This is a story about that time I joined a cult (or maybe two). In this review I stand to gain nothing and lose everything by telling you how staggeringly capable the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier is at delivering all of the musical goods. I am here to confess a rare and simple truth—that true high-end sound does not have to be a luxury. The mere utterance of this truth could shatter “the system” and render all of our phony-baloney writing jobs into the bin of oblivion.
I’ve occasionally kept up with the AVA forum as to the happenings at Audio by Van Alstine (avahifi.com) for at least a few decades. I have seen several AVA circuit designs come and go with equal amount of cheers and tears. I have seen the fandom surrounding the AVA brand be met with equal push-back. There are many cult-like followings in hi-fi, and if I were urged to name the most rabid of the bunch, I might say it to be the AVA owners community.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a time when all Audio by Van Alstine products were sold with a captive (hard-wired) power cord. The idea that anyone purchasing an AVA product would find better performance with the use of “audiophile voodoo” cables was deemed silly by the AVA coterie. That’s a contrarian stance to say the least in terms of adhering to the codified tenants of audiophilia. The mumpsimus nature of the AVA brand’s adherence (early on) to the limited option of a black box chassis for every component to bear the company name was probably another issue of hot contention, and fuel to the disparaging fire from abroad. This “atmosphere of cultishness” surrounding the AVA brand doesn’t come from company founder Frank Van Alstine. Nor is it fair to place the blame on Mr. Van Alstine, as he is simply producing a product designed the way he believes is right, and the people—audiophiles or not—are free to take it or leave it.
It was only recently that I had the chance to submit to an AVA component in my system. Prior to that, I was lucky to even catch a glimpse of Mr. Van Alstine at audio shows.
Along the way of this story, social media played a part in how I stayed connected to the AVA community, and subsequently to this review. It was back in 2017 when Mr. Van Alstine posted a link to his personal Facebook page announcing the new AVA Vision RB Preamplifier for $899 USD. A measly sum to ask for a hand-built, point-to-point wired, solid state device. I was compelled to post a comment. I urged Mr. Van Alstine to consider making the new Vision RB preamplifier into a full-fledged integrated amplifier. Should we call this a moment of inspiration for Mr. Van Alstine? Fast forward to February of 2020, another link to Mr. Van Alstine’s facebook page, this time announcing the new Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier ($1,199 USD). I reach out to Mr. Van Alstine immediately after seeing his posting, and arrange for a review of the new amplifier.
At the end of the last paragraph, I addressed the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier as just that—an amplifier. It is not an integrated amplifier, though in practical terms it functions exactly like one. There are reasons for highlighting this distinction as it relates to sound, and even more as a case-of-use nitpick.
On the outside: the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier starts with a rugged black metal chassis. A casework borrowed from the Audio by Van Alstine Vision RB Preamplifier. Behind the fascia of the new control amplifier only the source selector, headphone output, and power switch remain. No standby mode. No remote option.
On the inside: the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier is a hand built, point-to-point wired, Single-Ended Transistor voltage amplifier which offers 60 Watts per channel stereo into 8 Ohm loads, and “much more” (as stated on the website) into 4 Ohm loads. It is a class-A/B design with a high bias class-A for the first 10 Watts. If those specs sounds familiar, you might already be a fan of the Audio by Van Alstine brand. Yes, the amplifier stage is borrowed from the existing Vision SET 120 Power Amplifier (itself just $899 USD). Different from the basic amplifier is an added 6dB of gain applied at the amplifier’s input stage, downstream of the source selector and volume control.
I am sure you’ve always wanted a to own hand-built, point-to-point wired, SET amplifier. But did you expect it be transistor-based?
For additional insight on the circuit design of the Van Alstine Single Ended Transistor (SET) amplifier, I turned to our burgeoning “technical editor to be”, Grover Neville.
Technical Commentary by Grover Neville, Contributor
The guts of the Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier are astonishingly simple, so much so that they make Pass Labs amplifiers look complex. Inside the Van Alstine Control Amplifier: a nice large toroidal power transformer is accompanied by several simple but well-regulated power supplies. The amplifier topology is something Van Alstine terms “Single Ended Transistor” which implies a kinship with tube amplifier designs. From what I can see of the build, it looks to be a bipolar junction transistor (BJT) input stage which handles the voltage duties, followed by a MOSFET output stage handling current duties. It is rare to see a solid state amplifier stage so stripped back to its bare essentials, but the circuit here is elegant and the parts selection surprisingly premium for such an inexpensive amplifier. I would expect the SET 120 to be an exceedingly pure and ‘clean’ sounding amplifier. Not the kind of perfect-measuring, analytical sounding ‘clean’ that often results from high-order harmonics and excessive damping. There is something beautiful, or at least aesthetically sensible in the total simplicity of the Van Alstine control amplifier.
