Pay Not To Play
I would pay good money to have Kevin Hayes, owner and designer at VAC, listen to an amplifier. If you purchase a Valve Amplification Company product you are paying Kevin to listen to your product extensively before you use it, and you should be elated. He listens to everypiece of gear which leaves VAC’s premises. Again, it is Kevin who listens, not some other worker. He is the final arbiter of sound quality on every piece of VAC gear which is sold. It is a very good thing when a knowledgeable, passionate person is at the helm of an audio company and singularly treats your component as if it is his. That kind of personal service costs more, but brings some distinct advantages to the audiophile searching for top sound.
Kevin is among the most well read, technically informed tube preamp and amp manufacturers in the entirety of the high-end two-channel world. When he was a teenager he pored endlessly over a tattered copy of the Radiotron Designer’s Handbook, and remarks that he has, “… collected and read thousands of pieces of literature on the creation, capture and reproduction of sound.” In describing this he states, “I don’t know why God gave me this passion for music and its reproduction, but it’s been part of the fabric of my being for as long as I can remember.” I can relate to that sense, as when I was in grade school I was already glomming onto a 1977 Lloyds all-in-one system (8 track, turntable and receiver), and shortly after assembled my first rig. I also have felt driven to assemble stereo systems in a search for “musical meaning” in sound reproduction. Consequently, this article brings together the deep desires of two men intensely searching for as close to musical perfection as can be achieved in an audio system. Kevin spends an inordinate amount of time listening to a piece of equipment until he deems the design worthy. I have listened to an inordinate amount of gear, looking for the perfect sound. That search for perfect sound has led me to VAC.
Transformation of An Audiophile
In younger days, while Kevin was developing into a tube amp impresario, I was not so passionate about tube amps. I came of age during the ascendancy of solid-state technology and was inevitably swept up in it. When I began to assemble stereo systems I was convinced that solid-state trumped tubes on principle. I made the same assumption as thousands of music lovers; the smaller, cheaper, newer technology had to be better. How simplistic that viewpoint was!
Lurking in my mind was a misperception that, in some respects, still plagues the populace – that anything arising from an older technology was suspect of being inferior. Perhaps you have witnessed a person who sees a tube preamp or amp declare, “Tubes! I didn’t know they still made audio equipment with tubes.” Unless a person consumes Hi Fi periodicals, visits the right dealer or internet forum, or attends a Hi Fi show, the bias is likely to remain. Tube amps still seem on the face outdated to many and are treated as suspect devices by others. I see comments on audio sites from individuals who approach tubes as though they are inherently untrustworthy, as if they degrade sonically so quickly and have such poor distortion specs that one can’t be certain of their performance. To such individuals, solid-state is nigh unto infallible. I was like that for a long time. Part of it was that I was not into DIY, and could not afford finer tube gear; part of me wanted to believe that I sacrificed nothing sonically for sticking with solid-state because on the whole it was cheaper.
Over the years I have slowly been remade as an audiophile, morphing from a staunch solid-state supporter to a tube amplifier enthusiast. With growing experience hearing tube amps in quality systems, I was forced to admit that they have as much, and in some instances more efficacy than solid-state designs. I now find that I am drawn toward tube amplification like the proverbial moth to the flame. I am increasingly using tube preamps and amps in systems by preference.
Tubes and TUBES
There are tubes, and then there are some: not all tube amps are created equally. When approaching tube amplification one must determine early on which direction will be taken, the low-power linear circuit topology such as SET (Single-Ended Triode) amps, or larger high-output power stages with push/pull topology and a battery of output tubes. There is an alluring attribute of clarity in many of the simpler, lower power amps which is difficult to match in the higher-powered designs. With economical tube amps, one usually has to make a trade off, purity for power, or vice versa. It is rare to find both in abundance.
Having used both types I have at this time concluded that I prefer to trade an extremely small amount of clarity for radically increased power. Ideally, I would never have to do this, but I found myself longing for dynamic power and weight when hearing low-power amps. They simply have a tendency to sound wussy compared to higher-powered tube amps, even when paired with extremely efficient speakers. The search for ultimate-sound low-power amps radically limits the number of speakers to be practically considered, a trade off that I am not willing to make.
Given that a system is influenced in terms of signal purity throughout the chain, I determined that I would sacrifice marginally at the amp when it came to clarity and make up the deficiency in the other components, particularly the source. I have found the ability of an amp to create robust dynamic power an aspect too important to skimp on; but the sense of clean power can be enhanced through careful selection of attending components, especially the source and cabling used with the preamp/amp combo.
Let it not be misconstrued that I am advocating any intentional lowering of standards in sound quality. When confronted with real-world limitations and budgets for gear, one simply must make choices leading to the best result. In no audio system is there an absolutely perfect route to ideal sound; there are always trade-offs. I seek to trade off the potentially most damaging shortcomings for ones which are potentially least damaging. A good example is the use of power conditioning components, which invariably involve a trade-off of absolute clarity as they extend and complicate the system. One must assess whether the influence of the conditioner is overall a positive or negative.
