First Sounds: Audio Research Reference 75

by Paul Bolin | May 26, 2012

ne of the nicer perks of being in the audio press is getting the chance to hear interesting new products before they see the light of the commercial day. In the middle of May, Audio Research’s Warren Gehl called me to say that I would to be the first person outside the company to hear the new Reference 75 stereo amplifier. On May 20, Warren arrived at my new home, a large duplex with a dedicated audio room, with the amplifier in tow.

The Reference 75 is packaged in the same chassis as its Reference 150 sibling, but it sports a pair of meters on the front panel as well as ready access to the adjustments necessary to dial in the tubes. It weighs 47 pounds and is priced at $9000. Inside there is the simplest of circuits, also derived from the Reference 150. Each channel features a JFET at the input, followed by a single 6H30 driver tube and a pair of KT120 output tubes producing 75Wpc. The power-supply storage capacitance is equal to the now-superseded Reference 110's, and it has the same amount of capacitance per watt as the Reference 150. Simplicity, Warren explained, is the driving force behind the Reference 75, which is the spiritual descendant of storied Audio Research stereo amps of the past, among them the virtually legendary D-75 and D-79. It is intended to be an all-out assault on the medium-power state of the art for those whom 75Wpc are sufficient. The amp was designed and voiced primarily on Wilson Audio Sasha W/Ps and Gehl’s own Magnepan Tympani 1U loudspeakers, which I can vouch for as being an exceptional speaker system.

After a 45-minute warm-up, Gehl installed the amp in my system, which consisted of my usual analog front-end, the Pass Labs XP-25 phono stage, Aesthetix Calypso Signature line stage and my own Wilson Sashas. All interconnect, power and speaker cabling was Nordost Odin; Quantum QBase 8s distributed the AC, and four Quantum QX4 conditioners did their subtle but unmistakable thing. Warren told me that the 8-ohm tap is preferred for use with Sashas, so all of my listening was done that way.

To provide some context, it is some years since I have used a stereo amplifier. For most of the last decade I have listened exclusively to monoblocks of at least 120 watts each -- and often considerably more.  As a result, mid-powered stereo amps come into my listening room with plenty to prove.

I kicked things off with “Telegraph Road” from Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold [Warner Bros. 23728]. This track includes everything from delicately picked, close-miked resonator (Dobro) guitars, potent low synth bass, and ranges from intimate to vast in soundstage scale. Mark Knopfler’s voice had precisely the right degree of Dylanesque grittiness and the Dobro had a richly textured sound with an ideal balance of wooden body and metal resonator. As things picked up and became more complex, the Reference 75 continued to breathe easily, showing off truly excellent dynamics of both the micro and macro sorts. Knopfler’s electric-guitar work had a stunning tonal purity; attacks had attention-grabbing verisimilitude and decays trailed away with a tingly deliciousness and tactility. I like my rock with some kick to it, and the meters on the front panel barely moved, save on the biggest moments, when they did twitch a bit. I was very impressed.

I’d been listening to Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus [RCA 83545] the previous night purely for purposes of nostalgia. I thought it decently recorded, but I was in for a surprise with the Reference 75 in play. There was a cleanly defined, surprisingly deep soundstage on "Miracles," and the backing vocals behind Marty Balin’s lead were cleanly separated in space, both from Balin and from each other. Now I was truly surprised.

On orchestral music, the amp shone. A few months ago I happened on a stone-mint, very early red-label set of Angel LPs featuring Otto Klemperer conducting orchestral music of Richard Wagner [EMI 3610 B]. Whatever Angel LPs may have become, this set, recorded in England by EMI at the height of the label’s excellence, is sonically spectacular, with the majestic, measured performances that were so typical of Klemperer. The Reference 75 threw a truly massive soundstage in all dimensions. Depth, breadth, height -- it was all there, with more than enough elbow room for all the players in the large orchestra to be thrillingly individualized. Strings had a lustrous, utterly natural sheen, brass brought weight and power and each member of the woodwind family was delineated with an easy precision. Bass was powerful, superbly controlled and lushly bloomy, not boomy.

The acid test of midrange remains the human voice, and the Ref. 75 not only passed, it stood at the top of the class.  Julee Cruise’s small, wispy soprano, couched in the reverb-drenched 1950s lounge soundscapes created by David  Lynch and Angelo Badalementi, was as sweetly smooth as could be imagined -- not a whit, a smidgen or a hint of anything other than what was on the Floating Into The Night LP [Warner Bros. 4-25859].

A different sort of challenge, one that encompassed everything that came before it, was the superb Francis A. and Edward K. [Reprise 47243] featuring the impeccable Sinatra fronting the Ellington Orchestra with the Duke at the piano. The trademark Ellington brass was creamy yet bold and sassy when it was supposed to be. Cymbals were clean, clear and extended, as were the top octaves of everything I heard through the Reference 75. As for The Chairman of the Board, he did everything but step out of the speakers and pour me a drink. His mellow baritone was presented with a subtlety and totality that were nothing short of bewitching.

A few words kept coming back to me during the three-plus hours I listened to the Reference 75: purity, subtlety and completeness. This deceptively simple, moderately powered circuit held its own with any amplifier I have ever heard and never began to break a sweat in doing so. It constantly made me, not just allowed me to, let down my guard and bask in music for music’s sake, and that music emerged from silky-silent backgrounds that allowed retrieval of the tiniest details. Audio Research claims a noise floor of -112dB, a figure that only the best solid-state amps could match just a few years back. Based on what I heard, I am not inclined to doubt that spec.

If 75 watts per side are enough for your system, you would be somewhere between derelict and mad not to give this amp a listen. Even if you think that isn’t enough power, you should hear this very special amplifier. You just might be profoundly surprised. The Reference 75 will begin shipping to dealers in mid-June. Let me be the first to predict that this strikingly excellent amplifier will sell like cold beer on a hot summer’s day. Hearing is very much believing.

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