Audio by Van Alstine Insight+ 240 Power Amp Review

List Price: $999

Review by

Michael Peshkin


Long before my parents met, married and had the misfortune of having to feed me, the car of all cars was a Deusenberg. Elegant, beautifully built and hugely imposing, it was the standard of excellence in American automobile manufacturing. The “Duesy” was hand built and the phrase, “It’s a real Deusy” implied that whatever you were talking about was the very best. A great tasting lollypop…”; It’s a real Deusy!”   Excellence was described that way for many years.


“Absolutely terrible!"

I thought this CD sounded better.  I recalled it wasn’t great, but I didn’t realize it was this poor. That is one lousy sounding CD! I suppose the other system is more forgiving…I’m not sure I’m going to like this.

Listening to a Blue Note CD, Bud Powell, ( Blue Note CDP46529 2), I was deeply chagrined to hear how poor it sounded through the Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) amp. I blamed it on the amp, I blamed it on the AR2ax speakers I was rebuilding, I blamed it on the (just as ruthless, I suppose) Michael Green Design MGD5 speakers, but I couldn’t blame it on the Fritz Carbon 7’s, they are absolutely gorgeous sounding speakers.

Not playing that CD, however. Avoidance of the onslaught from a poor sounding CD is impossible, especially with an amp that LOVES to reveal faults. Thankfully, it equally reveals a great recording.

I continue to be amazed by this amp. I vacillate when listening to music, between the larger system, Monarchy amps/Infinity speakers, and what I call my office or “experimental” system. I really have a hard time leaving my office room and walking the twenty steps into the listening room and turning on that system; playing music in there, especially since I put the Insight+ into the system.

The Insight+ 240 is a solid state 120 watt per channel amp capable of driving almost any speaker down to 4 ohms. Frank also makes other versions of this amp for speakers with more difficult loads, like down to 2 Ohms or those that need extra high gain. I have a rebuilt pair of AR2ax speakers hooked up to it as I write this, the system that will be as permanent as any in this room (this is my experimental room’s system).

Van Alstine makes three different types of power amps (among many other component types), the first being amps using all tubes he calls his “Ultravalve” line. He also makes a hybrid power amp that uses tubes and solid state called the “Fet Valve Amp” line. The “Insight+” line from which this 240 hails is pure solid state. It even comes in two chassis sizes. According to Frank, the Insight+ amplifiers have no overall feedback, so the input circuits simply cannot overload on an overall loop-error correction signal that doesn't exist. Feedback does exist, however, as a unique active and buffered powered feedback loop matched perfectly (electrically and thermally) to the active buffered input parameters.

I have owned (now) a total of three AVA amps. I still have and often use a little Delta 120 amp (in a Dyna 120 chassis) that is a very musical amp…a little giant possessing 60 beautiful watts per side sound. Amazingly, this little guy got a review in The Absolute Sound back in in the 90’s. I had been looking for an inexpensive but well made amp, read the review and was on the phone to AVA that day. I never regretted the decision; the Mirage 750’s I had back then loved what the Delta fed to them! There are few true bargains in the audio world, the AVA amps exceed that description!

C’mon, how good can a $1000 amp be? Should I constantly be amazed at the details brought out in well-known recordings; details I may definitely have noticed before but are more delineated by this amp? Heck, I really don’t know. What I do know is those low-level details are easily heard; the way a drumstick lightly taps against the side of a cymbal, the differences between hitting slightly on the top side or the bottom side of the high-hat. I hear that special tick when the drummer barely touches the edge of a drum; the feel of the sound, if you catch what I mean. Stuff you only hear live, sitting a few feet from the stage and seeing it, but you’re not seeing it, you’re

experiencing it through a recording!

 

We talk about speed, about quick transients, yet few audio systems get it right. You know the difference between live and listening in your home…it’s easy to tell you are definitely not hearing live musicians. Why? The notes are the same as they would be live, aren’t they? But what about those moments when the sound(s) you hear make your ears twitch, those moments when your mind is tricked and the music you hear is live! One answer is timbre, which, as defined at Dictionary.com:

noun

1. Acoustics, Phonetics - the characteristic quality of a sound, independent of pitch and loudness, from which its source or manner of production can be inferred. Timbre depends on the relative

strengths of the components of different frequencies, which are determined by resonance.


2. Music - the characteristic quality of sound produced by a particular instrument or voice; tone color.

We instantly know, at least if we are actively listening, that we are listening to a recording electronically reproduced. Sometimes we can be fooled however. This amp has done that to me quite a few times now. I swing my head around, knowing my wife is walking down the steps with a cup of coffee because I heard those footsteps. But it wasn’t footsteps; it was a stage floor creaking.

