- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Wednesday, 15 September 2010 00:00
- Written by Garrett Hongo
The first Valve Amplification Company component I ever heard was in the system of a good friend: a PA-80/80 stereo amp, first made in 1994. He’d invited me over for a listening session with his system, which included Verity Audio Parsifal Encore speakers hooked up to what he called "the VAC." Its looks were retro black with distinctive gold bars and a lightning-bolt logo on the faceplate, and the sound was so gorgeous and involving that I went right to the Internet and bought one used for myself. I still have it -- an old and precious friend.
I’ve recently struck up conversations with Kevin Hayes -- VAC’s founder, president, and chief designer -- first on the telephone about replacement output tubes for my PA-80/80 and then at audio shows. When his new Renaissance Mk.3 preamplifier and Phi-200 stereo power amp debuted at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I asked to review them, and Hayes agreed -- although, famously, it took some time for units to be made available. VAC rarely sends products out for review. My review of the Phi-200 will appear in a future issue of Ultra Audio.
The VAC Renaissance Mk.3 is a serious piece of kit, loaded with features and attractively designed. It’s available as either a line stage ($9900 USD) or with optional phono stage ($11,900); my review sample was the latter. Its line stage is developed from the preamplifier section of VAC’s Phi Beta integrated amplifier, and the phono stage is trickled down from the circuit topology of the original VAC Signature preamp. But, like descent among the Beauchamps and McCaslins of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, these electronic lineages are less straight and direct than entwined and entangled as calabash vines.
I suppose, though, that what might first strike someone about the Renaissance Mk.3 is its lavish fit’n’finish. The bling factor of my jet-black review sample (the Mk.3 also comes in brushed silver) jumped out as soon as I got it out of the box and in my rack. The faceplate is a substantial, 10mm-thick piece of machine-beveled aluminum enameled with a luxurious glossy coat of black lacquer embedded with subtle highlights of gold flake. It makes for a striking background for the gold controls -- two large, rakishly beveled, hand-size knobs for the volume and selector on either side of the central VAC logo, which is inset and backlit; and four smaller, outlying knobs: Monitor and Mute on the left, Cinema and Power on the right. Everything about the Renaissance says "high end."
The tallish control unit measures 17.9"W x 5.5"H x 15.3"D (including knobs and connectors), and weighs about 25 pounds. The external power supply is an ultralong shoebox 6.75"W x 4.75"H x 14"D and weighing ten pounds. It comes with a 6’ umbilical and a heavy-gauge, cadmium-plated, aluminum-alloy connector clamp you could use as a sap. The chassis of both the control unit and power supply are of nonmagnetic aluminum, chosen for its mechanical and acoustical properties; each made a nice thunk when I rapped it with a knuckle. The remote control is a beefy piece of black-enameled metal with soft-button controls for volume and muting, as well as inoperable buttons for Power and Selector, the latter left over from the Mk.2 (I assume). Both chassis were shipped in a single oversize box, nested in separate foam cutouts. The overall shipping weight is 40 pounds.
Inside, the Renaissance Mk.3 is completely hand-wired; all switching is accomplished via mechanical switches with contacts of high-purity silver. Besides deriving the stage circuit topology from the Phi Beta integrated amplifier ($22,000), the change from Mk.2 to Mk.3 removed 30 relays from the signal pathways that were necessary for the Mk.2’s more complicated remote control. The line stage has six active circuit elements of twin-triode vacuum tubes (two 12AU7s, four 12AX7s) biased for class-A1 operation, to provide a whopping 22dB of gain. The optional phono stage uses six triodes (three tubes) in its active gain stage, in comparison to the Signature IIa’s 12 triodes (six tubes). The gains are 62dB moving-coil and 42dB moving-magnet, via separate phono inputs selectable via a rear-panel switch. The MC gain is partly accomplished with internal step-up transformers from Lundahl. Via another selector knob on the rear panel, the phono stage also has variable loading: 470, 300, 250, 200, 150, and 100 ohms for MC, and x100 for MM.
