So far, so good: a painless pre-amp with a helluva fine phono section. Even allowing for the need for medium-or-higher output cartridges, the phono stage has plenty in the way of dynamic range, with a low noise floor, a freedom from tube artefacts and lots speed. Transparency matched that of the line sections, so it's clear that Audio Research paid extra attention to modernising the phono section to appeal to 21st Century ears. It's worth noting, however, that the transparency is of so high a calibre that you will notice the intrusion of a step-up - extra leads not the least part of the compromise - so SP16 owners will probably gravitate toward high output cartridges by natural selection.
Key elements of ARC-ness found readily in the SP16 are openness, coupled to a sweet top end, the latter leading me to feed it disc after disc of female vocals. As I'm currently suffering a bluegrass jag, it meant loads of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, with forays into country warblers such as Crystal Gayle. In every case, these voices demand clarity, and this pre-amp is so exceptionally texture-free that it put me off my fave vintage pre-amps. An unexpected benefit, however, especially odd given my loathing for cable testing, was the way that the unit's behaviour showed up cable differences with almost breathtaking immediacy. And to discern differences between, say, two grades of Kimber within a 10 seconds play is something to covet.
And yet there's nothing at all clinical about the experience. Modern-sounding and analytical it may be, but without the martinet stance of today's best solid-state pre-amps: you simply cannot accuse it of being hygienic. But here's the burning question: Is the SP16 reminiscent of the ARC preamps which inspired it? Suffice it to say, audio memory ain't all that reliable, but I would suggest that the SP16 leapfrogs backwards, over the SP9, SP14 and SP15 to Johnson's greatest achievements: the SP10 and SP11. It shows traces of their warmth and emulates their glorious soundstages, while emulating their precision.
So am I describing a missing link between the highly collectible SP10/11 and the current LS25...let alone the Reference 2? 'Fraid so. Which makes the phono version of the SP16 a astonishing bargain at 2499, and the line version SP16L a veritable steal at 2199. So, join with me on a count of three: Welcome back, Bill.