From my own perspective the goal of the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier is multifaceted one. To present clear sonics, savings and simplicity. It’s cheaper to build a control amplifer, and that doesn’t really need much explaining. The typical simplicity of a control amplifier design puts the sonic characteristics of the amplifier up front and center. A control amplifier lets you experience a well designed amplifier on its own between source and speaker. The genius of this is that the amplifier receives direct exposure to the source signal. Only an infinite slope of volume attenuation stands by as a safeguard. No middle man in the signal path imparting its own color to the sound.
So, you make ask, “Why not just buy the Audio by Van Alstine Vision SET 120 Amplifier for $899 USD and then add a cheap $99 passive volume control in a box?”
To that question I would come back with this snarky answer, “Because that formula won’t get you these four things.”
What are those four things? Firstly, you are not likely to find a quality passive volume control that also includes a four-input source selector along with a headphone output. Secondly, the Van Alstine control amplifier includes an additional 6dB of gain at the amplifier input stage. Where exactly are you going to find that? Thirdly, this control amplifier uses the acclaimed Alps “Blue Velvet” Stereo Potentiometer for volume control duties, which in parts terms isn’t a thrifty add-on. Fourthly, if you were to find a single box option that magically did all of these four things (without being active), the combined cost with amplifier would be more than the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier at $1,199 USD. So there! You’re stuck.
There is a case to be made for the need of an active preamplifier. For example: long cable runs, source output impedance issues, etc. In my experience with the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier, it is not needed. The added 6dB of gain inside the control amplifier elevated every source I could find to proper operating volumes. The ‘lifeless‘ description that often plagues passive volume control designs was nowhere to be found. However, if desired you can still use the SET 120 control amplifier as just a basic amplifier. Just plug a preamplifier into any available input set on the rear of the control amplifier, source select that set of inputs, and set the amplifier volume control to whatever works best with your preamplifier. AVA technicians do this all the time when going through “final system checkout” at the factory.
There is also a case to be made for the want of an active preamplifier. An active preamplifier can make up for a less than optimal source or amplifier designs. Many amplifiers on the market can sound rather lifeless on their own, which is why I’ve always kept a passive volume control on hand for auditioning new amplifiers. A passive volume control allows me to hear exactly what the prospective new amplifier brings to the table.
Active preamplifiers often make every source sound more alive by comparison to their passive counterparts. But to a subjective detriment they can also make every source sound more the same. An active preamplifier can add a splash of wanted color to connected sources. And as pleasant as that idea may be, ask yourself these questions: 1) If the amplifier you have is “bacon,” do you really need to add salt? 2) If your source is already excellent, why doctor it up? You can decide to buy the AVA Vision-series separates with an active preamplifier at the helm, and nearly double the price of the SET 120 control amplifier.
Addressing the lack of remote, the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier taught to me early on that most of my listening habits do not actually require a remote. When I’m listening to CDs or vinyl, I find a comfortable volume level at the beginning of my listening session and stick with it. Never mind the fact that every time I want to change a disc, I have to get out of my listening chair and manually do so. In living with the control amplifier, I’ve found myself going up to a week or more without ever adjusting the volume knob. As for digital music streaming, things become even easier. Most of the streaming devices and interfaces I use bring their own set of volume control to the party. Simple enough right?
You’ll always be in less trouble if you tell the truth
So how does the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier actually sound? Trying my best to parse between suspected marketing, forum mythology, specs, and my own doubts, I was half-way expecting the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier to arrive and underwhelm me with vibe-less weak willed sterility. With “more resolution” the only thing left to hang on to. Boy was I wrong!
I’ve had control amplifiers in my system before, and the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier is just outright better. I’d like to tell you that what I was hearing most was the amplifier, as it had plenty of tonal character to be spoken for. But what I was noticing in my system first was the distinct flavour of all my sources. It was glorious!
Does this mean the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier the ultimate playground for testing sources? Possibly. So long as your source output voltage is up to par (as most modern 2V output sources are). The AVA control amplifier has given me a deeper appreciation for a great sounding source. Each source now sounds unique with the AVA installed. My system now displays a stable of rich characters to choose from. Sources now take on a greater sense of individuality and personality alike.
