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A South African Hybrid

Valve Audio’s Predator Integrated Amp offers value for money

Vacuum tubes or transistors? Take your choice, or take both! Valve Audio may be a new name to most readers, so a little background is in order. Founder Schalk Havenga began as an audio repair technician and worked on many familiar brands such as Quad, Leak, Marantz and Audio Research before setting up an audio repair shop with his friend Gunther Graef. This company, HiFi & TV Services, became the service agents for Jeff Rowlands, who inspired Schalk to design his own amplifiers. He set up Valve Audio in 1994 with his first product, the Black Widow, a hybrid 200-watt power amplifier.

The marriage of tubes and transistors has always been a hallmark of Valve Audio designs, since Schalk believes each brings its own advantages. The Black Widow is still in production today, and the full range now comprises four integrated amps, three power amps and two preamps, all machined and hand-built in Doornpoort, South Africa. The Predator under review here is the top of the line integrated amp.

True to form, it strikes a balance between
the sound of tube and transistor-driven amplifiers.

This amp comes dressed in a simple but handsome case featuring an 8mm aluminum faceplate, with push buttons for selection of input and power, and a large rotary volume control. All the controls exude quality, as does the unusually shaped and very heavy aluminum remote control. The inputs include one balanced, three unbalanced and a tape loop. There are no other controls, not even balance, except for a mute button on the remote control. The rear panel connectors appear substantial and well spaced, with the exception of the binding posts, which are narrow and rather hard to grip.

The Sound
For this review the Predator joins a reference system comprising Nordost Valhalla cabling (reviewed in Vol. 13, No.2) and Thor power distribution unit (reviewed in Vol. 16, No 4), an EMM Labs CDSA SE digital source (reviewed in the last issue) and modified Wilson Benesch Act 1 speakers — a very transparent and evenly balanced system capable of dramatic dynamics with the right amplification. The Predator replaces a Perreaux Radiance R200i (reviewed in Vol. 16, No.2) and another 200 wpc integrated amp from far, far away, this time New Zealand. You might suppose the US $3,000 Predator would be quite out of its depth in this system, but the idea is to match it with a set of high resolution components and cables to see just how fine a job it can do. For these tests I used both the unbalanced and balanced inputs, with a slight preference for the balanced.

The Predator, already well run in, is a pleasure to use. The controls are simple and silky in operation, and the amp presents no extraneous noises when switching between sources. True to form, it strikes a balance between the sound of tube and transistor-driven amplifiers. You have the wide bandwidth of a silicon-based component, but with none of the brittle or hard edge that is sometimes evident. However, while it does a good job on detail retrieval and tonal color, it falls short of the Perreaux in dynamic range and image depth. The bass is full and warm but lacks the visceral edge of the best amplifiers, losing out in rhythmic vitality. Distortion is commendably low, and you can turn up the volume to satisfying levels without noticeable compression.

So what kind of music suits this amp? I’d say this is not the ideal amp for either powerful symphonic music or heavy metal. It sounds a little too genteel to do them justice. The frightening attack of a Shostakovich symphony or the Verdi Requiem loses some of its massive power. But folk, jazz and smaller scale classical music are all well served. Here the Predator bathes you in rich instrumental color and detail, allowing you to listen for many hours without fatigue. With piano recordings it can sound most beguiling, flattering the brittle sound of a Glenn Gould for example, and revealing the richness of tone of a Rubinstein or an Oscar Peterson. Female vocals are clear and bright with no added sibilance. The sharp attack of Joan Baez in full flight is toned down a notch, but the slower more sultry singing of Diana Krall emerges warm and delicious. Best of all is its warm and vibrant rendition of Haydn Quartets and Mozart Quintets, where a well-defined acoustic space is projected against a silent background. The magic of the music emerges and transports the listener to the concert hall.

Synopsis and Commentary
The ideal amplifier excels with all types of music. It never editorializes or adds warmth or transient snap to the audio signal, but does justice to the recorded signal through accuracy, resolution, imaging, coherence and dynamics. Clearly the Valve Audio Predator does not come as close to the ideal as the much more expensive Perreaux, and it is much more comfortable in some roles than others. This is not a universal amp and you must examine your own musical tastes to see if they coincide with the areas in which the Predator excels.

