Acoustic Research AR-3 Vintage Loudspeaker Reviews

Acoustic Research AR-3 Vintage Loudspeaker

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Acoustic Research AR-3 Loudspeaker: A Classic

Feb 10, 2012
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Ease of Use:
  • Durability:
  • Flatness:
  • Imaging:
  • Overall Sound:

Pros:a classic; beautiful walnut veneer; incredibly deep bass; mellow, listenable sound; rare and valuable

Cons:dark sounding compared to modern speakers; non-specific imaging

The Bottom Line: AR-3s are a classic. They were the first full-range acoustic suspension system, and set the stage for many excellent speakers to follow. Their rarity makes them a collectors item today.


The Acoustic Research AR-3 (sometimes written as AR3 or AR 3) is one of the classic loudspeakers of all time. Introduced in 1958, it was the first true three-way acoustic suspension loudspeaker. The AR-3 combined a (then) new small dome midrange and tweeter with the powerful 12” woofer of the AR-1, which had been introduced in 1952. The AR-3 was the brainchild of Edgar Vullcher and Kenry Kloss, who founded Acoustic Research in 1952 to produce the AR 1. The AR-3 was replaced in the mid-1960s by the AR-3a, which was produced until the early 1970s. I’m not sure what the AR-3 cost in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but my guess would be around $450/pair. The AR-3a cost about $500/pair when it was introduced in the 1960s. Today, a pair of functional AR-3s commands over $1000 on eBay, while a functional pair of the later AR-3as commands about $650. 

The Basics.

The Acoustic Research AR-3 is a three-way acoustic suspension speaker in a real walnut veneer enclosure. The screens of the original AR-3 were made at least in part of plastic, and many are cracking and/or falling apart today. A “naked” (no screen) AR-3 can be told from the AR-3a by the grooves in the enclosure of the AR-3 into which the screen frames would be bent. The AR-3a has no such grooves. AR-3s look nice with later AR-3a-style cream cloth fabric if the original screens are beyond repair.

Because of its acoustic suspension design, the AR-3 could produce large amounts of deep bass in spite of its small enclosure. The tradeoff was that the AR-3s were significantly less efficient than the ported, horn-loaded speakers that preceded them. Fortunately, higher power amplifiers were becoming more common during the 1960s, so the AR-3s flourished.

Attachment of speaker wires is via thumb screws recessed into the middle of the back of enclosure. There are actually three thumb screws, with the midrange/tweeter thumb screw “jumpered” to the woofer thumb screw. You could use an AR3 as a subwoofer (by removing the jumper) if you so chose. Like the later AR-3a, the AR3 has midrange and tweeter continuous adjustment controls that (unfortunately) often go bad. In many pairs of AR-3s, there are only “sweet spots” on the midrange and treble controls, and on some, one or both of the drivers emits no sound at all. If you buy a pair of AR-3s with a silent tweeter, do not assume that the tweeter itself is bad. It is more likely to be a problem with the potentiometer leading to the tweeter.

Note that all AR-3s came with “crown” woofers that look “old” and have treated cloth surrounds that generally don’t deteriorate. The earlier versions of the AR-3a also came with cloth surround crown woofers, while later ones came with more modern-looking woofers with foam surrounds that need replacement every 15 years or so. If you see an AR-3 with foam surround woofers, then the woofers have been replaced and the value of the speakers is reduced.

Installation and Sound.

Set up of a pair of AR-3s is difficult only because they are very heavy speakers. I didn’t weigh them, but I’ve moved several pairs around, and I’d guess they weigh about 50 lbs each.  Their dimensions (standing) are approximately 25" tall x 14" wide x 11 3/8" deep.

We listened to my friend’s AR3s in a system driven by a powerful Adcom solid state amplifier, an Adcom tuner-preamplifier, and a high quality Marantz CD player. Comparison speakers included JBL 4311Bs, KLH 6s and DCM Time Windows.

The sound of the AR-3 is notably warm, with very deep bass, and obviously rolled off highs. The AR-3s (placed horizontally in a large bookshelf) did not throw a particularly well-defined soundstage, but they did generate an expansive, listenable “wall of sound.” I have found that the later AR-3as image better when used vertically and moved into the room a bit, so I would expect the same of the AR-3. But we didn’t move them.

