VAC Renaissance Signature Mk.II preamplifier Page 3

Midway through the Saint-Saëns Bacchanale is a delicate exchange between the woodwinds and French horn. With the VAC, it wasn't simply point/counterpoint, but more like a tennis match, the lines bouncing back and forth between the instruments, their location and interaction with the surrounding space and hall boundaries transcribing an arc through the air above the orchestra. This particular passage was especially captivating because the span so beautifully described was truly three-dimensional, traveling not only laterally but also front to back and vertically, describing the relative heights of the instruments as well as their positions on the stage.

The VAC did an excellent job of soundstage reproduction as well, though no better than most top-quality preamps I've used. Similarly, the VAC was tonally neutral from the upper bass through the lower treble, but not uniquely so. In fact, I've heard gear—the Audio Research Reference 2 preamp and the Sonic Frontiers Power Three amps, for examples—that sounded more neutral than the VAC. In comparison, the VAC sounded slightly soft at the frequency extremes. This was partially due to slightly attenuated dynamic contrasts, which I'll discuss in a bit, but the VAC did sound slightly rolled-off, particularly at the very top. The piccolos in "Dance of the Moorish Slaves," from Verdi's Aida (Ballet Music from the Opera), or the triangles in Bacchanale, were gorgeously detailed and had a beautiful, complex ring, but didn't seem to cut through the air as crisply and cleanly as they should have. Nor did they have the sharp initial transient, or the endless waves of higher and higher overtones emanating outward from their center.

On the bottom end, the VAC's extension was good, with sufficient weight, and double basses, timpani, and bass drums were rich in tonal color and beautifully detailed. But the dynamic contrasts just weren't as large or as sharp as they were from the upper bass through the lower treble. For example, the initial transient of a bass drum, the whooompf, didn't start as sharply or traverse as great a dynamic range as it does in real life—or as it does with some other top-drawer preamps.

One aspect of the VAC's sound that left me scratching my head was its speed, or lack thereof. On one hand, the Signature handled everything I threw at it with agility and aplomb. "Dance of the Moorish Slaves" is a raucous cacophony of sounds, chock-full of fast transients, and the VAC handled it beautifully. And, as I've mentioned above, the scale of the VAC's dynamic contrasts is at least a match for other preamps, except perhaps at the frequency extremes. On the other hand, the Signature just didn't sound as fast as some other preamps I've heard. It left me wondering whether the VAC was softening transients slightly, perhaps due to its use of transformer coupling—or whether the Signature's additional low-level detail and tonal richness were just contributing a greater continuity, and other components might be leaving things just a touch rough around the edges, and thus sounding faster and more abrupt.

One last component of the VAC's sound, and perhaps a reason that some other units can sound more neutral, was its texture. To say that the Signature had a "liquid" texture is too gross. To even compare it to a desert—er, California—afternoon with just a touch of humidity is still overstating it. Think of a cold, crisp mountain dawn. When you've got a handle on that, fast forward to about 11am, when things are just starting to warm up. It's still as crystal-clear as it was at sunup, but everything seems just a bit softer. That's the VAC—just the faintest sort of softening or sweetening.

All of the reference recordings cited here are LPs. Although I had excellent CD players to use, I never found a combination of player and cable that matched the performance I got from the VAC with vinyl, or that revealed the Signature's true glories. This isn't a criticism of its line stage, for it was part of the circuit for vinyl playback as well. If anything, it points out how finely tuned a system must be to really appreciate a component like the VAC, and how carefully associated components must be selected. The choice of interconnect between the VAC and my VTL Ichiban power amps, for example, made a night-and-day difference in the system's sound. Neither the AudioQuest Anaconda nor the Nordost Valhalla—both superb cables—worked at all for that connection, the former sounding slightly opaque, the latter quite forward and two-dimensional. It was only when I installed the Nirvana SX-Ltd. interconnects that the VAC truly sang. Kinda scary, but without the right supporting cast, the Signature was "just another great preamp."

With the "right supporting cast," the VAC Renaissance Signature Mk.II is the best preamp I've auditioned. Its resolution of low-level spatial, temporal, and timbral detail, and its uncanny coherence across the realms of space, frequency, and loudness, put it in a class by itself. These strengths made listening to a musical performance through the Signature a more moving experience for me, and one step closer to the real thing.

The Signature was not entirely transparent, however. It contributed to the sound a softening and sweetening, however slight, that I heard throughout the frequency spectrum but most clearly at the extremes.

At $17,000, the Renaissance Signature is expensive, and mercilessly revealing of shortcomings in surrounding components and cables, almost to the point of undue sensitivity. It must be paired with the very best sources and cables to truly shine, and will be appreciated only if followed by truly superb amplification and speakers. All in all, it's not a prospect for the faint of checkbook.

But if the most realistic, most engaging, most mesmerizing re-creation of a musical event is your goal, the VAC Renaissance Signature Mk.II demands an audition. The Signature proved to be one of my "audio epiphanies"—a point where my system moved to a new plane that redefined the intensity of my connection to the music. Unfortunately, such experiences also tend to redefine my expectations of what an audio system—and, ultimately, my checking account—should be able to do. Trish and I are closing on our dream house at the time of writing, and contemplating being house-poor for the next, oh, 20 or 30 years, so this isn't a particularly good time to be contemplating $17,000 preamps.

But where there's a will, there's a way, right? Definitely, very highly recommended.

1731 Northgate Boulevard
Sarasota, FL 34234
(941) 359-2066