Aesthetics And Technology Merged
My recent audition of the Focal Scala loudspeakers (on
this website) was my introduction to this preamplifier.
It was used to drive the 300 watt/ch Boulder 1060 power
amplifier and accommodate the Teac Esoteric CD playback
system — all scheduled for review. This is VAC’s
top-of-the-line preamplifier and the most recent component
of the Signature series, which, I understand has been around
for over eight years. I haven’t paid much attention
to VAC, but am familiar with some of the products I have
auditioned at trade show and at dealers — and while
they all sounded good to me, nothing has been as impressive
as the two-piece Renaissance Signature Mk II.
As I am of the opinion that the most important component
in a system is the preamplifier, I was immediately impressed
with the sonic purity and musical authenticity the above-mentioned
system communicated. This prompted me to examine and research
the VAC’s function as a line-stage component and,
of course, a switching device.
Well, if looks alone could communicate sound, you would
be impressed. The two components exude elegance and refinement.
They offer a touch of class rarely seen in the audio business
where utilitarian designs dominate. The VAC components
aren’t small and cute, like some expensive electronics
I am familiar with, but then again they do not appear ostentatious.
Their dimensions hint at their importance, their weight
suggest solidity — and the separate power supply
demonstrates audio technology done right.
The sculptured faceplates must have been made from a solid
block of aluminum — they are 3/8 inch thick with
the edges chamfered to about 1/4 inch. Finished in silky
gold-speckled black, the faceplates are an almost artistic
likeness of the VAC’s sound quality. To guarantee
quality, all chassis parts and lacquering are done in-house.
The main unit features two large gold-plated knobs for
gain and input selection and two smaller ones on the left
and right of the faceplate function as tape monitor and
cinema direct, and mute on/off. Nice, logical layout and
highly appreciated by this reviewer who, like many consumers
of high-end wears bi-focals and hates to fumble.
The rear panel is logically arranged and provides two sets
of balanced inputs (earlier versions had one) and they
can be set for RCA or XLR connectors. The line-stage version
is available with up to six single-ended inputs, or up
to two balanced with four single-ended inputs in addition
to the tape loop. The units equipped with the phono stage
offer a load control.
The power supply chassis for the line stage (the phono
stage is optional and adds another component) is a visual
match with the same size and appearance. On its front are
two big meters surrounded by gold-plated frames. These
meters monitor heater and main voltages and indicate when
the operating voltages are perfect. The finishing touch
on both units is VAC’s backlit logos, which glow
red when muted and blue when in operation. The main unit
measures 18" wide, x 5.5" high x 14.5 deep (plus
knobs & connectors); power supply 18" x 3.9" x
14.5" plus connectors
Shipping weight: 80 pounds total (with phono) or 65 pounds
A snazzy remote control comes with the unit.
Ideally, a really great preamplifier should have little
or no sonic signature which to add to a sound system.
That however, is not reality, as all components in a
system will add (or subtract) sonic peculiarities. A
system’s final sound is influenced by all components,
beginning with the AC power cord and ending with positioning
them in the listening room. When we consider all contributory
components of a system, it stands to reason that, ultimately,
we hear the result of either a synergistic arrangement,
or one that diminishes a musical performance.
The trick is to be familiar with enough components to
achieve synergy and, most importantly, have at least
some knowledge of live music — the only legitimate
reference. This said, here is how I find a component’s
sonic temperament and get a pretty good idea of its compatibility
with other components in a system:
I always use piano recordings that are well known to
me; they include Yamaha, Steinway, Baldwin and Boesendorfer
pianos — all with their particular personalities.
When I can recognize the sonic character of these different
pianos, I know that I’m onto something special.
I then assess the component’s additional capabilities.
I look for its ability to recreate a soundstage, its
capability to capture and reproduce harmonics, space,
timbre, resolution, and, of course, its musicality. The
music I used for this evaluation is part of a collection
of well-produced jazz, blues and classical CDs. Rather
than talk about my choice of music or one or the other
track, I would like to point out that the genre isn’t
or should not be as important an issue as that of concluding
the musical material in its entirety.
