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April 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
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Audio By Van Alstine Synergy Integrated Control Amplifier
No audiophlake nonsense.
Review By A. Colin Flood

 

Audio By Van Alstine Synergy Integrated Control Amplifier  I personally hate the word synergy. I do. Not the way tweaking audiophiles use it. Yes I know what it means. "Synergy is the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects" say Wikipedia. Yet when tweaking audiophiles say "there is synergy with this amplifier on these speakers," what they really mean is "these speakers were so hard to drive until I finally got a bad ass amplifier big enough to drive them." Then there was synergy. I hate that. This isn't an effect greater than the sum of the components; it is missing information about the actual electrical needs of the speaker. So when I found an effect greater than the sum of the Van Alstine Control amplifier with high quality power cords, I didn't jump up and down and sing "Hallelujah, I found synergy!" I was merely missing information about the actual electrical needs of the amplifier.

 

Welcome Back Old Friend
The knobs on the new integrated amplifier by Frank Van Alstine looks very much like my own Dynaco Pas II tube pre-amplifier. He says they don't. The amazing Clarus Crimson (review forthcoming) and Igor Kuznetsoff's silver K Works Audio Empowered cords made a very big difference with the Synergy on one particular system. Frank says it shouldn't. A case of contradictions. The integrated, solid-state Synergy Control amplifier is from Audio by Frank Van Alstine (AVA). He pronounces his name "Van Allstine" (not Allsteen). It is Dutch heritage. He is located near my home burg, the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ralph Karsten of Atma-sphere amplifiers, who introduced me to horns and tubes at impressionable age, also lives there, but Frank doesn't know him.

The Synergy is a 100-Watt per channel amplifier that is wrapped in a beautiful matted black finish. With 47 kOhm input impedance on all sources an hand-picked parts and made in the USA for only $1799. It is not lush like the Roksan Caspian, powerful like the Jaton Operetta A2300 or gentle like the renowned Outlaw RR2150 receiver, yet first impression is of a delightful and capable contender, with knobs that remind me of my Dynaco preamplifier.

 

Short List
Solid-state amplifiers that sound good on my Big Ole Klipsch Khorn loudspeakers bear further mention. It is hard to find solid-state amplifiers that sound good when uber-efficient loudspeakers need only a few watts to play loud. First and foremost is the Nelson Pass' lovely new Static Induction Transistor design. His 10-watt stereo amplifier, the $5000 SIT-2 (see also "SET And SIT Amplifiers, Nelson Pass on his exciting new designs") is notable because while it does not sound soft and warm but weak like a tube amplifier, it does not sound dry and clinical or even weak like a low-powered solid-state amplifier either. "Belying its low power, like other Pass amplifiers I have heard, the SIT-2 has the important ability to play a numerous instruments simultaneously side-by-side and with good separation. Apparently giving each one enough energy to sound whole and complete."

Another is the "The Sexy, More Powerful, Roksan Caspian Integrated Amplifier" I reviewed almost ten years ago. I said "It Sounds As Good As It Looks." The Roksan colored everything in a silver sheen, slathering more soft butter than any Brit would spread on a biscuit. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable performer for a quarter of the cost of the SIT-2. Another slice of synergy.

The third solid-state amplifier I can recommend, especially for loud speakers as sensitive as Big Ole Horn loudspeakers, is the Outlaw receiver that made the company famous. Stereo reviewer John Atkinson personally recommended the famous Outlaw Audio RR2150 stereo receiver to a friend of mine for his Khorns also. The Outlaw receiver opened my mind to the potential of value-priced solid-state amplifiers on Big Ole Horns. It too was a very enjoyable solid-state amplifier, for a tenth of the SIT-2 price! Maybe some of that synergy. Previously, even massively powerful solid-state amplifiers, like the Pass X250 or the Roksan I reviewed, still left me with a metallic taste, as if there was too much grit in my oysters.

Many solid-state amplifiers are too revealing and bright on Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. They make everything seem too sparkly, too shiny, with too much blare. The SIT-2, Roksan and Outlaw didn't. Neither does the AVA Synergy with a good power cord. As with all Synergy amplifiers, the Integrated Amplifier has no overall feedback. Therefore, the input circuits simply cannot overload on an overall loop-error correction signal; that signal does not exist. However feedback does exist, but as a unique active and buffered powered feedback loop matched perfectly electrically and thermally to the active buffered input parameters. Thus, not only are the amplifiers perfectly balanced top-to-bottom, but they are balanced in input and feedback drive parameters too.

