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September 2012
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
Audio By Van Alstine (AVA) Synergy 450 Power Amplifier
Blockbuster performance for only $1999!
Review By Anthony Nicosia

 

Audio By Van Alstine (AVA) Synergy 450 Power Amplifier  Frank Van Alstine, the owner and founder of AVA (Audio by Van Alstine), has been building quality audio gear for over forty-three years. All AVA products are designed in-house and "hand-built in the USA" at the factory in Woodbury Minnesota. When you order from AVA you get custom built individual units, not preassembled pieces that have been sitting on a shelf for months waiting to be sold. Of course this will require that you have patience while your personal order is carefully assembled to AVA's stringent specifications. Now when the upgrade bug bites you, as it eventually does with most of us, then look at "The AVA Advantage" proclamation. It states that you only need to send in your older AVA gear and they will upgrade it with their newest technology at a cost less than it would be for you to buy said unit brand new. Researching information on a company's web-site can reveal a lot about their way of doing business, approach to product design and manufacturing processes. I was quite impressed with many of the statements found on the AVA site and you will see me quote them throughout this review. Let me start by sharing their thoughts on amplifier break-in as it is always something a reviewer keeps in mind before any critical listening impressions are finalized.

"Our amplifiers need no extended warm-up or break-in time. We design for absolute stability and the proper use and biasing of all the active and passive parts all the time. We don't care if your power line voltage dips because of summer brownout conditions, an Audio by Van Alstine amplifier will still sound great. Our circuit parameters don't change just because your line voltage does. Actual good engineering takes into consideration the wide range of real world operating conditions the amplifier will encounter. We design so the amp will perform perfectly under adverse conditions. Thus our amplifiers sound great from turn-on to turn-off and at all times in between. We don't design unstable, finicky beasts that only work properly if conditions are perfect."

For this particular review a demo Synergy 450 amplifier was sent straight from one of the audio shows so testing break-in time was not possible. However my review did start without the normal half an hour or more of warm-up time usually given my review products. Critical listening began immediately upon turn-on and truth be told the 450 never sounded as if it needed more time to reach its sonic potential. A big plus for when you are pressed for time but need that quick moment or two of musical bliss before going to work or wherever.

 

Technical And Physical Descriptions
On the physical side this amplifier is similar to others designed by Frank Van Alstine, in that it is functional and full of substance not fluff. You will not find any large VU meters peering at you with beautifully colored soulful eyes or expensive faceplates that add nothing to the musical experience except a higher price tag and a nice decorative touch. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those things just that it will naturally add to the cost of the unit, a cost you might not want to pay for. For those that choose not to, the Synergy 450 will definitely make them smile.

"You will love the way our products are built, the way they sound and the way we allocate resources. We build tidy, neat, and very solid amplifiers with the inside engineering perfected first, rather than silly styling exercises. Of course our black-anodized faceplates are attractive but we don't make them a half an inch thick to try to double the prices. Our equipment will impress you and your friends because it compels you to listen to the music, not just to look at the blinking lights and shiny buttons. The value is in the contents, not just in the wrappings."

Following that train of thought the front faceplate of the Synergy 450 has only a power down on/off switch and a logo indicating it is a Van Alstine product. Heat sinks are located around back rather than on its side making for a more pleasant experience when moving the 450 as its fins did not dig into my hands. On the rear panel are a pair of RCA inputs, an IEC connector, fuse holders, a unit power on/off switch and loudspeaker output connectors.

"We now offer two great new power amplifiers for you. Both are all solid state, both have twelve active regulated power supplies, including active regulated power supplies for the output circuits. These provide nearly the same amazing dynamics, transparency, and sense of "you are there" live presentations that have made our new FET Valve hybrid amps so successful. Better yet, there is no hint of "solid state" sound, just music."

