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The sense of dynamics now happening in my room was heretofore unheard and unknown. Definition, detail, frequency extension and clean power transfer made me take deep breaths while listening to a number of fave albums. For instance, Honegger's Pacific 231 [from Symphonic Movement #1 "Pacific 231" w/ Symphonies #1-5 on Erato with Charles Dutoit and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra], while not an audiophile-approved gangbuster, revealed how clearly the instrumental sections were arrayed in the soundfield. Brass had the kind of spittiness and blatt that approached reality quite well. String tone, while different from each cartridge, had an incisive and resinous quality which helped greatly in my willful suspension of disbelief. The jump factor from the EMT cartridge was especially exciting and conveyed enthusiastic energy. The Orpheus developed a smooth, spacious and controlled feeling. Overall, the Dynavector captured both of those kinds of sonic profiles but additionally portrayed a refined, natural and engaging end result.

The two LP disc set Testament from the Turtle Creek Chorale on Reference Recordings has served me well over the years. The polish and articulateness of this large group have been truly captured well by Keith Johnson. These singers never sounded so direct and focused as they do these days via the VR, 2800/V4 and XV-1s. The clarity of vocal inflection, the integration of sectional singing and the energy of the accompanying instruments have turned this music into a new and vibrant experience for me. These voices sound like real voices. Yikes!

Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat has seen a lot of time on the Basis turntable. Being a Steely Dan fan ever since the early days, I have come to appreciate the considerable efforts those guys exerted in making above average studio recordings. No, they are not the ultimate in any one sonic characteristic, but the sum effect is so good as to let me forget the audiophoolery and focus on the artistry and emotion within their products. Morph keeps true to that tradition and the excellent bass performance, coupled to evocative vocals and supporting instruments just makes for captivating listening. If only I could figure out who or what Morph is. Even Fred Kaplan had trouble with that one. I really connect to the track "What I Do" which is highly reminiscent of older Steely Dan arrangements and has a drivingly contagious bass line. A few years ago most audiophiles thought deep, pulsing, room pressurizing bass like this could only come from CDs, but, believe me - it is here.

Bill Henderson's Send in the Clowns is available on a 12" LP with the song reproduced at 33 1/3 RPM on one side and 45 RPM on the reverse. It has been a useful tool in sensing more of the subtle aspects of record playback. Yes the 33 RPM side sounds very good and tasty, but the 45 RPM version really reaches out and grabs you. Think master tape sound. The VR made that difference most obvious.

I would be remiss to not mention Joni Mitchell's Blue reissue. For one thing, it is very easy to tell what the remastering engineers have done differently from track to track via the current playback rig. This album has always been a steadfast go-to item when an evening of quiet, reflective listening was in order. Joni's voice has such texture and delicacy now that I am surprised I never noticed it as much in the old days with the original disc. Granted, my system has evolved radically since then but the good news is that as soon as I take off my reviewer's hat and go into normal music-lover mode, I can connect with Joni's singing in a truly compelling and magical way.

It seems tedious to list the dozens of other LPs that were employed in this evaluation process. The range covered everything except opera and C/W, since those styles are not in my collection. Oldies included symphonic, choral, chamber ensembles, solo piano, pipe organ, lute, acoustic guitar music and so on. All genres saw good play time and all benefitted from the impact the VR brought about. Rock and jazz standards figured into the mix extensively. Recent reissues of many classic albums have been costing me tons of money, but they help to compensate for some of the worn down versions that I've owned for decades and which needed help. It is a pleasure to say that none of these musical styles was either favored or under-represented in the final playback. Forget about thinking that the VR might only serve one type of music; it does it all and does it profoundly well.

In trying to say how the VR sounds, the real answer is that it sounds spectacular. Timbre, transparency, textures, dynamics, speed, focus, space, immediacy and all of those jargonized labels that one typically uses in audiophilia are satisfied fully. The ability to render what is channeled through it without distortion, corruption or other negative changes makes this a neutral but emotional device. It is far from sterile sounding and it benefits from careful placement, cabling, associated gear and attentive use. But, it is not fragile or astronomically priced. The VR is a practical, real world product worthy of the highest praise.