 

Zero Outside Influence
Dynaco was a huge home audio manufacturer in the 1970s. Their Stereo 70 (EL34 tubes) may be the best selling audio tube amplifier of all times. Frank started reworking original Dynaco units way back in the 1960s. Over the years though, this work became a minor part of his business. At this time, AVA still offers a Super Pas Three rebuild kit for Dynaco PAS-3 series vacuum tube preamplifiers (similar to what I have – see my Reviews Bio) and a Ultimate 70 rebuild kit for original (an still enduring classic) Dynaco ST-70 EL34 tube power amplifiers. Audio by Van Alstine still installs the new and original AVA circuits designed for their own chassis in some older Dynaco solid state preamplifiers and power amplifiers, but he says they only see a few of these old Dynaco units to rebuild each year. "We only continue to offer this because there is no extra tooling cost for us to do so."

"Some of the most important lessons learned from working with lots of Dynaco units," Frank said, "was that Dynaco's way of designing chassis layouts was pretty terrible when they went from tube to solid state designs. They used many metal parts, nothing fit well, the solid state amplifiers were very hard to work on or access for repairs, and they were much heavier than needed. We also saw lots of under-rated parts that failed too soon and poor flow solder work on their PC cards."

"When we designed our own chassis," he said, "we tried to make our new units long term reliable and accessible for service if needed. The Synergy Control Amplifier is probably the tightest packed unit we make. It was not easy to fit two powerful all analog audio channels and active regulated power supplies for all audio circuits, including the output transistors, in a compact chassis, along with a full function preamp section.

He is surprised at my comment that the Synergy knobs look like Dynaco ones! "Internally or outside," he said, "there is nothing common with any original Dynaco layout at all." So, no synergy there, he thinks.

 

Audiophlake Nonsense
Audio By Van Alstine Synergy Integrated Control AmplifierThese are all original AVA designs he proudly proclaims! "Zero outside influence here. What other audio design have you ever heard of that used active three pin regulators as references for high current power transistors, ultra-fast small signal current amplifiers for a balanced input and feedback design, regulated  Exicon power MOSFETs, or anything else unique to these designs?"

The circuit boards inside the Synergy are vertical simply because that way, they use less chassis real estate this way. Frank said they would not all fit if they were all horizontal and the wiring would be more complex. "Understand that amplifiers need to drive real world loads which can vary with frequency and power needed," he said. "Speakers are complex loads and amplifier output circuits need to be able to drive anything within reason. Also the inputs need to be pure resistive loads easy for any source equipment to drive."

The 47kOhm input impedance is pretty much an industry standard and is an easy load for sources to drive. Tweaking audiophiles can see his equipment at shows like AXPONA, sharing a room with Salk Sound as usual, and the popular Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. They will probably make the Washington DC show this summer too.

Frank has never published specifications. He does not publish charts of frequency response or THD curves. Frank said the Synergy did not need any real break-in period (quite the opposite of many high-end claims!), "other than a day or so of running here to get it past infant mortality." In fact, I did not notice any difference between cold start and on all weekend listening sessions on different speakers.

He said no home audiophile component needs anything close to a 20 Ampere service, "this is just more audiophlake nonsense." The amplifier is stable with 4-Ohm loads, but does not have USB, iPod input or remote control. Franks says his goal was the best sounding control he could do at a rational price. "We leave all the bells and whistles to the Bangladesh made stuff."

Ya gotta love a man that talks like Frank! Why not build your amplifiers in China, I ask? "Because I want to sell it to residents of the USA and hire and support USA workers, "he says, "not the Chinese commie dictators." Certainly some synergy there for me too. Frank builds to order, typically with a 30-day lead-time.

There was a thin silver on/off speaker toggle on the back of the black AVA box. Nice idea. Never used it. It is a little too close to the speaker binding posts for reviewers who are constantly switching equipment. There are also handy Low Gain and Filter switches, which functionality I did not explore deeply. Thank goodness for the Balance knob smack dab in the middle of the black box. I didn't need in my listening rooms, but few rooms have the perfectly square front and sidewalls so crucial for creating a wide and deep soundstage. There is no synergy with UPS or Fed Ex. They can drop your box or get it wet as easily as a juvenile juggler or a professional ball player. Thankful the AVA came packed not only with the two to three inches of Styrofoam necessary to survive a missed catch, but also with a moisture barrier bag to survive Florida's daily downpour.