The two new power amplifiers the web-site refers to are the $1999 Synergy 450 (reviewed here) and its slightly smaller sibling the $1499 Synergy 300. The 300 has a bit less power, 150 versus 225-watts, weights five pounds less and lacks the double die Exicon power MOSFET output devices found standard on the 450. The MOSFETS while not standard on the Synergy 300 are available as a $99 option. I would recommend you go for it as the double die power MOS-FETs nearly double the current and thermal capacity of the amplifier resulting in more solid bass definition along with clearer highs. No matter which amplifiers you choose both are an excellent option for one's audio needs and priced right to boot. Looking under the hood of the 450 reveals an all solid state amplifier that is well laid out and neatly organized with a large power supply. For those that like to tinker there is ample room for ones hands and tools. For me I have done some soldering in the past with my older Dynaco preamplifier and have learned to leave it to the experts. The work inside the 450 definitely belongs in the expertise classification as it all looked very impressive and quite professional. It was now time to put all these design features to the test by seeing what the Synergy 450 sounded like in my review system. For this particular review I decided to try something just a little different. Gone were my expensive loudspeakers cables, interconnects, power cords and even the Audience aR2p-T0 power conditioner that I normally run my amplifiers through. Instead a factory supplied power cord (run straight into a $49.95 PS Audio Power Port wall outlet), Kimber Kable PBJ interconnects ($110 per meter) and inexpensive Canare 4S11 loudspeaker cables (found online for $1.29 per foot sans termination) were connected to the 450. Remember this is an amplifier listing for $1999 and it just did not seem right to use loudspeaker cables costing more than the amplifier itself. This was all done in an effort to see what the 450 would sound like in a truer world like environment with cable costs in line with the product itself. Of course if you want to try to coax as much as possible out of this product by using very expensive cabling and power conditioners then have at it.

 

Listening To CDs
First up were my Von Schweikert VR-35 Deluxe Import loudspeakers. Let me say it right from the start, it was a great deal of fun hearing music coming from my main system with the addition of the Synergy 450. Music flowed forth with great balance across a wide range of the audio spectrum without any solid-state glare but rather more of a tube-like bravado. Everything had a relaxed feel to it without harshness or grain. Whether hard rock, acoustic guitar, small ensembles, large orchestral passages or vocals, the 450 had a forgiving quality that enhanced the enjoyment of all types of performances. On Jackson Browne's Solo Acoustic Volume 1 CD [Inside Recordings INR5205-2] the layering of rows of people within the audience could be heard while he told humorous antidotes before introducing a song. Whether Jackson Browne was getting the audience to laugh or to clap it was easy to gauge a true perspective of distance between people and performer. On "Lives in the Balance" the inflections in his voice gave way to the emotional content of the songs true spirit. All in all this made for a very involving and enjoyable experience. Guitar work was equally well showcased as the 450 was able to bring this instrument to life with accurate timbre on song after song throughout the CD, especially on "Take it Easy". Rather than sounding large or overblown the guitar felt like the physically small instrument that it is. If you have not heard this classic song in quite a while then let the Synergy 450 bring you back to those old days. Yes a time when talented professionals performed solo on stage with nowhere to hide showcased only by their song writing, musical and vocal abilities. As for the piano it also sounded 'live" during "The Rebel Jesus" as hammers gently played upon strings giving a proper sense of depth to this instrument.

As long as I was reminiscing it was time to go back to Tracy Chapman's first CD, Tracy Chapman [Elektra 9 60774-2]. Here on "Fast Cars" her voice rang out clearly, with great focus, planted dead center between my loudspeakers which seemed to disappear leaving the performer right in front of me. It was now time to let the 450 loose and throw caution to the wind by easing the volume up so as to fill my entire room with the sound of those wonderful percussions from "Mountains of Things". Again this amplifier from AVA did not disappoint, in fact it loved being driven hard as it came through like a champion without a hint of strain. Clearly there was no need to hold back those two hundred-twenty five watts of power, except of course to protect your ears from the high decibel levels the 450 had no trouble reproducing.

Carlos Santana's Supernatural CD [Arista 07822-19080-2] features many great songs and talented musicians. On "Smooth" the opening guitar solo of Carlos Santana laid bare notes sounding smooth and natural as they appeared to float lightly in the air before me. Rob Thomas' voice was also true to form with a slight raspy quality about it. The real sleeper song though was "The Calling" featuring guest star Eric Clapton. It is funny that this CD has been in my collection for years yet I had never really gotten into it until today. The beginning had both Santana and Clapton taking turns displaying their talent with individual guitar solos. This exchange continued back and forth between the two until a performance of strong and powerful percussions entered the soundscape. Turning the volume way up the 450 shook my home with music as I reveled in a wide soundstage loaded with thunderous mid and lower bass notes. While being tube like in some ways it could still grab those lower frequencies with enough force to make rock fans grin the big grin. This song has now become one of my favorites from that CD, thank you Frank Van Alstine.

