Audio Research Ref3 SE Phono comparisons

singulaudio

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Oct 24, 2021
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Now that Audio Research has come out with the Ref 3 SE phono, which has pushed the envelope even further for a hybrid FET and tube combination, perhaps without equal in this design, I'm wondering if anyone has revisited comparisons to some of highest rated all-tube stages ever, such as the Ypsilon VPS-100 or the Aesthetix IO. Does it now compete on equal ground or even exceed these other top contenders in the areas they excel in? The VPS-100, without FETs and without capacitors, seems to be viewed as unequaled in the areas of smoothness, layering of voices, holographic imaging, etc., which I hold critical for maximum enjoyment of classical music. I recently compared a Ref 3 SE to my Pass Labs XP-27. While mine sounds very quiet and transparent, with excellent high frequency extension and bass slam, it fell short to the Ref 3 SE in the qualities I mentioned above. So now I'm really wondering if I want to improve upon what I have, should I check out a used Ypsilon, which I saw recently for around the same money as a new Ref 3 SE. I'm aware of some of the complications involved with the former, such as needing to get the matching transformer and getting a decent interconnect for it. And of course I should not neglect the Ref 10 phono in this discussion, but I'm more curious about comparisons to all tube designs.
 
Now that Audio Research has come out with the Ref 3 SE phono, which has pushed the envelope even further for a hybrid FET and tube combination, perhaps without equal in this design, I'm wondering if anyone has revisited comparisons to some of highest rated all-tube stages ever, such as the Ypsilon VPS-100 or the Aesthetix IO. Does it now compete on equal ground or even exceed these other top contenders in the areas they excel in? The VPS-100, without FETs and without capacitors, seems to be viewed as unequaled in the areas of smoothness, layering of voices, holographic imaging, etc., which I hold critical for maximum enjoyment of classical music. I recently compared a Ref 3 SE to my Pass Labs XP-27. While mine sounds very quiet and transparent, with excellent high frequency extension and bass slam, it fell short to the Ref 3 SE in the qualities I mentioned above. So now I'm really wondering if I want to improve upon what I have, should I check out a used Ypsilon, which I saw recently for around the same money as a new Ref 3 SE. I'm aware of some of the complications involved with the former, such as needing to get the matching transformer and getting a decent interconnect for it. And of course I should not neglect the Ref 10 phono in this discussion, but I'm more curious about comparisons to all tube designs.
Welcome singulaudio to wbf.
 
The VPS-100, without FETs and without capacitors, seems to be viewed as unequaled in the areas of smoothness, layering of voices, holographic imaging, etc., which I hold critical for maximum enjoyment of classical music.

One all-tube alternative is the Aesthetix IO with its various options. Another is the Atma-Sphere MP-1.

Wrt the Ref 3 SE, imo ARC's Ref Phono 10 remains their top phono stage.

Audio Research preamps and phono stages are well known for their sense of space, openness. and layering. What other critical criteria do you use for judging a phono stage besides the psychoacoustic properties you mention?

When looking for an all-tube phono, low noise tubes become all the more important. You may want to include a tube tester in your budget.
 
One all-tube alternative is the Aesthetix IO with its various options. Another is the Atma-Sphere MP-1.

Wrt the Ref 3 SE, imo ARC's Ref Phono 10 remains their top phono stage.

Audio Research preamps and phono stages are well known for their sense of space, openness. and layering. What other critical criteria do you use for judging a phono stage besides the psychoacoustic properties you mention?

When looking for an all-tube phono, low noise tubes become all the more important. You may want to include a tube tester in your budget.
My acid test for phono stages and other equipment is how well it portrays massed strings. If I can get through the first movement of Brahm's 3rd symphony without cringing, that's a good sign. The Ref 3 SE I demoed seemed to pass that test, but it only had under 40 hours on it, so it may well be worth letting one break in. The Hagerman reverse RIAA filter would help with that. I'm now intrigued about the Ref 10 Phono also. For what it's worth, I have heard that the Ref 6 SE is about as good as the Ref 10 in terms of sound quality, but without the extreme dynamics of the latter, so, perhaps that analogy would apply to the corresponding phono stages, but of course that's just an assumption. It seems like a difficult journey ahead. The Ref 3 SE may well be the correct choice for me, but for that kind of money, I feel that I really need to be informed. My Ref 6SE purchase was more a no-brainer, based on extensive evaluations showing that the previous Ref 6 was clearly superior to anything else I tried, and the fact that it is all tube.
 
