I’m not gonna tease any of the readers by making them wait (or skip to my conclusion), so I’ll say right up front: OH. MY. LAWD.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
My home system has evolved over the past few years, and my taste in gear has become pretty refined. I don’t want to sound like a gear snob, but I tend to like the pricey stuff. Okay, I’m a gear snob, I’ll admit it. But that’s not to imply it has to be expensive to catch my ear—but most of the great-sounding stuff is, well, expensive. Maybe that’s why I get all tingly when something arrives that is reasonably priced and delivers BIG TIME in the sonics department.
The new Audio By Van Alstine DVA M225 mono power amps are not only mega reasonable at $1,699 USD apiece (introductory price when purchased as a pair), but sonically rival just about any amplifier I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Whut? Yep, that’s right. These little dudes had me rethink almost everything I thought I knew about power amps. They produced a most sublime and addictive listening experience on just about every damn thing I played.
Look out honey, ‘cause I’m using technology
I first saw the name Frank Van Alstine in the pages of The Absolute Sound sometime in the mid-’70s. At the time, Audio By Van Alstine was getting a solid reputation among the lunatic fringe readers by modifying Dynaco vacuum tube amps for a better sound. Eventually, Frank started designing and building his own amps. To a young reader in Corpus Christi, Texas (me), Frank was part of this mysterious group of crusaders with tiny companies building boutique gear—before boutique was even a thing.
Like Frank at AVA and William (Bill) Johnson at Audio Research Corporation, some of these guys were building and evangelizing about vacuum tubes when most considered tubes nothing more than curious relics of a bygone era. AVA, ARC, and another early player Conrad-Johnson, almost seemed oblivious to the general marketplace and to what the behemoth Japanese audio companies were making. Except for one thing: most Japanese (and American) electronics of that era were solid-state and sounded like shit. They knew it, and pretty soon, everybody else would too. Eventually, all three companies, being pragmatists in addition to brilliant designers, manufactured solid-state gear along with their tube offerings, but that’s another story.
Currently, Audio By Van Alstine makes a pretty extensive line of gear, including power amps, preamps, DACs, and a phono preamp. Some are pure solid-state, some are pure tube, and some are hybrid. This is not a marketing decision but rooted in the concept of what device(s) are best suited to achieve a particular performance objective. Ya gotta respect that kind of thinking—I certainly do.
I talked to Frank a few times over the phone, and each time he was adamantly and unapologetically what I might term “anti-voodoo.” He doesn’t believe in using super exotic parts or fancy wires or capacitors blessed by the Virgin Mary. None of that frou-frou stuff for AVA. So how can his amplifiers possibly sound so great? My friends, that’s what you call great engineering.
But that’s not to say that devices like semiconductors or caps and resistors don’t have a sound—far from it. I think it’s more related to how they function in a certain circuit design. In my experience, some circuits have sections (or a major amount of the entire topology) that are relatively immune to different parts having a sound. Other circuit designs can be much more parts sensitive. In addition, the final sound of an amplifier can be fine-tuned (sometimes referred to as voicing) to incorporate any small differences in a part’s sonic subtleties. Then of course, you have ARC founder Bill Johnson on record saying bipolar transistors are inherently bad sounding. Fair enough.
I chuckled a bit when I looked around the back of a DVA M225 and saw what looks like a five dollar Parts Express speaker binding post on each amp. I’ve heard it said that years ago, some folks had to beg Frank to put in male IEC electrical sockets instead of the chassis attached toilet wire
Furthermore, don’t associate a lack of fancy parts indicating a collective dismissal of the sonic subtleties that are part-and-parcel of audiophile listening. Oh no. Frank told me one reason the DVA M225 sounds so great is that through ear testing and measuring, extremely high-frequency oscillations waaay past the conventional audible limit were detected. These nasty oscillations were discovered to result from various parts in the circuit interacting with the ground plane and setting up resonances. AVA uses Zobel-like networks to ground at various spots in the circuit to “sponge” away the ultra-high frequency trash. This prevents interaction with gain stages that occur in the audible range. Boom. Problem solved, and audio nirvana is achieved.
I can’t get past my tech-speak fiesta without mentioning the DVA M225 is a fully differential design. This is part of the reason why it only accepts a balanced input on a three-pin XLR connection. A differential amplifier is an electronic amplifier that amplifies the difference between two input voltages but suppresses any voltage common to the two inputs. There are many good reasons to use this style of circuitry, but it’s not super common for some reason. Many amps have balanced input connections but internally unbalance the signal and amplify in a single-ended manner. Those designs can frequently sound better if using the unbalanced RCA input. Less stuff in the path, duh.
