The Reference 10 (Short Review)

Written by on 05/07/2013 in Latest Auditions - No comments


I can think of many awesome ways to burn a cool R390,000… Not that it is that much money by the standards today’s economic world has succumbed to. 390K after-all now only buys one or two models up from the entry level ones offered by the established German car manufacturers. At least with the Audio Research Reference 10 preamp discussed here aspiring purchasers can rest assured knowing this really is it. There is no model up from this. The REF10 is the ultimate Audio Research reference preamp bar nothing else past or present.

I’ve been coming along some way with this now familiar family of preamplifiers and I can state beyond a shadow of a doubt that they all offer real value for money despite having been six figure sums for more than a decade now. A few years back my first introduction to real high-end sound could not be mistaken for anything but the best I’ve then yet heard in my own setup. The Reference 3 blew my mind right open and shaped my perceptive capabilities for a realm of performance only the very lucky ones get to live with in a lifetime. After I replaced my subsequent REF5 with its successor the REF5SE I posted a brief description of my findings with regard to what was the ultimate preamp back then.

To celebrate its 40th year of existence the Audio Research Corporation released a preamplifier in 2010 called the 40th Anniversary Reference. It was a two box design complete with dual mono power supplies one for each channel. This product signalled a departure for Audio Research from their somewhat established house sound. The liquidity within the midrange of this super model was unquestionable. I loved the sound the 40th made and before the arrival of my own REF5SE which carried over trickled down technology from the 40th Anniversary, I recall many a nights of listening to my own system longing for the beauty of the anniversary model.

The arrival of the REF5SE however satisfied most of my desires and perhaps aspirations to own and aim for the top model. So close was the transparency and musicality of the 5SE to that of the 40th Anniversary that I can very well understand the need for a new ultimate reference within the line-up departing from conformity as substantial as the 40th did in 2010. For those individuals only happy with the very best and most exclusive to aspire to a new target was needed. The bar was begging for a raise once more and true to established Audio Research form the REF10 was born to do just that.

Since the days of the renowned SP10, all ultimate Audio Research preamplifiers were of two box designs whereby the power supply is housed separate from the delicate low level signal paths. As expected then, the REF10 is again a two box design very similar in fact to that of the 40th Anniversary. The dual mono power supplies complete with valve regulation is there once more and so is the quad 6H30PI zero feedback triode output stages one complete set of four tubes for each channel! Looking inside this design never seizes to amaze me. The simplicity adds to the mystique of its unassuming yet wholesomely complete accomplishment.

I however really shot myself in the foot this time. I could (and perhaps should) have declined the offer of taking the REF10 home and around to my most well-heeled clients for private auditioning. On the other hand a privilege such as the one that we were presented with here should not be turned down if it is our job to guide others into the often confusing world of high-end audio. To a large extent it is my duty to explore the limits and gather the valuable knowledge the territory brings.

The REF10 leaves me wanting in a big way once more as did the 40th Anniversary when the non-SE version of the REF5 was the only alternative then. The REF10 has no discernible short comings other than having exposed my much loved REF5SE as having a few of its own. Despite being a reference in its own right it is difficult to become aware of anything amiss in the REF5SE if not compared directly to the new REF10. Once compared however, it is game-over for the 5SE.

What does the REF10 sound like then? Well, in short it sounds like nothing! It has so little character of its own that one could not easily pin its sound down to anything defined by descriptive nature. The REF10 just produces more music in a similar way the REF5SE makes any system sound substantially less like Hi-Fi and much more like real music being played in real time. The REF10 however moves this valued aspect up a good few notches. How it does it so effortlessly is beyond me. The music-making with the REF10 in my system is absolutely intoxicating. Once I sit down to listen I don’t get up for hours.

I value the perception of music sounding live above all audiophile waffle and a great deal of genuine live realism we’ve learnt comes from unprecedented separation as a vital component of true transparency. Many systems sound transparent enough as does the one’s with REF5SE’s, but few do it with this uncanny combination of this two very much related elements.

Never before have I enjoyed Steve Tyrell’s duet with Jane Monheit called “Baby its cold out there” from his album Standard Time (CD ripped and played via Naim HDX) as I instantly did through the REF10. Every word of both singer’s lyrics were put on display as if the artists appeared for the very 1st time as two physical human beings on a real stage right there in front of me in my own living room. Before they’ve always sounded as if somewhat interrupted by one another the lyrics of both often obscuring ever so slightly what the other was singing. With the REF10 stuff just sounds a whole lot more open and a whole lot more real with better distance between sounds projected from even darker canvas on otherwise often crowded sound stages. Considering where I’m coming from and what it is I’m using as established long term references, this achievement is quite something.

Having been fortunate enough to recently see Abdullah Ibrahim and his full American band with African name “Ekaya” perform live in the Baxter theatre in Cape Town provided me with an unexpected yet inspiring benchmark to measure the true qualities of the best music reproduction systems. Ibrahim and Ekaya performed the entire set list from their latest album “Sotho Blue” which is a sonic triumph in its own right. I however went into the concert with no preconceived ideas. I didn’t know the music beforehand because I only acquired the album afterwards and so my first introduction to this music was the actual live event performed with minimal artificial reinforcement. For me the experience proved another cemented landmark in my career as music enthusiast. The musicianship on the night and the level of sheer accomplishment was near unbelievable as was the sound of live jazz in an acoustically optimized environment.

Through the REF10 preamplifier the Abdullah Ibrahim album (CD ripped and played via Naim HDX) comes alive in a way I’ve longed for ever since the recording has become the only way for me to hear the band play those songs again. Dynamically the recording is slightly compromised compared to the brilliance of the live event and yet despite my feelings of the mastering engineer having applied a little too much compression on a slightly hot palette for jazz, the REF10 reproduces the album almost as if expanding the dynamic contrast by unpacking the music in a way that more easily transports me back to the Baxter on that night. The liquidity of the midrange through the REF10 is unmistakably superior to even that of the mighty 40th Anniversary where it combines even more elements of superiority than heard before.

Part and parcel of the REF10 experience is its rhythmic capabilities that present itself throughout the frequency range. Often good rhythmic ability is awarded a system when the bass defines elements of good rhythm. In reality superior rhythm presents itself on all levels of instrumental interplay and at all frequencies. Natural flow is as much a part of good rhythm as it is a product of the entire frequency spectrum being produced coherently. The REF10 is king at combining flow and rhythm to reveal its elevated take on converting a reproduction into reality.

Hearing this thing in a well-appointed system that has been setup with the correct amount of attention to detail is a life changing event. It is as much a departure as the Anniversary model once was in 2010. To these ears it represents the closest thing to experiencing the live event and should satisfy the most discerning audiophiles and music lovers alike. It is as much an audiophile delight as it is the true music lover’s ticket to reality outside the concert hall.

Considering offerings from some other brands with telephone number price tags, the Audio Research Reference 10 Line Stage despite being the most expensive preamp they’ve ever released and costing a whopping R390,000 in South-Africa, offers real value for money in musical terms. It represents an unprecedented investment into quality of life should the individual value music at the top of his or her luxury list. This time I’m simply going to have to find a way to own one myself. No more compromise!

ARC REF 10 Pre


About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty-seven years in the making.

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