September 12, 2010

Still The Best? Audio Research Reference 3 Pre Amp.

My life long ARC buddy's new "used" toy, his pride and joy!

If you've been reading this blog for a while now, you'd understand my forbidden(I say forbidden, because in general, ARC pre amps do not sonically mate well with Pass Labs power amps, especially my Aleph 0!) love with the Audio Research Reference 3 pre amp. In my books, it's quite possibly one of the best pre amps your $$$ can buy today. By the way, when last available in year 2009, the ARC Ref 3 had a sticker price of RM$38k.

It's has very little sound character of it's own, much like a chameleon which changes it's skin colours to adapt to it's surroundings, creating the ultimate natural camouflage. The ARC Ref 3 does just that, it reflects the signal sources feed and adds nothing, while deducting very little from the source. When well matched with power amp in a highly synergistic system, it's sheer transparency, transient response, and un diluted sense of dynamics is to die for! The ARC Ref 3 has a totally neutral tonal balance, very refined and exquisite sounding highs. Mids of excellent clarity yet packing with solid density. Bass is thundering when required or just sublime when doing bass guitar licks. It's got none of the well known sonic draw backs of tube designs. In fact some did find the ARC Ref 3 totally un tube like at all. ARC got wind of that, and the result is the ARC Ref 5, which I am told, has some measure of added tubey-ness to it sound(of which I cannot confirm as I've not listened to the ARC Ref 5 yet!).

Alvin Tan of Perfect Hifi tells me that now is the best time to shop for a slightly used ARC Ref 3 pre amp. There's never been this much choice due to many Ref 3 owners waiting in line to up grade to the Ref 5. I last heard the list was 5 and growing! Prices range from RM$20-25k depending on age, condition, and colour of face plate. The black face ones tend to be cheaper by 10-15% because Malaysians in general dislike the black face plates (which I kinda like actually). There's also another factor to consider when buying a used ARC Ref 3. It's the year of make. It's very important to make sure you get a unit which serial no. indicates past year 2007 as date of manufacture. Apparently, the earlier batches are prone to power supply failures due to the use of resistors with too low wattage specs. In a country like Malaysia, where TNB does a superb job of non regulating our in coming power supply voltage, the resistors will eventually blow, resulting in complete regulator circuit failure. ARC rectified the problem in the latter(post 2007) batches by fitting higher wattage spec ed resistors in the power supply section of the pre amp.
This unit was sent to me a day after he got it to confirm it's clean bill of health! For me at least, still one of the best pre amp available out there today, ARC Ref 5 or not!

By the way, one of my life long ARC buddy(I said life long, because he only uses ARC equipment all the time) recently got this very healthy and clean looking post 2007 manufactured unit for RM$24k. According to the ARC Ref 3's tube usage hours meter, this unit had only being used for less than 400 hours! So new in fact, it's still got the new tubes burning in smell!

So, if you've been eyeing to get a used ARC Ref 3, what are you waiting for?

Call Alvin Tan of Perfect Hifi at 012-6082168 or 03-21421693.


Ken said...

I have to disagree with the statement that ARC preamp do not mate well with Pass amps.
I reviewed the Pass X350 which was mated to my LS25MkII and it was audio nirvana all the way.

Big E said...


You have your journey and experience and I have mine. Our journeys and findings on hifi need not agree at all.

For all I know, we may be looking at diferent directions to audio nirvana dom.

BTW, welcome back!

Ken said...

Big E,

I know that we have different taste but I feel you made a very strong statement when you mentioned

"because in general, ARC pre amps do not sonically mate well with Pass Labs power amps, especially my Aleph 0!)"

I feel this statement is wrong. That's my opinion

HS said...

Ken & Big E,
Could your extreme views be caused by an intermediary, ie the interconnect between the pre and power amp? I won't be surprised if it was the case.

Big E said...

Ken, HS,

There's a technical reason why I made the ARC pre + Pass Labs power amps matching remark. It's called impedence matching.

ARC tube pre amps typically outputs with a highish impedence of 200k ohms or so. Pass Aleph series has very low input impedence at 10k ohms. Hence the mis-match statement.

