When 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.
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