A perfect way to capture in words the beauty and sonic signature of the new Valve Amplification Company’s (“VAC”) Renaissance Mk V preamplifier (“Renaissance”) was discovered upon my visit recently to the wonderful Harvard Art Museum (“HMA”) (www.harvardartmuseums.org) in Cambridge, MA. The renovated HMA combines all of Harvard’s art collections under one roof and is designed around the renovated courtyard space of the old Fogg Art Museum capped by a glass atrium ceiling and several floors of new exhibit space and research facilities.
Taking a walk into the first floor “Diker Gallery,” one immediately comes upon a wall dominated by a magnificent large painting done by American artist Morris Louis (1912-1962) entitled Blue Veil (1958).
To create Blue Veil, Louis poured thinned acrylic resin paint from the top of his unprimed fabric canvas and let the paint fall and absorb naturally into the canvas (with gravity and paint as Louis’ only means of production). This “veiling and staining technique” produces long-threads of intense falling colors that reveal their individual lines and hues as they drop naturally down the canvas and bleed into its surface. The piece invites the viewer in – to walk up and closely inspect how all of this flowing and staining of intense color ebbs and flows naturally, with a feeling of slowly evolving energy as the colors drip and fall into deep pools of color at the bottom of Lewis’ untreated canvas.
The intense beauty of Louis’ Blue Veil (and how Lewis let only paint and the effects of gravity be his means of production) brought to my mind the experience of listening to music with the VAC Renaissance Mk V preamplifier placed in my reference home audio system. Before I describe this experience connecting music and the visual arts, let me first offer a few technical details on the new VAC Renaissance preamplifier. The VAC Renaissance is the second reference quality preamplifier to grace my system recently (with my review of Emmanuel Go’s exceptional First Sound Paramount MKIIIS preamplifier following in its immediate footsteps). The Renaissance, like the First Sound Paramount, is a serious investment ($9,900 for its linestage model; $12,900 for the addition of a VAC phonostage) and its sophisticated design philosophy comes from another premier craftsman in today’s niche of high end audio designers and manufacturers: Kevin Hayes, the founder of VAC.
Like Emmanuel Go of First Sound, Hayes is on a mission to address any source of sound degradation or unwanted noise in his preamplifier design. He comes to his latest design from a different technical perspective than First Sound’s passive designs: the Renaissance line stage is, essentially, a Class A1 power amplifier, transformer coupled in and out. According to Hayes, his use of an output-matching transformer, (a technique common in power amplifiers), results in a preamplifier that supplies significant amounts of current; has a low source resistance and utilizes no negative feedback. Volume control on the Renaissance is via high-grade potentiometers, because for Hayes, these sound better and avoid sound degradation attendant with complicated active electronic methods. The same applies to the use of silver contact mechanical switches that are utilized instead of relays or transistor switches. Triode tubes are used because, in Hayes’ opinion, “these remain the most linear amplification devices yet devised.” The optional phonostage uses three twin triodes operating without loop feedback, (again with use of moderately high gain matching transformers which contribute voltage gain without noise) and a separate filter system to guard against any unwanted interaction with the line stage.
In my conversation with Hayes, it is clear that besides his attention to every detail of ground and power source design, (with its topology based on transformers and delivering significant internal output load), Hayes is intent upon his “voicing” of the Renaissance as most important to “preserving music as much as possible” (as opposed to heroic efforts to improve the linear test measurements of his products): “I tend to view music as a form of emotional communication. This can be in the more obvious ways, say, for example, vibrato, but it also exists in the way an instrument articulates its note, the way it blooms, the way in which a room embraces it. Every musical sound has the potential to evoke a feeling, and, I would argue, should and does. Sadly, it is perfectly possible to reproduce this in a way which is highly detailed and yet never moves the listener.”
