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Chasing the original AR3a sound...


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So what did AR3as sound like when they were new? I've seen that's a big question here and in my own mind. The last time I personally had a "new" set of 3as was in the mid 70's when I sold the pair I bought new in 1970. Now that I'm restoring a pair I'm wondering about how to know if they sound like they "should."

Yesterday I made an interesting (to me) observation that seems helpful. Note - for you really knowledgeable AR and/or electronic guys, you'll probably want to ignore this - there is no real science involved.

I have a set of Stax SR-30 headphones, purchased new in 1988 (Stax calls them "earspeakers"). In addition to several sets of speakers, I used to use them for monitoring when I had a a small recording studio years ago. What I really liked about them was their very accurate and neutral sound. So I pulled them out yesterday. Compared to most current loudspeakers which despite my fading hearing, still make my ears bleed when cranked up, the Stax's sound was just as I remember it - smooth and covering the entire audio spectrum easily and naturally. OK, I admit two things, my hearing is not what it was and the headphones MAY (I don't know) have degraded since they were new.

What does this have to do with the AR3a's? Well, when I bought these headphones, one of the things I did was to compare their sound to AR3as because I wanted phones that sounded like those speakers. True, I didn't have my AR3as anymore (I don't need to get into my stupidity that caused that) but there were plenty of them around to listen to and they weren't all that old yet so I did a lot of comparing. So at the time, the headphones sounded TO ME like AR3as. Note that when I say "sounded like AR3as", I'm talking about the frequency range and overall sound, NOT the soundstaging. However, the Stax soundstaging sounded less like headphones than any other headphones I used which is why I bought them.

I came across that set of headphones yesterday, in a box where they have been for years. When I put on these Stax phones for the first time since the mid 90's - I had one of those "WOW" moments. They have no exaggerated mid/treble (though according to the sound meter/test tones are audible beyond 15,000hz) - excellent bass to 35HZ, and a marevelous sense of effortless sound. I can't categorically state that they sound just like new AR3as because I don't have them to directly compare. BUT, I am personally comfortable that since I bought them precisely for that purpose and compared them directly when I bought them, they are a decent reference - at least for me.

So do they sound alike? Interestingly, the AR3as (even with one incorrect mid from an AR3) DO sound very much like the Staxs, The AR's, like the headphones, also have a tight and smooth bass that neither of my other speakers can match (Theil CS2, Magneplanar 2.6 w/Hsu Subwoofer).

So despite the lack of ANY scientific evidence, I am personally comfortable that if my AR3a's sound exactly like these headphones (and I'll be tickled to death when/if they do) they then sound like the AR3a's sounded TO ME when new.

I realize anyone can probably shoot holes big enough in this exercise to drive a truck through but it works for me and I figure there's more science than that involved in trying to compare the sounds of speaker or interconnect wire! ;)

Incidentally, I just finished re-oiling the speakers as per the AR/linseed oil instructions and at least they really do look like they did when new!

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Yes, I found the instructions on this site - don't ask me where now (I downloaded them)! :)

Here are some pics of the two speakers as they now appear with the grill cloths installed (velcro) but with the INCORRECT AR emblems. I have the correct AR3a emblems in San Antonio and will pick them up when I'm there in a week; I'll also pick up the correct AR3a mid that Roy is sending to that same address. I had some of those original small AR emblems and figured that for the moment they looked better than nothing.




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VERY nice referbishing job.

You seem to have come the closest to being able to replicate the original AR3a sound using your Staxx headphones as a reference. I imagine it's pretty hard for the rest of us to remember and know exactly how any 3a's sounded about 40 years ago.

That's something I've always wondered about when folks write about the great sound from their 3a's. How can they be certain if they sound the same as when new? It certainly is likely that some changes could have occured gradually over time which their ears became accustomed to (psychoacoustical masking). Some folks have asked for response curves. They can be found in the AR speaker archive area. They are quite impressive. However, those curves were created many years ago when speakers were new and were the result of testing in an anechoic chanber.

There is one very important assumption being made here to keep in mind. And that is the Staxx's sound hasn't changed over the years. I don't think even you can vouch 100% for that.

