Cute, that’s the reaction that this smallest of the current Quad amplifiers elicits. And it is I guess, a valve integrated in a chassis that’s about the size of an original Quad II is an unusual thing. But they sold an awful lot of Quad IIs back in the day, so perhaps it’s a popular size.
The VA-One is an interesting amplifier for a reason that is only obvious to valve amp connoisseurs like Rega designer Terry Bateman, he mentioned that it appears to have a circuit that’s very similar to another classic valve amp, the Leak Stereo 20. Terry had noticed this because he’s a bit of a Stereo 20 enthusiast, and I picked up on it because that was one of the first amplifiers I heard that made it obvious that audio electronics made a significant difference to musical enjoyment. The Leak name is owned by the IAG group that owns Quad now but there are no indications that it will be revived anytime soon. And others have made similar EL84 amps in the past, there are probably a few in current production for that matter, but none of them have set the world alight because being small pentode tubes they are not terribly exciting next to the big triodes on a single ended amp.
The VA-One is not just a power amp of course, it’s an integrated with onboard digital to analogue converter. In fact the DAC takes over on the input front, leaving only one analogue input, which seems an odd arrangement but makes it ready for the majority of contemporary source components. The digital inputs include USB, coax and optical plus Bluetooth with support for the sonically superior aptX variation on that wireless theme. The front panel switches are labelled Bluetooth, Aux (analogue) and Digital with the latter switching between three inputs. At turn on the volume is reduced by the motor for some reason, I guess this stops it starting up at a high level or blowing the speakers if you change to a higher level input. But you do initially wonder why everything is so quiet. Headphone users are catered for with a proper (quarter inch) jack on the front and this is driven by the tubes rather than a separate op-amp.
Power is naturally not all that abundant, 12 Watts into an eight Ohm load, so speaker choice is limited to designs with high sensitivity and unchallenging impedance loads. I tried it with a pair of Rega RX3 floorstanders (89dB/6 Ohms), which worked reasonably well but lacked dynamics as you might expect. I got a far better result with my current favourite speaker the Q-Acoustics Concept 500 (90dB/6 Ohms), which suggests that this speaker is easy to drive as well as highly entertaining.
In the Quad’s hands the Concept 500 naturally didn’t have the low end grip that bigger amps gave it but this was exchanged for a lovely sense of speed and good levels of inner detail. According to Terry it does have a Leak like character to the sound, it’s not as transparent as a Stereo 20 but you wouldn’t expect it to be given the far higher real cost of that amplifier if it were made today. Not to mention that you can’t bypass the volume control on the Quad so a pure power amp will always have an advantage. What it does well is communicate the emotional message of the music, the presentation may be small scale but the power of the song is writ large, at least it is with Dwight Trible’s Inspirations album where his soulful voice is given full rein to express the woes of the world. It’s not all misery of course, with Bugge Wesseltoft’s Duo the Quad exposes the texture in his piano and lots of the shading that his partner Henrik Schwartze brings to the electronics and samples used to back it up. It doesn’t expose the three dimensionality of this particular recording as well as bigger solid state alternatives but that doesn’t get in the way of musical enjoyment one iota. The bass while rounded is well controlled given the amount of power on tap, it doesn’t plumb the depths as you might imagine but keeps bass lines in time and musical which is arguably more important than having your kidneys vibrated.
The kettle drum notes on Nik Barsch’s Continuum are low enough to feel as well as hear, in fact they are beautiful and totally coherent with the percussive melody higher up the scale. It’s a simple but effective acoustic evocation of a sound usually associated with electronic instruments and reveals its musical charm thanks to the VA-One’s inherently fluid presentation. Depth of image is good if not fabulous and you don’t get the reverb that a (more pricey) solid state amp would deliver but musically it’s a charmer.
The USB input is about par for the price, not the most revealing but quite adequate to enjoy a good digital file if the source computer or server is good quality. The same was true of the coax input, good but not in the same league as bypassing the DAC with an analogue source. But that’s because I was using externally converted sources like a Rega Saturn-R CD player and CAD 1543 MkII DAC, the latter in particular being an unlikely partner given its near £7k price point. But the Saturn-R worked a treat, the amp delivering all of its musicality and smoothing some of the less polished aspects of its treble. Terry tried it with a Rega P3 turntable and Fono phono stage and got a very nice result, it could be a little richer and more detailed but he thought that given the price and limitations of size it’s a decent amplifier that would make the basis of a nice vinyl system (where a suitable phono stage is available).
All in all the VA-One is a lovely piece of kit for the money, a state of affairs enhanced by its nice styling and Lancaster grey finish which is rather more attractive than the majority of affordable valve amps. If you can get by with a single analogue input and have easy to drive speakers you will have many happy hours of musical enjoyment with this cute Quad in your system.