Used Audio Research Preamp Options

Before I pose my question, I do admit that I expect mixed responses since the question is somewhat subjective. That been said, I think I have pushed myself into an obsession to own an Audio Research preamp. I know there are better preamps out there for the money and I might ultimately overcome this obsession but I'd like to hear from folks who have owned different ARC preamp's over the years about their personal experiences. So here is my question: if you had $2500 to spend, which used ARC preamp would you buy? A line stage component would be fine, tube or SS. I'm also making an assumption which may not be completely valid and that is any of these preamps will be an upgrade from my NAD C165BEE. Any comments will be appreciated here too. My other components are McIntosh MC2200 (100K impedance) and a Vincent SP-331 ( 47K impedance,150w in 8 ohm/300w 4 ohm) amplifiers. Not sure if speakers matter- ML Aerius, Def. Tech. BP20 since I'm also looking for an upgrade route there too. Thanks.

SP11 or SP14
you can't go wrong. They are not balanced out, but there are Jensen devices for that if you need it. They sound excellent but are not remote controlled. Audio Research repairs and maintains all of their older units.

I have owned in the past an Audio Research  SP7, SP9, then an SP14, LS25 MKII, and finally a Ref 5SE. I really enjoyed the SP14, and then later the LS25 MKII. I would say either of those would keep you happy for awhile. Although they are designated tube preamps there is only one tube to deal with when time to replace it. If it were me and choosing between the LS25 MKII and the SP14, I would pick the LS25 MKII. That may be over your budget but it does sound better.

 I have to agree with statman. I have also owned a lot of Audio Research preamps over the last 25 years or so. If I only had $2500 to spend on a preamp, it would be an LS25 mk2. I owned one for years until I bought my Ref 5se. It is a killer preamp for the money. The mk2 version uses the 6h30 tube instead of the earlier 6922 tube.

@statman and lost bears

How does the LS5 mk 2 or 3 compare to the LS25 mk 2? I've seen LS5's for about $ 2500.00 over the years and they seem to retain their value. I owned one a number of years back and thought it was an excellent preamp. It was supposedly the last model preamp that still retained ARC's tube sound. I eventually sold it and went along the McIntosh route.

Believe it or not, I have never listened to the LS5. Maybe Lost Bears can provide more of an answer.
Thanks. There was an LS25 MK2 here for $2500 but it is no longer available. The models that I see are mostly SP16, SP17, and an LS26. I see an LS3 for $900. I assume it's not a popular model. Are SP models generally better than LS? I know the REF models are top flight. Appreciate the inputs. So you guys seem to think that even a 15-20 year old ARC is going to be better than my one year old NAD preamp.... it actually sounds pretty decent..
I had ARC SP8,SP10 and SP15 which was upgraded with better caps,wiring etc. Wonderful units however this being said my Thoress is a much better sounding preamp more dynamic,better stage etc.Enjoy

 I have also never heard an LS5 in my system. But I believe it is all balanced. ARC sold a converter to use with it called a BL1. It convert single ended into balanced..

The LS models are line stages where the SP models have built in phono stages. The LS3 is solid state. The higher the number the newer the model.

 The back of the  LS25 is the same as the Refs wit a full compliment of both balanced and single ended inputs and outputs.

Preamps have come a long way n the last 20 years. I have owned both an SP8 as well as  an SP9, The LS25 mk2 is much better sounding than any of my previous ARC preamps. When I first got my LS25 mk2 I was amazed at just how much better it was than the original LS25.

Some years ago I was offered a really great deal on an LS27. I took it home for a week to hear in my system. I passed on it because I felt  it was a sideways move. The LS25 mk2 is really a sweet preamp. It is far more detailed with a larger sound stage than any of the earlier models save the Refs. Don't get me wrong , my Ref 5se trounces it. But then the Ref 5se trounces just about everything.
If you can stretch a bit you might also want to consider a Ref 2 mk2. Big brother to the LS25 mk2. If you can find one, this is also a really sweet preamp. I could have easily live with this one for life had I not heard the Ref 5se.


ARC have a fine pedigree in Pre-Amps and can understand the desire to own one. Tremendously reliable and upgradeable and beautifully designed, most of them have a certain " magic" about them. I still have a massively upgraded SP9Mk11 which has been upgraded way past a Mk111, I stll enjoy. Upgraded the phono is very nice.