The rear panel fairly bristles with connectors. From left to right, the top row comprises four sets of main outputs, two RCA and two XLR; five line inputs, those labeled L4 and L5 having both RCA and XLR jacks, and L1 through L3 all RCA; a set of RCA Cine inputs; a Tape loop; a control knob for phono loading; a set of MC phono inputs on RCA jacks (which converts to L6 if not fitted with the phono option); a selector knob for MM/MC; and a set of MM phono inputs (RCA). Below these connectors are mainly switches -- again, from left to right, the umbilical connection, SE/BAL toggle switches (L5 and L4), a three-way toggle switch for the logo (Dim/Off/Bright), and a ground post for the phono cable(s). Though the Mk. 3 is not made with an output transformer, its output impedances are 300 ohms via the RCA jacks and 600 ohms via the XLRs -- low enough, certainly, to drive most any amp, tubed or solid-state. Because the Renaissance Mk.3 has four sets of main outputs, you can readily biamp, either single-ended or balanced. The VAC also inverts phase from all RCA sources, though not from XLR. The connectors are premium Cardas rhodium types that can stand up to the incessant cable swapping reviewers and obsessive audiophiles are wont to make.
The Renaissance Mk.3 came with a very good ten-page user’s manual covering cautions, installation procedure and tips, input and output arrays, logo illumination, operation, front-panel and remote controls, tube replacement, and a wise word about tubes in general.
Setup and operation
Setup was entirely intuitive. I placed the control unit on the second shelf of my rack, just above the bottom one, where my amps reside, then put the power supply on a piece of 3/4"-thick MDF beside the rack and connected the umbilical. To raise it a bit and to improve the bass, image focus, and resolution, I placed HRS Nimbus couplers and spacers under the control unit. I plugged the power supply into my power strip with a 1.5m Cardas Golden Reference power cable, then powered up by turning the Power knob on the lower right of the front panel.
The Renaissance Mk.3 mutes at startup. When it clicked on, the VAC logo on the faceplate of the control unit lit up red, indicating the unit was muted. To unmute, I turned the Mute knob at the lower left, and the logo changed from red to blue. Though both chassis got warm during operation, neither was ever hot to the touch.
I used both RCA and XLR interconnects between the Renaissance Mk.3 and four different power amps. The VAC’s phono inputs and two selector knobs, one for MM/MC and the other for loading, were very easy to use. I quickly learned that all three of my phono cartridges preferred the 200-ohm setting, though the audible differences seemed minor. I hooked up two tonearms to the phono stage: my Ortofon RS-309D to the MM inputs and my Tri-Planar VII UII to the MC inputs. I also switched things around sometimes, on occasion moving the Ortofon’s phono cables to the MC inputs and the Tri-Planar’s to a standalone Herron VTPH-2 phono stage, which went into the VAC’s L2 line-stage input.
The 22dB gain was so substantial -- I rarely set the volume above 9 o’clock -- that I found myself wishing for a low-gain setting, and even considered replacing two of the four 12AX7s in the line stage with 5751 tubes, which usually have about 30% less gain than standard 12AX7s. There was nothing wrong or off-kilter with what’s called the "taper" or linear sweep of the gain, the VAC maintaining linearity from about 8 to 11 o’clock -- and above that I dared not go! I just found myself wishing for a longer sweep and finer control over the gain settings.
The VAC Renaissance Mk.3 worked well with five different power amplifiers, four of them tubed: my reference deHavilland KE50A monoblocks, the VAC PA-80/80, my Herron M1 solid-state monoblocks, an EAR 890 stereo amp (reviewed in July), and VAC’s Phi-200 stereo amp (review forthcoming). Perhaps due to its relatively low output impedances (300 ohms via RCAs, 600 via XLRs), the VAC demonstrated a sonic integrity no matter which amp it drove, producing both richness and resolution while still allowing the individual character of the amp to come through. What follows, though, are my impressions of how the VAC worked with my reference amps, the deHavilland KE50A tubed monoblocks.
Listening: line stage
From the very start, with no break-in of the Renaissance Mk.3’s line stage, I was knocked out by the sound my system made with digital recordings. My listening notes are full of raves and exclamation points -- and things got only better throughout my listening sessions. The line stage’s characteristic sound was rich and fulsome, with great momentum and tonal weight, yet also with openness in the highs, and great finesse handling complex passages at high volumes, as in orchestral climaxes. I found the preamp nimble and stout, with capabilities that gave my system tonal dexterity and harmonic saturation with small acoustic ensembles, raunch and slam with amplified rock groups, and dynamic range and a formidably broad palette of expressive tonal colors with large orchestras, solo operatic singers, and Renaissance choirs. It seemed there was nothing the VAC’s line stage wasn’t good at. Silences were appropriately black, and when I placed an ear close to the speaker drivers, I heard no "tube rush."
