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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.
I next went to a new favorite disc of mine, Jimi Hendrix's Blues (MCA) and was in awe at what the Reference 5 did to improve the level of my system from it's already stellar level. On "Hear My Train a Comin' (acoustic)" the texture of the twelve string guitar was amazing, the guitars wooden body's resonance was palpable. The opening bass line in "Born Under a Bad Sign" was powerful with absolute control while the guitar had wonderful sense and accuracy. Jimi's vocals were clean and smooth with a space and texture rarely perceived. The soundstage was huge and I literally felt as though I was amongst the musicians during my listening sessions.
I cued up the Rippington's Topaz (Windham Hill Records) to test dynamics and punch of the Reference 5 preamp. The woods in the opening of "Toas" sounded simply perfect, as though they were there with me, and the guitar came in with lifelike attack while the bass lines were perfectly defined. The reproduction of the flamenco guitar at the start of "Under a Spanish Moon" was amazing and the texture of it and the stand up bass were simply to die for. "Snakedance" showed the Reference 5 preamp could play fast and funky just as well as it did with slower passages.
For TV and movie watching I found the processor bypass did exactly as it should, it let the front speakers in my home theater remain balanced with the rest of the system, and this was easily verified with my SPL meter. On initial power up the Reference 5 will be muted and it takes 40 seconds for the tubes warm up. This was never a big issue, as my TV itself takes almost as long to warm up. To watch movies or TV the added warm up time was insignificant, nor was it for music, as by the time my player powered up and I put in a disc, the Ref 5 was ready to go. Sonically, the Ref 5 added a modicum of warmth to the overall sound of the Classe SSP-800, I guess but that's not why I was using it. The Ref 5 lives in my system for music playback.
The remote is small and basic and there is no back lighting, this is a minor gripe on a two-channel piece, however it does offer discrete input selection and worked quite well even off axis. The lack of an RS-232 control port is sure to frustrate the custom installers as increasingly the people who can afford and might want a Ref 5 from Audio Research are not as likely to be audiophiles who park this prized possession on some over-built table. They are more likely to want to run it with a Crestron and have it rack mounted in a custom Middle Atlantic rack.
The unit takes 40 seconds to power up and produce sound, and does require you to un-mute it after powering on, and while a minor issue, it might irk some used to solid-state preamps that instantly power on. Tubes do have a finite life span, and they will need to be replaced every few thousand hours, this could also bother those used to solid-state pieces but shouldn't scare anyone away from this piece. Musically I can't fault the Reference 5 preamplifier for anything. If you are metal-head, there might possibly be better preamps out there for bass control and overall musical drama but of you love classic rock, jazz, classical, world music, reggae and or most other forms of mostly acoustical musical - the Audio Research Ref 5 is just about as good as you can get.
The Audio Research Corporation's new Reference 5 tube preamp is one of the best preamplifiers in the world, truly able to pull you into the musical performance and make you feel as if you are right in front of the performers. The texture of the instruments and that vocals sounds incredible and the bass is produced with a warmth and control that sounds amazing. Simplistic design makes the piece easy to operate yet fully featured allowing balanced and single ended inputs and outputs to be used in any combination while the home theater bypass allows it to integrate into a high end home theater, as I did during this review.
I found the Audio Research Reference 5 preamplifier a pleasure to listen to and I often got lost in the music when listening with it in my system, it took my main system to a new level of enjoyment. The Reference 5 is built like a Sherman tank and likely will outlast you next car or two and for that matter and thanks to the company's policy of standing behind every piece they have ever made, it could be the last preamplifier you ever buy. Few pieces of audio gear bring this level of pride and shear joy to their owners. When your system sounds this good, you forget about everything but the music, and in the end isn't that what it's all about? When this review was done, I gave the Reference 5 the ultimate compliment; I bought it for my system reference to work in conjunction with the Classe SSP-800 AV preamp. If you want the best, most lifelike sound imaginable, go demo the new Reference 5 preamp, and I think you'll see why this one is staying here with me.