VAC Standard Preamplifier LE


Valve Amplification Company Röhren Vorverstärker in gutem optischen Zustand, technisch einwandfrei. Das kleine, ab Serie mitgelieferte Netzteil wurde vom Vorbesitzer durch ein kräftiges Röhren-Netzteil ersetzt, Kostenpunkt dieser sinnvollen Tuningmaßnahme 1250,-€. Der VAC Standard Vorverstärker ist schon bereits in der Serienversion ein Überflieger, dank der Modifikation nochmals eine Klasse besser!

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The Valve Amplification Company 

Standard Preamplifier -- Limited Edition

Henry Wilkenson 

There was a time when the preamplifier was the focal point for any high-end system. Apart from the speakers, the other signal sources were connected to the preamp and it, in turn, to the power amp or amps. While this is still true to some extent, today’s preamps bear little resemblance to those of past generations. Preamplifiers of yesteryear generally included a host of features. Full phono stages, phase reversal switch, tone controls and headphone jacks were common place. The quest for better sonic performance typically led to the elimination of many of these features. One by one, manufactures dropped their phono stages after vinyl was pronounced dead – turntables declared obsolete and the then new digital format became the path to 'perfect sound forever'. I find it most curious the great lengths to which some of my 'digitally' based friends are willing to go, in order to coax a more 'analogue' sound quality from their systems! I have always had a fondness for preamplifiers, tube units in particular. While I do appreciate the sonic merits of tube power amplifiers, I prefer the low frequency performance and the lack of required maintenance common to transistor designs, in addition to the lack of unpleasant surprises, such as sudden and sometimes disastrous tube failures associated with tube power amps.

{short description of image}Leon Rifkin is a friend and fellow audiophile who is in possession of a number of systems, all of which would be rated class 'A' by most people's measure. Because of his seemingly unquenchable thirst for top flight gear, I've taken to calling him 'Top Shelf' Leon. It was during a visit to his home for a listening session that I first had the opportunity to hear VAC amps. The system that he was using at that time consisted of the VAC Signature 140 Triode mono blocks and the two chassis Renaissance Signature preamplifier. I was very impressed by what I heard. The $13K (list) top of the line Signature model was way out of my price range, so I set my sights somewhat lower. Soon after hearing Leon’s VAC rig, I was on the phone with Mr. Kevin Hayes, the president of VAC, to arrange for a review sample of the Standard L.E. preamp.

The Valve Amplification Company is staffed by a group of people who are, by their own admission, 'fanatically passionate' about audio equipment, tube gear in particular. No one there is more passionate about music and audio gear than VAC’s founder and president, Kevin M. Hayes. In 1990 Kevin, along with his father Channing W. Hayes, started VAC with the goal of creating tube amplifiers that would allow the consumer to experience 'a more vivid and life-like reproduction of music in the home'.

{short description of image}The company is dedicated to using vacuum tube gear in a triode configuration. According to product literature, 'the triode vacuum tube is still the most linear amplifying element known. A tube amplifier, properly designed, preserves far more of the vitality of the original performance'. As many of you know, there is a hard core coterie of audiophiles who would not consider listening to anything other than tube gear. Any of the uninitiated who listen to music through well made tube gear will readily understand the attraction.

While it may not be widely known, in 1995, when Marantz decided to re-issue their classic Model 7 preamp, 8B and 9 amplifiers, in addition to their new Model 66, VAC was the company that actually produced these amps for Marantz. Judging by the success of this re-issue, Marantz’s confidence in VAC’s abilities was well placed. While the company maintains a penchant for tasteful, yet understated advertising, they have earned a reputation for producing extremely high quality products that are widely known by industry insiders and audiophiles alike.

The VAC Standard Preamplifier was introduced in 1999. The desire for an interim 'flagship' preamp resulted in the Standard Limited Edition. Essentially the LE is the standard preamp outfitted with VAC's premium, Renaissance-grade parts and remote control.


