Some hi-fi components take a while to reveal their strengths. Some gear makes me fall in love immediately. For me, the VAC Master Preamplifier (website) fell in the latter category. Over time as preamplifiers of various stripes have come and gone, my appreciation and love for the Master Preamp has only grown deeper.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
I’m an avowed fan of vacuum tube circuits, but that doesn’t mean my heart is on my sleeve for just ANY tube-flavored beauty. I fall hard for gear that exhibits a hard-to-define sonic character, a flavor that most of us would recognize as classic vacuum tube attributes in the textural and imaging department, all while accompanied by a refined set of additional attributes. I want this gear refined to the extent of being clean and quiet with wide bandwidth, and subjectively and dynamically responsive, if not more, as solid-state brethren. I want it all, tubey and clean. My listening experiences with the VAC Master Preamp showed it to be the veritable definition of such componentry.
VAC Master Preamplifier–Lightning In A Bottle
This story began when I needed a different preamplifier than the one I had on hand for a speaker review I was about to do. Some readers might remember my initial difficulties in getting the Acora SRC-2 speakers to play nice with my system. At the kindly recommendation of Valerio Cora, I got a loaner VAC Master Preamplifier from VAC head honcho and creative force Kevin Hayes.
Things worked out brilliantly for that review and many others, but now I have a big problem. How can I ever give this thing back after the near-magical way it has transformed my system over the course of many reviews? Speakers, turntables, cartridges, DACs and power amps have benefited enormously by having the VAC Master Preamp as the heart and soul of my system.
The VAC Master consists of a control section and a power supply in separate chassis. Two large umbilical cables connect these boxes with huge Mil-Spec style multi-pin connectors. One of these power cables from the external supply is for the phono stage, the other is for line stage power. The control section has two large chrome knobs (volume and input select) and four smaller knobs that actually switch various functions: mute, power, cinema bypass, and two levels of dim (or off) for the display. In the center of both units is the handsome display featuring a blue or red glow of the VAC lettering and insignia. Red indicates muting is engaged. Oh, and those knobs feel amazing.
Rear panel connections are extensive. Five line level inputs, two of which are selectable between single-ended RCA or balanced XLR, plus a dedicated phono (RCA and XLR connection choices) as number six. When supplied without the optional phono stage, input six is an additional line in. Lordy, that’s a lotta input options.
The VAC Master also gives users a choice of balanced or single-ended main output, with a pair of EACH. Again, that’s some welcome flexibility and an audio reviewer’s dream. The choice of XLR or RCA output is selected with another of those beefy, electric guitar amplifier style metal toggle switches for selection. Construction details such as this switch gave me a not-so-subtle sense of the VAC Master Preamplifier being in a class of gear from days of old when things were built to last (and perform at spec) for a very, very long time.
The line inputs and internal phono stage output are fed to the output section that uses a pair of 6DJ8 tubes configured to run in Class A with no feedback.
Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Grooves
Vinyl is such a pain in the ass. I know this more than most folks because, as part of my mastering business, I have a lathe for cutting lacquers to produce vinyl records. Nothing about any of it makes sense. The whole thing is the most bizarre enterprise imaginable. But when it’s done right, I consider listening to records one of the Most Fun Things To Do With Your Clothes On. That is, unless you listen to your hi-fi while in the nude. No judgments here.
I say this to put a fine point (micro-line anyone?) on how incredible sounding the phono stage is in the VAC Master Preamp. During my time with it, I used many other excellent outboard phono pres. Nothing else gave me the feels in quite the same way as the VAC’s open, effortless, and clean with a hint of vacuum-tube-carbonated flavor. A total of six 12AX7 tubes are used in the phono section alone. I never missed any detail contained in those grooved discs, yet everything was so dang listenable and large. It’s also remarkably quiet with a hum level of zero.
