DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk.III integrated amplifier

Each time I attend Stereophile's annual Home Entertainment Show, I look forward to two things. The first is the opportunity to perform classic and original jazz music with John Atkinson and Immedia's Allen Perkins. The second is to seek out the most exciting new, affordable speakers to review over the following year. Both buttons were pressed for me quite admirably during HE2005 at the New York Hilton, but this time it was not an affordable speaker that most impressed me.

I entered the DK Designs room, where a very rugged and sexy-looking amplifier was making remarkable sound driving a pair of large Von Schweikert speakers. When I inquired about the amplifier's provenance, DK Designs explained to me that it had been designed in the US and manufactured in China. They also told me that I was not just listening to a power amplifier. The DK Designs Reference was actually a hybrid integrated amp with a tube line stage and a 150Wpc solid-state power-amp section. It also included a solid-state moving-magnet phono stage, isolated from the rest of the amp's circuitry and accessible via jumper clips or an additional pair of interconnects. The VS.1 Reference also had a full-function remote control.

DK Designs' then-owner, Daniel Khesin, asked me to guess the price. From the construction quality, features, and power rating—not to mention the quality of the sound—I figured I was listening to an amplifier that would retail somewhere between $5000 and $7000. When I heard that the price was $2995, I insisted on getting a review sample right away.

Well, it took me a while to get that sample. A month or so after HE2005, in July, founder Daniel Khesin sold DK Designs to the LSA Group, a speaker company founded by designer Larry Staples, formerly director of sales for Thiel Audio. Khesin wanted to focus his time on his other investments, and Staples had been very impressed with DK's amplifiers, having used them in the design of his own speakers.

The Mk.III version of the VS.1 Reference—which now costs $3195—features several upgrades from the Mk.II I heard at HE2005. The two most significant changes are parts upgrades, most notably the replacing of inexpensive electrolytics with Cardas coupling capacitors intended to pass AC and shunt DC between the amp and preamp stages, and higher-quality speaker binding posts. There is also the addition of a Sub Out output, which permits passthrough to a powered subwoofer.

The large, sleek, visually stunning VS.1 Reference Mk.III features a tube line stage with 6922 triodes and partially dual-mono amplifier circuitry with Solen output devices. DK claims that the amp's low output impedance facilitates power delivery and dynamic performance. The integrated has one balanced line input, three single-ended line inputs, and one phono input.

The VS.1 Reference is rated at 150Wpc into 8 ohms and 300Wpc into 4 ohms. DK Designs claims it can produce an undistorted 800W into 1.3 ohms. We'll see what JA's test-bench measurements have to say about that.

The VS.1 Reference's construction and parts qualities, ruggedness, and attention to detail, both inside and out, remind me more of products from Krell and Audio Research than of other lower-priced designs I've seen from China. The remote control is particularly user friendly. I have little patience for remotes that don't function unless they're held in precisely the horizontal plane of and pointed directly at the component. But while fumbling to remove the VS.1's remote from its plastic bag, I accidentally pressed a button that turned the amplifier on, despite the fact that I was 15' away from the amplifier and at a 60° angle to its face.

The VS.1 has a few ergonomic quirks that could be improved on. The elaborate heatsinks are nearly sharp as knives, and the lack of handles made removing this 77-lb amp from its box very tricky, even with a helper. Nor does the amplifier's face reveal much; the first few times I used it, I wasn't sure if I was in Operate or Mute mode.

LSA Group head Larry Staples informed me that the VS.1's sound can be improved if the stock Chinese tubes are replaced with new old stock (NOS) Siemens tubes. (The Mk.II version that had impressed me at HE2005 had NOS Siemens tubes.) I tried both types; see "Rollin', rollin', rollin'," below.

My reference loudspeakers for this review were the Acarian Systems Alón Circe ($12,000/pair when reviewed) and the Monitor Audio Silver RS6 ($999/pair; see review in the March 2006 Stereophile).

Larry Staples reminisced to me about his time as an audio retailer many years ago, when he loved to encourage customers to pair Conrad-Johnson tube preamps with solid-state Eagle 2 amplifiers, designed by John Iverson. [No relation to Stereophile's esteemed Web Monkey—Ed. ] He liked the idea of giving customers "tube delicacy coupled with solid-state slam and control, the best of both," in a relatively inexpensive package. Being the former owner of a C-J tube preamp who reviewed an Eagle amp early in my writing career, I understand where Staples is coming from. He feels his VS.1 Reference Mk.III also achieves those objectives.

The midrange qualities of the VS.1 Mk.III indicated that the integrated amp possessed some of the hallmark attributes of a high-quality tube preamp. Every vocal recording I tried with the VS.1 was silky, rich, uncolored, and captivating. My notes from listening to the opening track of Brian Wilson's Smile (CD, Nonesuch 79846-2), as well as all tracks from Suzzy and Maggie Roche's Why the Long Face? (CD, Red House RHR CD 719), read the same: "angelic holographic blended harmonies." Male vocals were equally enticing. Mighty Sam McClain's warm, guttural growl on Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC JVCXR 0012-3) was silky and organic.

DK Designs/LSA Group
10111 Production Court
Louisville, KY 40299
(888) 671-8607