Preview- Audio Research Reference 160M Monoblock Power Amplifier
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
One does not frequently come across such admissions, so I bet this one will be unique from an audiophile. Yup, here it goes, I am making an addition to the main system, or perhaps I should give in and say I am swapping amps. And maybe other components, including cables. The short is, don’t listen to the Audio Research Reference 160M amplifiers unless your ok to be blown away and write a check.
Yes, it happened; I found an amp that surpassed the vintage MC275’s in resolving detail but with the same warmth in my system. And the story goes like this.
Fabio with Alma Audio in San Diego set up some time to audition a Nagra HD Pre-amp, the MSB reference DAC, and the Audio Research Reference 160M monoblocks on Saturday afternoon a few weeks back. Before arriving, I re-calibrated my knowledge of my current system by listening for a bit then selecting digital and vinyl content to take with me to Alma. Before arriving at Alma Audio, I did not think this audition would last long but was intrigued by Fabio's statements regarding the 160Ms and I had a high interest in the ladder DAC by MSB. The audition started; I selected those references I know well and blew right through them, looking to more content to test in other ways to confirm what I thought I was hearing. For the most part, the audition was focused on Digital sources. The reference material stretched from vocals to jazz, to 70’s rock, classical, including much of what many Audiophiles use when testing system performance. In short, this audition was very impressive. The level of detail and resolution was unnerving, including an expansive sound stage and imaging with some punch but not what I was used to on my system. I thanked Fabio and went home to re-calibrate and test my system. Measured and replaced tubes to ensure the best performance. I could not get the resolution I heard on some of the content. Fabio agreed to bring the 160M’s over for an in-system test; it’s truly the only way to see the impact. The 160M’s showed up a few days later and before installing them into the system, I gave Fabio a short listening of the current system with vinyl; Fabio did not say much, but he was taken aback by the performance. He, however, seemed very optimistic that the 160M’s could do better when I pressed them on vinyl. Remember, the audition of the Audio Research Reference 160Ms at Alma Audio was with digital content only via the superb MSB ladder DAC. Now those 160M amps would be placed into my system with the analog content and would face the head-to-head competition with the system I had put together over the years spent in Japan and Taiwan and extensively written about with three audio magazines. It's like the set-up for a heavyweight boxing match or, for me, the super bowl but in my studio room.
Over the next few weeks, I ran unlimited digital tests and content through the 160Ms. Even without the MSB DAC, the performance was outstanding, but note that MSB ladder DAC can take a low-resolution file and make it sound like a high-resolution FLAC. As I moved to the vinyl tests, I soon ran into compatibility issues between the vintage Macintosh C22 preamp and its phono stage with the 160Ms. Feeding the MC/Turntable via the C22’s phono stage to the 160Ms, quality was lost. It was empty of emotion. I spoke directly with the Audio Research team. Although we could not determine the exact issue, it was concluded that there was an incompatibility, creating a need for a different phono stage. After scrambling through a few phono preamps, I found a very compatible one, the 'PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamp', which I wrote about on the blog just a week ago. I ended up removing the SUT from Bob’s devices and had the turntable with the MC cartridge directly connected to the MC input for the PS Audio Phono Preamp. After a few adjustments, we had compatibility and an impressive start in performance. Still, PS Audio Steller needed a burn-in period. Once that was achieved, I finally had a chance to do some critical listening. It was a wow moment that demonstrated the warmth of vinyl with the detail I had already come to know about the 160M Audio Research Amps. Outstanding experience where the listening continued for a few hours as I went through more and more content to confirm this performance. It was an easy decision not to let the 160M amps leave; hence I confirmed a deal with Fabio over text message; Fabio is super easy to work with :-)
I am pleased with this decision, but it has caused a significant upheaval in the system that may require more upgrades to match that level of detail. For example, I think the Steller phono preamp will stay, but the C22 Preamp may end up being replaced. All the cables, including speaker, interconnects, and power, will need to be re-evaluated and perhaps upgraded to the Transparent cable XL level. Worst is the performance of the ladder DAC by MSB; I may have to re-evaluate my entire digital sources, which I have always made the 2nd priority to the analog sources of Vinyl and Reel to Reel. Also looking to evaluate performance improvements with the addition of a 3rd amp horizontally bi-amped for the midrange from Audio research; Reference 160S and Reference 80S.
As for the vintage MC 275’s, the vintage tube inventory, tube testing, and other support tools, it’s hard to let that wonderful collection of work go away; it was an intense effort over years of experiments and inputs from friends worldwide. It’s one-of-a-kind with incredible performance documented by three audiophile magazines. It will remain a testament to vintage and new technology that produces a truly one-of-a-kind sonic performance. It is not a museum piece but a marriage of new and old and the climax of many experiments. It was a journey that helped me understand system-level performance and the impact of each component of a complete two-channel system and the ecosystem required. It will stay with me and be re-setup in a different location; it would be unthinkable to let it live somewhere else.
"Great audio is a journey"