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March 2000
Enjoy the Music.com
VAC Avatar Integrated Amplifier
You Get What You Pay For... And Sometimes You Get More!
Review by Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Avatar Front  I first saw the Valve Amplification Company (VAC) Avatar at the 1999 CES. The Avatar is a very interesting amplifier indeed. With quite a few integrated amplifier having visited my own stable fairly recently such as the cj CAV-50, Audio Note Meishu, Manley Labs Stingray, 47 Labs Gaincard and Linn Classik (review forthcoming), one could come to the conclusion that either i love integrated units or i am truly insane. As the case may be, odds are i am a little of both. You see, the advantages of buying an integrated amplifier is in not just the elimination of the interconnect going from the preamplifier to the amplifier, but you are also getting a properly matched system. Any longstanding music lover/audiophile will tell you that synergy within a properly matched system can lead to the sum being greater than the parts.

Avatar Top ViewVAC's Avatar ($3,590) is one really cool retro-tube looking EL34 based integrated amplifier. This fully integrated preamplifier/amplifier does not use the simple passive volume control/switching preamplifier stage as with the like of the Manley Labs Stingray, the 47 Labs Gaincard, cj CAV-50 and others. In fact you not only get a fully functional active preamplifier stage, you also get a proper phono stage too! The phono stage handles both MM and high output MC cartridges. This leads to such multiple input capabilities like the included tape loop and a very unique "home theater bypass mode" (which allows the amplification section of the Avatar to be used as a dedicated amplifier-only). Speaking of amplification, two sets of push-pull EL34 pairs are used to produce a 60 wpc output in pentode mode or 27 wpc in triode mode. One of the really groovy features of the Avatar is the selectable triode/ultra-linear switch. This allows the user to select between the higher power output pentode mode or the more pure triode mode. Need i tell you i preferred the triode mode? My review sample also included the wireless remote control option ($390) which allows for volume adjustment and muting.

For those who want to know about all the great thermonic devices used within this hefty, over 50 pound unit... Tube complement within the VAC Avatar consists of two 12AX7 low noise (phono), two 12AX7 (line stage), three 12AU7/6189A (power amplifier), and four EL34 (power amplifier). All the tubes were labeled VAC and only the EL34 tubes said they were from China while the others gave no hint to their country or origin.

 

Looks Aren't Everything, But...
VAC AvatarOk, looks might not be everything, but take another look at the Avatar. This baby exudes class. From the gloss black faceplate to it's sensuous gold trimmed bias adjustment cover. YUMMY! Of course the round, gold outlined centrally located backlit bias meter is so gorgeous that it seemed every audiophile that visited my room zoomed to caress it. Man-o-man, talk about friends with fetishes! Ok, i admit i can sometimes be found lusting and caressing that backlit meter. Late at night i swear it whispers to me "Touch me, feel me."  Hmmm... maybe i need to get out a little more. Anyway, it seems to hark back to the old days when audio was proudly displayed because only those well to do could afford it.

The lower plate with the straight vertical gold line hides the bias adjustment knobs. i have heard quite a few designers claim that auto-biasing harms the music reproduction quality of electronics. By using the backlit meter, it only takes about three minutes to properly adjust the biasing of the complete unit. This only needs to be done after first use of new tubes and afterwards only every month or so. No biggie.

 

A Rose By Any Other Name...
Many folks do not know this, but VAC also made all those great Marantz reissue tube units. That's right! All those reissue Marantz 8B amplifiers were actually made right here in the good ol' U. S. of A. by VAC. Shhhh, don't tell anyone this secret. Why am i telling you this super secret info? Because the Avatar reminds me of the original legendary 8B for which i have had the pleasure to enjoy. While the pentode mode gives subjectively tighter bass, it also seems to constrict the music a bit too much for my liking. It is like asking Itzahk Pearlman to play his glorious violin while wearing a wet sweatshirt. One of my friends actually preferred the pentode mode over the triode mode stating that he felt the greater sense of control was more to his liking in my system. i can dig his vibe. For me, the triode mode allowed things to flow better. While we are on the subject of flow in a rhythmic sense, the Avatar is single-handedly the most incredible unit i have on hand, regardless of price, to offer outstanding groove and pace. Some might call it "boogie factor", i will simply say that nothing else seems to grasp the feeling of groove and flow like the Avatar in my home. This reminds me, too, of why the original Marantz 8B is such a classic that even today, decades later, is worth multiples more than when it was sold new. Maybe VAC is using some of that magic Pixie Dust in the Avatar? Who knows? My ears tell me that there is indeed some magic happening here.

The phono stage easily handled my Audio Note IQ-2 cartridge and produced quite a nice, wide and also deep soundscape. A little more gain seemed needed with my prized Clearaudio Insider Reference Wood moving-coil cartridge. It seemed to err the way of kindness over ultra-precision. Of course a quick substitution of some great N.O.S. tubes brought about the usual great improvements. Cleaner, tighter, smoother... Those of you like me with a great depth of N.O.S. tubes in your closet know the score... and sadly the costs. Please let me make this perfectly clear, the stock tubes in the phono stage were no slouch my friends. Part of the fun with tubes, is, well, the fun with tubes :-{)  . Solid-state semi-conductor folks can eat your hearts out here.

As for pre-amplification duties, what more could one ask for? You have many inputs, a tape loop and also a unique "home theater bypass mode" to allow for a pure input for using only the Avatar's amplification section. i loved the remote control option. While not inexpensive, i did find that the couch potato in me was ever grateful for the ability to raise and lower the volume to my preferred level while still sitting in the sweet spot. Furthermore, when the phone rang i could mute the music to chat about all those great things like tubes, valves, thermonic devices and, oh yeah, tubes (did i mention i need to get out a bit more?).

