Audio research reference 5SE Preamplifier impressions

After recently buying and being utterly blown away by the elekit TU8600S tube amplifier I was really excited to inject some tube magic into my speaker chain. Enter a recently acquired ARC Ref5SE unit that I purchased from a seller in USA. ARC had a look and tested it to ensure it was in good working order. They just replaced the top plate with a thicker one less prone to warping and a Sovtek 6550WE with the Tung Sol tube for the PSU as they preferred it in terms of sonics and reliability of the former.

It was about a 2 month wait but I can say it was absolutely well worth it. Once in my system and given some hours to warm up it was immediately obvious the sound out of both my ATC SCM7s and especially NS5000 had changed significantly from my prior Audio gd HE9 preamp (my power amp is a Pass Labs X350.8) .


Imaging, sound stage
Through the ARC sound completely detached from the speakers and became much larger and diffuse sounding while also pinpoint and more detailed. There was more air around instruments and significantly better 3d dimensional layering. I was especially impressed with the gain in depth of the sonic images. It was as if the music was flowing in the room as opposed to simply being produced from the speakers in front of me.

Throughout the frequency band there was a smooth, flowing tonality that led music to sound more natural and real and I was even more immersed than I had been with the HE9. Going back to the HE9 tonality seemed flatter, more one dimensional and less diverse between singers and instruments. The ARC’s improved tonality allowed for better distinction in busy orchestral pieces and aided in a greater sense of realism.

Going back and forth between preamps the HE9 cleared did a good job with detail, speed and impact but the ARC was simply better in every way. Interestingly the ARC seemed to have greater command of the low frequency including with my subwoofers (2x PSA V1800 crossed at 80 hz and set to 30% gain) leading bass notes to have more detail, extension and force when called for. Double basses groaned with woodiness, drums slammed with more percussive impact. Bass heavy edm was presented with a fast, detailed foundation while still retaining great and satisfying bass quantity.

Vocals took on an incredibly seductive and nuanced tone that simply was not present on the HE9. The entirety of the midrange proper had that same magical smooth liquid quality that the elekit brought to my headphone listening. Musicality was enhanced yet confusingly sonic production was also more crisp, clear, faster and more detailed than the HE9. Lyn Stanly and Patricia barber could readily be envisioned before me or depending on the song would sound as if they were omnipresent (especially in passages when they sang with greater power).



The treble was sparkly, extended, twinkling reverberations in the air felt as if they could be touched… and on the HE9 they just did not have the same spatial projection in my room. The solid foundation of imaging and detail were there with the HE9 but it was flatter and trails would decay in a more blunted fashion whereas on the ARC they sounded effortless, floating and unrestrained in the air.

In my early impressions only 2 things really come to mind. First the heat does get fairly warm but certainly not as much as my Pass power amp so it wasn’t a big deal. Secondly when using this chain with headphones (HD650 and HD800) there was quite a bit of noise. I could get away with enjoying music regardless but my elekit and HE9 are much quieter.

The pairing with Pass and ARC devices is incredibly captivating and yields one of the best systems I have ever heard. Its doubly impressive that this was accomplished in an untreated relatively compact bed room (12x16x8 feet). The ARC transforms my system into one that excels in airy imaging and a natural flowing omnipresent sound that reminded me of the transformation my system took when I went from the Bryston 4BSST to the Pass X350.8 power amp. This is truly a destination sound and has once again evolved my perspective and respect for tube audiophile devices. I strongly recommend auditioning a tube preamp like this ARC device if you have never heard them before as they may bring the magic and immersion to your system that you are missing (whether you know it or not).




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