Context, yet again
On previous occasions I have written about context as a crucial factor in many things, whether audio or otherwise. Let me go back about four years in time. Now, in my sixth decade, I had reached a decision about reducing the complexity of my audio system for the sake of a more compact, simplified and less fussy home rig. I planned to buy a nice integrated amp, actually did buy the DeVore Gibbon 8 speakers, and was ready to find a new one-box CD player on which to enjoy my music collection. The odd thing was that all of these plans were radically abandoned when I went forward with improvements to the pro-audio gear I was using for my avocational recording projects. To save repeating this old story, let me just say that in 2001 I invested in good German microphones, a couple of very nice DAT recorders, a serious mic preamp and all of the customary supporting field recording accessories. This was to satisfy a long-standing desire to record live, acoustic classical concerts in my locale. These charming performances occur pretty frequently and happen very close to my home. I thought that I could make finished products that would appeal to these regional musicians, which would be of higher sonic quality than they would otherwise experience, and which would simultaneously help me to understand the recording process more clearly. All of that materialized. In fact, I have gone so far as to abandon DAT and now happily own a Sound Devices 744T HD recorder with an even better end result, especially using 24/96 encoding. What came as the biggest surprise was how much this fun recording activity impacted on my desire to have a better home sound system. The earlier flight of fantasy about downsizing quickly moved toward the direction which represents where my current listening circumstances are today. I have a better sound system than before and am enjoying it more than ever, due to the context of undertaking concert recording. Having the good fortune to be around fine live music concerts on a frequent basis has contributed further to my ear-tuning along with the appreciation of skilled musicianship. Doing concert recordings has multiple benefits, obviously. Wink, wink.

To belabor the context issue just one bit more, let me focus on how this VR review has evolved with time. I found this exceptional phono stage to be very good sounding as equipped with its own feet. However, being the tweaker that I am, I took on alternative explorations involving bypassing those original devices. My in-house array of footers ranged across Bright Star IsoNodes, Symposium Acoustics Fat Padz, Mapleshade IsoBlocks and Vibrapods, as well as the ebony Yamamoto double footers which figured prominently in my recent review of the Yamamoto audio rack. Without doubt, each of these elements changed the sound. Eventually, after a fairly convoluted series of trials I found that newly acquired Gingko Mini Clouds made for the most balanced, fully engaging and meaningful playback. [Our editor did a review of the Mini-Clouds in August 2004 and fleshed out many details quite well, for those interested in background and product development insights.] These experiments did show me that there is significant variation in how these tools impact the final sound. Anyone who has tried similar things probably already knows that how you implement these footers can make big differences. For me, using three Mini Clouds arranged so that two fit under the right side of the VR chassis, where most of the weight resides, yielded the best results. The third footer was placed near the left end of the chassis, centered front to back. With this latest configuration the VR delivered a robust, spacious, and energized soundfield, where instrumental timbre reached a new level of naturalness. Now, when Stevie Ray Vaughan does his guitar solos on "Tin Pan Alley" [from his 1984 album Couldn't Stand the Weather] the directness and vibrancy are startlingly good. Please allow me to digress for a short bit further in order to say more about the Mini Cloud experience.

