To Doug Schneider,

I was wondering if you could give some feedback on a couple of preamps the SoundStage! Network has reviewed over the years.

I’m deciding between the Bryston BP26 preamplifier (and Bryston 4B3 amplifier) or perhaps a used Audio Research preamp: LS26 or Reference 3 (and ARC Reference 110 amplifier).

Any thoughts on the similarities and differences between these two companies? Is the BP26 in the same league as the ARC? Better? Lesser? Or a different sound altogether?

I was leaning towards Bryston for its low distortion figures; I like the Bryston/PMC speaker combination and I want the recording studio accuracy that Bryston provides. But I also want to experience the spellbinding “magic” of the artist and music. Hence, the ARC consideration . . .

Most of your ARC preamp (and amp) reviews indicate something very special about ARC products: the connection to the music and artist.

Can a Bryston BP26 and 4B3 amp capture and produce both accuracy and magic? That’s what I’m looking for. Or is ARC a better route?

Best regards,

You ask some interesting questions for which there are really no answers. Still, I’ll offer some thoughts.

Audio Research makes vacuum tube-based electronics. Many audiophiles feel that tubes have a certain sound that’s often described as being more “musical” than what transistors provide. Maybe this is what you’re thinking when you say “magic.” The thing is, I have not found any of Audio Research’s modern designs to have an overtly “tubey” sound. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if their components are auditioned blindly, most audiophiles would not be able to tell if what they’re listening to uses tubes or transistors. That lack of old-school tube colorations surprised me when I reviewed the GSPre preamplifier and GS150 power amplifier. That certainly doesn’t imply there’s something wrong with Audio Research products -- what it really means is that although they are using tubes, the resulting designs are still sounding very accurate, rather than having a colored sound. Does that mean they’re missing “magic”? That would depend on how someone defines the word in relation to audio.

Similarly, I was in a recording studio some time ago and the engineer there was so smitten by the sound of a Bryston amp he was using, he said to me, “Listen to that top end, it’s so smooth, like a tube amp.” Of course, Bryston’s designs are all solid-state. Ironic, isn’t it?

These days, a quality preamplifier or amplifier design, whether based on tubes or transistors, can be made to sound so natural and coloration-free, it’s difficult to know what technology is in play. That’s not always the case, mind you -- there are components that do still stray from accuracy, sometimes deliberately so -- but with regards to the products you mention, neutrality seems to be the goal. Finally, yes, they’re both playing in the same league.

As a result, with the components you mention, it’s impossible for me to tell you which will allow you a better “connection to the music and artist.” It’s possible that both companies’ products will give you that connection, though it’s also possible that one or none will. That connection is more of a personal thing. The only thing I can advise is to find the answer through listening for yourself. Once you do, I’d be interesting in hearing about the outcome. . . . Doug Schneider