The VAC Master Preamp phono section has separate inputs for MM and MC cartridges, with the MC side having a choice of RCA or XLR. I primarily used the MC input for various carts, which never fails to please. The phono stage is of the fixed gain variety with two rear panel knobs. One selects MM or MC (even as there are separate inputs for each) and the other knob has a selection of impedances for dialing in the necessary loading for MC carts.
At one point, I remember trying the MM side with a quality SUT and my Charisma Audio Signature One MC cartridge. While sounding very good, it didn’t quite have the same mojo as the internal transformer Mr. Hayes has selected to get a free gain “cheat code” for the phono section’s MC side. I’m sure there are great sounding phono stages using raw gain without the help of a transformer but based on what I’ve heard, I like this hybrid approach for musicality and quietness. And what’s a little extra iron and wire between friends, right?
During a review or listening test of quite a few phono and line stages, I have sometimes found a particular area of performance that made me mentally go “Got Ya, VAC Master!” Only to feel very differently upon switching back to the VAC. I ain’t gonna lie–I am sometimes temporarily led astray by the New and Different, aka Audio Strange. But the VAC style of holistic musical goodness that I hear pulls me back every time.
Tell Me More
Okay, I’m glad you asked. At some point, I usually take the time to sneak a peek inside the stuff that I think sounds special.
If you pop the top on the main unit of the VAC Master Preamplifier, you will be greeted with a view of components and wiring that exudes a love of fine craftsmanship and careful attention to detail. Even if you don’t know squat about such things, the inside of the Master screams Art In Engineering. However, the layout and construction are not just for a Gear Of The Month shot in Audiophile Porn Monthly, but more importantly for the lowest noise and to minimize unwanted interactions between components. Component interactions may allow undesirable modulations and other alterations to that fragile little signal that carries the music. As most readers probably know, this is key, especially for vacuum tube circuits. Bonus points for this style of construction being waaay easier to repair or upgrade.
No, I didn’t open the power supply. What, y’all think I’m some kind of obsessed audiophile with no life other than opening gear? Wait, don’t answer that.
Moving up the VAC line, to their Statement series, you’ll find an even higher level of layout and construction, among other things. This further reduces noise and negative interaction effects, including comprehensive control of vibration-based non-linearities. Having less of all this noise and vibration equals higher perceived resolution. I’ve heard the Statement series line stage and phono in my system, and yes, they are pretty jaw-dropping, but very little helium escaped from my party balloons when the VAC Master was put back in the system.
Playing Some Tunes With The VAC Master Preamplifier
Believe it or not, in addition to unscrewing top covers, turning knobs, and flipping switches, I actually played music through this thing. Lots of music. Even more than lots of music, boatloads of music. Classical music of every type. Rock music of various decades and infinite style variations. Post-rock music. Jazz music in all its forms, trad, bop, post-bop, fusion, big band, and experimental. Electronic music. Reggae. Blues. Folk music. Anti-folk music. R&B music, old and new. World music. Punk music. Rap music. Country music. Okay, no new bro-country, polka, or opera. I have to draw the line somewhere.
The VAC Master Preamplifier has been my faithful accomplice in not only my journey as an audio reviewer but my journey back to a place of long ago. A place of innocence where thoughts of gear and playback systems had not yet fully formed because I still lived in that exquisite and soulfully satisfying place of pure music listening enjoyment. I have to credit that to the VAC Master Preamplifier, TW Acustic Raven LS turntable, Qln Prestige Five speakers, and Ampsandsound Zion monoblock amplifiers.
In my current system, the Master Preamp is an important part of my 59-year infatuation with music. That’s 40+ years making a living in music production, a seven-year journey back into audiophilia (three as a reviewer), and the resulting curation process in search of a more permanent system. Over zillions of changes in every component category, the VAC Master Pre has hung in there like a champ.
To my ear, it doesn’t sound like it has a 1hz to microwave frequency response. I’ve heard preamps with a greater sense of detail or maybe quieter or some other isolated attribute. What it does have is an unshakable ability to amplify recorded music in a way that lets me enjoy the music. I can break it down into bits and pieces, but that is really the end of the story.
