What's a contender to an Audio Reference 5 SE?

If you were considering an Audio Reference 5 SE to mate with a Plinius SA-Reference amp, what other preamps might you consider?

consider Conrad Johnson and Aesthetix for tubes.
consider Pass Labs for solid state.

More importantly, which cable brand(s) are you planning to use? Keep me posted and Happy Listening!
When you judge an AR Ref5se on all parts you judge highend for, you will find out how limited this pre amp is.

- the stage depth and width is not that big as the best ones.

- In resolution you miss a lot of details.

- in speed and dynamics it is not that special.

- also in individual focus of instruments and voices
it is not that sharp and apparent.

- Also the lack of blacklevel this pre amp does not give
you the 3d apperance of voices and instruments

- when you focus on the diversity in the middle freq, you
will miss the realism in sound. It sound like every
instrument sounds the same. Like you have a warm low end
, mid freq and high freq.

Many highend brands are kept alive with written reviews. It is a pitty that openness and reality is missing in the world of audio. And that is a shame!
"It is a pitty that openness and reality is missing in the world of audio. And that is a shame!"

Bo, you're not helping any. lol. You make a good case to look at something else, so what is it? The OP is asking, if not the ARC, then what? Naim maybe?
Naim is even worse. You need to begin with live music.

One of my best friends had a small concert room with a Steinway wing for 65 people. Here I learend how small and direct voices and instruments sound in real.

I wa slike magic, the intimate sound was what I sill use in all my sets I create for clients.

The second part what influenced me a lot was also jazz live music. I was sitting in the middle and in front of the stage. You could hear all the instruments and stage depth and width. Also the heights of the instruments.

That is why we create a 3 dimensional intimate stage. We test and compare all audio on 9 different parts you judge audio for.

Naim has nothing to do with realism in sound and music. I only can buy it when you don't know a lot about music and how it sounds in real.

I can explain why?

Naim is 2 dimensional, we even call it often 1 dimensional ( mono) because beside there is not stage depth instruments do not have an intimate apparence like in real.

What does audio need?

first of all; education in music. I spend about 3-4 hours every week for the search of new music. I am an music addict.

In 8 years of time I did many shootouts for clients between 2 and 3 dimensional sound. This is the most effective way of getting people exited about music and audio. Even women get exited when you demo 3 dimensional sound. Many women of men who bought a system from us use the set independently.

In 2009 I did a 3 dimensional demo for a person who recently bought a naim set of 14000 euro. He said; I never experienced music this way. When I would have heard this at the time I bought the Naim set, I would have bought this set for sure.

The problem is that the knowledge and insight in sound is getting less every single year. This problem we see and hear at shops, distributers and even at manufacturers.

There is one thing needed; it has to change. This way audio will become a smaller market every single year.

Everything you said about the Ref-5SE I have heard the opposite. Tell us what pre-amp for the same money you like better?
This should be an interesting thread as it develops. *lol*
Having glance at previous outpourings I for one am not really that interested Taters, I suspect that he might be a close blood relative to Audiolabyrinth !!!

The Ref 5se is a truly excellent preamp. At the price it is selling for used right now it would be very hard to beat. At it's retail price it is hard to beat. I own a Ref 5se and it is amazing. I listened to a lot of preamps while thinking about upgrading. I heard the Aesthetix Calypso signature in the same system as the Ref 5se. It was not in the same league. The Pass XP-30 is very nice. I have not had the chance to directly compare the XP-30 to the Ref 5se. But I was very impressed by the Pass system it was in. If I did not own Audio Research gear I would probably own Pass. The D'Agostino Momentum preamp is maybe better, though it is far more expensive. I do love the Captain Nemo styling. I can't think of any preamp I liked as much as the Ref 5se other than the D'Agostino Momentum.
I owned the XP-20 in the past, this one I prefer also.

a client of mine owns a AR Ref 5SE, and we did a shootout
at my house. I was amazed how low the quality was

We used Audioquest Wel Signature XLR 2015 cables, and the
Purist Audio Limited Edition powercables.

We have developed our own roomacoustic system and adapted
it it to a pre amp what is not for sale yet. It
outperformed the 5SE on all parts. The owner could go back
home crying for his mother. We really felt sorry for him.

a new client owns the AR 100SE poweramp, again the same
kind of limitations. We test and compare all the time.
Because we only focus on those products which are the best
for the money. Every brand and tool what is less we never
will sell.

