The high-end audio industry is a niche market; always has been, and I suspect it always will be. Annual production runs for kilobuck CD players can be measured in dozens of units, in stark contrast to the thousands or tens of thousands made by a Sony or a Bose. But those industry monsters have marketing departments and distribution systems that span the globe. Contrast that with high-end audio, where many products are the results of efforts by a single driven person.
Steve McCormack is such a man. He’s been building high-end audio gear since the 1970s, mostly under the eponymous McCormack Audio brand, where his Distributed Node Architecture (DNA) amplifiers gathered a cult following and uniform praise from reviewers. As founder, he’s intimately aware of how valuable customer satisfaction is, and has offered upgrades of all his amplifiers to interested owners as he’s developed improvements, whether of circuit design or of parts used. It’s nice to see someone who doesn’t rest on his laurels, but continues to push himself.
Which brings me to the subject of this review: SMc Audio’s VRE-1C Reference preamplifier ($16,950 USD). The Virtual Reality Engine (VRE) has been around since the VRE-1A edition of several years ago, but owners of all VRE versions can upgrade their units to 1C status for a nominal charge. While it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that McCormack will find ways to squeeze more incremental gains out of the basic VRE design, the VRE-1C is this industry legend’s crowning work.
The VRE-1C Reference is a dual-box line stage: Its power supply is housed in a "dirty box" and connected via supplied umbilical cords to a "clean box" housing the gain stage and all controls. The VRE-1C is designed to be left on at all times, and as it throws off no heat, there’s little downside to doing so. The power supply is a small metal box measuring 10.25"W x 3.6"H x 9.5"D, with dual chokes: one filters the positive side of the analog power feed, the other the negative. Chokes are used to minimize the chances of any power-supply noise reaching the clean box. In my listening, I found the power supply to be sensitive to vibrations; aftermarket footers can be used to squeeze out incremental gains in soundstage focus and upper-midrange clarity.
The clean box is of typical dimensions: 17.5"W x 5"H x 12.75"D. Its four inputs, labeled 1 through 4, are accessible via the source-selection switch on the front panel or the remote control, the latter also controlling volume, mute, and phase (mono switching is not provided). On the rear panel are the four inputs, one XLR and three RCA (adapters are available if more than one balanced source is used), along with single sets of XLR and RCA outputs, and the inlet for the power-supply umbilical. Also on the rear is a three-way toggle switch to permit the user to select the grounding configuration that results in the lowest noise floor; the preferred setting will generally be the down position (Ground; the up position is Float), but it’s best to experiment.
In a break with industry convention, the case of the line stage is made of nonresonant Corian, not metal. While Corian is handsome and inert, it’s difficult to work, and some of the internal joints and connections of my review sample were slightly off (though if you never remove the VRE-1C’s top plate -- something you’ll probably never have reason to do -- you’ll never notice such things). When I checked the VRE-1C’s qualities of internal organization, parts selection, and circuit layout, I found that its interior layout simply glowed. This was not some simple printed circuit board, nor was the VRE-1C hardwired throughout. The interior reminded me of eating at a fine, chef-owned restaurant: Nothing has been left to chance.
Two design choices are worth commenting on. First, the volume control, of Steve McCormack’s own design, relies on a reed switch and multiple resistors (in lieu of a series of individual resistors). McCormack claims that this design exceeds the Shallco switch he used in the VRE-1B. While I can’t speak to how much more transparent than other advanced controls McCormack’s might be, it’s comforting to see that, in such an advanced line stage, the volume isn’t controlled by a potentiometer, a type of device that is flawed by comparison. The volume knob spins continuously, with no fixed ceiling, which raises a serious issue, particularly for those who have kids who might spin knobs willy-nilly. The volume control is unusual in having no external calibration -- no readout, no display, nothing. If you’re not in the habit of gain-matching gear for comparisons, this may be no worry to you. However, I found it odd and disconcerting to be unable to guess what volume level my system was set to when I turned it on each day. When I communicated my concern to McCormack, he said that enough requests have come in to prompt him to design some means of volume calibration for future editions of the VRE. At times, when using the remote to adjust the volume, I heard a very minor snap as the VRE-1C’s volume control was engaged; this noise was brief, low in level, and of little concern -- but it was there.
