VAC Signature MKIIA SE tube Preamplifier w MM/MC Phono w/ external power supply

NZ$ 42,495.00 ea (incl. GST)

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VAC SIGNATURE MkIIa SE - see the terrific Stereophile review of the new VAC Signature MkIIa SE preamplifier by Bob Reina (who, in the past year or so, had also auditioned Lamm, VTL, and ARC). Here are a few excerpts:

"The most significant audio product I’ve ever hooked up to my reference system. It was flawless ard Levels of detail resolution, ambience retrieval, air, and low-level dynamic articulation across the audio-band that were nearly indistinguishable from a live performance. 
The Signature MkIIa SE produced an illusion of live musicians playing in an actual space better than any preamp I’d heard.
"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".
"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"
"The day I removed the Signature MkIIa 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?”

One could not ask for a better, stronger review, and this comes right on the heels of Jonathon Valin's recent praise of the VAC Statement instruments in the TAS Online Buyer's Guide to Electronics. 

Signature MkIIa SE Preamplifier
Not long ago, the Signature Mk IIa was the finest preamplifier you could buy. In production since 2000, this enduring classic marked the introduction of the basic, fully balanced, zero-feedback, transformer-coupled Class A1 triode topology found in all contemporary VAC preamplifiers. Even from this early form, it preserves and reproduces the emotion and vitality of music and maximises the performances of the associated source components and power amplifiers. 

The replacement Signature MkIIa SE (Special Edition) upgrades the input transformers to the premium designs used in the 

The Signature’s line stage has no coupling capacitors to detract from the purity and detail of the hand-wired circuit. With no loop feedback, the output is stable and free from dynamic interactions with the load. Six standard line inputs (five when phono is fitted) are present, as well as a fully balanced Cinema Bypass input.

The optional six-tube phono stage is sensitive and quiet, compatible with low-output, moving coil cartridges. Gain is adjustable, as is resistive loading. Electrostatic decoupling prevents the heater circuits from “talking” to each other, a common cause of lost detail. A separate power transformer is used, eliminating any disturbance of the delicate phono signal by the powerful line stage.

The VAC logos are backlit in an elegant blue in normal operation, and display red when the mute is activated. These are set in the heirloom-quality sculpted 3/8” faceplate.




SIGNATURE MK IIa SE - (Optional MM/MC phono stage with user adjustable loading):

Gain:  12 dB
Inputs:  3 sets RCA line input
            2 sets balanced/RCA selectable inputs
            1 set RCA tape monitor input set RCA cinema bypass input

Optional 1 MM and 1 MC (or additional line input if phono is not fitted)
Outputs 2 sets RCA
              2 sets balanced XLR (EIA “pin 2 hot” studio standard)
              1 set RCA tape output
Tubes:   2x 12AU7 / 2x 8416, 7308, 6922, E88CC, ECC88, 6DJ8, (or 12DJ8 twin triodes)
Absolute Phase; correct from all inputs to all outputs
Frequency Response; Flat over audio band –3 dB bandwidth 5 Hz – 210 kHz
THD:  <0.009% @ 1 kHz, 1 V RMS
Maximum Output:  > 8 V RMS
Output Impedance; < 150 ohms, 20 Hz - 20 kHz, static (i.e., not dependent upon feedback)
Maximum Input:  Infinite signal (attenuation precedes the gain circuitry)
Recommended Output Load:  > 300 ohms
Power:  External power supply, detachable umbilical cable, detachable IEC power cord
Tape Output:  Unity gain from selector, non-inverting for archival integrity
Cinema Bypass:  Yes
Voltage:  May be ordered for 100v, 120v, 220v, or 23-/240v operation
Remote Control:  included
Illumination:  Illuminated logo may be switched off
Finish:  Black or silver
Warranty:  Two years parts and labor, excluding tubes (USA, see manual for full details)
Dimensions (H x W x D):  Audio chassis (not including knobs and connectors): 14 cm x 45.7 cm x 36.8 cm
Power supply (not including connectors):  10.9 cm x 45.7 cm x 36.8 cm
Shipping Weight: With phono: 27.7 kg.

