Which ARC ref linestage to try: Ref3, Ref5, Ref5SE? HATE forward sounding systems



I presently am driving a PS Audio 300 class D amp with a CJ premiere 16LS2 and really really like the sound. I have always preferred solid state fed by a nice tube amp. One of the things that are remarkable (to my ears anyway) is that my system not only excels with well recorded material…poor quality recordings sound great too. I can listen indefinitely without fatigue.

Obviously, I like fuller, lush sound (which some might criticize as too euphonic (I make no apologies, that’s what I like)). I DESPISE forward sounding, edgy, systems. With the advancements made, I’m thinking detail and warmth are not mutually exclusive and that ARC may have pulled off the balance with one of these? I like big, deep, recessed soundstages.


This is my hobby so sometimes I like to change things up. I would like to try one of the ARC refs as I’m hoping they can deliver what I like but maybe with some improvements (e.g maybe more natural/real sounding?) I have read all the reviews and many comparisons multiple times. I know that the 5se allegedly blows away the 5 etc. blah blah. I don’t care how impressive something sounds initially…I need long term satisfaction. I gotta think that these refs have different sound signatures, right?

I am asking owners and people with first hand experience to provide feedback re. which of these is least forward and analytical and might give me what I already have…but with additional detail, realism, etc.?

P.S. To proactively address the obvious…. Why not just try a newer CJ? I’m not a fan of the newer CJ single triode linestages ONLY because of the single triode design (I had an ET3 and really liked the sound…however, the single triode is driven very hard in that design…and it ate tubes (they became noisy quickly and regularly)). The more rugged tubes didn’t sound as good to me so, don’t want to go there again.



I have 2 ARC Reference line stages, a Ref 2 and a Ref 5SE.

The older unit is warmer and more recessed.  The newer unit is more transparent, dynamic and more forward; the 5SE also has better bass.

Both create a huge soundstage and are wonderful in the right system.

I use the Ref 2 in my second system utilizing Joseph Audio Pulsar 2 speakers.  The slightly warmer and more recessed sound of the Ref 2 greatly complements that speaker.

Based on my experience would stick to Ref 1, 2 or 3.  Used up to $4K with good tubes.

Thanks guys…that’s kinda what I was thinking…..may need to go to one of the non-supertube (or earlier supertube ) models to get what I’m looking for. I know that the ref3 and the ref2 mk2 have it…but maybe best of both worlds…


I really appreciate your input!


P.S. I did have the ls27mk2…. All else equal, too clinical for me.

I have owned ARC Reference 5SE for about 5 years and a Reference 6SE for the last two. Nether of these could be remotely called forward. They are detailed and natural… drawing the listener in.  But given what you are looking for, I would stick with ConnieJ.


How often would the tubes go out? Any chance it was a particular unit? 

I must to differ to @bobbydd for his comparison to the REF2.


@ghdprentice no, unfortunately it was not just the unit… it was sort of a known thing…to the point that (for lack of better term) a cottage industry developed for CJ owners looking for more rugged 6922s to avoid this issue. FWIW, Kevin D. Crusaded about this for a bit. CJ seemed to think they could hand-pick Electro Harmonics 6922s to avoid…but it is always just a matter of time …that tube was driven way too hard. Reportedly some AI preamps share this challenge.

That being said…when the tube was still quiet…they sounded GLORIOUS! If not for this issue, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Unfortunately, I can’t afford their new ref (dual triode, I believe) for $28,000!

Love CJ…maybe one of the vintage GATs are what I should be looking at…but the prices are pretty high on those still (rightfully so, in my opinion).


@nmolnar I was thinking of including the LSs in my query…absolutely should. Was there anything that stood out with the ls28/se or 27(se) etc. versus others you’ve heard?

BIG CORRECTION related too). I owned the ls25mk 2…not the 27 as I wrote…big difference, I’m sure. No idea why I typed 27. As far as I know…I have nothing against the LS27.  Embarrassed 😞.

Please, feel free to mention an LS if you think it will meet my needs.



I had previously owned several ARC Pre-amps/line stages including an SP-3, LS-3, LS-17SE and now the LS-28 for the last 5 1/2 years. The LS-28 is paired with an ARC VT-80SE amp and I’m seriously impressed. It is head and shoulders above any of the earlier LS series and is close to the REF 6 in its sonic quality It has great imaging with a deep sound stage and matches with the VT-80SE very well, which you would expect. The LS-28 has a very balanced sound with no harshness and lots of detail. There are many reviews of it online which go into greater detail on the LS-28 but think it would work for you. I suggest you audition one and judge for yourself if it meets your needs.

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Curious to learn why no PSA pre-amp to match the PSA 300 amp?

Another +vote for ARC Ref5SE.  If you must mix brands, this one is a keeper.


Happy Listening!

@jafant good observation… I probably will end up trying one of those as I’m a HUGE ps audio fan. I have the stellar phono and their DAC, which I love. Yeah…that’s probably the most logical. I’ve read that it’s no slouch. Just possibly wanted to give ARC another chance beforehand. I think I got it into my head…maybe from a review that it might be ‘too neutral’ for me (gasp, I know neutral is supposed to be the goal ;)


I’m certain I will try one, eventually.