I know that has nothing to do with music, I don’t want to hear the 2nd violinist’s chair squeaking. Yet, if it is in the recording it is part of the history of that recording and not hearing it is losing a bit of history. More importantly, if the system can capture that tiny sound, it also shows off the fingerings of the flutist, the feel of a guitarist’s fingertips sliding across the string…not just the sound but the feeling (gestalt?).

I had owned an Omega 240 for quite a few years and never used it very often. I had bought it and then, a short time later, I was offered a pair of Monarchy SE 100 monoblocks, which have remained in my main system for a few years now. I had been building a system for the smaller of the two rooms downstairs. For lack of a better term, the “office system.”

I’d wondered what Audio by Van Alstine’s latest offerings were and saw the Omega could be upgraded to the Insight 240 circuitry, in fact any Insight, OmegaStar, Omega, Omega II, or Omega III amplifiers can be upgraded to the Insight+ so I sent the Omega to Frank Van Alstine. Turnaround time was less than 3 weeks, which while lightning fast, wasn’t fast enough for me. I was very excited about hearing Frank’s newest. I only had the Insight 240 for about 2 weeks when I received an e-mail telling me they had made a change in the Insight circuitry, would I like to have those latest changes installed? I sent it out the next day.

When the Insight+ 240 returned, I felt that it wasn’t as much to my liking as the first Insight, my “sonic memory” as opposed to Sonic frozen Limeade, told me the new Insight+ was a bit cooler, more analytical. But it was new and although Frank burns in his amps before shipping them out, I decided to give it more time before judging it

All reservations disappeared once it had been playing in my office system for awhile; only about 20 or 30 hours more time needed. (see sidebar) I had it hooked up to a pair of Michael Greene speakers and liked what I heard, but when a pair of Fritz speakers arrived for evaluation, I attached them. As good as the Michael Greens had sounded, the Fritz speakers sounded 89.377% better (I ask, how does one measure better?).

Seriously, the AVA insight and the Fritz speakers sound marvelous together. Maybe it’s that Fritz is from Minnesota where Van Alstine resides…those Minnesotans can make some awesome audio appliances, found to be alluring in every possible approach. (Alliteration is so much fun!).

One (stupid) mistake one could easily make is forming a judgment when the amp is first turned on. I suppose it was stupid to do so, but I instantly thought, “The mids are awfully muddy.” Within 5 minutes the windows were cleaned.

Speaker set-up is important, far more important in a room where the speakers must be set on the long rather than the short wall. If the Fritz speakers were too close to the back wall the sound became congested. Even though they weren’t very picky as to where they sat, they did sound better about 18” from the rear wall. In the Capitol LP (T1657) of Cannonball Adderly and Nancy Wilson, Nancy sounded as if her nose was stuffed. Pulling the speakers out a foot further made her sound natural; the sophisticated manner in which she sings is reproduced and revealed quite beautifully by the Insight+.

That holds true for the rebuilt AR2ax speakers, too. But they are NOT as room friendly (at least not in this room) as the Carbon 7’s are.

Imaging was quite good; using the Carbon 7’s or my Infinity Preludes and comparing it with either the Monarchy SE100 Mk. II also in for review, or compared to my original Monarchy amps, it does not posses the ability to throw the three-dimensional sonic picture the Monarchy amps do so well. But I am truly nit-picking. Only having both company’s amplifiers within close proximity, thus allowing a quick A-B (while not scientific…it works for me) would prove that spatial information is slightly superior with the Monarchy amps. Bear in mind that the Monarchy’s are monoblocks so some improvement in channel separation and thus imaging is to be expected. Listening with the Insight+, Ella’s movements, as she sang on Let No Man Write My Epitaph Verve MG VS64043 gave me a glimpse into that wonderful singer’s approach to a microphone.

Ella has always impressed me with the way she would lean back from the microphone and scream so as to not overload it. In many of her recordings, with high resolution gear, you actually see how she controls the power of her voice, backing away from the mike when she’s belting out a note.

Listening to an old Verve, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, The Dynamic Duo (Verve V6 8766) I could feel the low notes emanating from Smith’s organ in my gut.

 

While the AVA can deliver big bass, connected to the Infinity speakers, I sensed a bit of loss of control compared to the Monarchy amps. The various colors and notes are richer with the Monarchy amps, but by no means did I hear one-note bass; I believe the Carbon 7’s with a good matching subwoofer would probably have trounced the Infinity and its subs (the Prelude is a tower with a powered subwoofer beneath).

I listened to 4 different speakers with this amp and really, really loved the way it made the speakers I thought I knew quite well, sound far better. It could do the micro-detail thing better than with other amps I have used. The attack of drums on Get up, Stand up from The Wailer’s Burn in’ (Island, 1973 ILPS9256) is visceral. There is no mistaking what you hear, fingers, drum sticks, elbows…??? That moment of contact is beautifully rendered with this amp.

