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!


Of all the Audio Research products I have heard 

and owned,I think the LS 26 MK 2 was the best 

very musical from top to bottom.

Hi Ross;

I wrote you what I thought was a thorough reply yesterday morning and Audiogon decided my shipping address was "unverified" even though I go to work there most days for years (!) I got them to manually "verify" me. Ugh! so....

I note that you can replace minor electronic part yourself so that adds a big savings to your side of the ledger.

Here is my experience with ARC preamps: 

ARC gear is like buying a 80s Ferrari- not that expensive to buy but very expensive to own. 

ARC's SP 10 and 15 are fantastic preamps for cheap (2500-3500) but thy are now old and the original caps are going to fail on you. Caps are cheap direct from ARC so if you have a chance to buy one of these greats that doesn't work for $1,000 you have a bug % chance it's just a power supply cap and you are under $30 from a working unit. A little poking around with a multimeter will tell you if the uF is OF on the others. There is a lot of room on the chassis to get in there and swap out weaker parts. Plus it's a lot of fun of you like that kind of tinkering. 

The highest rated Ref gear in the mind of the ARC employees I know is the Ref 5 and the LS 27. Those are not preamps I've owned but I'm advised they are the "best value per note" in the modern lineup by my ARC mole.

ARC had a bad spell in the 90s as Bill Johnson farmed out a number of the iterations following the SP 15 to "lesser mortals" there at ARC. The ARC insiders considered them "gimickey" and not really worthy of the logo. Their aftermarket value reflects this. 

Your VS110 is a great little amp and will play nicely with an ARC preamp. ARC products are designed to compliment one another so you won't have a great %  chance of a non-ARC preamp fighting with your AS110. 

The SP 10 on eBay right now looks pretty good and is well bought under $3000. Tubes for SP 10s are not insanely expensive at this time either. I'd re-tube the entire unit if it was my turn to buy one. ARC thinks 1500 hours is about when you need to consider re-tubing and 2000 hour tubes are rapidly loosing their dynamic capabilities. again- like owning a Ferrari :)

If you have a chance to audition a few "vintage" ARC preamps I'd make every effort to do so before you buy one.