Now, around £5k might seem like a lot for a unit that demands this level of remedial care, but let’s not forget that this is a full facilities pre-amp aimed squarely at audiophile end-users with a heavy penchant for vinyl replay. Go looking for a serious phono-stage and line-stage combination and you won’t get much change out of that £5k; and you’ll certainly struggle to get anything that sounds close to as good as this. The nearest competition probably comes from the Tom Evans Groove and Vibe combination, a similarly hair-shirt pairing but one that sounds very different indeed.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the SVP-2 is just how quiet – actually, make that near silent – the phono-stage is. With the volume wicked right up all that emerges from the speakers is a very low hum, audible only with your ear pressed against the baffle, and no hiss at all. Gain is perfectly sufficient to accommodate cartridges as diverse as the Lyra Skala and vdH Condor that I used, although I might want to increase the internal gain if venturing below the realms of 0.3mV – something that can be accomplished by the factory or a trained technician. Even loading the cartridges down to 100 Ohms failed to rob the sound of life and energy, leaving the system with ample headroom and dynamic range, even with the 18 Watt Vacuum State mono-blocs driving the Martin Logan CLXs. In fact, this combination proved so successful that it dominated the listening, although the SVP-2 proved equally at home with the solid-state Belles MB-200s.
How does it sound? This pre-amp will breathe a gust of fresh air into just about every system it comes across. Majoring on immediacy and presence, it is musically direct and bubbling with energy. Whereas most pre-amps seem to variously constrict or sit on the sound, the Vacuum State propels it into your listening room on a wave of sheer enthusiasm. And it’s not a case of “never mind the quality” either… The SVP-2 is plenty careful with its musical Ps and Qs – it just doesn’t let them get in the way. So, if you play the Cisco re-issue of the Heifetz Kreutzer recording, you’ll hear the subtle slips in technique, the atonality as he accidentally brushes a second string on the sustained note at the end of his first, fast phrase. But, it’s the pace of the bowing, the rich harmonics, the power of the instrument that will capture your attention, along with the poised stability and sonority of the carefully weighted piano part. The musical balance is superb in this performance; the SVP-2 conjures it vividly to life, capturing the swagger of Heifetz in his pomp. Swap to my favourite Martzy performance on Coup D’Archet and the music speaks with a clearer voice as the egos take a back seat. But the really impressive thing is how this pre-amp highlights the contrast betwixt and between without belittling either.
At the opposite end of the intellectual scale, the B52s’ ‘Dance This Mess Around’ is a riotously over the top slab of high-energy rock. Yet the SVP-2 never loses its grip on the beautifully tactile bottom end, never diminishes the instrumental and vocal contrasts that make this track so engaging – and so difficult to reproduce. Instead it gives it to you full-bore, with dramatically impressive results. When Kate Pierson states that, “I’m just askin’…” there’s no doubting the disdain.
Looking for shortcomings you’ll need to compare the SVP-2 to the very best (and most expensive) units out there. Do that and you’ll find it lacks a degree of rhythmic dexterity; changes of pace it handles beautifully, but the shorter duration hesitations and stutters that punctuate musical phrases and demarcate a player’s sentences are less distinct, glossed over by the feeling of fluid momentum. So, the staccato, off-beat piano chords that set up the easy smooch of the Count’s ‘Beaver Junction’ lack that sense of hesitant anticipation – although that dirty, dirty groove makes it perfectly clear that we’re not talking amphibians here.
Likewise, absolute levels of resolution and transparency are lacking, especially when compared to the more etched presentation of something like The Groove, which picks the tiniest details out of the mix that much more readily. It also means that images rest more on the performers, less than the overarching acoustic space. But this is where taste comes in. You want detail uber alles or ultimate dimensionality, look elsewhere; you want that elusive sense of flow and musical expression then look no further. Ohh… You want them both? Be prepared to spend Connoisseur type money – or rather more than three times the price of the SVP-2 for the line-stage alone.
Of course, there are plenty of (far more impressive looking) valve preamps out there, boasting lusciously warm tonal colours and thunderous dynamics. But the SVP-2 is in a class apart from the majority of them. Essentially neutral, it achieves a remarkable level of balance and musical coherence. It’s sense of flow and expressive range rests on its timbral and textural continuity, its overall control of the musical bandwidth as a whole. That’s what allows it to go slow as well as fast, to give performers a physical presence without resorting to cranking up the second order harmonics – and slugging the dynamics and immediacy as a result. This coherence and innate sense of stability also allow the Vacuum State to make the most of differences between formats; SACD’s superiority over red-book discs is manifest, but vinyl still rules the roost.