Link Spotlights
The Pinnacle of The Electrostatic Sound
 photo Ad FinalESP_zpsrrsd0soy.gif
Audiophile Power Cords/Distributor

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Audiophile Review!
Audio-by-Van Alstine
Insight + SL Preamplifier

Performance Belies
Preamp's Black-Box Look

by John Gatski

I first discovered Audio by Van Alstine hi-fi products in the early 1990s. The retro tube thing was all the rage in audio, and company founder Frank Van Alstine was offering parts kits to modify old Dynaco 70 amps and PAS tube preamps to get them sounding a little bit more focused, tighter bass and less strain at higher volume.
I decided to commission a review for Radio World newspaper, which I was the managing editor at the time. I had my friend Doug Fearn (also a professional tube gear designer) do the mods to an old PAS 3 and a Stereo 70 I had picked up for $35.
The mod kits really improved the sound of Dynaco gear. Shortly thereafter, I decided to do a subjective review of one of AVA’s new pre assembled preamps for High Performance Review magazine. That preamp, which I still own, was the FET-Valve EC, a bargain at a $1,200. Its sound rivaled some of the big name audiophile preamps priced at $2,000+ (remember this was 1994). And it was equipped with a wonderful headphone amp and optional phono section. I still use the phono stage today to play LPs, and the headphone amp gets regular use when testing new ‘phones.

Flash forward 15 plus years and Mr. Van Alstine is still at it, improving and developing his made-in-USA audiophile products. For this review, I sampled Frank Van Alstine’s entry solid state preamp — The Insight + SL.

Features
Priced at a $899 base price, the Insight + SL is a line-level preamp that offers a basic set of features, high-grade parts selection and a enough connections for picky audiophiles or casual listeners who want a nice piece of audio gear that is not imported. The unit I reviewed was equipped with added options, such as phono stage and a motorized remote control, which kicked the price up to $1,499 for my review unit. Still, a pretty good value.
The Insight SL + maintains that basic black box look that has exemplified AVA products for more than 20 years. It’s not the most beautiful audiophile preamp, but the heart of this preamp is on the inside.
Front-panel controls include six-input selector rotary knob, volume and balanced controls. Buttons for stereo/mono and tape loop activation, and a rocker switch for power round out the front-panel controls. There are no tone controls or filters like the higher-end AVA preamps. The headphone jack is located on the bottom right corner.
Around back are six pairs of unbalanced RCA jacks for: CD, Tuner, Special (phono if so optioned), Spare, Tape 1 and Tape 2; two pairs of RCA output jacks and two pairs of tape outputs round out the back panel. AVA includes three switched, polarized AC outlets for powering a source (turntable, tuner or an iPod dock/charger). The AVA preamps still have two-conductor, hardwired AC cords, which means that if you like using accessory upgrade cables you are out of luck.
Inside, the Insight + SL is embodied with a tidy circuit board and meticulous wiring. Parts include a torroidal transformer, high-grade capacitors and metal film resistors. Nice layout indeed. My unit had the optional phono section and the motorized remote control — the latter offering a bit of modern functionality compared to my ‘94 AVA EC preamp.

Inside, the Insight + SL is embodied with a tidy circuit board and meticulous wiring. Parts include a torroidal transformer, high-grade capacitors and metal film resistors. Nice layout indeed.

The setup
I listened to the AVA Insight + SL with a number of sources and amplifiers, including Pass Labs X350.5 MOSFET and Bryston 14BSST bipolar amplifiers, Esoteric DV-50 universal player, Yamaha DVD-2300 Mk II universal player, Rotel RP-950 turntable with AT-150ML MM cartridge, Benchmark DAC1 Pre D/A and Mytek 24/96 D/A.
Speakers included Legacy Audio Studio HDs, Legacy Focus 20/20s and a pair of Paradigm Reference Signature 2s I had in for review. Since the AVA contains a fine headphone amp, I monitored that signal path via AKG K701 and K702 open headphones. I also monitored the same music with my Legacy Coda solid state preamp to get a line-level reference point.
All interconnects were Alpha-Core solid silver, as were the speaker cables. Power was routed through an Essential Sound Products power strip. Amps and sources were AC connected through Essential Sound Products “Pro” power cords.

