps that were wrong.

Moments like that caused a lot of listeners to rethink tube gear, and to buy ARC: that's how it went for me. The high end as we know it might well not exist, had it not been for the SP-3. The SP-3 raised our expectations to the point where no single component may ever impress us as much, again. Thanks to ARC's build quality and product-support, this unit may continue to impress, for generations to come.