Van Alstine DVA Digital Preamplifier | REVIEW







I have a theory, after all these months, that the Audio by Van Alstine DVA “digital” preamplifier was sent to me by accident. Do I really have a use for a line level preamplifier that has no RCA or XLR inputs? There are a total of five inputs on the DVA—two optical, two coax and one USB. Where do I hook up my analog rig?

All I wanted was to audition Part-Time Audiophile’s Best Value of the Year Award winner for 2021, the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 monoblock power amplifiers. I already had the AVA FET Valve CFR preamplifier on hand, which is their flagship all-tube preamplifier, and I thought it was a reasonable request to ultimately pair it with the M225s. Apparently, it’s not that easy.

Both the AVA DVA and the M225s are part of Van Alstine’s digital product line and are meant to be paired together. (The standalone DAC Mk. 5, the other member of the AVA Digital line, has been discontinued due to the AKM fire—but I’m sure this will be remedied shortly.) The M225s don’t accept RCAs for the pre out, and the CFR only has RCAs. The solution, of course, is AVA’s DVA R2X, a little active box that converts RCAs to XLRs. Thanks to this little $269 box, I was able to listen to the M225s and the CFR together.

But a few days after receiving the well-loved and endlessly passed around DVA M225s from Dave McNair, another box was sent from AVA, a large box—one almost identical to the CFR box. I knew other PTA staffers were chomping at the bit to hear AVA after all the stellar reviews we’ve given, and I thought this was another domestic shipping mishap we’ll remember and laugh about in the post-pandemic world. I opened the box, and it was the Audio by Van Alstine DVA preamplifier. I did not expect this. Surely someone other than me was expecting this delivery.

Nope. I was supposed to test out the DVA all along. I even found the old email where I said sure, send it to me. I’m not sure what a vinyl guy like me was thinking, but I decided to soldier on with this review and accept the fact that I’m finally getting long-needed exposure to all these strange and wonderful new products—like a digital preamplifier.

What the Heck Is a Digital Preamplifier?

That’s the first thing I though when I set up the Audio by Van Alstine DVA. What makes a preamplifier “digital”? First, Frank van Alstine has eliminated analog preamplifier circuitry from the design for a more “pure and direct” approach. He’s also added a DAC, one that works incredibly well. Unfortunately he chose the AKM chipset for its superb sound, and that company suffered a devastating fire and the supply chain has been interrupted even further. AVA does have enough AKM parts to keep production rolling for a while, you might want to consider the DVA if you’re one of those “I liked the old one better” kind of person.

Part of me thinks, however, that Frank Van Alstine will find something that he likes—and that we should trust him because he really cares about the sound quality. Eric Franklin Shook told me that Frank Van Alstine thinks this AKM chip was the first one that made him relax and completely enjoy hi-rez digital for the first time, so the bar will be high.

As for the “digital preamplifier” moniker goes, I’ll leave that to Audio by Van Alstine:

“It offers both RCA and XLR differential (i.e., “balanced”) outputs. Each signal after conversion passes through only one discrete, fully class-A active stage in a way that simultaneously minimizes the number of active stages the signal goes through while also retaining all the benefits of differential digital to analog conversion — for both RCA and XLR outputs.”

The Van Alstine DVA is remarkably smooth and versatile in operation, thanks to both a simple remote control and a small touchscreen. The price is $2,499. Again, this stops me in my tracks.

Van Alstine DVA Set-Ups

I spent two distinct periods with the Audio by Van Alstine DVA preamplifier, along with the DVA M225 monoblocks. The first period was chronicled in my review of the Rotel CD14MKII, an $899 compact disc player that surprised the heck out of me when it was connected to the DVA via an AudioQuest Carbon digital coax cable.

It was another of my eye-opening experiences, that rig right there, the perfect solution if you want to take redbook CD performance to a new level for a price that seems way too low. After enjoying that clean, open and naturally detailed sound for a few weeks, I wound up switching to other amplification that was waiting in the green room. When it was time to revisit the AVA DVA, I suddenly thought that I knew everything I needed to know about this preamplifier. Color me impressed, Audio by Van Alstine, another mind-boggling product for an unbelievably low price.

When I mentioned to Eric Franklin Shook that I was nearly done with all of the AVA gear and that it was time to let the next PTA staffer succumb to the Van Alstine spell, he brought me back to earth with a question: How did you like that DAC?

After that first period, I was so won over by the DVA’s ability to coax me a little further down the digital road, making everything so easy and so obvious when it came to sonic strengths. I had completely forgotten to use the DVA’s DAC for streaming Qobuz. This is when I thought okay, this is where the DVA might irk me a little. Sometimes I set up a DAC and everything goes smoothly. Sometimes I set up a DAC and then I double-check the owner’s manual and it doesn’t work and then I send an e-mail saying that it’s not working and then there’s a phone call as they walk me through it and then I’m suddenly a little less thrilled with the product overall.

