Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Vincent Audio may not be a brand that’s on the tip of every enthusiast’s tongue, but over the past few years, the company’s hybrid integrated amps in particular have been generating a lot of hullabaloo on hi-fi discussion forums. By pairing vacuum tubes in the preamp stage with solid-state circuitry in the amplification stage, the German company (most of whose products are manufactured in China) promises to deliver the best of both worlds: the analog richness of valves and the durability of transistors.

Vincent

The company also makes pure tube and pure solid-state components, spread across its TubeLine, PowerLine, and SolidLine product families, although the boundaries between these taxonomic groups are a bit fuzzy. The hybrid integrated amps seem to generate the most buzz, though, and the SV-500 ($1299.95, all prices USD) is billed as the entry point into Vincent’s “Hybridworld.”

The amp is based largely on the bigger, beefier SV-227MK, which boasts 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 196Wpc into 4 ohms. The SV-500, by contrast, promises 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 80Wpc into 4-ohm loads. It relies on a single 12AX7 and a pair of 6N1 vacuum tubes, and the topology of its amp stage is class AB.

The bulk of its inputs are line-level RCA, and there’s no phono stage, but there are two digital inputs—one coaxial and one optical—feeding its TI PCM5100 DAC chip. While that chip is technically capable of decoding a 32-bit/384kHz signal, the fact that the amp doesn’t have a USB input means resolution will be functionally limited to 24/192 by most source devices.

Vincent

As I mentioned in my unboxing blog post, the SV-500 benefits from a design that’s classy and unfettered. My initial inclination was to describe it as retro, but that’s not quite right. “Timeless” would be a better word. By that I mean you could hop in a time machine with the Vincent Audio piece tucked under your arm, and audiences from the ’60s right up through the noughties would probably describe it as elegantly minimalist but hardly anachronistic. There’s a Dudeist quality about it. It just fits right in there, no matter when or where “in there” might be.

My only real grumble about the design—at least aesthetically—is that the chassis secrets away the amp’s three glowing valves like the gold in Fort Knox. Much as we like to pretend that this hobby of ours is purely about audio fidelity and nothing else, that’s not really the whole story, is it? There’s something about the glow of a vacuum tube that’s appealing, even if you’re not a fan of the technology from a performance perspective, and to have such a candle only to hide it under a bushel basket is one of the SV-500’s few design flaws. On the upside, the chassis cover is easily removable so you can replace the valves when they reach the end of their lifespan.

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Vincent Audio SV-500 setup and configuration options

There is one other situational caveat to be leveled at the Vincent Audio amp, but whether or not it’s an issue for you will depend on your preference for cable connectors.

If you’re a spade, pin, or bare-wire fan, you’ll be fine. But I’m a banana-plug kind of guy—in fact, the ELAC Sensible speaker cables I use in my two-channel system are pre-terminated with them—so I was a little bummed to discover that the SV-500’s binding posts don’t play well with bananas, at least not the way they’re supposed to be plugged in. While the ports at the end of the posts are of sufficient diameter to accommodate the plugs, they simply aren’t deep enough, resulting in a limp and tenuous connection at best. I ended up having to pass the plugs through the holes in the shaft of the binding posts and clamp them down as I would with bare wire or pins. Hardly the end of the world, but it’s a minor annoyance worth mentioning.

Vincent

Aside from that, setup is as straightforward as can be, given the SV-500’s overall ergonomic minimalism. The front panel gives you access to Bass and Treble tone controls (along with a push-button tone bypass), Standby and Mute buttons, rotary Volume and Source controls, and a quarter-inch headphone jack.

Vincent Audio doesn’t make any assumptions about the sources you might use with the SV-500, instead assigning simple names to its inputs: the four line-level stereo RCA inputs are named S1 through S4, with the coaxial and optical inputs being S5 and S6, respectively. The rotary selector on the front panel makes a distinction between the digital and analog inputs; the small aluminum remote control doesn’t, simply giving you a button each for S1 through S6.

