Now, to get into sound. I started with a vinyl copy of Spiritualized’s new album And Nothing Hurt. The Transcendence 10 RB preamp I received had the Vision phono circuit included, so I plugged my tonearm cables directly into the phono input. I did all of my listening with my Grado Blue v2, and since the circuit was set at the factory for moving-magnet operation, I didn’t have to change anything. However, the Vision circuit can handle a wide variety of different loading options for moving-coil carts. It involves opening the amp and adjusting switches, which is relatively simple if a little time consuming.
The phono circuit sounded fantastic. I was instantly impressed by the depth of the soundstage and the general dynamics. Spiritualized is known as being maximalist to the max, with wide, densely layered instruments and near-constant sonic growth. It’s a big sound, and I was feeling every nuance. On “The Morning After,” the driving guitar is constantly underpinned by synths diving down deep into the mix. Eyes closed, I could start to pick them apart and could almost differentiate each individual track.
Such a big sound needs a power amp that can keep up. The Vision SET 120 is rated at 60Wpc into 8 ohms and “much more” into 4 ohms. (AVA doesn’t publish full specs, although the website states that they are available on request; in keeping with the AVA spirit I chose not to request them.) Those 60 watts were plenty for driving my Omen Dirty Weekends and the Monitor Audio Studios to a more than room-filling blast. The horns at the end of “The Morning After” came through screaming, purposefully borderline harsh, but I felt like the SET 120 never lost control. I was in the cacophony the whole time, experiencing the raging instrumentation swirling around the driving back-beat. Overall, And Nothing Hurt is not an easy record, but this AVA separates system did it justice.
Next, since CDs are now basically what vinyl was ten years ago, let’s look at two of them briefly. I started with the recent Light in the Attic reissue of Haruomi Hosono’s Philharmony. The chiming sequencers, the stabbing synths, the big drum machines, all add up to a funhouse version of disco. The low end is solid and taut in a really satisfying way, especially on the fourth track “Platonic.” It’s odd to describe such an energetic recording as relaxed, but that’s exactly the sense I got with the AVA equipment. The chimes and whispered, distorted lyrics remained easygoing without ever being easy. The AVA generated a deceptively cool sound, in the sense of being laid-back and calm, while still providing a taut low end and just enough sparkle in the upper registers.
I found myself bobbing along to the honking pseudo-horns on the title track, “Philharmony.” It’s an odd, minimal little recording, all synth and sequencing. For what’s supposed to be a pop album, maybe even disco, Philharmony is surprisingly strange. It’s actually disorienting in places, but despite the relative lack of spatial grounding in the recording, I felt like the AVA equipment allowed for the depth to shine through. The layering of simple melody and repetition made these tracks more complex than you’d think, and I found myself closing my eyes and getting lost in them.
Finally, I recently picked up the album Sailorwave by Macross 82-99, which features a big Sailor Moon manga image on the cover. It’s a Vaporwave release—a style of electronic music that’s heavily influenced by 80s and 90s cyberpunk culture. This particular recording is obsessed with late-80s Japan and the City Pop genre in particular, with Tatsuro Yamashita’s voice showing up at the end of the very first track.
It’s not exactly an “audiophile disc,” but it’s a lot of fun. The bass has just the right amount of slam and size, and the synths are kept from straying into harshness at loud listening levels. I really liked what sounded like a natural presentation of an incredibly unnatural recording, which was probably the tube preamp keeping things just on the right side of mellow.
In the end, I kept asking myself if these units really were “entry-level” or not. Maybe yes, maybe no, but it doesn’t matter. They’re borderline if you’re going purely by my arbitrary price points, but sonically they’re a solid step past what their prices suggest. I spent a considerable amount of time with both components, and the more I listened, the more I really, really liked them. Whenever I moved them out of my system to work on something else, I’d always end up putting them right back in. If you take one thing from this review, that’s what I hope you remember.
The AVA duo is possibly the best bargain I’ve reviewed so far, and more than worth a listen. The preamp in particular really wowed me, especially the quiet but breezy tubes and the fantastic phono section. All in all, both the Vision SET 120 power amp and the Transcendence 10 RB tube preamp are easy recommendations.
Specs & Pricing
Vision SET 120
Type: Class AB power amplifier
Output power: 60Wpc into 8 ohms
Inputs: Unbalanced RCA
Dimensions: 17" x 12" x 2.5"
Weight: 30 lbs.
Transcendence 10 RB
Type: Vacuum-tube preamplifier
Tube complement: 2x 6D78 (6CG7 and 6N1P can also be used)
Inputs: Line level (4x RCA), phono (if included, RCA)
Outputs: Main (2x RCA)
Dimensions: 17" x 12" x 3.5"
Weight: 17 lbs.
Price: $899; $100 for remote control; $329 for phono option
AUDIO BY VAN ALSTINE
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