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The front of the unit is large, with a brushed aluminum face (also available in black) with two large handles that frame in the center section housing a massive display with a volume indicator that could be read from across the street let alone across a room. If desired, the display can be dimmed or turned off completely. The volume and input knobs are on either side of the display, with volume resting on the left and input on the right. Buttons for power, processor, balanced versus single ended, mono, invert and mute run below the display. The unit weighs in at just over 30 pounds and is 19 inches wide, seven inches tall and 17 inches deep and costs $12,000.
The Ref 5 offers seven inputs, either balanced or single ended and three outputs, two mains, and one record out. One input is a dedicated home theater processor bypass and provides unity gain only. The inputs run from left to right on the rear with the superbly machined and gold plated RCA and balanced connectors. The left channel is on the bottom, the right across the top. A bank of seven sets of inputs and one of the three sets of outputs are placed separately. On the far right rear of the unit are the 20 Amp IEC connector for the power cord, fuse and two 12 Volt triggers.
Everything about this unit is over built by hand in Minnesota, from the massive aluminum front panel to the quarter inch aluminum plate sides. The top is made of vented smoked plastic that allows you to look in and see the glow of the tubes when the unit is on. Tube life is monitored by the preamp and the hours on your tubes easily displayed by pressing the assigned button on the remote, which is pretty simple, offering discrete input selection volume, balance, tube hours and every other function the preamp is capable of performing. The remote is not backlit.
The Reference 5 comes packed like the audio gem that it is. Not only does the unit ship double boxed but the smaller box is fully encased in foam within the outer box for maximum protection. Included are the preamp, power cord, remote, a Philips head screwdriver and a welcome inclusion for a home theater guy - a brief four-page manual. I actually read the manual cover to cover prior to connecting the Ref 5, something I never could imagine doing for a modern AV preamp or receiver. Unboxing the preamp is just the start, and that included screwdriver is to remove the top cover to clear out some more packing material and install the tubes, five 6H30P, one in the power supply and a 6550C tube need to be placed into the preamps main board, then the top reattached and you are good to go.
I connected the Reference 5 to my main rig which includes the EMM Labs TSD1/DAC2 CD/SACD player, the Classe' SSP-800 AV preamp, an Oppo Digital BD-83 NuForce Edition, ran through a Krell Evolution 403 amp to my Escalante Fremont loudspeakers and all wired with Transparent Reference XL balanced cables and speaker wires. I wired the CD player directly to the balanced inputs and the balanced outputs of my Classe SSP800 to the processor input.
Tubes take some time to burn in, generally a couple hundred hours, and the Ref 5's are no different. The unit I received had some 350 hours on the chassis but was supplied with new tubes so I had to burn them in prior to doing any serious listening. My audiophile gurus informed me to run the preamp for at least 200 hours before I seriously listened to it, but I had to cheat along the way. I found it compelling as the presentation of the music changed as the tubes got more time on them throughout this burn in process.
When evaluating a unit of this level I set pretty high standards and use music that will allow me to best assess such apiece. I started off with Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Columbia) on SACD. From the opening notes of "So What" I realized I had found something special. Keyboards were lively and had exceptional attack while the bass lines had warmth and depth to them, I felt so close to the music I could almost smell the smoke in the room. In spite of the lush tube sound, dynamics were huge while quiet passages were absolutely silent. "Blue in Green" showed off just how quiet this preamp was while you could feel the bass' strings being plucked. The sound was so involving, you simply were drawn into the music and rarely have I experienced such a 'you are there' feeling as with this setup. This is the kind of sound everyone strives for when demoing a system, but few can provide.
Read more about the performance of the Ref 5 preamplifier on Page 2.