POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Recently my wife and I were guests at a celebration held in Hollywood placing a much overdue star on the Walk of Fame for the Munchkins from the fabulous classic film, The Wizard of OZ. As we waited for the star studded event to begin, I noticed a blue and pink carriage rounding the corner carrying the last surviving Munchkin actors decked out in costumes similar to the ones worn in the movie. It was pulled by a bright purple horse; the famous horse of a different color! So what, you may ask, does this have to do with audio? Steve McCormack has brought us a preamp so new, so original, and so articulate, it rounds the proverbial corner for audiophiles searching for the very best; the VRE-1 IS the preamp of a different color.
From the SMc Audio website on the VRE-1:
This two box honey was built by ear. After choosing a very original and low distortion circuit, Steve listened to each piece selected as part of the project and chose only the most musical sounding components. Corian sounded better than metal. Carbon fiber wire was more neutral and musical than copper or silver. Stealth's custom umbilical wire terminated in Limo connectors sounded better than anyone else's with standard balanced connectors. Lundahl transformers sounded best on the inputs and Jensen on the outputs …not the other way around. JFET buffers should have no gain and they all needed to be balanced. Filters against DC and RFI had to be solid and impenetrable. No solid-state voltage regulators are used in its power supply which uses, instead, choke-regulated voltage rails. Passive, yet with 6dBs of gain; all born by the transformers. This baby had to be flat from 10Hz to 100,000Hz. WBTs were auditioned and selected. So was Wonder Wire, Vishay, Elma Switches, Avel-Lindberg, Black Gate, Audio Note, Vibrapods, and on and on. He even built the volume control himself because it sounded better! Using his extraordinary taste levels developed as a recording producer and engineer, plus his extensive knowledge of electronics, Steve has brought us a wunderkind of a preamp.
Plus, it actually does two things no other preamp on the planet does. One, it has only one balanced connector and four single ended connectors and with the provided adapter, you can plug your balanced connectors into the single ended WBT input connectors with no loss whatsoever. No kidding. You can have up to 5 balanced sources with the VRE-1. Brilliant! Unfortunately the adapters do not work with other preamps, so forget the idea of getting them for what you already own. And two, each and every input is completely isolated from the other, totally preventing ground loops. Oh, and the tape outputs are switchable via toggle switch to keep maximum purity in the input circuit.
It's sold direct and Steve will personally discuss the user options of the three transformer gain settings of 0, +6, and +12dBs (set at the time of manufacture and are not user adjustable, though the unit can be returned and changed by Steve if need be). Try to get the CEO of another company to take care of you personally. By design, it is estimated to have no sonic degradation whatsoever for at least 30 years. Forget about planned obsolescence. You do get a 30 day trial period to listen and decide as to purchase.
So how does it sound? I replaced my E.A.R. 912 with the VRE-1 using the same Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects and AC cables. My reference Kubala-Sosna Emotion cables were used in the development of the preamp. Even so, I found out that the preamp is unfussy about cables, but …I can tell you unequivocally the K-S Emotion is a perfect match in every way with this passive/active design where the transformers do the heavy lifting. I placed the VRE-1 on a Townshend Seismic Sink and left on the supplied Vibrapods. I plugged the 15-amp K-S Emotion AC cable into the World Power Wing …all devices are now set up as realized with my reference. Even though it was fully broken in by the manufacturer prior to and at CES, I ran it for three days to warm it up before any serious listening.
Okay now it was time for music.
With blacker backgrounds than I have ever experienced before, the VRE-1 is the most musical solid-state preamp I have ever heard. It tops the Levinson 32 and the Pass X1 for natural nuanced sonics and lack of electronic colorations and in how it brings you so very close to the actual event. It is gorgeously textured and incredibly neutral while being superbly defined. I heard no artifacts, no buzz, no hiss, no crispies, and not any added anything. It is most ideally garbage in, garbage out, though when it was sweet and elegant via the source, it was sweet and elegant to my ears. Analog sound from my VPI/ZYX Airy 3 phono reference was glorious and natural. My E.A.R. Acute CD player sounded exceptional and alive. My ModWright Sony 9100 was powerful and clean. I heard more ambience retrieval than I've ever experienced before from a solid-state preamp. Simply put, the VRE-1 is the KING of ambience. Soundstaging is mammoth in size. Imaging is spot on right. Definition is the personification of clarity itself. Airiness is expansive and limited only by the source.
The extraordinary focus of performers is nearly 3D, a first for solid-state. This includes instruments and voices. You can clearly find every performer and musical line with no effort at all. Sense of space and hall size is most apparent and realistic and with the VRE-1 is completely unrelated to volume—as some have claimed. Choral ensembles are also clearly delineated. Nothing was ever fuzzy or vague.
