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Tubes Asylum: REVIEW: Valve Amplification Company AVATAR Integrated Amplifier (Tube) by Mark C.

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REVIEW: Valve Amplification Company AVATAR Integrated Amplifier (Tube)

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Category: Integrated Amplifier (Tube)
Suggested Retail Price: $3,490.
Description: 60 watts p/ch.
Manufacturer URL: Valve Amplification Company
Manufacturer URL: Valve Amplification Company

Review by Mark C. ( A ) on April 28, 2002 at 06:45:57
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for the AVATAR

I have owned my Avatar almost 1 year now. It replaced a very respectful Jolida 502A. I had performed some modifications to my Jolida but realized there were limits that just couldn’t be overcome via internal upgrades so I set out to find a better tube integrated. Because of my speakers limitations I confined the contenders to tube integrated amps which were at least 50 watts.

I had narrowed down my search to the Avatar and the VTL IT-85. I had the opportunity to audition the IT 85 in my home but couldn’t audition the Avatar. While the IT 85 was a nice amp it sound very “solid state like” to my ears. I thought it might be in need of better tubes but found out if I changed the tubes I would void the warranty. I didn’t like the idea of not being able to do any tube rolling so I looked more seriously at the Avatar but it was used whereas the VTL was a demo with a full warranty. I called Kevin Hayes of VAC and between talking in depth with him and the reviews on the Avatar I purchased the Avatar without hearing it. A little scary I know! Two of the most significant selling points for me were the home theater bypass and the phono stage. Another feature which I really like with the Avatar is the ease in biasing the tubes.

I rediscovered this crazy hobby about 3 years ago after building a home theater. I found very quickly that I also rediscovered music and began the process of trying to build an integrated HT/2 channel music system which many folks said couldn’t be done. I think the Avatar does a wonderful job integrating the two systems.

I purchased my Avatar used through Audio Shopper and it is the standard version. It doesn’t have a remote control but that’s ok. I don’t find myself getting up and down to adjust the volume. That said it is a feature I probably wouldn’t use much so I’m ok without it. The buying experience wasn’t one of the better one’s I have had but due to the seller selling for a friend but in the end everything worked out.

Upon receiving the Avatar the first thing I noted was how heavy it was. This baby is one heavy amp thanks to those big transformers. I unboxed the Avatar and carefully inspected it. The build quality is first rate compared to my Jolida, although for almost 4 times the price I guess it should be. The faceplate is very nice looking. The bias meter in the middle of the faceplate adds a nice nostalgic look to the amp. In addition to the volume and source selector controls it has a monitor mode as well as the home theater by-pass and mute function. On the inside of the amp right behind the power tubes is a toggle switch for the UL and Triode operation. The tubes in the Avatar appeared to be the factory tubes which came with the amp. I understand that VAC uses primarily Chinese tubes. I powered the amp up in the ultra linear mode and biased the power tubes. This was a very easy job to do. The Avatar has a very user friendly biasing system compared to my Jolida which was a bit cumbersome trying to hold the leads from the volt meter, a screwdriver and trying to keep from getting burned on those hot tubes.

Upon first listening to the Avatar after allowing it to warm up I found the sound much more refined than what I was use to with the Jolida. The highs were cleaner, the bass seemed more taught, the timbre seemed more natural and the dynamics seemed much improved. Another thing I immediately noticed was a much larger soundstage. It was taller and deeper although the width was about the same as produced by the Jolida never extending beyond the boundaries of the speakers.

On the detractor side of things it seemed as though there was an ever so slight harshness which I immediately picked up on. There also seemed to be a hint of hardness as well. I was able to correct both of those shortcomings by simply changing out the pre-amp tubes and the phase splitter tubes. I changed the pre-amp tubes to smooth plate Telefunken’s and the phase splitter tubes to RCA clear tops. This combination took the edge off and really added additional refinement to the sound. I eventually changed out the power tubes trying both Svetlana EL-34’s and JJ E34L’s. I found the latter to provide a more “natural timbre and dynamics whereas the Svetlana seemed to have less noise and a more pleasing midrange at the expense of the upper frequency extreme. I also think the soundstage was slightly superior with the Svetlana but just a bit to warm for me.

After getting use to the sound I switched to the triode mode of operation but found I didn’t care for the lush midrange at the expense of the frequency extremes and the decrease in power wasn’t enough for my Phase Tech 10.5’s especially in complex musical passages. While playing Reference Recordings RR-63CD, Big Band Basie by Clark Terry and Frank Wess, the amp ran out of power a couple of times during track 1, Shiny Stockings. I switched back to ultra linear mode and found it to be more to my liking than triode. As a side note, I recently replaced my Phase Tech’s with a pair of Triangle Celius which would probably respond better to triode but I’m still not sure I would prefer the loss of frequency extremes and some dynamics to gain midrange.

In conclusion I’m very satisfied with the Avatar. While my budget forced me to buy used, I’m very pleased with the Avatar’s performance for the price I paid. I have no desire to try and upgrade this amp like I have previously felt with other amplification. If you are in the market for a great tube integrated don’t pass up the opportunity to consider the Avatar on your list.

Product Weakness: Bass probably not the absolute best. Factory installed tubes can be improved upon.
Product Strengths: Flexibility, timbre, soundstaging, imaging

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: VAC Avatar
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): none
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Sony DVP S9000ES; Music Hall MMF-5
Speakers: Triangle Celius (recently replaced Phase Technology PC 10.5)
Cables/Interconnects: Nordost Blue Heaven, Harmonic Tech Precision Link; Speaker wire Mapleshade Golden Helix
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, Blues(acoustic), Classical, some Country and Rock
Room Size (LxWxH): 16 x 13 x 7
Room Comments/Treatments: Carpeted floor over concrete slab; painted drywall; assortment of furniture
Time Period/Length of Audition: 1 year
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): none
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Valve Amplification Company AVATAR Integrated Amplifier (Tube) - Mark C. 06:45:57 04/28/02 ( 2)