I’ll just say right off the bat that the VAC Statement 452iQ is the finest example of any high-power, vacuum tube power amplifier I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Physically imposing in its vertical-styled form factor, it looks as beautiful as it sounds. The 452iQ occupies that rarified altitude where performance and sound quality are taken to the extreme, cost be damned.
The price at the time of publication is $75,000. I think the 452iQ’s raison d’être is for VAC mastermind Kevin Hayes to answer the question: what is the best amp we can build, period?
For the last several years, audiophiles that have been to any hi-fi show where VAC has a presence have no doubt seen and heard these imposing beasts. Regular readers know I have been an unapologetic fanboy of the VAC Master Preamplifier for several years now. What would the 452iQ bring to a listening party in my home sanctuary of sound? That’s what I wanted to find out.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Before I talk about these amazing amps, I’d like to mention the circumstances leading up to all this fun.
During my listening time with a pair of Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 55 loudspeakers, I also had the good fortune to audition a pair of VAC’s newest creations, the Master 300 Musicbloc amplifier. That pair was not a prototype but rather something just shy of a production model. This was because it was decided to repackage the Master 300 for a different look. I was extremely enamored with the sound of those big boys, but I’ll have to wait for another chance to audition a production model in their newer package. In any event, I had the unique opportunity to compare some “pre-release” Master 300s to the VAC Statement 452iQ.
After I finished the Ultra 55 review, VSA arranged to have the Atlanta area dealer The Audio Company bring the latest and greatest VSA Ultra 7 speakers along with a full complement of VAC Statement series electronics, including a pair of 452iQ amplifiers. Leif Swanson of VSA was kind enough to come along for setup and stay a few days. I had a pretty epic time talking about speaker design and life.
It’s a very long story I won’t go into here, but a series of time constraints and unforeseen system mishaps did not allow me to do a proper review of the amazing Ultra 7. However, I had a lot of solid seat time with the 452IQ. By the way, that VAC Statement Phono stage was sweeeet – but that’s another story.
I sincerely thank Kevin at VAC, Keith, Gordon, the crew at The Audio Company, and Damon and Leif of VSA for making all this happen. You guys all rock.
What’s That Cute Little Vending Machine?
One listener I had over remarked how he thought the VAC Statement 452iQ looked like some kind of mini vending machine. I guess I can see that. The vertical form factor is not unheard of in power amps but is a bit unusual – particularly for a tube amp. According to VAC, this allows for shorter signal paths resulting in increased signal resolution and more musical realism. I certainly heard that and more. Whatever the case, I loved the chrome and glass, tube-powered candy dispenser look. But where is the coin slot?
Eight Gold Lion KT-88s are used for power, fed by four Tung-Sol 6SN7GTB for the small-signal front end. The VAC Statement 452iQ is fully balanced throughout, which also is out of the ordinary for a tube power amp. That means the balanced XLRs are the primary inputs, whereas the RCA inputs feed transformers to balance an unbalanced signal. This is the reverse of the case in many power amps – RCAs feeding to a natively single-ended topology and a transformer to unbalance the XLR input.
The amp is spec’d at 225 watts per channel (a single 452iQ is a stereo amp) and a whopping 400 watts in mono mode. Although not listed, I’m assuming this is into a nominal 8-ohm loudspeaker. For the review, I had two amps that I used in mono. That’s $150K worth of tube goodness in the form of sixteen KT-88s flawlessly pounding out 800 watts. Go big or go home, I say.
I tried running my system using a single VAC Statement 452iQ in stereo and honestly didn’t hear a vast difference. Maybe I couldn’t push them to the point where the extra 3db or so of headroom was audible. Whatever the case, these babies sound powerful. I mean, like a complete absence of the tiniest hint of strain, regardless of what I asked them to do. I’m talking about a limitless sense of dynamic contrast. I’ve heard this kind of thing in several high-powered solid-state amps and something similar when I reviewed the McIntosh MC 1502, but the VAC 452iQ exhibits this on a whole other level. The Ampsandsound Zion Monos I regularly use have a tone I love, but their 42 watts are put into perspective by the sheer dynamic scale available with the 452iQs. More on this later.
Another interesting aspect of the VAC Statement 452iQ design is what the iQ denotes: a scheme invented and patented by VAC which they call intelligent bias. This circuitry allows the amp to continuously monitor and adjust individual tubes for the most optimum bias current. So, not only is the user assured that the amp is always running at its optimum – and what may be just as important – the slow, inevitable aging of tubes is a non-issue. At least until a tube will no longer perform at the required spec, then at that point, front panel indicators alert the user a tube(s) change is needed.
Dang, how cool is that? You no longer have to wonder, is it burning in or wearing out? Let me see a raise of hands if, like me, you have neurotically wondered if your tube amp is starting to sound different – and not in a good way. Never mind, you know who you are.
