Audio Research VSi60 integrated amplifier Page 3
I compared the VSi60 with my Creek Destiny integrated amplifier ($2500), as well as to my AudioValve Eclipse line stage and ARC Reference 110, linked by an MIT Magnum M3 balanced interconnect (combined prices now $20,000). As I'd expected, the Creek did fairly well, with an uncolored midrange and tight, deep, extended bass. However, the VSi60 had superior resolution of detail, articulation of low-level dynamics, and retrieval of ambience, and its highs were far more extended and airy. I also felt it was easier for the ARC to differentiate among instruments.
Stepping up to the higher-priced Audio ValveMITARC rig, it was immediately clear that the VSi60 was cut from the same sonic cloth as the Reference 110. They shared the same clear, extended, pristine highs, superb transient articulation, and retrieval of detail. The more expensive combo did reveal more detail, low-level dynamics, and ambience, but the difference wasn't as dramatic as I'd expected. There was a greater sense of openness and ease with the more powerful Reference 110; I never felt it was working hard, even with the most demanding material. And with larger orchestral works, the Reference 110 never displayed the compression in fortissimos that I heard with the VSi60.
The biggest surprise was in the bass. When I compared the Reference 110 to my old ARC VT100 Mk.II in my review of the Ref 110 in the August 2007 Stereophile, I thought both amps had superb bass, but that the Ref 110 had just a slight touch of warmth in the midbass that the older amp lacked. Well, over a wide range of recordings, I felt that the VSi60 bettered the Audio Valve/Ref 110 combo in every aspect of bass articulation and definition. But this made no sense to me. Why would a higher-powered amp with a similar circuit topology, bigger transformers, and better parts produce a bottom end slightly inferior to that of the baby integrated, especially when the Ref 110 was coupled with a line stage and interconnect both renowned for kick-slammin' low end? Could it be that the mere elimination of an active line stage and a set of interconnects removes a layer of impurity in the signal path that results in superior bass definition? Could ARC be telling us that we no longer need a separate active line stage? (footnote 1)
At the end of this comparison, I shook my head. Why was I bothering with a separate line stage if this integrated is such a high-level performer? I seriously pondered a scenario in which I would sell my Audio ValveMITARC rig, buy the review sample of the VSi60, and use the leftover cash to buy my wife a new barbecue grill. What stopped me from doing so was not the VSi60's sound, but an equipment reviewer's need to have a separate line stage and power amp in order to review a broad range of electronics.
In the VSi60, Audio Research has produced an integrated amplifier of staggering quality, versatility, and value. It should be considered not only by anyone seeking an integrated amp anywhere near its price, but also by anyone shopping for a separate tubed line stage and power amplifier together costing upwards of $10,000. That person could then use the resulting savings to buy better speakers, or maybe even a kickass, Fremer-quality analog front end.
I felt sad when I packed up the VSi60 to ship it back to ARC. I didn't want to see it leavethe first time that's happened in 25 years of reviewing audio gear. This captivating and enticing little dream of an amp is a sleeper. Look for it. Ignore its power rating, kick back, and listen to its magic.
Footnote 1: Apparently not. Audio Research has just released their Reference Anniversary line stage ($24,995), which, Warren Gehl tells me, is the most significant product ARC has ever developed. He claims its sound quality is an order of magnitude (ie, 10 times) higher than that of their current top line stage, the Reference 5 ($11,995).