THE ONE AND ONLY
Boasting an all-valve amplifier stage and digital inputs, this is an intriguing mix of old and new tech. Ed Selley gets to grips with it.
Quad VA-One – Hi-Fi Choice, December 2016
Such is the diversification of functionality attached to integrated amplifiers in recent years, that a valve amplifier fitted with a selection of digital inputs is no longer something that is truly surprising. Quad has an approach to the vacuum tube that is measured by the fact that much of its know-how has been in production in one form or another for decades. The ancestry of the VA-One is a little fresher than the company’s more established tube designs, and externally it shares a great deal with its PA-One headphone amplifier.
Internally, the two units are rather different. Gone is the compliment of 66SL7, 6SN7 and EZ81 valves used in the headphone amp and instead in its place, the VA-One opts for a quartet of EL84 power pentodes, which are partnered with a preamp comprising a single ECC83 and a pair of ECC82 dual triodes. This is a well-established partnership of valves, and one that’s been adopted by a number of different manufacturers, but it’s not one that’s been associated much with Quad, until now that is.
The VA-One is quoted as being capable of producing 15W into 6ohm and 12W into 8ohm. This isn’t the sort of power output that rocks stadiums, but as Quad notes, with a respectably sensitive pair of loudspeakers, the VA-One should have no issue lling a normal-sized listening room. Unlike some valve amps, the VA-One doesn’t offer different impedance outputs and it makes do with just a single set of loudspeaker terminals.
The VA-One sports a trio of digital inputs in the form of a USB Type-B connection, one coaxial digital and one optical input. All three are listed as 24/192-capable, although to use this format via USB PC users will require a downloadable driver from the Quad website. The digital inputs are partnered with a single stereo analogue input on a pair of RCA connections, and there’s a 6.35mm headphone socket on the front panel. The VA-One also gains the ability to receive material via an aptX-capable Bluetooth 4.0 receiver, and is able to handle a lossless signal while giving quick and easy access to music services or storage on suitably compatible devices.
In use, pairing is painless and reasonably straightforward and once you’ve done so, the stability and range appear to be unaffected by the presence of a fairly hefty set of output transformers positioned just a few inches from the receiver aerial.In fact, ‘hefty’ is a word that crops up frequently when describing the VA-One. The actual footprint of the amp is usefully small at just 180mm wide by 330mm deep, but despite these compact external dimensions it still tips the scale at a healthy 10.8kg. Everything feels extremely solidly bolted together and inert. Points of contact like the volume control and speaker terminals all feel very substantial indeed.
The supplied remote control might be small, but aesthetically the VA-One looks the part and is likely to push many of the right buttons for music fans. Details like the big Quad logo on the transformer cover and the numbered volume control give it a feel of quality, while the valves are protected by a substantial cage, but remain entirely visible. Bluetooth and aux inputs are accessed directly, while digital inputs have to be cycled through via a single button.
Connected to a pair of Audio Note AN-K speakers and with a Melco N1A NAS drive (HFC 397) providing the USB source, while a Naim ND5 XS (HFC 352) runs into the coaxial connection, the VA-One makes a strong impression from the off. The volume gearing is such that a fair amount of the power on offer is delivered before it reaches ‘four’ on the dial, but even taking this into account the VA-One has more grunt than I would expect.
It has a punchiness and energy that ensures that the presentation never starts off as soft or overly sweet. With a 16/44.1 FLAC rip of Junip’s Fields played over USB, the VA-One is effortlessly agile. The frenetic pace of Howl is relayed with genuine enthusiasm and the VA-One never struggles to get my head nodding in appreciation. Ask it to reproduce something with a bit more serious scale to it like the live performance of Fink’s Sort Of Revolution, and there is the sense it is not able to achieve the absolute bass depth of more powerful ampli cation, but it packs impressive detail into the lower frequencies that it does produce and never sounds strained or forced even when played at higher levels.
Tonally, it is a superb performer that manages to make both voices and instruments sound tangibly real. A 16/44.1 rip of Regina Spektor’s Consequence Of Sounds is a masterclass in presence and texture. The relationship between Spektor and piano and her small percussive taps is so believable, it makes rivals seem congested and veiled in comparison. This wonderfully easy going way of showing you what is going on with a recording is something that survives the switch to more complex music arrangements. The 24/44.1 FLAC of Dead Can Dance’s Children Of The Sun has the same tangible sense of a layout to the performers. There’s no impression of anything being moved around or any particular part of the performance being arti cially boosted. Instead there’s simply a soundstage that is beautifully de ned and impressively open in which a believable performance can take place.
Some of this transparency appears to stem from the digital and ampli cation sections being designed to compliment one another. Some tests with the Naim ND5 XS connected directly via RCAs suggest that it has a very slight lift to the upper midrange and treble compared with the Naim that helps it sound a little more dynamic. This means that the VA-One does its best work via the digital inputs, but some quick tests with a Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator phono stage (HFC 407) connected to an Audio-Technica AT-LP5 turntable (HFC 405) suggest that while the analogue input is fractionally softer and warmer than the digital ones, it retains enough of the Quad’s basic enthusiasm to be a very good listen.
The Bluetooth input behaves similarly to the other digital connections, and once you overcome the slightly curious feeling of pairing a smartphone with a device that from the front at least looks like it could have been built before man set foot on the moon, the VA-One shows itself to be a very capable performer over wireless. There is no extraneous noise present on the input at idle and while American Band by the Drive-By Truckers on Tidal from a Motorola Moto X Android phone sounds fractionally softer in the bass than the same tracks on Tidal played via the Naim, the Quad is a more than satisfactory partner used in this way.
No less impressive is the performance from the headphone socket. I have not been able to lay my hands on a PA-One headphone amp by way of comparison, but connected to a pair of Audio-Technica ATH- A2000Z headphones (HFC 412), the VA-One puts in a more than reasonable account of itself. As with the Bluetooth input, noise levels are low and this helps it to deliver much of the same energy and wonderful tonality that it does via its speaker outputs. As a means of providing a source for some late-night listening, the VA-One serves as a very capable headphone amp.
The VA-One is something of a star turn. It delivers at an emotional level in that it looks and feels precisely how we’d expect a Quad valve amplifier to be, and it partners this with a level of t and nish that is impressive for the asking price.The masterstroke is combining this timeless charm with a selection of inputs and performance that are bang up to date. Used with a remotely sympathetic pair of speakers, it has all the headroom you could reasonably require alongside a selection of inputs that mean it can function as a hub for a useful array of sources. The VA-One might not be terribly big, but it is extremely clever.