Audio Research REF Phono 2

In the past two years since the Sooloos music server has entered my life, I must admit that the music-lover side of my personality has been dominating my audiophile side.  I’ve always loved vinyl, but having 7000 CD’s that you can mix and match to your hearts content has gotten, well, addictive.  Add two world-class digital front ends to the mix (the Naim CD555 and now the dCS Paganini) and it gets tougher to stay on the analog bus every day.  Who really wants to screw around with VTA anyhow?  Let’s play some more Slayer.

Analysis paralysis is equally virulent to the avid audiophile as well as the reviewer; it’s easy to sample too many wares and get lost somewhere along the journey.  And this has happened to me more than once.  A number of combinations have brought me close to analog bliss, which I thought would last forever. But in the end, the convenience of the Sooloos/dCS had me saying, “I’ll clean that pile of records tomorrow…”  Then another change, and that fleeting happiness was lost again.

I was lost but now I’m found

Joe Harley from Music Matters was the man that saved me.  At last year’s CES, he and his partner Ron Rambach said, almost in unison, “Get the new ARC REF and stop screwing around.”  Shortly thereafter, I had a chance to hear the REF in Harley’s system and I was pretty overwhelmed (in a great way) while listening to quite a few of his test pressings from the current Blue Note catalog as well as some of his past efforts on AudioQuest records.  This was truly the analog magic I’d been seeking.

Everything I heard that evening left me feeling like I was listening to a great surround-sound mix, except it was coming from two speakers, not six or eight.  Best of all, the second I closed my eyes, those speakers were gone and I was swimming in a gigantic fish bowl of sound.

About two years ago when we reviewed the PH7 phono preamplifier, I asked ARC’s Dave Gordon if they would ever produce another REF phono stage. “Not at present,” he replied, “but we haven’t ruled out the idea of another REF if there is enough demand.” And here we are, two years later with the REF 2.  I must extent my heartfelt thanks to all of you who kept the pressure on ARC to produce the REF 2.

Past vs. Present

The original REF Phono had a massive compliment of tubes, using 11 6922’s in various locations, a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a 6550 along with another 6922 to perform voltage-regulator duties, as they have done in some of their other designs.   The new REF Phono 2 utilizes four 6H30 tubes along with a FET input stage, as they have in the PH5, 6 and 7.  Gordon said, “Using tubes at the input is just too noisy; the input FET’s are the only way to get that low-level signal to emerge from a black background.”  The REF 2 Phono also uses solid-state rectifiers but retains the 6550 as a voltage regulator, this time in conjunction with another 6H30 tube.

The original REF Phono had a pricetag of $6,995 and the current REF Phono 2 costs $11,995. This is a substantial increase in price, but the new version offers quite a bit more under the hood as well as on the front panel, which is available in silver or black finish.

ARC has made an interesting style change with the REF Phono 2, the top panel is now a grey smoked acrylic, allowing full view of the tube complement.  Those wanting the traditional metal top panel can order their preamp this way at no additional charge.

While the original REF Phono for all practical purposes had one input, you could switch between a low-gain and a high-gain input via a rear panel switch, so using two turntables was not terribly convenient.  The new version has been designed from the ground up to be a two-input phono preamplifier, using microprocessor controls to switch between inputs.  ARC has incorporated the large vacuum-fluorescent display from their other components to excellent use here.  You can view input, gain, loading and equalization at a glance from across the room.  The remote control will also allow you to see how many hours have elapsed on the tubes, and those who are driven crazy by lights in their “deep listening” sessions can dim or completely darken the display.

Another big change in circuitry is the REF Phono 2’s fully balanced design.  Though its two phono inputs are single-ended, the preamplifier is balanced throughout and offers single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.  For those doing any recording of their vinyl via tape or digital means, it’s worth noting that I was able to drive a recorder from the single-ended outputs and send the balanced outputs to my Burmester preamplifier with no degradation in performance.  The resulting captured files were fantastic, being fed straight from the REF into my Nagra LB digital recorder or Technics RS-1500 open reel deck.

