There are several definitions of “value”, but one that applies most to you, as a reader of audio reviews, is equipment that provides a proportional amount of enjoyment from the money you spent. In other works, pay a little – get a little enjoyment. Pay a lot – get a lot of enjoyment. Buy the best and the result should be artificial reality in your listening room. Let’s be clear, though, that the best equipment is not necessarily the most expensive. If you don’t agree with this last statement, please call me immediately and I will arrange to send you the best system on the planet. Make sure the color of your credit card is platinum.
As systems grow and mature, we balance the sonic qualities of each component against all the others to obtain a pleasing sound. Our lives, or at least this audio mania we indulge in, would be a lot simpler if all components had similar sonic signatures, and we chose each piece based on features and price. But where’s the fun in that? In fact, we choose components both for their peculiar sonic signature and for the overall level of quality of sound they provide. The former comes free in every box. The latter can cost more than an arm and a leg. Check your insurance policy and you’ll see that this is probably true.
The Audio Research LS16 mk. 2 line stage can be considered about a 10th generation product, going back to the SP6 days, gestating through the SP10, various LS models, and finally benefiting from the development of the Reference mk. 2. I view the LS16 mk. 2 as a relative of the Reference-2, since the technologies are similar. I say relative because where the $10,000 Reference mk. 2 is the Nobel winner of the Audio Research family, and the $5,500 LS25 mk. 2 has an MBA, the $3,500 LS16 mk. 2 graduated high school – Honor Roll! – is working on a college degree and has a nice job which keeps things rolling along. Same family, different status in society.
The mk. 2 benefits from the 6H30 tube that became known in audio circles mainly through the VK-SE series of products from Balanced Audio Technology. This is a great tube for audio. Depending on your chosen side of the tubes vs. solid-state debate, you may find that this tube will make you question your choice. Of course, you should feel free not to share my enthusiasm for the 6H30 tube. It is not a tube-sounding tube; it is not a solid-state-sounding tube. It has excellent power and definition in the bass as well as high frequencies that seem to miss nothing all the way up to ultrasonic frequencies, but with no grit or grain. No “tubey” bass, no rolled-off highs. In a blind audition, I think it would be difficult to tell if this unit was excellent tube or exceptional solid state. The two 6H30 tubes in the LS16-2 are advertised to last for 10,000 hours. Maybe they really do last that long. Let’s be conservative and expect 5,000 hours actual, which is about double the life expectancy of some other tubes. They cost about $20 each. Only two tubes, long life, low replacement cost. Sounding pretty good, eh? More on the sound in a moment.
The LS16-2 has balanced inputs and outputs in addition to single-ended (RCA) connections in and out, so whatever kind of component you have or might have can be easily accommodated. There is a pass-through for use in home theater systems. Balanced connections are often better, and I prefer balanced gear – especially phono preamps, all else being equal. With this preamp, you’re ready. The LS16-2 is very easy to use, especially with the comfortable remote control. I hear people say, “My stereo is only four steps away. I don’t need a remote control!” Ah, ignorance is bliss. All I can say to those folks is that once you have used a remote controlled preamp, it will be difficult to go back to using a “manual” one. Do you find yourself sitting down and getting into a tune, but just want to “bump” the volume up a notch? I have to tell you, remote control fits the way we listen to music much more naturally than getting up and making those adjustments with the knob on the preamp. For you LP listeners like me, the remote Mute is perfect for the end of a record so you don’t have to jump up to avoid the thumps on each revolution of the record. With the LS16-2, remote switching of all functions including power, source, volume, gain, processor, monitor, and mute is possible.
After connecting the cables on the back panel, you might never have to actually touch the preamp again. This is a good thing, because on the front panel is the least pleasing-to-use volume control I can imagine, even beating out separate volume controls for the left and right channels in older dual-mono designs. Bear in mind that the LS16 suffers in this regard in my opinion partly due to coming after the absolutely gorgeous Jeff Rowland Synergy IIi preamp, which has one of the best volume controls in the business: silky smooth with numeric readout of volume, and no end stops. Just give it a spin and the volume is off. The ARC volume control is a spring-loaded switch. Twist left to turn the volume down, twist right to increase. Want to turn it up just a few “clicks”? Twist, release, twist, release…geez. Just use the remote. I hope the mk. 3 does away with this approach. Angle-encoders and numeric readouts are DEFINITELY the way to go for volume controls in the 21st century. But it works, it seems reliable; let’s move on.