At this point in time I do not typically use power conditioners in systems, as I find that every one I have used has degraded the clarity of the system in an absolute sense. I am the first house in our subdivision and the power transformer sits right outside our back door. I have clean, noise-free power lines and despite trying many power devices which utilize filtering I have always ended up returning to the good ol’ plug-in-the-wall method. This does not mean power treatment is without merit, but simply that I do not benefit greatly from it. Thus, the elimination of the power conditioner improves the overall system clarity and the amplification benefits.
A very practical consideration in terms of speaker selection also necessitated this decision to settle on big amps – I enjoy huge panel speakers. These are typically difficult to drive, effectively sidelining smaller tube amps. One possible panacea may be the gain feature of the Ayon Audio CD-5, an extremely fine all-in-one player/preamp, with settings of 4, 6, and 8 Volts output. With it, one has the option of matching smaller amps with less efficient speakers. Save for that indulgence, necessity exists to have ample power to drive a 2-ohm load, and sometimes much lower, typically found in larger panel speakers.
Love Affair with Panel Sound
My first experience hearing a panel speaker was in St. Louis at a high-end shop where, shamefully, I cannot recall the name, I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the Magneplanar Tympani. I never dreamed sound could be like that! Over the years I have had the pleasure of hearing a wide variety of pleasing panels. I flipped speakers annually, if not more often, and found myself bouncing between dynamic and planar offerings. In recent years I have been migrating toward full range ESL (Electrostatic Loudspeaker) technology and have adopted the King Sound The King as my reference. Recently, I added a new version of the hybrid dynamic speaker from Legacy Audio, called the Whisper DSW. The Whisper utilizes a 4” magnetic planar midrange, so it also gravitates toward panel sound.
As my reference speakers have been upgraded over the past decade, so also has my amplification. In that process, I have expanded from the solid-state end of the amp spectrum to hybrids, to tube amps. This was quite unexpected for someone sold on the merits of solid-state. Once I learned that powerful enough tube amps existed to do the job, I thought that they were all priced into the stratosphere. Wrong. I ended up settling on the compromise position – tube hybrid amplification. My affordable favorite is the capable and beautiful pair of Pathos Classic One MkIII amps operating in mono mode.
Of late I have been on a search for a premier amplifier to drive either the DSW or the King. This is no small feat; the Whisper, though having four 15” bass drivers per channel and 95 dB sensitivity is a 4-0hm speaker and an open baffle design. Consequently, it is rated at 22 Hz – 30 kHz +/- 2 dB. It hits 20 Hz comfortably, but to extract larger subwoofer-like bass from it requires an amp with not just enough watts but also higher current. To get both of those in a tube amp usually costs much more than a solid-state amp.
On the other end of the speaker spectrum, the Kingsound King is a tough-to-drive electrostatic. It dips to approximately 1.8 Ohms at 20kHz, and though it has a more friendly nominal impedance of 6 Ohms, sensitivity is at 83 dB. These two speakers could hardly be more different from each other! It did not take long to learn that solid-state amps, while providing ample power, introduced problems in terms of sounding technical with one or the other speakers. The Pathi took me way down the road toward perfection with both speakers, but the ultimate answer was not to come until the VAC Phi 200’s showed up at my door.
Four lumps of amplification, please!
There are people who take their coffee black and strong. I take my amplification big and strong. Amplification junkies break down into two types; stereo people and biamp/mono people. I’m the latter. Usually, if you give me a speaker with two sets of binding posts the following thought takes possession of my mind immediately, “Four posts… which cable will I bi-wire with and which pair of amps am I going to use?” I have done so many comparisons of amps running stereo compared to passively bi-amped and bi-wired, or actively bi-amped that I no longer wish to assemble my reference system with just one amp. (So sad. Same here. –Ed.)
From the time that I first heard the King at CES 2008 and learned that Kevin used it in voicing the Phi 200, he suggested that I might use the amp with the speaker. Later, as I had taken ownership of the speaker, the possibility that I not follow up with a review of the Phi 200 was unthinkable! Seeing that only one unit was driving the speakers at the show, I assumed that one would be sufficient for the review. Kevin offered that two would be superior. But of course! Now that’s impressive; a manufacturer who offers a second amp to get the reviewing job done right! I had seldom encountered that level of commitment to me from a manufacturer in setting up a review system. It speaks volumes to me about how Kevin is only happy when the sound is correct. The suggestion revealed to me that Kevin is keen on obtaining the optimal sound, and had confidence that his amps would perform at an extremely high level in mono mode.
