VAC PA80/80 power amplifier Page 2

As noted above, the 80/80 comes outfitted with KT88s, which is how I auditioned it—mostly. VAC also sent along a quartet of the new Golden Dragon KT90s. I tried 'em and liked 'em—mostly. Extended listening revealed the KT90s to lack the expressive subtlety of the KT88s, not to mention the gloriously open sense of air manifested by the older tube. The '88s are definitely the way to go, an opinion shared by designer Kevin Hayes. "I've gone back and forth on the subject of the KT88 vs the KT90—much as the KT90 itself has progressed. When I first heard them, I preferred the KT90, but the more I listen, the more I prefer the KT88. The '90 has an absolutely solid control of dynamics and a punchy upper bass, or midbass, area. It is almost aggressive in the lower ranges. But over time you hear that the tube lacks subtlety, lacks air, and lacks a natural sense of depth perspective."

Emotional baggage
The PA80/80 saw a lot of action in my system over a period of 14 months. While it wasn't the only amplifier I used, I relied upon it heavily, frequently running it as much as 18 hours a day. During that time, I used it to drive the Metaphor 2s, WATT/Puppy 5s, Ruark Templars, Coincident Troubadors, Alón Petites, and JMLab Daline 6.1s—all of which it drives with éclat. Preamplifiers employed included C-J's EV20 Mk.II, ARC's SP-9 and LS-7, and LAMM's Model L1. At the digital front-end were Theta's Data Basic II/DSPro Basic III, ARC's CD-1, and McCormack's SST-1/DAC. The Linn LP12 fitted with either an Ittok or Naim's ARO or, alternatively, the Well-Tempered Reference—all sporting a Sumiko SHO—took care of analog duties. The ARC PH-3, Creek OBH-1, and Gold Aero dB45 phono sections were used as needed. Many different cables saw service—principally Kimber KCAG, Transparent Music Wave Reference and Music Wave Ultra, MIT 850 TubeTerminator, and 330 CVTerminator. During the spells when I didn't use the PA80/80, I used the Pass Aleph 0 and C-J Premier Eleven A for comparison.

Music is first motion, then emotion
Let me cut to the chase: the PA80/80 has tube magic in spades! It's warm, dimensional, dynamic, and very, very beguiling. Some of these are qualities that certain audiophiles mistrust as byproducts of various distortions. I pity them. I, myself, don't possess that little audio-Calvinist inside screaming, "It's a sin if you enjoy it!" Therefore, I can revel, glory, and wallow in emotional excess—and, with the 80/80, I do so unreservedly.

That's not to say, however, that the VAC possesses that old gloriously-colored-and-proud-of-it tube sound—or at least, not too much of it. I wouldn't use terms like "caramel" or "golden" to describe its character. On the contrary, it's open on top and has emphatic, well-controlled bass, neither of which describe "classic" tube sound. Another contrast with the classic designs is the 80/80's dead silence. Even the 91dB-sensitive WATT/Puppy 5s remained quiet, exhibiting no tube roar whatsoever.

Yet there's no mistaking the VAC for a solid-state product: it has that tube "glow"—and you can debate until the cows come home whether it's a coloration or a higher form of accuracy. My friend Ruben could spot it so consistently that he would enter my foyer and state, "You're listening to the VAC again!" Then he'd sit down, tell me to be quiet, and listen intently until the disc ended.

One of my favorite discs these last few years—and certainly one of the most emotionally (nearly) overwrought—is Leonard Bernstein's Mahler 3 with the NYPO (DG 427 328-2). Mahler referred to the Third Symphony as his "monster," and I'm not sure he was kidding. It's huge—the first movement alone is longer than Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—and it calls for an immense orchestra, a contralto soloist, a women's chorus, and a boys' choir. Emotionally, it ranges from moments of tender, yearning melodicism to a series of increasingly thunderous—but never vulgar—climaxes.

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