Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than reveling in great-sounding audio gear the average Joe—or Jolene—can actually afford. Priced at $1299 and $1599, respectively, the Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) Ultra SL preamp and Ultra DAC drive home the point of diminishing returns in this hobby once again, with their appealing combination of smoothness, clarity, and wide dynamic range. Granted, this stuff doesn’t come in the prettiest boxes I’ve ever seen, but even that will soon be remedied as a revamped faceplate is currently in the works to complement an all-new full-width chassis. AVA fans can now have their cake and eat it, too.
AVA designer and president Frank Van Alstine has been selling direct from his home-based factory for over 35 years, initially modifying Hafler and Dynaco gear and more recently (within the last 10-15 years) building his own. While Frank has garnered a reputation among some as being a bit of a curmudgeon, I’ve met few who are as down-to-earth and genuine. On a recent factory tour, I also had the good fortune to meet Lisa, one of AVA’s long time technicians and a perfectionist extraordinaire. Lisa has been “stuffing circuit boards” for Van Alstine since the age of seven, when she would stop by after school to help out another long-time AVA tech, her mother Patty. After seeing how spotlessly and methodically Lisa maintains the parts supply room—heck, the entire factory is cleaner than my house—I’d definitely want her to be the one to build my gear.
In addition to the Ultra SL preamp and Ultra DAC, an Ultra Fet Valve 550 power amp was included in the review package. (Note: the “Ultra” designation replaces the former “Transcendence Series” moniker for the DAC and preamp and “EXR” moniker for the power amp.) While the AVA trio was initially set up as a system, I opted to spend most of my time evaluating each component individually. All three units utilize Van Alstine’s patented hybrid vacuum tube circuits, including high-gain 12AT7A tubes where applicable.
Not having played around with an outboard DAC since I moved last year, I had to spend a few days of search-and-rescue to unearth my bag of sundry coaxial and other orphaned cables. It was well worth the effort. While I don’t advocate spending large green on a digital cable, a little experimenting transformed the Ultra DAC from simply a nice-sounding component to one I would consider buying. That’s a huge step. For those who are curious, I liked the sound best with a Virtual Dynamics David coax, but there are certainly many other options. The worst performance was with a bottom-of-the-bag generic video cable that must have come free with a $39 DVD player.
Those who read my budget system review might remember the Marantz PMD-320 CD player I bought from Parts Express for $279. I began using it again recently when I finally had the time to set up a second system in the spare bedroom. Although the Marantz isn’t a bad player on its own, using it as a transport in combination with the Ultra DAC was a fairly dramatic as well as a sonically pleasing upgrade. The vastly improved spaciousness, clarity, and resolution were immediately evident, as was the greater extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum. While I wouldn’t classify the Ultra DAC as being the last word in finesse or sophistication, the sound was invitingly pure and smooth, leaning a bit to the warm side without being overly lush or tubey. But even more essential than the aforementioned attributes, the Ultra DAC has what it takes to make me want to listen. This “listenability” or “magic” or whatever quality it is that draws us into the music has little to do with a component’s price tag. I’ve heard products selling for substantially more that didn’t have what it takes to keep me interested. The Ultra DAC has it, and then some. Just don’t forget the importance of a reliable transport and suitably matched digital cable in the equation.
Ultra SL preamplifier
The Ultra SL (straight line) preamplifier is similar to the EC version but with fewer bells and whistles. The SL is available with a few options such as remote volume control, phono circuit, and buffered tape input/output, but that’s about it. Given my druthers, I’d do away with the tethered lamp-cord plug in favor of an IEC jack on the back panel and detachable power cord. But then again, if it were up to me, and I had the technical wherewithal to know which end of a soldering iron is hot, I’d probably have an Elrod Statement power cord on all my kitchen appliances. Truth be told, both the Ultra preamp and DAC sounded pretty damn good, captive cords and all, and I was ultimately spared the time and aggravation of having to obsess over more cable choices.
Combined with the Ultra DAC, the Ultra SL preamp’s star qualities were easy to hear when driving the Atma- Sphere Novacron OTL amp and Coincident Super Eclipse speakers. I absolutely loved this preamp’s wide dynamic range capabilities. In fact, the first bass notes I heard listening to Misty River’s Live at the Backstage Gate [MR] had me raising my eyebrows almost in disbelief. As with the Ultra DAC, I was impressed by the level of smoothness, detail, and clarity, as well as the transparency and three-dimensionality, of this wallet-friendly component. The SL’s liquidity and ease, combined with particularly good bass and extension on the top end, made for a finely tuned balance of the best of tubes and solid-state.
Ultra Fet Valve 550 amplifier
In all honesty, I wasn’t quite as crazy about the Ultra 550 power amp as I was about the Ultra DAC and preamp. At 250W per side, the 550 performed reliably enough, but didn’t have the same engaging nature or level of clarity and openness I experienced with the two other components. I was also disappointed with the bass performance. On the Titanic soundtrack, [Sony 93091] my vintage 150W Harman Kardon Citation 16 power amp had notably more weight and authority as well as extension in both frequency extremes. Due to this limited extension on the bottom end, I’d avoid pairing this amp with a speaker that might be overly bright on top, as the skewed balanced toward the upper registers will wear on your nerves in short order. Matched with an efficient and ultra-refined speaker like the Coincident Super Eclipse, the 550 was smooth enough, sufficiently detailed and fairly decent sounding in most other parameters.
In summing up my thoughts on the Van Alstine gear, I may have been a bit rough on the Ultra 550 amp—after all, its faults are mostly of a subtractive, forgiving nature. And for an entry-level 250-watt amplifier, $2199 is a reasonably modest price. Some of the disappointment I felt with the Ultra 550 no doubt stems from the high bar set by the Ultra DAC and Ultra SL preamp. In my view, the smooth, clear, open, and engaging nature of these two wonderfully affordable front-end pieces could easily justify a hike in the window sticker. But don’t take my word for it. AVA offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on most everything it sells. Have a listen for yourself.