Pass Labs outperforms AR in many parts you judge highend
for. I sold AR for over 6 years of time. When I should
sell it again, it would be time to look for another job.

In our world inferior audio doesn't make sense. For some
it may sound hard. But we use this to protect all our
clients. So they will get the best endresults in sound
quality. The best and most convincing sound always will
win. This is how we compete againt our competitors. We
love the competition a lot. We always want to win. Second
best doesn't count in our world!
A preamp that totally changed the sound of my system to the feel of real music was the Shindo Auriges. This is there entry model and they have a bunch of preamps that our really special
A Radio Shack compact combo boom box stereo/Swiss army knife.
Timztunzhi, from what I've searched on what you have, a EMM Labs DCC2/CDSD SE combo why haven't you done as EMM states, forget the preamp.

"eliminating the need for a separate preamp, attendant buffer stages and additional set of cables. The result is a more direct signal path. Not to mention a more direct connection with the music itself."

Cheers George
Tsushima1, ... no doubt when Bo did the Ref 5 SE shootout, presumably with the Pass XP-20, he might have literally shot the Ref 5 SE. No wonder it didn't compare well.

IME, ARC gear sounds best when you don't shoot it.

Fortunately, Bo didn't listen to the Ref 5 SE under a gob of whipped cream (ala the Three Stooges skit of similar theme) or under water.
Listen to a CAT preamp and you won't think of the ARC REF 5 SE again.
Check out these:
Wavac PR-Z1
Einstein "The Preamp"
Nagra Jazz
Symphonic Line "The Enlightenment"
Conrad Johnson ART (no other model)

All of these will drive the Plinius very well and are some of the best preamp in this price class.
If he thinks a Ref-5 se is a low quality pre-amp. I can't imagine what he would say about my LS-27.
I really appreciate all of the responses. Well ok, most of them. I'm not going to Radio Shack. :-) I'm definitely going to look into some of the suggestions though.

Thanks for your suggestions. It's interesting to me that you characterized cabling as more important than the preamp. I'm really not interested in opening up the cable can of worms. I'm actually more than pleased with my combination of Dream State Audio (Dream Catcher and Lucid) and Silver Circle Audio Vesuvius power cords, Silver Circle Audio Bi-Wired Monorails speaker cables, Silver Circle Audio XLR Interconnects (pre to amp) and High Fidelity RCA Interconnects for analog front end.

You are 100% correct sir. IF I keep the EMM Labs gear I have no need of a separate preamp. However, I'm contemplating moving away from that gear, in which case I will be in the market for a pre and a CD/SACD player.

Do you mean the Conrad Johnson GAT? Isn't the ART an amp? It may not be fully founded but I'm a bit turned off of Conrad due to lack of XLR connections. I experienced a noticeable improvement over RCA from the EMM Labs DCC2 to the Plinius using XLR so I'm not sure I want to give that up. I may also want that connection flexibility when I look for a CD/SACD player as well. But I will certainly check out these units you mentioned! Thanks again!
Audio is listening and comparing as much as possible. At the end the best is the one who is the most interesting.

The differences in quality is huge and often there are many who can create a much lower endresult. We always compare the same way and use the same parts during shootouts.

Each single tool we test we take serious and the brand doesn't garantee anything.

We use Total Sound all the time during tests. When all these parts are there, the level of emotion and excitement is higher.

Parts of Total Sound:

- Soundrealism: you want and need an instrument to sound
like in real. I use Pass labs amps to the max for this. It
is the focus on sound of each different instrument and
voice. For example: you want to hear the difference
between 2 acoustic guitars of a recording. I always want
to hear the full palette in the mid freq. The timbre is an
essential part of listening to music

- 3 dimensional soundstage: this is the most exiting part
of audio in general. This sets your beloved music in full
3Din front of you. During listening you can focus on each
individual part of a recording.The best sets can even give
instruments the shape as in real.

- Intimate sound:instruments and voices are very small in
dimension and very direct in sound. You want a realistic
proportion of instruments and voices. Intimate sound has
a very big influence on our emotion. During many acoustic
classical live concerts I learned how small a vice and
instruments were in proportion.

- Blacks: The space between the instruments and voices
with their acoustic information during the recording. This
is the level of physical appearance. You want to touch
every single instrument and voice of the recording.
Germans use the word'darstellung'.

- timing and speed: it is a very important part for
authorityand control of the overall sound. Better timing
will give you less acoustic limitaions. But also a more
natural sound.Biside this you also can reveal more layers
of the low freq.