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I wish I could add my own observations and comments but not having a balanced/xlr input prevents my purchase of one to go with my ref6/250se’s. I believe this may be an oversight on their part as virtually all the ref series uses balanced connections. Perhaps the Phono Ref5?
 
If you are looking for an all-tube phono preamp with SUT, you should consider the EMIA LR Phono Corrector. There is a thread in this forum where several owners described it and compared it to other preamps.

I have only heard the EMIA at the Capital Audio Fest, not in my own system, but it is very similar to my DIY phono with EMIA SUT.
 
I wish I could add my own observations and comments but not having a balanced/xlr input prevents my purchase of one to go with my ref6/250se’s. I believe this may be an oversight on their part as virtually all the ref series uses balanced connections. Perhaps the Phono Ref5?

Perhaps I am not quite understanding. Are you talking about the absence of XLR inputs on an ARC phonostage? There are very few phonostages with balanced input.

I've had the Ref Phono 2, 2SE, 3 and 10 in my system and they all have RCA inputs with both RCA and XLR outputs. (The 5 and 5SE are linestages that paralled the 2 and 2SE phonostages.)

Btw, I had the Ref 250SE's in my system for several weeks - great amps!
 
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Hi tima

Correct, I am talking about balanced inputs.
I previously used an Avid Pulsare II but have since purchased an Esoteric E-02 which is excellent in both sound quality and (relative) cost.
As cartridges are inherently balanced, I had my triplanar se cable terminated with XLR’s. As it’s not detachable (1 less connection point) I did have limited options.
Very happy with this set up however
 
Now that Audio Research has come out with the Ref 3 SE phono, which has pushed the envelope even further for a hybrid FET and tube combination, perhaps without equal in this design, I'm wondering if anyone has revisited comparisons to some of highest rated all-tube stages ever, such as the Ypsilon VPS-100 or the Aesthetix IO. Does it now compete on equal ground or even exceed these other top contenders in the areas they excel in? The VPS-100, without FETs and without capacitors, seems to be viewed as unequaled in the areas of smoothness, layering of voices, holographic imaging, etc., which I hold critical for maximum enjoyment of classical music. I recently compared a Ref 3 SE to my Pass Labs XP-27. While mine sounds very quiet and transparent, with excellent high frequency extension and bass slam, it fell short to the Ref 3 SE in the qualities I mentioned above. So now I'm really wondering if I want to improve upon what I have, should I check out a used Ypsilon, which I saw recently for around the same money as a new Ref 3 SE. I'm aware of some of the complications involved with the former, such as needing to get the matching transformer and getting a decent interconnect for it. And of course I should not neglect the Ref 10 phono in this discussion, but I'm more curious about comparisons to all tube designs.
Well, I just did this. REF 3SE to Ypsilon (Also owned an XP27). I’m using the MSL 1030 SUT with an Atlas Lambda SL, but also own the Ypsilon MC20, and the Lyra Erodion for other carts. Feel free to PM me.
 
This is my first post. Like many here, I’ve been engaged in the “high fidelity” hobby since the dawn of the stereo era. Over the years I’ve put together synergistic personal systems from Scott, McIntosh, Conrad Johnson, Krell, and Mark Levinson. My most magical systems have developed around CJ, ARC, and Krell electronics, and Thiel, Martin Logan, and Revel speakers.

Although I have owned ARC phono preamps, I’ve never owned the Reference level, so I can’t comment on how they compare to others. But I do own both the Conrad Johnson TEA1 and TEA2MAX HG. I use them with Lyra Etna and Lyra Kleos cartridges respectively in systems at two different houses. All CJ units are single ended only.

When I read this thread, I was surprised that no one mentioned them. They really are quite good. They do not have remote controls, displays, or Equalization curve choices. The TEA1 does have two phono inputs, and uses back of the unit dip switches to change R and C loading. The TEA2MAX HG just has one phono input, and has R loading choices (interior to the unit), but no C choices.

I’ve always loved the ARC convenience features. They even have remote control of cartridge load on the fly. But in listening, between the units I’ve owned, the CJ phono preamps have had greater presence.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of someone who’s directly compared the current top ARC phono preamp to the CJ TEA1. Has anyone done this?
 