 

The Candle And The Cords
The candle for many of my listening sessions was a squat multicolored one; one color stacked on top of another like a horizontal rainbow. Switching music and then switching equipment, I replayed the music and switched another piece of equipment, next switched equipment and replayed, and then switched back to original equipment and replayed yet again. I listened for the differences and compared to the original.

The candle flickered throughout, fluttered with heavy bass tracks and opened a small V notch in the dyke around the top. The notch grew to become a spout. Molten liquid like water, wax dripped over the side like fluid sunshine. It pooled on the candle's plate like a moat of grayish white ice around a colorful castle tower. Then I moved to another system and did it all over again. Sometimes sensuous synergy; sometimes simply tedium. I heard the AVA control amplifier on four different home theater music and movie reproduction systems now. Twice on big ole Klipsch classic corner horn loudspeakers, once on charming Focal towers and on my big Altec Lansing bookshelves. In each instance, a high-end power cord made a noticeable improvement! The silver KVA Empowerment, Clarus Crimson and Aqua power cords all showed better capabilities than the simple stock black power cord included with the amplifier. More of that synergy stuff. Of course, no manufacturer can add $250 to $910 power cords to their amplifiers, but maybe they should.

Frank says he does not make power cord recommendations. "The value of these is in the ears of the purchaser I suppose. We do caution users to make sure their three-conductor power cords are made with the correct polarity. There are four ways to wire the power cord and three of them are dangerously wrong! I worry about boutique ones made by hand getting it right always… I probably should be happy that the Synergy Control Amp is high enough resolution to let you hear the power cord differences," he said. But he was "not aware of any possible legitimate electrical engineering reason for a good sounding power cord to do anything useful at all."

 

Cabins, Corner Horns & Crooners
As the city grows, cabins in the woods become charming old-fashioned homes in aging neighborhoods. In this one, a friend from the Suncoast Audio Society in Tampa, the exposed wood ceilings and smooth floor provide a large listening room, 16 by 26 feet. It is on the bright side. Speakers were a pair of classic 1990 Klipsch corner Khorns, with Bob Crites' AK-3 crossovers, like mine in the Reviewer's Bio*. They are 11 feet apart on a dedicated 20-Ampere circuit. This system is powered by a Welborne DRD with Mission Lab 45 tubes and Juicy Music Merlin tube pre-amplifier. Source was JoLida JD-100a tubed CD player with tubed DAC.

All three components are very highly recommended for their synergy with uber-efficient Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. Like mine, this system is one of the few I have heard that can play Dire Straits' "The Man's Too Strong" without mashing the crescendo into hopeless distortion. This capability is by virtue of an older model SVS sub the size of a dorm room refrigerator, with dual 12' downward firing woofers.

Country crooner Alison Krauss performed the compelling religious folk hymn, "Down in the River to Pray, "for the Coen Brothers' film with George Clooney, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The film made both her and the song famous. It is with candles, cabins, corner horns and crooners like Kraus that combinations of gospel and audio tube amplifiers are magical far beyond paltry pairings of iPods and ear buds. Certainly sensuous synergy.

 

Honest Value
At 12:00 on the Volume knob, the AVA amplifier on the Khorns rendered the Krauss version of the hymn large, wide, with quiet background. It sounded competent, fat and accurate, but still with the sterility of solid-state on über-sensitive 104dB/W/m horns. It was smooth but without sparkle. In many respects, the AVA was similar to the amazing 10-watt marvel of Pass SIT-2 amplifier. Unless pushed, they both provided competent solid-state sound. As usual, it is only at the extremes of loudness, bass, multiple instruments and complex passages that Pass amplifiers pull away from the pack like the nitro boost switch in a "Fast N' Furious" movie. Otherwise, the AVA amplifier stayed with the sonic curves like more expensive racers. On David Crosby's "Tree Top Flyer" for example, the AVA displayed depth, body and cigar-filled smoothness.

