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.



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….