I have never experienced a DAC that was easier to set up than the one in the Van Alstine DVA. I hooked my laptop up to the DVA via the USB port in the back and logged into Qobuz. A little icon told me the new device was ready to go, and suddenly music came through the speakers. I did almost nothing, and it started working perfectly. I want all DACs to be like this one when it comes to user interfaces.

Sound and Listening

To talk about the sound of the Audio by Van Alstine DVA preamplifier is, of course, to talk about the sound of the DVA 225M monoblocks, which sound big and bold and detailed and punchy for such tiny fellers. And no, this is not class D. It’s class AB. 225 wpc.

But I did manage to evaluate the lone impact on the DVA by first listening to the M225s with the FET Valve CFR preamplifier via the R2X. That sound was very inviting, a relatively linear sound for an all-tube preamplifier. The CFR made its presence known, in one system configuration after another, by a slight thickness in the upper bass and lower midrange, which for me is often a clue to the presence of valves in the circuit. It’s not a dull or colored sensation, but more of a feeling that nothing was stripped away from the signal to achieve neutrality.

The entire time, however, I could see what the DVA M225 monoblocks were adding to the overall sound, and that’s when I realized that Dave McNair and Eric Franklin Shook were right, that these are amazing and energetic and exacting boxes that just feel so liberated from other types of amplifiers. Once I swapped the FET Valve CFR and the R2X for the Van Alstine DVA preamplifier, it was like the turbo kicking in on my old Subaru WRX as I moved through the one of most glorious second gear runs I’ve known.

My entire system sounded faster, cleaner and more powerful with the Van Alstine DVA digital preamplifier. I felt like so much noise and distortion had been lifted from the air, and tossed by the side of the road. There were a few times when I felt that the DVA almost stripped too much of the dirt and the junk from the music, causing a slightly lean quality that simply wasn’t there with the FET Valve CFR. But the DVA compensated by being more exhilarating.

I’ve been playing Nala Sinephro’s Music 1.8 since I stumbled onto it while browsing Qobuz. It’s a stunning mix of electronica with dashes of clear vibrant jazz, and the Van Alstine DVA preserved the energy of those unexpected genre transitions and all those goose bumps that go along with such ornery musical surprises. I was obsessed with the clarity I was hearing, and yet not once did I think the sound was strident or over the top. (That has a lot to do with hi-rez digital, I know, but this felt above and beyond.

The Van Alstine DVA was also present when I evaluated a reviewed the 2L Recordings’ MQA-CD sampler I just reviewed. I just played these familiar but still wonderful tracks from Norway, and I just didn’t care about comparing MQA with any other technology because I just melted into this music. 2L Recordings are always imbued with such air and space and detail, but the DVA didn’t allow the sound to go over the top. Rather, it sounded so sweet way up high, and you could suddenly sense all that physical presence behind the production of music, all those glorious spaces where sounds blossom and tell you something you’ve never heard before.

Van Alstine DVA Conclusions

I would totally go with the Audio by Van Alstine DVA digital preamplifier if I only used digital sources that could be connected with optical or coax or USB. There’s also the inclusion of a really special—if somewhat ephemeral–DAC, which streamlines my system needs. Most of the review gear that floats through my listening room requires RCA or XLR inputs, so that seems a little impractical…except for one thing.

Remember that DVA R2X box that I used to evaluate the CFR preamp with the DVA M225 amps? Well, Audio by Van Alstine is coming out with a similar device in a little box that allows you to add single-ended inputs to the DVA. It’s called the DVA A2D and has just started to ship at press time. That would solve many of my problems right there, and I’m sure it will be priced like the R2X when it comes out.

Adding additional boxes and cable runs to a system is generally not a good recipe—which is one of the reasons why I continue to love integrated amplifiers. I wasn’t able to really A/B the AVA FET Valve CFR with and without the DVA R2X because the power amplifiers would be different. I suspect I’d run into the same difficulties with the DVA A2D box. All I know is the FET Valve CFR connected to the DVA M225s with the help of the R2X sounded impressive to my ears.

Still, I was even more impressed with the Audio By Van Alstine DVA preamplifier with the DVA M225 monoblocks hooked up to the Rotel CD14MKII compact disc player with a AudioQuest Carbon coax cable. It was another one of those illuminating experiences in audio where you have to go back into the archives and delete all the stupid things you ever said in print that was contrary to what you just discovered. In the context of high-end digital audio in 2022, this combination is simply extraordinary for its very reasonable price.

I’ve only been able to use the Audio by Van Alstine DVA preamplifier in a limited number of ways. That was enough to get my recommendation, a Reviewers Choice Award. But that’s not quite the end of the story. All this AVA gear is supposed to be sent on to the Chicago crew—Scot Hull and Graig Neville—to confirm the results from the North Carolina crew—Eric Franklin Shook and Dave McNair—not to mention me. Graig Neville will also be receiving that A2D box from AVA.

If it seems Audio By Van Alstine is getting a lot of coverage at Part-Time Audiophile, it’s because we’re impressed. It’s our journalistic nature, I suppose, to tell you about products that knock the price-performance ratio off the cinder blocks under your audio beliefs. All you have to do is listen for yourself and see if we are right.