When you last purchased a mass-market piece of audio equipment, did you get the feeling that the manufacturer was proud of it? Large, faceless corporations are certainly capable of delivering cost-effective products in an efficient manner, but is that really what youre after when you purchase an audio component? If youre like me, you want more from a component than to have it simply reproduce a signal. You want a bit of personality, the sense that the product you purchased is the work of a real person, an expression of pride.
When it comes to personality and pride, there are few people in the audio industry who can compare to Song Kim of Song Audio. Mr. Kim fairly bubbles over with enthusiasm, and this certainly shines through in the Vasant_K GA120S Final Edition integrated amplifier, which was commissioned by and is distributed in North America by Song Audio, known for its tube amplifiers and preamplifier.
At the moment, there are two models of the Vasant_K (pronounced WAH-sahn kay) integrated. The original has a single power transformer (it's dubbed GA120S 0.1 and costs $990). Following the initial production, this version was upgraded to a dual-power-transformer Final Edition version, which is what I received for review. The 0.1 version will continue to be available while supplies last. Both units were manufactured in Thailand by Classic Sound Research and are named after Vasant Kittayanurak, the designer of the circuit.
The 50Wpc GA120S Final Edition is all about minimal parts and maximum power supply. The two toroidal transformers take up much of the internal real estate, and the dearth of switches and buttons highlights the no-nonsense, audiophile nature of this product. In order to maximize sonic purity, all signal wiring down to the power cord is 98% silver. Theres also absolutely no protection circuitry, and Song Audio warns that a short at the speaker terminals will most likely result in a catastrophic failure. Mr. Kim also warned me that once the Vasant_K is powered off, you should wait at least 60 seconds for the filter capacitors to discharge fully before powering it back on again. Following on in that business-only vein, the single blue LED that indicates power is fairly bright, and theres no provision for dimming it. Internally, the Vasant_K is configured as a power amplifier with a passive volume control, so theres no active preamplifier circuitry to alter or obscure the signal.
Although theres no balance control, preamp out, tape loop, remote control or other ancillary features to the Vasant_K, that doesnt mean Song Audio skimped on the packaging or included extras. This is where the personality manifests itself. The Vasant_Ks chassis is finished in a tasteful black which actually looks like its anodized, while the brushed billet-aluminum knobs provide a nice contrast. The ventilation slots on the top of the unit are cut in a Thai motif, which makes for a nice deviation from those seen on yer average mass-market gear. Rounding out the list of amenities are an on/off switch that operates with a distinctly rugged clack (mechanical, not electrical), and high-quality all-metal binding posts.
But its the extras that are included with the Vasant_K that truly make it stand out from the sea of rectangular boxes that perform essentially the same function. Song Audio packages the unit with a beefy 98%-silver power cord of their own manufacture that alone retails for $400, a Hubbell hospital-grade outlet into which to plug it, and Cardas shorting caps for unused inputs. Also included is a tiny little bottle of Cardas TC-2 contact cleaner/enhancer, with which to treat your RCA and speaker connectors before you insert the Vasant_K into your system. Although it might seem a touch gimmicky, it sure is swell having all this neat stuff to play with when you open up the box, and the detail-oriented nature of the whole package certainly inspires confidence.
The Vasant_K is supplied with one of two different footers: Vibrapods or spikes that prop the amplifier up on a set of high heels. These long spikes -- which thread into the bottom of the unit -- along with the supplied protective discs, are milled bronze thats plated with 18k gold and polished to a mirror finish. The two different footers are not user-replaceable, as the circuit board must be removed in order to retrofit one for the other. The review unit came equipped with spikes.
Measuring 17"W x 12"D x 6"H and weighing in at 22 pounds, the GA120S Final Edition is very nicely finished, and has a distinctive yet subtle appearance and admirable build quality. The review unit functioned flawlessly and ran very cool for the entire time I used it. I get the feeling that this is a reliable, well-designed unit, as does Song Audio -- they back it with a ten-year warranty. The unit is available in North America via Song Audio and worldwide from the manufacturer. Song Audio offers a 30-day home trial, and also handles all technical support.
How many speakers?
After first burning the Vasant_K in by driving Tannoy TD10 floorstanders, I inserted the integrated amp into my reference system, where it ended up driving Hales Transcendence Fives. Here the Vasant_K replaced close to $8000 in tube gear, and was thus press-ganged into driving a large, insensitive loudspeaker. The source was a Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog combo, which fed a Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. Cables here were Virtual Dynamics David series.
To its credit, the Vasant_K sounded clear, rich, and detailed in this system, right up to its limits, which, unfortunately, came rather early. I get the feeling that the chunky power supply and ample current it no doubt provides aided in controlling the Hales large sealed-box woofers. Within the boundaries of its 50 watts, the Vasant_K worked just fine, but I knew I wasnt extracting the best from this modest integrated amplifier by using it in this system.
