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Old 06-07-2016, 02:07 AM
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2fastdriving 2fastdriving is online now
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Default Shootout: Ref5SE vs. Ref6

Those of you who have read my posts know that I have been a big fan of Audio Research over the past few years, trading in my Mc stack for Audio Research. Having purchased an Esoteric A-02 power amp recently, I have made a bit of a departure, but I still maintain that ARC preamps are some of the best on the planet. With that in mind, I have done an audition of the Ref 6 and compared against my trusty Ref 5SE. I know many have been wondering what the fuss is about. I've seen some lofty claims about the new pre, so I wanted to know if it's true.

First of all, let me thank Definitive Audio in Bellevue and Seattle, WA for loaning me a demo unit. If you are in the area, pay them a visit!

So what's different? the units look pretty similar, except of course the new "Galileo look". That took a while, but it is growing on me. The handles are still there, although a bit more dainty. The knobs are a bit flimsy, not quite as solid as the old ones. But they rotate, not "jog" like the old ones, which is nice. It would be nicer if there were detents, especially on the source selector. It is hard to tell if you have selected what you want because it clicks, although you can keep turning it a bit until it clicks again. Hard to tell where to stop. The top is clear, the old one is smoked. The sides are definitely improved, they are milled aluminum with the logo in them. Much nicer than the painted black ones before. The new preamp has plumped up: it is a bit taller and deeper. The remote is nearly identical. Funny enough, the volume control on the new remote controls the balance on the Ref5. There is a new feature for auto-shutoff, which I probably wouldn't ever use.

How am I testing? I'm using a shunyata venom HC power cord on each one, and I'm just swapping IC's back and forth, after a full warmup (more than 30 min each). Volume matching is difficult, because the Ref6 is louder at lower numbers, indicating it has a different volume scale, because the claimed gain is identical. I have a db meter, and kind of winging it to make it as close as possible.

I picked 4 songs that are recorded pretty well.

The Civil Wars: Tell Mama (redbook flac rip)
-5SE: Great vocal presence, bass is strong, but a tiny bit muddy
-6: guitars at beginning sound very convincing, female voice slightly more recessed in mix but more separated

Eva Cassidy: Route 66 (redbook flac rip)
-5SE: Bass heavy, but voice is very powerful and forward
-6: Bass more tightly controlled, less boomy, voice a bit less forward, cleaner separation between piano and rest of band, just a tiny bit brighter overall

Diana Krall: Narrow Daylight (24/192)
-5SE: good vocal separation, bass is a bit boomy. acoustic guitar at 1:45 less vivid
-6: Incredible vocal separation and presence, acoustic guitar at 1:45 is forward but great attack

Mark Knopfler: Behind with the rent (redbook flac rip)
-5SE: cymbal at beginning a bit subdued. bass somewhat boomy. dynamics aren’t there, it’s a bit flat sounding
-6: cymbal more separated, sounds like a real cymbal. Mark’s voice less soft, a bit sharper focus. bass definitely tighter and defined.

Conclusion
I've never thought there was anything "wrong" with the Ref5SE at all, to me it was for all practical purposes "perfect" in my system because it was probably the most heralded and positively reviewed and universally recognized component in my system. Has anyone EVER said a bad thing about that preamp? I love my Ref5! Every owner loves theirs. So I was surprised that it was indeed bested by the Ref6 in a few ways. The Ref6 clearly has a more authoritative delivery and presentation. The bass output is noticeably more powerful, but never does it feel overdone or artificially pumped up. It is tightly controlled and textured. The vocals seem to stand out a bit more on the new preamp, but not "in your face". Not louder, but more separated. I think everything is just a bit more separated/standing out. The soundstage depth and width is nearly identical with both, which is excellent. Voices are a big deal to me, I can tell when a system is wrong...I just listen to the voice, and if I don't hear Diana Krall or Mark Knopfler the way I know they should sound, it's evident immediately. The Ref6 gets voices right, let me tell you. Yes, it slightly outperforms the Ref5 here too. Very slightly. Silky and organic, either male or female, voices sound very convincing. I think I finally understand "microdynamics", too. Of course soft to loud swings, macrodynamics, are easy to spot and understand with drums and guitars. But I think the Ref6 has a way of pulling tiny details out and performing that dynamics trick on them as well. For example, acoustic guitar plucking.

