I had the opportunity to do an in home review of AVA's new 400R power amp, FET Valve Preamp and FET Valve DAC. I am a current owner of AVA's Ultra II Preamp and Ultra II DAC which are hybrid designs as are his new designs. I also use a Parasound A21 power amp and Magnepan QR 1.6 speakers. I live in the same town and Mr. Van Alstine and was afforded the opportunity to review his new gear.
First off, the new gear has a new updated look. Gone are the black face plates and rectangular red power buttons as well as the 2 prong wired power cord's. The new gear comes with a high quality thick aluminum face plate with a push button on off switch and a blue LED power light. The old power cord has been replaced by an IEC socket and cord. The new gear has a more up to date look without being flashy.
At first I was going to review all 3 components together but I decided to try each piece individually in my system and then as a whole.
I first placed the FET Valve (FV) DAC in my system and the first thing that my budding audiophile 20yr old son and I noticed was how much smoother and liquid the new DAC sounded. The sound stage was wider and there was more transparency and space between instruments. In addition, bass was much deeper and better controlled. On Boxer Rebellion's "The Cold Still" the bass on the first song "No Harm" was thunderus. Bass also had great thump to it. I did not think that my 1.6's were able to produce such thunderus bass and thump. My only criticism about the DAC when paired with my older AVA preamp is that it seemed slightly less crisp and snappy if you will for lack of a better term. With my older DAC you could readily make out the pluck of the fingers coming of the strings, with piano you are able to hear the plinck of the keys and drums seemed a bit more snap. I am not saying that you could not hear it with the new DAC but it just was not as prominent. It just seemed to have a little more sparkle and detail. However the new DAC was more listenable with no fatigue or sibilance, something that I can't say about my Ultra II DAC.
Next I paired the new FV Preamp with my older DAC. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new preamp was a marked improvement over the Ultra II preamp. Bass was deeper and better controlled. The sound was more detailed and smoother. The music was more musical, vocals were more natural and there was greater depth and transparency to the music. I could not find any fault with the new Preamp. Everything just sounded better.
I next paired the new DAC and new Preamp with my A21 amp and I was astounded by the sound. Any hint of digital edginess and fatigue was gone while the music sounded very natural. The DAC's slight lack of detail was improved. There was even more musicality. The attack was fabulous. Cymbal crash was excellent. If you closed your eyes you would think that the Cymbals were right in front of you. Bass was even deeper still, and the combination really brought out the best in my Parasound A21. Truthfully, I did not think that the A21 could sound so good. The A21 always seemed to have a little graininess but the DAC-Preamp combo removed any grain that I could hear.
Finally I hooked all 3 pieces together and got down to some prolonged critical listening. The first thing that I noticed was that the music evoked and emotional response. There was shear joy and pleasure listening to this combination of gear. The depth of the music increased along with transparency and sound stage which is hard to do in my experience except with very expensive gear. I have found that when you add depth the music becomes less transpent. Not so here. The combo was extremely musical, fast with clean, non fatiguing, very detailed treble. Bass was fast, deep, powerful and controlled. Instruments and vocals had great separation, I was able to pick out each instrument in space. The sound had a holographic sense to it. The midrange was to die for and was not too foward or recessed. It seemed just right. The overall tone of the combo was neutral to just a hint of warmth. My son and I can be overly critical about music and we tried to find fault with this combination and we both kept on saying that the music just sounds right and that we would not change a thing about the sound. Even my wife who has a good earand will sit and listen to music a couple of hours at a time with me, commented on how good the sound was.
Sadly, the time had come for me to return the gear to Mr. Van Alstine, but before I did, I decided to try the 400R amp in combination with my Ultra II preamp and DAC (Previously I had the opportunity to reivew its more powerful brother the 600R). I was not disappointed. The amp still maintained its attributes, effortless power, speed and bass. The sound is very detailed with well rounded from the high to the low frequencies. The sound stage was huge and very transparent. I could not detect any difference between the 2 amps.
The Best Audiphile Voices XRCD
John Lee Hooker
The Hot Spot Sound Track
Various Classical CD's
Blue Coast Collection-the E.S.E. Sessions 24K Gold Audiphile Reference CD
Tim Gorman-Piano Variations
Buddy Guy and Junior Wells
several other CD's and XRCD's.
Other gear that I am familiar with-
Bryston, Plinnius, Mac, Conrad Johnson, Belles, Luxman, Theta, Cambridge Audio, Ayre, Anthem, NAD