Launched at the tail end of last year, the Reference Phono 3 phono stage by Audio Research marks a significant change in the company, and it’s not just cosmetic. The new Audio Research reflects the changes in the audio market, as we move further from products that are sublime on the inside only, to products that take every aspect of the design and build process seriously.
The Reference Phono 3 is a perfect example of that change in stance. It needs no back story and makes no apologies for itself, being extremely well made inside and out. There are little design touches in the Reference Phono 3 that combine to make this a far more acceptable product to a wider audience, losing the ‘lab gear’ look of previous models. In fairness, the Reference series has been steadily improved inside and out for several years, but if you compare this 2016 model with the original Reference Phono made at the turn of the century, the toggle-switches, rattling case, and contrasting slimline grab-handles have all been replaced, making the product look more like it belongs in the home, not the test-bench. It’s strange how powerful this change is, because the Reference models of a decade and a half ago seemed timeless, yet look old-fashioned by today’s standards.
Of course, the big industrial design change is the move to that central black panel and large, softer-touch buttons. This harks back to very early Audio Research designs and first re-appeared in the G-Series line. It filtered through to the Reference range last year, and this year – with the Foundation series – it looks set to be a root-and-branch design change through the whole ARC line-up. Personally, I think it a marked improvement on what went before, even though I liked what went before.
Any product bearing the ‘Reference’ name in Audio Research has some big shoes to fill, but arguably none bigger than the Reference Phono 2 SE this new model replaces. The ‘Ref 2’ and ‘Ref 2SE’ were some of the most highly praised and keenly sought after top-notch phono stages on record, and was in direct lineage to the cost-no-object Reference Phono 10 two box model. The Phono 3 doesn’t exactly tear up the rule book and start again, and ostensibly the layout is similar even if the design has changed. The row of six push buttons to navigate through every part of the ARC’s extensive menu system and the large green vacuum flourescent dot matrix display panel remain ‘effectively’ unchanges, as do the five levels of loading and the 71dB of active gain used in cartridge matching. This is a better thing than it first seems because the original navigation system was already easy to drive, and the near infinite level of cartridge matching remains state-of-the-art.
Like its predecessor, the Reference Phono 3 is underpinned by an extremely sophisticated logic control (extremely sophisticated for a valve phono stage, that is – this isn’t International Space Station grade stuff). You can adjust every parameter through a menu tree, from the amount of time the Reference Phono 3 will run before switching to standby, through gain settings, valve operational life, display brightness, and EQ. Depending on your take on the whole phono equalisation debate, however, this menu system might be completely upside down – I know of collectors who have gone through their LPs and mark whether they are best played through RIAA, Columbia, Decca, or one of several lesser known equalisation curves. The Reference Phono 3 offers the listener the option of scrolling through the Big Three – RIAA, Columbia, and Decca – but you’ll need to run through all five main pages of the menu system to get to these. Listeners who change valves once every 2,000-4,000 hours, who never adjust the display brightness or standby settings, and who use the same cartridge month in, month out – but who might change EQ curves once or twice in a listening session – have to tab through a lot of pages to get there. Fortunately, the remote obviates all this, as it has one-touch access to curves, loading, and even tube hours.