The VAC arrived in a rather large and heavy box. After removing the line stage, which seemed rather light, I wondered what it was that made the box so heavy. As soon as I removed the power supply from the box, I realized that it was responsible for the bulk of the weight. The power supply alone weighs 24 pounds, which is more than half of the total shipping weight. Generally, a robust power supply is a harbinger of good things to come. The power supply is fitted with an IEC connector which makes power cord experiments possible. The cord between the power supply and the line stage is captive on the power supply end, with a hefty barrel connector on the line stage end. The connector easily screws into the line stage, making for a very secure connection. The cord is of sufficient length to allow the power supply to be placed well away from the line stage.


The layout of the line stage is very straightforward. The front panel contains three small rotary controls and two large ones that control all of the preamps functions. Going from left to right facing the unit, the first control is a small knob that is the mute switch. The first large knob is the input selector. The inputs are simply numbered one through six. (Since the volume control and the input selector measure 2.5 inches in diameter, I suppose that they could be called dials.) My unit included moving coil and moving magnet phono stages. Therefore input number six is the default position for the phono functions. Between the volume control and the input selector is a small knob that is the selector for source and tape monitor. It also allows you to select the 'cinema' function. This input control has a fixed volume setting and bypasses all of the line stage functions. This is very handy where an outboard DAC, tuner or home theater processor, or any device that has its own volume control is used. The next large knob is the volume control and finally the small knob which is the on/off power switch. Above this switch is a small light that glows green when the power is on. Whenever you turn the power off, the mute is automatically engaged. This will prevent any ticks or pops being passed to the power amp and subsequently your speakers.

The layout along the rear panel is designed as simply and neatly as the front panel. From left to right, there are two outputs then five inputs that correspond to the numbers on the input selector. Continuing, there is one tape loop, the cinema input, and finally the phono stage. There is a small knob between the moving coil and the moving magnet inputs that is used to select either one; couldn’t be simpler. All of the inputs appear to be very high quality RCA jacks.

The owner’s manual is a simple and clearly written affair that explains all of the features and functions very well. The remote control is a small palm sized unit that controls the mute and volume functions.


For many years, the debate over which type of gear, tube or transistor, offered superior sound, was centered on the sonic merits and drawbacks of each. The tube detractors characterized tube gear as being overly euphonic, with a soft mushy sound, and having little or no extension at the frequency extremes. On the other hand, the tube supporters believed that all transistor gear sounded hard, harsh and harmonically sterile. The reality was that both camps had valid points. I’m not going to fight that battle or declare either side as being absolutely 'right' here. The point is that in audio, as with many other things, it is a matter of taste. Over the past few years, tube and transistor gear have been converging sonically. There are a number of transistor designs out there that possess the midrange characteristics and harmonic richness that only a short time ago was attributable solely to tubes. At the same time, tube gear has achieved the extension and low frequency performance that was previously unthinkable. The lines of demarcation aren’t as clearly drawn as they once were.

{short description of image}The VAC Standard LE sounded surprisingly good right out of the box. However, since the instructions in the owner’s manual indicated that the unit would need somewhere in the neighborhood of a 100+ hours of break in to achieve optimal performance, I followed those instructions prior to any serious evaluation.

I find it quite difficult to pin down the sound of the VAC SLE. I would characterize the sound to be well balanced tonally, with good extension at the frequency extremes. While the VAC is harmonically rich, the harmonic presentation is such that if you haven’t listened to tubes in a long while, you would not think that the VAC had a stereotypically 'tube' sound, that is, rolled top and flabby, out-of -control bottom.

The treble is extended and detailed. Jack De Johnette’s cymbal work on his album, Oneness [ECM 1637 537343-2], is striking. He is constantly weaving intricate patterns and accompanied by complex rhythms on his drum set. While this is typical of his playing, the VAC LE reveals more of the subtle nuances. This is combined with a tonal density that creates a more realistic and sonically pleasing presentation.

