DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk.III integrated amplifier Page 2
The DK Design's bass response was quite good, although with a slight warmth in the midrange region that was broadly and evenly distributed and added no severe colorations to any music I played. Ray Brown's bass on Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VICJ 60083) was a bit warm, and the solo double-bass passages in George Crumb's Quest (CD, Bridge 9069) had a bit too much bloom. The lower-register organ-pedal notes in John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR57-CD) were natural and rumbling.
Electronic bass was also fairly impressive. The bass synthesizer on several tracks of Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178) was a little warm but uniform across its pitch range, and never slow or sluggish, and the lower-register descending portamento on "Feel No Pain" was appropriately forceful and rumbly. The electronic drums and synths on Kraftwerk's Minimum/Maximum (CD, EMI ASW 60611) had tremendous low-end slam, and its reproduction seemed effortless even at high volumes. This recording also showed off the VS.1 Reference's lightning-fast ability to render rapid transients without any sense of blunting or artificial edge. My listening note: "Chills!"
Soundstaging was one of the VS.1's greatest strengths. All vocals in Rutter's Requiem were layered holographically across and into the wide, deep stage, and it was easy to discern the acoustic of the church that had served as the recording venue. When I played one of my sonic blockbusters—Stravinsky's The Firebird, with Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony on a Mercury Living Presence LP (90226)—the VS.1 Reference spotlit an incredibly realistic bass drum, but it was the rendition of the soundstage that dropped my jaw. My notes: "The stage! The stage!! Hall sound, room ambience, wall reflections, depth, width, specificity, and the speakers disappear."
The Stravinsky also revealed the VS.1's schizophrenic personality when it came to rendering wide dynamic swings. With such bombastic, highly modulated orchestral works, dynamics were respectable but not very impressive at either extreme; the range seemed to be from pp to ff. However, with well-recorded chamber recordings that feature loud blasts from a few instruments and considerable use of silence—such as Crumb's Quest or Tomiko Kohjiba's The Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2)—the dynamics bloomed and were staggeringly realistic, linear, and wide, from the faintest ppp subtleties to the forte-fortissimos.
That Kohjiba recording put in perspective all of the VS.1 Reference's key attributes. Carol Wincenc's flute was very natural, even though its upper partials were slightly truncated, and the cellos sawed and growled with a delicate blend of wood, rosin, and silk. I could easily hear the inner detail from individual instruments, and the timpani sounded realistic if a bit warm. Triangle partials were there but muted.
The VS.1's moving-magnet phono stage proved to be no cheap add-on, but cut from the same sonic cloth as the rest of the amplification stage. John Coltrane's tenor sax on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (LP, Columbia/Classic CS 8163) was breathy, woody, vibrant, and rich, and Bill Evans' piano solos were appropriately tinkly, airy, and delicate.
Rollin', rollin', rollin'...
I spent a good bit of time comparing the VS.1 Mk.III's performance with its stock Chinese tubes and with NOS Siemens tubes, which Larry Staples had stressed would significantly improve its performance. There was indeed an improvement with the NOS tubes, though a much subtler one than I'd expected. The character of the VS.1's sound didn't change, but there was a little more openness and delicacy in the highs. I replayed the aforementioned recordings of female vocal and noticed that sibilants were delicate and more extended in frequency. I noticed a similar effect on percussion; Ginger Baker's "cymbows" (a Cockney percussion instrument), from his trio's Going Back Home (CD, Atlantic 82652-2), were more detailed, realistic, and less opaque. In short, tube rollers should notice an improvement with NOS Siemens tubes, but I don't feel it's necessary to replace the stock Chinese tubes in order to achieve the essential benefits of the VS.1 Mk.III.
I compared the DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk.III ($3195) with my reference affordable integrated amplifier, the Creek 5350SE ($1500), and my combination of Audio Valve Eklipse preamplifier and Audio Research VT100 Mk.II power amp (about $8600 for the pair, not including interconnects, based on when the ARC was last offered). All three amps drove my Monitor Audio Silver RS6 speakers.
The Creek 5350SE had more extended high frequencies and better sibilant articulation than the VS.1 Reference Mk.III, its midrange was more delicate and neutral though not as rich or holographic, and its textural presentation was a bit drier. The Creek's midrange detail was as good as the DK's, but its low-level dynamic articulation was superior. Bass was tighter and much more forceful through the Creek, with superior high-level dynamics and more "kick."
The combo of Audio Valve Eklipse and ARC VT100 Mk.II had a tight, round bass presentation that was not as warm as the DK's bass. The Eklipse-VT100 also exhibited more detail and midrange ambience, and was as rich and holographic as the DK. High frequencies were more extended than through the DK, but with no trace of hardness. Transients were fast, but an order of magnitude more delicate and sophisticated. The Eklipse-and-VT100's high-level dynamics were equal to the Creek's but superior to the DK's, and their inner detailing and low-level dynamic articulation were superior to both.
The DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk.III integrated amplifier is not perfect, but it has many strengths and few shortcomings. Most important, it is an extraordinary value at $3195—a thoughtfully designed and well-constructed blend of tube and solid-state electronics (with a phono stage) that can deliver a lot of power to a wide range of speaker loads.
Let's say you've set your eye on a full-range speaker in the $5000–$10,000/pair range, and your heart on a tube preamp and high-power solid-state amp that can take full advantage of those speakers' capabilities. You figure that, including interconnects, the preamp and amp will set you back anywhere from $6000 to $8000, which you can't quite swing right now. Well, the DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk.III might be the way you can afford those speakers sooner than you thought. Later on, you can always trade in the DK for those more expensive separates you originally considered. But you might just conclude that you no longer want—or need—to make that "upgrade."