This has been a very good year for phonostages chez Valin. Over the past twelve months or so I’ve had the opportunity to audition four outstanding units: the Audio Consulting Silver Rock, the Constellation Perseus, the VAC Statement, and the primary subject of this review, the Soulution 755. Although I could happily live with any of them, no two sound alike. While there are folks on our staff who would be dismayed by such sonic variety, I relish it. But then I’m not as doctrinaire as some. The world is filled with different kinds of listeners and different kinds of music; the absolute sound is filled with different vantages and points of interest; there is, in short, no single canonically “right” presentation.
If, for instance, you are a fidelity-to-sources kind of listener, you will probably gravitate to the $35k Audio Consulting Silver Rock or the $32k Constellation Perseus, both of which have extremely high resolution of musical and engineering detail (thanks in part to very low noise floors). Though there are TAS writers who believe (quite correctly) that such ultra-high detail is something we generally don’t hear in a live concert, I’ve always felt that is rather beside the point. On LP, CD, SACD, DSD, reel-to-reel tape, or whatever, we’re not listening to a live performance—we’re listening to a recorded one, in which the recording process is part and parcel of the presentation. On something like Analogue Productions’ superb LP Dream with Dean, for example, we ought to hear the slight upper-midrange emphasis of the very closely positioned Neumann U-47 microphone used to pick up Deano’s voice; we ought to hear the way it clarifies and occasionally exaggerates sibilants, breath control, and aspects of enunciation (or mispronunciation, in Dean’s case).
The irony is that while such artifacts make Dean sound more recorded, they also make him sound more “there,” precisely because the component qualities of his singing style are being more minutely observed. It seems to me that the preservation of such fine aural detail goes a long way toward making up for The Big Blank Spot at the heart of every recording (which is also the biggest perceptual difference between hearing someone live and hearing someone canned)—our inability to see the musician performing. By giving the listening ear and mind more information than it would ordinarily take in at a live concert, a high-resolution component is also reducing the size of that Big Blank Spot; it is turning sound into a substitute for vision, allowing listeners (in a well-worn phrase) to “almost see” the performer.
In the midband, the essentially passive (one active solid-state device in an interstage-transformer-coupled circuit), battery-powered Audio Consulting is superb at this. Coupled with CH Precision’s L1 linestage and M1 monoblock amplifiers, it reproduces something like Dean’s voice with a level of “you can almost see him” realism that has only been equaled in my experience by the Technical Brain TBC-Zero/TMC-Zero. There is a transparent purity about the Silver Rock—a direct connection to performers and performance—that really sets the unit apart from the other competitors. Of the units in this survey, it is my second favorite—and my alternative reference.
This is not to say that the Audio Consulting is without flaws. While it is not one-dimensionally “flat” sounding (it does have a touch of bloom, mostly in a forward direction), the Silver Rock is not as 3-D as the VAC Statement or Soulution 755, both of which we will come to in a bit. It is also a touch thin through the power range and the bass, giving it a slightly leanish, “top-down” tonal character (once again with CH Precision’s linestage and amplifiers, which are also slightly lean and top-down).
Inherently warmer and fuller in timbre than the Audio Consulting preamp, the Constellation Perseus extends the Silver Rock’s “you can almost see him” resolution to the frequency extremes. Its preservation of detail is so high, its bandwidth so extended, and its soundstaging so panoramic, it can even turn an old chestnut like The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 [Analogue Productions] into a brand-new listening experience. In large ensemble numbers, such as the stirring finales “Goodnight Irene” and “’Round the World,” the Perseus reproduces every singer, every instrument, every foot tap, every pluck on banjo, guitar, or bass fiddle, every voice joining The Weavers from the Carnegie Hall audience with crystalline clarity. Though this album has always been deeply moving to me for its end-of-era idealism—the hope that “one union can unite us” was already more pipedream than possibility in 1963 (or today)—the sound of all those singers and all those concertgoers briefly united in song has never affected me more powerfully than it did through the Constellation Perseus (and the Constellation Altair II linestage preamplifier and Hercules II Stereo amplifier), simply because of the heightened sense of “many” joining together as “one.” All recordings and electronics should serve music this well.
Once again, the Constellation is not perfect. Though balanced slightly toward the warm side, incredibly clear and fast on transients top to bottom, and plenty hard-hitting in the low bass, it doesn’t have quite the same jaw-dropping resolution in the midband as the Audio Consulting Silver Rock, or the three-dimensional bloom of the VAC, or the density of color and power of the Soulution 755 in the all-important power range. In addition, it is not quite as liquid as some of the other preamps being discussed, with a touch of fine solid-state grain that the other three units don’t have.
I’ve already talked at length about Kevin Hayes’ $80k VAC Statement Phono Stage (and its companion VAC Statement Line Stage) in Issue 263. This is the only tube unit in the group, and, as noted in my review, it has a fair measure of the lifelike timbre and texture of Golden Age tube gear. What it doesn’t have are the noise and coloration that also came with those Golden Age tube classics. Indeed, the VAC Statement Phono Stage (along with its companion Reference Line Stage) is the lowest noise/highest-resolution tube preamp I’ve yet heard.
In the paragraph devoted to the Audio Consulting Silver Rock, I talked about the way in which components with ultra-high resolution can compensate for the Big Blank Spot in our perception of artists on records—our inability to see the performers, to watch them play and coordinate what they are doing with how they sing and sound. The VAC Phono Stage introduces an attribute that makes musicians that much more “almost-see-them” real: three-dimensional bloom.