Beginning with solo acoustic piano music, I played the first half of Shura Cherkassky’s The Complete HMV Stereo Recordings (two CDs, First Hand Records Remasters HMR04). In the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, the piano’s rich, deep bass notes seemed to rise from out of my floor. There were crisply played yet mellow-sounding, buttery midrange chords, ringing trebles rich in harmonics and resonance, and the sound was so "live" I thought I could feel the pressure on the piano’s soundboard. The VAC was exquisitely precise in shaping all critical aspects of piano sound: attack, sustain, decay, and the overall bloom and shape of the notes as they formed, blossomed, and lofted away in a trail of harmonics evaporating in air.
Then I tried electric blues -- Fleetwood Mac’s Mr. Wonderful (CD, Rewind/Columbia 474612-2). The sound on the original 1968 Blue Horizon LP is raw, lively, and visceral, with a big dose of unmistakably electrified air in its studio ambience. On CD, via the Renaissance Mk.3, the sound was, if anything, more raw and lively. "Rollin’ Man" had Mick Fleetwood’s brisk snare-shuffling and floppy tom-tomming behind Peter Green’s characteristically thinnish tenor lead vocal. The four-horn choruses of doubled alto and tenor saxes (led by Johnny Almond) made for both swelling backup fills to Green’s somewhat nasal singing, and punchy counterpoints to his lead guitar. There was a ferocious bite and satisfying squawk to Green’s Les Paul Gibson Custom on his extended solo, the treble and sustain both turned way up and the bass turned halfway down -- a sound favored by the Chicago bluesmen who inspired this music. That the VAC could render this sound while adding no sophistication or mellowness is a testament to its versatility and, for lack of a better word, transparency.
For a test of rhythmic agility and the textural complexity of blending and separating numerous acoustic instruments, I played Sublime Illusion, by Eliades Ochoa y El Quarteto Patria (CD, Higher Octave World 47494). "Saludo compay," a Dominican son, begins with Ochoa’s introduction on 12-string guitar in his distinctive style. Silky strings were strummed and plucked, with a rapping conga accompaniment giving way to a lovely brass chorus with trumpets played in unison, sounding bright, punchy, and precisely timed, and throwing off harmonic trails that fell deftly in rhythm with the syncopated dance beat. Ochoa’s voice then took up the lead, rough and a little dry, supported by a quatro bass and followed by a chorus of singers, each timbrally distinct in their cries, shouts, and yips. I heard claves, a guiro scratched in rhythm, percolating maracas, and the tink-tank of cowbells over congas and bongos. The VAC sorted out this rich, highly articulated, rhythmic tapestry of distinct sounds like St. Peter processing a cloud of new arrivals at Heaven’s gate. The soundstage extended just beyond the speakers, with a nice depth and fine instrumental imaging. The exceptionally clean sound made starkly apparent the timbral differences during instrumental solos and full-combo passages, demonstrating the VAC’s exceptional powers of resolution.
But it was with classical music that the VAC excelled and especially impressed, from recordings of small ensembles and chamber orchestras to full symphony orchestras. For a real workout, I played a recording of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto by soloist Pieter Wispelwey, with Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD/CD, Channel Classics CCS SA 25807). Aside from the warmth of Wispelwey’s cello, what struck me was the generous depth of the orchestra and the dimensionally organic manner in which notes, solos, and whole sections playing in unison came forward through complex layerings and timing of the music in the soundstage. I heard French horns from the orchestra’s deep rear emerge into the thematic from behind the viola and cello sections, performing a plangent, clear, yet subdued echo. Crescendos came briskly and authoritatively, with fine, separable body in the woodwinds and bass viols. And in Wispelwey’s solo passages I could hear his bow bouncing, feel the resonance from his cello’s body, and easily follow the sinuous melodic lines he draws through a sprightly dance passage or a mordant, robust one. The orchestra’s sound is full of dynamic dramas, relentless accelerandos, and thrilling tuttis, the VAC rendering all of these with proper bass weight and clear high notes from the violins and woodwinds. At the concerto’s climax, brassy fanfares added yet another sonic layer of pleasure and complexity. The VAC never collapsed its soundstage, never lost the separable sounds of the instruments and sections in a confused hash at crescendos, but maintained a superb clarity and tonal sophistication throughout this work, which is so demanding of an audio system’s capabilities.
