First Sounds: Listening to the Reference 250s

by Marc Mickelson | July 26, 2011

or us audio-press types, the sanctity of the listening room shall not be forsaken. This is a highfalutin' way of saying that actual rules govern the evaluation of audio equipment. Chief among these is knowing your reference system inside and out, so that the effect of any cable, electronic component or speaker that's added is apparent. Notice that I didn't say "immediately apparent." The time it takes to discern what a new product does to the musical whole isn't the issue. I'd rather take a year and get it right than two minutes and get it wrong, and my reference system, which is built to satisfy me musically and tell me what's happening with new products, is the most important part of that endeavor.

Yet, I also have an audio home away from home, a second system that I've heard so many times that I know its personality and capabilities. I've been visiting Audio Research every summer for as long as I can remember, and each of these trips has reacquainted me with the system in the company's big room. I've heard all manner of Audio Research electronics here, most often with Wilson Audio speakers. I use both at home, so there are definite similarities between the Minnesota system and my own. Both portray space particularly well, present an evenhanded tonal balance, support deep bass, and sound real without becoming clinical. The rooms are also a similar size and have carpeted floors on top of concrete slabs.

Last summer I heard Audio Research's then-new Reference Anniversary preamp in the company's system. I could discern its contribution to the overall presentation, which having a Reference Anniversary at home a number of months later only underscored. This year I once again heard the Reference Anniversary, but paired with Audio Research's newest amps -- the Reference 250 monoblocks ($25,990 per pair). Details on these beasts aren't available as of right now, but I can tell you that, as their name suggests, they output 250 watts each, which represents a nearly 20 percent increase over the Reference 210s, which they replace. The extra power comes from the KT120 output tubes the Reference 250s use, which replace the 210s' 6550Cs. The new amps also have 50 percent more power-supply energy storage than the 210s, new Teflon capacitors and a new power transformer. The amps remain fan cooled, but even this has been improved, the fans producing noticeably less noise.

I knew about Audio Research's switch to KT120s before it was common knowledge, and I was skeptical. There are so many good commonly available tubes that using a brand-new one, even one that's engineered specifically for audio, seems risky. I've heard a few amps with KT90s, for instance, and while they certainly were powerful and dynamic, they also lacked the sophistication and subtlety that so much music requires.

I can happily report that the Reference 250s don't suffer this fate. Like the Reference Anniversary preamp, the Reference 250s sound effortless at all listening levels, possessing ample finesse to go with their high power. There was no tonal excess, no crispy edge definition, no high-frequency crudeness. Instead, the highs possessed clarity and solidity in equal amounts, the midrange was corporeal and lively, and the bass was athletic and powerful.

As I sat and listened, playing cut after cut that I knew well, a dominating thought came to mind: like the Reference Anniversary, the Reference 250s seemed to do everything. Big dynamics? Check. Low-level detail? Check. Midrange transparency? Check. Smoothness and richness? Check. Speed and resolution? Check. Nimble, deep bass? Check. The ability to capture all the space on each recording? Check. There was only one thing about the amps that made me feel uncertain -- the big analog meter on the front. It will cause some people to carp and others to coo. I'm indifferent, although I like being able to see those needles dance when the preamp is turned to 11.

Speaking of which, at one point during my demo, Warren Gehl, who listens to every Audio Research product before it leaves the factory, asked that I play a certain cut from my CES demo CD-R "at a level you'd like to hear it." The cut was "Words of Wonder," from Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499], a CD I've mentioned many times in reviews. It's also on TAB's "The List" because it's one of the most realistic-sounding rock recordings I've ever heard. I absolutely blasted it, the display on the Reference Anniversary reading "60." I was sure that the people in Audio Research's production area, which is adjacent to the listening room, had to hear it. This was the sort of volume level that would have your neighbors calling the cops, who would, I'm convinced, be impressed as they sat down for a listen.

Here it is weeks later, and I'm still digesting what I heard that day. The Reference 250 is the most promising -- and thrilling -- new product I know of right now, and there is a line of TAB writers who want to do the review honors. Expect more in-depth coverage at some point -- hopefully soon.

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