At the first California Audio Show, the King was shown with the VAC Phi 200 to much interest and approval. There was a technical issue, as only one Phi 200 drove the pair of speakers but was using the 8-ohm posts versus the anticipated 2-ohm posts. Consequently at higher listening levels the amp was pushed to its limit and did not sound as effortless as it is capable. In my listening at home, I have tested all three settings, 1-2 Ohm, 2-4 Ohm, and 4-8 Ohm, and the King was much more controlled by the Phi 200 with the lower 1-2 Ohm terminals in use. The Phi 200 is the kind of amp that one can play a speaker like the King with confidence in stereo mode and work toward a second unit to operate them in mono mode for ultimate performance.
In extended use, the Phi 200 does not run terribly hot; I was surprised at how little heat they generated. The Cambridge Audio Azur 840W, a solid-state design, throws off more heat. Only if left on half a day in a smallish room would I think that they might test the limits of the listener’s temperature-comfort tolerance.
Unveiling the Phi 200
Perhaps the term unveiling is too strong; I’m here discussing the unpacking, appearance and operation of the amp. “Dis-crating” a high-quality amp can be a bit like the dance of the seven veils, as each layer is carefully stripped away. Surprisingly, no crate was involved; custom foam pieces cradle the amp in a sturdy double box. The casing and transformer covers are nearly of military thickness, fronted by a slab-like faceplate. As a side note, custom formed foam packing pieces are quite expensive. At the time of the delivery of the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW, I was about to toss out an indistinct smaller foam piece perhaps half a meter long which was lying nearby as the transport materials were being collected. Doug Brown of Legacy Audio requested its return, “You wouldn’t believe how expensive these are!” MSRP on the piece of foam – $30. No wonder manufacturers charge hundreds of dollars for a pair of OEM boxes with foam! Take note, owner, as it can save you serious money to save the packaging.
I chortled when I saw daisy chained rubber bands holding a very low tech piece of cloth draped over the thick aluminum face plate. It certainly did the job, as each amp was immaculate. Kevin will not spare a buck to attain ideal sound, but he’s sensible when arranging packaging. He’s not hung up on glam boxes as pretty velour bags inside wooden boxes don’t get the right sound out of a machine. I’ve learned to be less impressed by such things as I work with equipment. Don’t get me wrong, as a thick covering can save a component from shipping damage. I’ve seen more than one speaker’s finish impaired due to flimsy protective transport coverings. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking, “Oooh, high grade bag! This xxxxx has got to sound great!” Some components have great bags and merely acceptable sound. The Phi 200 arrives as a ruby concealed in a paper bag.
In terms of finish, black and silver are the two standard VAC colors, but beggars can’t be choosers, so while the Signature Preamp Mk 2 that I reviewed in March 2010 is in graphite color face, the Phi 200s features metallic silver gloss front plate. No matter, VAC gear looks rich and refined with nice, complementary hues. As the Einstein “The Light In The Dark” had a low-profile chassis, so also does the narrow chassis of the Phi 200, in a powder coat matte black finish that is uninterrupted, save for the tubes and backing wall of transformers. Sitting just behind these blocks of impedance transforming windings are the main operational switches.
One needs to be careful when handling tube amps as the weight is not necessarily evenly distributed across the chassis’ expanse. Wherever the transformers are, there most of the weight will likely be. In the case of the Phi 200, one must grab the amp nearly at the rear, literally picking it up at ¾ of the way to the back of the unit to prevent it from potentially slipping from one’s grip. It is a good habit to test-lift tube amplifiers to find the balance point. You do not want to be in the middle of transporting one and finding that you chose the wrong place to grab. It’s a scary feeling to have a component turning in your hand because its mass is unevenly distributed. Go about such tasks diligently and save yourself some fear or heartache.
Also on the top of the chassis, just in front of each pair of low-level voltage amplifier/phase splitter 6SN7 tubes, are small toggle switches allowing for selection of balanced (XLR) or single-ended (RCA) inputs. Nearby are corresponding holes for the output tubes in the chassis about the diameter of a pencil. These allow access to the bias adjustment points of the amp. A supplied small biasing tool akin to a tiny screwdriver is employed for adjustment of the bias. Behind each KT88-SC kinkless tetrode output tube is a small amber LED for assessing the biasing. This was a painless process as the controls to perform the operation are within easy reach and sight. You may have heard complaints of biasing tube amps being a PITA, but with the Phi 200 it is almost effortless. Using the tool supplied one turns the adjustment until the point at which the LED lights up. Then it is turned back until the LED just turns off. This requires slight movements; no lummoxes need apply.
When first installed, one has to baby sit the amp for several bias adjustment steps after the unit is first turned on respectively for 60 seconds, 90 seconds, two minutes, five minutes, and finally after 15-30 minutes. Biasing is also required whenever a tube is changed, and approximately once per month of usage. I found the amp to hold its bias extremely well. I would check often and end up not touching the settings as I could not determine that they had changed. The manual states, “Proper setting is indicated by an LED that is dark when no music is playing, but lights ‘with the beat’ as music is played.” The owner is left to determine how “heavy” the beat is to be. I put on some music with stronger bass line to adjust the bias such that the LED is never off completely but winks almost out before being illuminated by the next beat. When listening to Rapcore or Doom Metal music the light never turned off. Just kidding; I don’t listen to these genres of music.
