Help me choose an Audio Research preamp/line stage (Please?)

Setup: This will be feeding an ARC VS110 which will drive a pair of Vandersteen Quatro loudspeakers.

Sound preferences: Clean and high resolution, but skewing toward tube tonality and away from solid state tonality

Budget: $2,500, but possible to stretch to $3,500 if really necessary

Options: The following are currently available on hifishark, and have piqued my interest:


The SP-6 and SP-8 seem like the best value, delivering quality 80's ARC tube sound, without the cost and bulk of the SP-10 double chassis.

The SP-9 comes up often, and is inexpensive, but seems to have mixed reviews. I'm dubious about the sound quality.

The SP-10 and SP-11 are the clear kings and queens. I could have either for ~$3,500. Besides the cost, I am concerned about the double chassis. It would be awkward to fit into my current setup, though not impossible. In theory I could get a Reference 2, but it would be closer to $4,000, and would really be stretching my budget.

The LS-25 seems to be very well regarded, especially the Mk. 2 which eliminates half the tubes. I'm a bit concerned that it would sound too "solid state" for me, and also it's currently only available with a black faceplate, which I strongly don't prefer. However, it is the most modern option, and offers balanced connections.

Notable exceptions include the LS-5, which, despite being universally praised, is currently unavailable on the market. Similarly, the LS-16 is currently unavailable.


Please help me narrow down my options!


I love my recently purchased SP-17 with Phono Pre. It was a consignment sell through a boutique dealer I work with. I had treated he and his wife to concerts by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and King Buffalo concerts, so I got it for $1,500 -- freshly serviced and with new tubes. Matches great with my McIntosh MC-225.  You may look for one of these ARC's as an idea.

Would a REF 3 be twice as good as an SP-8? Or 50% better than an SP-10? I only push back because that is pushing the top of my budget, and I only want to go that high if it really is truly worth it.



Unfortunately the percentage thing does not work because we all have vastly different weighting mechanisms and values. But I can put it this way the SP9 was a notable upgrade from the 8, the Ref 2 notably better than the 9 (there was some controversy with the REF 1… the REF3 was an improvement over the REf2. That is the way I would look at it.

I have most recently owned a REF5SE and upgraded to REF 6SE… with a notable improvement.

Another way of look at it you are talking about the SP8 first introduced in 1981 versus 2005… with continuous improvement. During this time ARC made very significant gains in detail and noise levels… keeping midrange bloom and musicality and approaching neutral from the tube side… while solid state was get warmer from the brittle screechy side. If I had it on a 1981 design preamp, it would be a tube preamp, but I would prefer a tube preamp from 2005.