- Resolution: you want to hear all details of the
recording.And it needs to be physical apparent.

- Air: This part gives the instruments and voices the
freedom during listening. Separation makes your music so
much more appealing.

- A big freq. response: When your system goes deeper in
freq.response you will hear more information of a
recoding. Thisalso has a big influence on our emotion.
People can heartill maximum 20 khz. But...the freq.
response above it still influences our brains.

- articulation of voices: how clear you can hear word
endings, breathing of singers and moving lips.

- heights: When I received 2 sets of the Audioquest Wel
Signature xlr's it became more clear than ever. It makes
listening to music different and even more appealing.
I'm using an Allnic L-3000 preamp along with my Plinius SA Reference amp and am very happy.
Before upgrading amps I used my Symphonic Line "The Enlightenment" with a Plinius SB-301, and that combo was very nice.
Many thanks!  That's the kind of information I'm looking for!

You win the contest for the most words but not very helpful advice.  Except that you don't like Audio Research.
Well first of all, the input impedance of your Plinius amp is 47K Ohms which should be benign to even the weakest tube preamps. In my opinion, with your Plinius amp I would just go for a Vac Renaissance Mk3 & upgrade the tubes. Kevin Hayes has a nice collection of NOS tubes in his own 'Vac store' & is always happy to provide his wealth of knowledge. I think the Vac would be a good match sound-wise & imho, anything more is overkill and I would just buy a killer integrated instead like a Vitus SIA-025, Gryphon Diablo 300 or JRDG Daemon.
@melbguy1 Many thanks for your post, and I was even keeping up with you pretty good, until you started suggesting integrated amps?  I already have an amp.  If I have misunderstood you please forgive me.  Sometimes I'm a bit slow on the uptake.  :-)
When you are aware of what is possible in the world of
highend, you understand the differences in quality.

We work and think by Total Sound. When you can compare
audio tools by their properties it becomes a lot more easy
to compare and understand how good or worse it is.

I miss too many qualities with AR what other tools do a
lot better. These parts are very easy to be heard and

The only thing you need is comparing and a frame of
reference. Shootouts are one of the most fun parts in
audio. I am addicted to it for over 17 years of time. I
have done thousends of tests form mid level till highend.

It is all about collecting information of each tool we
test. When you focus on the properties a tool owns, you
can create a much higher endresult.

When you are aware of all the properties, you want to use
them all. When we listen to sets of new clients, at shows
or at distributers almost all sets are incomplete. We
always try to explain what is missing.
LoL!!! More Yoda esk riddlery.

Does your frame of reference extend to ARC Ref40 or Ref10?
I would also suggest VAC or Shindo as preamps that would be in the same league or better. Different sound, though, you'd have to audition to see if you preferred them to the ARC.
VAC Ren. Sig.
Einstein The Pre
I have owned both of the above & either will best the 5SE.
When you compare and test brands, in almost all situations
you will find out the same properties. For example when
you compare and test AR power and pre amp you will find
the same properties. Read the next review. Here you read
the same things I wrote. I did find this today.


"The Audio Research Reference 75, even though it is a
tube-based amplifier, actually sounded drier and somewhat
washed out in its overall tonal colors compared with the
X250.8. Another notable difference between the Audio
Research Reference 75 and the X250.8 was that the X250.8
created a much more three-dimensional soundstage then the
Reference 75--to the point that the 75's soundstage
sounded flat/shallow and lacked air/space around the
individual players."

Audio is comparing and testing; believe me AR is by far
not the best student of the class.

Our focus is only based on the best students of each
class. We always suggest the other students to stop and
look for another study.
I give another example; a cello has a very wide palette in diversity in sound. Pass labs poweramps can give you a very natural palette in the mid freq.

When you listen to many tube amps and pre amps you create often a pleasant sound. People discribe it as warm and musical.

But is it very natural and realsitic? In many situations it is not. Don't see this as negative. People are still free to prefer a more warm sound.

When we listen to tube amps and pre amps we ofen audition that the low, mid and highe freq. sound pleasant and but all the same. So when you test and compare it on deversity of the middle freq it is less complete and natural.

This part you will understand when you owned and tested many Pass Labs power amps.

There is a test of the new Pass Labs XS-300. The person who writes it says: it is better than any tube power amp. The reason why he writes this, is that it is more complete.

