Price points plummetting like pebbles in a pond. Okay, maybe I forced the alliteration, but you've just gotta wax poetic when the cost of audio ecstasy drops -- and substantially to boot. The remaining digits on the sticker are still four figures, still beyond the reach of many, but I consider the halving of the tariff for the state of the art to be something worth celebrating.
And which company is the source of this largesse? Would you believe Audio Research, every valve lover's champion? Cautious and slow the company may have been before addressing the needs of the Digital Age, but they've shown what a wonderful DAC they could produce, along with line level pre-amps which best serve those who've moved to digital (or line level) sources. And the LS2, the company's second line-level-only pre-amp, re-writes the books.
Sure, there's only a lone tube under the lid, and those who still won't give up their glass-filled SP-10s and SP-11s will probably think of it as something close to heresy. But Audio Research has always denied any tube-mania. The company line is that it'll use whatever is necessary to build the best products it can.
So the LS2 is a hybrid, all solid-state save for a 6DJ8 (ECC88) dual-triode. The power supply is all solid-state, while the rest of the audio circuit is of the FET persuasion. But that one bottle is enough for some of us who like to think in incandescent terms, so let's leave it at that. Despite what a certain other organ has suggested, tubes still have an important role to play in the high end, and that's not open to debate.
The LS2 is quite simply the best sounding pre-amp Audio Research has ever produced. This does not mean that its predecessors are therefore obsolete (I'd give up even my '52 IWC Royal Navy Chronometer for a mint SP-10...well, almost) nor that ARC should dump the '9, '14' or '15. That's because the LS2 is minimalist and I know plenty of sane hi-fi users who couldn't live with the austerity. I know that I couldn't because my life as a reviewer would be made all the more dificult if I had to shed even one of the facilities on the 'almost loaded' SP-14.
What remains on the uncluttered fascia are only a bit more than the barest of essentials. The loud pedal is a rotary, metal-film control with 41 steps and it feels nice and precise. The input selector
chooses between tape, tuner, CD, video and auxiliary, the selected signal talking to the tape outputs when the tape/defeat toggle is set to 'record'. Another toggle controls power on/off, while a mute/operate toggle shorts the main outputs of the line stage; I always useI forced the alliter
the mute when turning the LS2 on or off, 'just in case'. As with the SP-14, a two-stage green LED indicates operating status, a dim glow right after switch-on or when mute is engaged and a bright glow when the LS2 has been on for around 45 seconds or mute is disengaged.
The defeat/normal switch is a handy hot rod device which allows the user to select between convenience and optimum performance. The direct inputs at the back bypass the selector; the rest travel through it. This switch chooses between the wholly independent inputs (which cannot be fed to the tape loop) and the conventional inputs.
All socketry at the back is gold-plated and of audiophile standard, as you'd expect. In addition to phono-type outputs, the LS2 also offers balanced operation via XLR connectors. I'm still not entirely convinced that balanced operation is as major a leap forward as, say, caffeine-free cola or coloured condoms, and I know it won't make me popular with such esteemed designers as Jeff Rowland, Dan D'Agostino, Flemming Rasmussen, Glen Grue or any of the other high end honchos. But I did use balanced configuration when running the LS2 with the Classé DR-10s, so at least gimme 'A' for effort.
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