I cannot speak for the Apollo, and I've not heard VAC amps, however I have heard Rogue M150 and M180 monoblocks and the stereo 90 amplifiers. I can tell you they sound better than anything in or around their price point. I have the Rogue Perseus preamp. It is a great preamp. Rogue Audio makes great products IMO
Thanks, Fanofdq10s. I'm surprised no one has any comments on the Apollo, as it would seem a relative bargain for a U.S.-made amp of its power rating.
My concern about the VAC 300.1 or 300.1a is bass. Some owners have called it somewhat light in the bottom, and my room eats bass waves as it is. Any VAC owners care to comment?
I was talking with the owner of Synergistic Research last week (Ted Denny) regarding one of their products and he mentioned he was using a pair of modified Apollo's in his home system. The mods were better caps (Mundorf silver/oil) and some other things.
Anyway he feels the Apollo is one of the best tube amps he has heard and especially at their current price point. He even thought they were competitive with some of the 50k megabuck tube amps currently available.
I've run the Apollos for a few years now, and they're excellent. Probably loafing on my 96dB/Watt Tannoys, but I do like it loud ;)
Dynamics as good as anything I've heard. Responds like crazy to tube rolling! All of the tube slots respond significantly, but especially those 12ax7 slots, which is great because you only need a pair! You can dial in your sound, or you can go crazy like I have with vintage tubes and change your flavor every couple of weeks.
I've had numerous flirtations with VAC gear now. I've owned the Renaissance III, which was run from its MC phono into my Apollos; ended up going back to the Hera II, though the VAC's excellent built-in phono was hard to give up.
More recently, I've been repeatedly impressed by a specially upgraded Sigma 160i, which runs 16K I believe. Man that's a nice sounding complete unit; it even drives Magico S5 with aplomb (actually it's quite a stunning combo).
The impression I get from VAC sound is that it is extensively (and skillfully) voiced to the VAC "house" sound. It's a beautiful sound; silky smooth and refined. But I've also noticed it doesn't respond to tube rolling like the Rogue gear. Because of the house sound, it's probably more important to audition, though it is a sound that's going to have wide appeal. The Rogue gear has a "house" sound too if you consider what you get from those awful EH small-signal tubes its "house" sound -- i.e. dry-ish and SS-ish for tubes -- but don't do that; get some decent tubes in there ASAP ;)
When I compared Ren III and Hera II directly in my system, the Rogue sounded more powerful as it stays flatter from the lower midrange through the bass and extends deeper. The midrange and treble is no-nonsense clear and neutral, but NOT cold nor analytical (it may sound a touch dry to those expecting more tube warmth). The VAC, by comparison, seemed to embellish a bit more...there was a slight midbass hump before its mild rolloff, the midrange was very beautiful, and the treble sparkled a touch more. In the beginning, I preferred the VAC. In the long run, I re-evaluated and happily went back to the Hera II, which fortunately did NOT sell here on audiogon when I posted it.
Though I've not heard the upgraded Sigma 160i in my own system, its sonics remind me of the Ren III, but done better. It's sounded fabulous on S5, S1, and Tannoy DC10A. If the VAC 300.1 takes that further with more power, it's going to be a hell of an amp.
And that brings us to the final consideration: cost. There's no question you get a lot more for your money with Rogue vs. other makers. Personally, the ever-rising VAC prices are a turnoff to me as a working-class audiophile. Other than the 160i, I have to balk at the current prices. I'm very happy with my Rogue stack. The Hera II is their best piece, and the Apollos are not far behind. I think the Ares sounds great too, but I wish they'd given it more of the all-out treatment of the Hera/Apollo.
I just wanted to say thanks to Musicmann1. That was an extremely useful and fair evaluation. Much better than the usual, my current gear is leaps and bounds better than anything else dribble. Great to read, as I've got some Thiels I'm considering pairing with the VAC.
Many thanks for your thorough and articulate reply. The Apollos seem like an excellent choice, and clearly the better value. If I were to go with the VAC 300.1a, I'd have to buy used, whereas new Apollos would be manageable for my budget.
