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Audio by Van Alstine – Fet Valve Phono Section (Prototype)

September 28, 2013

Van Alstine

I had the privilege of auditioning a prototype of a high-end phono preamp by Audio by Van Alstine.  I met Frank Van Alstine last year when he demoed some of his products at the Audio Society of Minnesota.

At the Society’s most recent meeting Frank announced he would like to audition his prototype phono preamp in some members’ home systems.  I so loved what I had heard last year I jumped at the opportunity for Frank to sprinkle some of his pixie dust on my system – even if it was only going to a fleeting one evening upgrade.

I am not technical – I don’t understand audio and I don’t care that much to learn – I love music and I love how good equipment can enhance the listening experience.  Every time I get a new piece of equipment I discover something new about my old music.  Frank sent Dean Barnell over with the prototype.  Dean did his best to try to explain the piece (officially Fet Valve phone section): multi-stage, 4 tubes (2 AX7s and 2 AT7s), regulated power supply, blah, blah, blah.  It was lost on me.  I know Van Alstine makes great equipment and I just wanted to settle in and listen.  I have a pretty humble tube-based phono preamp (Bellari VP130).  I was curious if the Van Alstine would make much of a difference on a low-end system like mine – I assumed it would be different, but would it be desirably different?

Dean was a delightful listening partner and we sampled 7 albums.  First up was side one of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator.  I picked this because I knew it had a challenging mix – an 11-piece ensemble with a top-notch female blues vocalist.  The first thing I noticed was that the record sound much sharper and in focus without being harsh.  I had been listening to the album before Dean came over and it was muddy by comparison to what I was now hearing. This album has a very thick mix and if not played through a good system the 11 pieces can get lost or overshadowed, but through the Van Alstine all the musicians were clearly there without being jumbled mess.   Wow – Van Alstine had accomplished something here.

Next up was Laura Marling’s “Take The Night Off” from her excellent album Once I Was An Eagle.  This is much subtler, quite and acoustic cut than the Tedeschi Trucks we had just listened to and this exhibited another feature of the phono preamp: it was incredibly quite allowing the gentle nuances of Marling’s music to be fully revealed.

We moved on to some straight-ahead jazz from Woody Shaw’s live album Stepping Stones.  This is blowing session with lots of horn solos. The Van Alstine provided a nice wide live sound stage.

We moved to a funkier side of jazz with George Benson’s Giblet Gravy.  I picked this piece because I knew it had some pretty elaborate arrangements and heavy bottom end – namely some nasty baritone sax from Pepper Adams.  Baritone sax is a great test of an audio system and Van Alstine component brought it front and center.  Sadly I am re-listening right now on the Bellari VP130 and it sounds pretty muddy and most of all wimpy.  I will need to erase this Van Alstine from my mind.

Next up was the contemporary analog masterpiece Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.  This is bass heavy disco album and I started to see a theme here: Van Alstine really knows how to present the low-end in a way that I like – thick, yet punchy.

Tom Harrell’s Sudan from the soul jazz masterpiece Idris Muhammad’s House Of The Rising Sun spun next. This is a drum and percussion track that really featured the Van Alstine’s strengths: a strong low-end without upstaging the rest of the music.

We finished off with Ryan Adams Ashes & Fire (side 1) from 2011.  This is very dynamic album leaping from quite (and sometime silence) to loud within a single song.  The Van Alstine played the whisper as elegantly as the scream.

In summary this is a great piece of equipment that made an immediate positive impact to my humble system.  It chief positive characteristics for me were:

  • Its very positive handling of the bottom-end with out upstaging the rest of the music
  • Its delicate handling of the quite passages – it is so QUIET
  • Its crisp yet tube-icious texture

I am not the target market for this component – I have a collection of sub-$500 components and this is component, if it comes to market, will be much more than that.  But given the quality Audio by Van Alstine, the components are Rolexes at Seiko prices – expensive, yet a good value.  If you have a high-end system and are in need of a quality phono preamp you had better hope Van Alstine brings this prototype to market.

PS Audio by Van Alstine’s Dean Barnell was a great listening partner – he has mastered the fine art of conversing when appropriate and actively listening (silently) the rest of the time. A true gentleman to spin some wax with – nice to meet you Dean!


From → Audio

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