We Visit Audio Research

My pet peeve with audio sales people and audio reviewers is that they tend to decide for the customer what they can and can’t afford.

For the most part, writing about HiFI gear or selling it isn’t a high-roller job, so it’s often easy to fall into the trap thinking the customer doesn’t have any more change in their pocket than you do.  Hence the idea of putting a five-figure value on a component in a realistic manner is often out of reach.

As their 40th year of doing business comes to a close, part of the price tag on ARC’s Reference Series of components is justified by the amount of engineering and manufacturing wherewithal that exists under their 48,000-square-foot roof.  As Dave Gordon took me on a comprehensive tour of their facility, he told me that they used to have a 60,000-square-foot facility. After they moved to the current location, the old factory was leased to Best Buy.com for their online data center.  “Ironic, isn’t it?” Gordon laughs as we go through the engineering and purchasing departments out into the factory proper.

If you had to describe Audio Research in one word, it would be “precise.” Nothing in their assembly process is left to chance. All of their circuit boards are stuffed and soldered by hand, with each board compared with a reference board that is on hand.  From what I could see, they had a reference board for almost every piece of gear they have ever made, except for a couple of really old pieces.

Every final board is tested, populated with tubes that have all been burned in for 50 hours, measured and numbered.  As we go through a gigantic holding area where power tubes are being burned in, Gordon says, “This way with everything measured and marked, if you do have a tube failure, you can just tell us the number.  We can then ship out a tube with the same measurement so you don’t even have to re-bias your amp.”  We went past piles of transistors, resistors and capacitors that had not passed muster; all of the components on those circuit boards have been hand measured.  And when the component is built to the point where all it requires is a front face plate and the signature ARC rack handles, it’s tested again.

Then, upon completion, the gear is auditioned in one of the sound rooms before being packaged and placed on the shipping docks.  If you have ever owned an ARC product, you know how thorough they are, with each box being inserted into an outer box, protected by a thick inner shell of high-density styrofoam.  Again, nothing left to chance.

As we get shooed away from the listening area by Warren Gehl, the man who does the final listening on the ARC gear (something new in the sound room, that he doesn’t want the press to see…), we strolled past the area where all of the vintage gear is serviced and updated.  I also get to see row upon row of ARC’s massive parts inventory, full of electronic parts and sheet metal for all of their past and current products.  Again, everything is meticulously numbered and cataloged.  When I asked Gordon how they inventory all of these tiny parts, he said, “We do it by the pound, actually…”

There was another complete work area dedicated to amplifiers and preamplifiers of different vintages, and some going way back to almost the beginning of the company’s history underscoring the philosophy that any ARC component you purchase today, will be supported in the future.  This is why ARC components have always had such high resale value, something worth considering as you get ready to write a five figure check.

After lunch, we got to visit the sound room and listen to a full system of REF components, including the REF Phono 2 that was in my studio for this review.  Mated to a pair of Wilson speakers, they’ve assembled a highly resolving yet highly musical reference system, using an Immedia RPM turntable (the precursor to my Spiral Groove SG-2) with a TriPlanar arm and Lyra Skala cartridge.  It’s almost like being back home!

A skilled workforce and meticulous attention to detail – in essence, precision – is what makes Audio Research components some of the most coveted items in high-end audio today, a reputation well-earned by 40 years of great customer service.