VAC Statement 452iQ Set-Up
While auditioning the VAC Statement 452iQ amps, I had quite a variety of gear floating around.
At various times the system consisted of:
VAC Master Preamplifier, VAC Statement Linestage, VAC Statement Phono Stage, Lab12 Melto2 phono stage, ARC LS-17, TW Acustic Raven LS turntable and Raven 10.5 arm. Integrityhifi Canada TruGlider arm, Charisma Audio Signature One cart, DS Audio 003 cart and preamp, EMM Labs EQ-1, Ideon Absolute and Meitner MA-3 DACs, VAC Master 300 amps, VAC 452iQ amps, Ampsandsound Bryce Mono and Zion Mono amps, Qln Prestige Five speakers, Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 55 and Ultra 7 speakers, Credo EV Ref One speakers, Acora Acoustics granite equipment racks, full sets of Cardas Clear Beyond, Siltech 880, and Masterbuilt cables. Cardas, Furutech, and Analog Magik tonearm cables.
At my mastering studio, I use a monitor system comprised of Acora Acoustics SRC-2 speakers powered by a pair of Pass Labs XA-200.8 amps fed by a custom Knif Audio transfer console and Prism Sound DACs and ADCs. Equitech balanced power feeds everything except the amps, which live on a separate dedicated circuit. Occasionally, I will take gear in for review over there to test.
VAC Statement 452iQ Sound
Since the VAC Statement 452iQ is a straight-ahead affair, I won’t go much into an “In Use” description. Go around back. Pick your input, balanced or unbalanced, and flip the associated switch. Plug in your amazing-sounding zirconium-encrusted monocrystal cable. Mono or stereo? Flip those switches (one for input and one for output) and connect your speakers to the proper terminals using your elephant trunk-sized speaker cables.
There is presumably one 8-ohm output transformer tap because there is only one choice per channel of speaker terminals, with yet another pair dedicated for mono operation. Power it up and see if any front panel tube indicator lights come on. No? Good. Now go make a latte or rummage around for that special bottle of wine or single malt that you’ve been saving. Pick out some records or CDs or browse your saved streaming favorites. Maybe look for a reel of tape to put on the Studer. Take your time ’cause the amps need a few minutes to wake up.
I say all this to give the reader a sense that the sound from these amps was so good it seemed that each listening session was a special event. An event that deserved to be savored and not rushed. Even with all the gear I had on hand to mix and match, I spent lots of quality time just imbibing the sounds of music rather than thinking about the gear.
I felt like the pair of 452iQ amps, as well as the Master 300s, needed to be left on and intermittently playing music for at least 3 or 4 days before the sound settled down to a consistently great vibe. The 300s took over a week to reach equilibrium. Once that happened, I did feel like I could turn them off when not in use. Upon a fresh power-up, I’d be back to nominal sonic goodness in about 20-30 minutes. Let’s play some tunes, shall we?
I used an equal amount of digital and vinyl sources with the VAC Statement 452iQ in the system. This unusually high percentage of digital probably had something to do with having top-shelf DACs on hand. It also was kind of the thing where I wanted to hear what the amps were capable of when fed by the cleanliness and extreme low-frequency extension that many modern digital music productions exhibit.
I don’t care if you’re a Fagan/Becker fan or not – streaming Morph The Cat was about all I needed to hear to know the VAC Statement 452iQ has as much or more low-frequency grip and slam on the low end than just about any amp I’ve ever heard. The razor-sharp transients higher up the frequency spectrum were presented with total clarity and a hint of tube and transformer friendliness, but just a hint. Midrange density and a subtle warmth were in evidence, yet without any easily detectable extraneous texture or coloration. Sometimes, I’d feel like the 452iQ sat in a warmer, denser spot on the tonal spectrum. Putting on an album like this changed that notion immediately.
VAC Statement 452iQ Listening
Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn… was another one I streamed a lot. Very dense yet, at times, open arrangements. It’s a very classic 90’s analog recording. The 452iQs loved this one. “Fast As I Can” was massively expansive across the soundstage. The VAC amps had a nice way of playing all the subtle detail on this recording without making it sound bright. Huge and delicate when each was called for.
In the vinyl realm, I played stuff like Brian Blade Fellowship’s Red River Revel. I love the tunes and production vibe on this one. Whatever speaker was in the system at the time, the VAC Statement 452iQs brought out the best in whatever that speaker had to offer and did their disappearing act with just the merest hint of tube goodness. This recording has a lot of subtle spatial cues from the room it was recorded in. If I wanted to get lost in the music, it was easy. If I wanted to engage the analytical portion of my brain, I could hear the drumset’s close (but not too close) microphone placement. A somewhat more diffuse presentation in contrast to the close mic’d horns, guitars, and such.
