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Positive Feedback ISSUE 59
the VRE-1C - a Spectacularly Musical Preamplifier
as reviewed by Jim Merod
Maestro Steve McCormack had a good year and a not so good year in 2011, but I'll aver to bargain that (like many of us) the downs were more than offset by the highs, since the long-gestating remote-controlled version of his much acclaimed VRE-1 manual version of this remarkably transparent pre arrived ready to debut at the January, 2012 CES shindig in Las Vegas. Steve is a hard-at-it audio engineering guru, whose high expectations are both met, and sometimes surprisingly outflanked, by his results in crafting genuinely musical sound.
The polemical subtext to my praise has to do with the ongoing joke of high-priced audio equipment that, year after year, struts its visual appeal like new Ferrari or Porsche creations, only to leave the heavy-spending audio dupe gasping in the dust as fancy exterior artistry substitutes for emotionally-involving musicality. I've never been taken by surface pulchritude when my explicit aim has been, over four-plus decades, to wrap my attention around superior sound and extraordinary music. I marvel more each year as the cynical admonition is routinely verified that a sucker is born each moment to restock the market's insatiable need for unthrifty fools.
It's well known among the audio cognoscenti that good looks "sell" average and modest audio equipment. In the presence of the proverbial dumb blonde with excess hooters, lustful eyes frequently overwhelm the heart and mind. Of course, you and I do not know anyone like that. But I'll note for the record that many folks who overlook the musical and pricing virtues of Vandersteen speakers, of Ayre equipment (and recently revived NAD electronics), as well as decades of Steve McCormack's soulful (underpriced) gear—where musicality and sonic transparency prove that big price tags and gaudy cosmetics do not replace ongoing day-to-day audio satisfaction—keep cynical audio wisdom circulating for good reason.
When I'm engaged with sound and music, I need musical details in abundant plenitude and sonic openness (transparency) to maximum possibilities. Why? I record live jazz with the foolish intent to capture on location events as if they are not recorded on playback. My aim is to "steal" the moment; abscond with sound and music and the entire emotional, performance, and ambient vibe so that, on listening in the giddy comfort of one's listening space, YOU ARE THERE. The event has followed you home. You and the event (regardless of distance in time and space) are "there" together with absolute audio proximity.
No doubt you think I'm kidding. Or mad. Or worse.
Maybe, maybe not. Who cares, since this goal—to achieve the clichéd and asymptotic "absolute sound" via live recording—is in fact my explicit intended outcome. Which makes me grumpy as hell if folks want to talk to me or buzz around my on location workstation as I set up. Or if they promise (as recently a pseudo-big, altogether cocksure speaker manufacturer did) that they'll augment my work with (get this) "world class monitors" that will not disappoint a soul... only, in truth, to blow up on arrival, with this Pooh-Bah's loopy, over-committed self-certainty covering his pre-eminent naked derriere with the standard BS about how it really wasn't his fault and, anyway, why did I get so upset when his gear (and promise) failed to the max?
A guy will never make it to Brooklyn for dinner with his Lady if he follows bloated gestures of "helpful" idiots sending him to Altoona.
I digress for a pointed purpose. An old guy's grumpiness is not merely unfortunate, but well-earned. Fools appear from every direction every day of the year. It does not matter if your aim is to nail the best (nearly impossible) live recording imaginable or if, like Maestro McCormack, you suffer the interference of hacks and broads who have no clue how to distinguish a fluffed C-sharp from a malicious obbligato con fortissimo. The bottom line is this: rampant and metastasizing audio illiteracy gives shrewd audio manufacturers a running chance to increase profits by polishing exterior chasses at the expense of musical truth and sonic beauty.
McCormack's track record is long and proud. Along with Richard Vandersteen and Ivor Tiefenbrun at Linn (whose classic LP-12 turntable set the standard for superior vinyl playback at real world prices), McCormack has devoted himself—perhaps counter-productively—to delivering world class audio reproduction with his DNA line of amplifiers and, now, with his VRE-1 pre-amplifiers at price points well below what dozens of inferior manufacturers bring to the market without the saving cachet of extraordinary musical results.
Enter the VRE-1C
Awhile back the McCormack VRE-1, without remote control comfort, came on the scene to positive acclaim. Those units were, typically, underpriced given the market's rapacious tendency to press costs upward as far as practicable... or tolerated. Of course the "silent co-conspirator" in this equation is the gaggle of store owners and high-overhead outlets that push for higher priced units (actually spurning many lower costing products), since fifty percent of $20,000 or $50,000 for a single piece of audio gear covers the month's revenue demand quicker and far better than several lower-priced units.
