This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Returning to the box count, there's a lot to be said for integrated amplifiers. I used to run my system with two power cords, one integrated amp, one CD player and one turntable (which has its own power cord). Simple, easy, noninvasive. Today, the same system is made up of eight separate boxes: two for the P05/D05 Esoteric front end, three for the Genesis Ref 360s, two for the VRE-1 and one extra phono preamp since the SMc only accepts standard line-level signals. Add to this three power umbilicals, a pair of balanced digital interconnects for the P05/D05 and two new pairs of interconnects to link phono preamp to the VRE-1 and the VRE-1 to the power amps respectively. I of course won't mention needing a total of five power cords where two used to suffice. Nor insufficient shelves on my stand to stack all this fine equipment. Nor the absolute mess of cables crisscrossing behind the boxes. Musically speaking however, the $45,000 stack o' electronics plays in a very different league from the Musical Fidelity A5 amp and CD player. So if you ever venture down the road of hi-end separates, be prepared for the hidden costs to far exceed what you expected; the worst of all being your better half and friendly interior designer going into cardiac arrest over the mountain of gear, power supplies and wiring now crowding the living room floor.

Not that the VRE-1 is imposing or ugly. Quite the contrary actually. Understated elegance is the best way I can describe it. The loaner I received came in a thick and rigid black Corian enclosure with rounded cream corners for the nicest effect (the reversed color scheme exists on demand as well). This inert enclosure and the affixed Vibrapod footers play an integral role in vibration control. Nonetheless, Steve McCormack recommends using high-quality stands to extract the fullest potential of the VRE-1. The white serigraphy on the front plate is elegant and although minimalist, provides just the right amount of information. The three blue LEDs are small enough to not bother me even in the dark. On the backside, labeling was scarcer but I've been told that newer units now have all their connectors and switches properly identified. At 25 lbs for the preamplifier and 11 lbs for the external power unit, the VRE-1 weights more than many integrated amplifiers, a tribute to the quality of construction and its massive Corian enclosure.

One aspect that may surprise future owners is that the VRE-1 has no power switch. Once on, it remains on for optimum sonic performance. Since it consumes a truly tiny amount of current, this is not a problem even for the greenies among you. My unit had already been around the block a few times and sounded its best after a mere few hours of warm up so I can't give any decent estimate of break-in time for new units (switched on stone cold, the unit severely lacks bass but that's a very transitory effect, a few hours at most once broken in).

To round out the informative preamble, the unit under review, although fully active, was a zero-gain version of the VRE-1 but +6dB and -6dB versions also exist to better adapt to various system requirements. With all my sources delivering between 2-5V outputs, gain was never an issue. The attenuator sat between the 9:00 and 2:00 positions with CDs and LPs alike. In case your phono pre or CDP radically depart from the standard 2V, you might consider one of the other versions (the Zanden DAC with its 1V output for example might require a little help with gain while many balanced players like the Accustic Arts MkIII under review output 4V or more on their balanced feeds to significantly reduce the usable range of attenuation even with the unity-gain version). Interestingly, the tape output does have some added gain due to the IC Steve McCormack uses to drive this output. The logic here is to allow for very long cable runs if necessary, as well as protect the VRE-1 from any misbehavior caused by connected gear. During the review, I used this output to connect my headphone amplifier. If the slight gain boost was made obvious by the need of dialing the XCanV3 down from its customary volume position, the most striking differences actually came in the musical presentation. The Musical Fidelity amplifier made one gigantic leap forward in resolution, dynamics as well as bass depth and control. If I can understand the last two easily -- the AKG K701 is after all a challenging load even for the XCanV3 and the extra gain from the VRE-1 probably helped with overall drive -- I can only attribute the higher resolution to the high quality circuits and transformers used at the input of the VRE-1. Here it did a better job than any other gear I've ever had in my system thus far (including the D05 itself and the McIntosh MA2275).

This review will depart from what 6moons traditionally attempts but do it in a fashion anyway. At Steve McCormack's request, I did not open the unit to take photos. Apparently most components are located below the main board to where basic images would give a false impression of scarcity. Nor is he keen on giving away the secrets of his design. Yet he kindly agreed to join in for a detailed phone interview which should answer some if not all the burning questions. And he provided certain candid photos as well. His secret in one sentence? According to his words, it's a relatively simple design using transformer-coupled i/o ports with a zero-gain JFET buffer executed to the highest level of perfection possible. The remainder of this review will tell us if that was sufficient to reach the designer's stated ambitions.

Can you tell me a little about your past itinerary in hifi? I assume not everybody knows your past ventures, solo or with Conrad-Johnson (and maybe others before which I do not know of as I'm relatively new to the hobby). This may be a good background to provide for readers to understand your goals.

People know me from the Mod-Squad days but I actually started in the 60s as a kid just fascinated by electronics and technology. It was a great time with Klipsch and the Bose 901, great days for JBL speakers as well. And then of course the first AR speakers with acoustic suspension drivers... read more in the Sidebar.