Audio Research Reference 160S Stereo Amplifier Review

December 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s at the extremes of the audioband that tube amps in general have gotten a bad rap, and some of them have deserved it. So I next dug into the highs, to hear what the Ref 160S could do with the upper registers. I played the Clarinet Concerto No.1 in B-flat Major (“Sant’ Angelo”) — Andreas N. Tarkmann’s arrangement for solo clarinet and chamber orchestra of arias from Vivaldi’s operas and oratorios, and performed by soloist Martin Fröst and Concerto Köln (24/96 FLAC, Sony Classical/Qobuz). The sound of Fröst’s clarinet remained composed and fluid, sounding splendidly continuous and dense through the Ref 160S. The strings were delicate and easy to listen to, never grating or harsh, neither forced nor lacking in detail. It was all so easy to enjoy — and I did.

Next I cranked it up with some Lady Gaga: her hit single “Rain On Me,” from Chromatica (24/48 FLAC, Interscope/Qobuz). This duet with Ariana Grande has a strong pop beat that, to sound right, demands a system that can deliver good midbass punch. The combination of the ARC Ref 160S and Vimberg Tonda speakers reproduced this track at peaks in excess of 90dB at my listening position, sounding terrific all the while. I heard no limitations in dynamics, and the midbass in particular had solid weight — I could feel the punch in my body — while Gaga’s and Grande’s voices sounded full, and filled my room. I wasn’t overdriving the system — I didn’t want to push the limits of amp and speakers far enough to actually damage them — but at 90dB the sound was effortless, with still more headroom than I could use. We’ve all heard that this sort of effortless quality inspires confidence in the ability of the components of a system. That’s what I felt.

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