But the AVA crew decided to go all-in on differential topology for the DVA M225. With closely matched bipolar transistors and mos-fet power transistors in a balanced configuration, distortion canceling is highly effective as well as great common-mode rejection. That’s a fancy way of saying the amp is inherently super-clean and quiet with high immunity to RF and other external magnetic fields. A huge toroidal transformer and lots of capacitance and voltage regulation ensure my happy little friends get all the high-quality juice they need to keep the party going.
All this happens inside a diminutive box that many would mistake for a Class-D amplifier. Nope, it’s the Real McCoy and is biased to operate mainly in Class A/B with a bit of Class A in the first few watts to get the party started. Mr. Van Alstine told me he likes the sound of Class-A/B considerably more than Class-D, feeling that high biased Class-A/B sounds more real.
Sonic Impressions of the DVA M225
One of the keys to my love of the DVA M225 sound is its ability to have a stealthy sonic footprint—yet, there is a hint of some special sauce wafting through the music. I could almost say tube-like mid-range in a solid-state package, but that’s too coarse of a description. In my experience, the very best (and usually pricey) solid-state amps have a textural vibe that is rich and liquid sounding while not quite having as much texture as tube gear. With mediocre sounding solid-state gear, the mid-range may be dry and un-involving to the audiophile listener. And yet, it will still seem clear and extended in the frequency extremes, although a bit glassy or etched sounded in the worst case.
The DVA M225 goes a big step beyond that and has a dynamic and harmonic thing that gives a sense of complexity to the mids that I found deeply engaging. It’s tube-like but different. Clean and free of any detectable color but more than simply neutral. The amps were alive sounding and presented boatloads of macro and micro-dynamic info locked in great recordings. And this dynamic portrayal is never at the expense of a seductively liquid feel to the flow of the music. It’s like riding a boat down some river rapids without bumping into any rocks.
Some amps are smooth and uber-listenable, but lack excitement. Some amps are hella colorful and detailed, but can wear me out during a long listening session. Some amps have a glorious mid-range, but a loose low-end, and sound rolled-off on the top. The DVA M225 is exciting in a way that I never found tiring or overbearing. I think it’s how the DVA M225 plays treble information that is a big part of this. Fast and smooth. And the low-end positively SLAMS.
I played some digital, but mainly vinyl, as is my usual practice.
The System Used to Evaluate the DVA M225
- Rega P10 outfitted with Charisma Audio Signature One MC cartridge
- Acoustic Signature Typhoon NEO and TA-5000 arm, outfitted with an Acoustical Systems Palladian MC cartridge
- VAC Master Preamplifier with built-in phono stage
- Acora Acoustics SRC-2 speakers and a brief test with the QLN Prestige Five speakers
- Pass Labs XA-200.8 mono power amplifiers
- Cardas Clear Light interconnects, power cords, and Cardas Nautilus power strip
Vinyl for Days
During my time listening to the Audio By Alstine DVA-M225s, I didn’t play much digital. I’m on a little break from the ones and zeros mainly because I have a very high-end Acoustic Signature turntable in for review. It’s an amazing turntable and has deepened my obsession with vinyl as my preferred playback medium.
Here are a few of my recent regular rotation records and how they sounded, (included are links to the albums on Qobuz for your convenience):
Hayley Williams – Petals For Amour
This record has been a constant source of pleasure in my current system. Every cut is a perfect example of very well-done modern pop/songwriter production. Huge low end, clean, clear top, and wide, dynamic arrangements alternating between lots of space and extreme density that never feels messy. The DVA M225 amps LOVED this record, and frequently, I played it LOUD. The Pass amps might have presented a touch more extreme low sub-bass info and a tiny bit more silkiness on cymbal crashes and high-frequency vocal transients, but it was very close.
Dave Alvin – King Of California
Good lord, this record sounds great. I have a 180-gram reissue that is super clean and quiet with crazy good dynamics—hyper-realism at its very best. Dave Alvin’s voice and acoustic guitars played by him and Greg Leisz were stunning sounding with the DVA M225 amps powering the Acora SRC-2 speakers.
Lowell George – Thanks I’ll Eat It Here
I’ve known about this record for ages but only recently found a spotless, used copy. Dayum! The AVA amps being fed the classiest of signals from the Acoustic Signature Typhoon/Acoustical Systems Palladian/VAC pre and powering the Acora SRC-2 seemed to crack a smile as they proceeded to blow me away with the combo of un-hyped ’70s era tones AND big dynamics that don’t seem to exist much anymore outside of classical music recordings. (Professor) George Massenburg remains a hero of mine, and his work on Thanks I’ll Eat It Here only adds to the mystique.
Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die
I don’t have an original copy, but the recently remastered 180-gram reissue sounds great to my ears. Sometimes I wanna hear modern, highly produced, but not overly hyped, recordings. Sometimes, I’m up for some old-school jams—especially ’70s era stuff. I like what a modern, high-resolution playback system does to serve up every speck of goodness from the old classics; J.B.M.D. is no exception. The DVA M225 amps textural vibe and sense of dynamic thrust were killer on this record. And the tunes are rad.
Goat Rodeo – Not Our First Goat Rodeo
Sublime. Realistic. Engaging. Everything I want in a great recording. The AVA amps delivered big time on this one and excelled at portraying a great sense of space when a recording aims to capture that—and this one clearly does.
Of course, I also reveled in the sounds of Beck’s Sea Change, Peter Gabriel’s Up, and Kevin Gilbert’s Thud, as well as plenty of Radiohead and assorted prog rock and jazz, but I always yak on about those. Okay, I’ll say one thing—I heard some new sounds on “More Than This” off Up. I’ll always hear that little (new to me) chorus vocal layer from now on, but I heard it first on the AVA amps.
Short Intermission for Some Popcorn
Let me digress for a minute and talk about my experience in the mastering studio with tube versus solid-state. These experiences inform a lot of my home, HiFi listening impressions, and descriptions.
One of the most revered equalizers in all ‘pro audio’ is the series of eq’s made in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s by Pulse Techniques under the brand name Pultec. A simple bass and treble passive filter network with vacuum tube and transformer stages for gain makeup and input/output matching. Massive amounts of vibe of and extremely musical in nature. Tubey AF. Y’all’ve heard those on recordings a zillion times and didn’t even know it.
Pultecs have long been “out of print,” so many companies now manufacture replicas, each with varying degrees of success at capturing the original Pultec magic. The late, great designer Tim De Pavaracini made his own version of the Pultec equalizers under the E.A.R. brand name. I’ve used them quite a bit, and not only do they not sound like an original Pultec, but they also have ZERO tube sound. Yep, they might as well be solid-state cause there ain’t no vacuum tube/transformer vibe from those babies, even though they are made with tubes and transformers. Go figure. They sound great, just not at all “tubey” to my ears.
On the other hand, a Langevin eq from roughly the same time period is a solid-state beast. Also revered but not quite to the cult status of a Pultec. Langevins are solid-state (although a few Langevin tube models were also made), and they are marvelously dirty sounding in a very colorful way. Very musically vibey.
Recently, I bought a Whitestone Audio Instruments P331 for my mastering studio. Whitestone calls this a “Tube Loading Amplifier.” It’s a carefully designed Class-A tube line stage with lots of knobs and switches to subtly change the level and manner of driving a pair of 6SN7 tubes. The intended use (which I have been using with client-pleasing results) adds some color to the signal. It does this in an extremely subtle yet very classy-sounding way. Transients are not slowed down or overly rounded off. The low-end stays punchy, and the top-end stays clear but with some now added sheen. Mids even seem a hair more complex. Stereo dimensionality gets more vivid, and it will also make a great double latte if you ask nicely. Ok, maybe not that last part.
How does all that apply to HiFi or the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 amps? I’m trying to say that amplifiers can inherently change the sound of your system in ways related to much more than how well they drive your speakers. Most audiophiles are quite aware of this, but I’m not sure how many have had first-hand experience comparing lots of different amps and preamps.
My experience tells me that an amp’s sonic signature is related to not JUST how clean (or dirty) it is, but what the quality is of the distortion that remains—even if that departure from perfect linearity is tiny. That’s where the vibe is. And more importantly, those ear-pleasing colorations can come from tubes or solid-state. Hardcore tube-o-philes will say ya gotta have tubes to get the real deal. I won’t argue with that, but I’ve heard some highly regarded tube amps that are almost completely devoid of what I would consider tube color, so why bother with those finicky toobs? Wait…don’t answer that.
Now back to our regularly scheduled program, and conclusion.
Conclusion, Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225
To my ears, the Audio By Van Alstine DVA M225 inhabits the highest mountain air of solid-state with the best qualities of tube-like flavor. It’s damn nice up there, too. The sense of space between sounds, the addictive dynamic contrasts, a liquid and complex tonal structure, without grain or any harshness. The sense of limitless power and grip these monoblocks have on a speaker combines to make them a winner in every category.
Some audiophiles with big buck systems might look at these little AVA amps and chuckle. Go ahead. Hook a pair up to your system, and soon you’ll stop laughing. Regarded here, the DVA M225 are a steal at twice the price. Very highly recommended.
If monoblock amplifiers aren’t your thing, or you’re looking for an even bigger value, check out our review of the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amplifier which won an Editors’ Choice Award, and Best Value Award in 2020.