Audio Research Reference 2 preamplifier in excellent condition. This line stage has had two owners and the current owner has been listening to it the past 10 years. Would have rated it a 9/10 for its absence of any scratches, dings, marks, but there is a slightly bent (downward) record out right RCA jack. The record out RCAs operate perfectly as-is, but because of this only sign of wear, condition is 8/10 instead of the rest of the unit which is 9/10. Sonically excellent, like-new. It comes with a complete set of tubes with ~1100 hours on them, and a brand new (over $700 value) Jim McShane matched tube set too. Comes with all accessories as new: box, packaging, remote, AC power cord, 2 complete sets of tubes, tube damper rings, factory screwdriver, owner's manual, and brochure. We ship the same day payment is received, shop with confidence and look at our hundreds of positive feedback transactions over the past 15 years. Herndon Audio can take all credit cards, PayPal, AudioGon Express Checkout (Stripe), check, etc. Price includes shipping, insurance, and transaction fees, everything to your door.
Audio Research's first 21st-century, audiophile-quality line-stage preamplifier combines retro-tech vacuum-tube amplification and power-supply circuitry with innovative, remote-controlled gain, balance, tape monitoring, and signal routing. The price is also 21st-century: $9995. As in ARC's Reference phono section, the Reference Two's pair of vertically mounted circuit boards results in a single, relatively tall chassis.
The fully balanced gain section, rated at 2V RMS balanced (maximum output is 30V RMS) and 1V single-ended, uses eight specially selected Sovtek dual-triode 6922 tubes, while the onboard power supply consists of a 5AR4 rectifier tube, with the resultant DC regulated by a 6L6GC and a 6922.
In place of traditional mechanical potentiometers or stepped attenuators, the volume and balance controls are spring-loaded on/off switches that control the electronic attenuator's 125 steps. Turn the volume control quickly in either direction and release, and the level rises or drops by a single step. Hold the switch to the left or right and the gain increases or decreases continually, measured by a succession of LEDs surrounding the gain and balance knobs on the unit's face. There are far fewer than 125 LEDs around the knobs—the level and balance can be changed by many steps before any change is reflected in the LED display.
Similar spring-loaded electronic switches control the eight selectable inputs and the seven-position tape-monitor facility, giving you the option of listening to one source while taping another. Four toggle switches control power, muting, balanced/single-ended in, and phase. Once configured, a memory feature automatically switches between single-ended and balanced inputs as you switch through the input choices.
The slim, compact remote control duplicates all of the front-panel controls except for the balanced/single-ended switch, which, after the initial input configuration, you won't need to adjust anyway. With volume and source remote-controllable, the Reference Two is a reviewer's best friend.
Continuing a long Audio Research tradition, the rear panel's right-channel row of inputs and outputs is placed above the left-channel row. Don't ask me why; everyone else does the opposite. Whatever: the chassis-mounted RCA and XLR jacks are generously spaced and easily accessed. In addition, there are two sets of Main outs, a Record out, and an IEC mains jack.
Everything about the solidly built Reference Two has been designed for the convenience of the well-heeled audiophile able to buy such an expensive product—everything but the 16 screws he or she will have to remove to get to the circuit boards and install the tubes. Hopefully that inconvenience won't have to be repeated for many years! While ARC thoughtfully provides a high-quality screwdriver, I was happy to have a a powered screwdriver (set to minimum torque) for the task.
Operation and Sound
The Reference Two is not intended to be left on continually, but about an hour's warmup time is needed before it's ready to give you all the music it's got. If you buy one and want to listen after a hard day at the office, switch it on before dinner—though it will play after about 45 seconds.
The remote is a pleasure to use, and, with its phase-inversion and input-selection capabilities, offers genuine 21st-century convenience. Thankfully, AR chose not to adapt a cheap, plastic mid-fi remote—an insult to the purchaser of a $10,000 preamp—nor did it encase the remote in a weighty, unwieldy aluminum sarcophagus. The Ref 2's remote is lightweight, unobtrusive, and won't tire your wrist muscles.