Build quality is typical Audio Research, which means excellent without being superfluous jewelry. Technicians will appreciate the quality of the internal circuitry, board layout, and components, but the internals probably won’t impress those looking for shiny golden things and “visual candy”. This is a well-constructed, well-finished, expertly manufactured product and not necessarily a conversation piece. That’s fine with me, as I think this unit has the perfect blend of high-quality construction and attractive design, without attempting to be a work of industrial art. Significantly, tapping on the top cover or anywhere else on the chassis does not produce any audible results through the loudspeakers. This is very unusual in a product that uses vacuum tubes and means that special supports or platforms will probably not be needed for isolation from the environment.
The LS16-2 is hugely dynamic. Let me repeat that. It is hugely dynamic. If your system needs a shot of high-octane something or other, check out this preamp. Compared to almost all of the preamps I’ve heard in the last two years, the ARC either wins or equals the best in its dynamic ability. Jump factor, slam, wow…all these are presented at the “10 LP” level – no question about it. There is nothing average about the micro- or macro-dynamic performance of the LS16-2. Comparing most audio systems to live music, this is precisely the characteristic that screams “artificial”. Well, the LS16 is not an hallucinogenic drug that will make you “see” a live performance in your living room, but it certainly helps break down a barrier. A dynamic, powerful performance is much more fun, too.
Depth and lateral sound staging are competitive with other good preamps in this price range, and while that observation doesn’t sound as enthusiastic as the previous paragraph, you can be sure that pinpoint lateral images with good depth comes as standard equipment on the LS16. Individual players are easy to discern, and there is rarely any blurring of images, even in complex music. If you want the absolute resolution of depth deep at the back of the stage, you will have to spend more. But in most well-recorded music, the real action towards the rear is well-presented anyway, and those farthest depths have more to do with the size of the hall than with the size of the orchestra, so this is not a serious shortcoming. I would think that only if your favorite music is classical/orchestral would you even notice. Do you prefer studio/pop/rock/hip-hop/rap/country/jazz? No problem!
There is no sense of glare or grain at all, although you can hear those traits in commercial recordings. Reference-quality recordings exhibit no such glare or grain. This is a characteristic of an excellent component when good recordings sound exceptional, and some other recordings sound like they were produced in a garage on a 4-channel Radio Shack mixing board direct to cassette. With Dobly B. Don’t blame the system if the recording is the problem. The one area where the LS16 was found to be designed to a price-point was in the upper midrange and treble low-level resolution, which affected the feeling of composure.
For example, comparing the LS16 mk.2 to the LS25 mk.2, I got the immediate impression that the little brother was all gentlemanly L.L. Bean country living graciously taking life in stride, while the LS25 was Armani-suited suave and sophisticated, completely in control while casually greeting either a newspaper boy or a company president. Same family, just a different level of breeding and manners. The LS16-2 was not guilty of omitting any information; the high-frequency presentation was just a bit less tidy than that from the more expensive model. On a technical level, this is exactly the kind of performance difference you would expect from the better, more tightly regulated power supply and other circuit refinements in the $2000 more expensive LS25 mk. 2. It may be a very minor difference, though, if the rest of one’s system is not at the same level as “big brother”. The operative word here is “system”.
The bass performance of the LS16 is excellent, having very deep and powerful abilities. The bass is solid, tight and detailed, but also resonant and rich. The leading edge of acoustic bass notes have exceptional impact. ARC did an excellent job here balancing the typical virtues of tube and solid-state bass signatures into a character that displays the best of both technologies. We all know that the midrange is where most of the action is, but with many other preamps, that truth is sometimes hard to believe. The latest LS preamps leave no doubt about it, while still having very powerful bass and extended, nicely detailed highs. I like Audio Research’s presentation of music, and plan to hold on to the LS25-2 until I find out if this cool entertainer drives a Jaguar XK or a Lexus SC!
The LS16 mk. 2 preamplifier provides a correct amount of value, and has the flexibility to work well with almost any present or future component that may appear in your system. Well-built, remote-controlled, low-maintenance, and quiet, the LS16 mk. 2 is an easy recommendation. For those of you looking for a little tube magic without the fuss of most tube gear, this could be your ticket to the good life.
Overall Rating: 7 LPs