With an Audio Research CD 7 to augment the Resolution Audio Opus 21 for CD playback, the rest of the system comprised a Linn/Ekos/Helikon for vinyl, with Nordost Valhalla cabling. The pre-amp was used with Symposium Rollerblocks, their addition offered a worthwhile improvement in bottom-end transparency and dynamics.
As I mentioned earlier, the ARC combination wasn’t an immediate knock out. Don’t get me wrong, it sounded perfectly competent, behaved itself impeccably and never put a foot wrong, but I guess I was expecting something a little more flamboyant, more exuberant in character. It felt a bit like the last guest to leave the party, the one who was always present but you never got round to noticing because they weren’t loud or colourful and they were just always there. You then bump into them a couple of weeks later, can’t remember their name but end up chatting for hours and realise that in fact, they are really fascinating company and you end up becoming firm friends.
Which is exactly what happened with the LS17/Ref 110 combination; after a while I discovered that I had actually spent a lot of time listening to music (and thoroughly enjoying it) without thinking or questioning what the amplifier was doing. The Spendor SP100’s (also reviewed in this issue) loved working with the ARC, and I eventually realised that the incredible sense of flow and communication that I was hearing was down in no small part to the amps doing the driving and their synergy with the speakers. For a start, the ARC seemed to produce a soundstage that was both large and spacious, possibly more pronounced than any other amplifier I have used. Despite being someone who doesn’t put spatial attributes even near the top of the list, I actually found this quite impressiveand instrumental in broadening the range of music I was listening too. But back on more familiar ground, playing the Richard and Linda Thompson song ‘The Great Valerio’, the instruments and voice hung in the air, surrounded by the acoustic, and I could actually hear the difference between the natural boundary of the room in which she sung and the electronic enhancement beyond that.
aware of just what the LS17 and Ref 110 were doing. Putting my old SP10 into the system served to highlight the attributes of the LS17 the aging flagship sounding muddy and ill-defined by comparison, although still very musical. But it was difficult to live with after having been spoilt by what had gone before. Using the 17 with other power amplifiers proved extremely successful, and the combination with a Bryston 14B SST proved spectacular. But then so did most of the other power amps that I tried.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to try the ARC combination with the Quad 2805 electrostatics. I had a nagging feeling that I would regret it if I missed the opportunity. If ever there was a match made in heaven, this was it, as the character of the individual units seemed to dovetail perfectly. While the bottom end of the Ref 110 did not have the taughtness of a really powerful solid-state design such as the Bryston, it seemed to ‘give’ in exactly the right areas to create the impression that the Quads having more low frequency extension than they actually possess, while the speakers’ midrange showed off the Audio Researches’ perfect balance between warm and lucid versus detail and articulation. The top end was sweet and open, ameliorating the Quads’ slight tendency toward that mild papery aspect that occasionally afflicts them. This was the best sound that I have heard coming from any of the electrostatics from the ’63 onwards. Once I got over their rather understated presentation I grew to really respect and like what the ARC components were doing. Individually, I think that both the pre and power amp are extremely capable performers. The LS17 is something of a bargain, especially in the context of a system that is a tadge dry or mechanical and could use a little help to loosen up (musically speaking). The Ref 110 is a little more shy about its attributes. Indeed, it’s only when you remove it from the system that you really appreciate just how much it’s been contributing. It has a magical touch, built on a perfectly judged balance combining precision and control with a warm, fluid and very musical presentation. On paper, the LS17 and Ref 110 might The voice, which alternates between strong and hard, almost cold in its delivery and then warm and delicately poignant, had a degree of expression that was spine chilling, and together with her husband’s eerie guitar drew minutes of respectful silence from everyone I played it too, even after the track was over.
So the ARC does subtle detail in a way that I don’t recall many other valve amps being able to manage, and without the clinical, lifeless portrayal that is often the downside with such attributes when it comes to solid-state designs. It’s not just the information they deliver, it’s the effortless way you can place it and make musical sense of it. In terms of character, the combination is probably one of ARC’s most neutral; it didn’t have the ‘fruity’ kick at the bottom end of early models like the D115, but nor did it have the dry, anaemic quality that afflicted some of the hybrid designs. And the midrange? It had that lovely ‘liquid’ presence that makes you feel as if you are stepping into the world of the performer, rather than the other way round.