Aside from that, the only other connections or controls are a pair of 12V trigger outputs, as well as a stereo preamp output (RCA), which might be handy if you want to add a subwoofer or bring your own external amplification to the party.

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In an attempt to maintain as much consistency as possible with all of my recent integrated amplifier reviews, I primarily used my Oppo BDP-95 universal disc player as a source. I experimented briefly with an optical connection between the Oppo and SV-500, but I found that I preferred the sound of the BDP-95’s DAC. So for the bulk of my testing, I relied on the Oppo’s USB input and analog output, fed into the S1 analog input of the amp. For speakers, I employed a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v.5 towers throughout.

Sizing up the sound of the SV-500

The first thing I noticed when cueing up Tool’s “Stinkfist” from the album Ænima (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, RCA Records/Qobuz) was that Vincent Audio’s specified 50Wpc output is, to say the least, conservative. In my 10′ x 12.3′ two-channel listening room, with the amp feeding my 92dB-sensitive Paradigm towers, I was barely able to eke the volume knob above ~33% before my Apple Watch started hollering at me about excessive noise levels.

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The second thing I noticed while soaking in this track was that the SV-500’s soundstaging and imaging are just ridiculous. Just seriously straight-up ridiculous. Not only did the instrumentation practically wrap around my head, but there’s this one particular moment, about a minute-and-a-half into the song, where singer Maynard James Keenan’s voice is processed with what sounds like a sort of reverse reverb, the result of which is that an extended note swells into existence at the beginning of a new verse. The SV-500’s delivery of that effect was utterly three-dimensional, starting as something close to a singularity before exploding both outward and upward into the room, penetrating the wall of rhythm guitar and percussion like an apparition.

The third thing I noticed is that the SV-500 definitely has its own distinct personality. While overall tonality is balanced and well proportioned, there’s an undeniable liveliness to the upper midrange and treble that gives the amp some extra sizzle.

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That worked to the benefit of a lot of the music in my collection, especially the third track from Ænima, “H.” It’s a bit of a dark track tonally and thematically, and the SV-500 gave the clacky and chaotic percussion a bit of extra zip that enhanced both the depth and width of the mix. That, combined with the exceptional bass authority of the amp (something I wasn’t quite expecting given its rated power), made “H.” sound absolutely ginormous, even at its most intimate.

Unfortunately, not every song benefits as much from the SV-500’s unique sonic character. When I turned my attention to George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 (24/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music CG/Qobuz), specifically “Freedom! ’90” (the second-best pop song in the history of recorded music, and I’ll brook no argument to the contrary), the amp had me wrapped around its little finger for the entirety of the first verse. The rollicking piano, funky percussion (including samples from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”), and Michael’s incomparable voice all rang through with exactly the level of clarity and finesse you’d hope for from a good piece of hi-fi kit. But then the first verse gave way to the mini-bridge, and I found myself ever-so-slightly put off by the ramped-up percussion, piano, and especially the hand-claps. And it’s not that they were any more pronounced in the mix; it’s more that they had an edginess that was out of line with what I’m used to hearing with this track—and I hear this song a lot. It’s practically my daily devotional. At any rate, I had to engage the tone controls and tame the treble a bit to take some of the edge off of the instrumentation.

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Thankfully, instances such as this were the exception rather than the rule. Most of what I pumped through the SV-500 poured out of my speakers like a cool breeze on a summer day. With “Use Me,” from Bill Withers’s Still Bill (24/96 FLAC, Columbia-Legacy/Qobuz), the amp’s delivery of the song’s unforgettable clavinet was just pure sex—at once tough and tender, with a saucy growl and oodles of sensuality. Tonality and timbre were right on the mark in every way. The percussion, too, was rendered perfectly, with impeccable image specificity and dead-on-balls-accurate attack and decay.

But it was the vocals here that really stood out. There was a gorgeous, tactile quality to the amp’s delivery of Withers’s voice. It was perfectly textured. Perfectly detailed. Perfectly Bill.