The VAC’s tonal qualities allowed me to resurrect more than three dozen CDs I’d banished to the dungeon of my collection -- those I’d judged thin, shrieky, washed-out, and unlistenable. Most got back into heavy rotation here: Cantatas & Masses, a set of J.S. Bach’s choral music sung by Collegium Vocale with a baroque orchestra (Virgin 5 62252 2); Grigory Sokolov performing solo-piano music (Naïve 09861 30421); numerous recital CDs of Handel arias for soprano; several collections of Renaissance choral music; and even a few XRCDs and hybrids of orchestral music. I was so delighted, and yet perplexed, I called Kevin Hayes and asked why this was so. Was it the VAC’s relative low impedance vs. the impedances of the various power amps? (These recordings sounded better no matter which amp or amps I used.) Was it the relatively high, 22dB gain of the Renaissance Mk.3 itself? Was it VAC voodoo? Basically, Hayes said it was "voicing," a process of perfecting the preamp’s sound by ear in the shop before it was sent out -- voicing, that is, by Hayes’s own, well-tutored ear.
Listening: phono stage
At first, there was a quite audible difference between the Renaissance Mk.3’s MM and MC sections. While MM sounded great right off the bat, amplifying a 3.0mV signal from my Ortofon SPU Mono GM Mk.II cartridge and playing any number of vintage and reissue mono jazz LPs, the MC section took some time to break in. Playing stereo LPs and using the 0.24mV-output Zyx Airy 3 cartridge on my Tri-Planar VII UII tonearm, the MC section sounded hashy on orchestral crescendos, strident on violins and horn fanfares. I called a friend familiar with step-ups, and he recommended I get hold of Granite Audio’s Phono Burn-In and RIAA Test CD (101.1) from Music Direct ($35 plus shipping). I used it to send signals from the RCA outputs of my Cary 303/300 to the inputs of the VAC’s MC phono section, running it in for about 70 hours over the course of five days and nights, in addition to the 30 or so hours I’d already run it playing LPs.
After that, there was a new openness in the highs, the grain had dropped out of the upper mids. Overall, the MC section had become completely musical and organic in the midrange, much less "electronic" in the highs. It had "touch," as basketball players say of a finesse jumper: a smooth shot.
I played Ravel’s Boléro, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta (LP, London CS7132), a tour de force of a single long crescendo of 14 minutes, from pp to fff, famous and agonizingly slow, its insistent theme repeated again and again until the piece ends in a thunderous climax. What makes Boléro compelling throughout is how the theme is taken up by various instruments in succession, demonstrating a variety of achingly glorious timbres and exotic performance flourishes on this vaguely Oriental melody. As an undercurrent, the incessant, march-like bolero rhythm is played on a snare drum, with staccato accompaniment of trumpets and occasional rousing accents from the horns, bassoons, and timpani. The VAC captured the piece’s feeling of an ornate, equestrian processional, medieval and military, as though emerging from a near horizon, then gradually approaching to eventually fill the immediate foreground with musical pageantry as the entire parade, muscular and disciplined, tramps by mere inches away. By degrees throughout the whole piece, the snare increases in volume from pianissimo to a rattling immediacy, joined at the climax by a second snare, their duet accentuated by braying fanfares and explosive thumps from the bass drum. The VAC rendered the drums, woodwinds, brass, and bass and midrange strings at first with precision and grace, then with growing forcefulness and unmistakable authority. Almost every sound, whether loud or soft, sounded clear and precisely timed. My only complaint was, again, with the violins -- the sound lacked that higher level of finesse and clarity I’ve heard from the best standalone phono stages.
But what a midrange! On combo jazz LPs, the VAC’s MC section, in combination with either the Zyx Airy 3 cartridge and Tri-Planar tonearm or the Ortofon Anniversary SPU with Ortofon RS-309D arm, was nothing less than superb.
Tracked by the Ortofon Anniversary SPU, a seemingly old-school stereo pickup and headshell made with entirely new-school laser technology, Ben Webster and Associates (180gm LP, Verve/Speakers Corner MF VS-6056) sounded not merely lovely but astonishing. The live sound of the entire LP knocked me out. Ray Brown’s bass improvisation on "In a Mellow Tone" was upfront and so microdynamically detailed that I stood up from my listening seat and felt like yelling. Leslie Spann’s softly amped electric guitar was no less present and tasty in nuance. Finally, Webster’s tenor sax achieved such a burnished, enveloping tone on his solo, full of sashaying rhythms and sophisticated slides and syncopations, that I raised my palms in praise. Not to mention the percussive sweetness of Roy Eldridge’s muted trumpet! The VAC presented every instrument to scale across a soundstage a bit wider than the spread of my speakers, with liquid, nearly holographic images.
