Even though Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) has been around for about 50 years, so far Enjoy The Music has only reviewed two AVA components, the 225 Watt per channel Synergy 450 power amplifier in 2012, and the 100 Wpc Synergy integrated amplifier in 2014. In both of those reviews, the conclusion was the same – they both have a tremendous performance to price ratio. The two sell for less than $2000 each, and both performed much better than their relatively affordable price would indicate. The power amplifier reviewed here is from AVA's DVA "Premier Amplifiers" series, which offer not only higher performance than AVA's other offerings, but look it. Gone are the plain Audio by Van Alstine black or silver boxes with the large AVA logo emblazoned on its front. The DVA 4/2 sample I was sent has a silver-colored front panel with black accents along the last few inches of its outer edges, that reminds me of my older Krell KSA series amplifier I used in my system back in the day. Of course, more important than the appearance of a high-end component is its sound quality. AVA is well-aware of this, so on their website, they let you know it. Still, although still simple looking, I consider the DVA 4/2 power amplifier better looking than AVA's other offerings, and like all of the Audio by Alstine products, it is sold only factory direct, but with a 30-day in-home trial period. All AVA products carry a three-year warranty.
The DVA 4/2 uses a "custom" toroidal power transformer, which feeds 16 active regulated power supplies, which have parts that AVA claims "are selected for long life and operate well within their specification ratings". They go on to say that it uses independent, actively regulated power supplies for each channel's output transistors, which they claim is a "unique engineering feature" that provides "superior sound qualities". The DVA 4/2 is a Class A/B power amplifier that operates in Class A at normal listening levels, says AVA, and the "combination of design ideas" allows the amp to run cooler, last longer without failures. It has a total of 16 double-die MOSFET output transistors, and in stereo mode 8 Exicon double-die per channel, and in four-channel mode 4 per channel.
For most of the review I used the AVA DVA 4/2 amp to power a pair of EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature speakers. The preamplifier was sometimes a Rogue RP-7 tube preamplifier, but sometimes I used no preamplifier at all, and used the volume control on either my digital-to-analog converters, a Benchmark DAC1PRE, AURALiC VEGA, or AURALiC VEGA G2. The source was sometimes an AURALiC ARIES G2 network player, a Logitech Squeezebox network player, or an OPPO BDP-82 Special Edition universal disc player. After more than halfway through the review period I moved the DVA 4/2 from my second system to my main system that has an analog front end of a Basis Audio Debut V turntable, a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm, and the marvelous Gold Note Tuscany phono cartridge connected to a Pass Labs XP-15 phono stage.
Loudspeakers remain my Sound Labs Majestic 545 full-range electrostatics, which are augmented by a pair of HGS-15b subwoofers. I used nearly an identical digital front-end as my second system listed above, except rather than reading the digital signal off the home network; my music server was hard-wired to the DAC with a Furutech USB cable. The preamplifiers in this system are both 2017 Blue Note Award winners, the Merrill Audio Christina Reference, and the Mark Levinson No. 523. All the equipment is connected using either MIT, Merrill Audio, or DH Labs interconnects, and the speaker cable is a 12' run of bi-wire Westlake Audio. The power conditioner is a battery powered Stromtank S2500 which removes all the gear from my local power grid, and allows all the equipment to sound its best. A review of the Stromtank will appear in Enjoy The Music soon.
The Pass Labs' amp has a few more distinctive sonic qualities, but it certainly doesn't sound three times better than the AVA DVA 4/2, that's for sure. But still, even though the two amps were more alike than different, a better match for the AVA was in my system with the EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature speakers, which are no slouches by any means. I once described these $6500 floor-standing speakers as being so natural that suspension of disbelief was a regular occurrence, among many other outstanding qualities. With the right ancillaries one can obtain a huge soundstage from the EgglestonWorks speakers, along with their ability to separate all the instruments in their respective places within this soundstage, all with a near perfect transient response and other audiophile traits that belie their relatively small size. As you will read, the Audio by Van Alstine DVA 4/2 was certainly one of the "right ancillaries". I've often stated that the "perfect" component does not exist, that system matching is often a hit and miss affair. With the AVA power amplifier in this system, these speakers never sounded as good.
