VAC PA80/80 power amplifier Page 4
Toward the end of my audition, the PA80/80 failed. I was listening to a test pressing of Analogue Productions' Lay Me Down by Nancy Bryan (AAPO 2002) when things went quiet. Glancing up, I noticed that the biasing lights were extinguished. Hmmm, I thought, the preamp must have passed some DC. I'll just change the fuse. Repeated attempts to power up the amp—with tubes in place and without—just blew a handful of fuses. Notice how uneventful the failure was: it just muted and powered down—no rude noises and speaker pyrotechnics. I'm impressed. The amplifier has gone back to VAC, and we'll publish their findings next month. TJN had a different PA80/80 shipped overnight air so he could do the measurements.
Once the VAC went down, I put my longtime reference power amplifier, the Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven A, back into the system. This amplifier, which costs $700 more than the PA80/80, provided an instructive contrast to it. While retaining many of the tube virtues, the Premier Eleven A sounds even less like a classic tube product than the VAC does—it's more extended at the frequency extremes, which also gives it a tauter, leaner sound. Its deeper, slightly more controlled bass lacks the midbass punch that gives the PA80/80 much of its drive. Many will prefer the '80 for the excitement generated by that punchy propulsiveness. But the C-J has a degree of harmonic refinement that I value immensely and that the PA80/80, for all of its juicy, visceral impact, lacks.
For years, tube-lovers and solid-state fanciers have had a rich debate over the merits of their respective preferences. These days, that debate has gotten a lot more complicated, as the distinctive sounds of each have given way to a far richer diversity within each category. It would be too simplistic to say that the C-J leans toward the solid-state camp in its frequency extension, while the VAC exhibits more of that classic lush tubey sound—but there would be a kernel of truth to that reduction.
The shorthand of emotion
In the final analysis, I could surrender myself to the VAC PA80/80 and wallow in its revelation of the emotional truth of musical performance with nary a regret. It's extremely well-constructed. The 80/80 offers good value in today's market and is certainly competitive with products costing more. It recalls the glorious tube sound of the past, while offering thoroughly modern conveniences such as exceptional silence and easy-to-adjust biasing. It may not be the amplifier for everybody, but that statement applies to every amplifier I've ever heard. If you think of music as a form of emotional communication, however, this could well be the amp for you.