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.
Earlier I pointed to the tubes’ presence as helping to endow the DVA 850 with a healthy sense of musicality. But an amp’s sheer power can also help produce an ease of presentation—witness for example the mighty Boulder 2150 mono amplifiers that I had in situ a few months ago.
Another benefit raw power can produce is a guilty pleasure that a goodly number of us enjoy: dynamics. A couple of years ago David Wilson told me that he would do nothing that would sacrifice dynamics. I can understand the sentiment. A few days ago I was in Miami and heard the New World Symphony. The brass fortissimos in the Sibelius violin concerto were delivered with a visceral force that was enough to make you jump out of your seat. If you want to produce some kind of simulacrum of the real thing, you’re going to need to try and recreate some of that jump factor. Having more than a kilowatt of power in reserve—as the DVA 850 does—helps you accomplish that.
So I popped on the venerable Verve recording of a live performance by Jimmy Smith called Root Down, which I have on both CD and LP. The amps delivered a real thump on the drums on the first cut “Sagg Shootin’ His Arrow.” You get not only a sense of the kick-drum being whapped, but also of the air billowing out from it. It almost feels as though the impact is emanating from below the floor, that’s how low the amp goes. At the same time, on “Let’s Stay Together,” the amps did a superb job of delineating the bass line—it doesn’t lose its grip on the deepest notes, and the rhythm comes through clearly in the nether regions rather than being an oleaginous clump of sound. For all this early funk recording’s dynamism, the DVA 850 also allows you to luxuriate in the sound. I’m not talking about a diminution in transient speed, but a fuller and more rounded presentation that, more often than not, audiophiles associate with tubes. When Jimmy Smith speaks on the recording, his voice has more authority and huskiness than a purely solid-state amp would likely convey.
The DVA 850’s appealing qualities were even more apparent on LP. Take András Schiff’s London recording of Mozart’s piano sonatas. On the Sonata in A major, I was immediately aware of the ample hall space that the amps served up, not to mention the precision of Schiff’s touch. The amps also provided a nice sense of decay on the notes—something only hinted at on the Jimmy Smith CD that became more readily evident on this LP. On the scale of amps that provide an easy sense of emotional connection to the music—allowing you to get past the sensation of listening to electronic equipment—I’d have to rate these amps very high indeed.
None of this will likely come as much of a surprise to industry veterans. Frank Van Alstine, the designer of this amplifier, is known as an experienced hand who delivers the goods. When I mentioned to an old friend in California that I was receiving the amps, he raised his eyebrows significantly, or at least as significantly as I could discern over the telephone.
I don’t know that there is a secret ingredient here so much as a shrewd mind at work that balanced the variables and produced a high-powered amp that manages to remain extremely musical. In fact, these amps make me think right off the bat of a friend in Denver who has been searching for longer than he probably cares to admit for an amp capable of driving his current-hungry Sonus faber loudspeakers. All along he’s craved more musicality than he can really afford. (You know who you are: Consider this a shout-out.) This is one amplifier that anyone intent on putting together a truly musical system without spending a fortune should definitely consider.
No, the DVA 850 will not trounce much pricier amps from the likes of Boulder, Ypsilon, or Soulution. It lacks the ultimate gravitas, sheen, transparency, and musical sophistication of those megabuck amplifiers. Put on a really demanding symphonic work and you can start picking nits about the sound of the strings and so on. But that’s not the sweepstakes that this amplifier is competing in. For my money, the DVA 850 is a prodigious product that anyone looking for real-world amplification with a beneficent sound should consider.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Hybrid monoblock
Output power: 850W
Tube complement: 12AT7 (input stage)
Inputs: Switchable RCA, XLR
Dimensions: 17″ x 7″ x 13″
Weight: 36 lbs. (each)
Price: $3699 (each)
AUDIO BY VAN ALSTINE
2665 Brittany Lane
Woodbury, MN 55125
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor
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