This is a story about that time I joined a cult (or 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.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
I have read the forums aplenty as to the happenings at Audio by Van Alstine (avahifi.com) for at least a few decades. I have seen Audio by Van Alstine circuit designs come and go. With each new product the members of the AVA brand forum jumping for joy at the design implementations. I have seen the Audio by Van Alstine preference for the steel black box chassis become a mainstay characteristic of the iconic brand. Even as every other manufacturer clamors to stay ahead of the trending enclosure of the day. I have seen the fandom surrounding the AVA brand come with some 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 the Audio by Van Alstine community. The Audio Circle forum posts over the last ten-to-fifteen years concerning the Audio by Van Alstine brand—along with what others had to say about the brand—could begin to leave the casual lurker skeptical.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a time when Audio by Van Alstine products were exclusively produced with a simplistic hard-wired power cord as the only option. Eschewing the idea that anyone purchasing a Van Alstine product would find better performance with the use of “audiophile voodoo” cables. That’s a contrarian move to say the least in terms of the codified tenants of the hobby. 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.
This “atmosphere of cultishness” surrounding the Audio by Van Alstine brand doesn’t come from within the brand, or 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.
As for my own experience, it was only recently that I had the chance to submit my senses to an Audio by Van Alstine component in my system. Prior to that, I was lucky to even catch a glimpse of Frank Van Alstine in passing at audio shows.
Along the way of this story, social media played a major factor in how I stayed connected to the Audio by Van Alstine community, and subsequently to this review. It was back in 2017 when Mr. Van Alstine published a press release to his personal Facebook page announcing a new Vision RB Preamplifier for $899 USD, which is a measly sum to ask for a hand-built, point-to-point wired, solid state device, especially in hi-fi terms. In the comment section below his press release, I felt compelled to post a comment. I urged the premise of the new Vision RB preamplifier chassis becoming a full-fledged integrated amplifier. Should we call this a moment of inspiration for Mr. Van Alstine?
Fast forward to February of 2020, another press release, and this time announcing the new Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier ($1,199 USD). Missing from this release, the word integrated. More on that later. I reach out to Mr. Van Alstine immediately after seeing his Facebook 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 in technical terms, though in practical terms it functions exactly like one. There are good reasons for my beholding to this terminology, 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 the 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, a headphone output, and power switch that remain from the aforementioned preamplifier. No standby mode. No remote.
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 towards class-A, which is safe way of saying it’s 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 ($899 USD). Different from the Vision-series amplifier is an added 6dB of gain applied at the amplifier’s input stage, post source selector and volume control. Now, I am sure you have always wanted a to own hand-built, point-to-point wired, SET amplifier. But did you expect it be transistor-based? I didn’t.
For more detailed insight on the design of the Van Alstine Single Ended Transistor (SET) amplifier, I turn now 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 does that really need much explaining? No. As to the simplicity of it all, 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 as safeguard. No middle man imparting its own color to the signal.
So, you make ask yourself, “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 a snarky answer: “Because that recipe 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 cheap add-on. Fourthly, if you were to find a single box option that magically did all of these 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 the case of the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier, it is not needed from my experience. The added 6dB of gain inside the control amplifier did elevate every source I could find to proper operating volumes. The ‘lifelessness’ description that often plagues passive volume control applications was nowhere to be found. However, you can indeed use the SET 120 control amplifier as 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. Van Alstine does this all the time when doing final system checkout at the factory.
There is also a case to be made for the want of an active preampilifer. An active preamplifier can make up for a less than optimal amplifier designs. Many amplifiers on the market can sound rather lifeless on their own, which is why I always keep a passive volume control on hand for auditioning new amplifiers. The passive control allows me to hear exactly what the prospective amplifier brings to the musical table.
Active preamplifiers can make every source connected sound more alive. But to a subjective detriment they can also make every source begin to sound more the same. An active preamplifier can add a splash of wanted color and seasoning to all of your sources. And as pleasant as that may be, ask yourself these questions: If the amplifier you have is “bacon,” do you really need to add salt? If your source is already excellent, why doctor it up? You can otherwise decided to buy the Audio by Van Alstine Vision-series separates with an active preamplifier at the helm, and to do so you’ll also double the number of black boxes needed, and do it at nearly double the price of the SET 120 control amplifier. All that, just to arrive at essentially the same place.
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 often stick with it. Never mind the fact that every time I want to change a disc, or the side of the record, I have to get out of my listening chair and manually swap discs, flip records, or cue the tonearm. 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 interfaces I use bring their own 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? What I am essentially going to tell you might be startling. Best simply stated as an amplifier in a box with, a mechanical source selector, a passive volume control, and an added 6db of gain—the SET 120 has a few metric tons to offer in sonic ability.
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 a vibe-less and weak-willed sterility. Leaving me only to find the proposed more resolution often said about control amplifiers as the only thing left to hang on to. Boy was I wrong!
I have 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 character to be spoken for. What I was hearing in my system was the sources and all of their distinct flavour intact. It was glorious!
