Sometimes I think that our North Carolina crew has all the fun. They visit each other, hear all the cool gear that’s been coming in for review, swap back and forth, and I’m over here on the other coast wondering when I’ll get a chance to hear all this wonderful stuff they’ve been covering. That’s why I decided to review the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier.
First, it was Eric Franklin Shook waxing rhapsodic about the AVA SET 120 Control Amplifier, a sort-of integrated amplifier that starts at just $1,199. Next, Dave McNair got a hold of the DVA M225 monoblocks, which cost just $1,699 each, and those dense little bricks rocked his world and made him question his very existence in the land of high-end audio. That, of course, led to some squabbling behind the scenes at PTA HQ between those who feel that there are no real giant killers in high-end audio, and those who say, “But you have to hear this AVA gear.” I sat and watched both sides make their respective cases, and I knew there was only one way to bring peace to Part-Time Audiophile.
“I want to review some AVA,” I whined feebly after hearing all the tar-heel accolades. I then winked at the other contingent and told them I’d be my usual objective self.
Eric referred me to the AVA website, and the FET Valve CFR Preamplifier caught my eye. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I wanted to spend time filling out our preamplifier category in the Buyers Guide even though I’m predisposed toward integrated amps. But here’s how I really feel about preamplifiers: they’re tough to review because it’s tough to hear what they’re doing for your system, but at the same time I’ve experienced what an excellent preamp can do in terms of solving issues within an existing system. A great preamplifier can be the missing piece of the puzzle when you’re searching for audio nirvana.
I also wanted to review a tube preamplifier for a simple reason—my lone power amplifier over the last few years has been the Pureaudio Duo2, which is solid-state pure Class A. It has a sound that’s almost midway between tube and transistor, soft and warm and alive but still brimming with detail. Solid-state preamps—with the exception of the matching pure Class A Pureaudio Control preamplifier, also my reference—can lead the Duo2 into the arena of the ordinary, but a nice tube preamp will stir up the textures in the midrange and sound utterly natural and realistic.
All I can say is that they must love Eric Franklin Shook over at AVA. Shortly after I pointed out the FET Valve CFR to Eric, a box arrived on my front porch. It didn’t expect AVA to deliver so quickly. Then again, they follow the direct-sales model and probably have it all streamlined. Or, as I said, they love Eric. I quickly removed the CFR from the box, hooked it up without incident, and sat back and waited to be overwhelmed with great, affordable sound.
Inside the FET Valve CFR
I picked the AVA FET Valve CFR preamplifier because it’s the flagship tube preamplifier from Frank Van Alstine. For a minute I considered going the other way, reviewing the entry-level Transcendence RB10 which retails for just $999. Can you still buy a great preamplifier for a grand? I want to know the answer to that, but I also didn’t want to let down the rest of my system which is steadily climbing toward the big fancy stuff.
The Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier starts at $2,099. That’s still pretty reasonable in the world of preamps, especially for a model that contains these many features. The CFR uses 12AT7 tubes for gain, and 12AU7 tubes as cathode followers. AVA also uses polypropylene caps in the signal path and high-capacity power supply caps elsewhere. An added bonus here is the inboard AVA headphone amp, which sounds great. That’s a growing trend in integrated amps and preamps, to spend a little extra time and attach that headphone jack on the front panel to something interesting—maybe something slinky and swanky in a nice pure Class A circuit.
Another reason to celebrate the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR is the optional inboard MM/MC phono stage. No, it’s not included. You’ll have to pay a stiff price for such luxury—the Vision Adjustable Phono Circuit is a lofty $329 extra. That means the FET Valve CFR with the phono stage costs a whopping $2,428. Yes, I used the phono stage. Yes, it sounds good. I even used the MM inputs so I could attach the $5,000 Koetsu Step Up Transformer and the $6,500 Koetsu Urushi Black. It still sounded amazing to my ears.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the CFR, other than the sound, is its looks. As I mentioned, the AVA looks like it was designed in the ‘80s or maybe even the ‘70s. This is not a minimalist preamp, just two big knobs on the front panel and maybe a power button. My reference preamp only has one knob, the attenuator, and the power switch is on the back. The faceplate of the FET Valve CFR seems cluttered by comparison, but it isn’t. There are no bass and treble controls, but there is a knob for balance. (And volume, of course.) There are also four push buttons: mono, low gain, hi filter, and low filter. Then there are five tiny back-lit buttons, all in a row, labeled numerically, each for selecting one pair of the RCA source inputs found on the rear.
Shortly after I received the FET Valve CFR, Eric asked me how I liked the little buttons. I had no idea what he meant since I’d been using the remote control for most of the functions. But the first time I did manually push an input button, I did notice the nice feel and I instantly knew what Eric meant. It’s slick and precise and it lights up all pretty.
Set-up for the FET Valve CFR
As I mentioned, the AVA FET Valve CFR preamplifier was paired with the Pureaudio Duo2 stereo power amplifier for most of its stay. The Furutech interconnects I used to connect the two cost more than the CFR, with phono stage, by the way.
During the review period I had settled down with a slightly less expensive system than usual—the CFR and the Duo2, my reference Unison Research CD-E CD player and the Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. II DAC. Speakers were Rosso Fiorentino Pienza monitors, Trenner & Friedl ART monitors and Brigadiers Audio BA-2 monitors, all placed on the Acora Acoustics SRS-G stands. The FET Valve CFR was also present for the christening of the amazing Brinkmann analog rig: Brinkmann Taurus turntable, 12.1 tonearm, Brinkmann Edison mk. II phono stage and the custom base from HRS.