The VAC Renaissance Mk V model (with optional phono stage) that I auditioned came to me on kind loan from VAC’s official audiophile dealership in my area, the experienced and friendly Fidelis Audio (www.fidelisav.com) of Nashua, N.H. (An updated report detailing my recent listening sessions at Fidelis can be found in the Audiophile Resources section of bostonconcertreviews). From the very first notes I heard with the VAC Renaissance in my system, my memory was brought back to the visual experience of standing before Morris Louis’ Blue Veil painting.
First, the expansive and intense colorful flow of paint (under the pull of gravity) in this painting was similar to the natural flow and expansive projection of music that I was now hearing from the combination of the Renaissance and the rest of my system. Secondly, the absorption of paint into Louis’ untreated canvas (with each hue of color distinct as it changes color into the absorptive surface) was like the music I was now hearing with the Renaissance in which instruments and voices melded naturally into their surrounding acoustic spaces on recordings that afforded such rich ambient details. It was like Hayes and Louis had a common theme, (one in the visual arts and one in the audio arts): allowing for the flow of materials to be influenced and absorbed by their natural surrounding environments and then reveling in the sight (and sound!) of this resulting magic. The VAC Renaissance’s crowning achievement in my particular system and listening room mirrored Louis’ artistic achievement: an ease with recorded music’s ebb and flow that projects music effortlessly and illuminates how it fills its natural acoustic environment (with the highest fidelity to leading edges and the natural decays of instrumental notes and voices). Also, like Louis’ creative vision, the Renaissance provides an exploration of the inner hues and changing shades of the inner dynamics of music making, letting us explore a composer’s intentions (and the musician’s interpretation of that composer’s vision) in vital emotional form.
These special qualities of the VAC Renaissance were apparent on favorite recordings on both CD and vinyl in all genres of music, from the heady Jimi Hendrix (on his blast furnace version of his “Red House” taken from Valleys of Neptune [Legacy/Sony LP] to the unkempt beauty of Kat Edmonson’s intoxicating vocals (and her band’s artful entanglements) on her quiet meditation “Whispering Grass” taken from her 2012 CD Way Down Low [Spinnerette].
With the Renaissance now in place, there was a distinct freedom to the sound, top to bottom; a dynamic upfront presence. Even though the phonostage in my particular unit had yet to have significant playing time, it also allowed for vinyl’s special way with conveying ambient spaces and a deeper emotional involvement with the illusion of real humans performing on a stage. The Renaissance excelled in conveying the air of the ambient spaces where these recordings were made by capturing the long decaying notes of Hendrix’s scorching guitar (or Edmonson’s delicate wisps of vocal touches) falling and alighting naturally into these acoustic spaces.
The images of these artists, (as well as others on recordings offering layered soundstages and great image dimensionality) were solidly ensnared by the Renaissance. On an original pressing of the Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach [Capricorn Records], the images of Dicky Betts and Duane Allman were precisely and solidly rendered by the Renaissance on Betts’ swirling Blue Sky, where my Hansen Prince V.2 loudspeakers virtually disappeared to cradle the images of these two guitar masters sitting side by side on a small stage. They plied their glorious sunny guitar solos in a dimensional space created by the Renaissance that stretched laterally from the front planes of my loudspeakers to the side walls of my room, and also in the important “third dimension” (front-to-back field of depth) with several feet of layered imaging behind my loudspeakers. The song’s ending, with both guitarists holding a resonant flicker, was captured in long trails of decay into the studio air, while Duane and Dicky exchanging verbal congrats. Here were humans at play: making music with all of the verve and passion flowing in this convivial moment and captured perfectly by the Renaissance in its special quality for delivering the spirited flow of music within the illusion of a breathing acoustic space.
The Renaissance’s gift for letting recorded music flow with natural dynamic presence and freedom (and inflecting that energy into the acoustic spaces on recordings that offered such ambient information) brought special joy to the challenging area of capturing accurately the range of sounds produced from a piano (an instrument with the widest dynamic span) as well as with music that thundered with lower midrange and bass heavy pulses.
