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Auricle Musicbloc amplifiers
as reviewed by Jim Olson
On my 4th of July weekend as I was home enjoying music I suddenly felt that typical and reoccurring upgraditis itch. Itís not that my system is not up to par, it is certainly among the very best and comprised of carefully selected components. But alas, the search for the Holy Grail never ends.
One recurring theme that I have encountered at audio shows―and even at dealerís showrooms - is the consistently stunning performance in rooms where VAC amplifiers are present. You donít hear very much about VAC electronics these days, perhaps because they are designed by a very humble and behind the scenes Kevin Hayes―a truly respectable man who happens to be a circuit design genius. In fact, there has been a lot of hype and attention surrounding the latest digital amplification marvels from the likes of NuForce and BelCanto, but what is happening on the tube amplification front? Are tubes obsolete (thatís a rhetorical question) or is there a lot more to be had from this technology; especially when designed by someone like Kevin Hayes? Then again, why is a man like Kevin Hayes, who can easily whip up a circuit, not designing ICE power modules or digital class D amplifiers that are all the rage right now? This is when I decided to investigate.
One thing in particular that I enjoy about Kevin, is that he always tells (or in this case, gives) it like it is. In fact, when you buy a VAC product, your money is being spent on a top quality amplification device that comes in a rather modest straightforward looking enclosure without fancy bells and whistles―like say from Mark Levinson or Jeff Rowland. The company also does not have over-the-top marketing and really keeps everything down to earth. However, while it may not be obvious at first glance, absolutely fanatical attention goes into designing equipment that does the one thing that you would buy an amplifier for in the first place―making it sound good.
One early memory I have of VAC equipment was upon a demonstration at Innovative Audio in NYC when David Wilson of Wilson Audio was visiting the showrooms. Of the three rooms that had Wilson Audio speakers the one that connected me most to the emotion and meaning of music was the system that had a VAC amplifier. The amplifier was the Renaissance 70/70 based around the 300b tube. The music in the room was pure magic and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rise. Why I didnít buy a VAC amplifier at the moment, I donít know. It could be that I was still not mature enough to look past the components industrial design and evaluate it purely on sound quality.
I was particularly surprised when Kevin and I were having a chat and he told me that VAC is now able to get better sound out of the KT88 tube then the 300B in their new circuitry. This is surprising indeed as in every experience with tube equipment I had, the 300B always communicated more emotion then the KT88 while the KT88 would have slightly better low frequency performance. Kevin now believes that his new designs allow the KT88 to sound even more emotional.
For this evaluation, I connected the Auricle monoblocks to my trusty old E.A.R. 834L preamplifier and the Auricles were in turn driving my Wilson Audio Watt Puppy 7s. Compared to my Audio Research VTM200s or the Mark Levinson 33Hs, the Auricles look extremely plain and almost under-designed. However, that really doesnít matter because I was simply not prepared for what I heard.
U-N-B-E-L-I-E-V-A-B-L-E was the first thought that went through my mind as I played the first 45 seconds of James Blunt's Back to Bedlam (CD, Atlantic 83752-2). The music was presented with such palpable physicality and in total 3D relief. Every musical element in the track appeared with a physical certainty, delicacy, three-dimensionality, harmonic complexity, and completeness.
With the VAC Auricle, you are not thinking about whether or not the music is detailed, or accurate, or transparent, or colorless in the midrange. Quite frankly I donít think that you will care as you will be to busy enjoying the music. The Auricles are pleasure machines that produce an extremely organic and palpable flow to the music that no digital (or solid state, for that matter) amplifier can match.
If I really pulled my attention away from the emotion of music (something that was indeed very difficult to do) and forced myself to exercise the objective part of my mind, I would have to admit that the Auricle does have flaws. The midrange is not exactly completely neutral or uncolored. The midrange does have color, maybe too much color. The high frequencies are not ultra transparent or precise as you would hear from the best solid state designs or even some tube gear from Audio Research or VTL. The low frequencies are also maybe a bit soft but generous at the same time.
But as I already said, none of this matters with Auricle and I would bet my tonearm that you would not care. The Auricle is about pleasure, emotion, and more pleasure. Maybe it does not present music with 100% accuracy, but you can also say that strawberry flavored condoms do not present intimacy with 100% accuracy. Moreover, boy did the Auricle and I have a musical love affair that heightened my level of intimacy with the music unlike anything I have experienced.
This also begs the question of how the Auricle would fare compared with the best single-ended flea watt designs based around the 300B or the 2A3 tubes, which are highly sought after by audiophiles exactly for those ear pleasing qualities and musical intimacy. Fortunately, on hand I had a pair of similarly priced Cary 300SE amplifiers with Western Electric 300b tubes for comparison and many experiences with single-ended amplification in my aural memory. While I admit that the Caryís had a bit of a difficult time with the electrical load presented by my Wilson Audio Watt Puppy 7s (so this comparison is not very fair), the Caryís did not hold a candle to the over-all musical picture presented by the VAC Auricle.
The Cary did at certain moments produce musical magic with certain passages on some recordings, where you are totally sucked into the music or suddenly performers appear with such visceral palpability in the room that it can startle you. However, this was only on certain passages. With many other single-ended amplifiers, the music can sound magical at certain moments and then completely fall apart on other music and the sound can lack dynamic drive, solidity, and control. This type of schizophrenic behavior can leave you sometimes wanting more. What made the Auricle so special is that it was consistently musical, exciting, and coherent regardless of what you are likely to throw at it ranging from Bach to Pink Floyd. In addition, it is simultaneously more dynamic, has more control in the lowest frequencies, and more of the audiophile chills and thrills presented in such a way that you will never want to think about solid-state amplification or the latest digital amplifier offering.
Another strength of the Auricle is its ability to render a deep, wide soundstage with excellent specificity consistently on all types of music. This quality is better then I have heard from any solid-state amplifier at any price, and it even beats my Audio Research VTM200.
I sincerely believe that the VAC Auricle is an amplifier that a music lover can happily live with for the rest of his or her life without worrying about the latest ďbreakthroughsĒ in digital technology. The fact that it is only $4995 per pair makes it a major accomplishment and a tremendous value. In fact, I liked the VAC Auricle so much that I am buying the review pair.
As always, a review should only serve as a useful guide and should never replace a careful audition, but I do hope that reading this will compel you to go out and hear this truly extraordinary amplifier. It really deserves your attention if you are serious about music. Moreover, the fact that it is made by Kevin Hayes tells you that you will always be in good hands. Very highly recommended. Jim Olson
Auricle Musicbloc amplifiers