Back in 1977 when I was just getting started in the HiFi business, I was working at Sam Goody when a fella walked up to me and asked: “How can you stand to listen to all this solid state stuff?” Well, that spurred an interesting conversation which led to him bringing an Audio Research SP3A preamp and D76 power amp by my house that weekend. I was forever hooked on the sound of Audio Research. This event was a major contributor to me wanting to open Audio Advice.

Fast forward almost 38 years: I finally got to visit the Audio Research factory in Plymouth, Minnesota. This visit had been on my bucket list for a very long time and I was really looking forward to seeing firsthand how this great product was made. I was up there with 4 other dealers from around the country. The facility is in an industrial park made up of lots of single level buildings spread out around a large campus. The way the buildings are arranged, it’s very difficult to sense the scale from outside.

Upon going through their doors you see posters of many of the awards their products have won over the years. We got to see many unpretentious offices of the staff who make things run and a very cool chess set made out of vacuum tubes. Just like their gear, everything was down to business. No fancy desks or office furniture were to be seen. I was actually starting to get a little bit bored until they opened the door to the factory floor. When that door opens you can see from one end where the gear starts out as just pieces, all the way to the other where it gets shipped out. It’s a huge 47,000 square foot space stretching out over the length of a football field!

Walking through the doors of the Audio Research factory

I always knew Audio Research paid great attention to details, but seeing all of this in person really drove this home. As we all know, audio gear is an assembly of a bunch of parts and no one pays more attention to every part than Audio Research. I got to see the room where the joke is they turn 5 cent parts into $5 parts. They do this by individually testing and grading every single FET they purchase. Over 95% of them get rejected for recycling. These parts meet the vendor’s specs (and every other electronics brand would use them as is) but they do not meet the very stringent specifications of Audio Research. Because of this they cannot return them, but have to recycle them, thus turning a 5 cent part into a $5 part!

Banks of output tubes being burned in for 48 hours before testing

Then it was on to the spot where they burn in every single tube for 48 hours before they are tested, graded, and in many cases rejected.

Every single tube gets run through this expensive tube tester. If they are not rejected, they are graded and sorted for matched sets

While they have invested several hundred thousand dollars into a wave soldering machine, they only use it for certain jobs where they have tested and found it either makes the unit sound better or the same as manually soldering the parts.  In the many cases where they prefer parts to be manually soldered, you’ll see a line of people hand soldering in each and every one!  Better yet, they have found that some parts sound better if they are slightly raised off the circuit board.  This also has to be manually done by hand to assure they are positioned properly!

hand stuffing ARC boards

This is one of the ladies inserting individual components on a board. You can see the kit of parts on the bottom and the “reference” board on the left. Amazing detail work!

Audio Research has identified a specific type of wire they use for all internal connections.  They have different lengths they use and while the lengths are cut by a machine, every end is manually tinned in a big solder pot at exactly the right temperature.

Once the circuit boards are assembled, each one goes on a board tester to confirm the board is operating up to specs.  They have built a tester for every different circuit board they produce.

An example of one of the custom circuit board testing rigs

After the boards have been tested, the units are put together and again go through a rigorous burn in process where each unit is powered up and down every two hours for a 24 hour period.  For larger power amps they use an engine hoist to move them around. Once burn in has been done, each unit must go through a listening test of about 15 minutes.  They have three different people they use for this who are intimately familiar with how each unit should sound.

A brand new power amp getting ready for its 24 hour testing session

The room where everything gets a complete listening test. Notice the Wilson speakers used for testing!

ARC stock

Product that has passed testing and ready for shipping- yes for those of you looking closely this is a pile of REF5SE Preamps and REF DAC’s, at 13k each!

I found it interesting that in keeping with their “buy local” mantra, they even have their shipping cartons made right down the road in Wisconsin.

Product ready to ship out in boxes

 

Another thing that has always impressed me about Audio Research is that they have parts on hand to repair any unit they have ever made!  I got to see the room where they store all of these old components, and it’s not tiny.  What I learned about that impressed me even more is their stock of original reference boards.  They have the reference board for every component they have made.  These are in the repair department as references for service techs to use in case they get an old unit that has been modified to the point they need to refer back to how it was originally made.  Now that is dedication to customer support!

One of the many bins of “reference boards” they keep around. These are pushing 30 years old!

The most fun part of the tour for me was venturing into their “museum” of old components.  This was a trip down memory lane for me and a thrill to once again see many of the pieces I experienced firsthand almost 40 years ago!

Yours truly holding the very first Audio Research preamp ever made!

Yours truly holding the very first Audio Research preamp ever made!

One of their first power amps

One of their first power amps

A sneak peek at the upcoming G series power amp. I just love this new/retro look. Can you see the inspiration from the older pieces?

A sneak peek at the upcoming G series power amp. I just love this new/retro look. Can you see the inspiration from the older pieces?

My big takeaway from the Audio Research factory tour was a confirmation of what I have always believed.  These guys make some of the best sounding gear on the planet.  You hear about everything they do to accomplish this, but seeing it for yourself really drives home how hard they strive for this.  Once you understand all of the manual labor, parts testing and rejection, design work, and plain old fashioned quality that goes into every piece of gear, you come away feeling this product is not only some of the best sounding, but by far and away the best value.  Yes, some is expensive compared to a made in China receiver, but compared to many other European and American brands, it really is an incredible value.

When you are ready to have music become a much more important part of your life, I highly recommend you come see us about using Audio Research for help in reaching that goal.  It’s made with more care and pride than any brand I have ever seen!