Review: SMc VRE-1 Preamplifier

Category: Preamps

My musical tastes run from Osamu Kitajima to June Tabor to Bach. I have approximately 4,000 CD/SACD's, various LP's that never made it the digital world, RTR tapes from The Tape Project (Wow!!!). I also listen to FM and to XM.
The most important aspects of sound for me are dynamics, especially low end bunch with associated midbass articulation, sound that does not fatigue, i.e. I can listen for a 12 hour stretch,
wide bandwidth, i.e. 13Hz to wherever my hearing ends,
lack of noise of any kind, whether it is hum , buzzing, RFI, I will not tolerate and is the most annoying aspect of listening to an elaborate system.
The speakers NEED to disappear, i.e. you cannot detect them as the source of sound, that is where the soundstage, a term coined by the great HP of TAS, comes in. The sound is spread out wall to wall, front to back, floor to ceiling, really with no limitations. Sometimes the sound comes from behind the back wall as in many well recorded choral pieces.
My system achieves these goals, but I always had the desire to change preamps. The Krell amps, as well as the subwoofers are the end of the line for me, as well as the McIntosh speakers, which if built in Europe, would sell for over $250,000. Also the Emm gear, from which I have heard no better "digital" sound. The KAB is a masterpiece, but overlooked because of its inexpensive price.
The nagging part of my upgrading has been the preamplifier, which until I came across the SMc VRE-1, was the most frustrating part of my system. Either the preamp got the bass right, but the midbass wrong, and visa versa.
It would have detailed highs, but a lack of dynamics in the midrange. The midrange would be perfect, but the frequency extremes were lacking.
Well, with Steve McCormack's brilliant design, the VRE-1, accomplishes all of the above, a first for me in any preamp that I have had in my system or that I have heard in other megabuck set ups.
It is hard to believe that it is in the system, because there is no noise. It easy to believe that it is in the system when you hear bass that scares you out of the room, or a beautiful female voice, just floating in space between and behind the loudspeakers, or when a chorus is at full tilt, and the layers of chorus are there in bold relief and with no sense of strain or harshness.
The SMc VRE-1 does it all.
I have been enjoying the music more than I ever have in the forty years of dealing with this hobby.
I have every issue of TAS, HiFi+, Stereophile, The Audiophile Voice, Listener, Tube Kingdom and for those with long memories, Ultimate Audio, Fi, and Sounds like...
I also have almost every issue of Stereo Sound, Bound for Sound, many issues of HiFi News, and Audio, plus various Italian magazines. I have read thousands of preamp reviews, but none were the writer declared the preamp to have no flaws. Well, that preamp has arrived, and it is called the SMc VRE-1. It is sold factory direct at $7,500.
If sold through dealers, my guess would be in the $15-$20,000. range.
I am not a "technofreak", so if you are interested in specs, then check out SMc's web site.
BTW, for the younger crowd out there, Steve McCormack is the inventor of tweaks! Yes, that's right! It all started with his Mod Squad company in the 70's. He introduced, now recopied a zillion times, the Tip Toe.
From my readings, three years of research from the master of tweaks went into this design, and it shows.
To recapitulate, if you want the best preamplifier in the world, then try the SMc VRE-1. Even the most jaded of audiophiles are in for a shock!
CD/SACD's used in this evaluation include, but are not limited to: Thin Red Line
Uncommon Ritual
Mahler Symphony NO.3 / BMG
Holst The Planets / JVC XRCD24
Yim Hok-Man Poems of Thunder
Howard Hanson The Composer And His Orchestra
Danses Anciennes De Hongrie /harmonia mundi
Bela Fleck Flight of the Cosmo Hippo
Die Another Day Soundtrack
Eric Anderson Ghosts Upon the Road
The Psalms of David Vol1 Kings College ChoirEMI
Osamu Kitajima Beyond The Circle/Cyberoctave
Cat Stevens Track: If I Laugh
Chico Freeman Spirit Sensitive /AnalogueProd.
Tom Waits Mule Variations/Epitaph
Tom Waits Small Change
Vinx Rooms in my Fatha's House/PangAA
Gary Karr Adagio d'Albinoni/Kings Record Co/JP
Peter Gabriel Track: I Believe
Sarah McLachlan Track: Angel
Jude Track: I Know
Paula Cole Her First Release, Untitled Track 1
I did not list all of the specific tracks on the review material. You will know, if your system is up to it, which are the reference ones.

Associated gear
Emm CDSA SE, Emm CDSD, EMM DAC6e, Ashly crossover, Cello Palette, Bybee AC purifier, Krell MRA amplifiers, Krell MRS subwoofers, Victor HP1000 headphones, Pro-Ject headphone controller, Sequerra FM-1, Day Sequerra Studio, ADA Tune Suite XM Technics RS1500, KAB Reference turntable, KAB Reference cartridge, Grado Phono Stage, McIntosh XRT2K loudspeakers ,all speaker and interconnect cables by Kimber including 3038, The Black Pearl, 1136, 1130. All power cords by Lessloss. Acoustic treatments by Acoustic Lens, Acoustic Revive, Shakti Hallographs.

