Audio Research Reference 3 Preamplifier Reviewed

Published On: October 27, 2009
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Audio Research Reference 3 Preamplifier Reviewed

Superlatives tend to abound in any review of an Audio Research component, but the Reference 3 is special even among Audio Research preamps. Astoundingly good, it can serve as the heart of a truly exceptional audio system.

Audio Research Reference 3 Preamplifier Reviewed

  • A veteran of, Jim Swantko also wrote home theater and audiophile component reviews for in the early days of the publication. His focus was on mid- to high-end audio brands like Mark Levinson, Classé, Noble Fidelity, Cary Audio, MartinLogan, and Paradigm.

Audio-Research-Reference-3.jpgWhen one thinks of vacuum tube audio equipment, the name Audio Research is surely one of the first names which come to mind.  They have been designing and building high-end audio gear since 1970, have earned a reputation of building high-quality, high-performance products and are probably best known for their preamplifiers.

Additional Resources
• Read more Audio Research Preamp, amp and CD player reviews here.
• Read high end stereo and tube preamp reviews from Audio Research, Krell, Mark Levinson and many other top brands.

The preamplifier is one of the most crucial links in the audio chain, since the primary job is to amplify very low signals from the source components and feed them to the amplifier.  Any changes to the source signal will generate massive changes to the sound after the amplifier has done its job.  Some changes can be good and some can be bad, depending on what sound the end user is trying to create. Tube preamp lovers appreciate the warmth, smoothness and large soundstage that only tubes can deliver.  Solid state devotees will tell you that tubes only muddy the water and prefer to trade warmth for detail and speed.  Here we find a fork in the road.  What does one do if both detail and warmth are desired?  Luckily, Audio Research created the Reference 3 preamplifier, so now you can have the best of both worlds.

The $9,995 Reference 3 preamplifier is truly a breakthrough product. It has an uncanny ability to preserve detail and speed, while also presenting a massive soundstage with weight and texture.  The Ref 3 contains an entirely new audio circuit different from anything else Audio Research has ever designed.  It utilizes four 6H30 twin triode tubes, as well as a tube-regulated power supply.  The power supply has more than 50 percent more energy storage than its predecessor and contributes to the startling dynamic capabilities of the Ref 3.

Internally, it's obvious how much care was taken in the layout of the circuitry.  For example, critical audio paths circuits are well shielded from the noisy power supply circuitry.  Thick circuit traces are works of art, which purposefully avoid 90-degree bends that have been shown to also be a source of unwanted noise. Externally, we find the same level of craftsmanship with the beautifully machined faceplate and simplicity of control layout.  The large green display provides all pertinent system information, such as input, volume and hours of tube use.  It can be disabled in a further attempt to reduce unwanted noise.  A processor pass-through circuit allows the Ref 3 to easily integrate into any home theater system.  The rear panel includes XLR and single-ended inputs and outputs for all seven inputs and two main outs.

The performance of the Audio Research is somewhat difficult to describe and must be heard to be believed.  What I mean by this is that one typically doesn't experience speed and detail while maintaining weight and texture.  It's an intoxicating experience that makes other preamps sound simply disappointing.  Consider this a warning; do not spend time with the Reference 3 unless you are able and willing to purchase one.  It will change your expectations as to what a preamplifier is capable of and will woo money from your wallet in ways you might not expect.

Read The High Points, The Low Points and the Conclusion on Page 2


High Points
• The Audio Research Reference 3 is built to the absolute highest standards and is a work of art inside and out.

• The Ref 3 is very simple to operate and provides the user ultimate convenience with a well-designed remote, as all preamp functions can be controlled with it. 
• Audio Research has designed this preamp to simply integrate into any existing or planned system.  It accommodates single-ended as well as balanced XLR inputs and outputs and includes a processor pass-through circuit for home theatre applications.
• Sonically, the Reference 3 provides a massive soundstage filled with detail, while also preserving rich textures that are palpable.

Low Points
• The Reference 3 takes several hundred hours of break-in before it sounds its best.  While it sounds great right out the box, it doesn't reach its full potential until around the 300-hour point.
• For those unfamiliar with tube products, there is a delay between when the unit is powered on and when you can begin listening.  This time is needed to bring the tubes up to their proper operating conditions and only lasts for approximately 30 seconds.
• As with any tube-based product, eventually the tubes will wear out over time.  The tubes in the Reference 3 are very long-lasting and Audio Research maintains a large inventory of replacements.

The Audio Research Reference 3 preamplifier is an astoundingly good piece of equipment that will serve as the heart of the finest systems.  It's simple to use and own, yet produces music unlike any other product that I've had the pleasure of spending time with as a listener.  While the cost may seem high for a preamplifier, I believe the Ref 3 is one of the best values in audio, considering what a performer it is.  Audio Research could probably double the cost of the unit and not impact sales. It's that good.

Additional Resources
• Read more Audio Research Preamp, amp and CD player reviews here.
• Read high end stereo and tube preamp reviews from Audio Research, Krell, Mark Levinson and many other top brands.

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