Cindy Cashdollar is a steel guitar and Dobro artist, who grew up in Woodstock and played with Woodstock blues musician Paul Butterfield. With her, the AVA and Khorn combination was snappy without sharpness or harshness. It was solid but without boom or ultra-depth. It was detailed, but without tube amplifier nuance. Jacintha is Her Name (2003) shows off one of the things that most tweaking audiophiles love most about our home theater music and movie reproduction systems - the sexy female voice. Enjoy the Music.com reviewed this album. It reveals the "silky, smooth, and sensuous voice of Jacintha... reproduced with an utterly natural quality, revealing every nuance of her phenomenal intonation, phrasing, breath control, and vocal modulation." On this album, the saxophone had rasp but without blat or blare. Lest this seem too critical, the AVA was satisfying for all but the most purist tube (c'estmoi) or deep bass lover (me again).

 

Compatible With The Cord
These perfectly capable comparisons were only accentuated with the $350 KVA Empowered version two power cord. This was confirmed with the amazing Clarus Crimson power cord also. The expensive Crimson made everything sound better (glowing review coming). Compared to the stock cord, the AVA amplifier and KWA cord were smoother, with more definition. If possible, Jacintha's voice was even more delicate. Her breath more apparent. I even used that word in my notes. Synergistic.

It was what the dictionary describes. There was an interaction between the different components in the HT system to produce a beneficial effect greater than stock power cords. The combination had better imaging. It was easier to listen to than the stock cord. I hated the KWA on three home theater music and movie reproduction systems, including my own Big Ole Horn loudspeakers, but loved on it on this one, and said so in a recent review.

My own Klipsch Khorns are 23 feet apart in a large and bright room with sheet-rock walls. The cypress cabin has high-sloped wood ceilings open to the second floor balcony. The sweet listening spot is 12 feet from the front-end equipment. Also near 12:00 for moderate volume, the AVA amplifier was high 70s SPL on a slow, C-weighted, unadjusted Radio Shack meter. It did not have painful distortion even at full volume.

Audio By Van Alstine Synergy Integrated Control AmplifierOn normal volume and typical passages, the AVA was more similar to the twice-the-price Pass SIT-2 than different, just not with the feeling of power or completeness behind the notes, but not soft like the Roksan either. On Sting's "Fields of Gold," it was effortless without feeling powerful. The AVA showed little of the solid-state harshness that wears out the ears. In my mind, I rank it as an honest solid-state value like the NAD 1020 pre-amplifier I once had. Yet the opening drums of Sting's "They Dance Alone" made me wish for the deeper, darker pounding of my 48-pound Pioneer driving my bass bins. The AVA Synergy is a polite, controlled bass in comparison, sufficient for the mid-bass but reminded me how lean the smoothly accurate Khorn bass response to 30 Hz actually is. The mid and upper-mid range was quite good, but still made me yearn for the pep of tubes, inaccurate perhaps, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Separation between channels seemed excellent but lack of specifications has to make any tweaking audiophile wary. As useless as they are, specs are nice to have. There was plenty of bopping pep for "Englishman in New York" with good separation between notes also. On "über easy-to-drive" Big Ole Horn loudspeakers, the AVA amplifier had no trouble keeping pace. Only tube-o-philes and bass mad men will not be happy with this charming integrated amplifier. On Sade's bass-heavy, foot-tapping rhythm of "Promise," the AVA certainly wasn't stingy with the mid-bass. It wasn't bloated, but lean and clean. The beat was snappy, easily handling both the walking bass line and the knocking percussion.

So much for horns. I l love the delicacy of the light cones on Focal's speakers. My third listening set-up is a typical, unfortunately square, listening room of bedroom-size. It has with paneled walls on carpeted wood floor and windows centered on three walls. The two-channel HT system had Focal's 726v towers (three drivers and a front port, with 8-Ohms nominal impedance). Driven by the J River app on a MacBook Air with a Cambridge Audio DACmagic, I used Clarus' always wonderful Crimson interconnecting patch cords and loudspeaker cables throughout. Loudspeakers were closer, six feet apart, with the sweet spot nine feet distant.

 

Gone Is The Glow
Compared to the charming white Glow Audio Two*, with EL84 tubes, the AVA on this system was deeper, harder, more edgy, flatter, snappier and sharper. It played 90-dB peaks on the slow, C-weighted, unadjusted Radio Shack SPL meter at noon on the dial. Joe Jackson is probably best known for his 1978 hit "Is She Really Going Out with Him?", but he has moved on to more eclectic pop/jazz/classical hybrids. On Fleetwood Mac's bopping "Oh Well" from his "Laughter & Lust" album, Joe Jackson's growls the vocals in the fast electric blues tune. Where the Glow added textured to his growl on "I may not give the answer that you want me to," the AVA lowered it. This combination could be piercing, but it was clearer, faster and harder hitting. The horns were brassier, sometimes strident, not tube-friendly gentle, more like American slapstick than subtle British humor.