In this case, I wouln't worry about audio science because a speaker's voicing characteristics have yet to be quantified exactly via instrumentation. Our ears are still far and away the best judge.

Let us know how they sound after you install the correct mid and give them a good comparative listen to along side your Staxx's. Oh, and then there is that pesky variable of the pot positions. Where were they then and where are they now?

Sonic beauty is in the ear of the beholder.... oh, and also:

It's all about the music


Carl's Custom Loudspeakers

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You are absolutely right - I'm using the Stax as a reference but I CAN"T say whether or not they sound different than they did new. I'm making an assumption that could easily be wrong - that the headphones have less in them to go wrong than do the ARs with multiple drivers and Xovers. Therefore, they are more likely to have NOT changed. I admit that's a significant assumption!

If I found a STAX headphone site like this AR site, I might find folks trying to figure out how to get their Stax SR-30s to sound like they did when they were new! :)

I'll be back from SA two weeks from this coming Friday so the following Saturday I should have it installed and able to do serious listening tests. It'll be interesting...

Re the refinishing - someone sent me an email and asked so I'll also reply here. The grill cloth is cloth I purchased (and new grill frames) from Larry at Vintage AR. The "grain" iooks just like the original (I have the original grill cloth) but the new IS whiter. Although, on the speakers, I swear it looks original. Then again - it's that memory thing! The old grill cloth has a decidedly brownish cast in comparison. How much of that is the original difference and how much is aging and/or cigarette smoke - who knows? The Vintage AR cloth is definitely NOT as heavy (thick) as the oem.

If you buy his or make any grill frames - BE SURE TO PAINT THE OUTSIDE (the part against the cloth) BLACK (Like AR did)! Otherwise it will dramatically show the frame through the cloth since the rest of the speaker front (and drivers) are black. Unfortunately, I didn't pay any attention to this when I did the first one. So I got the opportunity to do it over! The pic is the grill BEFORE I redid it.

If you look at the previous pics, you'll see that the grill frame is no longer visible on the right speaker - the one I did over.


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Hi there;

Nice to see that that information sheet from AR was of value to you.

It was available upon request from AR, as was so much other free literature.

It should be in the library so it does not continually go into netherland.

It is an archival document.

Very nice finishing job.

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hi Mike,

very nice refurb on the 3's, they look sweet! as for the STAX, 3a's and your ears, i think your ears will always be the best judge. degraded or not, they still are not affected by any benchmark. the mind might be, but thats another matter ...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi all. I installed the correct AR3a mid yesterday - thanks Roy!!! - and began some semi-serious listening tests. As I said in a previous post, I was using my stax headphones as a benchmark (rightly or wrongly).

A couple preliminaries - obviously the amplification affects all this. I just acquired an AR amp and used it for some casual listening but used my Conrad Johnson CJ-5 Preamp/Moscode 600 power amp for the serious part. Both the CJ and Mossy have a sound of their own and are NOT generally considered to be coldly accurate. I like their sound which is why I own them. I also have a McIntosh 7270 Power Amp and Mc C34 Preamp but I decided not to bother with them for this purpose - it was too much moving things around!

These speakers are as original internally. None of the Xover components have been changed. THe woofers are also completely original, cloth surround models. The speakers are on stands that hold them about 10" off the floor. My chair puts my ears at about the level of the tweeters. I also did some initial listening to ensure both speakers sounded the same. I could not tell any difference in the two. With the AR3a mid replacing the AR3 mid that one speaker was using, they sounded alike througout the entire range of both treble and mid pot-turning. Speaker Cables (we used to just call them "wires") are the best quality 14Ga zip that Home depot carries!

Here's the first, and possibly most telling listening comment. My wife (again) said, "How come these old speakers sound better than anything else we have?"

The 3a's have an effortless bass that just seems to BE THERE! Although the Hsu subwoofer mated with our Magneplanar 2.6s will go lower, it is not as coherent or as natural. THe AR will reproduce the 31.5HZ test tone on my stereophile CD easily and again, just has a smooth quality that the Hsu doesn't equal. Our Thel CS2s are nowhere near this league. But we know that the AR bass is good; how did they sound overall?