On jazz music, the AR3s sounded smooth and forgiving. The snap of drum hits was reduced a bit relative to some speakers, but the heft of kick drum strikes was well presented. Cymbals were significantly down in level, but they sounded relatively smooth, and never grating. Female vocals (Diana Krall) sounded very sweet, though there was some emphasis to the lower part of her range. The same was true with male vocals (Frank Sinatra); a bit of extra "chestiness" was added to his voice.

On classical music, especially larger works, the AR-3s really shone, because their mellow balance and good dynamics made them sound like classical concerts really sound in a large hall. AR-3s generate a row T perspective (pretty far back in the hall), as the “whole” is emphasized over individual parts, and this works well with large orchestral works. On more intimate classical works, I might prefer the speakers with a more extended high and better imaging, like the later AR-3a.

Compared to the JBL 4311Bs, the AR-3s sounded much smoother, though the 4311Bs provided much more detail. Especially with the somewhat bright-sounding Adcom amplifier, the sound of the 4311s was a bit too aggressive, and we ultimately preferred the sound of the AR3s on most music. The bass of the JBLs was tighter and punchier, while the bass of the AR-3s was woolier but went deeper. Compared to the KLH 6s (another design in which Henry Kloss was involved), the AR-3s sounded darker, but also more relaxed and authoritative. The sonic signature of the KLH 6s was similar to that of the AR-3s, but there was a touch less bass and a bit more treble energy. Which speaker we preferred depended on the music being played. With the Adcom amplifier, the AR-3 proved more relaxing long-term, but I can listen to KLH 6s for hours at home, driven by a conrad-johnson MF-80 power amplifier and an inexpensive NAD preamplifier.
  
The DCM Time Windows were the only speakers that consistently “bettered” the AR-3s. The DCMs had the advantage of being about 3 feet from the back wall, placed clear of other objects, but they imaged better than any of the other speakers, and were also the most accurate, as far as making instruments sound like real instruments in space. Like the ARs, they generated a large soundstage, but instruments could also be more accurately located within that soundstage with the DCMs. However, the Time Windows’ deep bass couldn’t compete with that of the AR-3s.

It's worth noting that the AR-3s are 4 ohm speakers and, as mentioned, are not very efficient. It's probably best to use a high powered amplifier with them, and one that can handle low impedances. Using too little power can result in a muddy sound, and, if you crank it up too much, blown tweeters.  

Conclusions.

By today’s standards, the AR-3s aren’t among the most accurate loudspeakers available. They are bettered significantly by Acoustic Research’s own AR-3a, which replaced the AR-3 in the mid-1960s, as well as several other more modern loudspeakers. The AR-3s highs are significantly rolled off, their imaging isn’t that great, and the bass can be a little loose, though it goes incredibly deep.

So why are AR-3s commanding over $1000/pair on eBay, while the better-sounding AR-3a commands only $650 or so? The reason is simple: The collector value of the older AR-3 is rising even as I write, and a fully functional and aesthetically adequate pair of AR-3s is getting harder and harder to find. The original drivers are no longer made, and many of the remaining pairs of AR-3s either have drivers that have gone bad, potentiometers that aren’t working, or cabinets that are scratched up beyond repair. AR-3s are so well-respected that a single AR-3 was placed on display in the Smithsonian Institution in 1993. If you are a serious vintage audio collector, and you have a nice pair of AR-3s, you have truly “arrived.”

In addition, they’re pretty good sounding speakers if you like a warm mellow sound and deep bass. Once my friend and I were done with our “critical listening,” we settled in to some good conversation with the AR-3s playing in the background, and we were perfectly happy with the sound. Still, if you want better imaging and more extended highs, and also enjoy deep bass, the later AR-3a is objectively a better speaker than the earlier AR-3.

If you find a pair of AR-3s at a garage sale or Goodwill store (not likely in these eBay-savvy times) for a couple of hundred bucks, snap it up, even if it’s not fully functional. You will have a collectors item that can be turned around for a profit, if you so desire. Or you can make it a project, fix the potentiometers, replace any faulty drivers, refinish the cabinets, and own an important part of audio history. If you find a pair that’s working and looks decent, expect to pay handsomely for it.

The Acoustic Research AR-3 loudspeaker gets 5 stars from me partially out of respect: it was the first true three-way acoustic suspension loudspeaker, and also among the very first loudspeakers to employ dome drivers. It paved the road for many of the other great acoustic suspension loudspeakers, including the Acoustic Research AR-3a, the Acoustic Research AR-2ax, the KLH 6, the Large Advent, the New Large Advent, and many others.

A true classic.


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 1200

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