In my system, matching the ARC Ref 3 with my Pass Aleph resulted in highly transparent, refined and with slight warmth thrown in for good measure. The mis-match shows up when you throw a dynamic torture disc and the sound will show an aneamic side, in regards to transient and dynamics response.

In my own system context, matching the ARC Ref 3 to the Bryston 4B SST2 proved the superior combo.

The newer Pass Labs X series power amps have higher input impedence at 47k ohms. Perhaps that's why Ken did not feel the mis-match as much.

However, I've known friends who have ARC pre and Pass Labs X series power and their systems do have that symptomatic in varying degrees of what I experienced in my own system, hence my statement "in general".

Of course, all other things considered, like cables, room acoustics, speakers and tweaks used will influence the results to a great degree. In this regard, I know, both me and Ken have nothing in commom at all.

Add to the fact that our audio nirvana doms are far, far away from each other too, you can perhaps see the light, why we always have such opposing views.

Capernaum Creative Solutions Inc. said...

Excellent arguement Big E.

Most times it is usually down to just electrical matching and compatibility.

Good info too.

Kien Tatt said...

Have to agree with Big E. Had the Ref 3 and the Pass X350.5 and the sound didnt quite agree with me.

Dont know about the power supply thing. If true then there are two products from AR which have had problems with power supply....the other the CD7 which they "rectified" using a 5881 tube in place of 2x6h30pi tubes. Funny thing is perfect hifi called it an upgrade rather than fixing a fault. Owner pay lor....!!!

Hopefully the new CD8 and Ref 5 have no such problems.

Ken said...

Yo Big E,

I still do not agree with your assessment.

You mentioned that mismatch in impendance, i.e. of the output impedance of the preamp and the input impedance preamp is one of the reasons for less than stellar sound that one can get.
Mismatch in impedance usually result in less bass to the overall sound, nothing more. Most people cannot even hear the difference.

You mentioned that
"In my system, matching the ARC Ref 3 with my Pass Aleph resulted in highly transparent, refined and with slight warmth thrown in for good measure. The mis-match shows up when you throw a dynamic torture disc and the sound will show an aneamic side, in regards to transient and dynamics response."
This to me does not sound like an impendance mismatch. This sounds like your Pass Aleph is not powerful enough when it comes to challenging discs. I say this because the when you insert the more powerful bryston amp, the sound is more powerful and better. If you ask me your Pass Aleph is really showing its age and weakness of handling dynamic sound. Watts is watts. 300 watts is always stronger than 75 watts, whether it is class A or AB, though quality watts matters.

My Rowland is also an amp which has low input impedance and I also used a ARC LS25MkII which has high output impedance. I have never found my system wanting in terms of challenging discs because the Rowland outputs 250 watt, though my ATC can handle anything up to 1500 watt.

That's my view.

Capernaum Creative Solutions Inc. said...

Ken said,

"Mismatch in impedance usually result in less bass to the overall sound, nothing more. Most people cannot even hear the difference"

Err...this is not true at all.

Big E said...


I am not trying to convince you to agree with me. Over the years, we seemed to have agreed very little in regards to hifi.

You obviously have very diferent taste and preferences in hifi compared to me & Odiosleuth. I recognised that sometime ago and invited you to contribute, so that you can present your "diferent" take of hifi from another perspective. You never obliged, much to my disappointment.

That's why I welcome you each time I see you come in here, with hope that your flame never dies.

I agree watts is an issue and a whole lot of power can be used to overcome impedence matching, room acoustics, and a whole lot of other issues with ones hifi. It's called the bull dozer hifi fix.

I am not simply in to that. You must remember that there's no "perfect hifi"(pardon the pun!) more so components. One choses to accept all it's strength and weaknesses. Just like one's hifi.

Just curious, do you think your hifi is perfect?

And lastly, let's agree to disagree?

For old times sake, like we always do?


san said...

Mr Big E,

Do you know arc reference 3 minimum required impedence load is how much?

Mr Ken,

Do you know the difference in db between a 75w and a 250w amp?

Ken said...