This commercial audio game is driven extensively by the skewed ratio of low-priced and under-reviewed audio gear barely visible in the audio market, on one side, existing in disabled competition with big shot high-visibility darlings of the print journals whose overhead (in turn) is covered nicely by advertising easily afforded by manufacturers whose bloated prices, on the other side, are inflated in part so that they can afford such high-rent public notice. This also serves to satisfy dealers and outlets that "need" big price tags in order to stock those units. The game is standard, banal, predictable, and all but lethal for small audio manufacturers. This is the world of large dogs gnawing small poochies' bones (which is thoroughly unrelated to one of Miles Davis' favorite epithets about a sartorially splendiferous colleague now and then looking as spiffy as "a broke dick dog").
I've employed the original prototype of McCormack's VRE-1 preamp for five years. It sits at the heart of my music replication universe because it is sonically accurate to a fault, musically engaging in its intensely intimate sense of pace, timing, and rhythmically dynamic flow, and (not a jot less significant) defined by stunning ambient details that deliver a veridical live "on location" footprint.
Recently I snagged a VRE-1C for maniacal inspection. I threw every kind of sound, music, and media at it, through it, and I must confess that nothing fazed its superior and faithful reproduction of what it was given to replicate. The remote control device is a chunky, well-crafted unit that is intuitive and easy to engage. I am not a huge fan of remote control gear in part because, over time, I've found on occasion haze and filmic sonic diminishment came along with the remote control on certain units offered for review. That is not in the least an issue here. In fact, McCormack has created a preamplifier whose remote controlled version is genuinely more transparent than his manual version. I discovered on a constant basis a sort of engaging (but not at all artificial or fabricated) "musical bloom" in the unit's authoritative but low-keyed presentation of each possible musical genre. Mahler's symphonic bombast was no more, no less a stress for the VRE-1C than Tommy Flanagan's solo piano. Neither stressed this unit in the least. Jackie Ryan's live album (For Heaven's Sake, BluePort Jazz, BPJ-004) was a delight on each sonic level: her rich and adorably-inviting voice rang perfectly within the nimbus of her pianist's silky chords; the slight clatter of distant dishes created an exact sense of the evening's physical domain, a full house of happy listeners appreciatively agog. A less than state-of-the-art recording of Maria Callas gave itself beautifully for my full attention just as (by way of total contrast) the most recent enhanced vinyl transfer of Miles Davis' legendary Kind of Blue sucked me into the darkened Columbia studio where, more than ever before, I felt the physical presence of each member—Miles, most, but surprisingly, Bill Evans almost not a jot less as he sat unmoving at the big keyboard giving soul and ethereal substance to his own song (ripped off for copyright by Miles), "Blue in Green." This is a session that I have listened to with each instance and iteration of the album's replicated lifetime since the very week the inaugural vinyl pressing was released in the summer of 1959. I know this album like I know my ancient paws, and I have never felt so close to the music, the players, the sound, the room, and the mysteriously relaxed and exotic emotional levitation that propels these songs across both of the two evenings that Davis brought his men into that studio.
One extraneous and no doubt eccentric detail appeared that, as an instance of the idiosyncratic uniqueness of the VRE-1C's jaw-dropping transparency, must be shared here. When Wynton Kelly takes the piano bench for the one song he plays on the album, "Freddy Freeloader," one experiences a difference in the room's collective ambience. This is a profoundly subtle trace of a nearly ineffable "something" that I had not previously heard or experienced as I've listened to this track across decades on hundreds of listening occasions. It is as if you feel, or subliminally "know" somehow, the inclusion of Wynton's personality as a change in the room's mood. Whatever this mysterious extra quality truly is (more "sense" than sound; closer to a feeling of the interactive vibe among the musicians than anything said or heard), it was "there" each of the three times I played the vinyl pressing with the VRE-1C's authoritative invisibility and undisrupted audible command.
I may revisit this entire experience again, either by borrowing or pilfering the unit once more; or, outright, with bucks plunked on the bar room floor as I wager my roll of the dice and, victorious, escape with the VRE-1C as the spoils of good touch and better luck. However that occurs, I am certain to revisit this glorious and heaven-inspired musical instrument. I regard this less as a "piece of audio gear" than as a truly "musical" instrument owning the status of a Stradivarius violin or a rare, old Selmer solid silver alto saxophone (such as Marshall Royal and Pee Wee Claybrook each owned, compliments of their French benefactors).
Of all the preamplifiers at any price, with any design characteristics of unique or standard structural logic, the McCormack VRE-1C is THE unit—the preamplification musical instrument—I would choose to live with on a perpetual basis. In a phrase, the VRE-1C recreates musical truth with musical grace, tenderness, and grandeur. Whatever price will be assigned to it (at this writing none yet defined), I'd be willing to roll the dice or scratch my banker's hidden vault for its daily partnership. Jim Merod
SMc VRE-1C Preamp