When I played the CD and the file I ripped from the CD of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds' No More Shall We Part that was released in 2001 (wow, does time fly!), I became patently aware of the audio prowess possessed by the AVA DVA 4/2. This album does not have demo quality sound. But it is a very good recording, and a recording that I'm extremely familiar with. Even with its Plain Jane 16-bits/44.1kHz resolution, I became captivated by this collection of songs. On "Sweetheart Come" Nick Cave the begins with his vocals front and center -- and in my face. This forward quality was not a fault of the power amp, this is the way his vocals were recorded. Through the DVA 4/2 his voice sounded as if either he was recorded too close to the microphone, or the relatively bass-heavy sound was purposely dialed into his voice via EQ. Regardless, it sounded as if this was the intension of the artist and his recording team, and was a perfect beginning to the song.
The band enters soon after, playing softly but assuredly. Nick Cave's long-time drummer Thomas Wydler's closed high-hat cymbals and the sound of the cymbals picked up by the drum set's over-head mics have a naturally metallic sound that proved to me that the AVA DVA 4/2's treble is extended to the limits of my speakers (and my hearing). The amp's treble has a natural, modern solid-state sound that is devoid of sibilance, or any other nasties that might emanate from a solid-state amp of yore. The band starts the song as a piano trio with Nick Cave's keys backed by an electric bass and drum kit. The bass guitar sounded fantastic, the AVA power amp's bass was as solid-sounding as I imagine one could wish for, and played through the EgglestonWorks speakers, pressurized the room -- without the use of a subwoofer.
On this album Nick Cave's Bad Seeds still included Blixa Bargeld, the former guitarist and vocalist of Einsturzende Naubauten, the German noise band. His guitar came through the speakers sounding more like a percussion instrument than a stringed one, and so it ended up sounded as if Blixa was grinding his guitar strings into the pickups of his instrument, and knowing Blixa, that's probably what he was doing. It is mixed further back into the soundstage, and added a menacing midrange growl to the proceedings. Blixa's presence always seems to make each song that he plays on darker, and for some reason more gothic sounding, as if he seems to play along with the meaning of the vocals more than along with the melody of the song. His noise/guitar, combined with the female backing vocalist on this song, turns "Sweetheart Come" from a love song into a more chilling vision of the two lover's pasts, with lines such as "The ones you fear are wind and air," and "The burdens that you carry now are not of your creation. So, let's not weep for their evil deeds but for their lack of imagination." No More Shall We Part might not be Nick Cave's best album, but it sounded great through my system when the Audio by Van Alstine DVA 4/2 was a part of it.
This power amp has a tight hold on every signal that passes through it, with a low-end that go as low as my speakers can reach without ever sounding as if it was ever missing anything that was on the recording. The amp has an extremely transparent midrange with excellent transient snap, and a treble that lacks any of the old solid-state anomalies that some still fear, reaching as high as the speaker's tweeters and my hearing will allow, if that is what is on the recording. The amp's soundstage is also impressive, since it reaches well outside the edge of the speakers, and has the ability to extend well beyond the back wall behind them. When playing the Nick Cave album, it was as if I was peering into a sonic diorama, with instruments and voices placed throughout this soundstage, all as separate entities. This was what I heard while playing a lousy 16-bit/44.1kHz file or spinning a CD on a mid-priced universal disc player.
For the longest time I thought that this rather bleak symphony was in recognition of Finland's winter landscape. It is somewhat dour sounding, and probably the most modern sounding piece he ever wrote. During much of the short, four movement symphony there are themes using the tritone interval, which many heavy metal fans will instantly recognize as the interval that is used in just about every metal song since Black Sabbath's self-titled song on their first album they recorded in 1969 and then released in early 1970. There is also suspenseful sounding clash of keys in Sibelius Fourth, which are also a tritone apart, and not to be outdone, there is also a bi-tonal conflict between keys during this composition's last movement.
Later on, I learned that this symphony wasn't Sibelius' symphonic painting of a desolate winter wasteland, but had more to do with his meeting Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky shortly before starting to write this symphony in 1910. There were also the matters of a crisis with his health, not to mention the impending world war. Still, music is what you make of it, and if I want to believe it is about Finland's winter, so be it. Regardless, most likely due to the dissonance that Sibelius employs it is my favorite work of his. Plus, I also like that he uses these more modern forms, but yet still remains easily identifiable as a work of Sibelius. Through the AVA DVA 4/2, both recordings that I listened to more than once were able to take advantage of the clarity and sonic depth that this amp allowed.
