Audio Research Annivesary Edition Reference 5. (£24,000)

Anniversary edition of the Reference five splits into two boxes for improved performance

Released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the company’s Reference preamp, the Anniversary Ref 5 promises to address the few solutions not available in its recently unveiled single-chassis version. This two-chassis model sees the valve power supply relegated to a box of its own and, being a true dual-mono layout, two fat umbilical cords connect it to the chassis.
   Under the lid can be found an all-valve, zero feedback, pure Class A circuit employing four 6H30 triodes per channel, again dual-mono, while mounted on the bottom of the main board are four massive custom Teflon coupling capacitors, weighing around a kilo apiece. Each valve is fitted with a now-familiar damping ring; the main circuitry is fitted to a large mother board; daughter boards deal with the front panel and the socketry.
   To the rear, all inputs and outputs are offered in both balanced XLR or single-ended form: six line inputs, a unity-gain passthrough input, two pairs of main outputs and a record output.

Brash and brassy power pop, amassed female vocals, slick production, tight and jangly guitars, crunchy drumming – we figured that sorting out these recordings with tracks from The Bangles would be a trial worthy of such a component.
   On the dance mix of ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, a synthetic-sounding percussive slam dead centre sends shimmering waves to the outer edges of the soundstage. The Anniversary ameliorated the artifice, with the decay of the CD nearing analogue fluidity. Meanwhile, sibilance, often enough to mar the bliss of the band heard through lesser systems, acquired a silkiness that rendered the merely tolerable positively seductive. Cymbal crashes, the strings on ‘Eternal Flame’… nothing jarred, nothing replicated the onset of tinnitus or the edge of a compressed source.
   Although more precise than the Ref 5, especially for arresting abrupt transient stops on electric guitar, the Anniversary never seemed aggressive nor harsher. It was more an example of presentation than quality, like adjusting a lens a mere half-stop in either direction. What the Anniversary does, in this respect, is throw down the gauntlet to any solid-state preamplifier champion who thinks that tubes are ‘soft’.
   What kept me from switching off the Anniversary even when dinner beckoned, was the manner in which it presented voices. With Mel Tormé’s crazy interpretation of The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’, the Anniversary dug deep into its vocals palette, capturing the ‘Velvet Fog’ in all its Balkan Sobranie/Maker’s Mark smokiness. I could picture the plump composer of ‘The Christmas Song’ caressing each note, while smiling at lines like ‘If I should call you up, invest a dime…’ Happy, indeed.

Owning a Ref 5 won’t prepare you for this: the Anniversary is quieter, offers wider dynamics, tighter bass and faster transients. It sounds like a ’5 on steroids, improved in every area. This is to its sibling what a Porsche 911 GT2 is to the Carrera S: simply better. No, make that simply the best of its kind. Ever..

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Originally published in the Yearbook 2011