The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier sounds like a set of high-quality separates because in essence that’s what it is. There is no active preamplifier drawing upon a single shared power supply. Which in most cases that is the biggest curse placed upon integrated amplifiers, especially to those priced anywhere near AVA SET 120.
It should be the sound of the amplifier section in the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier that what we talk about exclusively from here going forward. Because this SET (Single Ended Transistor) amplifier, though an uncommon design, gives you something even more uncommon. Sixty-Watts of uncommonly beefy power, with a lively first ten of those watts in being delivered in high bias class-A. And based on the $1,199 USD asking price, you would think we might be talking about the Olive Garden-Edition of class-A amplification. That my friends, we are not.
For the majority of this review using the Vandersteen 2CE Signature speakers made the most logical sense. The 2CE is an affordable, ubiquitous, and a will-expose-greatness-in-most-anything-connected-to-it type of loudspeaker. That’s not to say that everything fed into the 2CE sounds great. That is a myth. But as a blanket rule nearly every amplifying component has a chance of sounding good on the 2CE.
I have said it before—”you can power a pair of Vandersteen 2CE’s with a clock radio amplifier, and they’d still sound pretty.” Fear not as this “plays well with others” attitude inherent to the 2CE does not shut the door on achieving true greatness. Played with greater electronics the 2CE will indeed sound greater than their retail price would suggest. The only sad part of this attribute is that most 2CE owners will stop short in their pursuit of greatness once arriving at a comfortable “plateau of good sound.” For them, not realizing that more character and detail is waiting to be experienced is their curse to bear.
Over the months of living with the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier, I found myself listening for eight to ten hours of each day. What can I say, 2020 has had some upsides. Countless hours of songs, movie soundtracks, and video game music were passed through the AVA control amplifier. For the remainder of my listening notes however, I will stick to music exclusively. The songs listed can all be found in my Part-Time Audiophile playlist, linked HERE on Qobuz.
Firing up “Our Anniversary” by Smog from their 2003 album Supper, the AVA SET 120 offered up noticeably deeper bass than I was expecting from a simple control amplifier design. The dry vocals of lead singer Bill Callahan were imbued with a detailed rumble. The AVA amplifier did well to capture this track’s warm and comfortable vibe, while still giving enough glow to guitar and air to ride cymbals. This track is typically a be sleepy sounding on less resolving systems. With the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier this track receives that needed dose of caffeine.
Moving on to “Mira” by Melody Gardot from her 2018 album Live In Europe, I’m treated with more of that muscular deep bass that underpins everything when the song calls for it. Percussion instruments and noise makers had a sharp attack at the leading edges, cymbals and strings had a clarity to them informed me of the performers touch. Melody’s voice really glowed, taking an aura to it in the sound-stage. The Vandersteen 2CE Signature speakers are really singing. Hallelujah!
Listening to “Space Lion” by Seatbelts (シートベルツ, Shītoberutsu) from the COWBOY BEBOP original motion picture soundtrack, I found more to the musical story than expected. The low mid-range tone of the drums was enjoyably more rich. The raspy reed texture of the saxophone solo that occupies the majority of the composition was detailed and taking a bit more of the lead. The saxophone solo now had an aggressive bite and a more emotionally driving strength.
Falling in love (again) with “Grand Duo de Concert No.1 sur des airs Nationaux Anglais” for violin and cello by duoW from their 2013 debut album Entendre was a revelatory experience. Meta Weiss’ cello mastery is given with full exposition, and Arianna Warsaw-Fan’s violin was soaring. The duo have a chemistry like few I’ve heard. The imaging ability of Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier brought everything to the foreground, giving those spatial micro-details more insight. Often those little details are left unaccounted for with these two brilliant performers taking up so much compositional space of their own, on the AVA SET 120 they become a part of a clearer picture.
Getting emotional with “Songs My Mother Taught Me” by Kian Soltani from his 2020 album Dvořák: Cello Concerto, was exactly what I needed it to be—deeply emotional. Could an amplifier such as the AVA SET 120, with an inclination to make everything it played become more detailed and exciting, still contain the ability to render music smoothly enough to allow me to submit to the pain and solitude of this track? In short, yes. I haven’t shed this flavour of tears since first watching that scene in Dumbo where the tiny pachyderm protagonist was forced to witness his mother being jailed for
going berserk protecting her offspring from an onslaught of ridicule and abuse.
