Valve Amplification Company Signature SE preamplifier Page 2

3) Detailed, revealing, extended, uncolored reproduction of high frequencies with no loss of delicacy.

The Signature SE was the holy grail of high-frequency reproduction. Every region of the highs was detailed, undistorted, uncolored, and delicate. Normally, when I play a recording through a component with good HF reproduction, at some point, the music hits a frequency where the highs lose some of their delicacy or airiness, or take on a subtle brittleness. Not with the VAC. From the lower highs through the top of the audioband, the highs were detailed, extended, and "right," every bit of delicacy and air intact. I'm not used to hearing this type of realistic reproduction from an audio component. I'm used to hearing it from a violinist sitting 10' away.

One recording I like to use to test the reproduction of transients is "This Way Out," from John Zorn's Music for Children (CD, Tzadik TZ 7321). This brief, high-tempo jazz-rock piece changes genre every few seconds, much like Carl Stallings's scores for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, and there are plenty of opportunities for audio components to smear these crazy transients. The VAC didn't. Transitions from one breakneck passage to the next passed with the precision of a samurai's sword. I enjoyed even more the title track, a chamber work. The piano part is written with a lot of space, and pianist Julie Steinberg spends time covering the entire range of her instrument. In a couple of segments she plays very dynamically at the extremes of her instrument; with the Signature SE, I was struck by how the dynamic attack, the timbral envelope, and the decays of the notes sounded more like a real grand piano than I'd ever heard with this recording.

George Crumb's Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), scored for two amplified pianos and two percussionists, is my favorite chamber recording (LP, Nonesuch H-71311; CD, Nonesuch 79149). I've played it more than a hundred times, and have never gotten tired of it or the stunning recording quality, which is very revealing of audio components. I listened to the last two movements through the VAC and was transfixed by how the preamp revealed clearly different dynamic envelopes for each of the percussive passages. Instruments with significant top-octave energy—mallet percussion, bowed cymbals, bell tree, the pianos—shimmered, every subtle detailed revealed without smearing. The decay of all notes, and the way the VAC picked up the sound of the recording venue, were stunning. The emotive crescendos of the final movement so reminded me of the live performance of this work by the same musicians of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, at New York's Symphony Space in 1979, that by the end of the movement I was in tears.

You always remember your first Shaded Dog. In the early 1960s, my father opened his first business, an appliance store, and RCA was one of the brands he carried. RCA sent him many copies of their Living Stereo classical recordings, to show off the newly arrived RCA "combinations": TV, radio, and stereo phonograph, all in one beautiful console! My father brought many of them home for me. At an early age, I was smitten by Jascha Heifetz's recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Walter Hendl conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2435, footnote 1). I love Heifetz's aggressively virtuosic interpretation of the opening melodic statements, which give his violin a workout throughout its range. I've never heard a recorded violin sound more natural through my system than Heifetz's did through the Signature SE. The bite, the rosin on the bow, the shimmering air of Chicago's Symphony Hall—all were clearly delineated.

In fact, I found the Signature SE an ideal match for well-recorded orchestral music. With such complex works as Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, with Fritz Reiner leading the CSO (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-1944), it was easy to follow each line in the work's densest passages. Piano concertos, too, were engaging—with Earl Wild's recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2367), and Byron Janis's of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3, with Antal Doráti conducing the London Symphony (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR 90283), it was very easy to analyze each pianist's unique phrasing as the piano floated on its own bed of air, with no interference from the sound of the orchestra. String concertos, too, impressed. When I listened to János Starker's recording of the Dvorák Cello Concerto with Doráti/LSO (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR-90303), his cello was a holographic, vibrating, organic entity. Finally, the Signature SE's great sense of rhythmic pacing gave sprightly upbeat works, such as Malcolm Arnold's English, Scottish & Cornish Dances, with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic (LP, Lyrita SRCS 109), a lively, engaging feel.

