Mini Mighty Marvel
You want great sound, right? But you don’t necessarily want or have the space for a rack full of gear. Answer – an integrated amplifier. Regardless of your living space, high-quality integrated amplifiers have been back with a vengeance for the last few years now. A decade ago, “integrated amplifier” often meant compromise, but not today, with so many of the majors putting their efforts towards the integrated amplifier as a viable platform for delivering superb sound with a minimal footprint.
A while back at TONEAudio, I put Audio Research’s GSi75 through its paces and came away highly impressed. The GSi75 is a bit more inclusive, featuring an on-board phonostage an excellent, on-board high-resolution DAC, and a headphone amplifier. It has a price to match, $16,000. (It also has a relatively large footprint)
Should you already have a DAC and phonostage that you love, or only need one of these components, but still want the high definition sound that has made this Minneapolis, Minnesota company famous, the $8,500 VSi75 could be your little slice of audio heaven. It’s neat, uncluttered front panel with a central display and six push buttons is a breeze to work through. A silver, metal remote control replicates all of the control functions from the comfort of your seat.
All Audio Research components are built by hand, at their facility in Minnesota. Skilled technicians hand pick, sort and measure all of the individual components and match the vacuum tubes that populate every one of their products. No less than four major checks are done during the build process, and every single ARC component is listened to twice before it heads your way.
The VSi75 produces 75 watts per channel of power, with a pair of KT150 output tubes per channel. If you aren’t familiar with tubes, or perhaps this is your first vacuum tube powered adventure, the VSi75 needs to have the bias current on said tubes adjusted occasionally; an easy and painless process, thanks to the indicator built right into the front panel display. Merely mute the amplifier, push the “bias” button, and use the attached screwdriver to adjust the bias, until the display says “60ma.” This keeps the tubes operating at top efficiency, and as they wear out (Audio Research claims 5000 hours of playing time for a set of tubes, but your mileage may vary – they tend to be conservative in their ratings.) you will have to touch this up.
Fear not, this is an easy operation. In less time than it takes you to download an app from the app store, you can re-bias the tubes in the VSi75. Typically, a new set of vacuum tubes needs to be set at installation, paying attention to them (and touching up a bit) for the first month of operation, then checking them on occasion until they expire. If you listen to your system a few hours a day, a set of tubes should last at least 3-5 years.
If you’ve never ventured into the world of vacuum tubes, the VSi75 will grab you instantly with its three-dimensional rendition of your favorite music. You might even find yourself singing along more often than you have before, who knows? The magic that Audio Research has managed after over 40 years of building tube amplifiers is the way they’ve married the dynamic immediacy, and control over low frequencies that many audiophiles have come to assume can only be accomplished with a solid state or class D amplifier, with the three-dimensional, “reach out and touch it” feel that vacuum tubes do so well.
After a 30-minute warm up, the Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby,” is exquisitely presented via the Soltanus Virtuoso ESL speakers, with the violins having their own space, separately of Lennon and McCartney’s vocals, and the rest of the instruments floating between the speakers. In case you aren’t familiar with electrostatic loudspeakers, they are the toughest speakers for an amplifier to drive for numerous reasons. Starting here, knowing the VSi75 drives these relatively inefficient speakers with ease, I know everything else I throw at this great little amplifier will be gravy. And it is.
Before switching to the Graham LS5/9 speakers, the urge to resist cranking up Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is unavoidable. Again, a massive sonic picture is painted between these two giant panel speakers, with an auditory trip that feels more like sitting inside a large pair of headphones, with small musical details bouncing all over my 11 x 17-foot living room. While able to play loud, the amount of sheer control that the VSi75 exhibits is extraordinary. Bass is powerful, profound and controlled, even when the amplifier is pushed to its limits. Black Sabbath has a way of doing just that. Vocal laden tracks from Laurie Anderson, Crowded House, and Adele captivate in a similar way – this amplifier puts the performer right in your room, the way many audiophiles say only vacuum tubes can do.
The LS5/9 speakers deliver an equally impressive performance, disappearing in the listening room, thanks to the power and control at their disposal. Whether spinning vinyl (via the ARC PH9 phonostage, here for review at TONEAudio) or the DAC9 (ditto) the VSi75 is a joy to listen to for hours on end. It’s worth noting that more than a few listening sessions went on into the wee hours of the morning, a couple all the way to sunrise.
Wait for it
As more time goes by, the character, or in this case, lack of character of the VSi75 is a blessing. The wider range of albums played merely confirms what was heard at initial power up. Should you purchase a VSi75 of your very own, there is only one caveat – it improves with age. A yellow sheet of paper in the box cautions you that the sound of the amplifier gets better over the first 600 hours of operation.
While the VSi75 sounds excellent right out of the box, you will notice it “opening up” over the first week fairly dramatically, with the sound field it creates increasing in size as the days pass. You’ll also notice the high-frequency response smoothing out a bit, and bass notes getting not only more full bodied but more detailed as well.
To make sure your ears aren’t fooling you, I suggest starting your day’s listening with a track you know well, and play that track every time you fire up the VSi75. About a month into the process, you will be even happier about your purchase. This amplifier blooms like a precious flower as the hours pile up.
One more lap
Leaving the techie bits for last, the VSi75 weighs just under 40 pounds and only takes up a 14.5” wide by 16.25” deep footprint, being just over 9” tall. Our review sample is silver, and you can also order the VSi75 with a black front panel. (the chassis remains silver) Around back there are five inputs; all single ended with RCA input connectors. Though there are binding posts for 4 and 8-ohm speakers, experience suggests trying both with your speakers, regardless of what they are rated at. Magic shows up in funny places.
Of course, the people making and selling Audio Research gear would probably love you to use your VSi75 with one of their source components, and should you do the synergy is perfection, not to mention all the remotes look the same. During its time here, we paired the VSi75 with a number of different DACs and phonostages from Conrad-Johnson, Pass Labs, Simaudio, Nagra, and Gryphon with excellent result, so again, if you already have a favorite source component, fear not. Just be sure it has RCA outputs.
In the end, the Audio Research VSi75 is a fantastic performer and an excellent value. Having owned a number of ARC’s products over the last 35 years, I can speak from personal experience that they stand the test of time. As part of the McIntosh group, there is a vast dealer network, no matter where you live in the world, so auditioning one should be fairly easy, and you can count on support after the sale as well.
The Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Amplifier
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