A few weeks ago I heard Jean-Guihen Queyras play the Bach cello suites in an intimate setting at the Phillips museum in Washington, D.C. Queyras, who has recorded the suites for Harmonia Mundi, delivered an impassioned performance. As the mind is apt to do, I found my thoughts wandering at a few points, musing to myself about what his playing would sound like on a recording. My experience has always been that while a high-end stereo can capture enough elements of a live performance to deliver a convincing replica, it can’t really do more than that. The key question for me is always which elements it delivers. Stygian bass? Detail at the expense of sumptuousness? Or is the overall musicality enough to banish such considerations, allowing you instead to indulge in the sheer musicality, even sensuality, of a performance?
When it comes to the 850-watt Van Alstine DVA 850 hybrid monoblock amplifier, which retails for $3699 each, this last musicality point is very much in evidence. The amp offers a remarkably jaunty and silky sound—with lots of headroom—that always errs on the side of musical bliss. There must be something in the water in Minnesota, what with all the great products coming out from Van Alstine, Magnepan, and Audio Research.
Bliss isn’t exactly what I was expecting when I first removed the DVA 850s from their shipping boxes and got them into my system. Yes, I have a soft spot for hybrids. It’s hard to forgo a solid-state output stage because of the grip and control it tends to have over loudspeaker drivers. At the same time, a dollop of tubes on the input stage can smooth things out.
Still, given that it can produce up to a prodigious 1.7 kilowatts, I was fixated with the idea of a muscular amp that would smack around the Wilson XLF loudspeaker’s 13" and 15" drivers. Indeed, the DVA 850’s stern owner’s manual makes it plain that this is no amplifier to be trifled with. The manual is rife with warnings about the perils of melting your drivers if the amp is abused or improperly installed. It sensibly warns that the amplifiers are “not designed to reproduce the ear-damaging levels of live rock concerts. Your ears, your windows, and your associated equipment will be ruined if you attempt this long-term.”
Your windows? Well, I guess a bit of hyperbole is pardonable. But you get the general drift, and given that most audiophiles play their stereos far too loudly, Van Alstine’s admonition serves as a kind of public health warning. Quite frankly, the manual inspires confidence simply because it’s so well written, which is something of a rarity in the industry. The amplifier also comes with some useful features such as a ground lift in the rear. I didn’t need it, but to avoid ground-loop hum, you might. The manual also notes that it is critical that your power cord be properly wired to electrical code standards, as a mis-wired one has the potential to put “dangerous 120V AC on the chassis of the amplifier.” In other words, don’t do this, or there will be one fewer TAS reader. I also bring this up because initially I had plugged the amps into my balanced power outlets, which are fed by an Equitech transformer. As a result I blew several fuses, and had to make a trip to the hardware store to get new ones. You don’t know true terror until you’ve plugged in new fuses, praying after you press on the power button that nothing serious is wrong. Eventually, it dawned on me that the amp really is that sensitive to the nature of incoming power—I ended up plugging the amps into normal house wall outlets and thereafter they performed without incident.
Once the DVA 850s started playing, I was quite smitten by their lissome quality. Much of this I ascribe to their 12AT7 input tubes. The slightly grainy sound that I had expected from what is—let’s face it—a quite modestly priced (by high-end standards) amplifier was nowhere in evidence. Instead, the tubes seemed to impart a holistic sound to woodwinds, an elegance and refinement that I did not expect. These qualities first became apparent to me on a Channel Classics CD of Telemann concertos—a disc that I recently swiped from my old man’s copious CD collection in Pittsburgh, PA—played by the wonderful Florilegium ensemble. On the Concerto in E major, the woodwinds came through with marvelous palpability, a sense of 3-D sound that was a sonic treat. Far from displaying any sterility, the DV 850 reproduced the interplay between this British ensemble’s period instruments with a true sense of glow and grace. Of course, these attributes were already present in the performance, but the DVA 850 allowed them to emerge with unforced lucidity in playback. Was there a slight softening taking place on voice and flute in a Telemann cantata? Probably. But I’ll take it over rebarbative sound any day. Mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson’s intonation and pronunciation of the original German sounded spot-on to me, and I reveled in the fact that the treble sounded as relaxed as it did. Put bluntly, I gained a new appreciation for some of this CD’s musical virtues by listening to it through the DVA 850.