What constitutes the “entry level” isn’t always obvious. Because we live in an Internet-infected world where fluidity, shape-shifting, social relativity, distributed systems, etc. are commonly accepted models of reality, definitions are rarely clear-cut or easy.
That’s what people say, anyway. Fortunately, this is my column, and I get to make the rules.
I admit, though, the entry level is probably one of the most nebulous terms out there. What’s affordable for me isn’t always affordable for someone else, and so on. I will also admit that just being deep into the hi-fi world makes me much more tolerant of today’s steep pricing. I have to actively resist normalizing absurd-seeming costs, and coming back to this column is almost a cleansing experience. I get to remind myself that there are awesome-sounding products that don’t cost as much as a car, for example.
In this space, I can draw lines, and I like drawing lines. Mostly, I’ve been thinking of anything under $1000 as being potentially “entry level,” although I allow for some flexibility where necessary. For example, if an entire system is going to cost less than, say, a couple thousand, that would probably be reasonable. It’s also not just the bottom line that matters, but the value you’re getting per dollar.
Sometimes, equipment is just worth the money.
Which is why I’m reviewing Audio by Van Alstine’s Transcendence 10 RB tube preamplifier ($899 base price without remote and phono circuit; $1328 as reviewed with both) and Vision SET 120 60Wpc solid-state power amplifier ($899). Frank Van Alstine has been building or modifying audio electronics since the early 1970s, and his company’s products are known for delivering high value. Individually, these two new components fit into my criteria of sub-$1000, although the preamp can get pricey if you add the remote ($100) and the phono circuit ($329). But regardless, for a separates system these are inexpensive, at least by audiophile-industry standards.
OK, I know, that was a lot of high-level price talk. Let’s look at the equipment now, the reason we’re all here.
Both the preamp and the amp sport an all-black front and back (and only come in black). They’re slim and relatively light, and I probably could’ve stacked them on top of each other on the bottom shelf of my rack, but I didn’t. The preamp runs a little warm due to the tubes, although not hot, while the amp stays relatively cool. They each have a long goldish white line along the bottom, ending in the company name at the far right. I found them utilitarian and simple, but nice, especially that little line detail.
They’re easy to set up, with nothing particularly tricky about them, unless you need to change the phono section’s loading options. Otherwise, they’re pretty much plug-and-play. The preamp has four RCA line outs (unless you have the phono option, which replaces the first line out). There’s a volume knob on the preamp and a headphone jack. I tested the headphone jack briefly, but since I don’t own very good quality headphones, I don’t feel confident giving a detailed report. I will simply say that it worked and sounded fine to my ears, for what that’s worth.
When I got everything up and running, I did encounter some very loud hissing noises that got louder as the preamp warmed up. After a little troubleshooting, I figured out that it was a bad tube in the left channel. After a quick email, AVA sent out new tubes, and once I swapped those in, everything worked as it should. AVA has a three-month replacement policy for tubes in new equipment. The thing is, tubes don’t last forever. They have to be replaced sooner or later, and it’s not uncommon to get a faulty tube, or to have a tube go bad, off the bat. When you get into the tube game, you basically accept this limitation as a given, and I think AVA’s policy is reasonable, if not generous.