Vinh Vu of Gingko Audio and Norvinz Inc. organized an audio event at the home of Mike Oltz, who is a serious and longtime audiophile/music lover in New Jersey. Mike is also a Norvinz Field Representative. This gathering, of just a few days ago, was devoted to demoing the recently released Merrill-Scillia turntable systems, which are very well made, high performance pieces of gear. Anthony Scillia, a partner in MSR, was also present. Tony brought his machining expertise to bear by collaborating with George Merrill on creating this new line of fine turntables. I attended this Sunday session to meet some of these folks and to see the gear in two different configurations as available at Mike's home. Vinh brought in a complete system featuring the M-S MS2 TT [see the August 2007 review by John Potis] with a Triplanar Arm and an Ortofon Jubilee cartridge connected to a pair of RL Acoustique Lamhorn single-driver speakers, powered by a pair of Opera Consonance Cyber 211 amplifiers. The preamp was a new design from Sanders Sound Systems and a prototype solid-state phono preamp was in the lineup also. While the system was arranged and situated nicely in a basement room, not a great amount of time was available to finesse things as highly as might have been possible under a more extended time frame. The sound was exciting, with especially fast leading edge transients that made many of the records sound lively. Upstairs, in Mike's dedicated and carefully treated sound room, a full compliment of MBL components took center stage, including a Merrill-Scillia MS21 big daddy turntable. Here the listening experience was revelatory. All of the audiophilic descriptors were well satisfied, so much so that most of the music just joyfully appeared free of fuss and hassle. What a pleasurable experience. Congrats to Mike, Vinh and Anthony on arranging and hosting this demo day.

Happily, I had the opportunity to speak to Vinh during this fun event and the Mini Clouds were in that chat. Without focusing much on the theoretical issues behind these footer/isolation devices, we compared notes and found common, beneficial results that could apply to many circumstances. It is abundantly clear to me that the asking price of $100 per set of three footers constitutes a major audio bargain. I've surmised that a truly snappy and exotic racking system in my home might take things to an even higher level. At this point in time, however, the Gingko Mini Clouds have allowed me to make significant, easily implemented gains in sonic realism without having to remortgage the house. I am using those footers under many components in my main system, as well in another smaller system in the house. I happily endorse the Mini Clouds. Vinh has a fool-proof way for you to find out for yourself, as described on his website. Take a look and see if the Mini Clouds have a place in your context.

Back To Business
One of the complications I am trying to deal with in this review is how to separate the role of the VR from the Basis 2800
Vector rig and the three exemplary cartridges at my disposal. I hope some additional discussion will help to sort that out, so bear with me. The sonic benefits that appeared after the VR went through its break-in period became most clear to me when I temporarily reintroduced the ARC PH3SE into the system. Granted, my older phono stage was not a state of the art piece, but neither was it chopped liver. My steadfast listening buddy and set-up assistant Mike brought along a MoFi copy of the Supertramp album Crime of the Century. Hearing it through the newly retubed ARC unit was a treat. There was a lot to be said for the excitement and feel of the music. However, when the same album was tried again via the VR, both of us were floored by the new information and auditory insights that enveloped us. Textures, small details, ambience, bass power, image depth and height... all these factors were taken to a new level. I even thought the band sounded like better musicians, as odd as that may seem. Do keep in mind that the bulk of my experience, over the years, has been with classical music, so forgive me if that comment about the band's performing abilities seems weird. From one disc to the next, Mike and I kept broad grins on our faces. The Vinyl Reference yielded a major learning experience and I do mean that in the best of ways.

I will defer to Kevin Carter's technical comments in the next section for those who enjoy those insights, but it seems obvious that this hybrid circuit plan, coupled to excellent parts and a well-reasoned execution, have raised the bar in my personal experience with LP playback. The effortless, clear, full-ranged and naturally textured sounds emanating from the VR possess all of the tonal balance and immediacy that I have craved for years. As an aside, my previous benchmark for outstanding record listening included a few sessions at the home of Sid Marks in Brooklyn, NY. Sid, whom many of you will remember from his "Marks Barks" writings in TAS, has a long and sterling reputation for knowing good music and distinguished vinyl playback. He provided earfuls of delight when listening to a wide variety of LPs on his analog-only, top level sound system. Sid and I met through the Audiophile Society and he has been a gem of a person to know and schmooze with. I am grateful that he has offered great advice on music and recordings, but beyond that he is a real mensch. Now that I reflect back on what music sounded like at his place, I can honestly say that I am able to rest easy knowing that things are right on track here as a result of putting the Vinyl Reference into my system.

Here are Kevin's responses to my list of questions.
1. I am aware that you have a formal background in science. Can you summarize the path you traveled in becoming an audio equipment designer?