I am convinced that this is the best solid-state preamp yet to reach these ears. It pushes the state of the art envelope in every way. It is a fabulous value at $7500. I do not believe you can pay more and get better performance from solid-state. Every solid-state preamp I have heard to date has more textural colorations and aberrations—which detract from the performance—than the VRE-1 does.
So what do tubes get you? In comparison with the best I know of including the ARC Ref 3 [from memory and my review notes] and the E.A.R. 912 [on hand] you'll get added richness and creaminess with the ARC and greater tonal contrasts with the E.A.R. One can argue till the cows come home if this enhanced textural info and slightly more generous micro and macro dynamics are real or added. I do hear a more alive and harmonious sound from the E.A.R. than the VRE-1 so I am inclined to be in the tubes sound more real camp. I also get bigger dynamic swings on crescendos with the E.A.R. Overall dynamics are about the same with either the ARC or the VRE-1; neither has that ultimate swagger, but both are excellent. Tonal contrasts are also more intense with the E.A.R., less so with the ARC, a bit less so again with the VRE-1. The VRE-1 is quieter than both tube units and appears to yield as much clarity of ambience and air as either piece. This is quite an accomplishment. I can go on all day and night, but the VRE-1 is overall an honest, neutral, and superb preamplifier when auditioned with superb material.
The E.A.R. 912, including phono stage, is $11,000 and the ARC Ref. 3 Linestage is $10,000. I'd choose the VRE-1 over the ARC Ref. 3 speaking only as a perfectionist. The E.A.R. 912 is the very best tube preamp I know of, with the VRE-1 being the most sonically neutral (overall) of any solid-state design anywhere. Plus, as I mentioned above, it is available on approval, so no worries. If you are shopping for a solid-state line stage in this price range, or for even considerably more, you must audition the VRE-1.
Just in, the new RCO Live Recordings, DSD Hybrids made and released by the orchestra themselves! This disc is RCO 05005, Sibelius Symph. 2 conducted by Mariss Jansons. The sound on the VRE-1—with the E.A.R. Acute CD Player—is airy, mid hall, and delicate. No multi-mic sound here, it simply sounds like simpler mic'ing. The perspective is that eerily like you are in the audience and enjoying it as it is played thing. Very realistic with a total lack of phase distortion or meaningless echo. Crescendos are natural and tonally right, though the bloom is a bit reserved. Violins are layered and warm, not sweet or stringy. There is no etch whatsoever. The disc has no obvious sonic flaws; it is very master tape like. Though it might be a bit distant for some, it is nice for a change to not hear a large orchestra from the podium. Tonally, I detect a neutral, colorful, instrumental sound with no exaggeration or added richness. I hear a sound like you'd hear on headphones in the recording booth or from row P in the hall. Staging is wall to wall and nothing seems forced; all is easy and flowing. Horns are particularly superb and focused. There's no overhand or clipping of the drums. I detect no emphasis or suckout at any frequency. All is very smooth with absolutely no hint of any solid-state colorations! By the way, the performance is very sensitively conducted and romantic.
Another goody, just now being imported from Norway by Eastwind Import, is Grieg Choral Music, 2L Recordings, 2L45 Hybrid, Greg Vocalis with acapella chorus. With the VRE-1—but now through the ModWright Sony 9100 with tube rectifier stage to play the SACD layer—you have a convincing representation of a small choral ensemble in the room with you. The level of verisimilitude and hall sound is extraordinary, maybe even trend setting. The VRE-1 is the real McCoy. In comparison to tubes, the VRE-1 sounds more neutral and even natured like a great recording, though the E.A.R. 912 sounds more sophisticated and dynamic like a live performance. Fascinating.
I spent a good deal of time listening to my Day Sequerra Reference FM tuner running balanced to the VRE-1 with Kimber Select Copper cables. The airiness and clarity was fabulous and similar to what I am used to with the 912. I didn't change antennas, but reception sounded more secure. I find this situation fascinating. Could the VRE-1 be producing more of the true purity of the tuner for the first time? Imaging seemed a bit enhanced as well. The VRE-1 continues to surprise and perform with trend setting state of the art precision, regardless of the source.
Quibbles? I am OK with the lack of a remote volume control, but I'd like one. The VRE-1 has a mild textural leanness, a bit lower tonal contrasts, and a noticeable lack of micro/macro dynamics compared to my tube reference. If you turn up the volume, this is less apparent. I'd be very interested in hearing the +12dB unit as it just might have that added swing at lower volumes.