But for the money, and as you require line only, I would strongly advise a brand new Vincent SA-T8. You should be able to find one under your budget. Fully balanced tube design, superbly dimensional and musically involving it will draw you into the music like few others. Competes with or surpasses Pre's many times it's cost.
Kalali ...

You asked about further upgrades to your system. Okay, here goes ... Get rid of the Martin Logan Aries and get a speaker that is more efficient and that moves more air. 

I had the ML's for a few years. I changed them for a pair of used Legacy Signature III's.  There are plenty of reviews of the Sig. III's on the net. They love tube amps. The first time I heard them was at a friends home. He was driving them with a modified Dyna 70. The sound was so good that I put my Martin Logans on the market the next day and found a mint condition used pair of Legacy Signature III's on Ebay for $2100. My electronics at the time was an ARC Classic 60 and an ARC SP-14. 

On the preamps ... I've had an ARC SP-6, an SP-14 and I'm currently using an ARC-REF 3.  The ARC SP-14 was in the system for about 10 years. Very nice line stage ... and the one-tube phono section is excellent. 


 You can search multiple sites using

 There is an LS25 mk2 for sale on the AudioCircle Marketplace for $2500.

 There is a Ref 2 mk2 here on Audiogon for  $3,250.00

 Both prices are probably somewhat negotiable. 

Hi Kalali,

To my ears with AR there's a real dividing line over the past 10 years or so and everything that came before. I find the modern AR sound, in SS or Tube, much more enjoyable, fun and natural. Of course, saying that immediately puts my life at risk from those early AR die hards.  The point is,  you should learn which AR sound you like first.

Before buying I'd also listen to PrimaLuna, Conrad Johns on and Cary.
I looked for the Vincent SA-T8 a little while back and it appears that it is no longer sold, at least here in US. The closest model I could find is a hybrid unit and the upgraded version sells for ~$1500. In general, I think their products are underrated based on my own personal experience with their amp which I bought new. As for ARC, I'll keep my eyes open for an LS25 MK2 or SP14, or stretch out for a Ref 2 MK2.

And thanks for the tip on Legacy speakers.
Excellent job by the panel, all strong suggestions. Perhaps a Ref3?
I will concur that the Ref5 SE, is the best at this juncture.

That's a shame if the Vincent SA-T8 is now unavailable in the States. I havn't heard the SA-T7. Reading about it it's only Single Ended with a couple of digital inputs included. As it rained all day in Mebourne, I've just been playing around with some of my equipment, and confirmed what a truly great Pre the SA-T8 is. As good as the massively upgraded AR SP9 is (think the jump from Mk.11 to 111, and then the same jump again, to what I call Mk. 1V). It has beaten out some highly regarded Pre's. And the highly regarded "giant killer" Doge 8 (with upraded tubes), which is a nice Pre. I was enjoying both Pre's.  When I put the SA-T8 back in the system, I was almost speechless. It is in another stratosphere (better). I still have the stock tubes in!  With upgraded tubes and possibly a couple of tweaks, who knows what the Vincent is capable of?

Anyway good luck kalali, hope you find something really nice.
Don't get short term satisfaction with long-term disappointment.  Get the better-sounding preamp up front.  For the $2500, there are few, if any, really great new preamps.  There are some used line stages in that price range that some people, like.  My preference in a used line stage is the Herron Audio VTSP-1 with all the latest mods.  If available, it should cost a bit less that $2500.  IMO, it is better than any of the ARC preamps of its production period (through 2008 or so) and among a short list of top performing preamps regardless of cost. 

If you can scratch out a little more money, my opinion is that the Herron Audio VRSP-3 (R03) is as good as it gets.  I have never heard better regardless of cost.

So the question becomes....  Is it the music or the cosmetics / glamour you're really after? 

ARC pre-amps have acquired amongst audiophiles an aura of assumed superiority, don’t you think? Yet many of their owners never seem to be content, continuously and repeatedly upgrading. I've heard all the rationalizations, but you don't see it with other pre-amp brands.