I started modifying audio equipment to get better performance when I was in high school. Up until 1982 all of my effort was directed toward modification and design of solid-state equipment, because I, like most people, believed that tubes were well and truly obsolete. I initially built up a system that was based around several solid-state Dynaco kits during my college years (studying biochemistry). I modified all of these kits, mostly under the guidance of articles in Audio Amateur magazine. I then tried my hand at op amp preamp design and after a couple of efforts over my graduate school and postdoctoral study years (again biochemistry) was never satisfied with the sound I heard compared to what I was hearing at classical concerts on campus. So in 1982 I bought my first tube components, again Dynaco, and began the experimentation as an amateur that after 20 years led to my current gig as K&K Audio. Just prior to the founding of K&K Audio I worked for over 4 years as director of operations for Valve Amplification Company. There I developed my listening skills more fully after observing the excellent listening skills possessed by Kevin Hayes and had a chance to become immersed in the business side of high-end audio. I played a key role in the design of the last two preamp products that VAC released prior to moving back to Florida. Soon after I started K&K Audio to distribute Lundahl transformers in the U.S., I was invited by Joe Fratus and David Gill to join them in developing high-end audio equipment for Art Audio USA. The Vinyl Reference was the first product of this cooperation.

2. The Vinyl Reference under review here is the latest iteration of this design. What changes were implemented in this evolution and where did the motivation come from to do so?

The motivation for improvements comes from the desire to hear more of the music as it has been presented by the performers. Some of the improvements to the Vinyl Reference since its launch pertain to the circuit itself and others to the user interface. We have incorporated coupling and equalization capacitors that offer improved fidelity, as well as modifying the first stage to improve linearity and overload level. These changes have resulted in more transparency, better dynamic performance, and better perceived bass extension. On the user interface side, we added gain switching accessible inside the unit for both the MC input transformer and for the amplifier itself, so that users could optimize the gain distribution to suit their systems. We also added better facility for adjusting the loading for MC cartridges. The original releases of the Vinyl Reference had 4 loading possibilities while the latest release has 8 choices.

3. Can you share some insights into the nature of amorphous core transformers and why they figure so importantly in high performance circuits?

A modest amount has been written on the topic of why a designer would use a transformer in the signal path and I won't repeat that here. Well-known designers like Jeff Rowland have written and spoken on the topic many times over the past several years. Suffice it to say that the interface (grounding and impedance transformation) properties of transformers can improve an audio design dramatically, if used properly.

The fundamental physical difference between amorphous metals and normal metals is the nature of the crystalline structure. The crystalline structure has a substantial effect on the magnetic properties of ferromagnetic materials and this, in turn, has an effect on the sonic properties of the materials when they are used in audio transformer cores. Amorphous metals are manufactured by spraying the molten metal against a very cold rotating metal drum, cooling the molten material at rates approximating one million degrees per second. The metal atoms simply don't have the time to reorganize themselves from the randomized arrangement they have in the melt to the normal crystalline structure that they assume when slowly cooled, so they are said to be in an amorphous (noncrystalline) state. Various types of amorphous metal formulations have been found to have properties that are advantageous to audio and Lundahl uses several different ones for different applications. They have in common the 'ability' when used in audio transformers to provide better low level signal resolution, presumably as a result of the greatly increased number of magnetic domains that were created as a consequence of rapid cooling during manufacturing. The reproduction of recordings through identical transformers with traditional core materials and amorphous materials has always (in my experience) resulted in a more intensely musical experience obtained with amorphous core transformers in the signal path. The sound is more relaxed, yet details of composition and performance are easier to discern and appreciate. The sound of individual instruments seems to have more realistic harmonic character, as well.

4. Do you have any thoughts about why analog vinyl reproduction has not only persisted, but blossomed in recent years?

I attribute the blooming of analog vinyl reproduction to the fading of the blossom of the digital audio marketeer's foolish promise of 'perfect sound forever'. CD level digital music reproduction is a resolution compromise that certainly made good sense for the masses of casual music listeners, but was a decided step down compared to vinyl resolution for critical listeners. Many audiophiles enchanted with the promise of perfection and the convenience of the CD abandoned the LP and many of these have had second thoughts since. My CD playback system is very, very good by any standard, but is simply not up to the standard of my vinyl playback system.