Last year I purchased a pair of Energy Connoisseur C-3s after reading Doug Schneiders glowing review of these bookshelf speakers. The C-3s have a tonal balance that's so neutral it's spooky, and they're quite easy to drive but very revealing of what's driving them. In my opinion you could build a scary-good high-end system around these well-built and well-designed speakers. I normally use the C-3s in my bedroom system (I have a bedroom system! I'm so lucky! I love my wife!) where they're driven by a 5Wpc vintage tube integrated amp.
I dragged the Energy speakers downstairs to my main floor (my bedroom system is now centered around the Tannoy TD10s -- did I mention that I love my wife?) where they proved to be an absolutely remarkable match, in both price and performance, with the Vasant_K. The source was a Toshiba SD-3750 DVD player throwing bits to a Museatex Bidat DAC. Cables were all Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval other than the Vasant_K's silver power cord. Now heres a system that I can easily get excited about. Every once in a while, a combination of several different pieces of gear just clicks and suddenly the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And so it was with the Vasant_K driving the Energy speakers.
The first CD I spun on this system was Cowboy Junkies Lay It Down [Geffen 24952], which Ive always liked but never loved. Perhaps due to my raging enthusiasm for the high-musicality/low-cost nature of the system, I gave this low-key album another chance to impress me. On "Just Want to See," I was rewarded. The Vasant_K integrated showed a distinctly non-budget mastery of dynamic shadings, portraying this moody yet propulsive song with drama and magic. What exactly are drama and magic? Well, in this instance, they're a direct result of the subtle richness and velvety-black background that this unassuming little integrated amplifier managed to project between and behind the speakers. The drums and percussion, while crisply rendered, never once crossed over to that artificial crunchiness that often emanates from budget solid-state gear. I know that this sounds hackneyed and clichéd, but there were times when I could easily convince myself that I was listening to tubes, and very good ones at that. This overriding silence, depth, and tonal richness that seem to be the hallmark of the Vasant_K are all the more startling when I considered the minimalist nature of the circuitry. I would have guessed that the Vasant_K would be much more on the incisive, and possibly edgy, side.
Anyway, the net result of the calm, peaceful nature of the Vasant_K is music thats exceptionally easy to listen to. Back when BMG was ending its business operations here in Canada, I scoped out a few bargains on their website. One of the big scores was Miles Daviss The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions [Columbia C4K 65570], which I picked up for the equivalent of $25 USD. Yowza! This four-CD set has given me endless listening pleasure, but disc four has become my steadfast favorite. Largely atmospheric and consisting of what sounds like free-form noodling, this disc came to define the Vasant_K integrateds character. Theres tons of space between the notes, and via the Vasant_K the overhang and reverb on the guitar, drums and trumpet gained what sounded like endless depth and detail, with a soundstage that went on forever. On this CD especially the Vasant_K proved to be a space monster, creating an incredible sense of ambient realism.
The bass that the Vasant_K managed to extract from the Energy speakers was terrific, especially considering the modest size of the C-3s. This is all the more surprising considering that I didnt notice any overt bass prowess when listening through the Hales speakers. Although adequate, the Vasant_K sounded slightly out of control and wasnt anything to write home about in the low-end department through these much larger and less-sensitive speakers. Two different speakers, two different results -- but the Vasant_K integrated was likely straining a bit when it was driving the Hales. Back to The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, where Dave Holland opens the track "Feio" with a low G on the electric bass. This note issued forth from the Energy C-3s with an astounding roundness, depth and intensity. Although its not that low of a note, when added to the ruminative fills Holland sprinkles throughout the track, it creates a foundation that results in such a disconnect that several people who listened to this track on this system were literally convinced that there must be a subwoofer hiding somewhere in the room.
Earlier I mentioned that the Vasant_K was capable of a subtle dark and rich sound. That might lead you to think that this integrated amplifier is perhaps rolled off in the treble. Youd be incorrect. Instead, the Vasant_Ks highs are dynamic, crisply rendered and well delineated, with just a touch of euphonic sweetness. A case in point is Bill Frisells Gone Just Like a Train [Nonesuch 79479-2]. On "Lookout for Hope," Frisell the mild-mannered jazz guitarist gets angry and unleashes in a way that makes you think that maybe hes had a really bad day. Whatever the reason, Frisell's distorted guitar is full of buzzing overtones and dissonant harmonics, and the Vasant_K doesnt pull any punches. The treble extension is all there, and the tonal richness of this integrated amplifier actually seems to contribute an added three-dimensionality to the instrument. This is a delicate balancing act for what is essentially a budget-priced integrated -- add in too much extension and run the risk of glare, or err on the side of caution and end up boring the listener to tears. The Vasant_K falls just a tiny bit to the mellow side, but essentially nails it right in the sweet spot.
