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Positive Feedback ISSUE48
Soulshine preamplifier and A3.5 amplifiers
as reviewed by Robert Learner
In consumer electronics, video is big business with relatively few competitors. High quality audio is a tiny fraction of that with a million competitors. In an oversaturated market with low demand, how do you establish a brand and compete? Speaking in American, the odds suck.
Making a great-sounding, competitively priced product is not enough. An identity must be created through a blend of character of sound, looks and functionality that distinguishes it from the pack. Creating identity takes vision, time and the capital to support it. Long-term successful companies adapt to the times, yet maintain their core values. We know what Wilson Audio is about, we know what Audio Research is about.
Listen, look at and use Valvet electronics and you know what they're about. Minimalist inside and out. The simplicity extends to the naming of their two product lines: entry level 'bricks' and reference level 'blocks'.
All Valvet products operate exclusively in Class A mode. All feature short signal paths, silver internal wiring and small component counts. The amps are all solid-state monos, the preamps are tubed. Looks are consistent as well. All are small in size and most have an illuminated blue 'V' on the front panel with no other markings. Moving up the line gets heavier and somewhat more elegant construction.
What we here is a very consistent vision by designer Knut Cornils in design and execution. Cornils founded the company in 1991 in near Hamburg, Germany and has been building class A amps since 1982. The top-of-the-line A3.5 monoblocks and Soulshine preamp on review here are beautifully built. From the hefty chrome dials to the sculpted heatsinks and wooden feet, they bespeak luxury and precision.
The amps are rated at 50 wpc into 8 ohms and 90 into 4 ohms. They feature an extremely large power supply, 100,000 microfarads of filter capacitance. By comparison, the similarly priced Krell S-150 monos have 54,000 microfarads of filter capacitance for their 150 watts. Doesn't mean the Valvet's sound better, but gives a sense of robustness of build and design priorities.
A bit about Class 'A'—I'm biased toward it. In two comprehensive amp surveys past, the winner in both was 100% Class A in operation. I did not know the design details of the amps going in. In both shootouts, the pure Class A amps were just a little more organic, had a particular ease, flow and liquidity. They put you a little more there, and that means a lot. Everything really.
Like speakers with first order crossovers, well designed pure Class A amps sound more than good, they sound right whenever I hear them. The downside of pure Class A is inefficiency. A lot of energy is wasted as heat, hence the chunky heatsinks to dissipate it away from the parts. Class A amps and tube electronics are very brown. I rationalize my ownership of them in the present and hope for the day when the class D stuff sounds as good.
I'm also a fan of mixing tubes and solid state. I bought the winner of the first amp shootout, a White Audio A-100 which over the years was upgraded to a Llano A-200, and then again to Llano Trinity tube/ss hybrid. The Trinity is a sensational amp for the money and my reference for many years, beating a lot of more modern designs up to $6000. It gave me back a bit of that tube liveliness I'd been missing since having a Melos SHA-Gold tube preamp fronting the B&K ST-140. That was a very synergistic combination for the money—call it a hybrid system. And that is what we have with the Soulshine/A3.5 combo.
The preamp has five inputs, one balanced, and both balanced and single-ended outputs along with a fixed volume record output. On/off is a switch on the separate power supply connected to the main chassis by an umbilical. Unmarked, the front panel requires explanation. Input selection is by the click stop dial on the far left, volume the knob on the far right. The two center dials adjust L/R input sensitivity and you can use them as balance controls as well. And that's it for the front panel. To paraphrase Einstein, a design should be as simple as possible but no simpler. On which side of that thought the Soulshine's ergonomics fall is up to you, but fits into the minimalist ethos of the Valvet line. For a music-only system, I'd be fine and even appreciative of it. Remote volume control is an option as is a new 48 step volume control said to provide greater transparency than the stock version on review here.
