Audio Research REF-10 Preamp (Part 1)

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In an indecently short time after the Anniversary finished its run, Audio Research has again re-defined the modern preamplifier. Valves will never seem the same again…

Having reviewed Audio Research’s Reference Anniversary preamplifier, and had my REF5 updated to SE status, I thought I’d savored all there was to desire from an all-valve control unit. How wrong I was: the sorcerers at Audio Research have improved on their best in such an embarrassingly short time that I cannot even muster a suitable analogy. Not from F1, not from computing, nada. The evidence is immediate, and disturbing.

To salve the sensitivities of those who purchased an Anniversary, who might be feeling that horrible sensation associated with being an early adopter, note that the price of the new reference 10 line-stage preamplifier is $6000 more than an Anniversary (and more than double that of a ’5SE). To ensure that there’s no bitterness against Audio Research for those who they ‘should have waited’, the Anniversary has: 1) unimpeachable collector’s status due to inherent rarity that the REF10 will never possess; and 2) is ‘old school’ in that it features physical controls.

Audio Research REF10

Audio Research REF10

Touchy feely

It’s the latter which might have Anniversary owners singing with relief. Comparing the overhead shots of their innards reveals more similarities than differences. It even seems as if the REF10’s touchscreen panel is its raison d’être. So let me get this out of the way, rather than let it taint what might be my most effusive review in 25 years: gimme two knobs and a row of buttons every time, but don’t let the panel put you off the move from Anniversary to REF10.

A two-chassis line stage, the REF10 owes much to its limited edition predecessor, but it has been refined rather than radically overhauled. Beyond the touchscreen interface, it presents no surprises to ARC fans. The rear-panel layout, the warm up period, the basic styling – all familiar stuff.

Because the Anniversary was a roaring success double the company’s original projections and was the first two-chassis Audio Research preamp in some years, the company realized in some years, the company realized that demand for a preamp with outboard power supply existed from a vocal slice of the market. Audio Research, however, remembered those who invested in the Anniversary and its limited edition status, stating that continuing to produce it ‘would not have been fair to original owners’. Instead, a new model that respected the Anniversary’s unique status was needed.

In keeping with the company’s preferred methodology, the REF 10 employs a fully discrete signal path, zero feedback and Class-A circuit. The refinements reflect what the company has discovered in the two-and-a-half years since the Anniversary entered production: new wiring connectors, critically-selected components, and a new generation of proprietary custom-made capacitors.

Tidy internals, with center filled by eight 6H30 valves – four per channel. Both units come with a see-through perforated acrylic lid, so all of this is visible to the curious

Sticking to its guns

While the massive display is a culture shock – I will, to the grave, picture rotaries, buttons and handles when I hear the words ‘audio’ and ‘research’ in tandem – the REF10 retains the Anniversary’s layout and design, and a transporter perspective is need to isolate the detail changes in the aesthetics. Display or not, you will immediately recognize the manufacturer of the REF10, the company sticking to its guns about not alienating existing owners, from (product) generation to generation.

Aside from the large volume rotary which works with left-right jerk motions rather than rotating fully, and buttons for on/off and mute, all controls are handled by a remote and the aforementioned touch panel. The remote commands the usual operations including source selection, levels, balanced or single-ended inputs and other basic need. Everything eth remote does can be selected from the touch panel, along with a host of customizing options and access to a valve usage counter. This keeps track of the total time unit has been in operation, indicating what life your tubes may have left. It can be reset after valves are replaced.

Audio Research’s literature states that, ‘Our logo is above the knob on the right, making this the first asymmetrical Audio Research preamplifier ever’. That, in my non-asymmetrical world view, is hardly a virtue. I won’t even wear watches with asymmetrical dials. But I feel compelled to point it out, because ARC did.

There’s an upside, though: you don’t even need to look at the owner’s manual to discover all the display can do, if you’ve ever used a phone, camera, computer or even microwave oven with a touchscreen. The literature is not exaggerating when it describes the operation as ‘intuitive’ and ‘straightforward’. Just about every main function is displayed, and you simply touch the screen to change something.

Driven by a PC…

That multicolored 7in TFT display is no mere decorative item but an interactive touchscreen controller sourced from Comfile Technology – a ‘panel PC’. This particular module sports an ARM9 32bit/266MHz processor with 64MB flash memory, running a Windows CE Pro 5.0 operating system. The screen supports 260 thousand colors and offers an 800x480 pixel resolution, so there’s plenty of mileage here for ARC to provide a kaleidoscopic menu should it choose to do so in the future. The rear of the panel PC sports Type A and B USB connections, unused here, together with two RS232 ports and it’s one of these that provides the interface with ARC’s on-board volume control and navigation buttons. The chunky IR controller also communicates with the PC through the same interface. Frankly with such interactive technology now so readily available, the only surprise is that so few companies have jumped on board.

Panoply of options

Where it gets modern and clever is in the panoply of options via the settings menu. You can name every input, and even change the colors of the typeface and the background. Each input can be adjusted to provide volume matching regardless of the sources, something I found useful when switching from the output of my Mac to a Sony Blu-ray player, the difference being levels that blast you unawares. The REF10 took care of that discrepancy with ease.

The preamp’s fascia is dominated by the touchscreen panel, on/off is via a small button while the second button is the mute. The power supply (bottom) has no controls at all

The preamp’s fascia is dominated by the touchscreen panel, on/off is via a small button while the second button is the mute. The power supply (bottom) has no controls at all

This display is not a gimmick, but a tangible indicator of the way Audio Research sees the future. CEO Terry Dorn told HFN that ‘with the recent expansion of our engineering staff, Audio Research is actively exploring new interface technologies for future products. The touchscreen display used in the new REF10 is simply one approach that will likely find its way into other future products.

‘Not every model in our range calls for a touch-capable interface, but we are ready to implement this technology wherever appropriate. We are also actively exploring alternative display devices and control interfaces that can make our products more flexible or feature-rich for the owner, while remaining simple to use’. The latter remains very important to Dorn, who regards it as one of Audio Research’s core strengths.

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