I brought my own Wyetech Labs Ruby mono-block power amplifiers
to establish a reference with which I am familiar, and
evaluated The VAC’s performance based on this and
the Boulder system combination. I should state here that
in my own systems, I use the Wyetech Labs Ruby preamplifier,
which I regard as a credible, indeed a reference component
that keeps outperforming most preamps I have run across.
On rare occasions, I have found that it was not compatible;
although relatively neutral-sounding, it has the propensity
to be heartlessly revealing. Simply put, it can sound
rather clinical when married with the wrong power amplifier
and source components. Nevertheless, my first auditions
were with the VAC connected to the Boulder amp with the
Esoteric separates as source components. This system
arrangement achieved such a high degree of realism that
it left me with the impression that I was listening to
a piano in the room with me. When I switched to the Wyetech
Labs amps, two elements became known.
Firstly, it was a good match and allowed the amplifiers
to perform at their best. This is a tip-off regarding the
VAC’s sonic disposition, which I consider to be among
the very few designs with that organic, natural touch.
The music was, in fact, better and more melodious than
I expected, yet, I recognized the amps’ speed, clarity
and articulation (a good thing, for it allows users to
choose amplification that suits their taste).
Secondly, though I recognized the Wyetech Labs’ sound,
I also noticed a slight overall tinge, the sort that actually
enhances the musical properties of pitch, rhythm and tonal
colour. While this is an entirely personal opinion, I believe
that the VAC introduced a stage of musicality, more closely
resembling an unamplified performance where there isn’t
pro-sound equipment with its colouration and potentially
inflated dynamics to deceive the listener. Nevertheless,
The Wyetech Lab amps sounded a bit colder than I anticipated.
With the VAC connected to the Wytech Labs and Boulder
amps, I began to listen and compare the sound of the two
system configurations. However, after I had listened to
half a dozen tracks on both systems, I decided to continued
and play back all of my piano CDs on the Boulder system,
which I thought was a better musical arrangement. On it,
my piano recordings were more revealing, thus better approximating
the various instruments’ signature. This plainly
showed that the VAC/Bolder combination presented the synergy
needed to elicit the necessary harmonics — the stuff
that reveals an instruments personality.
The VAC faithfully reproduced the instruments performing
in the high frequency domain. Trumpets had the distinctive
bite of horns and it was quite easy to distinguish cornets
from other horn instruments. I couldn’t help but
be impressed with the VAC’s knack to reproduce saxophone,
revealing the swishing, smooth sound of the instrument
as it moved air swiftly through its reeds. This, along
with the preamp’s ability to extract subtle detail
was, again, like a live performance in my listening room.
Highs, produced from violins, pianos or triangles, all
sounded crystal clear and without even a hint of stridency
or glare; yet, the instruments sounded authentic and the
system’s resolution was accomplished right up to
the dog-whistle range. However, the highs never dominated
the midrange frequency segment — the most important
part where most of the musical material and voices are.
Voices, whether they were tenors, sopranos, Luis Armstrong
or Kathleen Battle, were as natural as I remember them
from live performances. The VAC certainly has the ability
to “extract” timbre and hue and clearly shows
the personality of the singers. I
t is interesting to see/hear that complex music written
for large orchestras seems to come together harmoniously,
but simultaneously allows singling out any one instrument
of the orchestra. Inner detail is simply superb and marries
effortlessly with dynamics. Forte and fortissimo passages
are within a comfortable scale and come across very organic.
Nothing seems out of balance and that at very high and
very low volumes (If you have neighbors that complain about
the volume, turn your system down — you’ll
not loose any detail).
Bass is made up of frequencies ranging from about 80Hz
to 160Hz (upper bass) and from 160Hz downwards. The VAC
handles all of it with the proper authority (resolution)
and substance. There are loads of harmonics above fundamental
notes and I found it pleasing when listening to contrabass,
electric or synthetically produced music. It doesn’t
dominate, but it is resolute with appropriately reproduced
tonal distinction. Bass drums and, my favourite, Hammond
B3s literally got me off my seat as I could picture Jimmy
Smith and company (on an old CD titled Some Serious Blues)
playing for me.