Can you do better at this price? In some ways you can. There are more open amps around, with exceptional dynamic qualities, such as the Creek Destiny (US $2,395) or the Bryston B100 SST (US $2,995). However, both of these are less powerful at 100wpc than the Predator’s 200wpc. To comfortably exceed the performance of the Predator you can look to the more expensive Edge G6, which runs US $4,691 and outputs 135wpc. The toughest competitor may well be the Krell KAV-400xi (US $2,500) which matches the Predator’s output into 8 ohms and combines high resolution with a ruler flat response and tight control down to the deep bass. If you’re interested in hybrid amps, you should also consider the Unison Research Unico SE (US$3,150) with its 140wpc output. This amp combines excellent all-round performance with a rather more modern look than the Predator and may be its closest sonic competitor. Of these alternatives, the Edge and the Unico come closest to the expressiveness and musicality that are the Predator’s forte. You can also look at separates but once you’ve paid for the extra power cord and interconnects, the financial advantage is usually with the integrated amp. You also have the possibility of less than ideal impedance and level matching between components, so the integrated wins most of the time in my book. We are long past the days when integrated amps were looked down upon by most serious audiophiles. There has been an explosion in the number of attempts at statement integrated amps, from the Jeff Rowland Concentra to the ASR Emitter amp. I feel the same way about transports and DACs. Give me an integrated CD player any day. The argument is less compelling at the extreme high-end, but that’s a topic for another day.

This is the first South African component I’ve had in my system and it has never embarrassed itself. I’ve enjoyed my time with the Predator and believe it offers good value for the money. I recommend you take the time to search out and audition the Predator if you are looking for a simple high-quality remote-controlled integrated amp in this price range.

Predator Integrated Amplifier Valve Audio
In Canada
Audio Basics Inc.
In the US
$3,000 US  
Dimensions Weight
17.25 in (w) 4.75 in (h) 12.75 in (d)
26.5 lbs.
The Predator is driven by the single large power supply, a 625 VA toroidal transformer made in South Africa by Toroidal Technologies. It features a copper screen between primary and secondary windings and the entire transformer is impregnated with a special resin. The input stage comprises a dual triode for each channel, configured as a differential mode amplifier to accommodate a balanced signal. The two driver-stage tubes are plate loaded by six pairs of new generation MOSFETs. The hand soldered circuit boards are neatly and symmetrically laid out around the power supply and the limited point to point wiring appears well routed and of high quality. High Yield Rectification (HYR), a concept used in all Valve Audio products, ensures a low impedance supply. A minimal amount of capacitative smoothing is designed to give the power supply an excellent recovery rate for quick and stable transient response. The tubes are mounted vertically, which may account for the height of the box. The four tubes are the mechanically reliable Sovtek 6922 dual triodes with a rated life of at least 15,000 hours (around two years non-stop). The amp features a star earth system for low noise, while power management and signal switching are accomplished using logic rather than mechanical control. Special audio relays with palladium/gold alloy contacts are employed for source selection, and an Alps Blue Velvet Pot controls the volume. A Shunyata Research Venom 12 AWG power cord is supplied. The Predator looks like a repairman’s dream, not that you’re likely to need one. The company also offers a three-year warranty exclusive of tubes.

The amp puts out 200 wpc of continuous power into 8 at <0.1% THD, 350 wpc into 4 with a power output peak of350 wpc into 8 ohms at <0.1% THD. Power consumption is quoted at 140VA at idle, 950VA maximum and peak power is 1000 watts into 1 ohm. Input impedance is 47 kOhm minimum each phase, and absolute polarity is non-inverting.

The amp goes into a standby status for up to 60 seconds on power-up, with the power LED flashing, after which you will find the volume has been reset to zero. Valve Audio recommends waiting at least an hour for peak performance potential, and advises users of the initial burning in period of up to 100 hours.
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