Interestingly, even though the REF Phono 2 only draws a maximum of 140 watts from the AC line, it has a square 20A IEC power socket.  I’m assuming that this helps to make a more solid connection to the power cord, also showing that no detail was left unexamined in the creation of ARC’s flagship phono stage.

Needs a little time to cook

Like every other component I’ve auditioned with a large compliment of Teflon capacitors, the REF is going to take 500 hours to sound its best, and ARC even suggests 600 hours in the owner’s manual.  For the naysayers in the audience who feel break-in is pure poppycock, I had a unique situation with the REF that verifies this concept beyond doubt.  My initial review sample had made a few stops before it got here, so I was able to sidestep the break-in process and begin evaluating it immediately. The REF sounds OK  directly out of the box but there is substantial improvement after 100-200 hours.  It really comes out of the fog right around 350 hours, getting even better until the 500-hour mark.  Fortunately, ARC includes a timer linked to the display on the front panel to help you keep track.  It’s critical to note that you have to pass a signal through the unit during these hours; just keeping the unit on is not enough.

As the REF I was using was the one from ARC’s demo room, when I decided to purchase the review sample, Gordon insisted that they send me a brand new unit from production and that I return the review sample. This, of course, caused some anxiety as I did not want to go through the break-in process with a component that I use daily.  Fortunately, I was able to keep the review unit for a couple of weeks while my new REF racked up hours.  It did provide a unique opportunity to compare a fresh unit to one with almost 1,000 hours on the clock, and the difference was staggering.  The fresh, out-of-the-carton sample sounded flat and lifeless when compared with the fully broken-in unit, with everything else being the same.

If you aren’t enthused about running up 500 hours on your exotic (and expensive) phono cartridge just for break in purposes, I suggest the Hagerman IRIAA.  Unlike so-called “cookers,” this is a passive device that attenuates the signal from a high-level input and applies an inverse-RIAA curve so that your CD player now presents a signal that mimics what comes from your phono cartridge.  Unless you are completely OC, I’d suggest getting one of these handy little devices and let the REF rack up at least a couple hundred hours before listening, if you can bear it. You can buy one as a kit for $29 or a fully assembled one for $49 here: I can’t suggest this device highly enough.  Remember: 300 hours equals about 450 albums.  Do you have that kind of patience to hear what your REF is really capable of?  I know I don’t.

Adjustable and compatible

While I’ve heard many great phono preamplifiers over the years, ease of adjustability makes or breaks the sale for me because I’m always auditioning phono cartridges. If you are a set it and forget it person, this may not be as big of a deal.  I’m guessing that most analog devotees willing to spend a dozen big ones on a phono stage have more than one turntable and a few different cartridges around to listen to mono recordings, perhaps some 78’s, early Deccas, or they would just like to have an a cartridge with a completely different tonality at their disposal.   With two inputs, each can be configured as high (68db) or low (54db, check both of these) gain, adjustable loading (50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 47k and custom) and switchable EQ (RIAA, Columbia and Decca) all from the remote. That’s as good as it gets.  If you have a plethora of cartridges in your collection, the REF Phono 2 is a dream come true. Now you can geek out with ease.

All this talk of multiple turntables brings me to my two minor complaints about the REF Phono 2: the single ground post is a pain and I wish it had three inputs.  Honestly, I wish it had four inputs, but I don’t expect anyone else to share my madness.  Every cartridge I used with the REF sounded so good that I just didn’t want to go back to any of the other phono preamps on my rack.  Even my modest Rega P25 with Shelter 501 II revealed so much more music through the REF than it ever had before, I just didn’t want to take a step backward.

Dynamics, Tone, Texture

The debate on live versus real sound seems to be a hot topic these days, with one faction claiming their HiFi system is more real than real, while the others shake their heads in denial saying that any attempt at reproducing sound in inherently flawed.  I submit that with the right music (especially music that is more sparse than complex) and the right system, it can get scarily close to sounding like the real thing.

Dynamics are a big part of the equation. You need a system that can go from 0-200 in a heartbeat without distortion or overhang.  Those who feel that you have an inadequate “audio vocabulary” need not worry; when it’s wrong you know it.  When a system or component lacks the necessary horsepower to deliver full-spectrum dynamic contrast, your ears and brain object instantly.  The REF passes this test with ease, offering up a large dose of weight and grip that is apparent the minute you play your favorite record.  I went through some of my favorite classic rock warhorses (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genesis, etc.) and was instantly taken aback by how much more raw power these discs now possessed.