The connections behind the transformers include 15A IEC for power cord, twin sets of binding posts for left and right channels, each having a common/ground post and three posts for 1-2 Ohm, 2-4 Ohm, and 4-8 Ohm to select placement of the positive speaker lead.
There is an aesthetic consideration in the appearance of the Phi 200 which reveals itself when you hook it up; the inputs are behind the transformers, on the top of the chassis. My first reaction is that of appreciated sensibility; it’s far easier to see what you’re doing when setting up the amp than leaning over its side especially if the amps are in an amp stand! Officially, it was done to keep the front-to-back dimension within the space allowed by some cabinets and racks. However, it’s not so captivating to see the mongo power cord arc in the air because it’s too thick to lay flat emerging from the amp’s top mounted IEC receptacle. However, I will gladly endure this slight visual perturbation to use the Phi 200. I weep for any man who can afford this amp and whose wife kills the purchase because the power cord arises into the air. The amp is good enough that I would suggest offering new furniture as compensation. If you have stiff interconnects, they, too, will stick up in the air. If that is a problem, then consider getting longer interconnects and hiding the amps behind the speakers, a tactic which may get you noticeably improved sound.
The only other operational quirk I found was the fairly close spacing of 0.75-inch of the Cardas rhodium binding posts, the spacing provision of which is controlled allegedly by the insulation parts supplied by Cardas. Cables with oversized spades are placed too close to be casual about hooking them up. Though it didn’t always appear to be, there was enough room for spades of all cable types used. I made sure to use a binding post wrench, available from Audioquest and Cardas, to prevent possible slippage of the spades.
Even an Owner’s Manual can reflect on the nature of the designer. The Phi 200’s manual describes features and has no diagrams. It is anticipated that someone who lays out long green for a premium instrument will care enough to read what and what not to do with the amp. Hence, a thorough discussion of the operations in the manual, a walkthrough if you will, describes the experience of using the Phi 200. Starting with the safety notices on the first page, tidbits of advice assist the new owner, among them:
Avoid power conditioners that float the ground pin.
A 12V trigger cable can be used to turn the amp on and off via external device.
“Pay close attention to power quality, and be aware that different power cords can alter the sound.” (Bravo! An amp manufacturer who acknowledges the critical nature of power cords!)
Discussion of break in period – approximately 200 hours.
Description of the appearance of tubes operating normally, as well as ones which are “running away”, being destroyed due to excessive current when seated improperly or defective.
Expectations regarding tube life and quality, and VAC selection of its tubes for use with the Phi 200, as well as a list of equivalent tube numbers for tube rolling.
Explanation of Impedance Matching, including the option of using two different impedance output posts for bi-wiring speakers (However, use of 4-8 Ohm posts are required for Mono amp mode with low efficiency speakers like ESLs).
As one reads, it becomes clear that Kevin anticipates the new owner to consider his amp an instrument for fine music reproduction. Years of experience as a designer and music enthusiast are coalesced into the Manual, and I recommend careful reference to it.
Before delving into discussion of the sound of the Phi 200, I would first like to stimulate your intellect as to the quality of the Phi 200 and VAC gear in general by alluding to what I call “VAC Facts”. These are lesser known packets of knowledge regarding development of the VAC Phi 200 amplifier. These VAC Facts are not merely for entertainment; they are stepping stones to understanding the radical commitment of Kevin Hayes and VAC to bring you the ultimate in audio componentry. Good sound needs to rest on good design principles and good execution. The VAC Facts speak to these and beckon rationally to those who are seeking ultra high-end electronics. As you read them, these testaments to quality will lead you to conclude that VAC authentically cares deeply about product integrity and sound quality.
VAC Fact: The Phi 200’s name is not mysterious, as Kevin merely followed convention in audio circles by using a letter of the Greek Alphabet. It may not be an exaggeration to say that half the Greek alphabet has been sourced to name audio components and technologies.
VAC Fact: The company builds “Stereo Beam Power” amplifiers. This is a reference to avoidance of standard Tetrode tube designs. According to Kevin, a “beam tetrode” or “kinkless tetrode” causes the electrons to flow in sheets or vertical beams, while repulsing secondary electrons. The design allows for removal of the third grid inside the tube, leaving the anode and cathode. The design is more efficient and yields greater power output than a pentode tube. The KT66 and KT88 are the most successful implementations of this technology in terms of audio quality.
VAC Fact: The Phi 200 is a proudly hand built American product. However, it uses a new twist on the power tube, the KT88-SC. Chinese tube maker Shuguang makes it and the 6SN7, both of which are deemed better than NOS tubes! Kevin states that they are notable not only for superb sound, but superior longevity as well.
VAC Fact: The Phi 200 was introduced at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF). Two revisions have been introduced, namely the addition of the MONO switch, and a LOGO ON/OFF switch.