Occasionally, before putting something on that I knew to be a little thin and edgy, I’d mentally ask the 452iQs to be a pal and help a brother out. Nah, that’s not their thing. Yes, they have a wonderful sense of flow. Yes, they reveal complex harmonic and dynamic textures in a recording without adding any noticeable additional texture or obvious slowing of the dynamic envelope. No, they will not magically be your bro and smooth over the treble or pump up the bass on an edgy and/or bass light recording.
At this level of the audiophile mountaintop, the gear is supposed to be as unerringly faithful as possible to what’s on a recording. But for me, there is good clean and not so good clean. Marginal clean has something in the sound that is missing or is off in some way that is hard to put your finger on. Everything might sound impressive – but somehow, I’m not drawn to the music. I might be having a fun time in a cerebral way by marveling at all the detail, bass slam, or whatever, but I’m not really listening to the music.
The VAC Statement 452iQ is my idea of a good clean. Surely it has something to do with using vacuum tubes and transformers, but I think it has more to do with what designer Kevin Hayes likes to hear. I think he is like me and certain other audiophiles in the sense that, yes, we want to hear everything, but not at the expense of musical involvement. I found the 452iQ to be everything I want to hear in the way of limitless dynamics, 3-dimensional imaging, and wide frequency bandwidth but beyond all that, these amps are musically involving. These days, I don’t want to be steered into listening to the gear; I want to listen to the music. More than a few times, I felt that I was hearing a familiar favorite recording for the first time. Not as in new little details emerging, but a macro sense of simply hearing it.
The amps reveal any and everything about the rest of your system. They will also de-homogenize the sonic imprint of a recording.
What I mean by that is some gear I love can pull the ends of the bell curve of recording quality towards an enjoyable middle area. Still, it has been my experience that when one or more of these types of components are used, marginal recordings are rendered more listenable – and the ultra purist recordings (designed to put you at the recording event) won’t sound quite as you-are-there as intended. I’m also not saying this is wrong. It’s a valid personal choice when assembling a system. I’ve also heard systems that had a very hifi sensibility about them and made everything sound pretty good but were not musically compelling.
The VAC Statement 452iQ doesn’t do any of that. Essentially, it reproduces a recording in a way that I found very satisfying without being too forgiving or overly analytical. It’s smack dab in the middle of my imaginary Yin and Yang accuracy/listenability matrix. Regular readers know this is my happy place. It disappears while revealing all the macro and micro sonic elements that make each recording unique – sometimes even within the same album. If you need forgiveness, ask for that from another component or your significant other – after they see the bill.
In light of this characteristic, I found the VAC Statement 452iQ to be a great truth-teller about what various loudspeakers are doing.
My time with this amp and others confirmed my feelings about how important a power amp is to system building. At this point in my audiophile journey, I’d almost say the power amp is the most important place to start when thinking about building or changing the vibe of an existing system. I know it sounds silly, but that’s my take on it. You won’t really hear what a speaker sounds like unless it’s told what to do by a great power amp. You may not really hear what that DAC or cartridge sounds like unless the speakers are firing on all cylinders. You get the point.
One last point: I didn’t get into any tube rolling mainly cause I didn’t have 8 or 16 other types or brands of pentodes to swap out. I wanted to try some other 6SN7’s but couldn’t find any quad sets that I was willing to drop big bucks on. Clearly, the amps are voiced with matched sets of the brands and types they are shipped with – and they sound great. But if I had spent serious coin to own these, I would not be able to resist some tube rolling, vintage NOS or otherwise. Would it make a significant difference? I know not.
VAC Statement 452iQ Conclusions
I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity in my listening room to hear so many great-sounding components from VAC, not the least of which is the VAC Statement 452iQ.
At $75,000 each, I realize that’s a big commitment for audiophiles, even those with a big budget. Okay, you don’t have to get two. But when you consider the heirloom build quality, flawless vacuum tube sonics, and the ability to drive even the most demanding loudspeakers, I consider it to be in the category of the ancient Confucious hi-fi proverb: “Those who buy right cry only once.”
What the heck, go on, get two.
VAC 452 Review,
I have built a mid level VAC, VSA TAC show system comprised of a pair of VAC 452’s, VAC Preamp, VAC Renaissance phono, VSA Ultra 9’s modified for CMS LS 1.5 footers, a full loom of MasterBuilt Ultra Cables, Bergmann Galder/Odin TT with a My Sonic Labs
Reference Platinum cartridge, a Taiko Extreme server and MSB Reference DAC modified with Westminster Lab umbilicals from the power supplies to the audio chassis.
As a result of this system, I believe I know the VAC equipment quite well, especially the 452’s and can totally concur with this review and consider them to be the best tube AB amps on the market. One thing I would like to add is that when I bought them I asked Kevin how long it would take for them to break-in? He suggested around 300 hours, BUT mine kept improving and leveling off at 1,500 hours. Also, you cannot find a better company to deal with than VAC, with the exception of VSA.
BTW, mine are totally black which I like better than the standard color 452’s, but then my Ultra 9’s piano gloss black