 

Synergy 450 and Electrostatic Loudspeakers
When switching over to my Martin Logan Sequel II loudspeakers out came the Canare 4S11 cables and in went my Kimber Kable 4TC loudspeaker cables priced at $300 for a ten foot pair (Banana plug terminated). This choice was still in keeping with my original concept of keeping associated priced cables in line with the Synergy 450's very reasonable price point. The Brother In Arms CD [Warner Bros. 9 25264-2] features some very well recorded songs, such as "So Far Away". Here it sounded better when I flipped the switches on the back of each loudspeaker thereby lowering its ten inch woofer response by -3dB. For you see, bass produced by the 450 was already quite powerful. This was really a testament to the amplifier as my ML's as a norm tended to lean towards a prominent bass foundation and with the ability of the 450 to deliver good solid bass, well on certain songs those switches needed to be activated. Not that the bass from the 450 was sloppy or anything but tight and controlled, just a bit much with songs heard through loudspeakers that leaned in that direction already, too much of a good thing so to speak. It was this preponderance for bass reproduction that initially caught my attention making me believe the 450 would be able to play with big boy amplifiers costing considerably more. One trademark of upper echelon amplifiers is their ability to deliver the goods in the bass region which the 450 did shockingly well for amplifiers anywhere near this price point. Upper bass and midrange magic were abundant on this CD especially the tenor saxophone playing on "Why Worry" and the 450 with its tube-like sound mesmerized me with its rendition of this classic song. Had my eyes been closed and someone told me a tube amplifier was playing it might have fooled me. Hearing that saxophone play with timbre so joyfully correct was a pleasure to experience.

 

Vinyl Selections
The vinyl record of It Serve You Right To Suffer by John Lee Hooker [Impulse! AS-9103] "Shake It Baby" displayed this amplifiers ability to keep up with fast attack transients of this quick paced song. Here the 450 had my feet taping. The soundscape with the band and Mr. Hooker was well layered leaving me with the impression of a correct vision of the performance as it unfolded in my room. "Country Boy" is an altogether differently paced song having a more classic slow steady blues tempo. The 450's way with voices was well suited here as vocals were rightfully expressed with a magic that lent itself to a small club effect. Even with the volume turned down low (so as not to disturb my sleeping loved ones) the experience of being close to a live performance was a realistic proposition. While sounding good when played back at either soft or loud volumes it was of course more natural listening at realistic playback levels.

Looking back even further into my past I pulled out my vinyl copy of Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival [Fantasy Stereo 8393]. The last and only time I heard this group live in person, featuring John Fogerty, his brother Tom, Doug Clifford on drums and Stu Cook on bass, was back in 1969 at the Woodstock concert. This group has a sound I would describe as country rock and that day in 1969 they opened with "Born on the Bayou". Unfortunately that is not on this album; however their second set a song called "Green River" is. Here the 450 laid out a soundscape lacking in congestion and with great precision. Musicians were showcased in a clearly defined space between each other and also in relation to their distance from center stage. It was nice being able to isolate individuals and to enjoy their particular musical talent separately if I so choose to listen. Again this was evident on A Tribute To Someone featuring the Larry Willis Sextet [Audio quest AQ-LP1022] where the soundscape was scattered with six different musicians, Larry Willis playing Steinway Pianos, Curtis Fuller Trombone, John Stubblefield Tenor and Soprano Sax, Tom Williams Trumpet, David Williams Bass and Ben Riley Drums. Being able to clearly hear the trumpet and saxophone playing on "Wayman's Way" while not missing out on a background of bass, piano and drums was pleasurable indeed.

As for soundscape depth the 450 did a good job there giving way only to some expensive tube gear but still tight and well defined with a taste of correct timbre to instruments that sounded right. The soft and slow piano on "Sensei" had correct timing to the decay of notes. Overall the 450 gave an accurate presentation with great balance that rivaled the sound of some very fine expense competition and at a relatively affordable price to boot. It would be safe to assume that my love for Victory at Sea is readably apparent being that my record collection sports four different versions, three recorded under the RCA Red Seal and one on the Somerset label. The opening passage from the RCA Red Seal LM-1779 Volume 1 LP recorded in 1959 sounded as vast and wide open as the large ocean where the initial battle would take place. Horns, trombones and trumpets set us off on an epic journey with moods that quickly changed from jubilation, to mystery, fear and finally disaster. Of course all this would not be as plausible without an amplifier capable of delivering great dynamic swings like the Synergy 450 can. With 225-watts the 450 was more than capable of reproducing a full scale orchestra with my medium efficient loudspeakers and still have plenty of power left over to spare.

