Review: VAC Phi Beta 110i
I thought long and hard about writing a review for the VAC Phi Beta 110i, since it is no longer in production. I bought the very last one built, and which as of this writing is still shown on VAC website under ‘VACtory Store’. I decided to move ahead since 1) the amp is so damn good, 2) they do occasionally come up in the used market, and 3) there seems to be very little information out there otherwise.
The Phi Beta 110i is a full function integrated amplifier, with a superb built in phono stage. A massive, very heavy power supply unit is separated from the control unit. Output is rated at 110 wpc from four KT88s. The remote is outstanding, with any function available that you could need. It is also extraordinarily solid, and is about the farthest cry from most of today’s remotes in terms of build quality that you can imagine.
One paragraph about overall aesthetics, and then I’ll let it go. The Phi Beta 110i is the more gorgeous piece of stereo equipment I’ve ever owned, period. It is an artistic masterpiece. We all know that beauty is in the eye, blah blah blah. All I know is that I love looking at the thing, particularly in a darkened room. Enough said.
Obviously the appearance of this amp would be for naught if it did not have sonics to match. I’ve owned many, many preamps and amps over the past 38 years, including a few that some would argue contend for state of the art (e.g. Ayre MX-Rs, Messenger, CTC Blowtorch). The immediate predecessors of the VAC were the Messenger and the Atma-Sphere S-30, which is the amp with which my speakers were designed. This combination was outstanding, and I fully understand why folks love the Atma-Sphere gear. However, in my system, and given my particular biases, the Phi Beta is the better choice. Why? Because it reproduces a soundstage better than any amp that I’ve ever heard, in complete silence, and with utter fidelity of timbre (with two exceptions, more on that later).
I have long been of the firm belief that since complete fidelity to an original performance is quite impossible, and therefore the pursuit of ‘a live performance in my home’ is an exercise in futility (all of you windmill-tilters are welcome to argue the point), I focus on what gives me the greatest musical pleasure while ticking off a few essentials. It surely is a cliché, but live, unamplified, well-recorded music is my reference. This is not to say that I don’t listen to classic rock, for example, just that with very few exceptions it’s all multi-miked and heavily processed. Classical, jazz, and some bluegrass are the mainstays of my evaluation material.
Let’s start with the aforementioned soundstaging. Reproduction of depth is a traditional strength of tubed gear, and indeed the best solid state has nearly caught up. However, the VAC reproduces depth and width like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and contributes enormously to my personal musical satisfaction. I could try to use the usual audiophile buzz words, but I’m really not going to try. I guess it boils down to a sense of discrimination of the venue in which the recording was made. Many of those fine old LP covers have excellent photos of the recording location. In numerous instances, I feel that I can hear the hall/stage itself as part and parcel of the recording. I could be fooling myself, but I really don’t think so. Most gear tends to homogenize the ambience between recordings, while the Phi Beta emphasizes it. Quite remarkable, really.
(Almost) top to (almost) bottom, the Phi Beta reproduces the correct timbre and weight of instruments exceedingly well. Massed violins are a true revelation, and in my opinion are an acid test of the ability to sort out harmonic complexity within a 3D space. Very few systems even come close. The Messenger/Atma combo did so, but lacked a touch of the richness that I hear both in live music and with the VAC. I actually dislike those reviews that attempt to break out the performance of a piece of gear on a near octave-by-octave basis. The whole is what counts, and I’ll simply say that within the range of 65-10K Hz, the VAC Phi Beta is, in my opinion, nearly flawless.
OK, so why the specified range? As for the deepest lows, I have no criticism whatever, and indeed couldn’t offer it if asked. The reason? My speakers are Duke Lejeune’s Planetarium Beta, which consists of a pair of bipolar main speakers, crossed over at approximately 65Hz to the ‘SWARM’ subwoofer system, which is driven by its own dedicated amp. So, the only thing that I can say about the VAC’s performance in this area is that it integrates completely seamlessly with a very fast Class D amp.
What about those highs? Well, in spite of my aging hearing, I believe that the Atma-Sphere amp was a touch more extended in the extreme highs. Key words: “a touch”. I’m not at all sure that I would have recognized this if a direct comparison hadn’t been available. In any event, and as usual, we all choose our compromises. The rest of the spectrum is so good that this very minor flaw is immaterial.
I’ll touch on one further performance area before closing out. I am personally quite intolerant of system noise, which robs music of essential microdynamics. I’ve always appreciated tube gear, but some that I’ve owned have been passed along largely because of noise issues. The Messenger and Atma-Sphere were exemplary in this respect, and fortunately the VAC is fully their equal - if not better.
In summary, the VAC Phi Beta 110i is truly an extraordinary effort. I’m a big fan of simplification, so the lack of 3 (or more) large boxes plus all the associated interconnects is a major plus in my book. I can hear no downside whatever in the integration of all 3 gain stages. I’m sure there will be those who say that this cannot be. My response would have to be “listen for yourself”.
On the rare occasions when an owner lets one of these beauties go, and of course as long as the power requirements suits your needs, I would recommend that you think long and hard about acquiring it. However, unless my hearing goes completely, it won’t be mine.