Longtime readers of these pages will recall my enthusiasm for the integrated amplifier. Although most integrateds do not reach the sonic heights of the finest separate components, I still love them for their space-saving chassis, uncomplicated hook-ups, and what is generally their very good value (surely Buddhism must have a word for such virtues).
At $5000 Audio Research’s VSi60 more than nicely fulfills this basic checklist. At 50Wpc it may not be the most powerful of competitors, but 50 watts strike me as a somewhat conservative rating of this unit’s output power, and, in any case, as with any amp/speaker combo, a wisely considered pairing should avoid any mismatch (more on this to follow).
Oh, did I mention that the VSi60 is a tube-driven unit? Well, it is. But as those familiar with contemporary ARC gear already know, there is no added vacuum-tube fat or golden glow in these designs. Part of this is simply because the traditional sonic differences once found between solid-state (cool, dark) and tubes (warm, rich) have been diminishing; part is because Audio Research has a long history of making unusually neutral devices. The Vi60 is also a hybrid model, sporting a passive, microprocessor-controlled linestage, a JFET input (for low noise) coupled with a pair of 6H30 driver tubes. As with other ARC designs, KT120 output tubes are employed, in this case, two per channel.
At a mere 14" x 8" x 16" and 35 pounds, the Vi60 also presents no serious domestic challenges. It’s handsome in a simple, utilitarian way (an optional tube cage is available for those with small kids or pets), comes with either a black or silver faceplate, and—like the SP17 preamp—sports a row of pushbuttons across the bottom right of its front panel, mirrored by a string of green LEDs to indicate volume level and input-selection. ’Round back are separate connectors for 4-and 8-ohm speakers, and a quintet of line-level inputs. Save for the remote control, that’s it when it comes to I/Os and controls.
All that’s left to describe is the sound, which is pretty damn wonderful.
During my day job as a wine merchant I often draw analogies between fine wines and high-end audio components. Beyond delivering pleasures both sensory and intellectual, both of these pursuits, at their finest, should be transparent. Wine, of course, should channel the place that it came from—that often misunderstood word terroir—while our audio systems should bring us as close as possible to the recorded event.
This is a great strength of the Vi60. Over the course of the months in which I’ve enjoyed the review sample, I never felt as if the Vi60 were imposing its own voice on the music; rather it was always in service to it. Now, this doesn’t mean that the Vi60 doesn’t have its own sonic signature—in a nutshell, pristine, grain-free, open, detailed, dynamically nimble—but this integrated’s overall qualities convey a very close link to each recording’s provenance.
Without actually having been present at the sessions we still sense the acoustic signature of, say, Columbia’s famed 30th St. studio (aka “The Church”) where, among a string of other famous recordings, Miles Davis and company laid down Kind of Blue, or London’s Kingsway Hall, where so many great classical recordings were made, or, closer to home in my case, Davies Hall, where I’ve actually attended some concerts and Tilson Thomas and the SF Orchestra recorded their fine Mahler cycle.