A Visit to Audio Research


Audio Research is one of the oldest continually operating manufacturers in American audio. I have been following their progress since the mid 70’s when tube-based Hi-Fi started to surge across my radar. Solid state offerings were dominating the scene in the late 60’s. In 1970, Audio Research was born based on the efforts of Bill Johnson, the founder. Clearly, I was excited at the opportunity of visiting their newest facility in Minnesota.

There is a palpable sense of history that permeates every aspect of what the current group of individuals is working towards …better sound. Seems simple, but it certainly requires enormous effort in each and every aspect of engineering and manufacturing. I was struck by the attention to detail and the sheer determination to get everything “just right.” The timing was fortunate due to the announcement of their newest power amplifier, the REF160S:

“Following the example of the internationally-acclaimed 160M monaural power amplifier introduced in 2018, the Reference 160S (REF160S) is a vacuum-tube design with dual transparent power meters that float in front of the eight KT150 output power tubes.

The 160S continues the feature set introduced in the 160M, including a proprietary auto-bias circuit, switchable Triode or Ultralinear modes of operation, balanced and single-ended inputs, and an output tube monitoring mode. Additionally, the 160S offers a four-layer circuit board, allowing music to emanate from a jet-black background.”

When I first arrived, they were still fine tuning this product. By the second day, I was fortunate to hear what was thought to be the final voicing of this great amp. The primary listening room is a marvel and I could’ve spent days simply listening to CD’s and vinyl offerings that Warren (chief consistent ears …not his official title) kept on tap. This room was truly “dialed in!” For me, an absolute audiophile nirvana.

I toured the factory and learned that even the small clips used to keep wiring harnesses in place were chosen for their sonic attributes. At every turn, I heard “…we do this because it SOUNDS BETTER.” Clearly, there were the appropriate graphs and attention was given to measurements. However, the fact that human ears were the final determination of what worked, and didn’t, was a delight. I came away feeling hopeful about the state of high-end audio. It really is wonderful to have options in a world where many industries only offer product lines that are simply studies in mediocrity.

Another exceptional benefit for anyone purchasing these sonic marvels is that Audio Research technicians can still repair, refurbish and restore to original performance standards most products manufactured during the company’s almost 50-year history. They celebrate the half century mark next year!

Many companies are doing good work at hitting price points and covering the market demands with high value products. It was very gratifying to see this American company taking the time to produce reference products using modern engineering combined with absolute commitment to proven manufacturing methods such as hand soldering. Each product is essentially hand made to the highest standard. They, in fact, do SOUND BETTER. Bravo!