The all important midrange also exhibits superb performance. I especially appreciated piano performances with this preamp. Keith Jarrett’s CD, Up for it [ECM 1860 B0000406-02], is a good case in point. This is a recording of a live performance in France during the summer of 2002.Jarrett’s piano playing is articulate and intense. The VAC reveals the tonal complexities while allowing the notes to fade with a very good sense of decay. Jack De Johnette’s accompaniment is constant, almost as if he is soloing throughout the piece. The VAC handles all of this musical activity with ease. I can clearly follow every instrumental line in the piece. The VAC is revealing, without introducing any hardness or edginess. It also manages to avoid the glare that some components impart to the midrange.

The bass performance is excellent. While there are transistor designs that may go lower and be tighter in this region, the Standard L.E. handled everything with deep bass that I had on hand with ease. Mark Isham’s original motion picture soundtrack, Romeo is Bleeding [Verve 314 521 231-2], is music that is infused with a very deep bass line that helps to create the moody atmosphere of the piece. I like this piece of music but at the same time I consider it something of a torture test for a system. Given this, the VAC-SLE encountered no problems with this music.

With more traditional fare, the VAC-SLE was flawless. Ray Brown was a master bassist who played an upright double bass. On Live at Starbucks [Telark CD 83502], his solos were full, tonally rich and textured. With this preamp, the sound was always balanced, but it also presented the music with a compelling 'rightness', if you will. One of the difficulties writing this review was the fact that I constantly found myself listening to the music rather than to the sound of the equipment.

The Carlos Santana’s CD Supernatural [Arista 0782219080-2] is a compilation of songs that vary quite a bit from cut to cut. Some of them are full out, bass slammin’ rock cuts, while others are less so. One of the breakout cuts is Smooth with Rob Thomas. The VAC handles the full and weighty low end while keeping the midrange intact. Whenever the music is complex, the VAC never becomes congested or runs out of gas at anytime. All of the instrumental lines remain easy to follow.

How does it sound with vinyl?

As I wrote earlier, my review sample came with a phono stage included. Right off, I will describe it as an excellent phono stage. Paired with the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, the sound is terrific. Vinyl is a real joy with this phono section. I found myself listening to disk after disk, becoming reacquainted with my record collection. Mediocre recordings sounded ok while really good recordings sounded superb. One of my better recordings is Charles Lloyd at Big Sur [ECM 1465]. I also have the CD version of this recording, and in my opinion, this is a very good example of the sonic superiority of vinyl over digital. Lloyd’s smooth yet large sound comes across with a harmonic richness that the digital recording diminishes. By further comparison, the CD is more constrained and the images also seem to be much smaller.

Once again I was struck by the sonic differences between the recordings that I have in both the digital and vinyl formats. A case in point is Mingus Ah-Um [vinyl Columbia CS8171]. The VAC clearly allowed the differences between the two to be heard. The vinyl recording was so much fuller and richer throughout the frequency spectrum. While the images had a softer edge, they were larger and fleshier, if you will, than the CD recording. With record after record, the VAC phono stage never failed to bring out the joys of vinyl. To have a phono stage of this quality included in the purchase price is a welcome surprise.


The VAC Standard LE is one member of a family of top notch components. To say that it is a stellar performer would be something of an understatement. While this preamp handles the usual audiophile concerns such as imagining and top and bottom extension, it more importantly possesses the ability to serve the music. After all, isn’t that what this is supposed to be about? Music is presented without the edginess or glare that often passes for detail. Tonally, it is rich but not in any way euphonic; this is not your old time tube sound. The Standard LE is a welcome addition to my system. The only question that the LE raises in my mind is, how much better would the Renaissance sound in my system? Hummm…


Remote controlled Class A all Triode Vacuum Tube Preamplifier with outboard Power supply. 

Optional Class A all Triode Vacuum Tube 

MM Phono Stage 

MC Phono step-up (wideband transformer coupled) 

Tube Complement: 2x 12AX7 low noise (MM phono option) 2x 12AX7 (line stage) 2x 12AU7/6189A (line stage)Dimensions: Main Chassis – 18'w X 4'H X 15.3' D (Plus knobs and connectors) 

Power Supply – 4.3w X 5.3'H X 6'D 

Shipping Weight: 40lbs. Approx. 

Three years parts and labor warranty, excluding tubes.