Also worth mentioning is McCormack’s use of transformers to balance the signal at both input and output. Despite the fact that there are three single-ended inputs, each is run through a dedicated transformer to convert the signal to balanced. Similarly, the output signal runs through a small Jensen transformer, which converts it to balanced output. Clearly, the circuit was not designed to be inherently balanced, but relies on external parts to achieve balanced operation. Typically, the use of transformers is a way to achieve a higher signal/noise ratio, which I’ve found to be a key indicator of great preamp performance; microdetails can be heard only if a component’s noise floor is low, and transformers are a great way to achieve that. A system that generates little noise of its own makes audible more of the signal. However, every design choice has drawbacks, and in my experience the use of transformers to convert a single-ended signal to a balanced signal frequently results in some loss of dynamic scale and pop. It’s not that the use of balancing transformers attenuates dynamics or the gradations from soft to loud, but in my experience they do seem to reduce the absolute magnitude of the shifts. I wondered if this would be the case with the VRE-1C.
The VRE-1C Reference had what struck me as the lowest noise floor I’ve ever encountered in a line stage. After giving it a few hours’ warm-up, I played the magnificent but poorly recorded Up from Below, by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (CD, Community VR542). The entire CD is recorded too hot and compressed, but the music moves me, so in it went. But from the first track, "40 Day Dream," the engineering mistakes seemed less important; I wasn’t bothered as much by the compression, or the slightly elevated tonal balance. The VRE-1C stripped away so much of the garbage that I'd been used to that I was able to hear the percussive piano notes more distinctly, and more nuances in the singer’s phrasing. With the VRE-1C, everything was more clearly resolved and distinct, and led me to reevaluate the overall sound of this album -- it seemed more musical, less bright and "digital," through the VRE-1C. While I’ve had some tube gear work wonders in making bad CDs more listenable, I’d never before heard a solid-state component that could do that.
The VRE-1C was an absolute champ at resolving inner detail. When I listened to "Try to Sleep," from Low’s C’mon (CD, Sub Pop 98787 09052), the VRE-1C made it easier for me to clearly resolve the layers of sound whirling in the background of the mix as being funky synthesized vocal tracks. The VRE-1C unraveled the track for me enough that the music made more sense intellectually, letting me more easily figure out what, precisely, the musicians were doing. It managed to pull off this feat without ever sounding amusical or boring; the VRE-1C was simply letting my head figure out what my heart already knew.
The ability of the VRE-1C to retrieve details heretofore unheard wasn’t limited to the midrange and treble; bass articulation, too, was a revelation. The VRE-1C was able to render much greater accuracy of pitch while also plumbing the lowest octave. Listening to "Orphans," from Beck’s Modern Guilt (DGC B0011507-02), the VRE-1C delivered all the depth with definition I’d not previously heard from a synthesized bass track. Treble extension, much like the bass extension, was reference level. Listening to "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!," from Sufjan Stevens’s classic Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State (Asthmatic Kitty AKR007), I heard tremendous clarity and separation between the bells. The VRE-1C had no problem scaling to either frequency extreme with detail and clarity.
While detail retrieval was the VRE-1C’s greatest strength, careful system matching was needed to achieve acceptable levels of dynamics. With the VRE-1C driving McIntosh MC501 monoblocks I noted a distinct lack of punch, despite the fact that I was using a solid-state front end (Esoteric P-02 disc transport and D-02 DAC) and a ridiculously powerful pair of amps (500W into 8 ohms). It was like using a leaf blower running on a poor fuel mix: The VRE-1C was still doing its job, but things weren’t flying around as they should have been. Listening to "In India You," from the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request (CD, Tangible tan-1026), I noted that the hand drums were missing the punch they should have had; if the dynamics of a set of drums are missing, then it’s safe to say that the dynamics of the system are wrong.