VAC Fact: The KT88-SC power tubes operate in ultra-linear mode and feed two 15-pound VAC output transformers based on classic transformer design.
VAC Fact: Kevin adheres to a “divide and conquer” philosophy when designing higher-power amps. Per Kevin, “Most designers go for larger parts; I think more along the lines of parallel processing (which, of course, is now all the rage in DACs and computing).” The Phi 200 in Mono mode is very much like his design for a stand-alone mono amp, and benefits from the design of the Phi 300 which was a Stereo/Mono design.
VAC Fact: Kevin shares, “If there is one thing I have learned in twenty-plus years in audio design, it is not to prejudge things….. I never assume that a particular tube type, capacitor, circuit topology, etc. must be the best. I do not let my theories tell me about the real world; I try to let the real world correct and refine my theories. To that end, we conduct frequent R&D projects that run contrary to our assumptions. In this way, we learn, grow and produce much better instruments than we could have imagined.” A sign in VAC’s listening room reads: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.
VAC Fact: The cost is similar to acquire one Phi 300.1a or two Phi 200. Which would yield superior results? According to the designer, “I think the pair of Phi 200 would have a slight edge with regard to detail, extension and dynamics. Ah, but then there are the Mono 300’s…”
VAC Fact: The three transformers of the Phi 200 weigh more than half of the amp’s total weight.
VAC Fact: The Phi 200, like all VAC products, is designed such that you can leave it to your grandchildren in your will. It is crafted to last. The anticipated first major service is the refreshment of the power supply capacitors – after approximately 40-50 years!
VAC Fact: There are eleven sets of speakers currently being used at VAC for the voicing process: five sets of dynamic, three sets of full-range electrostatic, one set of hybrid electrostatic, and two sets of horn speakers! The amp was not designed solely to drive the King ESL, but the King was used in the voicing of the Phi 200. Improvements to a VAC design are only accepted if it sounds better with some or all speakers tested and worse with none.
VAC Fact: The voicing process may take Kevin and VAC engineers up to 1,000 person-hours in some cases; that’s beyond the time taken to get the amps to measure well on the bench! If Kevin does not approve the sound of an individual component (he listens to each one), it does not ship. Production of certain models has ceased at times for up to two months while tracking down a variance in vendor’s products, such as wires or capacitors.
VAC Fact: The voicing process of the Phi 200 was thought to be done until a pair of Zingali horn speakers were hooked up. Through the Zingali, the circuit sounded bright, yet soft, which called for an adjustment to increase the control and precision of the top octave. The cure was affected, but the change was completely inaudible on a pair of Thiel speakers.
VAC Fact: Kevin’s opinion of Class D amplification, “… we have neither seen nor heard anything in theory or in practice to suggest that Class D would be a good idea with regard to sound quality.”
VAC Fact: At the upcoming 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, VAC will introduce the Phi 200i, an integrated amplifier mechanically like the Phi 300.1a, but with 110 wpc. It is designed to overcome many of the shortcomings of integrated amps. It uses two separate power transformers, one for the pre and the other for the power amplifier. It will include a genuine line stage as opposed to being an amp with a volume control, and phono stage. Kevin says, “It should be roughly equivalent to the combination of Renaissance MkIII Preamplifier and Phi 200 Amplifier.” Also on the horizon is the Sigma 160i integrated amplifier (see, another Greek letter name) which will look similar to the Phi 200 and cost approximately $9,900 (NZ$15,495 incl GST).
Get a listening VACcination
Got the jitters, a bad case of Audiophilia Nervosa? Can’t seem to find that perfect sound? Nothing seems real enough sounding to you? Doctor Doug says get a shot of VAC equipment and you’ll start feeling better. I certainly feel better every time I use VAC gear in the systems I build. I do mean every time. If there has been one amplifier which has never failed me when reaching for top shelf sound, it is the Phi 200.
I already stated in the Signature Preamplifier MkII review that the preamp saves other brands of amps from poor performance; it literally preserves them from ignominy. I can say the same of the Phi 200. Of all the amplifiers my hands have touched thus far reviewing – you can check the list of my reviews – the Phi 200 is the amplifier I would keep. Following are the reasons, based on my listening impressions.
VAC equipment has an uncharacteristically big, beautiful sound. I first heard the Phi 200 with the King ESL. Am I glad I did, because there is a possibility that under show conditions hearing it with a different amp I may have dismissed it – a huge mistake. The King is extraordinarily good, and has sounded better with the Phi 200 than with any other amps I have used. I have used some good solid-state and hybrid amps with the king – Cambridge Audio Azur 840W amps in Bi-amp configuration, Pathos Classic One MkIII hybrids in Mono mode at 270wpc into 4 Ohms, a pair of Moscode 402Au, and the Einstein “The Light In The Dark”, as well as some others currently under review. I have had the Phi 200 on loan long enough to have compared it in more head-to-head listening tests with other amps than any other amp I have reviewed. I have heard the Phi 200 on about as many speaker systems as Kevin has for voicing. The conclusion is clear: the balance of power, fullness, and correctness is unparalleled. The King sounds good with one Phi 200, but is inspirational with two of them in Mono mode.