I used the Ref 2 in single-endd mode and once broken in and warmed up, the Reference Two sounded like anything but the proverbial "straight wire with gain." It definitely had its own sound. I confirmed this by connecting my EAD DSP9000 Mk.3 processor directly to the power amplifier via its internal digital/analog volume control, then through the Ref 2.
The Ref 2 definitely changed the sonic landscape, but in ways that were subtly euphonic and ultimately pleasurable, even after long-term listening—especially
after long-term listening. Given that most recordings are too bright and too edgy and most mikes too tipped-up on top, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you like tubes, you'll like the Ref 2. If you don't...you still
might like it.
Like a plush, comfortable chair, the Ref 2 put a soft cushion around the music's bottom end—not so cushy that the deep bass sank in and disappeared into the foam, but enough to add a warm, comfortable, enriching envelope. Sort of like tube gear in the days of yore, but with no disruption of the timing of bass events. If that sounds to you as if the bass was slightly fat, fair enough—but the Ref also added a whompin', stompin', explosive bass dynamic that was downright nuclear in its attack. Soft and mushy this bass wasn't! (Thank you, Yoda.)
The net effect was big, dynamic, rhythmically lithe bass that was just slightly larger than what was in the signal fed to the Ref 2. No doubt with some loudspeakers this might lead to overload or oversize, but through the Sonus Faber Amati Homages, which do not offer tight, overdamped bass to begin with, the results on great bass-rich recordings (like Davy Spillane's Atlantic Bridge) were always musically effective. Bass never sounded smothered, syrupy, uncontrolled, or unnatural. Rock-band kick drums on great recordings like The Clash's Sandanista (British CBS FSLN 1), while rich and full-sounding, had plenty of slap and texture without becoming rhythmically or tonally soggy.
This sort of rich bass performance would probably stick out like an unwanted hangnail if it wasn't so well connected to the higher registers. The Ref 2's performance above the bass was also subtly more vivid, warm, and harmonically enriched than the incoming signal, but only slightly so: full bloom, no stem rot. The result was a coherent, fertile, BIG picture—the fundamental opposite of the best solid-state preamps, like my reference, the Ayre K-1x. To some ears and with some associated gear, such gear can sound overly damped below and knife-sharp-thin on top, just as, to some, the Ref 2 will sound overripe. That's why there's more than one high-end audio manufacturer, and why some experienced ears prefer Krell, others Conrad-Johnson, though the two companies' sounds are at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum.
I borrowed a friend's 1980s-vintage Audio Research SP11, and it sounded far less "together" than the Reference Two, with punched-up upper mids, a thin "hot" band in the treble, a noticeable warm zone in the midbass, and generally far more of a "hi-fi" sound. Highly regarded in its day, the SP11 can't compare to ARC's latest effort.
Compared to the fresh-out-of-the-box Ayre K-1x (updated from the K-1 with the new power supply), the Ref 2's top end was ever so slightly soft, taking a bit of the metallic edge off of cymbals and the hard ringing of bells. One of my favorite test tracks for this is John Renbourn's exquisitely recorded Sir John A lot of (Transatlantic TRA 167), which features a fabulous acoustic guitar and crystalline finger cymbals and glockenspiel. The Ref 2 took a bit off the top-end extension and "ring" compared to the K-1x, but not enough to harm the astonishing clarity and illusion of reality of the percussive events, or to slow or soften the attack of Renbourn's guitar, which sounded slightly more rich and woody through the Ref 2.
That compliments both products, which fall just to either side of the "neutral" line. The Ref 2 sounded fast. It kept up with the K-1x, while sounding somewhat richer and more fully fleshed-out. This is not to say it sounded better or worse; it all depends on your taste and associated gear.
The Reference Two was quiet for a tube amp, with just a trace of thin white noise when no signal was fed it—a far narrower spectrum than the usual "tube rush." Still, there was a slight price to pay for the raised noise floor compared to the best solid-state preamps: on classical recordings, lower resolution of very-low-level information such as back-of-the-stage reverberant events; and on pop and rock, a de-emphasis of electronic studio effects. The latter was actually a blessing; most of this studio detritus is not supposed to be so obvious in the mix, and isn't with the kind of gear it's usually played through.