However, I suspected that the trouble lay in the amps. There were three transformers in the signal path: two in the VRE-1C and one in each monoblock (McIntosh calls their transformers Autoformers). Plugging in a Boulder 1060 amplifier removed my gripes about the system’s dynamics, and lent credence to my theory of too many transformers in the signal path. While I’ve heard more dynamic line stages in my life, namely from Edge Audio and Einstein Audio, the pairing of the SMc VRE-1C Reference and Boulder 1060 left me fully satisfied with the dynamic envelope.
On hand were two tubed preamps, the Herron VTSP-3A ($6850) and the Audio Research Reference 3 ($9995, discontinued).
While the Herron costs considerably less than the SMc Audio VRE-1C Reference, the VTSP-3A simply couldn’t keep up with the SMc in the bass. The VRE-1C rendered Beck’s "Orphans" with greater bass depth and articulation. The VRE-1C, by virtue of its considerably lower noise floor, was able to resolve far more inner detail and layers within the music. Through the VRE-1C, Sufjan Stevens’s "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!" had far greater separation of chimes from bells, and the horns sounded brassier. The dynamics of the two were roughly equal, but, as I noted in my review of the Herron VTSP-3A, dynamics are not that model’s strong suit. Nevertheless, the VRE-1C was clearly superior, but at more than twice the price, this is to be expected.
Of greater relevance was a comparison of the two models named Reference: the SMc VRE-1C Reference and the Audio Research Reference 3. It’s not that one was clearly better than the other; but if you flip over one unit, you’re not apt to whittle these two into your final selections before pulling the trigger. Listening to "Grace Cathedral Hill" from the Decemberists’ live album, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air: Live Songs 04.11.08 (CD, Capitol 31803 2), I found that the VRE-1C was, again, clearly superior in the bass, with greater articulation, depth, and definition; the ARC Ref 3 was a bit rollicking and underdamped in comparison. However, the Ref 3 brought a sense of romance to the track that better suited the small scale of the introductory score of the music.
The SMc VRE-1C Reference also proved itself to be world-class in regard to pace and timing, and clearly superior to the ARC Reference 3. With "Starman," from David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (CD, Virgin 521900 0), the VRE produced an entirely different sense of pace with the song, making it sound more like the rocker that Bowie and the Spiders from Mars was known for at the time; the Ref 3 was plodding in comparison, presenting the song as more of a story and a seduction, which it’s not. The VRE-1C was right -- I found it a terrific preamp for rock’n’roll, thanks to its exceptional pace, timing, and articulate lower registers. Drummers would gravitate to the VRE-1C.
Others have said that the selection of gear drives the selection of recordings to play through that gear, and with the VRE-1C I found myself listening to more rock’n’roll and loving it. Another Bowie track from the early 1970s, "Queen Bitch," from Hunky Dory (CD, Virgin 3 521899 0), also had better pace and bounce through the VRE-1C than the Ref 3, but the ARC was superior in midrange bloom and tone, which I found more romantic, if a shade dark. Soundstaging was another study in contrasts, the VRE-1C providing tighter, denser images, while the Ref 3 placed Bowie and his Spiders on a more diffuse, enveloping stage -- a phenomenon I also noted with "Church," from Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (CD, MCA MCAD-10475). The electric-guitar work in "Speedbumps," from Luna’s Rendezvous (CD, Jetset TWA69cd), was far more engaging and, well, electric through the VRE-1C. Much like before, I found that while the VRE-1C had more definition and detail throughout the audioband (again, a low noise floor pays dividends), the Ref 3 provided more midrange bloom and lower-midrange depth. The two preamps were both very enjoyable, and quite different.
Anyone considering spending $16,950 on a line stage can be certain that the SMc Audio VRE-1C Reference is among the quietest, most resolving preamplifiers on the market, able to achieve those qualities without committing sins in tonality. The VRE-1C never failed to provide me with an enjoyable listening session.