Recently a local dealer for VAC instruments came to my home twice to hear the King. The first time he heard it with solid-state amplification and thought it was nice. Prior to his return I told him, “Just wait until you hear the King with two Phi 200’s!” This time he brought his own discs, and this time he left with the phone number of Roger DuNaier at Performance Devices, because he had made up his mind he needed to carry the King as his ESL. It speaks well of an amp when a dealer is swayed to carry a line of speakers from hearing a system which has only had it inserted! The Phi 200 is that good. I know any time I am not hearing sound which is up to my ever escalating standards I can put the Phi 200’s in the rig and get that which I seek.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela
If you haven’t had opportunity to look up an incendiary guitar duo named Rodrigo Y Gabriela, I encourage you to do so. This fast paced, punch-packing acoustic guitar pairing has become a favorite for listening as well as conducting demos of equipment. I highly recommend their Live in Japan disc.
One track, named “FOC” – I’m almost afraid to know the meaning – has an extended percussion segment with the bodies of the guitars used to thump and pound out the driving rhythm. The clarity and depth of the Phi 200 is exemplary, allowing one to hear much further into the acoustic space of the venue than with the aforementioned amps. The Phi 200 seems to harbor more power than its specified rating. When the guitar is slapped one hears what I heard in the live performance, a powerful wallop, a percussive slam from the close microphone positioning, and a highly amplified signal all reverberating off the auditorium’s wall.
One does not hear from the VAC what most amps do to Rodrigo’s picking and plucking, a thinning out of the wiry notes. While initially such thinness is quite noticeable and seems captivating as “detail”, after a short while it becomes irritatingly brittle sounding. At first blush the VAC components may seem laid back, too reticent. But when listening to such intense playing and at higher levels for several minutes, much less a half hour, that more controlled expression of the string’s snap is very welcome as fatigue does not set in. In fact, fatigue never set in with these amps.
It reminds me of the lack of strain on the eye looking at a sunset versus summer midday sunlight. The sheer brightness of the sun causes one to squint, to filter out some photons crashing into the iris, but the late afternoon sky is much more forgiving. In the same way, some amps hand the music to your ear “bright and white”, strong and clear but in such a churlish manner that the ear wants to “squint”. Not so with the VAC, as you can put on truly harsh tunes and have the ear wrenching audacity of it ameliorated.
I have a couple of nastier test pieces for systems, ones which most systems even at shows fail miserably. One is Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman”, and another is Apocalyptica’s “Enter the Sandman”. Kravitz plays with the vocals toward the end of the song, distorting his voice out of all proportion to decency. Even on good rigs he sounds so awful that I can usually not listen to the end; he comes across as a robot with a bullhorn singing. As for Apocalyptica, a truly hard driving band with three classically trained cellists and a drummer, I have not much good to say for the music; I just like getting a kick out of seeing if a system can handle it. The strings screech wretchedly, just the kind of effect needed to test the limits of a stereo’s top-end performance!
Watch out if you tee up either one of these to hit, because your system is likely to slice and send them sailing “out of bounds”. Only a handful of times have I avoided the cringe-factor when hearing these pieces and one of the only systems to handle them with any kind of aplomb was in my room with the Phi 200. The mollifying effect of the Phi 200 is to make these abominations sound like music. I can actually listen through to the end and pretend like I appreciate it. Anything less than fantastic amplification and these pieces get an automatic penalty; stop the music and move to the next artist.
Once I have the Signature Preamplifier MkII and Phi 200 dialed-in, I do not recall any piece I have terminated due to over-aggressiveness. On the other hand, I do recall replaying favorite pieces successively in an attempt to instill more of the mood, the aura, the loveliness of it. I usually want to move ahead, go on to the next experience, but I may repeat a performance when the Phi 200 is in the rig and feel it’s no waste of time.
More Stringent Criteria
Increasingly, as I age I am not interested in brightness, or “definition at all costs”. When I was younger I was willing to put up with such antics, but no longer. I have not capitulated on the demand for detail and definition. On the contrary, I demand them more than ever, but with the condition that they must be musically appropriate to the genre and recording. There are only two situations in use of power amps where I can say that both of these demands have been met to my satisfaction. One is with a trio of Coda CS amplifiers (under review) operating the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW in fully active crossover mode, a setup which gives a very unfair advantage to a solid-state amp.
The other is the more traditional loudspeaker of either the King Sound King or the Whisper DSW operating in passive crossover mode, powered by the pair of Phi 200 amps. That this setup can compete with a six-channel fully active crossover system is a testament to the authority and quality of the Phi 200. The best part is that the authority and quality is transferrable to any dynamic, full-range ESL or horn speaker system.