The swashbuckling piano of Chano Dominguez, (on his superbly recorded live album Flamenco Sketches [Blue Note]), was concussive in its delivery. On Dominguez’s dazzling version of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader,” the Renaissance was unique in my listening experience in getting each individual piano note to sound distinct and articulate (with most of the piano rich harmonics intact as well). There was no glare or blurring no matter how percussive the attack by Domingues in his high octane treble reaches or in his deep purple runs. Accompanying handclaps and wood rim drum hits were physically felt like firecrackers in the chest; each note heard crisply in its leading edge and then in its resonant decay (against the back walls of the club). The Hansen Prince V.2 woofers were tautly controlled by the Renaissance and had a new sense of freedom in their mid-bass definition and agility amidst all of this crackling percussive drama.
Further proof came in listening to the radiant bass and drum work found on such superb recordings as saxophonist Odeon Pope’s Odean’s List [IOR Records](with its spacious big band crackling with Lee Smith’s prodigious bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts’ full- throttle drums) and to Ginger Baker’s glorious Coward Of The County [Atlantic Records]. Here the Renaissance allowed for each strand of musical color from Baker’s bold jazz band to be followed and explored, including that great baritone sax solos played by James Carter (all gruff, dignified and thrusting its brawny sounds into the alighted acoustic space).
In contrast, the meditative twirls of Jack DeJohnette’s solo piano style, as heard on his 2016 LP recording, Return [Newvelle Records; www.newvelle-records.com], was captured beautifully by the Renaissance. The Renaissance conveyed every wiry inflection of DeJohnette’s upturned notes (from their first plush hits to their lingering harmonics) and allowed for each note to naturally fall into and alight the intimate East Side Sound studio recording space (as only vinyl can provide!).
The Renaissance also brought sparkling life to both small and large classical ensemble recordings, delivering its special quality for projecting music with verve and dynamic life. Tonal balance of the Renaissance, particularly on high violin reaches, was very expressive with an upper midrange purity that extended to the limits of audibility (aided no doubt by its partnership in my system with the Constellation Audio Centaur amplifier, the champ in treble sweetness and extension). Some may find the Renaissance’s few contributions of its own to upper midrange and treble timbres to tend towards a leaner sound at times (depending upon the quality of recordings and associated equipment). This trifle forward in the highs, (indicative of a gradual though small and very smooth rise), lends even more sense of aliveness to its presentation – this in comparison to another reference preamplifier, the First Sound Paramount MKIIIS, with its own special gift for inviting the listener to hear the core of individual notes with a slightly darker timbre palette and a less forward presentation.
A favorite new classical recording of mine is another perfect concluding example of the Renaissance in all its glory: baritone Christian Gerhaher’s Mozart Arias [Sony] with the Freiburger Barockorchester. This recording captures Mozart’s joy of adventure and frolic in sparkling fashion, with wonderful presence, image dimensionality and unbounded dynamic energy. In the Renaissance’s hands everything- from Gerhaher’s creative vocals (his soft whispers to his regal thunder) to the sound of the Glockenspiel far off stage – flows with presence and dynamic life. The duet between Gerhaher and mandolinist Avi Avital (whose joyful artistry has been reviewed in these pages before) is the epitome of delicacy: sweet and radiant as Gerhaher’s voice melds naturally with the mandolin’s piquant string phrases. The Renaissance conveys how all of this mercurial drama alights, absorbs and decays within the surrounding acoustic space on this superb live recording. Listening to this recording again reminded me of the similarities between Hayes’ state-of-the-art component and Morris Louis’ Blue Veil masterpiece: the use of raw materials, (whether paint or music), to flow, meld and evolve with their natural environments into an expressive, vital creation.
Valve Amplification Co., Inc.
Kevin Hayes, President
1911 N. East Ave.
Sarasota, FL 34234
*Associated Equipment for this review:
-Hansen Prince V.2 loudspeakers
-Constellation Audio Centaur Stereo Amplifier
-Rega RP-10 Turntable with Apheta2 cartridge
-EmmLabs CDSA player
-Full loom of Nordost Valhalla2 speaker cable and interconnects; Nordost Odin power cable from wall to Nordost Quantum QRT power purification units (QX-4 and QX-8 units).