With the tweeters set to max and the mids at the 10 o'clock position the sound was very similar to the stax headphones but not nearly as bright as the Theil's. THis was not a bad thing, I always thought the Theils were too bright. At this setting though, the ARs were still a bit more "forward" than the headphones. Certain female voices had a hint of stridency that the headphones don't. Backing off the mid control to around 9 oclock ended up providing the sound that was closest to the headphones and it was very close indeed. Both had the quality of natural sound without exaggerated bass. They both had plenty of bass WHEN THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE BASS.

I was surprised how similar the mid range/treble sounded to the Maggies. I expected a dramatic difference but there wasn't. The Maggies image better and will produce a wider soundstage but the essential sound quality was pretty much the same - no stridency and natural sounding. Both are quite different than the Thels which have always been capable of making my ears bleed; On most CDs I have to reduce the treble a few DB on the Theils or I can't deal with them at anything other than fairly low volume. The Theils are one of those speakers that, to me, sound great from the next room!

None of this is very scientific but I was very pleased with the results of "serious listening" and the fact that I could get the 3as to sound essentially the same as the headphones.

Then I un-serioused and listened a bit with the AR amp. First, I have no idea if the amp is anywhere close to overall spec at this point. I did a DC offset check and it's within ARs specs of less than 100mv but that's all I know. Secondly, on it's best day with everything perfect, comparing the AR amp with the CJ/Moscode is like comparing a High School quarterback with Joe Montana. However, one nice thing about the AR is it's excellent set of tone controls and I was quite impressed with their capability to vary the sound balance and improve some sound sources in a very effective way. The overall sound was "congested" in comparison with the other system. It was not nearly as open and natural but to expect otherwise is unfair - if nothing else, the CJ/Mossy has more than 5 times the rated power. To be totally subjective, I'd say it sounded, "not bad at all!" It would be one of those classic cases that if you just walked into the room you'd have no complaints about the sound - it just suffers in direct comparison.

So, that's the result of my test - I think that these AR3as sound almost exactly like the stax headphones which I bought in the 80's; I bought the Stax's because I thought they sounded very much like the 3as. So this reverse engineering leads me to the (admittedly flawed) conclusion that these AR3As sound essentially like they did originally. As stated before, I have NO idea if the headphones sound like they did when new so this entire excercise actually PROVES nothing at all.

I realize that my saying the speakers sound (to me) like they did originally seems to fly in the face of the fact that the components degrade over time. The explanation could simply be that my ears have degraded so that I can't hear differences that I could have heard 20 years ago. But I also played some test tones through the speakers using a radio shack SPL meter and response went to 16000HZ which was the upper limit of my test tones. I couldn't hear them beyond 12,000 but the meter showed they were there at the same level. So I don't know if the the explanation is that the caps are still in spec OR that they are not sufficiently out for it to matter in this not-so-strenuous test OR that there would have been an obvious difference had I had test tones out to 20KHZ OR that the radio shack meter is insufficiently accurate anyway. Lot's of "Or's"

But "Or's" or not, they sound great to me and my wife says she won't even listen to the Maggies or Thiels anymore!

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Guest matty g

Mike -

Excellent report! One question, though...What did you use as a primary source through the CJ/Moss setup? I know that the test source was a cd, but did you try an analog source such as vinyl or open reel?

I had a similar experience when I first got my 3a's. Before that I had been using 2a's, and they sounded very good. The 3a's just about knocked me through the wall. The bass, of course, very present at the right time (as you pointed out). The mids and highs just as natural as can be. Every other speaker seems either too bright or just plain "nasal" in the midranges. I don't know why that speaker can't be reproduced today, but it just can't be done. Good thing they are being preserved and enjoyed all these years later.


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Sorry - should have mentioned the source - it was a McIntosh 7009 CD player. I didn't have the tapes unpacked to do a test with the old AMpex F44 RtR and I don't yet have a turntable shelf set up for the turntable - I didn't want to set it up on a cardboard box.

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