There is a good possibility that the VRE-1 is in fact absolutely right: that its intense honesty, lack of any added anything, super quietude, and unfailingly musical attitude are right on the money. Its right to my ears as far as anything I've heard with transistors on board.
It makes sense that McCormack would be the one to build a preamp like the VRE-1. He has no ties to anyone except himself and there are no ties to any particular brand of part or anything else, domestic or international. He experimented with every part even auditioning AC connectors and types of feet! He's a tasteful, brilliant, experienced, exceptionally sensitive fellow and knows what live music sounds like. His product expresses this and I think he has virtually achieved his lofty goals of "perfectly coherent clarity, top to bottom transparency, and deep emotional connection to the music." It's mighty hard to criticize such excellence without wondering into fantasy land.
Listening to the VRE-1 reminds me of the first time I heard the Levinson JC-2 Preamp many moons ago. I was quite happy with my ARC SP3 and was stunned when I heard the JC-2 in comparison. The JC-2's added clarity, lack of grain, and ultra high definition pointed the way for preamps of the future. The SP3 sounded very good yet it sounded smeared with less detail in comparison to the JC-2. The SP3 did though seem warmer in a luscious, glowing way, but was otherwise overwhelmed and sonically outclassed by the JC-2. That was then, today the differences are much, much subtler when listening to the 912 and VRE-1, though they are still somehow similar. The VRE-1 is a bellwether of preamps to come. You just wait and see!
The VRE-1 is a product of innovative 21st Century invention and a horse of a different color. It joins a handful of splendid preamps capable of transporting the listener to the musical event. Steve McCormack has used his enormous genius and creativity in the service of audiophiles and for this we are most grateful. The VRE-1 is a bonafide reference piece for the ages and a cutting edge component for top audiophiles and recording engineers. It's the very best solid-state preamp I've ever heard. I've never said this in print, but here goes …it's cheap at twice the price. The SMc VRE-1 receives my highest recommendation and must not be missed. Robert H. Levi
The VRE-1 is a true "statement" product, the culmination of everything I've learned about equipment design over more than 30 years. My goal was to create a pre-amplifier as close to audio "truth" as possible—the sound of a master tape, without coloration, obfuscation, or editorializing. This turned out to be an extremely subtle problem, and was much more difficult than I imagined. For a time I thought it might be impossible in terms of goals I had set. My long research finally uncovered the vital keys that brought everything together and made my prevailing goals attainable. A lot of work and sweat… and a little luck.
Bob's reaction to the VRE-1 shows clearly that a preamplifier designed for high-resolution truth can have soul, and need not be sterile and emotionally uninvolving. His delight in listening to a variety of music (including his stable of great tuners) comes across clearly, and this, for me, is essential. The VRE-1 not only conveys recorded information clearly, it connects you with the musical message. This degree of connection with the performance came as something of a shock, even to its designer (me), when all elements of the design fell into place. I was transported to the place and time of original recordings I tested the unit with, and so the name "Virtual Reality Engine" suggested itself naturally.
The debate over the relative virtues of solid-state vs. tube design goes on as I expect it will forever, which is fine - it's a fun aspect of our hobby. Astute readers will understand that the differences Bob describes are, in fact, rather subtle. While this does represent an aspect of the tendency toward convergence in the best equipment designs (regardless of platform), I believe that it is also a milestone in solid-state development—a reference-quality, ultra-transparent, solid-state preamplifier that goes toe-to-toe with the finest tube designs on musical merit and emotional engagement. Factor in the VRE-1's long-term stability, reliability, and elimination of heat, and it becomes an ideal choice for discerning music lovers and audio professionals alike.
Some small clarifications, if I may…
The VRE-1 has a total of four inputs, not five. All are truly balanced, though only one set of XLR connectors is obvious at first. I provide special XLR-RCA adapters for those who have more than one balanced source. As Bob states, these are not conventional XLR-to-RCA adapters. They are custom-made for the VRE-1. The analog power umbilical (custom made for this project by Stealth Audio Cables) is connected with Neutrik "SpeakOn" terminations. The VRE-1's Corian chassis—an amazing and expensive piece of engineering itself—allows the possibility of custom color schemes. Visitors to my website will find photos of the VRE-1's current black and ivory chassis, each with understated contrasting accents. A total black version is now an option at the standard price. In the future, custom colors will be a value-added option for those who wish to match their decor.
Finally, let me say "Thanks" again to Bob Levi for his considered and insightful review of the VRE-1. Thanks also for his inestimable work on behalf of the Southern California music and audio scene via the LAOC Audio Society. Few people understand how much work goes into the creation of a product like the VRE-1, and hearing Bob's kind words of praise make the effort rewarding and worthwhile. Truly music to my ears!
With my best regards,
Steve McCormack, designer