My reference line stage is the deHavilland Mercury 3, which has a gain of 12dB and an output impedance of 1k ohm -- fairly normal for a cathode-follower preamp. At $4495 (with remote), its cost is about half the VAC Renaissance Mk.3’s. It also has 10dB less gain, three times the output impedance, and represents a different approach to circuits and sound. When I played the same CDs on my Cary 303/300 and used the same Cardas Clear interconnects from CD player to preamp, the Mercury 3 had a lighter sound than the VAC, with less tonal density in the midrange, but more airiness and nuance in the highs. Not as rich with jazz saxophone or orchestral strings, it’s perhaps perfect for operatic voices and Renaissance choral music.
The VAC Renaissance Mk.3, by contrast, excelled at combo jazz, blues and rock, and orchestral music. It produced a much more weighty and tonally dense sound, yet wasn’t without its own sparkle and openness in the highs, as well as great bass slam and control. With soprano recital and Renaissance choral CDs, the VAC was less refined than the Mercury. With digital recordings, such as Chanticleer’s of Byrd’s Missa in tempore Paschali (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 905182), there was more air and ambience to the polyphonal choral singing with the deHavilland pre -- but more density, drive, weight, and slam through the VAC with, say, Wispelwey’s Dvorák Cello Concerto. Finally, the VAC played numerous CDs that sounded thin, hashy, or washed out via the Mercury 3, showing that it could dig a richer sound from the same signal. And it livened up many others, particularly jazz, folk, and rock CDs.
The VAC’s MM section was marvelous -- rich, textured, and organic with mono jazz LPs such as Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s Ellington Indigos (Columbia CL 1085). The MC step-up worked wonderfully with jazz, and very well with orchestral stereo LPs too, producing an analog sound even better than its digital sound. However, as I hinted in my comments on the Mehta-LAPO recording of Ravel’s Boléro, it lacked the airiness, resolution, and harmonic refinement produced by my reference, the Herron VTPH-2 active phono stage ($3650), hooked up to either the Mercury 3 line stage or a line input of the Renaissance Mk.3 itself -- the latter a combination I adored.
Whether as a $9900 line stage or as an $11,900 full-function preamp -- both luxury prices -- the VAC Renaissance Mk.3 nevertheless provides great value in terms of superb quality of sound, exceptional build quality, and versatility of application. Add to this that the Renaissance Mk.3 is knock-dead gorgeous, and you get a great deal for your money. After nearly two months with it, I have yet to explore all it can do (Cinema bypass, tape loop), nor do I think it has arrived at its own fullness of sound (more burn-in might further improve the phono stage).
In the past few years I’ve auditioned a number of different preamps, some for review, some not. A few could be critiqued as being too incisive, too polite, too limited in features, not compatible with a wide enough range of amplifiers. Another few could be considered "serious" in terms of their sound. But of all these preamps, the VAC Renaissance Mk.3 boasts the most impressive combination of serious sound, first-class build, great looks, compatibility with a range of amps, and overall flexibility in its numerous features of any model I’ve yet had in my system. It won’t be leaving any time soon.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/300 CD player, Apple Mac Mini computer with Wavestream U-24 DAC
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; Ortofon RS-309D tonearm with Ortofon SPU Mono GM Mk.II (3.0mV) and Ortofon Anniversary SPU (0.6mV) cartridges; Tri-Planar VII Ultimate II tonearm with Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV)
- Phono stage -- Herron VTPH-2
- Preamplifier -- deHavilland Mercury 3
- Power amplifiers -- deHavilland KE50A, Herron M1 monoblocks; VAC PA-80/80, EAR 890, VAC Phi-200 stereo amplifiers
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
- Speaker wires -- Verbatim Cable with jumpers, Cardas Clear Beyond biwire
- Interconnects -- Verbatim Cable (RCA), Auditorium 23 (RCA), Audience Maestro (RCA), Cardas Clear (RCA and XLR)
- Power cords -- Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Cardas Golden Reference
- Power Conditioner -- Balanced Power Technology Clean Power Center, Isoclean 104 II power strip
VAC Renaissance Mk.3 Preamplifier
Price: $9900 USD (line stage), $11,900 USD (with phono stage).
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor (excluding tubes).
Valve Amplification Company
1911 N. East Avenue
Sarasota, FL 34234
Phone: (941) 952-9695
Fax: (941) 952-9691