It’s not uncommon to hear an audio manufacturer boast that a less-expensive model benefits from “trickle-down technology” developed for a flagship, or that the humble product “shares the same DNA.” In reality, though, such claims often are more hyperbole than an indication the units have strong performance similarities.
Yet, when Valve Amplification Co. president Kevin Hayes mentioned that the preamp I was listening to at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest — the Renaissance Mk. V ($9,990 USD) — shared a number of key parts with VAC’s $75,000 top-of-the-line Statement, I took it as more than marketing bluster.
The reason for my lack of skepticism was that I was sitting there listening to this “entry level” (for VAC) line stage doing a remarkable job feeding a $96,000-a-pair (USD) set of speakers, the Tannoy Kingdom Royal Mk.2s. The sound was organic, polished, transparent and emotional.
“The Renaissance Mk. V’s circuit is the same transformer-coupled Class A balanced triode design found in the Statement,” Hayes told me.
As with last year’s VAC display at RMAF, the company decided to highlight the more affordable end of its line. Indeed, the equipment list was much the same, with the Renaissance Mk. V, Signature 200 iQ monoblocks ($14,000 each USD) and a VAC DAC from 1993 ($4,990 USD). A new piece was the Renaissance phono stage ($9,900 USD), which was making its show debut. Like its sister preamp, the new phono unit is derived from a much more costly Statement model.
In 2016, VAC paired its electronics with the stand-mounted Harbeth 40.2s ($14,795 a pair USD). That system’s sheer musicality earned my Best of Show award and prompted me to gush about it like I had no other rig all year. In fact, I believe I wished aloud that Hayes would ship it from Denver directly to my house. This is not conduct reviewers often engage in.
Switching in 2017 to the large, floor-standing Tannoys — which cost more than six times as much as the Harbeths — you’d think Hayes might have broke out his own big guns. But what was notable about VAC’s bottom-rung gear was that it didn’t appear to be straining or revealing any weaknesses as it was put to the test.
A vinyl copy of the Ray Brown Trio’s Soular Energy, for example, sounded sublime. At first, I thought the system might be slightly rolled-off, but when Gene Harris began working the upper end of his piano and drummer Gerryck King added some cymbal splashes, it became obvious that the VAC/Tannoy rig just had an appealing smoothness. All the detail and dynamics you’d want were there. You just soaked them up.
The sound, although slightly warm, also had both immediacy and detail, which is a difficult trick to pull off. Brown’s bass notes were easily followed — you could almost see his left hand going up and down the neck — and every string pop and buzz was palpable. In addition, it was fun to listen for the variety of subtle accents being added by King, some of which I don’t recall hearing as clearly on other systems.
I’ve auditioned VAC’s pricier stuff, and it is definitely impressive. But Hayes can rightly be very proud of his Renaissance models as well. In this case, I don’t think he’s stretching to compare the two. As for his 2016 RMAF system versus this year’s, I’m not sure which I’d choose. If the 2017 show kit is still in transit to VAC headquarters, I may have to call UPS and try imitating Kevin’s voice.