Go for the PSA BHK signature Pre-Amp. Thank me later.


Happy Listening!

@jafant you have me thinking… I heard about the huge soundstage, which I love…but, how does it treat poorly recorded music in your experience? Is the soundstage at all forwardish? Does it truly have to be run balanced to sing?  


(Everyone: for the record, yes, I know, other components and the room play a factor too 😉

Sorry to get off of the AR line stage topic, I currently own an AR Ref3 preamp,

But have you listened to the Audio GD Vacuum HE 1 XLR preamp with the regenerative power supply for 4K or the Vacuum HE-1 LE 10 preamp for 3K

I bought the Vacuum HE-1 LE 10 last year and it sounds even better than my AR Ref3 or my Benchmark LA4 preamp in either of my 2 main systems, you can look up the reviews online or check to see if any other owners will chime in with their reviews.

You might be pleasantly surprised at the sound and build quality of these Audio GD products.



Both ARC and PSA pre-amps does quite nicely with soundstage. Not forward in presentation and sound. Poorly recorded Music will depend on source- CD or LP.

Yes, running Balanced cables are best practice.


Happy Listening!

I have had Ref 6 for three years now.  No way it's forward.  I consider it a very neutral amp which is what I want.  If you want 'euphonics' or 'lush', don't go AR.  They aim for a neutral house sound.  You are quite correct; the sound is detailed too.

All that's why I like it.

My advice is to ask your ARC dealer to let you audition an Ref 5 SE and a LS28 at home. I find things sound a lot different at my home than they did in the store. 

I have an old ARC SP15. I can't switch because it has exactly the roomy detail I prefer, and the phono stage is outstanding. I have considered adding a REF5SE because I like it's detail, but to get the most out of it I need to spend uncomfortably to upgrade to a set of Wilsons.

I find that the ARC stuff is more or less "neutral" which I think is great as I love the "original intent" of the artist's recording. Listening to the Stones Black and Blue album on an ARC system was an a-ha moment for me. Somehow the Stones managed to get one of the best studio mixes ever on that record. 

Anyhow, the point I'm trying to make is try them out at your place first. You won't second guess or regret it later. 

I agree totally with @yesiam_a_pirate --great username, by the way.  ARRRHH!  You might enjoy the Gasparilla Festival in Tampa...

ALWAYS demo any new-to-you major purchase IN YOUR ROOM.  

As a former dealer, I can tell you that this is the ONLY way to make sure YOU like the product in your system.  Price and reviews are helpful, but YOUR ROOM is the final decision-making variable.

By the way, if you are going all ARC, I might suggest asking your dealer to bring out a pair of Magnepan speakers to demo.  You MIGHT be surprised...and if not, at least you gave them a listen.


I want to thank everyone. This was a very productive thread for me (and others, I hope) even though…

…since I have so much PS Audio Equipment, It probably makes sense that I should try the PSA BHK before I go down the ARC road. However, with this crazy hobby I’m sure I will still go down the ARC road. There’s something about their (average) house sound that I really like. Maybe by then the 5SE or the Ref 6s will be a real bargain used.

I read and looked into ALL suggestions, learned a ton, and met some new friends here. Hopefully, this thread will be useful to others in the future too.


Thank You!


P.S. Of Course, by all means feel free to continue posts if productive to someone.


I had the LS-27, loved it. But as I upgraded other components, I noticed that the soundstage did not have the depth. I upgraded to the REF 6 which produced the results I wanted. I am running Wilson MAXX speakers and Rowland SS amps. I just replaced all my tubes in the REF 6, it was a little over 4000 hours. The power tube they recommend replacing every 2000 hours. I did try the BHK amp, but it did not have the ability to push the Wilson Sasha’s that I had at the time - I lost A LOT of punch - that is when I found the Rowlands. I did compare the LS-27 to the Rogue RP-5 before I purchased it, I thought the ARC was SLIGHTLY better (I purchased the LS-27 used). I have really liked dealing with ARC - they answer the phone and help with your questions (as does PS Audio and Rowland).

One drawback to my system is that poorly recorded music is going to sound poorly recorded, that was not as much of a factor when I had the LS-27.  Some of the newer music is really compressed, that is not very nice to listen to (Pink's album before the latest one was unlistenable).  But Dylan's latest bootleg series from Time Out of Mind is simply spectacular.   

The ARC line stages have fewer tubes, so re-tubing will be a lot less expensive.  (It cost about $600 for me to re-tube my REF 6).

I have to believe that you will be happy with any of the ARC Preamps.



The Ref 3 seems to fit your preferences better than the later ones.  As you mentioned, the "supertube" models are more neutral and less euphonic than the earlier ones, so you might even look at a Ref 2 MkI.

I would not describe any of the Ref preamps as forward, but they do get more neutral as you get into the newer models.

I'm currently running the 6SE and it is the best line stage I have heard, and very neutral with just a touch of warmth.  It (and the earlier models) is very dimensional.