Similar products
ARC Ref 3, ARC Ref 2 MKII, LS12, LS7,Levinson 32, 38S,BAT VK 52 SE,Aesthetix Callisto w/2 power supplies,McIntosh C200, McIntosh C2200, Electrocompaniet ECM-1, Krell KPS25sc,Adcom GFP 750. These are the ones that stand out from memory. I cannot recall all of the preamps that I have gone through, but if I forgot about it, then I assume that it is not worth mentioning.
I just want to thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts and comments. I put a tremendous amount of work into developing the VRE-1, so it really means a lot to see that others appreciate the results. That someone with your depth of experience finds it so rewarding is truly an honor. The VRE-1 is still a relative newcomer on the high-end scene, but word is starting to get around.

Thanks again, and enjoy your music!

Best regards,

Steve McCormack, designer
SMc Audio
Very nice review, Dott_c. Your enthusiasm is contagious. I would like to some day( when funds are available) be able to evaluate this new preamp in my system. To Steve McCormack: I'd love to see a review of this preamp from J. Peter Moncrieff. Any chance of getting him to give it a work-out?
I love to pair one of these with my Platinum DNA-225, which I seem to enjoy as much as you do the new preamp. Mebee someday. ;(

Thanks for the review. Just about what I had expected. Steve does a great job with his designs and he and Kris are wizards with wires.
Many thanks for your review,Dott_c.

I want to comment that two weeks ago I received my VRE-1 and I've listened my favourites pop,jazz and classical cd's for 16 hours approximately to test the preamp accurately.I know that it's very few listening hours,but I think it's enough to give my first impression.

I think that the VRE-1 sounds fantastic,because I've appreciated a perfect top-to-bottom transparency and I can feel the instruments and voices clearly, showing me a great dynamic expression.The sound seems me very analogical and neutral and it transmits an emotional feeling so big like I've ever estimated in any other preamp really.

Now it's necessary a break-in period so that the VRE-1 can show me its fully potential and so I hope to enjoy for this process and confirmming that this preamp is the best of the world..

I want to add only that it's very important getting a good quality power cord and if you change the Vibrapod isolators for the Grand Prix Audio Apex footers with SiNi balls,you'll get a positive benefit for the VRE-1 in imaging,subtle detail and dynamic expression terms.

Now,I wish talking with Steve McCormack again to recommend me his best companion amplifier for my VRE-1.

Thanks again Dott_c for your very nice review.


P.S.:Sorry for my English.


Very nice review. I am planning on purchasing a VRE-1 in a few months. Just read the 6 moons review today and the reviewer is agreeing with you on the best he has heard. Steve does great work.
After reading the 6Moons review, I'm curious if this design, if you get the 0 gain version, is another attempt at a buffered passive like the highly regarded Placette Active by Guy Hammel.

Also, without being disrespectful to the reviewer, his reference preamp was never that good to begin with and is close to being twenty years old. So the VRE-1 should be superior to sonicly, but how does it compare to other preamps in this price range?

I would be interested to hear how the VRE1 compares to the ARC ref3. What were the main differences, pros and cons that you heard? Your comments would be really valuable due to my inability to audition the VRE1. (But I own the Ref3).
Dott_c - Thanks for sharing the VRE-1 here. There's much focus on the VRE-1's incredible tonal coherency but I am left with uncertainties as to how it performs against the competition in other ways....and in the same system of course. Would you please add some additional detail in these areas as to the VRE-1's strengths to the other products you compared it to.

Teajay - What do you mean his reference preamp is close to 20 years. The review was not clear as to what the reference preamp had been before the VRE-1 entered the scene.

In the list of line stages at the bottom of the review, the Aesthetix Callisto hardly qualifies as "was never good to begin with". And surely many people who have experiences with the Ref3, Ref2 and BAT 52SE would feel the same about those products.

I too have gone through quite a search for THE preamp or line stage that stands out from the crowd. But no matter how much we like a product, there's always another that excels in one way or another over our personal reference. I don't buy much into the "synergy" game which often has more to do with tonal compensation of one product to match with another of opposite error. With the top-tier of line stages and preamps, there so much more going on here than this. And much of my curiosities of the VRE-1 remain as I have not found a review where someone puts it up against a top tube product. I guess I will have to try and get ahold of a VRE-1 and put it up against the Aria WV as I am looking for a solid state line stage for my HT based system.

I commend Steve McCormack, and Michael Elliot of Aria, for putting out a new generation of line stages and preamps in the $7-8k range. This allows a far greater audience to enjoy a level of sonic performance that has otherwise only been available to those able to pay far more.

No disrespect taken; the Adcom pre-amp is only a temporary solution until I can afford a better alternative. For the price, the Adcom is quite an accomplishement and one of the very rare fully balanced preamps that can be had below $750.

Back to the VRE-1, the review actually started as an analysis of what a great pre-amp would bring over driving the amplifier direct. The intent was never to do a head to head comparison with similarly priced gear since I do not have access to any.
As the VRE-1 proved to be far more impressive than I first expected, I spent more time than anticipated describing its absolute sound (or lack thereof) and what I could hear of its contribution to the overall system sound.

Now, although they were not in the system at the time of the review and therefore did not get mentioned, I have spent a lot of time with all the McIntosh tube preamps and none can compare to the VRE-1 for transparency and that feeling of close connection to the recording the VRE-1 enabled.
Again, I'll be the first to admit those are not the best references available, but certainly closer in price to the VRE-1.

And I'll happily review the ARC Ref3 if anybody wants to send one my way :-)