Audio Research REF-10 Preamp (Part 2)

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Breath-taking velocity

Inserted in place of my REF5SE, between the astonishing Marantz SA- 11S3 SACD player and the REF75 stereo power amplifier, driving Wilson Sophia 3s, the REF10 taught me a lesson with the impact of a slap in the face. As amazing as I found the SA- 11S3 when reviewed with the Marantz PM- 11S3 (HFN Feb ’12), I had no idea quite how superior a disc spinner it is. Running the system in completely balanced mode, with YTER and Transparent cables, it was a short, sharp demonstration of the value of monumental dynamic contrasts.

It didn’t take much: I slipped the Bee Gees’ magnificent ‘You Win Again’, from the CD Mythology and the impact of the track’s rhythm-setting percussion exhibited weight and mass, underneath those ethereal vocals. It brought to mind seemingly impossible concoctions like a Tequila Sunrise, its colors striated with geometric exactitude.

True dual-mono power supply features valve regulation, one 6H30 and one 6550WE per channel, with a couple of spares in the box. Two-channel topology extends to two connecting cables

True dual-mono power supply features valve regulation, one 6H30 and one 6550WE per channel, with a couple of spares in the box. Two-channel topology extends to two connecting cables

Followed immediately by the scratchy percussion and funk guitar of ‘Jive Talkin’’, the REF10 flaunted the sort of attack that used to be the metaphorical club with which the solid-state brigade beat on tube aficionados. Crisp? Precise? Think of one of those almost-effete wafers beloved of haute cuisine chefs, adorning some artistic appetizer: it hovers, it’s ephemeral, yet it has ‘snap’. Fast notes speed by with breath-taking velocity. There’s definable decay, but only when it’s in the recording.

Inspired by the strings on ‘To Love Somebody’, I turned to the magnificently restrained violins on Julie London’s heart-stopping rendition of ‘Bewitched’. I was after silkiness, texture, a hint of richness – nothing so demanding as the stop/start of transients. It was a test of ‘valve-ness’ amidst the modernity. Lest you think that the mock-transistor authority of this unit’s dynamic speed and control implies a hardening of the sound, fear not. The REF10’s comportment is so warm I wanted to name it after one of our cats.

A rosy future

It’s been a tumultuous few years for Audio Research: the passing of founder Bill Johnson, a change of ownership and dealing with the continued onslaught of a digital future. CEO Terry Dorn explained how this has affected the brand, especially in determining its future.

Fine Sounds’ acquisition of Audio Research in January 2008 was the beginning of a renovation of the brand from the inside. They provided insight and direction in terms of internal organization, manufacturing and back office processes, company policies and procedures. We have spent considerable effort streamlining company operations with the aid of a completely integrated software platform combining purchasing, manufacturing, technical services and accounting’.

Fine Sounds’ direction includes concern for the company’s future health and security, already demonstrated by group’s earlier purchase of Sonus Faber, which has gone from strength. Says Terry, ‘That is happening with products that combine advanced digital technology with our core analogue roots, like the DSPre and the REF DAC. Fine Sounds has not directed our hand in terms of product development – their instructions have been to continue to evolve the legacy “DNA” that is Audio Research, to best serve existing customers while appealing to first-time Audio Research buyers. They’re given us complete freedom’.

Utter clarity: every input and output offered with single-ended or balanced connectivity, the upper row the right channel and the lower for the left. Note twin multi-pin connectors for the external power supply’s umbilical cords

Lost in space

Ms. London followed ‘Bewitched’ with a take of ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ that almost makes you forget Tony Bennett’s definitive version. London, it must be said, could make ‘Shaddap You Face’ sound sexy… With the REF10 it was sonic choreography, a dance between her voice and the instruments. Given the golden-eta Capitol origins, the real arbiter of excellence would be the spatial recreation. With ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’, we have a wall-to-wall facsimile of a 1960s bachelor pad. Suddenly, your toes are lost in the deepest pile carpet ever woven.

