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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Esoteric P05/D05 [on loan], Accustic Arts CD player MkIII [in for review], Musical Fidelity A5, Esoteric X-03SE
Preamplifier: Adcom GFP750
Amplifier: Genesis Reference 360 monos
Speakers: Nomad Audio RPDs, FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Ash XLR (on loan), Zu Libtec, Zu Gede
Power Cords: Zu Bok & Zu Mother
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' x 9' opening to 3 other rooms, short wall setup, suspended wood floor, sheetrock walls and ceiling.
Review component retail: $7500

Preamplifiers have always puzzled me. The seemingly antagonistic objectives of being a convenient system control center while simultaneously shaping up the lowest level (and therefore most fragile) signals before high-level amplification had me believe for many years that preamplifiers, more than any other component in the reproduction chain, had to be crippled by compromises. Or cost an arm and a leg. The belief I held prior to this review, perpetuated by the ideal of 'straight wire with gain', was that preamplifiers were at best a necessary evil which one had to try and keep as far below notice as possible. Yet, after running the Esoteric D05 direct into the Genesis Reference 360 for months now, I also knew that 'no preamp' was not the answer either while some admittedly limited exposure to passive solutions had failed to truly impress. So what to think?

When Steve McCormack agreed to let me review his new baby, the Virtual Reality Engine-1 preamplifier, a unique combination of passive and active components assembled by ear with no other constraints than sounding the best possible, I was very hopeful that my questions would finally find solid answers.

In the long continuum of preamplifiers stretching from full-function affairs with tone and balance control, phono boards, input naming, coffee-machine piloting ability and artificial intelligence to minimalist switch boxes offering barely more than a couple of inputs and attenuation in the name of the simplest possible signal path, the VRE-1 sits closer to the minimalist end of the spectrum. It eschews any convenience its designer considered might negatively impact his ultimate goal of bridging passive and active preamplification to get the best of both worlds and once and for all open the window on recorded events as opposed to just 'cleaning the panes'. You thus won't find any tone or balance controls and the stepped attenuator only obeys the remote control known as the hand at the end of your arm.

Still, there's no doubt that Steve McCormack fully understands how things should be implemented. From the critical phase inversion switch on the face to the defeatable tape output; from the perfectly spaced connectors in the back which allow for even the thickest interconnects; to the mute switch in the front turning off the variable outputs but not the tape output (the review unit was one of the very first production models and the mute switch impacted both pre and tape outputs - this has now been changed but can be set either way at your request), the VRE-1 feels like it has been put together by a designer who actually cares about the full experience and ease of using his gear, yet with a primary focus on what each and every solution he adopts sounds like.

This obsessive focus on the last detail is obvious also in the fact that it took Steve McCormack close to five years to complete his magnum opus and judge it good enough to bring to market. And even after this level of perfectionist attention, the VRE-1 keeps evolving. It recently received a new and improved stepped attenuator after the old one was judged unacceptable after a few clicks and pops were heard on a few occasions. Similarly Steve is considering new and better sounding capacitors for parts of the circuit. These changes and a few others he has in mind will likely force him to reluctantly increase the VRE-1 price in the near future (I write 'reluctantly' as McCormack Audio, back from the days of the Mod Squad through today, has always been about delivering more value than anything else on the market and regardless of its 'cost no object' ambitions, the designer doesn't view the VRE-1 any differently).

No question, a few convenience items have been sacrificed on the altar of perfection. For example, the power supply went off-board to require not just one but two power cords (one of them of the "garden hose" type which Serguei Timachev of Stealth Audio Cables custom-fabricates for the VRE-1). In exchange for this added complexity, there's an adjustable ground jumper inside the power supply providing three options between earth and circuit ground connection: A) isolated connection via an RC network consisting of a 100-ohm resistor in parallel with a .01uF capacitor; B) direct (zero-ohm) connection; and C) no connection. In most situations, option A works fine like at my house but options B and C can be experimented with in case of buzz and hum in the signal chain.

One may also have wanted more than four inputs but one of the truly unique characteristics of the VRE-1 is that though only input 1 is fitted with XLRs, you can choose to convert inputs 2 to 4 from single-ended to balanced by ordering optional plug'n'play adapters from SMc. That's a first as far as I know and it gives the VRE-1 ultimate flexibility to accommodate your sources of choice as they evolve. In short, this preamplifier won't be embarrassed if you decide to go all balanced one day. Explains Steve McCormack: "The use of input transformers allows for this. Balanced input signals pass through fully balanced but unbalanced input signals are converted to balanced naturally as they pass through the VRE-1's input stage. This also means that you are taking full advantage of the VRE-1's balanced circuitry whether or not you have a balanced source.

"It may sound complicated but in practice, the adaptors are really easy to use. The adaptor looks like a regular RCA-to-XLR adaptor with connectors of the highest quality money can buy, but it also has a separate ground wire (with banana connector) that plugs into the preamplifier's ground tap. Should you need more than one adaptor, the back of the banana plug is open and you can just stack them on top of each other. The consequence is that those adaptors can only be used with the VRE-1. They will not turn ordinary single-ended gear magically into balanced designs and they won't work on other fully balanced preamplifiers as they are not designed to input a balanced signal through a regular RCA connector."