No kidding around
If you like upbeat vocals, you might want to check out Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS, in which he employs more than fifty singers weaving them into his energized African-inspired choral and solo works. The first track, “Baby”, is infectiously repetitive and upbeat as it brings to mind the runabout antics of a small child.
In comparison with the Einstein “The Light In The Dark”, the closest amp in quality to the VAC of those I have used, I found the Phi 200 to offer more heft in the bass singers’ voices, a touch more smoothness in blending all the singers and comparable clarity. When using the Ayon CD-5 as source with its internal preamplifier’s selectable gain setting at MID (6V), vocals sounded as if emanating from oversized heads. This effect was compounded when hearing it through the King, as ESLs tend to expand the center image anyway. With use of the 1-2 Ohm posts on the King and the GAIN of the CD-5 set to LOW (4V), the singers became more life sized and properly weighted. There is a terrific amount of flexibility offered by pairing higher-output sources like the CD-5 with the Phi 200, but you will want to watch out using output over 4V as it will likely begin to “inflate” the amp’s performance. Some people may adore that big-as-the-room sound, but others will want to rein it in.
The VAC sound is audio-writ large but properly proportioned; it is elegant, opulent and ebullient. The vastness and spatiality of the soundstage with the Phi 200 is quite surprising when heard for the first time. You may have heard many amps with differing power resources, and different levels of clarity. If you have worked primarily with solid-state amps, you likely have not heard the expansiveness a fine tube amp can bring to a system.
Perfect Storm System
The Phi 200 is a natural winner when it comes to symphonic and chamber music. The flush tonal quality of natural instruments created by the Phi 200 enlivens a score. I recently picked up James Horner’s soundtrack for The Perfect Storm, a Deadliest Catch-like account of the Andrea Gail, a long line fishing vessel doomed at sea in one of the worst meteorological disasters to hit the eastern seaboard in a century. As an aside I recommend not only the movie but also the book; so much more of the human element comes through in the painstaking recounting, including a morbid description of what likely the men onboard were undergoing as their ship foundered, sank, and they drowned. The grandeur and gruesomeness of commercial fishing off the Grand Banks is compelling to the spirit of those who labor with their hands as well as those who cheer people finding themselves on the short side of the odds.
I like to see what an amp can do with powerfully orchestrated pieces. In The Perfect Storm soundtrack, the periodic wave action flow to the music captures the vicissitudes of the sea. The Phi 200 does not drain the life from the piece, as some amps do. It is easy to be at sea, visualizing the images from the movie; with the VAC I’m not distracted by a question of how that particular horn sounds or why a drum does not seem deep enough. All is rendered with tonal correctness and proper weighting, so I can relax and immerse myself in the moment.
Especially rewarding are the tracks “The Decision To Turn Around” and “Rogue Wave”, both of which have attacks of low register horns and tympani. The Phi 200 is exemplary in capturing the surge of the symphony as it crashes in crescendo, emulating the killer waves of the ferocious hurricane. In “Rogue Wave” the last, sustained trumpet blasts speak of panic, heroism – anything that grasps at another moment of hope. The swirling strings and building wall of drums tear at the heart as one conceives the wall of watery grave about to engulf the hapless crew. Following the pounding of the vessel and its sinking an eerie silence ensues, and inevitably the ebb and flow of the ocean’s sub-surface melody is enjoined once again. The humans were no match and will not be remembered by the sea, but washed from memory. The Phi 200 captures the terrific undertow of the score, pulling the ear downward toward the depths in an overwhelmingly compelling fashion.
Ideal for any speaker
My experience with the Phi 200 is that I can be assured that no matter which loudspeaker I put into the rig I’ll get top quality sound. About two months ago another manufacturer was visiting for a couple days in order to establish a speaker for review. The VAC components were in use, so it was not surprising to me that I found out later he had enthused to a cable manufacturer that my rig was special. I hadn’t even gotten a chance to work with the speaker for weeks to dial it in. Already with the “first run” the system was charming; the VAC gear was working its magic.
I find it difficult to determine which system I prefer, the big panels or the big dynamic hybrids. The Phi 200 in mono drives them both with authority and acuity. With most amps I have to work hard to get a sustainable level of palpability, of convincingly true-to-life sound. Not with the Phi 200. In a matter of one evening I can dial it in to find a viscerally moving experience.
Here is a secret about how I build high-end systems. I do not spend weeks or months sitting around pondering their sound. If something does not sound right I act directly and immediately to make the effected repair. Consider that industry leaders head to a show and set up in a room from scratch. They do not have weeks or months to futz with sound. They must get it right as best they can, many times literally overnight. Some are definitely better than others, but most do a commendable job given the schedule and circumstances.