Sound and Listening
I discovered the true nature of the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier just minutes after I plugged it in. This is an energetic preamplifier, both dynamic and transparent. I also sensed that a veil had been removed from the music. I’ve been bringing up that old audiophile “veil” canard lately, but only because there have been a handful of review components that instantly suggest that kind of clarity. The AVA sounded incredibly clear. The music sounded direct, unfettered, unusually honest but at the same time that energy, almost an enthusiasm, came through.
I did have a chance to perform a comparison that was completely unfair. I really wanted to hear what a $329 phono board could do in my system, especially when I’ve had a plethora of stunning phono stages in the house over the last few months. Compared to the big boys, the Vision phono stage does sound a little glossed over, a little less delicate when it needs it to be, a little stingy with that extra helping of inner detail. Still clear, still transparent, just a bit less relaxed and open. But c’mon. This is a $329 option. It’s a great way to save a few bucks and not feel like you’re making a huge compromise.
The headphone amplifier inside the AVA FET Valve CFR, as I mentioned, was outstanding. A pair of Focal Clear MG headphones were just sent to me to review the Ferrum Audio OOR headphone amp and the HYPSOS external power supply, so I immediately plugged them straight into the CFR and I discovered a taut, percussive feel, with plenty of low-end energy. Drums were crisply delivered and full of slap and stomp.
Here’s a thing: that might have been the first time I felt bass energy thump me in the sternum while wearing headphones. Not sure what that’s about, but I enjoyed the sensation.
That perfectly balanced low end really came in handy when I switched to digital streaming as a format. The FET Valve CFR featured a beautiful and extended highs, not the first thing you expect when listening to an all-tube preamplifier. If you’re looking for some new special music that will broaden your horizons, try Nala Sinephro’s Music 1.8. This is big, airy and spacious electronica that occasionally reverts to pure, shimmering be-bop, and the openness between the notes is stunning. The AVA preamplifier brought out just enough texture in the treble to make it all sound other-worldly while still committing to tradition.
Somesh Mathur has become one of my favorite purveyors of world music, and his new album A Promise Broken has complex rhythms and sounds mated to a somber tone that is tethered to the theme of remembering those loved ones we have lost to Covid. That balance requires considerable focus, especially if you’re fond of Mathur’s Salman Rushdie-esque flights of sophisticated whimsy and you’re in the mood to be lifted up rather than submerged in gravitas.
The Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier, to put it succinctly, offers the same clarity and precision that you’ll find with the best solid-state gear. It’s surprisingly non-tubey, except when you put your miner’s cap on and really delve into those subtle harmonic structures in the music. Then you’ll hear it, that human feel to the music, those layers of meaning that are slowly and purposefully revealed when you listen to tubed amplification.
AVA FET Valve CFR Conclusions
Are Eric and Dave right about Audio by Van Alstine? Yes, they are. Reviewers often find these types of products troubling, and for one rather flimsy reason—what are we saying about all those five-figure preamplifiers out there? Are they ridiculously overpriced? But every once in a while, we have to draw a line in the sand and say this is good, period.
That’s oversimplifying things, of course. In the real world, where I try to remain objective about every piece of gear that comes in here regardless of price, the AVA FET Valve CFR is not only great for the money, but it’s pretty great overall. I’m not going to A/B the CFR with a Tidal Audio Prisma or a Luxman CL-1000, because that’s when I might notice shortcomings. (That’s what happened when I did compare the Vision Adjustable phono stage against five-figure phono preamplifiers such as the Pass Labs XP-27 and the Brinkmann Edison.) But on its own, the CFR sounds clear and transparent—not the normal adjectives used for an all-tube preamplifier.
But I also feel that the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier is perfect for those times when you just need a preamp in the system that will do little or no harm to the rest of the system. I run into these situations all the time—I’ve been listening to a steady diet of integrated amplifiers and suddenly someone wants me to listen to a stand-alone power amplifier and now I have to dig out a preamplifier from the storage room.
I have a $10K preamplifier for those occasions. But what if I had one that just cost a little over $2K? I’m not saying those two preamps sound anything like each other, but it’s also nice to know that you can get a high-quality preamplifier with plenty of features and it’s not going to let you or your system down. If that sounds utilitarian, so be it.
Does that sound like damning with faint praise? Not at all! I mentioned filling out the preamplifier section of our Buyers Guide with more affordable entries—up until a few months ago we started off with a $499 passive unit, and the next preamp on the list was over $4000. One reader complained, “Are you trying to tell me there are no worthy preamps between $499 and $4000?” That bothered me, but the simple fact of the matter is that affordable preamplifiers, like stand-alone tonearms, are becoming rarer in high-end audio. Often these budget-conscious audiophiles are told to look at integrated amplifiers instead.
That’s why the Frank Van Alstine FET Valve CFR deserves a Reviewer’s Choice Award—it offers a resounding YES to the idea that you can still get a preamplifier that performs extremely well and has plenty of features and does everything you want it to do. The only thing left for me to do is check out those AVA DVA M225 monoblocks that have Eric and Dave swooning out in North Carolina. I hope I get that chance.