I'm intrigued by the possibility of tube rolling the Rogue via 12AX7s, as I already have a pile of nice NOS tubes. OTOH, it can also be a relief to leave the voicing in the hands of the manufacturer, especially when VAC does it so well. After extensive rolling of 6922 varietals in my VAC preamp I still think it sounds best with the stock tubes. Have you tried different output tubes like KT88, KT120, and KT150? I assume your amps came with KT90.
I'm also intrigued by the idea of upgrading caps, etc., as Musicmann1 mentioned. But that, too, raises the question of voicing and the manufacturer's intention. Have you had the urge to change caps and wire, etc.? Is it something Rogue does readily?
Again, I really appreciate your informative post.
Sounds like we have similar price pain-points. I stretched on the analog source and speakers, but $20K for a single amp/preamp component is well past my comfort zone.
I remember rolling a few times in the VAC Ren III preamp, and going back to the stock line-stage tubes every time! The one exception was the 1st 12AX7 in the phono section; I ended up with a super low-noise 1950's RCA in there -- not a huge improvement, but some. The only other way I found to improve upon the Ren III was a Bob's Devices 1131 SUT instead of the built-in Lundahls. THAT upgrade was well worth the money (i.e. just get the MM stage on this unit)!
My Apollos did indeed come with KT90; the KT120 wasn't out at that time. The upgrade to KT120 was significant, though that's the only time I've rolled the power section. Needing a dozen of anything (at least 6 matched pairs) just to try a new tube will definitely give you pause. The EH KT90 sounds a bit anemic in bass, dry in the midrange, and harsh/grainy on top compared to KT120. I.e. they sound thin in comparison. It's actually a decent tube, but doesn't stand up to the KT120. There were times when my system was in the transition throes of some other upgrade or downsize, and got a little too warm/mushy -- at these times, I'd try the KT90 again, and sometimes earnestly enjoy them again, though the re-marriage never lasted once I got the rest of the system back in line.
I didn't think to ask Rogue when I got my Apollos & Hera II (bought a Hera I used and had upgraded to II status by Rogue), but apparently they'll upgrade parts if you request it. I'd expect their fees/markup to be quite reasonable, as they always are. I'm definitely intrigued by the prospect of say Mundrof gold/silver/oil coupling caps, silver wire, etc -- but with the shipping risk & hassles for these components, I'm going to need another reason to send 'em in. E.g. I think there's an intermittently sticky relay in my Hera II; if that gets worse, and I'm still gainfully employed, it may be time for a new relays AND Mundorfs.
Enjoy your decision making process; you've got two truly fine choices going here!
I think we have similar ears. I rolled out the stock tubes in my VAC phono section, too, and '50s RCA blackplates are my favorite NOS in there. It's a sleeper tube, IMO. Hard to find super-quiet ones, though. Surprisingly, among new production I like the Sovtek LPS in that application. Unlike other Sovteks I've tried the LPS are not too edgy. They are exceedingly quiet and settle into nice extension and balance with some break-in. I also use and like a lot a Bob's SUT, though not with my VAC as it is dual MC.
Thanks again for all the excellent info on Rogue!
Yep, the RCA 12AX7 black plate has been one of my favorites too. I'm currently running a pair in the Rogue Ares phono, though they sound good in the Apollos too. In addition to some of the usual suspects -- Mullard LP, Telefunken RP, RCA TMBP 5751, GE TMBP 5751 (the Mullard and GE being favored over the others in my system) -- I've also tried a few unorthodox tubes in the Apollos.
Some of the 12BH7's have made for a nice sub in the 12AU7 slots: earlier Sylvanias are great, later ones are bad; RCA's of nearly any vintage sound good, but can be too warm for many systems; Tung-Sol are nice but have a bit more zing on top than the others, Japanese round plates are good and seem well balanced. I'm also fond of the 1950's GE 5814 TM, also in place of 12AU7. And I've used red-label GE 12AY7 in the 12AX7 slot. And it's definitely the wrong tube in these slots, but I've accidentally placed the GE 5814 in the 12AX7 slots (it looks just like the GE 5751 in dim lighting), and it sounded WAY better than it should. Lots of options and flexibility with these amps!