Tubes:  6x 12AX7
Gain:  44 dB MM / 64 dB MC
Frequency Response:  RIAA standard +/- 0.2 dB (20 Hz - 20 kHz) -3 dB bandwidth 10 Hz - • 80 kHz
Channel Separation;  > 80 dB @ 1 kHz
Maximum Input:  > 130 mv @ 1 kHz, MM > 13 mv, MC 
MC Load Impedance;  selectable, 470, 300, 250, 200, 150, and 100 ohms
MM Load Impedance;  selectable, 47k, 30k, 25k, 15k, and 10k ohms
Overload;  117MV @ 1kHz = 8 volts RMS output; 460MV @ 10kHz
Residual Noise:  Less than 3MV at output (s/n ratio greater than approx. 69db

*Specifications subject to change without notice.


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
Brian Damkroger

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.

I had a wonderful audio moment the other night. It was late in the evening, after a long day. I was standing in the middle of my makeshift listening room—Trish's dining room—and in spite of the fact that we were moving in just a few weeks, I'd just unpacked and set up my combo of VPI TNT Mk.V-HR turntable and tonearm with Grado Statement cartridge and dug a box of LPs out of the stacks in the garage. I cued up Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic CS 8192), and the first notes of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" froze me in my tracks.
The music hadn't just started, it had come to life. I sat down, mesmerized, and the stress and pressures of the day melted away, replaced with feelings and emotions from other times and places. There was a tinge of the electric excitement that permeates the air before a concert, when the lights dim and the performers take the stage. There was also the simple joy of being swept away by music. But most of what I was feeling, I think, was a lightness and happiness that reminded me of discovering music and audio in college and grad school, a joy that, in the recent frantic weeks and months of swirling logistics, merging families, moving, and endless business travel, had somehow gotten lost.
Aromatherapy is based on the premise that a profound, direct connection exists between the olfactory receptors and the brain—how the smell of new-mown grass, for example, can make us feel the way we did as a child. I occasionally experience the same sort of thing based on my hearing. Sounds—often music, but not always—can take me back to other times and places. Not just remind me of them, but actually re-create the feelings I had. As I've traveled through the world of high-end audio, I've often found that inserting into my system a new, profoundly better component, one that raises the system's performance to a higher plateau, can re-establish this connection, or make it noticeably more direct. In this case, the source was easily identified: the Valve Amplification Company's Renaissance Signature Mk.II preamplifier.
A Renaissance preamp at last! 
The Renaissance Signature was released in 2000 after six years of development by designer Kevin Hayes. At $17,000 ($13,000 without phono stage), it was VAC's top model, and the first VAC preamp to bear the "Renaissance" name. Now, the Signature has been extensively updated and become the "Mk.II." The most notable changes between the original Signature and the Mk.II are the use of both input and output coupling transformers in the line stage, and the deletion of the pair of 12AX7 tubes from the line stage, leaving only a pair of 8417 dual-triodes as a differential gain stage, and a pair of 12AU7s as the buffer circuit for the tape output.
The bulk of the design elements that made the original Signature so special remain in place. There are no coupling capacitors in the signal path and no loop negative feedback. The gain stage is fully differential, and consists of direct-heated triodes. On the input side, the Input Selector switch both selects the source and sets the grounding for balanced or unbalanced sources, the latter converted to a differential configuration at the input transformer.
Both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs are provided, with a rear-panel selector switch selecting between the two and, again, establishing the appropriate grounding configuration. The output transformer not only converts the differential signal to unbalanced if necessary, but also allows the Signature Mk.II to drive virtually any combination of cable and amplifier inputs. In fact, the VAC's current capabilities are said to rival those of many small class-A1 power amplifiers.
The VAC's phono stage is an unusual configuration, and struck me as a throwback to an earlier time. Through the MM (moving-magnet) inputs, it provides 44dB of gain via a single, fully differential gain stage, implemented via six 12AX7 dual-triode tubes. Through the MC (moving-coil) inputs—and when that rear-panel switch is flipped—rather than increase the gain actively, the switch inserts a pair of wide-bandwidth transformers into the circuit to achieve an additional 20dB of gain. In either case, it uses passive equalization. I did the bulk of my listening using either a Grado Statement or a Benz Micro L04 cartridge, and the MC inputs provided the best mix of detail, depth, texture, and dynamics.
The Signature looks gorgeous. Its faceplate is a thick, softly sculpted slab of aluminum finished in a flawless, glossy black embedded with gold flecks that beautifully complement the heavy, gold-plated knobs. There are large knobs for Input Selection and Volume, flanked by two smaller ones on each end: Mute and On/Off on the right, Tape Monitor and Cinema/Direct on the left. The Cinema input provides a fixed-gain path from input to output, allowing a user to send the front channels of a home theater or surround system through the main audio circuit, but controlling the level with a processor or A/V preamp.
