VAC Avatar integrated amplifier Page 2

Taken as a whole, the Avatar threw a deep, detailed soundstage. On La Rondinella's Songs of the Sephardim: Traditional Music of the Spanish Jews (Dorian Discovery DIS-80105), the warm, balanced, natural manner in which the Avatar portrayed singer Alice Kosloski's golden alto sent shivers down my spine: there was a roundness to her voice, all aglow in the reverb trails of an acoustic space, floating suspended above the sparkling cushion of Howard Bass's classical guitar on the right, yet vividly depicted in a rock-stable manner a touch forward and left of center, clear and uncolored.

The Avatar's timbral accuracy and holographic qualities were nicely illustrated on the The Glenn Gould Edition recording of the pianist's solo treatment of Beethoven's Eroica Variations (Sony Classical SM2K 52646). The Avatar's resolution was such that I could easily hear, despite the fine editing, the transition on Variation XI from a 1967 session to a 1970 session, when the recording was finally completed. The three-dimensional depiction of the piano was precise and involving: seemingly a south-north front view in which you hear the indirect reflections off the soundboard, with the bass register of the instrument aligned easterly at an angle behind the right speaker. The Avatar handled the transients with aplomb, and sorted out nuances of Gould's touch, attack, and dynamic phrasing as effortlessly as it handled vocals.

Likewise, on the DVD version of Nature's Realm (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-66-DVD), the Avatar demonstrated beautiful layering and transparency in portraying the complex left-right equipoise of strings, brass, and percussion on the Philadelphia Orchestra's reading of Liszt's Les Préludes. Room cues were rendered in a fairly dry, open acoustic space and with a gloriously pure, open midrange, while shifts from pianissimo to forte were handled with speed and gripping bass extension (dig the timpani strokes).

Which should be a good sign to all rhythm'n'pacing pilgrims that the Avatar is not just some classical-lover's dream—this baby rocks. On the title cut of Andy Summers' Green Chimneys (RCA Victor 63472-2), a larger-than-life jazz recording with fusion and rock production values, the Avatar afforded a level of focus and precision to Dave Carpenter's elephantine bass lines that would make lesser amps quiver with fear. While preserving all that weight and projection, the Avatar nevertheless kept it from obtruding on the acoustic space delineating Summer's airborne stereo guitar and Peter Erskine's meticulously detailed cymbals, snare, and kick (recorded from the drummer's perspective and sandwiching the guitar between the two rhythm instruments). Each instrument's image on the soundstage was emphatically rendered, with electrifying punch—yet with a spaciousness and detailing that allowed me to experience inner textures and suggestions of venue as if it were an acoustic recording.

The phono section of the Avatar was simply superb, precisely mirroring the performance qualities and tonal signature of the amp's digital performance. Listening to the title tune of Jack DeJohnette's out-of-print 1977 masterpiece, New Rags (ECM 1103), the Avatar's phono section (in tandem with a Rega Planar 3 and a Grado Reference Standard) captured all the visceral dynamics of DeJohnette's drums and Mike Richmond's upright bass with the kind of dimensionality and vivid imaging—particularly in depicting the broad stereo sweep of the drum kit—that remains the main attraction of good analog.

In many ways, the VAC Avatar was the most satisfying all-around performer of all the fine vacuum-tube designs I've evaluated—the Rolls-Royce of integrated amps. The Avatar possessed, to varying degrees and all in one package, many of the best qualities I associate with those amps—the speed, pacing, high-frequency detail and sparkle of the Manley Stingray; the slam, tonal opulence, and flexibility of the Mesa Tigris; the deep soundstaging and eloquent midrange detail of the EAR V20—but with levels of power and control that put it at the head of the class. The Avatar drove the living piss out of my full-range Celestion A3s, providing all the volume I'd ever need—and for me, that's an earful—without any discernible strain or loss of detail. It also filled up the two-way Joseph RM7 Signatures quite nicely, and this with 27W in triode and 60W in ultralinear.

The Avatar was sublimely musical, drawing me deep into the aural experience as only tubes can, but without imposing an overly subjective viewpoint on the proceedings. It articulated, fleshed out, and revealed inner detail in a manner that was never cold or analytical; and its depiction of the critical midrange frequencies was vivid and stirring, luscious and involving, but not especially colored in the manner associated with some tube designs, which, like cornstarch, add a bloomy thickening agent to the sound.

This is not to suggest that the Avatar lacks a sonic signature. Run in ultralinear (my primary audition mode), this integrated had a palpable tonal brilliance that will make it more attractive to some users than to others. Switching to triode mode enabled me to back off on the highs and emphasize a different quality of midrange resolution that was sweeter, and more airy and detailed in the traditional sense, yet still had considerable bite in the highs, presence in the mids, and solidity down low. It's the age-old tradeoff between the forward soundstaging, dynamic range, and visceral impact of ultralinear and pentode operation, vs the warmth, transparency, and laid-back dimensionality of triode. However, like the Mesa Tigris, the Avatar offered real-world flexibility in system-matching. You can build an evolving system around this integrated: more power for larger full-range speakers, or a slightly mellower tone and more spacious soundstaging for certain super-efficient, analytical speakers.

Those who have any preconceptions about the sound of an EL34-equipped power section might be in for a surprise—in my system, the VAC Avatar did not acquiesce to traditional notions of "lush" and "creamy"—this is a singular, post-modern design with a sonic signature all its own. And with a first-rate phono stage whose performance reflects the amp's brilliantly detailed sound—and which would doubtless cost roughly $1000 if purchased separately—the Avatar exudes value, versatility, and class.

Still, given the level of satisfaction that lovers of tubes and vinyl would derive from the Avatar, I found it odd that VAC has placed such a premium on integration into a five-channel home-theater setup. For those who want the va-va-voom of surround sound yet crave the option of rendering their two-channel source material with tubes, the Avatar is a godsend.

But I've got to wonder if this is the true portrait of the Avatar's target audience. I'd rather render unto Caesar concerning a dedicated surround rig, and take my two-channel straight up with a twist, thanks. A preamp out would be a far more appealing feature to me, should I wish to match a subwoofer to a pair of super-coherent two-way stand speakers. And as with the Mesa Tigris, some sort of front-panel headphone amp tap that doesn't interrupt or degrade the signal would be nice.

Those quibbles aside, the VAC Avatar is a supple, supremely assured performer that wants for nothing when it comes to two-channel performance. With its silky low-level resolution, quiet operation, adequate reserves of power, and balanced musical presentation, the Avatar is a splendid centerpiece for an evolving high-resolution system, and seems to me a terrific value at $3590. I strongly advise those in the market for quality separates (including a phono preamp) to give this sophisticated performer an audition first. There's a good chance you'll be as taken with the Avatar's sonic pedigree as I was, and the money you'll save on an extra set or two of high-resolution interconnects and power cords could conceivably go toward upgrading your digital front-end, trading up to better speakers...or laying on a lot more new music for the rainy season. And after all, isn't that where it's really at?

1911 N. East Avenue
Sarasota, FL 34234
(941) 952-9695