Hi Big E,


Actually I could not contribute because I cannot promise you that I will be able to do so regularly. This is due to my busy schedule which can be quite unpredictable at times.
I disagree with you on your conclusion here because I feel that the problem is caused by another thing.


Sometimes, it is not due the difference in dB. It is the power provided by the amp to handle the dynamics of the music. Also quality watts is equally important.

Big E said...


Pardon my mistake earlier, I just check ARC web site for Reference 3 output impedence, it's 600k ohms for balance and 300k ohms for single ended. They did not spec the minimum though.


I normally refrain from generalizing statements. In fact I first heard about the ARC pre & Pass power combo issue a few years ago, from the very buddy who bought this ARC Ref3. At that time, he was using the Ref2 MKII partnering Pass X-350 power. Just like you, I never believed him at first! Until I heard his system, that is. He has now changed to matching ARC power amps.

Over the last few years, I've counted another 4 systems that I've heard excluding mine, who have mated ARC pre to Pass power with simillar results. Only 1 such system left as the rest of the owners have either changed pre or power, and in one extreme case, both pre & power changed!

Statistically, I believe I do have the advantage of numbers not to make a fool of my self, even if you disagree.

Anyway our door is always open for you and your thoughts. Your contribution is as much thought provoking as it is refreshing.

Great to know you're still as busy as ever and kicking!

Ken said...

Big E,

I find it puzzling that you found a few system where ARC mating poorly with Pass amps.
I think it is probably mismatched with other gears in the system. The biggest culprit would probably be the interconnects, though I wouldn't discount other things.
I do yearn for the Pass X350 in my system. The Sister Drum is out of this world though my Rowland 8 is no chopped liver.

Anyway, have to be kicking, otherwise I will be kicked out;-P


Anonymous said...

First of all, anyone who spends 30 grand for a preamp is a complete fool that neds his head examined. You dont even need a preamp if you use a cd player. I dont want to hear the nonsense that you need a buffer, or it helps with bass, or whatever, it simply is not needed. I have the most awesome colorfree preamp in the world-it is called a passive attenuator! Hey, arc, cj, and al other high end people would be out of business if they could not pursuade you to part with your money on stuff you do not need.

Duck said...


I am also interested about Impedance missmatch.

Can it also occur between a DAC and preamp?

In my case my DAC
(audio research dac8) has 500ohm on xlr into 47000ohm (47kohm)Preamp.

I think the sound is lean and kinda flat, no body to voices ect ect.


Big E said...

Hi! Duck, or is it Fedrik?

Impedence mis-match can happen any where, between source and pre amp, pre-amp and power amp.

However, they most likely show up more commonly between pre-amp and power amp.

As you did not mention your pre-amp and power amp make/model. It's hard for me to suggest now, where your most likely problem is?

Duck said...

Hi Big E.

Sorry for my late reply, I run GamuT electronics D3 pre and M250i monos, I am not sure either about the missmatch, just that I don´t like my DAC8 with GamuT, time will tell. Regards

Big E said...


Since your Gamut pre-power is from the same manufacturer, we can assume that they are made for each other. From specs, it would seem that the ARC DAC 8 would be the suspicious culprit, in the context of your system matching.

Not that the ARC is a bad products, but at 500 Ohms output impedance balanced, it's just a little too far off to match your Gamut D3 pre amp, which has an input impedance of only 40k Ohms.

The ARC/Gamut combo might actually sound better via the RCA conection rather than the XLR.

That aside, you may also wanna try a DAC with solid state ouput, which may give a better result?

Duck said...

Hello Big E.

No it does not sound better with RCA the ratio is the same 250ohm into 20Kohm, and the DAC8 is all solidstate, but the DAC8 sounds way better with my Primare SPA22 with RCA input impedance 47Kohm unbalanced.

The music sounds flat with no real dynamics and natural swing, and no good transients.

I think I am of for a new DAC!


Big E said...


My recomendation to try the RCA connection was based on a friend's sitiuation where his ARC tube pre-amp actually sounded better when connected to his Plinius power amp via the unbalanced output.

Specs is one thing, but the need to try things out will always be there.

Good luck on your new pre-amp hunt!

Big E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.