The two amplifiers could not be more different in sonics and appearance. One is classic audio component shape: wide, matte black and rectangular. While the Glow amplifier is squat and tall by comparison, shiny white and glowing. It is a skyline of blue and orange bulbs. One is crisp and accurate, while the other sounds warm but almost muddy by contrast. The AVA had more details. Background music stood out better.

Newcomers to classical symphony cut their eyeteeth on zesty composers like Russian PyotrIlyich Tchaikovsky and German Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I never left them. I still love their live orchestra performances. There is nothing like the incredibly wide frequency response and huge dynamics of a full symphony orchestra. Only a few meg-buck dream systems I have heard come close to accurately reproducing this live event. See the Enjoy the Music.com instrument and frequency response chart.

Tchaikovsky scored "Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64" for flutes, piccolo, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, and of course, strings. These are all wonderful instruments to show both horns and tubes. In fact, the Glow had a smooth texture to the violins, but didn't have the power to push the crescendos. It couldn't play both foreground and background instruments equally well side-by-side. In contrast, the AVA was more defined. It was more patient with articulation of the instruments, perhaps because of better sustain, slower decay in the microscopic shape of the notes.

The amplifiers change the music by re-defining the balance between the instruments. Where the Glow rendered "Symphony #5" as a lead melody with background harmonies, the AVA had the ability to play all instruments with equal weight. It rendered melodies equally, emphasizing the interplay between them. This is an important interpretation of music. It becomes a fundamental personal judgment or preference for tubes versus solid-state amplifiers.

Finally, I compared the AVA amplifier up in another dedicated listening room. This was a bare bedroom with concrete block walls. It has the dappled, thin-set terrazzo floors that exploded in Florida during the 1970s. Despite carpeting, it is a hard room. Though RealTraps are coming, this room might get bookshelves, curtains and couches for treatment. It certainly needs something.

I used my Oppo player on my Altec-Lansing Model One bookshelf speakers. The Altecs have Acoustic 8-Ohm, 8" mid-bass woofers, in 0.75" MDF cabinets, crossed-over at 3 kHz to a 4" silver dome tweeter. Original frequency response was 50 Hz to 20 kHz. I had to dial the tweeter all the way down for this room and it was still too hard. Cables were the impressive, slick black, braided Dana Cables Onyx brand distributed exclusively by Gingko Audio (review coming). Of course, I use the wonderful Clarus Crimson power cord every chance I can.

In this situation, the AVA clearly more forward than the Glow Two. My favorite blonde Canadian, Diana Krall had less warmth on her "Girl in the Other Room," but the bass was better defined. It was less natural, more like amplified than live. There wasn't a huge difference in frequency response between the Glow's 15-watts and the AVA's 100-watt. Nothing I could spot on the simple but free Real Time Analyzer on my smartphone. The roll-off slope at 250 Hz remained for both amplifiers.

Overall, I was impressed with the elegant black knobs, because they do look like my Dynaco pre-amplifier, matte black finish, thoughtful features, value and sound quality of the Audio by Van Alstine integrated Synergy Control amplifier. I found few faults with its performance that a lot more powerful amplifier could not solve, for a lot more money. A good, solid performer for the price, there is no audiophlake nonsense with the Audio By Van Alstine Synergy Integrated Control Amplifier. I am adding it to my short list of good solid-state amplifiers, with a quality power cord, for use with Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. I found Synergy and really enjoyed it.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state integrated amplifier
Output Power: 100 Watts per channel, two channels.
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
Inputs: Six stereo line inputs plus tape loop
Outputs: Heavy duty five-way binding posts
Dimensions: 17" x 11.5" x 3.5" (WxDxH)
Price: $1799
Options: International Transformer $55
             Double die option with four devices $100

 

Company Information
Audio by Van Alstine, LLC
2665 Brittany Lane
Woodbury, MN 55125

Voice: (651) 330-9871
Fax: (651) 330-9822
E-mail: avahifi@comcast.net
Website www.avahifi.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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