The Vasant_Ks tonal richness makes for a delicious and distinctive midrange. While listening to Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toures Talking Timbuktu [World Circuit HNCD 1381], I was thoroughly impressed by the depth with which the Vasant_K portrayed Toures voice. The vocals in "Soukora" were slightly recessed in the soundstage, while at the same time Toures voice had a robust, three-dimensional outline that was almost textural. This characteristic brings the immediacy of triode tubes to mind, with its relaxed, grain-free sound immediately evoking images of glowing glass bottles.
A little higher up and we get to see how well the Vasant_K portrays female vocals and music thats more aggressive. Lucinda Williams World Without Tears [Lost Highway 0881703552] is the oddest of albums. I guess you could categorize it as country rap, strange as that sounds. I think that over the long haul Ill get a little weary of Williams' southern twang, but her clear, expressive voice that is full of catchy hooks still manages to reel me in every time. On "Righteously," there was no feeling of strain, no sense of etch and no lack of definition or excitement in the Vasant_Ks rendering of voice. Backing instruments, including a nicely distorted electric guitar, had plenty of zip and crackle.
Criticisms? There have to be some -- its a $1200 integrated. OK, Ill reach. Theres no way you could consider the Energy C-3s to be laid-back speakers, and the Vasant_K took a small amount of vinegar out of their highs. While this reticence was most welcome and very musically flattering, I feel that there may be speakers that might not be well served by this trait. If your system is already somewhat laid-back, the Vasant_K may take it a bit too far in that direction. The Vasant_K integrated may also be a little bit more romantic through the midrange than could be considered strictly neutral, but then I could lay that accusation at the feet of just about every tube amp Ive heard, so its in good company there. The only other areas that might give pause for concern are logistical. The lack of protection against short circuits makes for tense hook-up, and theres no home-theater pass-through or remote control. It's a purist's integrated amp.
Ive had a long and enduring relationship with the Musical Fidelity A300 integrated amplifier ($1695 when available), which was a Reviewers Choice product of a few years ago. Other than a very slightly warm bottom end, the A300 is an incredibly neutral performer, and as such is a perfect product to compare to the Vasant_K.
Substituting the A300 for the Vasant_ K came as something of a shock. Much of the depth magic that Id raved about earlier disappeared from the Bitches Brew CD. Instruments now resided more on the plane of the speakers rather than behind them, and images became significantly more homogeneous. The Vasant_Ks tubular concentration through the midrange highlights the roundness and physicality of instruments such as trumpet and guitar while at the same time accentuates soundstage depth. Advantage Vasant_K -- big time.
Theres no question that the A300 keeps a tighter rein on the bass frequencies. Be it due to increased power on the part of the A300 or a conscious voicing of the Vasant_K, the low end of the latter is distinctly round and fat compared to the A300s iron-fisted control. With the Energy C-3s in my larger room, I much preferred the Vasant_K, as the A300 made them sound somewhat lean. The Vasant_K comes out on top here, although in a larger room, with less-sensitive speakers that have a riper bottom-end, the 150Wpc A300 might be better suited.
In the treble the A300 comes across with a much more forward presentation, restoring some of the bite of which I know the Energy C-3s are capable. Treble of this nature reveals more detail and liveliness to cymbals and guitar overtones, but also makes it a bit more difficult to listen at higher volumes. This is that double-edged sword -- the A300 challenges you and the Vasant_K welcomes you. While I feel that the A300 is the more tonally accurate of the two integrateds, Im also a whole lot more comfortable listening to the Energy speakers through the Vasant_K. The slightly subdued nature of the Vasant_Ks highs may also be of further benefit considering that its likely to be used with budget speakers or CD players that may lean towards the aggressive, crispy side. In this review context, with the Energy C-3 speakers, Ill give the nod to the Vasant_K.
When it was available, the A300 was a terrific integrated at a relatively low price. In my opinion, the Vasant_K is easily its match -- I prefer it with the Energy speakers. It's not necessarily as accurate, but it is more satisfying to listen to -- and it costs less as well.
I never cease to be amazed at the level of performance that a good integrated amplifier can coax out of budget speakers. My experience with the Vasant_K GA120S Final Edition powering the Energy C-3s raises serious doubt about the commonly accepted wisdom that says the majority of your budget should be spent on speakers. If I were looking to purchase a modestly priced system today, theres no doubt in my mind that Id base it around an integrated amplifier and invest in as high a level of quality as I could afford. Based on my experience with the Vasant_K, I dont think that youd need to spend much more than $1200 unless you need more power and want niceties like remote control.
I have rarely had as much fun with a system as I had with the Vasant_K driving the Energy C-3s. Picture me as Pete Townshend, listening to Lucinda Williams and playing air guitar in my wife's underwear, knocking over the speakers with one foot as I windmill the strings. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.
Reviewers' Choice -- and a victory for personality and pride.
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