When I give a demo with a set what is more complete, people get exited about the sound a lot more. Because all the different parts influences our emotion.

Music is all about emotion. So audio is!

11-17-15: Timztunz
@Georgelofi You are 100% correct sir. IF I keep the EMM Labs gear I have no need of a separate preamp. However, I'm contemplating moving away from that gear, in which case I will be in the market for a pre and a CD/SACD player.

Many cdp/dacs these days have the same output and volume adjustability as the EMM gear, and are just as capable of driving the amp direct as well.
Wait to see what you replace the EMM stuff with first as this will lead you in the right direction, for now just listen to the EMM direct.

Cheers George
The Plinius has a balanced input. Here is a brief list that might suit:

Atma-Sphere MP-1 or MP-3
BAT Vk51
Einstein 'the Tube'
Allnic L5000DHT

You are not limited to balanced operation however- preamps that easily keep up with the ARC:

Atma-Sphere UV-1
Cary SLP98

Have fun!

Merely a couple of folk, of no consequence or experience, that hold a markedly different perspective of ARC products, your scribblings are beginning to appear somewhat 'Agenda ' driven.







I am sure he thinks those are crap to. He obviously doesn't like ARC.
Many are much better!!
The thing in audio is; when you focus and test many different tools at different price levels you will find out that over 95% of all products in audio is not that special or worth it's money.

When you fully focus on quality there are many products which are inferior compared to the best. These products are still being sold. I always have been amazed about all those products which are just average.
I don't know why anyone would expect a balanced perspective from someone who posts nothing but single-ended infomercials!
So Bo, what tube gear does your "firm" recommend?
I would recommend a used darTZeel NHB-18NS. not cheap but likely close to the price range. it's battery powered, Swiss built like a tank, very low noise, and has a great phono stage standard. and it's sound is very natural and smooth and so gets close to tubes in many ways.

did I say it's very low noise! and very dynamic.

and it can be upgraded to the super duper newer version of the dart preamp if you want to step up.
Though not as trendy or talked about and owned here as those already mentioned, there is always the EAR-Yoshino 912 (the only pre Art Dudley likes in some ways more than his Shindo), or it's little brother the 868.
Quite Taters...I fear the whiff of disgruntled ex dealer doth pervade the airs!

Viz: "I sold AR for over 6 years of time. When I should
sell it again, it would be time to look for another job"

It is a shame when a fellow merely seeking balanced advice and guidance falls foul of those who would seek to use such a thread for their own ends.

A simple Google search throws up several instances where Pass Labs and ARC products are run together in harmony, some instances of folk running both companies products as user alternatives due to the relative strengths and nuances offered.

Some instances where some folk have prefered Pass Labs to ARC and Vice versa, however such a preference would appear to be a close run thing for the most part, and certainly nowhere even close to the skewed rhetoric espoused by Bo1972!

All that aside, this thread is more than merely ARC Vs Pass Labs, as referenced by several respondents recommending a number of excellent high quality viable alternatives offering a 'nuanced' reference level of sound reproduction, which in the end, may well be decided upon as much in terms of the Cost, the Aesthetic, the Practicalities of SS Vs Valve, and arguably the most pertinant point to consider, that of System Impedance and Synergy.
When you prefer a more tube sound, I would use A tube pre amp with a Pass Labs power.


Because the Pass labs will give you more control, speed, details and more deversity in the middle freq.

When we audition tube amps it is always very easy to hear shortcomings. I always say; I would never choose for shortcomings when I can get a more complete sound.

Audio magazines get money from manufacturers so they can exist. Ever person understands this. But....there is a big but.....

They will not tell you which tools are superior to tools which they also reviewd. This is the thing we don't like. We prefer shootouts of the best students of the class.

I am not here to say which products and brands are inferior. This is not up to me. But in 17 years of time I auditioned hundreds of sets. In many situations the endresults are not that good.

This is based on the fact that they often use inferior products. Beside this they use tools which do not own all the parts of what we call; Total Sound. Incomplete sound is less involving and less exiting.

When you are aware of properties you will understand better how the stage and sound of your set is being build!
I am not against tubes, I used tubes as well in the past. I auditioned many sets with tubes what I liked a lot.

The only remark I made is that when the sound becomes more complete the quality and even the emotion in music can reach a higher level.

Our focus is more on sound and image. We use the properties of brands and products to create 'our' sound.

We create 'our' sound by Total Sound. This means that we collect and combine all the different properties togheter.