As for the over critical side of me, well, with the stock tubes it could use a bit more transparency and cleaner uppermost frequency reproduction. No, things were not murky, just that when one holds a super duper microscope to units as is my job to do, you also get to play with $10,000 cartridges, $90,000 amplifiers and preamplifiers only three people in the world could fathom. Let's not forget the $20,000 in pure silver interconnects/speaker cable. So no, the Avatar is not equal to $110,000 of goodies... but even that system is not perfect and the Avatar, in fact, has better rhythm and pace! Go figure.

As for how well the Avatar fleshed out the soundscape. Can you say wide and deep? Yes Virginia, all things were more than usual, yet appropriately so. What i mean is that the stage itself was wider and deeper than usual, yet did adjust it's dimensions as the music dictated (all these remarks are while in my fave triode mode). Imaging was very much 3D as what would be expected from a tube unit of excellent heritage. VAC amplifiers are long known for their top-quality music reproduction capabilities. The Avatar was true to it's heritage indeed. Sometimes inbreeding is a good thing.

The tonality of the midrange was a bit on the romantic side, yet not as romantic as the cj CAV-50, but more so than the Manley Labs Stingray. Those of you who remember my review of both the Stingray and the cj CAV-50 would recall i felt the CAV050 would possibly be preferred by classic and jazz lovers while the Stingray could be more to the likes of the rocker in you. i would peg the Avatar as being capable of making virtually everyone happy. In pentode mode the rocker would be righteous which in triode mode the glorious harmonic reproduction would be much admired by those who prefer classical and jazz. As for myself, i also preferred triode for rock, too. The balance of the overall frequency spectrum and harmonic structuring thereof, combined with excellent boogie factor, makes the Avatar a truly extraordinary piece indeed!

This is not to say triode is overly euphonic harmonically speaking. Far from it! In fact is seems to be less euphonic than the cj CAV-50 which also uses EL34 tubes but also have better pace and boogie factor! Think of the Avatar as one bodacious $3,600 integrated amplifier that could easily beat out $5,000 or more worth of separate components. It is in the synergy of the pre-amplification and amplification sections that make this a truly amazing unit! The sum being greater than the parts. As i said before, it reminds me of the great classic Marantz 8B with incredible rhythmic capabilities.

 

All You Need Is Love...
...and possibly the VAC Avatar. While not on the bargain basement side of audio on the cheap, the truly great stuff rarely is. After all, you do indeed get what you pay for. A truly fully functional pre-amplification section, a wonderful phono stage and a very flexible amplifier which can also be used for those of you with home theater aspirations. As for myself, i now find myself truly in love that the Avatar does so many things so right. Is it perfect? No, but nothing is. When so much sounds so right, and the music has great pace as to make one dance in their listening room, then what could be so wrong? It is in the overall capability of delivering the beauty of music while making me dance that brings me to the conclusion, with tongue in cheek, that the Avatar just may truly be a bargain as it were. It has flexibilities and capabilities unlike any other integrated unit i have ever seen while also delivering so much wonderful music into my humble abode. So just maybe all you need is love... and a VAC Avatar. In the end what really matters is that you...

     Enjoy the music,

    Steven R. Rochlin

 

(All the below is with stock tubes with the unit in triode mode
If there was a rating for boogie factor, the Avatar would rate at 100)

Tonality 90
Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz) 85
Mid-bass (60 Hz - 200 Hz) 90
Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz) 90
High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up) 80
Attack 90
Decay 90
Inner Resolution 90
Soundscape width front 95
Soundscape width rear 95
Soundscape depth behind speakers 95
Soundscape extension into the room 95
Imaging 95
Fit and Finish 95
Self Noise 95
Value for the Money 90

 

Specifications
Type: Integrated vacuum tube amplifier with MM phono stage and home theater (direct power amplifier) mode.
Tube Complement: two 12AX7 low noise (phono), two 12AX7 (line stage), three 12AU7/6189A (power amplifier), and four EL34 (power amplifier)
Options: Remote control for volume (motorized direct control) & mute
Power amplifier ("Home Theater" direct mode):
Output matching: 4 or 8 ohms nominal
Power output: 60 watts/channel ultra-linear; 27 watts/channel triode
Frequency response: 9 Hz - 35 kHz +0 / -0.5 dB, 3 Hz - 71 kHz +0 / -3.0 dB
Power bandwidth: 11 Hz - 63 kHz + 0 / -3.0 db ref. 50 watts
Gain: 25 dB ultra-linear; 23 dB triode
Residual noise: 1.5 mv at 8 ohm output
Channel separation: -72 dB @ 1 kHz; -60 dB @ 10 kHz
Line stage preamplifier:
Gain: 24 dB
Maximum input signal: Infinite (attenuation precedes line stage)
Noise contribution: Approx. 0.1 mv at power amplifier output
THD contribution: Approx. 0.04%
Tape output: Unity gain from selector, non-inverting
Phono stage preamplifier:
Gain: 37 dB (measured at tape output)
MC phono stage in place of the MM optional
Residual noise: 3 mv at output (S/N ratio approx. 69 dB)
Overload: 117 mv @ 1 kHz = 8 volts RMS output, 460 mv @ 10 kHz
Frequency response: RIAA +/- 0.25 dB
Notes: Does not invert absolute phase.
Dimensions: 17.5 inches wide, 8 inches high, 15.3 inches deep (+ knobs & connectors)
Shipping weight: 61 pounds
Warranty: Three years parts and labor, excluding tubes (one year).
Price: $3,590 (plus $390 for wireless remote control option)

Manufacturer
Valve Amplification Company (VAC)
807 Bacon Street
Durham, NC 27703

Voice: (919) 596-1107
Fax (919) 596-2037
Website:
www.vac-amps.com

 

 

 

 

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