I have found that it’s counter-productive to waste weeks and months seeking an optimum sound when the ear senses an obvious defect. If a system doesn’t sound good to me I do not wait on it, I change something! For this reason I keep two or three types of cables on hand in order to tune rigs. There are tens of thousands of permutations available for systems. Why should I waste weeks or months of my life with a so-so sound when I can potentially improve it immediately? The longer I have been in the game the less patience I have to adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude. I have a firm grasp of my electronics collection and media collection, as well as how I demand it to sound. If it’s not where I want it to be, I’m not about to spend weeks suffering its insufficiency. Something’s getting reworked! Of course, finances can slow down the process, but if finances are not hindering and the rig doesn’t sound right, it’s not going to stay that way for long.
Imagine the number of audiophiles who sit in discontent at their rig’s sound, pining for improvement! How many hope that it will improve on its own with weeks or even months? If you don’t want to spend the majority of your time as a discontented audiophile, get to work! I spent far too many years hoping for incremental improvements, so I want to encourage those who are frustrated not to accept waiting and doing nothing. If there is an annoying aspect to the system, change a power cord or two, or try a different speaker placement, or put a pillow behind the speaker to test if room treatments might help. Your ears will tell you if you are going in the right direction, just as your eyes tell you when you see a beautiful person. Influence change for improvement rather than be a victim of inaction.
However, once a very pleasing sound has been found I slow the process down every bit as dramatically. The ear will tell you when it hears something good. When my ear sends the signal, “Ah! I really like this sound,” I halt the system reconfigurations and spend time enjoying. More often than not the system will remain fixed for some time and I will authentically thrill to the sound of it for weeks. It’s so much better than leaving niggling concerns about the sound unaddressed. If I get my concerns about the sound dealt with up front, I find myself much more content with the system for longer periods of time such that I become reluctant to disassemble the rig!
When I’m in “Reconfiguration Mode”, usually cables are the first to be reworked, partly because they can be incrementally changed, and partly because they are easiest to work with physically. If I’m confident of the source’s quality then the next thing to be considered for change is the amp. But never the VAC Phi 200. I have moved it in and out of the rigs I have built enough times that I have heard the devastation resulting from its removal. It has become an “anchor component” which has proven itself the best option no matter which team of components I assemble. Inevitably, it is re-inserted into the system to restore much needed vitality. When another amp’s review work has been concluded, out it goes and in goes the Phi 200. I have preferred over the months to build rigs around it rather than work without it. This confirms Kevin’s voicing process, whereby the amp is conditioned to be compatible with a wide range of speakers.
Thus it was that recently when I put the Whisper DSW back into the rig I instinctively reached for the Phi 200’s, no matter the other components and cables. I keep an updated exact system list from power cord for the source to speakers for the “Best Rig” with every speaker system. I could have simply recreated my previous best rig. However, I decided to fly solo and rework the cabling again. In the span of two hours and four partial cable changes, I was content. The results obtained are often so right, so spot-on that I leave it that way for weeks until another review priority forces change. As amps have come and gone, the Phi 200 has remained and if I had the means financially they would remain permanently. Their quality, reliability and unimpeachable sound earn them a resounding recommendation.
In conclusion I leave you with two more VAC Facts.
Firstly, Kevin is also interested in the quality of the discovery and reporting in regards to his products as they are used in real-life systems. He is not so concerned with analyzing specifications to death, but rather what works in terms of obtaining the best sound. This review is my most comprehensive to date in terms of an amplifier’s use with other components. I subjected the Phi 200 to more sources, preamps, cables and speakers – systems – than any previously reviewed piece. It yielded top-quality sound with a large body of available components.
Secondly, with CES around the corner and enthusiasts hearing his components, I suspect Kevin is about to get a lot busier. If you like what you hear and seek a VAC instrument, be patient. Your patience will be well rewarded. Kevin’s concern is producing a quality instrument above all. You are paying him for the best amp he can build, and he’s going to make sure you get it. That is why he’s going to listen to it before it ships.
Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful review of the VAC Phi 200, as well as for the courtesy and professionalism always shown us by everyone at Dagogo.
A quick note about the VAC / KingSound demonstration at the inaugural 2010 California Audio Show. After discussions with the dealer, Bob Kehn of Audio Image, who presented the room, it was determined that the King’s panels likely were not fully charged most or all of the time, which results in reduced sensitivity and premature clipping of the panels themselves. The problem was that the speakers were left unplugged when the alternate Magico speakers were being demonstrated. Normally I would not have thought of this, but we experienced a similar issue during setup at Axpona; the speakers had to be plugged in (and unplayed) for several hours before they would play normally. Clarity about this is important, as we would not want the King’s to get a reputation for being difficult to drive, nor would we want the stereo Phi 200 to be viewed as marginal for the task!
To clarify the bias setting of the output tubes, the proper procedure is performed without music playing, as initially stated in the review. Once the proper settings have been achieved, in normal operation one will notice that the LEDs will be dark when no music is playing, and will light ‘with the beat’ as music is played. However, this is not part of the adjustment procedure, and there is no need to select a particular kind of music, etc.
Thank you again for taking the time to review the VAC Phi 200. We count it a privilege.
Kevin Hayes / VAC