The audition
I played a number of high-resolution music through the AVA Insight + SL via my Esoteric DV-50 universal player. First, I listened to the Groove Note SACD release of The Anthony Wilson Trio — Our Gang. This SACD is a live-to-stereo DSD recording that incorporates traditional jazz guitar, Hammond organ and drums.
It is a very warm, organic, analog-sounding recording with nice space between the instruments — with smooth guitar tone and a nice sheen on the cymbals. Compared to my Coda preamp, the AVA was close with excellent stereo image and space with a lot of detail on the transients — drum cymbals and guitar solos. It is a very quiet preamp as well.
On the Tom Jung-recorded Steve DavisQuality of Your Silence SACD, the piano tone and percussion were definitely in the league of much more expensive gear. Not quite the ultimate in transient response, but as the line’s entry level preamp — it is quite good sounding.

On the Tom Jung-recorded Steve Davis “Quality of Your Silence SACD, the piano tone and percussion were definitely in the league of much more expensive gear. Not quite the ultimate in transient response, but as the line’s entry level preamp — it is quite good sounding.

I popped in the SACD reissue of The CarpentersThe Singles: 1970-1981 and enjoyed hearing Karen Carpenter’s velvety, vulnerable, sweet voice (she would have been 60 this year). Her subtle nuanced lead-vocal, and the elaborate layered background vocals were spacious, clear and detailed with the AVA.
Since Frank Van Alstine was kind enough to install the phono board, I plugged in the Rotel RP-955 and played a number of vinyl LPs including the 1994 Mobile Fidelity release of Stan Getz & João GilbertoGetz / Gilberto and an original Thelma Houston and Pressure CookerI Got the Music in Me, an audiophile direct-to-disk LP favorite when I was selling hi-fi in college in the early 80s. I also sampled a recent release of the 1963 Wes MontgomeryFull House, a half-speed mastered LP of one of the best damn jazz guitar live sets ever recorded.
With the AT-150 ML MM cartridge, the turntable set up was a perfect match with the Insight + SL phono stage. It gave all the good quality of vinyl without imparting any extra noise. Wes Montgomery’s L5 Gibson sound was quite nice with a convincing degree of Gibson electric archtop/Fender tube amp jazz tone. I should know; I play the same setup.
I have always been a fan of the AVA headphone amps. Just as in my 1994 EC hybrid preamp, a set of headphones revealed a lot with the new preamp. The Insight had no problem driving my reference AKG K701 s and K702s. Imaging was nice and spacious, and the solid state signal path was as quiet as the proverbial church mouse.

I have always been a fan of the AVA headphone amps. Just as in my 1994 EC hybrid preamp, a set of headphones revealed a lot with the new preamp. The Insight had no problem driving my reference AKG K701 s and K702s. Imaging was nice and spacious, and the solid state signal path was as quiet as the proverbial church mouse.

Speaking of my 1994 AVA EC hybrid preamp, even though they are different designs, Frank Van Alstine’s designs reveal similarities in their openness and musical timbre accuracy. The older EC is a touch warmer in sonic character — with a little bit more noise through the headphone amp. The Insight + SL also sounds slightly cleaner and quieter, with a snappier transient response than the older EC. Of course, the 1994 AVA pre is due for a cap job.
Speaking of the EC, the new preamps has a start-up delay that the original AVA preamps did not have. That is a good feature; I once fried a set of speakers because my amp was on and the EC’s unbuffered startup passed DC through to the transducers. I had to explain to the manufacturer what happened to his speakers.
I had no real complaints about the preamp. A set of balanced inputs/outputs would be nice as upgrade options, but then again this is the entry-level AVA preamp. A detachable, AC cord connector would be nice to allow audiophiles to use their high-end cords, if they so desired.

The verdict
All in all, the AVA Insight + SL is exactly what I expected from Frank Van Alstine’s latest product lineup: a minimalist-looking, high-end sounding preamp that relays the audio with relative accuracy, low-noise and open imaging. And it is a great price — even with the options. If you don’t need remote control and phono, the $899 price makes the Insight + SL a steal for a U.S.A.-made product. (I applaud Frank Van Alstine’s steadfast dedication to continue making these audio products by hand in his modest Minnesota factory). Of course, the AVA Insight + SL gets a Stellar Sound Award. For more info, go to www.avahifi.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is the purpose of using a different line cord? the ones wired are the correct gauge for the required input current. Are you saying a piece of AC line cord has different sound? Explain that with facts, not innuendo and fairy dust.