The only thing left to say is that imaging isn’t
good or even very good, it is out of this world; and it’s
out of the speakers. I wouldn’t call it three-dimensional,
I’d call multi-dimensional with instruments on the
(invisible) soundstage in revealing focus. The soundstage
has sensible boundaries and there is a realism relating
to the size and location of the instruments. When the setup
is right (and mine was) it is difficult to locate the loudspeakers
with the eyes closed.
At the end of the auditioning session, I wound up listening
to some CDs just for the pure enjoyment of music. In fact,
a couple of weeks later, I returned with contributing Editor
David McCallum for one more listening session; and we both
simply sat, listened and appreciated the result of this
very carefully assembled system. We didn’t really “audition”,
we listened to a variety of music — some parts with
very complex arrangements — and talked about the
system’s knack of not getting in the way by emphasizing
one or the other component. Later, when we discussed the
sound, we agreed that the entire system was special; not
because of any one element being better than we have heard
before, but because of its all-round ability to deliver
a live-like performance. The system’s ability to
handle and control the softest as well as the loudest musical
passages — its dynamic range — was beyond compare
and it was quite evident that the VAC’s presence
heightened the system’s musical caliber.
I’d like to compliment American Sound’s Angie
Lisi for assembling one of the best music systems I have
heard and, I might add here, not readily found at retailers.
|VAC Signature Preamplifier Mk II "Renaissance Signature"
Those of you, interested in specifications — rejoice.
This component is made with the precision of Swiss watchmakers
housed in chassis resembling the solidity of tanks. Transfer
of resonance is almost impossible as there is practically
no buildup of vibration caused by energy storage. I place
this on top of the many problem-causing elements in gear,
because along with a music signal vibrations are amplified,
thus diminishing clarity, space and tonal precision. As
this in under control from the get-go, further technical
creativity complements the design.
The Signature preamplifier has no coupling capacitors
from input to output, because they can obstruct signal
purity and detail caused by direct-coupled Class A1 triode
tubes used here. As well, the unit hasn’t a negative
feedback loop; the output interface is said to be100 percent
stable and free from dynamic interactions with the load.
Five standard RCA line inputs (four when phono is added)
and fully balanced inputs are also provided. Of course,
there are also fully balanced outputs. The Signature’ balancing
is accomplished by differential triodes that drive a special
output transformer — a methodology which renders
a true balanced signal (tube-based preamplifiers using
cathode followers can not accommodate balanced circuitry).
The Signature’ transformer output may also be used
with unbalanced loads.
The line stage provides a fully buffered tape loop and
a “cinema bypass” mode, allowing integrating
the preamp with home theater (shame on you). The cinema
bypass is a fixed gain input that allows volume-controlled
source components and passes this signal through to the
stereo power amplifiers without further processing. Though
possible to integrate two-channel seamlessly into a home
theater milieu without degrading two-channel performance,
I recommend a separate system nevertheless.
Those with turntables can order the unit with the optional
phono stage. It is a zero-feedback design featuring six
triode tubes. It is made to accommodate low output moving
coil cartridges and is adjustable on the unit’s rear
panel via a switch that engages a separate wideband transformer.
The separate transformer and filter circuit prevents interference/interaction
with the more powerful line stage and provides load switching
for the cartridge used in the tone arm.
This high-end component comes with a unique remote control
system that employs electromechanical switches and controls.
Costlier than digital interfaces, this arrangement has
several major advantages as there are no relays, or transistor
switches (switched ladder networks) used in controlling
volume, thereby guaranteeing contamination-free operation.
In addition, VAC avoids the use of microprocessors, which
invariably generate noise that degrades sound. All front
panel controls are wired directly and, I daresay, appeal
to hands-on logic, just the way it should be.
Lastly, the VAC’s internal components are selected
from the best available, chosen not only for their quality,
but also for the sonic characteristics. This means that
many hours of research and listening tests (voicing) preceded
the choice of components, to assure that the result is
a technical arrangement with which to achieve the musical
performance described in this evaluation. For those interested
in the design philosophy and other details, there is a
lot more on the VAC website ( VAC-Amps.com). However, this
evaluation is based on listening tests and the musical
element of the audio experience, rather than the technology
with which to achieve it.