I recently purchased an Audio by Van Alstine (hereafter AVA) Transcendence digital to analog converter (hereafter Transcendence DAC-R) and an AVA FET-Valve 350 hybrid power amplifier. My system now consists entirely of AVA’s top of the line components, including a Transcendence preamplifier, Biro L-1 loudspeakers, and a Biro Kensington subwoofer. Speaker and listener positions were chosen using computer analysis of room resonance modes, and all first-order reflections (including floor and ceiling reflections) between the speakers and the listening area have been eliminated with acoustically absorbent materials.
Surprisingly, the amplifier and digital to analog converter made similar improvements in my system’s sound. Although the amplifier had a slightly greater effect on bass quality while the DAC had a slightly greater effect on image size and specificity, their effects were otherwise comparable. This review focuses on the virtues (I have yet to detect any significant flaws) of the Transcendence DAC.
The first of the AVA Transcendence DAC’s virtues is its realism. I suspect this realism is due in part to its superior transient response from the lowest bass to the highest treble. Where most electronics emphasize high frequency transients and shortchange the power of the midrange and the bass, the Transcendence DAC captures the power and weight of live music more accurately than I have ever heard before. For me – and for all who’ve listened to my system – the Transcendence DAC’s combination of power and resolution has made listening much more fun.
Like the sound of live music, the sound of my system with the AVA Transcendence DAC is effortless. Like live music, the AVA Transcendence DAC sounds amazingly powerful; music reproduced over lesser equipment, by contrast, often sounds strained and compressed.
Regardless of the level at which it is played, the Transcendence DAC is able to capture the subjective “size” of instruments. As those of you who attend concerts of unamplified music (and occasionally close your eyes) know, even a solo flute on the stage of a concert hall sounds huge. Most systems make instruments sound small and anemic, thus robbing music listening of much of its joy. The Transcendence DAC preserves much that of pleasing and fascinating enormity. It also reveals the location and dimensions of sound sources – from human bodies to the bodies of guitars -- with remarkable clarity.
With the Transcendence DAC, my AVA system is able to capture the subtle tonality of instruments more accurately than I have ever heard elsewhere. For example, most systems leave some questions as to whether you are listening to a violin or viola over much of the range they share (Mediocre systems often make it difficult to tell). With AVA electronics, making such distinctions is effortless. This same characteristic makes it easier to distinguish voices from one another and makes it easier to appreciate the expressive artistry of vocalists and instrumentalists. When I listen to discs I know well, the Transcendence DAC amp reveals musical subtleties I could never hear before.
Finally, where the vast majority of electronics sound harsh when attempting to reproduce sibilants (s’s, t’s, and f’s), the attacks of trumpets, and the brightness of violins, the AVA Transcendence DAC reproduces these sounds naturally and sweetly while providing unsurpassed resolution of high frequency information.
In sum, the realism, excitement, and listening ease of AVA’s new Transcendence DAC transform listening to reproduced music into an adventure. It is a remarkable technical achievement and, at its price, an equally remarkable bargain. I recommend it – even to those who think know how good reproduced music can sound –without reservation.
P.S. Anyone considering purchasing both the Transcendence DAC and a FET-Valve amplifier should note that the improvement they make when used together is much greater than the sum of their individual contributions.
The Van Alstine Transcendence is the best DAC I have ever heard (although I have not heard the Odeon, or any of the $10,000+ DACs except for the original Mark Levinson, better than which this is).
I can't agree with two of Frank van Alstine's claims--that it makes CD's sound as good as Laps or that it makes differences in transports and digital cables inaudible. My Theta Data II is clearer in the 12KHz+ range and tighter in the 100Hz- range than my Panasonic RP91 DVD Player-as-transport. But the RP91 has a sweeter midrange, and plays MP3 files.
I have never heard a CD system in audio salon or homes that didn't sound better with the Taddeo Digital Antidote II (active model, I haven't heard the little passive one). Subjectively, with any DAC, its absence colors the 10KHz+ range in a streaky and sour manner, subtle but very unsettling once you have learned to not be able to not listen for it. That is as true of the VAT as of any other CD player or DAC.
The Compaq computer cable that came with the VAT results in a sound that is amazingly good, far better than anything I had heard before (the old Creek DAC-60 that was as good as the Theta DACs of its generation, then the RP91 which sounded better with its own 192 KHz upsampling DAC than the Creek did). But when I substituted the Cardas Lightning Digital Cable, the sound, dark, smooth, and pleasant with the Compaq, lit up. Massed strings became more textured than the single amplified string they sounded like before the VAT, vocal sibilants focused in to lifelike status. Everything became tighter and livelier. But using the Cardas with my TDS passive audiophile enhancer, which sounded great with Compaq cable and all previous equipment, the sound was too bright and forward. I took the TDS out and the system with the Cardas went into excellent balance (this neurotic though not wealthy audiophile is not convinced, however, that a better digital cable, like the Acoustic Zen or the new powered Audioquest DBS, might not wreak further improvements).
With the above, and Monarchy SM70 amp and Reference 3A speakers, I have the first truly satisfying sound in my house since Lps (Oracle, Linn arm mod, Dynavector Karat,).
Van Alstine claims great soundstage. This is true, but not up to the level of great Lp reproduction. Size is close to Lp, depth is good but not close to Lp, and recreation of inter-instrument space (those pesky eigentones) and wall bounce is present but nowhere near Lp.
But not to dwell on negatives, the VAT shows the CD Redbook medium to be, as Ivor Tiefenbrun said, adequate for the reproduction of music. Not the greatest, but potentially wonderful. I thought I was going into a trance when I first listened to Sgt Pepper(std EMI CD)--despite this transfer's lack of highs and lows (like all std EMI CD's, not including the 30th Anniversary reissue of the White Album, of course) I was pulled totally into the space, into the music, the slightest inflections, attitudes, and musical details.
Historically Informed Performance instruments have the right burr and buzz to them for the first time in my CD life (and I hear the Philharmonia Baroque live from 5th row center every month). Mercurys have the same coloration as the original Lps.
RCA XRCDs now sound significantly better than the already excellent (tube mastered) Living Stereo CDs (I wish XRCDs were cheaper). The great modern jazz recordings (Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Riverside, Blue Note, etc) are, as a high school friend said to me listening to my first Lp system years ago, "like bein' in a f***in' club!" That’s the feeling you get, if not the objective reality, with this DAC.
I'm hearing fresh tonality and detail in the 1000's of 78 transfers and opera & symphony broadcasts that I, sadly, find musically more authentic than most later classical performances.
And the MP3s. They're supposed to sound terrible. They don't sound as good as uncompressed (and have varying amounts of signal modulated in-band noise (hiss)). But when you don't compare them to uncompressed CDs, they are extremely satisfying, with just a small touch of less air and staging, and much better than anything digital sounded on my system, prior to the VAT DAC. For RP91 owners: you must download the latest v.259 firmware upgrade--among other things, it allows those mp3s which previously skipped on this player only to play without mishap.
The VAT DAC goes totally beyond the expected limit. Musical sound in a medium with lots of software available and without the time consuming, compulsive disc and stylus cleaning/preparation necessary with Lps. Lp disc wear and pops and clicks never bothered me that much. The wear factor, in terms of musical reproduction, not in terms of noise increase, has, IMHO, always been totally overrated. I expect Lps, 45s, and 78s to outlast all other media in existence. But none of us will.