The VAC was also impressive with vocal works. In three excerpts from Berg's Wozzeck, again with Doráti, Helga Pilarczyk's soprano floated on a bed of air over the LSO, and it was easy to follow each line in the orchestral accompaniment (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR 90278). And with Elgar's Coronation Ode—with Philip Ledger, the Cambridge University Music Society Chorus of King's College Cambridge, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Band of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall (LP, EMI ASD 3345)—it was very easy to follow individual choral lines.

I also enjoyed pop vocal recordings with the Signature SE preamplifier. On Richard Buckner's Bloomed (CD, Merge 50355), his voice was rich and supple over the backdrop of his pristine, shimmering flattop acoustic guitar. And it was very easy to analyze Lucinda Williams's unique phrasing in "Right in Time," from her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (CD, Mercury 314 558 338-2). I dug out Dusty Springfield's performance of "The Look of Love," from the Casino Royale soundtrack (LP, Colgems COSO-5005). As I'd expected, Springfield's voice was rich, sulky, and supple, but the engineering turned me off a bit. It was so obvious through the VAC that she'd been recorded in an isolation booth that she seemed detached from the instruments; it took away from the realism of the performance.

To test the Signature SE's bass performance, I fired up "Aurora," from Jon Hassell's Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (CD, ECM 2077). The opening bass riff shook the room with no trace of overhang, coloration, or compression. The VAC was also adept at delineating differences in sound quality among recordings, as well as letting me analyze the engineering of individual mixes. One of the two "Records to Die For" I wrote about in the February 2015 issue was Acoustic Sounds' remastering of Reiner/CSO's recording of Mussorgsky-Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibitio, (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2201)—but that was before I played it through the Signature SE. The VAC revealed this recording to have even wider dynamic contrasts than I'd thought. Moreover, the violin string tone was the most natural I'd heard from any reissue of an RCA Living Stereo recording.

In one of my listening sessions with Chris Jones, the composer and bassist for my jazz quartet, Attention Screen, we listened to a 16-bit/44.1kHz CD burn of the master file of his latest solo fusion release. Chris had never heard his music through so revealing a system. He found it ridiculously easy to analyze each recording technique he'd used in these tracks, and every special effect he'd devised to achieve a bit of drama. Chris was amazed at how the VAC revealed the brand and model of recording and processing gear he'd used for each section.

I had on hand no preamps in the Signature SE's price range for a direct comparison, but I did have my reference Audio Valve Eklipse line stage ($5799), as well as the Audio Research SP20 preamp ($9000), which I reviewed in the June 2014 issue. The Audio Valve was just as delicate and as involving as the VAC, but it revealed less decay and ambience, transients weren't as crisp, and highs weren't as pure or as intimate. Although the Eklipse's bass performance was superb, I felt the Signature SE went slightly deeper. Also, the midrange through the Audio Valve was more forward; the VAC produced more of a mid-hall perspective.

The Audio Research SP20's midbass wasn't as tight as the VAC's, but the ARC's resolution of low-level detail, especially in the midrange, was closer to the Signature SE's than to the Eklipse's. The SP20's highs were extended, but not as pure as the VAC's. The ARC's low-level dynamic capabilities were excellent—very close to the VAC's—but the latter's high-level dynamics were superior, especially in the mid- and lower bass.

The Valve Amplification Company's Signature SE preamplifier is the most significant audio product I've ever hooked up to my reference system. It was flawless. Overall, based on my aural memory, it exceeded the performance of every other preamp I've heard in my house. And for the first time in more than 25 years of audio reviewing, I was hearing a component that caused me to enjoy my own reference system less when I reinstalled my regular preamplifier. That's one problem I don't face when I review entry-level bookshelf speakers!

If I could afford the Signature SE, I'd buy it. But that would mean convincing my wife to keep working another year before retiring. It would not go over well. Still, the day I removed the Signature SE from my system, to send it on to John Atkinson to be measured, my wife came home from work, looked at the rearranged components on my rack, and said, "What? The preamp's gone?"

Damn. I wonder what VAC's Statement line stage sounds like. . .

