The Audio Research LS26 occupies the middle position in the trio of linestage offerings from the Minnesota-based company. It is described by many, including Audio Research, as a slightly scaled-down version of their critically acclaimed Reference 3, which is their statement preamplifier. Physically, the $5,995 LS26 shares many traits with its big brother, such as a large vacuum-fluorescent display, which provides all the necessary information the user may need, including level, input, balance and tube hours. As with the Ref3, the LS26 has control knobs on each side of the display and a row of sturdy push buttons below. The rear of the unit is also very similar, providing balanced XLR and single-ended connections for all inputs and outputs. Those of us who bi-amp certainly appreciate the fact that ARC includes two sets of outputs. A processor pass-through allows for easy integration into any home theater application.
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Internally, Audio Research says that the LS26 received many pieces of trickle-down technology, including proprietary parts, damping and design elements. The LS26 uses a pair of 6H30 triode tubes, with a solid state regulated power supply that differs from the tube regulated power supply in the Ref3. Three separate gain settings are provided to the user, making the LS26 extremely easy to live with, whether you're listening to a loud orchestral recording or quietly enjoying some jazz after everyone else has gone to sleep.
Sonically, I would have to agree that the LS26 is best described as a slightly scaled-down version of the Ref3, which is my all-time favorite preamp. It offers speed and dynamics in spades, yet still provides texture and smoothness to vocals and strings. The treble is clear and extended, never harsh, and bass is punchy and taut. To my ear, it successfully combines the best of the solid-state world with the best of the tube world without any of the sacrifices of either.
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