Audio Research Corporation (ARC) has been a leader in high-end audio electronics for almost 50 years. In an industry filled with companies that come and go or fail to become globally recognized brands, ARC has stood the test of time with components that are coveted by enthusiasts--not just for their sound, but also for their craftsmanship and the company's notable customer service. ARC will repair, refurbish, or restore most of the products it has produced to the best of the company's abilities. Try and say that about any other product you own--audio, video, or otherwise.
Furthermore, ARC still designs, manufactures, and tests every component it ships from its Plymouth, Minnesota, facility. It's a global brand, yet everything is still 100 percent "made in the U.S.A." Audiophiles familiar with the aftermarket for audio gear know that ARC's products maintain their resale value nicely. This is especially true of the Reference Series preamplifiers.
In 2016, ARC introduced the Foundation Series, which includes the LS28 line-stage preamplifier ($7,500), the PH9 phono stage ($7,500), the DAC9 digital-to-analog converter ($7,500), and (most recently) the VT80 power amplifier ($8,000). It was ARC's goal to ensure that each component in the Foundation Series would share the same pedigree, design, and build quality of the higher-end Reference Series, in which the products cost two or three times as much. Much like the components in the Reference Series, the Foundation Series utilizes 6H30P vacuum tubes in its analog circuits.
As a member of the Foundation Series, the LS28 preamplifier is the company's introductory line-stage preamplifier. In ARC's preamp product hierarchy, it sits beneath the REF 6 ($14,000). The biggest difference between it and REF 6 is that the LS28 utilizes four 6H30 tubes in its analog circuit, while the REF 6 utilizes six 6H30P tubes in its analog circuit, as well as one 6550WE and one 6H30P in its power supply.
The LS28 arrived exceptionally packaged in an oversized box. The company was even kind enough to include a full-sized Stanley screwdriver for removal of the cover of the LS28, which you need to do in order to install the tubes. I inserted the four separately packaged, clearly labeled tubes, which ARC had already burned-in, tested, and electrically matched at the factory for maximum reliability and performance. The inclusion of the screwdriver was an expert touch that reminded me that, when you buy high-end, the tiniest details count. It would have been easy for me to grab a Phillips-head screwdriver out of my toolbox, but ARC likely did not want to interrupt my first impression of the LS28 with such a distraction. The unit also arrived with a Quality Assurance Certificate, initialed in 13 places to verify the entire manufacturing process--everything from assembly to final listening tests were notated.
The LS28 is available in a black or natural finish (mine was in the natural finish), weighs 15.9 pounds, and measures 19 inches wide by 6.5 inches high by 13.7 inches deep. A legacy design of ARC that's included on the LS28 are the handles on the front, which extend the total depth by another 1.6 inches. The front panel contains two large knobs for Input Select and Volume, plus six buttons for Power, Menu, Enter, Mono/Stereo, Phase, and Mute. A large fluorescent green display located in the center of the faceplate is sharp and easy to read, even from a distance.
Around back, you'll find four pairs each of balanced and RCA analog inputs, as well as three pairs of both balanced and RCA outputs (two main, one record). It also contains an RS-232 connector for added convenience. The metal IR remote is heavy, well balanced, and includes all the essentials to keep you in your listening chair for hours of maximum enjoyment.
Hooking up the LS28 was simple. I used Wireworld Eclipse 7 cables throughout, running balanced interconnects from a Mytek Brooklyn DAC (link required when published) to the LS28 and RCA interconnects from the LS28 to a First Watt SIT-2 Class A amplifier. Since I run only digital sources, the DAC served as my input switcher, which requires that only a single balanced input be run to the LS28. I used a Wireworld Eclipse 7 power cable in place of the stock cable.
The LS28's menus are thoughtful and functional, and there are several really nice features worth mentioning. Auto Shutdown turns the unit off after a specified time when it's not in use. This helps preserve tube life, which is estimated at 4,000 hours. The Volume Reset feature tells the LS28 to either remember the volume setting for each input or reset it to zero after powering down. The default is zero, which I left unchanged. I also appreciated that ARC programs the LS28 to power up in mute mode. This prevents accidental volume spikes that can result from leaving the volume up during a prior listening session. The remote includes an Hours button that showed me the LS28 had 400 hours of use when I began my critical listening.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...