The Signature's lower chassis, which houses completely separate power supplies for the line and phono stages, mirrors the main unit's shape, size, and cosmetics. Its front panel houses two large, gold-rimmed, backlit meters, which monitor the heater and main, B+, voltages. No scales or numbers are provided, but a dot at the center of the meter's range indicates the proper operating voltage. Both chassis have nifty backlit VAC logos that glow red when the unit is muted, blue during operation.
Listening: Do you believe in magic? 
I've already tipped my hand that, when everything clicks, the VAC Renaissance Signature was capable of truly magical performance. But what exactly was it about this preamp that made it so captivating, and how did it measure up in all of the areas we audiophiles hold dear?
The single most impressive thing about the VAC, and the area where it stood head and shoulders above any other preamp I'd heard, was its resolution. At low levels, whether a single plaintive note fading ephemerally into the surrounding ambience or a subtle countermelody buried deep in the orchestration, the Signature retrieved more tonal, spatial, and temporal information than any other unit I've heard. With the VAC, there was never any question that an orchestral section was composed of multiple instruments, each in a distinct position and each with a characteristic tone, texture, and presence. A lot of top-quality gear reveals this level of detail in the major components of the orchestration, or in the front half of the stage, but where the VAC really stood out was in how well, at lower levels, it reproduced details of instruments buried way down in the mix or at the rear of the stage.
On record after record, subtle countermelodies I'd not even been aware of emerged distinct, detailed, and articulate. The very soft trumpet passages about two-thirds of the way through Saint-Saëns' Bacchanale, from the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra's Ballet Music from the Opera, Anatole Fistoulari conducting (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-2400), were good examples. I might have been dimly aware of their presence before, but with the VAC, the trumpets were distinct, detailed, and tangible instruments, each one richly portrayed and contributing its subtle tonal shadings and phrasings to the multiple countermelodies.
Another example was the soft oboe line shadowing Artur Rubinstein's solo piano through the early portions of his performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto 1, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-1831). As in the trumpet passages in the Bacchanale, the oboe was not only obvious, but lovingly portrayed, with complex, woody tonal colors and a level of detail that made me think I could hear every expression, every nuance of phrasing and dynamic shading.
The VAC's re-creation of nuance was equally as good—if perhaps not unique—on more prominent components of the orchestration, adding dimensionality to Rubinstein's piano on the Brahms, for example, and additional layers of subtlety to his playing. One thing that stood out was that, with the VAC, the cushion of air surrounding the piano was distinct from and clearly outlined the instrument, rather than the two merging into a single, diffuse image. The effect was to add dimensionality and solidity to the piano, and additional life and realism to the performance.
The VAC's resolution was similarly excellent, though not unusually so, at the loud end of the spectrum. Full-bore orchestral crescendos were appropriately enveloping and overwhelming in their weight and power, without ever losing focus or becoming confused. Midway through the first movement of the Reiner/Chicago reading of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-1934) the trumpets explode in full-tilt crescendos. Through it all, they retained their unique identities and brassy bite without ever getting overbearing, hard, or edgy. Massed violin crescendos, no matter how intense, remained a coherent group of individual instruments, never becoming hard or steely.
The reproduction of dynamic contrasts, like the resolution of detail and tonal nuance, was another area where the VAC's performance was truly special. Most good components reproduce dynamic contrasts evenly and well across the middle range of frequency and loudness. The VAC extended that range from the upper bass to the lower treble, and from the softest pppp whispers to the loudest ffff crescendos. Those subtle, nearly buried countermelodies weren't just wonderfully detailed; their microdynamic shadings were beautifully articulated as well. Every nuance was clear, and seemed much more obvious and dramatic than with other preamps.
This combination of superb low-level dynamics and incredible resolution of detail resulted in jaw-dropping re-creations of original ambient environments. Halls—their sound, their boundaries, their space—were stunningly portrayed, and much more integrated with the instruments and their surrounding spaces than I'd ever heard before. Once I'd heard the VAC, it became apparent that, typically, only the grossest of ambient cues are reproduced, which leaves things a bit disjointed and incoherent as the level drops. With the VAC, the coherence—the weaving together of the instruments, surrounding air, and the hall itself—was much more complete and much more realistic.
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.
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.