Lol I guess I am way out of date but how would you compare the arc reference one phono stage to these others. I had a krell kpa that in my opinion was a much lower level
 
Lol I guess I am way out of date but how would you compare the arc reference one phono stage to these others. I had a krell kpa that in my opinion was a much lower level
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the REF 3, REF 3SE (about 2000 hours), the Ypsilon VPS 100 (about 500 hours), the Boulder 2008 (maybe 250 hours), the D’Ag Momentum Phono (maybe 40 hours), and the Nagra Classic Phono (about 50 hours). That’s with multiple carts of very different sounds, and with multiple SUTs, and with various ‘tables and arms and phono cables. Bottom line, in my room, to my ears, I like the Yip more than anything. All the qualities discussed in this thread, with real believability and engagement, but without a sense of “showing off.” Like a world class athlete who makes everything seem so easy, compared to those athletes who play with contrived flair and drama. Nagra comes in second place. REF 3SE in third. And that ranking stays the same across multiple carts. (My system is otherwise solid state, so I think I naturally enjoy tubed p-stages a bit more, just because I like that dash of 3D tubiness somewhere in the chain).

I could see someone listening to both the ARC and the Yip for 15 minutes apiece and preferring the extroverted presentation of the ARC. But I wouldn’t take that bet if the test involved 15 hours apiece across an assortment of recordings, especially with a Lyra or VDH.

I will say this about the Yip: I bought mine used from Andy Singer. Putting in new tubes, selected and matched by Yipsilon, made a huge difference (as he predicted). It’s hard to tell if a used VPS 100 needs new tubes, but I suspect most of them do. And that can take 6-8 months.

Also, the Yip sounds noticeably better if it’s been on for a couple hours at least.
 
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the REF 3, REF 3SE (about 2000 hours), the Ypsilon VPS 100 (about 500 hours), the Boulder 2008 (maybe 250 hours), the D’Ag Momentum Phono (maybe 40 hours), and the Nagra Classic Phono (about 50 hours). That’s with multiple carts of very different sounds, and with multiple SUTs, and with various ‘tables and arms and phono cables. Bottom line, in my room, to my ears, I like the Yip more than anything. All the qualities discussed in this thread, with real believability and engagement, but without a sense of “showing off.” Like a world class athlete who makes everything seem so easy, compared to those athletes who play with contrived flair and drama. Nagra comes in second place. REF 3SE in third. And that ranking stays the same across multiple carts. (My system is otherwise solid state, so I think I naturally enjoy tubed p-stages a bit more, just because I like that dash of 3D tubiness somewhere in the chain).

I could see someone listening to both the ARC and the Yip for 15 minutes apiece and preferring the extroverted presentation of the ARC. But I wouldn’t take that bet if the test involved 15 hours apiece across an assortment of recordings, especially with a Lyra or VDH.

I will say this about the Yip: I bought mine used from Andy Singer. Putting in new tubes, selected and matched by Yipsilon, made a huge difference (as he predicted). It’s hard to tell if a used VPS 100 needs new tubes, but I suspect most of them do. And that can take 6-8 months.

Also, the Yip sounds noticeably better if it’s been on for a couple hours at least.
So have you ever listened to the first reference arc?
 
So have you ever listened to the first reference arc?
I never have. The only thought I left out: it’s been a few years, but I also rank the Manley Chinook amongst my faves. Bang for buck it’s easily No 1 in my book. Upscale Audio might sell it with a 30 day return policy.
 
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In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the REF 3, REF 3SE (about 2000 hours), the Ypsilon VPS 100 (about 500 hours), the Boulder 2008 (maybe 250 hours), the D’Ag Momentum Phono (maybe 40 hours), and the Nagra Classic Phono (about 50 hours). That’s with multiple carts of very different sounds, and with multiple SUTs, and with various ‘tables and arms and phono cables. Bottom line, in my room, to my ears, I like the Yip more than anything. All the qualities discussed in this thread, with real believability and engagement, but without a sense of “showing off.” Like a world class athlete who makes everything seem so easy, compared to those athletes who play with contrived flair and drama. Nagra comes in second place. REF 3SE in third. And that ranking stays the same across multiple carts. (My system is otherwise solid state, so I think I naturally enjoy tubed p-stages a bit more, just because I like that dash of 3D tubiness somewhere in the chain).