Some people do not read carefully.

I stated that my Ref 5SE is more forward than my Ref 2 mk II.  That does not mean that it is forward overall, just that it is more neutral than the older unit - which, by comparison, is less neutral by being a touch warmer and more recessed..

The original poster specifically stated he was looking for a warmer, possibly more recessed version of the ARC Reference "house" sound, which includes excellent dimensionality, realistic timbre and explosive dynamics (all of them).

Hope that clears up my original comments.



An update? Did you purchase a PS Audio pre-amp?


Happy Listening!

The Ref 6 is absolutely fantastic, and good deals can be had used. Hard to imagine you wouldn't be satisfied with that one. It's not too forward or too laid back; it's music. 

Audio Research is probably more forward than what you want. Look at your speakers and build around them. Off set and blend components that complement each other. Stay away from one thing one brand or component does well with the other components. Too much on one thing is never good. Off set a forward speaker with an amp that’s laid back.

The most lush of the Ref preamps is the Ref2 Mk2. The Ref3 on up are more neutral and are not forward. If you consider a non-Ref, stick to an LS28 or 28SE.

Don't go audio research equipment if you love CJ sound, the difference in between those two brand is that much.

I am long audio research user,but I think CJ give us the right sound.

As some have mentioned, the best thing is to borrow the devices you want to consider and audition them in your home in your system.  As I have posted many time before, spending that kind of money, dealers should allow you (with credit card on file) to take equipment home and audition it in your home. If they will not do that, then I would shop elsewhere.

Establishing good relationships with dealers is key.  Once they know you, and know you are serious, it shouldn't be a problem for them.

Over the decades (sigh!) I have established pretty good relationships with dealers that allowed this.

But, back to the topic.  In earlier posts I have mentioned that I have gone from Audio Research SP9, SP9MKII, SP11, REF3, REF5SE, REF 6 to REF10.  I have listened to the SP9MK II (retubed) vs REF 3 and it was enough of a positive difference that I purchased the REF 3.  Also, remote control helped. 

This is the way my sneaky dealers (Steve at Stereo Design in San Diego, retired now) and Randy at Optimal Enchantment in Santa Monica (retired, but taken over by two knowledgeable partners), operated.  They would allow me to take equipment home (with a stupid grin on their faces), knowing that if there were enough of a positive difference, I would probably purchase it.

So, I was interested in the difference between the REF3 and REF 5 or REF5SE.  This was before the REF 6 came out. So I took them home.  Not enough of a difference between the retubed REF3 and the REF 5 to warrant the purchase.   But, the REF 5SE was pretty darn good.  So I bought it and sold my REF3.

Then I magically took home a REF 6 and big difference too me between the REF 5SE and the REF 6.  So I bought the REF 6 (reviewer's copy) and got a very nice trade in price for the REF 5SE so that I was hard to pass up.

My (so far) ultimate goal was the REF10 which I heard several times, but the price was wayyyy too much.  Until I got a demo unit from Randy for a stupidly low price and a great trade in price on the REF6.  

Anyway, seriously, I loved the SP9MKII, it has an outstanding phono Section. Same if true for the SP15.  If you can grab one, do it.  That is an outstanding pre-amp period.  I could actually live well with a REF 3, REF 5SE or REF 6 and not miss anything in sound quality. Those are great pre-amps.

In my opinion, when you get to that level, you might hear differences in sound, but (too me) I have not heard night and day difference.  It just is slightly better.

Honestly, If you have a decent turntable, and a not so great phono stage, get the SP15.  However, the REF3 with a phono 6 or REF 2SE phono stage is hard to beat.

As far a Conrad Johnson is concerned, they make excellent products.  But, you have to take it home and demo in your home in your system.

Also, one last thing.  Many people make the mistake of simply swapping components and listening.  What should be done is listen to your favorite song with the original equipment and the level you like.  Then listen to a test CD and measure with a inexpensive audio tool or DB meter that level.  Then swap equipment and place the test CD in again and adjust the level so it matched the original equipment's sound level.  Then listen critically.

Many people mistake differences in sound level to mean better or worse and that is just not true.  This is where the "I heard a night and day difference) usually comes from.  When in actuality it is just a level mismatch.

Anyway, enjoy

For what it’s worth, massive as they might be the Ref series benefit from HRS grade isolation…and a great NOS 6550 in the Power supply ( i run 1960’s Tung Sol - NJ USA in my 5se. It works for me, drives a 8m balanced cable out to SS or Hybrid monoblocks…

I am also curious about that the OP did ?

Funny how things…evolve..there was a time when a CJ premier 3 was Waaay more neutral than anything ARC did. I just dated my youth.

IMO one telling thing is IF all recordings sound great, you’ve more than likely picked a flavor / distortion you like….. versus a more ruthless truth teller - as i tell myself in those intoxicating moments…. Audiophile know thyself….

forgot to agree level matching is essential…dismal how so few know this w good tools….. the ear / brain….just loves gain….volume…loudness…….