So what is 'our'sound?

Our sound is an intimate 3 dimensional image what is build from a black center with a very involving and diverse middle freq.

You also can use tubes for the way we work. I think you create a better end result in sound when you use SS and tubes togheter!
I remember going into different "brick and mortar" dealers and when I asked about a product they didn't carry, if they "bashed it" that was an indication that they had that product taken away from them, or didn't get the product. I would politely listen and then leave. I recall a few years ago there was a JL Audio thread regarding the Fathom subwoofer on another well known forum where the posts from ONE member were always negative. There is an agenda it seems?
Smoke, Mirrors and Evasion!!!
Just a general question.

What does Plinius recommend as a compatible pre-amp to use with their amp?

That to me is a really good metric to use also. and a good place to start looking/listening.

Of course there are pre-amps that are better than the AR REF 5SE just like there are many that aren't.

First, are you taking used? I guess you are since the 5SE is discontinued. So, the price point within the test range should be the used (blue book) price for a REF 5SE. I would bet a lunch, that you would be really hard pressed to find a pre-amp, used or new that can out perform the used REF 5SE within that price point.

So, are we talking apples to apples? or apples to oranges?

It is decidedly unfair to compare components within different price points.

This is why AR has the REF 10 and 40th anniversary editions. They are better than the 5SE.

So, when you take what everyone has said previously, keep in mind what your price point/range really is. I would also bet that if Ralph (Atmosphere) threw away the budget, he could design/build a pre-amp that would absolutely kill the REF 5SE. Hell, I would even bet that his current pre-amp at that level is close to or better than the REF 5SE.

Engineering is engineering.

I could list many pre-amps that I believe are better than the REF 5SE, but at that price point, it would be much harder. But, they still exist.

enjoy, but set a price point (used or new) and listen for yourself).
@bo1972 Ok, ok.  Your points are more than well documented by now.  You are now just bothersome.  You might be a nice enough person but here you're coming off condescending and rude.  I would be happy if you just moved on, please.  You are having 100% no bearing on my decision. 

@minorl Oddly enough Plinius recommends their own brand.  The price point was pretty much set when I asked for contenders TO the 5SE.  Sure, I would consider used.  So if the 5SE sells for $13k new I would like other recommendations somewhere in that range.  Then I would consider used of those same brands/models, ergo "apples to apples".
@minorl I wish it were as simple as "listen for yourself".  For some of us that is simply not possible.  There is no place to do that, and certainly not in my own space with my own gear.  That's why we wade through all of this and try to make the best decision we can before we vote with our $.
I find ARC tubes to be not quite as transparent as the best ss, but almost always sounding more like live music to me. I call it the breath of life. That's what makes one a tube vs ss fan. I can, of course, understand the ss point of view. Neither view is the "right" one. One chocolate, the other vanilla.
Ok, at the risk of waking up "you know who" I want to tell you where I'm at now with my thinking and see what you more knowledgeable people have to say.

1) Right, wrong or indifferent I do think I'm set on trying a tube preamp with my solid state Plinius SA-Reference.amp.  So we can stop discussing solid state amps for now.

2) When I asked for "contenders" to the ARC Ref 5SE I should have been more clear that I meant "somewhere in the similar price range".  While I'm sure some of the pieces suggested are just phenomenal, some of them are 2-3 times the price range indicated.

3) That being said and all other things being equal (same room, same other gear, same cables, etc.) which of the following 3 choices do you think is going to throw the widest, deepest, tallest sound stage and provide the most distinctive image?
ARC Reference 5SE
Allnic L-3000 Mk 2
VAC Renaissance Mk3

Thank you for participating.
Tsushima1 sez ...

"Does your frame of reference extend to ARC Ref40 or Ref10?"

Exactly! The closest I've heard to real organic music from a stereo system was in the Optimal Enchantment room at the Newport show three years ago. Randy was using all of the very best gear ARC offers including the phono stage. It was amazing ... and I almost took out a second mortgage on the house. The last two years, they used amps from a different Mfg and in my opinion, the magic was gone.

One thing to keep in mind is the fact that no matter how much we spend on equipment, or what our biases are, we are trying to reproduce music through electronic devices. In all cases, we are fooling ourselves. So ... we have to try to try to select the equipment that "fools" us the best. A lot of it is subjective and a matter of taste. My "right" doesn't necessarily make your "right" wrong ... and visa versa.