I could see someone listening to both the ARC and the Yip for 15 minutes apiece and preferring the extroverted presentation of the ARC. But I wouldn’t take that bet if the test involved 15 hours apiece across an assortment of recordings, especially with a Lyra or VDH.

I will say this about the Yip: I bought mine used from Andy Singer. Putting in new tubes, selected and matched by Yipsilon, made a huge difference (as he predicted). It’s hard to tell if a used VPS 100 needs new tubes, but I suspect most of them do. And that can take 6-8 months.

Also, the Yip sounds noticeably better if it’s been on for a couple hours at least.

And Albert Porter and his listening group had preferred the Allnic lower model first, Ypsilon second, and aesthetix third. I have compared Allnic 7000 and the Ypsilon using Lyra atlas with the Ypsilon SUT designed for it, with the recti rolled in the Allnic. The Allnic was better on midbass and energy, the Ypsilon had a bit extended high. The Allnic 5000/8000 is a different category. Btw I own neither and also like the thrax phono, and Misho’s 4k euro direct purchase from Bulgaria. and at Anamighty sound the phasemation sounds better than the thrax. The phono market has some good phonos, best is to stay with one that is flexible. Ypsilon requires a separate SUT for each cart. Thrax and Allnic are quite flexible for multiple MC, MM, mono
 
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I never have. The only thought I left out: it’s been a few years, but I also rank the Manley Chinook amongst my faves. Bang for buck it’s easily No 1 in my book. Upscale Audio might sell it with a 30 day return policy.
The reference phono stage I have was given to me as a present from a fellow who had one and a friend asked if he wanted to buy drop him. He made two people happy that day. I has sold my krell as the phono stage I liked more was the built I one on my Ayre k1xe. Then my friend gave me this arc and I like it much better than the Ayre. Like you this is a solid state system with a tube front end. A McIntosh mr71 and a sonic frontier dac and transport 3. My first update I am thinking about is a koetsu. What are your thoughts on them? A friend had an original black. I have listened to a frog and grasshopper as well as a glider and a klyde. Lol the klyde is the worse and that is the one I bought. Anyhow I liked the v
Black the best with the glider and cadas heart number two.
 
I could see someone listening to both the ARC and the Yip for 15 minutes apiece and preferring the extroverted presentation of the ARC. But I wouldn’t take that bet if the test involved 15 hours apiece across an assortment of recordings, especially with a Lyra or VDH.

I can appreciate your point. I'll suggest the same short and longer term experiment with the ARC Ref Phono 10. It is not extroverted in the way the ARC Ref 3 or Ref 3SE are.
 
Define "extroverted" to you.

I have a Ref 2 Phono SE now but will be demoing a Ref 3 SE.
 
OK, in listening to a Ref 3 SE as compared to my Ref 2 SE, what has stood out to me is soundstage positioning seems much better on the 3 SE.

For example, when playing New Frontier from the MoFi One Step of The Nightfly, the harmonica is clearly on the right, but through the 3 SE it’s not only on the right but clearly behind the right speaker; I don’t get that same sense from the 2 SE even though the sonic quality of the harmonica is similar for the two.

But the 3 SE isn’t just sending everything back; rather the 3 SE seems to more definitively position instruments in space as compared to the 2 SE.

Very interesting; not what I would consider “extroverted,” it seems like extra (non-fatiguing) detail.
 
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Define "extroverted" to you.
...

Hi Bill - I just happened to see your message. My suggestion is to do a reply or put the username with an ampersand in front of it, inside your message. That way the person you'd like to hear from knows there is a post for him.

I compared the Ref 3 in my room to both the Ref 2SE and the Ref 10 phono for a review I never published. Linestages were the Ref 5SE and the Ref 10. Lamm M1.2 amps, Wilson Alexia 2 speakers.

All three phono stages offer the modern audio research house sound: quiet, open, quick, spatial, detailed, more lighter than dark, with tonality leaning a wee touch to the silver moreso than the gold, nice attack and decay.

My sense was that ARC wanted a bit more excitement in their sound -- something to distinquish the 3 from the 2SE. The 3 had a slightly fuller, weightier sound with a sense of pushing the music at me, its sound was more forward, slightly less relaxed, slightly less natural. Slightly more depth and layering - which is what you reported. A bit more harmonic information in the mid-bass. This is not so much about instrument positioning, but overall character. It was bolder, more masculine, more extroverted than the 2SE.

circa 2017

ARC-ANGEL.png
 

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