It was space and atmosphere in the dimensional sense – true depth, width and height and with the sounds layered so convincingly that you wish 5.1 systems were as successful. Lazy guitar, sounding like Les Paul on Quaaludes, floats out of the left speaker so real, so liquid that you go a bit woozy. It’s two glasses of Amarone in quick succession. There’s no impression of flat images arrayed like old-style 3D movies. London is in front of you, the instruments around her, never crowding. I thought my walls had moved outward. But who am I kidding? I had a miracle of an SACD player in the system.

In goes Rory Block’s Last Fair Deal (Telarc SACD63593). The guitar work picked up a new dimension, a tingle that is part and parcel of the bottleneck experience. It paled out against a background of black silences, yet there was no aridity, no sense of that overly-hygienic stripping away of the very clues that define authenticity.

Simply put, the music was rich with the textures and nuances that are often lost though an audio chain. There was a complete lack of artifice. The outlay will buy an entry-level tourbillon, a decent 4x4, two cases of 1985 Sassicaia, ad infinitum. Whether someone with $41,850 wishes, instead, to spend it on a REF10 depends on but one thing: a unbridled lust for music.

The Verdict

No pussyfooting: this is the best-sounding valve preamp I have ever heard, topping even the Anniversary which I thought was part of God’s own sound system. No, I don’t enjoy touch panels, as I am an unrepentant traditionalist/Luddite/ARC purist who prefers knobs and buttons. But that is my problem. If you can get past its tube-preamp-violated-by-an-iPad mean, you will love this as Hepburn loved Tracy.

Sound quality: 9/10

Lab report

Audio research REF10

ARC’s 104-step digitally-regulated volume control operates in fine ~0.5dB steps offering about 60dB of attenuation from ‘103’ (max) down to ‘3’ (closer to 57dB in practice). If you need to reduce volume very quickly, the IR mute button is the best option. If fully balanced mode (XLR in/out), the REF10 provides +12.5dB of gain, double that in single-ended mode (RCA in/out), although both present a 280ohm source impedance. The four 6H30P double-triodes per side promise huge headroom (the maximum input level is >20V) and output levels (>30) while, under more typical conditions, distortion is extremely well managed. At 1V output, THD is consistently between 0.001-0.112% from 20Hz-20kHz, rising to 0.004-0.006% at 2V and 0.01-0.05% at 10V output – this controlled ‘character’ irrespective of frequency is impressive, particularly as THD is inherently low. The 97dB A-wtd S/N ratio (re. 0dBV) is also very impressive as is the minuscule – 100dBV hum. Basically, the REF10 is silent. The rated -3dB/200kHz response was not achieved at 0dB gain, however, our sample rolling gently – and quite sensibly – away to -0.06dB/20kHz and -6.7dB/100kHz.

Extended frequency response (1Hz-100 kHz, black) versus output impedance (20Hz-100 kHz, red)

Extended frequency response (1Hz-100 kHz, black) versus output impedance (20Hz-100 kHz, red)

If there is a very small fly struggling to escape this technical triumph, it’s in the form of a 12.8 kHz tone (-111dB below 1V output) that spawns a series of higher-level harmonics at 25.6 kHz (-99dB), 38.4 kHz (-92dB), 51.2 kHz (-95dB), 64 kHz (-100dB) and so on. Switching the display off has no effect but the tone (surely a switching or polling artifact) is likely to originate with the panel PC in this ARC chassis.

Distortion versus extended frequency from 5Hz-40 kHz a 0dBV (left, black; right, red)

Distortion versus extended frequency from 5Hz-40 kHz a 0dBV (left, black; right, red)


§  Maximum output (<1% THD, 47kohm):  >30Vrms (Balanced)

§  Maximum input level (<1% THD): >20Vrms (Balanced)

§  Output impedance (20Hz-20 kHz): 320-279ohm (Balanced)

§  Frequency response (20Hz-100 kHz): +0.01dB to -6.7dB

§  Input sensitivity: 238mV

§  wtd S/N ratio (re. 0dBV): 97.1dB

§  Distortion (20 kHz-20 kHz re.0dBV): 0.0010-0.0028%

§  Power consumption: 200W

§  Dimensions (WHD): 480x178x394mm (each chassis)


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