The Valvet combo drove both my VMPS RM40s and Guru QM10s. Sources were a Cary 303/200 CD player, primarily using a Squeezebox feeding its digital input, and a Hanss T20 table, Audiomods modified Rega arm, and Dynavector mkII phono stage fed by the spectacular Dynavector XX2mkII cartridge.
In words: smooth, dynamic, lively, and organic. Tonal purity suggests straight-wire gain with a dash of inner glow. Soundstaging is precise in localization, and several good recordings I listened including Anjani's Blue Alert, showed superb depth and detail.
Transients have snap and life, and decays are full-blooded, something I've come to associate with Class A electronics versus some other designs. There is none of the sterility I've heard with some other solid-state amps. I have, however, heard a bit more crystalline transparency on some competitively priced amps but they're a bit thinner sounding as well. Having to choose, I'll take the body and soul of red wine over white anytime.
Music via the Valvet system has an addictive liquid flow—texture and timing are are notable. I've ran PJ Harvey's "Teclo", on To Bring You My Love (please release the long threatened 180 gram vinyl version already!) on nearly every component I've heard in the last fifteen years. The opening features string hits that are subtly and intentionally mistimed. The effect keeps you on edge—you can't relax into the rhythm because plucks here and there surprise. I've listened to many components that homogenize this track. You don't catch the little discontinuities and dramatic tension is lost. It's listening to a drum machine versus a live drummer. The Valvets get this track right.
The A3.5 monos are the first amps I've heard in the 5K price range to meaningfully best my Llano. And they do so in every parameter, save grip and low end force, although this depends on what they're driving. My 4 ohm nominal impedance RM40s are notoriously current hungry, they require a minimum of 100wpc to let them know who's running the show. However, the Valvets drove the Gurus with power and grunt, nothing missing with this combo.
Unfairly compared to Audio Research 210 monos, the most notable gain you get spending four times more than the Valvets is increased dimensionality, but I've heard nothing that touches the 210s in this regard. That extra 15K also gets you more transparency, resolution and sense of limitless power or looked at another way, several nice vacations.
The Soulshine on its own is a star. A/B'ing with a good solid-state preamp, I heard the slightest addition of body and decay to instruments, but mostly a pleasing sense of music speeding through it unimpeded. It is also dead quiet. Listen this preamp before you spend more. Seriously.
I haven't heard better for the money and certainly worse for more. These components have some magic, something past competence or even excellence and into the illusion of 'real'. You can find components that do this or that better in the price range, but none I've spent time with are as addictive. They get the essence of the music. There should be a place in the market for Valvet, components that get out of the way of music in form, function and sonics. But there are a couple of 'ifs'.
If 55 wpc is enough to drive your speakers. The relatively huge power supply and conservative power rating make for an amp that sounds stronger than its spec. But current hungry speakers such as my RM40s want at least a hundred watts of grip—a more alpha male amp.
If the lack features is a problem. I don't have a ton of analog sources, so remembering what click stop on the Soulshine is what source is a non-issue. YMMV. Remote volume control is an option, but the quality of that volume pot is may be just a bit less than the manual 24 step control reviewed here. More importantly perhaps, particularly from a marketing standpoint, there is no provision for HT bypass. While I admire the follow through on the vision of making simple components that get out of the way of the music both sonically and operationally—a unity gain/processor loop function would open up the market and utility of the piece. Yes, you could set your multichannel levels with the Soulshine's volume at a fixed point, and set it to this level when you're doing HT or multichannel music. But this is a hassle and a shame. The Soulshine is a perfect partner for the exclusively solid-state world of HT processors. It would provide some musical magic in a dual use system that no processor on its own can match.
If you can live with these 'ifs', I think you can buy the Valvet combo and be done. Let me repeat that—be done. With the Valvets, you are 90 percent there, and for that last ten percent, the opportunity cost is likely on the order of vacations, small cars, or hey, some money in the savings account, albeit earning no interest in today's economy. The sound quality is not only that good, it's that true—park them on your rack for the next ten years and find other things to worry about. Robert Learner