Does this mean the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier the ultimate playground for testing sources? Possibly if the conditions are right. So as long as your source output voltage is stable and of proper voltage (as most modern 2V output sources are), I’m 100% down with determining it to be that playground. The Van Alstine control amplifier has shown me enthusiastically what I appreciate about a great sounding source. Each source now sounds unique with the Van Alstine installed. My system with the SET 120 now displays 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 high-quality separates because 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 Van Alstine 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 ten of those watts in being delivered in class-A. And based on the $1,199 USD asking price of the SET 120, 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 will-expose-greatness-in-most-anything-connected-to-it type loudspeaker. That’s not to say that every component being fed into the 2CE sounds great. That is a myth. But as a blanket rule with the 2CE, nearly every component has the chance to sound good, if not great, on the 2CE.
I have said it before—you can power a pair of Vandersteen 2CE speakers with a clock radio, and they’d still sound pretty alright. Fear not as this “plays well with others” attitude inherent to the 2CE does not shut the door on achieving greatness. Played with great electronics the 2CE will indeed sound greater than their retail price would suggest. The only sad part of this attribute being that most 2CE owners will stop short in their pursuit of great electronics once arriving at a comfortable “plateau of good sound.” For them not realizing that more character and greater detail is patiently waiting to be experienced is their curse.
Over the months of living with the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier, I found myself listening upwards of eight to ten hours of each day. What can I say, 2020 has some upsides. Countless hours of songs, movie soundtracks, and video game music were passed through the Van Alstine control amplifier while in my possession. For the remainder of my listening notes I will stick to the music exclusively. The songs listed can all be found in my Part-Time Audiophile playlist, linked on Qobuz HERE, and on Spotify HERE.
Firing up “Our Anniversary” by Smog from their album Supper, the 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 are imbued with detail rumble. The amplifier did well to capture this track’s warm laid back and comfortable vibe, while still giving enough glow to guitar and sparkly air to ride cymbals. This track is typically a be sleepy sounding on less resolving system. With the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier in the mix this track receives that long needed dose of caffeine.
Moving on to “Mira” by Melody Gardot from her album Live In Europe, I’m treated with more of that muscular and deep bass that underpins everything when the mix calls for it. Percussion instruments and noise makers have a sharp attack at the leading edges, with cymbals and strings having clarity to them informs me of the performers touch. Melody’s voice really glows, taking an aura to it in the sound-stage. The Vandersteen 2CE Signature speakers are now 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 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 debut album Entendre was a revelatory experience. Meta Weiss’ cello mastery is given with full exposition, and Arianna Warsaw-Fan’s violin is 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 SET 120 they become a part of the picture.
Getting emotional with “Songs My Mother Taught Me” by Kian Soltani from his album Dvořák: Cello Concerto, was exactly what I needed it to be—deeply emotional. Could an amplifier such as the SET 120 with an inclination to make everything it played become 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 bear witness to his mother being jailed for simply
going berserk while protecting her offspring from an onslaught of ridicule and abuse.
Enter The Zu
Almost as a goof, I attached the 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 amplification, sources, 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 available solid state amplification options, I was treated to something that felt new. Everything became more SET-like with the Van Alstine control amplifier. Does this SET 120 control amplifier actually have a kinship with tube amplifiers? Possibly maybe. 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 <$3,000 USD (in as old as 2003 money) that have come through my system, and then I were to go further and tell you that the Audio by Van Alstine 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 Van Alstine control amplifier is a welcomed inclusion and dutiful performer at the price. But it ultimately lacks the power and aplomb needed to get my emotions going with serious flagship level headphones.
Not to say that the Van Alstine control amplifier wouldn’t do well 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. My experience with sonically flatter headphones lacked the needed touch of extra space, vibe, and smoothness that I have found with dedicated headphone amplifiers.
As with any of my two-channel listening experiences the synergy of source, amplifier, and speaker mattered plenty. Exclusively with the headphone output of the Van Alstine control amplifier I found the need to tailor the system synergy towards warmer and darker sources. To also select headphones that displayed a more lively mass market sound than those whose presentation was more direct, insightful, and balanced.
The headphone output power of the Van Alstine control amplifier is shunted from the main amplifier, and with that let’s just say the 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 a 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, 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 SET 120. It was decided to that we perch the control amplifier atop one of the class-A Pass Labs monoblock to begin warming up. We figured borrowing some heat from the 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 sits. We run 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. A 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 cues up the first record, and we set ourselves to capturing a mental snapshot of Dave’s native stereo systems amplification characteristics. Dave’s system sounds absolutely amazing. The image plane is 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 (40-50Hz) 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.
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 I 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 system. The amount of bass energy dished out by the Van Alstine control amplifier was more comparable to the amount given by the Qualiton, and to be honest of a dynamic balance I 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 the rather long day for what was supposed to be a quick listening session, Dave and I tried to formulate a few talking points about the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier and 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 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 is 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 conclude that the odd pairing to be a an unlikely work of great synergy.
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 used it, the Noxzema Menthol shaving cream was better than two cups of coffee in the morning. The Van Alstine control amplifier—like the Noxzema Menthol shaving cream of yore—brought my senses into focus, it woke me up.
The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier could be a perfectly functional centerpiece of great-sounding stereo system. It could also be the 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 near-field monitors. 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 the day. 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. At or near the price of the SET 120, most integrated amplifiers will seem damped and constrained, or even worse—just plain horrible. The Van Alstine 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 being fatigued by its charms. The Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier receives my highest recommendation, an Editors’ Choice Award.