Whether playing the digital file, CD, or the record, there was a huge amount of distance placed between each instrument and the groups of instruments. On the Colin Davis recording there was very easily to recognize that his conducting style had more of an emphasis on exactitude, as he seemed to be sticking to the score more than Von Karajan. That isn't to say that Von Karajan was improvising! No way. It's just that it seemed as he was injecting a bit more emotion, or rubato to the more emotional portions of the score than Davis. I liked this approach, as I like the way that I'm able to make out more of the individual members of each section of the orchestra more than on the Davis version.
The amp also made it clearer as to which I prefer, because to my surprise, the AVA amp had more than a bit of dynamic distance placed between simultaneously playing instruments in the same part of the soundstage, this further gave the impression that I was listening to a rather large symphony orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, as the instruments were laid out before me in a near-perfectly scaled soundstage. No, it couldn't come close to being able to mimic the enveloping sound I hear when attending Carnegie Hall, but the gestalt of the sound of real instruments playing in a real space was indisputable. This is a trait I usually attribute to vacuum tube circuitry, not a solid-state muscle amp. This characteristic wasn't overwhelming, I hear more of this in my three-times-the-price reference, but still, it was present, and is one of the reasons I think that this amplifier is a steal at $3700. I could spend quite a bit of time letting you in on the differences between the AVA DVA 4/2 power amplifier and my thrice-the-price reference, but in truth the differences were not that huge, and if the rest of my system wasn't so freakin' revealing I bet I wouldn't hear much of a difference, if any. To me, that is amazing.
Audio By Van Alstine DAC MK 5
I'm not sure if AVA is being coy, self-depreciating, or just being modest by stating on their website the that their DAC MK 5 is one that "can replace the limited and low-cost DACs built into digital sources, including CD players and music streamers." Sure, if one is a young or beginning audiophile they will likely have to step up to an outboard DAC to get the best sound from digital files on their computer, hard-drive, or even CD player of some kind. But there are certainly less expensive DAC's that sound better than the majority of those internal DAC's than the $1900 AVA DAC MK 5, especially for an audiophile who is just starting out.
So, I'm going to assume that the copy on their website is meant as a way to not scare away new audiophiles, or simply as a way to explain to them what an outboard DAC is used for. Of course, I'm not going to bother to compare the AVA DAC MK 5 to any of those crappy internal DACs, I'm going to audition the DAC MK 5 as I would any other high-end component that I have been sent for review. At nearly two thousand dollars, it might not be anywhere near some of the more expensive DAC's I've reviewed in the past, but to many it's a healthy amount of money, and certainly deserves to be auditioned like any other digital product.
AVA proclaims that their DAC MK 5 is one of "unprecedented accuracy and musicality" since it uses the "renowned" AK4490EQ D/A converter chip, which allows this DAC to handle digital signals up to 192kHz and DSD64 and DSD 128 through its USB input. AVA says that they use "independent, active voltage reference for the highest conversion accuracy and absolute best low-frequency linearity". AVA goes on to say that their analog processing is "handled by discrete solid-state class A circuits". AVA claims once more that this will result in superior sound quality characteristics, combining the best sound one would expect from both tube and solid-state units. On the rear panel of the DAC MK 5 there are a total of five digital inputs, a "galvanically isolated" USB input, two transformer isolated S/PDIF RCA coaxial inputs, and two optical TosLink-style S/PDIF optical inputs. The USB input is Audio Class 2 (UAC2) compliant and supports DSD over PCM (DoP). The front panel has a rotary control for selection of the input, a row of LEDs which indicate the sample rate that the DAC MK 5 is processing, and an on/off switch with a blue LED indicator. There are a pair of RCA outputs on the unit's rear panel of its 17" wide, 12" deep, 3.6" high black cabinet, and its faceplate is finished in "double anodized" silver.
