VAC Renaissance Signature Mk.II preamplifier Page 2
The Signature's lower chassis, which houses completely separate power supplies for the line and phono stages, mirrors the main unit's shape, size, and cosmetics. Its front panel houses two large, gold-rimmed, backlit meters, which monitor the heater and main, B+, voltages. No scales or numbers are provided, but a dot at the center of the meter's range indicates the proper operating voltage. Both chassis have nifty backlit VAC logos that glow red when the unit is muted, blue during operation.
Listening: Do you believe in magic?
I've already tipped my hand that, when everything clicks, the VAC Renaissance Signature was capable of truly magical performance. But what exactly was it about this preamp that made it so captivating, and how did it measure up in all of the areas we audiophiles hold dear?
The single most impressive thing about the VAC, and the area where it stood head and shoulders above any other preamp I'd heard, was its resolution. At low levels, whether a single plaintive note fading ephemerally into the surrounding ambience or a subtle countermelody buried deep in the orchestration, the Signature retrieved more tonal, spatial, and temporal information than any other unit I've heard. With the VAC, there was never any question that an orchestral section was composed of multiple instruments, each in a distinct position and each with a characteristic tone, texture, and presence. A lot of top-quality gear reveals this level of detail in the major components of the orchestration, or in the front half of the stage, but where the VAC really stood out was in how well, at lower levels, it reproduced details of instruments buried way down in the mix or at the rear of the stage.
On record after record, subtle countermelodies I'd not even been aware of emerged distinct, detailed, and articulate. The very soft trumpet passages about two-thirds of the way through Saint-Saëns' Bacchanale, from the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra's Ballet Music from the Opera, Anatole Fistoulari conducting (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-2400), were good examples. I might have been dimly aware of their presence before, but with the VAC, the trumpets were distinct, detailed, and tangible instruments, each one richly portrayed and contributing its subtle tonal shadings and phrasings to the multiple countermelodies.
Another example was the soft oboe line shadowing Artur Rubinstein's solo piano through the early portions of his performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto 1, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-1831). As in the trumpet passages in the Bacchanale, the oboe was not only obvious, but lovingly portrayed, with complex, woody tonal colors and a level of detail that made me think I could hear every expression, every nuance of phrasing and dynamic shading.
The VAC's re-creation of nuance was equally as good—if perhaps not unique—on more prominent components of the orchestration, adding dimensionality to Rubinstein's piano on the Brahms, for example, and additional layers of subtlety to his playing. One thing that stood out was that, with the VAC, the cushion of air surrounding the piano was distinct from and clearly outlined the instrument, rather than the two merging into a single, diffuse image. The effect was to add dimensionality and solidity to the piano, and additional life and realism to the performance.
The VAC's resolution was similarly excellent, though not unusually so, at the loud end of the spectrum. Full-bore orchestral crescendos were appropriately enveloping and overwhelming in their weight and power, without ever losing focus or becoming confused. Midway through the first movement of the Reiner/Chicago reading of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-1934) the trumpets explode in full-tilt crescendos. Through it all, they retained their unique identities and brassy bite without ever getting overbearing, hard, or edgy. Massed violin crescendos, no matter how intense, remained a coherent group of individual instruments, never becoming hard or steely.
The reproduction of dynamic contrasts, like the resolution of detail and tonal nuance, was another area where the VAC's performance was truly special. Most good components reproduce dynamic contrasts evenly and well across the middle range of frequency and loudness. The VAC extended that range from the upper bass to the lower treble, and from the softest pppp whispers to the loudest ffff crescendos. Those subtle, nearly buried countermelodies weren't just wonderfully detailed; their microdynamic shadings were beautifully articulated as well. Every nuance was clear, and seemed much more obvious and dramatic than with other preamps.
This combination of superb low-level dynamics and incredible resolution of detail resulted in jaw-dropping re-creations of original ambient environments. Halls—their sound, their boundaries, their space—were stunningly portrayed, and much more integrated with the instruments and their surrounding spaces than I'd ever heard before. Once I'd heard the VAC, it became apparent that, typically, only the grossest of ambient cues are reproduced, which leaves things a bit disjointed and incoherent as the level drops. With the VAC, the coherence—the weaving together of the instruments, surrounding air, and the hall itself—was much more complete and much more realistic.