Dynamics at both ends of the scale were among the best I've heard, rivaled only by the Sharp SM-SX100 digital amplifier: explosive at the loud end, nuanced and capable of revealing fine gradations below. The Ref 2 never unraveled on orchestral crescendos, maintaining spatial and tonal integrity. Its rendering of small-scaled, delicate dynamic movement gave life to some recordings that previously had seemed to fade into a glaze as the musical detail descended in level. The Reference Two delivered this sensation of living music even at relatively low volume levels. Put It All Together and...
The Reference Two's sonic parts were impressive, if not perfectly neutral. It had character, but because of its superb overall balance, not what I would call noticeable flaws. A lean speaker would probably mate well with the Ref 2, a plummy one not so well, but to be a truly bad
match a speaker would have to almost be off the richness scale, and its bass would have to be nearly out of control. Or, one's room would have to have a serious "bump" in its low-frequency acoustics.
The Sonus Faber Amati leans toward rich and lush in the midrange, and is slightly reticent on top. Yet the combo of the Amatis, the Reference Two and Reference phono stage, the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, and everyfront-end I tried, analog or digital, was magical. And the Rockport Technologies System III Sirius turntable took this assemblage to overwhelming, near-orgasmic levels of sonic pleasure with all varieties of music.
The Reference Two managed to take the edge off of unpleasant recordings—that is, all too many of them—without spoiling or diluting the sonic wonders of great recordings. It conveyed the woody weight and majesty of a grand piano, while preserving the instrument's felt-on-metal percussive attack, better than any preamp I've heard. With the speed-perfect Rockport in the system, the combination yielded the most realistic piano sound I've heard from recordings, in terms of tone, dynamics, and, especially, space. It's a matter of balance, and balance was the Ref 2's strongest suit.
The Reference Two's rhythmic presentation was convincing without being stiff, its image focus sharp without being edgy, and its portrayal of image size appropriately big, solid, and robustly three-dimensional, all without bloat. The Ref 2's tonal balance, while slightly soft on top and slightly rich on bottom, was, overall, as musically neutral as I've heard, with the frequency extremes complemented by a gorgeous, liquid midrange. And the preamp's dynamic presentation was a clear stand-out.
That's why the Reference Two was equally at home with rock, jazz, classical, and every other genre of music I played through it. Unlike the Jadis RC JP80 MC Mk.2 (reviewed in the December 1998 Stereophile), which was gorgeous when fed classical music and at a loss with rock's rhythms and electric bass foundation, the Ref 2 sailed through every musical challenge I set it. I've heard that the Ref 1 could sound lean, if super-detailed, and the original Ref 2 a bit ripe and stuffy. The current version of the Ref 2, which is what I reviewed, has a tube complement that must pass a new, rigorous cherry-picking procedure, and a few other changes.
It's only a line section and it costs $10,000, but the Audio Research Reference Two looks, feels, behaves, and sounds like a $10,000 product. It combines the best of the old technology—including tube rectification and regulation, super-dynamic presentation—with the signal-routing and remote-control features demanded by today's affluent audiophiles, including remote phase inversion and fully balanced operation. The extra gain and added quiet should only improve what is already the most credible-sounding, musically poised preamplifier I've heard.
True, the Ref 2 seemed to ever so subtly enrich what it was fed, but this was done with such magical sleight of hand that I remained unaware of the behind-the-scenes sonic activity. I never wished for more or less while listening, whether it was the Eurythmics' horn-blasting "Would I Lie to You?" or the RCA Soria LP edition of The Horowitz Collection, a set of remarkably clean-sounding vintage mono recordings from the mid-1940s through the mid-'50s. The result was that the Ref 2 remained in my system for months; I forgot about it until I had to send it to JA for measurement.
If you can afford it, and if its seamless though quite distinct sonic stamp fits your system, room, and your particular idea of what sounds real in the artificial world of recorded sound, you'll find the Audio Research Reference Two a reliable, long-term musical partner.