The Ref5 is still an excellent preamp and presents a GREAT value to people that want to step up to the big leagues but couldn't afford one at retail. I never thought it lacked in any way, and I still don’t. It’s just different. It’s more lush. It’s a bit slower. It emphasizes different things. They are both great preamps, they just have slightly different presentations.

That said, I am buying the Ref6 and I think it matches really well with my A-02.







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Last edited by 2fastdriving; 06-07-2016 at 02:10 AM.
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Old 06-07-2016, 02:22 AM
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Nice review.

The Ref6 looks like it matches the A02 better than the Ref5.

Its best I don't listen to it, otherwise I will have one sitting in my rack too.
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Old 06-07-2016, 03:00 AM
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Marc, splendid shootout!
Well done.
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Old 06-07-2016, 05:16 AM
Ritmo Ritmo is offline
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Marc - Well done and congrats on your new Ref 6.
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Old 06-07-2016, 07:54 AM
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It's highly dependent on the SS amp you are matching with and also the 6550 tube in the preamp. The GE nos on ref5se is amazing.
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Old 06-07-2016, 09:33 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by larevoj View Post
It's highly dependent on the SS amp you are matching with and also the 6550 tube in the preamp. The GE nos on ref5se is amazing.
As The GE in a ref 40 is as well.
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Old 06-07-2016, 09:53 AM
ctsooner ctsooner is offline
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I heard the Ref 6 with Richard Vandersteen's new amp, Vandersteen 7 mk2, Niagara 7000 power deal from AudioQuest. The whole system had top end AQ cabling. Source was mostly AMG's top tt/arm and cart. We also used ARCs top digital player. It was one of the best sounding systems I've ever heard. I was blown away at how natural everything was and how it truly felt like I was with Muddy Waters at the venue. Everything was there in spades. I'm very familiar with nearly all the ARC products going back to the early 80's. I've always like their gear, but there are some products of theirs that just stand out in their price ranges as being special. I think this pre is very special. I was able to listen with Doug Gordon, Richard Vandersteen and Garth Powell who invented the Niagara line of power conditioners. It was so much fun listening to these guys who made these products or were part of voicing talk about how great they all sounded together. They all share ideas with each other and incorporate various parts of each other's engineering into their products so it makes sense that they sound so awesome together. You can really learn a ton listening with these guys as they point things out that your brain is hearing that you don't even notice unless it's not there.

The ref 6 sounds to me, just like you pointed out. Thanks for sharing info on such a great preamp. The best part was that Doug said ARC may have a new owner, but they really are their own company and will continue to be. They will make some marketing decisions on the new owners, but the engineering is all aRC and will continue to be so.
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Old 06-07-2016, 10:06 AM
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Nice work Marc, wish you joy of your Ref6, it certainly seems as tho the RevII gold caps and RevII green circuit board are not holding you back!

Might you be aware of the relative run time hours on the respective units ? Even with a good couple of hundred hours the Ref6, evolution in sound quality will continue as we all know.
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Old 06-07-2016, 10:32 AM
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2fastdriving 2fastdriving is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
Nice work Marc, wish you joy of your Ref6, it certainly seems as tho the RevII gold caps and RevII green circuit board are not holding you back!

Might you be aware of the relative run time hours on the respective units ? Even with a good couple of hundred hours the Ref6, evolution in sound quality will continue as we all know.
Yes, the Ref6 has about 850 hours on it, and the Ref5 about 1500 hours, maybe 1600 now. I don't check that often. So they should both be broken in, yet not needing any tubes for a while.
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Audio Research Ref6, GS150 / Esoteric K-01X, G-02X, E-03 / Wilson Alexia / Clearaudio Ovation with Universal Tonearm / Lyra Kleos / Transparent Reference Gen5 / PS Audio P10 Power Plant / Shunyata Alpha / HRS S3 Isolation bases / Roon, Tidal Intel NUC / GIK Acoustics panels
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Old 06-07-2016, 11:22 AM
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It's a great preamp, probably even edging my ref anniversary. What puzzles me is why arc decided to change the volume control tapering, with most of the gain achieved at lower volume settings, making it difficult, at times, to fine tune the proper volume level for a particular piece of music. For those doing an a-b, pls take note of this since the higher gain at lower volume sertings may lead one to believe its much better when in fact at a given volume level it's simply louder.
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