 

Conclusion
It might be said that the 450 is a lot of amplifier for $1999, but in reality it is a great product period! Hopefully you will not judge the Synergy 450 based only on its cost because then those that are willing to spend more might mistakenly overlook this hidden gem. Before doing this review two things were told me, one by a dealer who does not carry AVA products, the other by Frank Van Alstine himself. Both statements I found to be true. Frank said the 450 would sound similar to a tubed unit without using tubes and it certainly does. The other was that Van Alstine products tend to sound like they should be priced much more expensive than they are. They do. You will not find any fancy meters on the front faceplate, nor will that faceplate be thick and heavily ornamented with frills that serve no direct musical purpose. The money for this one is rather spend on what is inside, that which makes the musical experience so gratifying we would willingly part with our hard earned cash to purchase it. You can tuck this amplifier inside your audio rack, hide it behind a wall even put it under your coffee table as it will not matter. It is bound to impress you, your loved ones and your friends with its sonic capabilities for it is found to have endearing qualities which cannot be hidden no matter where you place it (within reason of course). When discussing the Synergy 450 it would be hard to say it more precisely than was stated on their web-site (referring to AVA products in general) "They are designed to preserve the musical character of the performance, to be absolutely free of rough edges, and to operate reliably, quietly and unobtrusively." This is a great amplifier from a company that has been creating audio gear for quite some time. When you call to place your own order or just to ask a question, do not be surprised if Frank Van Alstine himself were to answer the phone. He is that type of hands on owner with an interest in providing quality audio gear at affordable prices. The Synergy 450 is worth its asking price and a great deal more. This amplifier is definitely recommended and highly praised. It is quietly unassuming in appearance yet sonically spectacular, buy it.

 

The Listening Environment
The review room is eighteen feet eight inches long by thirteen feet wide with loudspeakers and equipment kept on the short wall. The cathedral ceiling starts at eight feet from the short wall slopping upwards to reach a height of thirteen feet in the middle than returning to eight feet at the opposite end. The hardwood floor is partially covered by a nine by six foot oriental rug lying down the long ways facing toward the loudspeakers, placed dead center between but not under the listener or the audio system. The room has no doors but there are two openings. One opening is in front of the right loudspeaker giving access to the hallway while the other is behind the listener's position opening to a formal dining area. There are three floor standing acoustical panels one in each corner behind the loudspeakers and another in front of the fireplace midway into the room on the left side as one faces the system. There are also numerous Auralex Studio foam panels placed around the room at various heights. All the audio equipment is located in a Synergy Twin S30 Salamander audio rack placed about a foot away from and in the middle of the short wall opposite the listening position. Power conditioners are all located on the hardwood floor behind and to the left of the audio rack with the exception of the Audience Ar2p-T0 which is plugged directly into the socket behind the rack (not used for this review).

 

Review Equipment
Von Schweikert VR-35 Export Deluxe Loudspeakers
Pass Labs XP-10 Preamplifier
Oracle Delphi MK 1 Turntable, Grace 707 Tone arm with custom made interconnects
Audio-Technica Prestige AT33PTG Moving Coil Cartridge
Whest Phono Stage .20 with MsU.20 Power Supply
VPI 16.5 Record Cleaning Machine
Acoustic Revive RPT-4 Ultimate Power Supply Box
Loudspeaker Cables: Canare 4S11
Kimber Kable 4TC
Interconnects: Kimber Kable PBJ RCA cables from preamplifier to amplifier
Monarchy Audio XLR DAB-1 Balanced cables from CD player to preamplifier
Power Cords: Cardas Cross (2), Monarchy Audio AC-1
Acoustic Revive Power Cable (1)
Cherry Synergy Twin S30 Salamander audio rack

 

Manufacturer's Comments
One of the great things I have been blessed with at Audio by Van Alstine is the outstanding help, advice, and talent of a group of people who have supported me so well all these years. Among them are Dean Kayser (skilled hobbyist and electrical prototype designer) who first realized that using multiple regulated power supplies, separate ones for each possible circuit demand, would make a huge improvement in the overall audio performance of a given design. Dean also had the electrical engineering skill and determination to do this from scratch and apply it to almost all of our small signal circuit designs and to our hybrid tube amplifiers. Then Dan Kuechle, the newest talent addition at AVA, my electrical engineer, took this understanding and applied it to the difficult challenge of our solid state power amplifiers, which required many more high voltage, high current power supplies and required designing them into rational packages that we could actually produce. Dan did it and left me only with the task of designing the new circuit boards needed to fit into our chassis layouts. The result is a Synergy, not only of making an amplifier that will work perfectly with your audio system, but of the combination of resources here that allowed it to happen. Thanks so much everyone.

Frank Van Alstine

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state stereo amplifier
Power: 225 watts per channel 20 to 20 kHz into 8 Ohms
Standard Features: 
  Eight high current TO-3 case double die Exicon power MOSFET output devices
  All new AVA designed black chassis with black anodized faceplate 
  High efficiency black anodized extruded rear mounted heat sinks 
  Can be used for 2 Ohm loads and up
Dimensions: 17" x 13" x 7" (WxDxH) 
Shipping weight: 38 lbs.
Warranty: Three year limited warranty
Price: $1999

 

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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