Toward the end of those sessions, I realized that the VRE-1C Reference was reminding me of the legendary CTC Blowtorch line stage ($15,000, discontinued). Like the CTC, the SMc is built by hand by a master craftsman who is a legend in the industry, and who has put all his knowledge and experience into a single product. Both models have outboard power supplies, incredibly thoughtful volume controls, exquisite internal layout, and parts chosen for best sound. The Blowtorch and the VRE-1C are both wonderful solid-state preamps that will last their owners a lifetime.
But CTC no longer makes preamps. Steve McCormack will likely keep building and refining the VRE-1C Reference for as long as he lives. It is his magnum opus, and sounds it. I was sad to see it go.
. . . Ryan Coleman
- Preamplifiers -- Herron Audio VTSP-3A, Audio Research Reference 3
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC501 monoblocks, Boulder Amplifiers 1060, Edge Audio 12.1 Signature
- Loudspeakers -- Rockport Technologies Merak / Sheritan II, Avalon Time
- Sources -- Sony XA-5400ES Signature CD player with Modwright Truth modification, Esoteric Audio K-01 disc player; Esoteric P-02 transport and D-02 DAC
- Interconnects -- TG Audio
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Redwood
- Power cables -- TG Audio
- Power treatment -- TG Audio passive conditioner, Maestro and Oyaide R1 outlets, WPZ wall plate
SMc Audio VRE-1C Reference Preamplifier
Price: $16,950 USD.
Warranty: Six years parts and labor (transferable).
929 El Pajodo Place
Vista, CA 92084
Phone: (760) 732-0352
The Lotus Group
Joe Cohen, owner
Phone: (415) 897-8884
SMc Audio responds:
My thanks to Ryan Coleman for his careful look at the VRE-1C Reference preamp. Ryan is quite right -- the VRE-1 is my crowning achievement (to date, at any rate) and is easily the most difficult project I have ever undertaken. I understand and appreciate Ryan's reference to the CTC Blowtorch preamp -- both are limited production, hand-crafted state-of-the-art preamps built without much regard for creature comforts or cost restrictions. The VRE-1C is what I like to call the "race car" version -- it's all about performance, first and foremost.
Ryan comments, "In my listening, I found the power supply to be sensitive to vibrations; aftermarket footers can be used to squeeze out incremental gains in soundstage focus and upper-midrange clarity." He is absolutely right, and I address this in the owner's manual. All of the associated equipment and mechanical isolation comes into play to extract the maximum possible performance from the VRE-1C. This is not a "casual" piece of equipment -- in order to get the best from it, you have to invest a bit of time and care in its power and signal feed, and mechanical details. VRE-1 owners have discovered how important these considerations can be, and several have changed their AC power conditioning, power cables, and isolation rack systems in response to what the VRE-1 has shown them. In a few cases, the VRE-1 exposed a lack of precision in speaker positioning that led to significant performance gains when these issues were addressed. I have gone so far as to include the remarkable Stillpoints standoffs throughout the VRE-1C for improved mechanical isolation and the performance gains that brings. Even so, owners are encouraged to experiment with high-performance footers and good shelving systems in order to get all the extraordinary performance the VRE-1C is capable of.
As we know, system synergy is a fundamentally important consideration. I find the VRE-1's dynamic expressiveness to be one of its great strengths -- an aspect of its performance that is essential in connecting me with the emotional content of the music. This is clearly an important issue for Ryan as well, and he had to find the right amplifier pairing to bring the dynamics to life in his system. Happily, the VRE-1 is designed to match well with just about any amplifier and even does a great job with very-low-input-impedance amps like the Burmester 911 and Audio Power Labs 833TNT. Sonic synergy is a matter of personal taste, of course, but potential VRE-1 owners need not worry about impedance matching issues.
I encourage anyone with further questions to contact me or Joe Cohen directly. Now it's time to get back to designing some matching amplifiers!