Classical-music lovers will also appreciate the combination of dynamics and low-end grunt, coming a step or two closer to convincing you that you are there after all…  Regardless of what might be on your top 10 list, the REF Phono 2’s ability to completely get out of the way of the music and present acoustic instruments in such an incredibly accurate way will astonish you record after record.

In comparing a few other top phono stages from Aesthetix, Boulder and Burmester, they all offer up their own take on musical reproduction, from warm and romantic to analytical.  The perfect one for you will be that which bests suits your musical taste and achieves the best synergy with your system.  I must say the REF Phono 2 was a perfect match for my reference system, offering up just that drop of tube warmth that I really enjoy without sacrificing any resolution that a few of the other contenders also possess.  If you want a phono stage more on the warm, gooey and romantic side of the tonal scale, consider the IO or the Zanden.  Conversely, if you’d like a somewhat more analytical presentation, the two solid-state options from Boulder might be your cup of tea.  Having listened to them all extensively in the past year, the REF 2 Phono was the one that gave me the biggest dose of everything. And it has a relatively small tube complement that is easy to source.  As the 6H30 really doesn’t offer a lot of options for tube rolling, I suggest just calling ARC when you are ready for new tubes, which they claim last about  5,000 hours.

Much like a power amplifier with a massive power supply, the REF Phono 2 has an uncanny ability to keep low-level details intact.  I’m sure this was due in part to its incredibly silent background as well as its hybrid design.  This is where the all-tube phono stages really fall down; they just can’t achieve this kind of silence.  Again, classical- and acoustic-music lovers will pick up on this instantly.  If your source material is of high enough quality, it adds to the sense of realism, with instruments coming right out at you in space as they would in real life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the REF 2 Phono, though, is its uncanny ability to delineate texture, again giving the nod to acoustic-music lovers.  Granted, it’s always nice to hear more electric-guitar growl on your favorite rock record, but the REF 2 Phono always allowed me to hear further into my favorite recordings, electric or acoustic.

Finally, that gigantic soundstage I heard at Joe Harley’s house was always present in my system as well.  When playing Cream’s live recordings from their 2005 Royal Albert Hall performances, my speakers disappeared completely. and thanks to the additional dynamic range of adding a second Burmester 911 mk. 3 power amplifier to my system, I felt that this was as close as I would ever get to having Eric Clapton in my listening room.  A good friend who has a multichannel version of this recording said that he doesn’t get this much depth on his 5.1 setup!  I rest my case.

I’m back and I’m diggin it

The ARC REF Phono 2 has renewed my love for analog, plain and simple.  It has all of the qualities that I value in a phono preamp: a stunningly low noise floor, massive dynamics and tonal realism in spades.  And it is extremely easy to change gain and loading, making it an excellent tool for evaluating cartridges, as well as being a complete blast to listen to.  A great side benefit of having the REF in my system is that the 24/192 digital captures I’ve been producing have been better than ever, so this phono preamplifier has had a positive impact on the digital side of my system as well.

If you are shopping for a statement phono preamplifier, I can’t think of a better choice than the ARC REF Phono. Considering some of the other choices in the $15,000 – $25,00 range, it’s actually quite a value, which is why we’ve given it our Product of the Year award in the analog category.  I’m truly happy to be this excited about analog again.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF Phono 2 Phono preamplifier

MSRP:  $11,995  (available in silver or black)


Turntables Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar VII    Rega P9     TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309
Phono Cartridges Lyra Skala    Clearaudio DaVinci    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1s     Shelter Harmony and 501II
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC1.2kw’s
Speakers GamuT S-9    YG Acoustics Anat II Studio    MartinLogan CLX w/Gotham subwoofer
Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects    Shunyata Stratos SP Speaker Cable    Cardas Clear Interconnects and Speaker Cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners      Running Springs Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords
Accessories Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators    Furutech DeMag    Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaning machine    MoFi Record Cleaning Products