Enter The Zu
Almost as a goof, I attached the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier to a pair of Zu Audio Druid Mk V loudspeakers (which currently reside at the home of fellow Part-Time Audiophile contributor Nan Pincus) just to see if I could find a rough side to this mountain. The Zu Druids are finicky with setup, amplification, cables, and rooms. The Druids are a handful. Installing the Druids at the end of the chain, and firing up various rock ballads from the mid-80s, I was quite thrilled with how things turned out. Not having had much luck with the Druids when powered by my other solid state options, I was treated to something that felt new. Everything became more SET-like with the AVA amplifier. Does this AVA SET 120 actually have a kinship with tube amplifiers? Possibly. But the only way to really find out is to take this solid state control amplifier on the road, and compare it to some seriously good tube amplification. More on that later.
Okay, am I going insane here?
I have arrived at a bit of a conundrum with how the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier has performed during my review period. It’s so good, that if I were to list the brand names and models of the class-A/B solid state integrated amplifiers that retail for <$4,000 USD (in as old as 2003 money) that have come through my system, and then go further and tell you that the AVA control amplifier is my favourite among them. I’d be summarily ushered out of the industry press corp post haste.
Oh wait, did I forget the headphone output? Well, not really. The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier does have a quarter-inch single ended headphone output and I don’t feel there is much I need to say about its performance. The headphone output of the AVA control amplifier is a nice inclusion and dutiful performer at the price. But it ultimately lacks the power and finesse needed to get my emotions going with serious headphones.
Not to say that the AVA control amplifier wouldn’t do as a headphone amplifier with sub-$600 headphones that tilt to the warmer, fatter, and juicier side of the eq spectrum. That it can do. As for more casual headphone listeners, the “dutiful” performance I described above might do more than impress.
During my two-channel listening the synergy of source, amplifier, and speaker mattered plenty. Exclusively with the headphone output of the AVA control amplifier I found the need to tailor the system synergy towards warmer and darker sources. And to also select headphones that displayed a more energetic mass market sound (see Harman Curve) than those whose presentation was more flat and insightful.
The headphone output of the AVA control amplifier is shunted directly from the main amplifier, and with that let’s just say the AVA SET 120 works better amplifying speakers than amplifying headphones. These days, a quality dedicated headphone amplifier is affordable enough and offers an overall better headphone listening experience. To that end I recommend the dedicated option for listeners who want more.
On The Road
Having feared that I’ve fallen in love with the wrong girl (again), I hauled the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier off to what I propose to be the best combination of ears and brain in our industry, fellow Part-Time Audiophile contributor member Dave McNair, also known as the multi-Grammy Award winning mastering engineer of Dave McNair Mastering.
Installing the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier into Dave’s system seemed almost laughable when compared to the associated components in the system. Each of them easily costing between four and ten times the price of the AVA SET 120. It was decided to that we perch the control amplifier atop one of the class-A Pass Labs monoblocks to begin warming up. We figured borrowing some heat from a chunky monoblock would speed up the process.
While waiting for the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier to warm up, we took to listening to the rest of Dave’s system as it was. We ran through a few reference records from Dave’s collection on the Rega RP10 turntable, feeding either of the RCM Audio or Moon by Simaudio phono stages at hand. Switching back and forth between the two phono-stages, we came to slightly prefer Moon by Simaudio but by only the slimmest of margins. From the phono-stage we fed the output signal to an already warm Audio Hungary Qualiton APX 200 Vacuum Tube Stereo Power Amplifier that Dave reviewed earlier this year. From there it all went to a pair of Qln Prestige Three loudspeakers, also reviewed by Dave.
The AudioHungary APX 200 has a really cool feature for a stand-alone amplifier. An isolated pair of RCA inputs feeding a passive volume control. Which then turns this beautiful stereo tube amplifier into a control amplifier just like the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120. Making for a rather square comparison between the two.
Dave cued up the first record, and we set ourselves to capturing a mental snapshot of Dave’s native stereo systems amplification characteristics. Dave’s system sounded absolutely amazing. The image plane was wide and deep, extending well outside the boundaries of the Qln speakers, and pushing far through the brick fireplace on the back wall of his home’s west-wing parlor. After a few rounds with the all-tube Qualiton APX 200 now emblazoned on our brains, we quickly make a switch over to the solid state Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier.