5. What inspires you to design new products?

There are three factors that motivate me. Music is a fundamental part of my daily life and I like to hear it more like it was performed (when I can't actually hear it performed live), so when a new idea evolves to the point of looking like it could be a product, I build a prototype to see if it provides musical value. I also can't deny that it is just plain fun to have these new ideas and build prototypes to see how they perform. That is my geek side coming out, I suppose. It's also true that as the U.S. distributor of Lundahl transformers, I would like to see more Lundahl transformers used in audiophile designs. In some small way, if my designs are successful, hopefully that will give other designers the nudge to try them in their next product prototype.

6. Now for an odd question. If you could sit anywhere in Carnegie Hall [or any other world class venue] to hear a top tier symphony orchestra perform a mind- and heart-bending concert program, where would you choose to position yourself?

My wife and I have had the opportunity to sit in many locations listening to performances of the North Carolina Symphony in the local symphonic music venue, the wonderful sounding Meymandi Hall in Raleigh, NC. We prefer locations on the main floor perhaps 12-15 rows back and in the center. There is more instrumental focus further up, but I find that it distracts one from the overall picture. Carnegie Hall is much larger and I have only two experiences to draw on there, but based on those I would probably pick a similarly proportioned location.

Thanks, Kevin for sharing these ideas and informative insights.

Closing Thoughts
The Art Audio Vinyl Reference Phone Stage has created a paradigm shift for me in audio awareness and music listening. The sonic believability of what comes from LPs now is so much more immediate, captivating and glorious that my friends and I just get giggly over the way we enjoy music under these current conditions. It almost mystifies me as to why this seems so unique. Yes, I have an above average CD player and the rest of the gear in that equipment stream is quite good, but LPs just surpass digital by a wide margin. This is so much better sound that I don't even grouse about having to get up every 20 minutes to flip a record or go through the cleaning ritual that is inherent in vinyl use. The main issue before me now is how to sequence the remaining many hundreds of albums for pleasure listening so that I can relish this happiness without becoming a hermit.

For those who own earlier versions of the Vinyl Reference, think seriously about getting in touch with Joe Fratus to start the process of modifying your unit. The upgrade needed to be sonically up-to-date with what is in my home costs $ 500 factory direct. There is a V-CAP option for any model and it is an additional $ 500, however I do not have that installed here. Also, it should be noted that some of the features, such as the eight position impedance loading switch, cannot be retrofitted to the earliest VRs, but Joe can offer more details about that, as necessary.

I have been blessed to not only have the VR in for review, but to have other exceptional gear here as well, allowing the musical goodness to shine abundantly. In the near future I'll cover the Basis Audio 2800 turntable system, with its matching Vector 4 tone arm, all of which is maxed out with the appropriate accessories that make a superb device even better. Stay tuned.

Without doubt, each of the other gradual improvements in various
parts of my sound system has been facilitated most successfully and marvelously by the appearance of the Art Audio Vinyl Reference. The VR is a very special piece of gear. It is beyond silly good. Joe Fratus and Kevin Carter have much to be proud about and I congratulate them on this stunning achievement. The impact of this component has been so strong at my home that I will not let go of it. This is a keeper and I have sent in my check.

Quality of packing: Solid, safe, and readily reusable.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Excellent.
Condition of component received: Perfect.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Quality of owner's manual: Comprehensive, readily informative, professional and helpful.
Website comments: The Art Audio site provides excellent details, text and images.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor/90 days on tubes.
Human interactions: Thorough and easy.
Other: Handsome appearance, excellent internal components and build quality.
Pricing: Reasonable with high value and distinguished performance.
Application conditions: Attention to placement for heat dissipation is important; benefits from judicious use of auxiliary footers.
Final comments & suggestions: The Art Audio Vinyl Reference is an outstanding component, offering the listener an engaging and emotional connection to the music. A Blue Moon Award winner
Manufacturer's website