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Sardinia 2016: New Foundation Series from Audio Research, live and in-person

KEF R Series

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The Foundation Series, from Audio Research, was announced some little while ago, and represents the new “entry-level” from the company.

WOM-Sardinia-6437You’ve already been told that the Series comprises the LS28 preamplifier, the PH9 phono pre, and the DAC9 converter. At WOM in Sardinia this year, I was told that an amplifier as well as an integrated will follow at some point later this year.

That next one in line is likely to be the VT80, given the sneak peek slide-ware reference we got. The VT80 will be a stereo amplifier and will feature KT150 power tubes that boast 75wpc of power (and both 4Ω and 8Ω taps), an innovative auto-biasing circuit, and the usual fully-balanced architecture and outputs. Pricing, and eventual release of the amplifier (or the integrated version) is still tentative, and neither was available for fondling at the petting zoo — stay tuned. In the meantime, the first three in the line are currently available and are priced at $7,500 each.

Here’s the scoop from that earlier announcement:

The LS28 line stage is a flexible and intuitive preamplifier. Four balanced and four single-ended inputs, and two sets of both balanced and single- ended outputs, allow maximum connectivity. The straightforward menu allows control of numerous parameters, including input naming, tube hours, auto shutdown, and home theater passthrough. Phase invert and mono are also standard functions. At the heart of the LS28 are four 6H30 vacuum tubes in the analog circuit. While the LS28 is the perfect match for any Audio Research amplifier, it has been designed to work with nearly any amplifier on the market today.

The PH9 phono preamplifier is a great pairing with most cartridge and turntable combinations. A trio of 6H30 vacuum tubes are at the core of a simple and clear signal path to provide the most transparent preamplification possible. Five different impedance settings allow for cartridge loading, which can be changed on the y with the included metal remote. Cartridge impedance, tube hours, auto shutdown, and other features are included in the menu system.

The DAC9 digital-to-analog converter decodes most current formats with state-of-the-art vacuum tube technology. Five digital connections — USB, RCA, BNC, AES/EBU, and Toslink — provide connectivity to all of your digital sources. Quad DAC architecture provides a balanced digital signal, wide dynamic range, and decoding resolutions from red book CD up to 384 kHz and native DSD sampling rates. A pair of 6H30 vacuum tubes are the heart of the analog circuit. Both balanced and single-ended connectors are provided for output connectivity. Native-rate upsampling and selectable digital filters allow customization of the digital signal.

The look is “pure ARC” — big chunky handles, flat-aluminum faceplate, large buttons and dials, fully-balanced architecture, and yes, plenty of tubes. The main break — the new fascia is now dominated by a glass panel, which hides the iconic green LED readouts behind a single, coherent, and consistent-across-the-line, aesthetic. In short, it’s clearly Audio Research, and yes, it totally works.

In lieu of the forthcoming Foundation amplifier, the team had appropriated a sweet set of Reference 250SE amplifiers ($30k/pair). All cabling was from Shunyata Research.

Did I mention that I actually had a chance to hear the new gear? I did! Ha ha! But before I get there, let me introduce you to the other divas in the room.

The new ARC gear was paired with the lusciously appointed and apportioned Il Cremonese loudspeakers ($45k/pair) from Sonus Faber. The Il Cremonese is wrapped up a 3.5-way “rhomboidal” bass-reflex cabinet that’s good for a response range of 25Hz to 35kHz. I want to say that, like just about everything Sonus Faber does, this speaker is a stunner, but I feel like that buries the impact more than a little. Fact is, however, that “style” is pretty much the nom de guerre for this company, so calling out any one of their designs as being “attractive” is really not saying a damn thing. The problem is that they’re all supermodels, which makes elevating any one of them an exercise in word-folly. Okay, now, with all that said — the Il Cremonese is a stunner. The curved side panels, and flowing wood, with seamlessly integrated materials makes this one pretty much impossible to not touch inappropriately, flagrantly, and with a sense of wet longing. No, really, in person these speakers will make you think weird things. Like, “how much can I really carry, and how quickly, and can I actually make the door before the sweaty mob takes me down while I’m hoisting one of these bad boys in the air?” Fine, maybe that was just me, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that out loud.

Which brings up an interesting side point — the Sonus Faber speakers and the Audio Research gear have clearly clearly distinct design aesthetics, two completely different perspectives, if you will. One is distinctively “old school” — all elegant form and tactile immersion. The other is also “old school”, but a different sort of academy altogether — more Johnny Cash than Luciano Pavarotti, more Mustang than Maserati. I can’t help but imagine that there will be consumers out there that look at these two styles and gravitate one way or the other purely and exclusively on those grounds; seeing them juxtaposed here was very much a retro-vs-lux visual mashup. From a marketing perspective, every brand in the McIntosh group has an iconic look — which is great for market identification, to be sure, but creating an audio salad a single system with components from the different brands is always going to be something of a visual challenge. If it works for you, however, the sound is very much worth the exploration — but I’ll get back to that in a second.

The second big surprise for me sat up on top of the rack — a Signature 12 turntable from Pro-Ject Audio. Long-time readers will probably remember that it was the RPM 9.1 that brought this particular audiophile back in from the vinyl interregnum, and this top-of-the-line model for the made-in-the-EU brand was a huge step up from that first-touch of mine. The Signature 12 features a lacquered chassis and a host of features pretty much designed with the sole goal of making an audiophile drool. I think the on-plinth digital readout (an included SpeedBox!), especially with that “flywheel belt-drive”, all make for a very sophisticated look, and the tall aluminum platter and chromed out tonearm only add to the sense of lux. Packaged with the Sumiko Palos Santos cartridge, the whole kit was being offered at $14k. Not cheap, no, but in keeping with everything else going on here, this last was also a real eye-catcher and inspired even more larcenous thoughts.

My time in-room wasn’t o solo mio, sadly — there were far too many other sweaty men in there  oooooh‘ing and aaaaah‘ing for anything resembling “quality time”, but this similarity to “audio show” room conditions did strike me as rather familiar.

The room wasn’t terribly wide — I’m guessing between 14-16′, with 10′ ceilings and maybe a 25’ length (totally ballparking it here), but suffice it to say that the room wasn’t palatial. Room treatments were present, but pretty low-key and minimal — no “mixing studio dead” here.

So, first thing — bass was big. A little bloom, and little weight, a little sashay, but sweeeeet, crisp and strong. As in, “stirs the blood”. Me likey — and I’ll offer that this was far more than I was expecting (“show conditions!”). Big speakers, to be sure. Wildly competent speakers, also to be sure. But the gear made those speakers dance. No grain, no effort, no glare, nothing but ease and elegance and joyous thunder. New to me gear, all around, but a very impressive first-touch. The amps, obviously, had plenty of power — but the new DAC9 was very accomplished, and that turntable was equally so. I’d happily land either with a healthy dollop of “oh yes please”.

I’m hoping to get some more time — more one-on-one time, that is — with these pieces over the next few months, so I’ll have a lot more to offer then. Yes, this whole system probably would list out at as on-par with a tricked-out BMW 5-Series, but I’ll offer that given the choice of the two, I’d rather spend more time with this room. This was a very well-balanced system with a most impressive sound. Lust-inducing? Yes indeedy.

About Scot Hull (997 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

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