Despite the DAC MK 5's relatively low price, I used it in my main reference system. It is there where I thought I'd be able to hear the DAC MK 5's sonic characteristics more clearly than in my downstairs system. Setting up this Audio by Van Alstine DAC was stupid-simple. I connected a set of MIT 330-Plus interconnects between the converter's unbalanced inputs and my preamp, a MIT Z-Cord II between its IEC AC power chord input and an AC input on the Stromtank power conditioner, and pressed the converter's "on" button. After downloading and installing AVA's driver (no driver is needed for Mac or Linux operating systems) and then running a Furutech GT2 USB cable between my computer's USB output and the converter's USB input, I reset my computer's sound card settings and either Foobar 2000 or J. River Media playback software's preferences. I pressed play on the playback software and music came through my system's speakers. Done.
Bass of the DAC MK 5 was quite impressive, going as far down as the recording demanded, and using the full extent of my system's low-frequency reproducing prowess. The DAC MK 5's midrange was where I could tell most that I wasn't listening to the most upscale digital front-end that I've ever had in my system, as it was a bit dryer sounding than I'd hoped, a bit less revealing of detail than these other decoders. Again, I hope the reader is aware that I'm being very critical here, as I think that the DAC MK 5 is a fine digital-to-analog converter, especially when one considers its price. When I was playing the Colin Davis version of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony, it was still easy to tell that the London Symphony Orchestra's string section on this recording was one of the best in the world, and that Sir Colin was extruding one of the best versions available of this symphony out of this esteemed ensemble. The feeling of a chilled wind seemed to blow across my listening room as he led the orchestra in this dark work. The Audio by Van Alstine DAC MK 5 isn't loaded with features, it only has one pair of RCA outputs, no volume control, and no filter options, and so it seems as if the cost of building this decoder has gone into its sound quality.
Yes, I can nitpick only because I've been getting used to having some sweet sounding (and very expensive) processors in my main system of late, but the AVA DAC MK 5 is a processor that I bet will make many audiophiles happy with its very good sound. I mentioned its midrange not being as detailed as some more expensive units, but judged on its own it is very neutral sounding, with very little to complain about when it comes to its level of musicality. The soundstage of this AVA decoder is spacious, with instruments and groups of instruments laid out before me, and when listening to real instruments recorded in a real space, such as this Sibelius symphony, it seems as if the orchestra is sonically drawn to scale in miniature, with its deep and wide soundstage.
Since the majority of my collection is made of 16-bit, 44.1kHz files burned from CDs it is very important to me that a converter sound good playing them. But the AVA DAC MK 5 shined when playing high-resolution files. One of them I played while I was on my Sibelius Fourth Symphony mini-binge was the DSD file of Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from a box set on Deutsche Grammophon. The playing by this Swedish orchestra is fine, and Järvi's straight-forward reading makes it easy for me to follow every line that the orchestra plays. This reading may not be the best performance of the Fourth Symphony that I have, but it might be the best sounding, and the DAC MK 5 was able to take full advantage of its wonderful sound quality. It seems as if this symphony uses the cellos, basses and bassoons more than any of Sibelius' other works, owing to its dark tone. The basses coming from the right side of the orchestra tested the speaker's woofers, but the overtones of the instruments could also excite the hall in which the piece was recorded. Heard alongside these mighty instruments were the cellos, sometimes doubling the bass parts, but sometimes working in somber harmony, the DAC MK 5 was able to keep the two sections apart in different areas of the soundstage, the celli mostly in the right speaker, but bleeding a bit into the center-fill of the large soundstage. The bassoons sounded throaty and a bit growly, taking advantage of the midrange clarity of this converter. I hope one doesn't interpret my description of these instruments to infer that the DAC MK 5 was overly detailed.
It doesn't possess that characteristic at all. In fact, if I had to describe the level of the detail of this converter, I would say it leans a bit toward the easygoing. It doesn't come anywhere near being too relaxed in this department, but I think it sounds as if the DAC MK 5 was voiced to match the sound of the Audio by Van Alstine power amplifier, a very impressive piece of audio kit, especially considering its price. Like this amplifier, the Audio by Van Alstine DAC MK 5 is able to focus on its positives much more than its slight negatives. At $1899 the DAC MK 5 might not be as much of a bargain as its big brother, the DVA 4/2 power amplifier, but I can't imagine any audiophile being unhappy with their purchase of this excellent converter.
Our goal is simple, don't screw up the source material, nothing more, nothing less.
Frank Van Alstine
DAC MK 5 Digital-To-Analog Converter
Voice: (651) 330-9871