Okay. I’ll break it down for ya. It’s tough to pick a handful of listening experiences to talk about the sound of this box, but here goes nuthin’. I think I’ll start at the beginning:
In my old listening space, which is now my mastering studio, the VAC Master Pre made its debut on the mighty Acora SRC-2 loudspeakers. With a variety of power amps, notably a pair of Pass Labs XA-60.8 amps, the source being primarily a Rega P10. My preference for vinyl as a preferred medium was amplified then and is even greater today.
Roxy Music’s Avalon, Little Feat’s The Last Record Album, Tinariwen’s Amadjar, Beck’s Sea Change, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and a metric ton of Blue Note reissues along with a smattering of digital like Suzanne Vega’s Nine Objects Of Desire, and others, were a whole new experience. I had to get used to the massive detail, space, and dynamics. But there was more: a sense of fluidity and harmonic rightness that the Master Pre brought to the party.
I got very used to hearing everything on a recording, good and bad. This period also intensified my analytical listening habits. It was easy to go there with this new playground of tone and musical information and years of work-ingrained listening habits. Especially with gear revolving in and out at the rate of an auctioneer calling for bids. Subconsciously I think I was chasing the notion of finding gear that had some magic attribute of making everything sound amazing, even though I knew better. At some point, I gave up on that blurry concept as unaffordable and probably achievable at any price. Until.
Fast forward to my current listening space and system.
Things started off with a bang and only got better. No, the room is not perfect, but it is very forgiving, articulate, and has some kind of intangible musicality. The Master Pre was still at the studio, I had the Luminous Audio preamp in for review and the Qlns as the first system in the new spot. I noticed my listening was different. And I wanted more of that.
I can now hear more than ever what makes the sound of the VAC Master Preamplifier so great.
I remember one particular night. I played a Classic Records reissue of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, Heifetz, with Reiner conducting the CSO. OH MY GAWD. The string tones. The depth and space. The dynamics. But it was more than that. I forgot about the system and melted into the music. Part of that was the VSA Ultra 55, a pair of VAC Master 300 power amps, and TW Acustic turntable, but the Master Pre was also in this equation.
Several other things came and went in the way of components. Still, I found that the VAC Master Pre was key in enabling me to return to that Zen Mind place of deep sonic musical information input unaccompanied by analytical neuroses. Brain Blade Fellowship, Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa’s Overnight Sensation, Peter Gabriel’s Us, Mahler, Beethoven, Beck, Bill Evans, and on and on.
I’m currently in listening heaven and doing more listening outside of work than I have ever done for most of my entire career. How much of that is the Vac Master Preamplifier responsible for? I can’t say exactly, but I recently swapped out for another preamp with a solid pedigree that was more in my price range. The first few dates were very nice with my new honey, but one day when I put the Master back in for one more go around, I was forced to admit that real love returned. Love, in this case, is how easy it is to be drawn into the music and not think about gear.
For me, the VAC Master Preamplifier, like my other favorite components, is located in the perfect spot of my imaginary Listenability/Accuracy matrix. You also might think of this as a musical/analytical graph. Clean and neutral enough to satisfy discriminating ears yet liquid, smooth, and vivid enough to make most records a lot of fun.
VAC Master Preamplifier: Final Act
You should be getting the idea by now. “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” But it’s a bit different than liking cereal. It also costs a bit more than a box of cereal: $28,000 for the line-stage only version, add $12,000 for the phono (which I highly recommend).
For more than a few audiophiles of means, this is not crazy money. For others, it’s in the realm of what can be termed aspirational. And then, for other readers, it’s a ticket straight to Crazy Town.
I will not defend or judge what some would consider a ridiculous price and others consider a real value. Still, I’ll simply say be forewarned: don’t go hear a VAC Master Preamplifier or audition one in your system unless you have the cash or can put up with the constant dreaming. Me? I’m saving up for a ticket to Crazy Town.
Reviewers Choice award.