“Use Me” makes for a great point of contrast with “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (24/192 FLAC, Motown/Qobuz). Where the Withers cut was in-your-face, the Gaye tune was much more spatially recessed, seeming to cling closer to the walls, surrounding me rather than engulfing me. At the risk of repeating myself, though, it was the image specificity here that drew my attention the most. Every instrument, every element of the mix, seemed pinned to the boundaries of the room in precisely the right spot. When I closed my eyes I could point to the jingling bells, the sax, the bass, and every drum in Chet Forest’s kit.

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That was even truer with the album’s next cut, “Right On,” where I felt like I could walk up and grab the güiro (I’m pretty sure that’s a güiro) magically hovering about a foot in front of and two inches to the left of my right speaker. That, combined with the nebulous, floating flute that permeates the track, gave the song a genuine sense of space that I’ve rarely heard bested by any amp at any price point.

In wrapping up my critical evaluation of the SV-500, I fed it some 26kHz-to-48kHz warbles (24/96 FLAC) and some 26kHz-to-96kHz warbles (24/192 FLAC) to get a sense of the amp’s linearity above 20kHz, and I did hear the telltale signs of some moderate intermodulation distortion with both. It wasn’t out of line with expectations for an amp of this nature, but it’s simply worth noting if you’re super-invested in high-resolution music and hope to enjoy any of the purported benefits of sample rates above 48kHz.

How does the SV-500 stack up against similar alternatives?

In bygone days, I would have pointed to Peachtree Audio’s line of integrated amplifiers as the likeliest competition for the Vincent Audio piece, since that company’s offerings were probably the most prominent amps featuring a marriage of solid-state and tube technology. Years after its expiration date, I find myself unable to give up on the Nova220SE, whose Russian 6N1P tube buffer and beefy class-D amplification result in a sound that just does it for me. But Peachtree has abandoned tube buffers in its current generation of integrated amplifiers, and I haven’t auditioned any of its newer offerings.

If similar technology interests you, I could point you in the direction of the Copland CSA 100 hybrid integrated amplifier (reviewed here by Stephen Dawson of SoundStage! Australia), but its $4900 price tag puts it in quite different budget territory as compared with the Vincent piece.

If you’re shopping around in this price range but not married to the idea of a tube preamp stage, I really dig the Cambridge Audio CXA81 ($1299), which adds a balanced XLR input, one extra optical input, and a USB Type-B port to the mix, as well as integrated Bluetooth with aptX HD. The CXA81 does a good bit less editorializing than the SV-500, so it may be a better fit for those of you chasing the “straight wire with gain” Platonic ideal.

TL;DR: Should you buy the Vincent Audio SV-500?

Whether or not the SV-500 is the right integrated amp for you depends, I think, mostly on your taste in music and your appetite for a distinctive sonic personality. If you tend to vibe on classic soul and Motown or jazz and prog rock, the liveliness that this amp injects into the music is infectious. There’s something about ’90s pop in particular that the SV-500 just doesn’t like, though. I found its delivery of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” to be as edgy as its handling of George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.”

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But as I said above, if you stacked up the tunes with which the SV-500 excels against the tracks with which it slightly stumbles, the former pile would dwarf the latter. And in truth, this is simply the price one pays in pursuing a unique sound.

If it sounds like I’m being overly negative, that’s not my intention at all. I adored my time with the Vincent Audio piece and found myself sneaking away at nearly every opportunity to listen to it for hours on end. But I did have to put a bit of thought into what I fed it, so my advice would be to audition it before purchasing it outright. But you should definitely audition it, since there’s something quite magical about its performance, and it could be that this is exactly the sound you’re looking for.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v.5
  • Speaker cables: ELAC Sensible speaker cables
  • Interconnects: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects
  • Source: Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player
  • Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner

Vincent Audio SV-500 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $1299.95 USD.
Warranty: 90 days for the vacuum tubes, two years for everything else.

Vincent Audio
Sintron Distribution GmbH
Südring 14
DE 76473 Iffezheim

Website: www.vincent-tac.de

Pangea Audio Distributing
5500 Executive Parkway SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
Phone: (616) 885-9818