Well, there's definitely some truth in both the perception of the glamour and more ARC owners upgrading to newer models. Could be explained as brand loyalty or great marketing but either way, it helps with both desirability and resale value. Another side benefit of these artifacts is there are mere owners out there to provide input of which model/year to buy. I have no doubt there are better preamps out there for a comparable price but its more difficult to get a broad owners' view of how good they are.

bpolleti - Strangely enough, there's a Herron VTSP-3a (R03) for sale right now in A'gon and not much of a stretch from my budget... in case anyone else is looking for one.

At the risk of showing my ignorance, I went ahead and hooked up first my CD player and then my Bluesound Node wireless DAC directly t my MC2200. I put those two separate gain controls on the amp to use and the sound quality is quite good, maybe even a tad better than with the NAD preamp in between. I left it with the Bluesound for now since most of my listening is from Tidal or some college radio stations. So assuming I have no need for two of the preamp's main functions; volume control and source switching, would my $2500 buy me better sound if spent on an preamp or elsewhere on the audio path?
May be I should start a new thread to ask a different question. But in the meantime, where I stand: I spent a good part of the day experimenting with different configurations and I've now confirmed that I can directly connect either my CD player or the Bluesound Node 2 wireless DAC to my MC2200 and get plenty - actually more than my ears can handle, of volume. Between the gain controls on the MC2200 and the volume control on the Bluesound mobile app, I have no gain/volume issues. The obvious issue is I can only use one source at a time. Should i now be looking for a passive preamp our do I just need to get so sort of a "switch" to select the desired source? If so, this begs the question why more folks take this route and spend mega bucks on a (active) preamp. Does a "good" preamp add to sound quality - soundstaging, imaging, etc., above a direct connection? Sorry if I'm asking the obvious but I was caught a bit off-guard discovering that I could even run my system without a preamp. Thanks as always for your great input.

There was a thread last week that addressed this exact question about the pre vs non-pre sett up. Have a look and you should easily find it. Personally, I prefer the pre-amp in the chain. I tried bypassing my Audio Research LS-17-SE and running my McIntosh MCD301 direct to my mono blocs. I was not pleased with the sound, and quickly went back to running through the pre-amp. But thats just my my taste. Ultimately it is your ears which will decide whats best for you.

I had previously owned an Audio Research SP-3 and LS-3 and earlier this year decided to upgrade preamps. After considering some of the excellent suggested used ARC preamps mentioned in the above responses, I decided to pick a new ARC LS-17SE on closeout from an authorized ARC dealer for $2795.00. Overall, I felt this was the best deal for me as the preamp listed for $5995 and was new in a sealed box from a well reviewed and authorized dealer. This unit was discontinued in 2015 as part of ARC's ever changing product lineup.
I thought although there are some good buys available for some used ARC preamps, issues such as lack of warranty, possibility that tubes would need replacement and that given a need to replace caps after (in some cases) within 15-20 yrs., I felt a new unit was the way to go.
Since these units are still available at this price, you may wish to consider that option as well. I have been very satisfied with this unit's build quality and sonic performance and would not hesitate to recommend it as a best buy in the price range that you are looking for.
I agree with nmolar above. I have the same pre-amp, and for my taste, and with the gear that I have, it is a wonderful pre-amp at it's price point.

Thank you. Interestingly enough, I did see that (new) LS17SE and it looked like a great deal but didn't see it as one of the models folks mentioned. No doubt its a great unit and glad to see it going to a good home. I also found an LS25 MK2 from a reputable dealer and almost pulled the trigger until I did the direct input experiment and liked the outcome.

I'll look for the thread mentioned above to see what folks say but I can already expect to hear divided inputs. I actually remember seeing some ARC models have a "direct" button which I guess gives the option to bypass the preamp altogether. It is however interesting to hear that see people actually do prefer the preamp in the chain. I'm sure like everything else, it all depends on the specifications of the source and the amp as well as the quality/length of the interconnects. In my case, I couldn't find any specs for either my CD player or the Bluesound but a low 0.775mV input sensitivity for the amp and using a very short distance - 0.5m, between the components are helping with the gain.


You may want to do some further reading on the pros and cons of a preamp vs. direct connection. One approach is a passive line stage, i.e. a device which provides basic input switching, volume controls and outputs but no amplification of the signal.