[Sadly, this is Bob Reina's last review.—Ed.].

Footnote 1: To honor my friend and mentor, the late Harry Pearson—all vinyl used in this review was taken from his list of Super Discs.
Valve Amplification Company
1911 North East Avenue
Sarasota, FL 34234
(941) 952-9695

Allen Fant's picture

Where is RR going?

John Atkinson's picture
Bob Reina died at the end of March. See This was the last review he wrote.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

TNtransplant's picture

Hi John - maybe this has been litigated in the past, but this one is fresh in my mind after seeing Kevin Hayes reply in the latest print issue.

Personally feel that Manufacturer comments should be appended to the online versions of reviews, especially if the reply is more substantive than a general 'thank you' and makes a valid point about the review itself.

I realize this may take extra effort, and perhaps providing comments and follow-ups might not be feasible for archival postings, but in my mind would certainly represent journalistic best practice.

John Atkinson's picture
TNtransplant wrote:
Personally feel that Manufacturer comments should be appended to the online versions of reviews...

It's now included in this Web reprint of the VAC review.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

TNtransplant's picture

I have no connection whatsoever to VAC but had read the review as well as comment and felt appropriate.

I'm in the midst of considering some upgrades to my system and in re-reading back issue reviews have realized that many of the most informative are from Robert Reina. His voice will be missed.

volvic's picture

Read this review several times knowing it was RR's last. In fact went back to past issues to re-read his older reviews. So long Robert J. Reina your Stereophile subscribers and Hi-Fi community miss you.

brian_pdx's picture

1) You mention the "pass through" for video on the VAC. How exactly would that be hooked up? If you wanted could you hook up HDMI connectors and if so how? For those of us who would like a 2 channel system in a place where video would be handy even if it isn't surround sound. 2) Speakers, as you know better than I, perform differently with different preamp/amp combinations. The difference is even more with tubes vs. transistors. Or so they say. Some "experts" say you should not use electrostats or planars with tubed equipment. True or not true? I now this is a challenge but recommending types of speakers rather than brands or models you would use with these reviewed products would be helpful to your readers. Thank you.

BruceH's picture

The level of after sales service from VAC is abysmal, I have been trying for months to get information from VAC regarding a replacement transformer for my VAC Auricle Pre. I have tried contacting them directly and through the local import agent and in all cases I have been totally ignored.
Too many boutique manufacturers fail to deliver on after sales service - if you sell a Rolls Royce product then you should have Rolls Royce service, unfortunately VAC deliver No Service which makes my VAC Auricle pre just a piece of land fill

VAC's picture

Dear Bruce:

Ironically, this message was called to our attention just one day after your parts were dispatched via FedEx. We strive to provide excellent service for our products, and to answer within 24 working hours the several hundred e-mails we receive daily. In reviewing the communication trail with you, we see several times where replies were sent but which did not seem to get through to you, as sometimes happens due to spam filters and so forth. Communications with our importer in New Zealand worked more smoothly, and we are grateful for his assistance.

The VAC Auricle, the last of which was produced around 11 years ago (yours was exported to Australia in 2005), was our entry level preamplifier, priced under $2,500 US, and a delightful component, well worth repairing and using for decades to come. Yours is the only known case of a failed power transformer, as you have diagnosed it, and that part was not available. To serve you rather than abandon you, it was necessary to fabricate a new transformer assembly (two transformers, mu metal shielding can, etc.), and regrettably that took some time. These were dispatched via FedEx on 25 March, along with a few other parts that we think should be replaced as a preventative measure to ensure that you do not experience further problems.

We apologize for the time this took to achieve, the evident glitches in e-mails, and the frustration you have felt. There are more than 10,000 VAC manufactured audio components in the world, and we actively support them all, with the sole exception of the 23.1 CD transport of 1994 due to the unavailability of the laser assembly. Hopefully you will not require service again, but, if you do, will we do our best to improve on this experience.

Best regards,
Kevin Hayes, President, VAC