Immediately we hear that the all-tube Qualiton APX 200 is an order of magnitude better than the all solid state Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier. The APX 200 is better in all comparable aspects, and even a better still in a few aspects that no solid state amplifier is ready to address. From there we switch to the Pass Labs XA60.8 mono-blocks (fronted by a PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell preamplifier), which like the Van Alstine control amplifier, the XA60.8 mono-blocks offer up 60 watts per channel but with all of them available in pure class-A. Making for a rather square comparison between the two.
This time, we’re treated to a extra dollop of subterranean bass (40-50 Hz) that neither the Qualiton APX 200 nor the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier deliver in the same way as the XA60.8. In the mid-bass, mid-range, and treble, the Qualiton APX 200 remained the ultimate winner of the three. But don’t be fooled, the Pass Labs mono-blocks still offered up a dazzling sound with the Qln Prestige Three loudspeakers. If perhaps one were to only experience the XA60.8 mono-blocks powering the Qln Prestige Three loudspeakers the end result would still be one for the record books. It must be said, that what Dave and I were doing on this day was nothing more than an exercise in splitting the differences between blonde Norwegian short hairs.
Continuing with what we experienced in Dave McNair’s system. At the top of the mid-range and in the treble—a place where the music lives and dies on its ability to communicate—the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier was the choice we preferred from the available solid state options. It was less soft in the airy bits, more fun at the attacks, and more alive where needed with Dave’s speakers. The amount of bass energy dished out by the Van Alstine control amplifier was more comparable to the amount given by the Qualiton, and of a dynamic balance we favoured. Of the three amplifiers we tossed around that day, with cost being no factor, I would have awarded the Van Alstine control amplifier a second place ribbon without thinking twice about it. Yikes!
At many points throughout that day, Dave and I tried to formulate a few talking points about the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier and adeptly quantify how it fared in Dave’s system. One statement being, “The entry point to real high-end sound is now in the hands of Frank Van Alstine, as he gets you both feet and a couple of ankles inside the door.” Which offers a nice aspirational viewpoint.
Another being, “The Qualiton APX 200 on the Qln’s will urge you to buy the Qualiton. The Van Alstine SET 120 on the Qln’s will urge you to buy the Qln’s.” This of course is a top down vantage point, and one that tickles the brain in enjoyable ways regarding the AVA SET 120’s abilities.
Infrequent it is to find yourself enjoying a stereo system with an amplifier that costs nearly one tenth of the loudspeakers it’s pushing. It is more infrequent that the same amplifier forces you to positively ponder the decision of its inclusion in the system. In the end to conclude that the odd pairing to be a an unlikely work of great synergy.
Conclusion – Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier
If the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier were a drug-store shaving cream it would be Noxzema Menthol, which has not been available for many years. If you were lucky to have experienced Noxzema Menthol shaving cream, you know it was better than two cups of coffee first thing in the morning. The Van Alstine control amplifier—like the Noxzema Menthol shaving cream of yore—brought my senses into focus, and it woke me up.
The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier could be a perfectly functional centerpiece of a great-sounding stereo system. It could also be the most ideal amplifier for a second-system. And due to its dead quiet and noiseless background, I would also consider it as a ‘smarter-than-self-powered‘ solution for those who prefer the experience of near-field monitors. With that, I am hard-pressed to think of a place where I would not like to hear the SET 120 perform.
The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier in my opinion offers a far better sound than the trendy popular class-D (or tube-hybrid) integrated amplifiers of today. It’s not that I have anything against class-D amplifiers, it’s just that I still think affordable class-D has some ground to cover if it wants to catch up with well designed class-A/B.
At (or near) the price of the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier, most integrateds will seem damped and constrained by comparison, or even worse—just plain horrible. The AVA SET 120 is exciting enough to move you to the edge of your seat, and still smooth enough to for extended listening sessions without the fear of pushing any listener into a state of fatigue.
For extraordinary value and extraordinary performance, The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier earns our Editor’s Choice Award, and more, claims our coveted JULIA Award for Best Value.
UPDATE: Frank Van Alstine recently ‘tested’ his SET 120 amplifier with the Magnepan LRS, after receiving numerous inquires about the pairing. His team of listeners found the LRS speaker quite capable and the pairing a great match for their SET 120 amplifier. Saying “The combo will play as loud as I would ever want without distress from either the amplifier or speakers.”
Note that the SET 120 60W/Channel amplifier actually is 120W/Ch into the LRS 4 Ohm load.