See the below link for a further and lengthy discussion on this and other approaches to removing a preamp from the chain.

Another approach I have tried with the Mytek Brooklyn DAC is to use it for a preamp, removing the ARC LS-17SE from the chain. This DAC has the necessary setup (volume controls, etc.) to allow for this approach. Although it sounded pretty good, I reverted back to using the ARC LS-17SE as  it had more inputs and a more natural soundstage and warmth. I suppose I could live with the Brooklyn DAC as a preamp but since I have the ARC unit I will periodically experiment with it vs. the DAC as a preamp.
I am not aware of any ARC preamps which allow a complete bypass of their circuitry, only a home theater processor button such as on the LS-17SE which allows for a bypass of it's volume control to allow a separate home theater processor to control the volume.
Although in theory removing things from the audio chain should improve sound, in practice this may not always be the case.
I read about the "direct" option when researching some of the older ARC models like LS3. According to ARC, the Direct mode provides the highest level of resolution when using high gain line stage components such as CD players, etc. Not sure if it acts as a passive preamp or not. I'm sure there are folks who know this model and can comment.
I had the ARC 40th Anniversary Edition and now have the ARC Ref.  If there is a better preamp, then I haven't heard it.  I was at the Munich Hi End Show in May and had the pleasure of listening to some stellar pre's.  Still put ARC at the top.  In short, your obsession may simply be good taste.  Enjoy.

For that sort of $, I would expect no less....Fortunately the closest ARC dealer is about 50 miles away from me so I'm somewhat guarded from completely destroying my enjoyment from my current system...
I checked the ARC LS3 owner's manual and found that the Direct/Normal switch acts as described above and bypasses the Balance, Mode and Input Selector switches.
As I recall from when I owned an LS3, there was no great sonic difference using the Direct Mode vs, Normal. This is probably because you are still subjecting the signal to some of the preamp's electronics and therefore this is not a truly passive line stage circuit.
In any case, if you want a preamp vs. a passive line stage, this should not be a deciding factor as to which preamp to purchase.
I had an LS3 and liked it...liked it better than an Audible Illusion 3a and a Conrad Johnson PV (3?) I compared it with.  Nothing romantic on sparkly.  It was feeding a McCormack DNA-1 and just sounded solid, full and balanced. But it's  the only AR I've owned.
I agree with both of the LS17SE owners, which I own also, I had a Dodd buffer with the 6H30 and liked it compared to other tube pre's I owned, less noise great sound stage, reliable and long lasting tubes. I compared it to a Wyred 4 Sound STPSE and liked what it did for the sound better than the almost passive Wyred. Also fully balanced, Great buy right now.
To put this with or without preamp question to bed for myself, I locked myself in the room and tried to do an A/B comparison to hear the difference. I’ll say that my system is probably not as good as or in some cases anywhere as good as what a lot of folks here own so this test technically proves nothing in general and is just one data point. One other thing I should add is that in comparison with all the other criteria, for me the quality of soundstage is really a big deal as a measure of the overall quality of a system. Other folks may have different preferences. When I run my sources - CD player or DAC, directly into the amp, the sound is a little more open and crisper but I sense the midrange, especially female vocals are more forward and have a slight sharp edge. It sounds real nice at first but after a few minutes or an hour it really stands out and is more noticeable. The soundstage, particularly the depth is also not as good but strangely the width is bigger. I lose a bit of that crispness and width with the preamp in but the soundstage seems more recessed. I hear folks say that with passives the interconnect cables play a bigger role in sound quality so there may be other ways to strike a compromise by experimenting with other variables but in my system, adding an (active) preamp can clearly affect how the content is delivered, particularly the musical presentation of the soundstage. All in all, I still prefer the direct connection even though it limits me to using only one source at any given time. Ultimately, I find the wider soundstage and the "crisper" midrange more satisfying mainly because it "fills" the room better and the imaging is a tad sharper in off-axis listening positions.

 You are comparing an NAD C165BEE to no preamp. Go borrow an Audio research preamp from the dealer for the weekend. Then do the same test. That will give you a much better idea of what a top flight preamp will do for your system. I doubt it will be as close.