The Michael Greens never sounded so good, and as I said, the Monarchy amps outclassed the AVA by a bit, but the Infinity speakers, with the AVA showed me some things I’d never noticed, leading me to make some modifications. I changed the feet of the Infinity speakers because I felt the bass could be more solid. There was a certain something I heard, between the AVA and the Monarchy amps that seemed to hint that heftier bass could be achieved with the removal of the small threaded rod-like spikes (those ubiquitous black spikes that are found on quite a few racks and speakers). I put Lloyd Walker cones onto the Infinity speakers and I’m quite sure, as anyone else who heard my system, it gave the weight, that heft I was looking for by giving the speaker a firmer foundation.

I’ve listened to a pair of AR 2ax speakers I was thinking about repairing when I found that everything seems to be working quite fine, thank you. I’m sure things can improve by changing out 40 year old capacitors with equal value caps, but what I hear I could live without doing anything to them and be happy. The amp? The AVA Insight 240+.

This is a speaker that was regularly mated with 20 and 30 watt amps, but I seriously doubt the transients I hear, the dynamic slaps in the face, were never heard with 30 watt amps. I could be wrong, but if I am, why does it sound so darn good?

Listening to both CD on the big rig and LP of Pat Metheny’s Tokyo Day Trip/Day Trip (Nonesuch 400087) on the Kenwood KD500 ‘table with its tonearm newly rewired with silver was absolutely luscious. I should enlighten you by telling you that I have two systems that are equally delightful musically and deliver a good deal of what audiophiles love. The Monarchy/Infinity system in my listening room is relatively static…I bring in one or two pieces to review, insert them in that system and still it is basically the same system except for the review piece.

I wanted a system to simply listen to music as background but it has evolved into a truly phenomenal system. The Kenwood deck enlightened me as to what some audiophiles love about direct drive turntables. Having Attainable Fidelity, in Reno, Nevada rewire the Pioneer PA1000 arm with silver wire and putting the cartridge from hell, my Frankencartridge onto a headshell for that arm, revealed to me how great sound can be from rather pedestrian (by many audiophile standards) gear, if you can call a silver rewired arm with a hand-made cartridge pedestrian.

Those who have never heard, or haven’t heard a well set up direct drive turntable in many years should do so. If your reaction is similar to my own, you’ll begin changing things about setting up your belt drive to achieve some of the very positive attributes a direct drive offers.

The preamp, a slightly modified Cary SLP70, fed with a Dynavector P75 Mk. II phono preamp, can deliver music that would suit everyone except the most demanding, and deep pocketed listeners.

That is why I am so enthralled with the AVA amp. It showed everything a music lover and an audiophile wants from an amp. It is versatile enough to work extremely well with a number of different speakers and obviously with different preamps and is

revealing enough to show off a great recording with great playback equipment attached to it.

 

Listening to CDs with the Audio Alchemy CDP or the modified AMC Cd6b CD player, the sound remained warm and enveloping. Listening to the title song on Jennifer Warnes’ LP The Well (Cisco) will reveal whether your system can produce life-like drums and percussion, as well as show off that gorgeous voice.

I’ve heard Warnes’ voice sound almost as chesty as the Green Giant’s on a couple systems. While her singing voice possesses a lot of power, hers is not a voice I would ever describe as chesty.

The amp seems unfazed by any speaker I’ve thrown its way, but one affected it more than any other speaker/amp combination I believe to have ever heard. The Fritz speakers and the Insight Double 240 made music…I was shocked at how life-like all frequencies (at least those reached by a small pair of monitors) sounded. Whether I was listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on Blues at Carnegie Hall (Mobile Fidelity) and the vibraphones, or Jordii Savall’s cello or Max Roach’s drums, the sound is superb. It jumps out at me, envelopes me, making sure I listen to every note, every utterance from Diana Krall and Ella Fitzgerald…or for that matter, Bruce Springsteen.

I use the Jordi Savall CD over and over and over again as it reveals so much about tone color and those notes in the bass region. Another recording I use is the fabulous Pure Audiophile pressing of Ray Brown’s Soular Energy. If your system throws a good image of an upright bass or viola da gamba (or cello, of course), the you should go out and buy more recordings, there’s no need to buy another amp.

It didn’t matter which speakers I matched up with this amp, it sounded wonderful…not wonderful for a 1000 dollar amp; just plain WONDERFUL. The tonal structure of the deep stringed instruments is very tough to get right, even tougher to aurally see an image of those instruments. The Insight+240 does it with every speaker I tried. Perhaps a bit lacking in speed and definition compared to the Monarchy amps, the bass a bit less stomach-rumbling, but great none the less. I know I have a habit of hyperbole, but when 1000 dollars delivers what this amp does, hyperbole doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Female singers looked like I could reach out and touch them. The day of the cardboard cut-out singer is over; three dimensional views of instrumentalists and singers are what’s new in town.

At this moment, I’m listening to the Insight+240 with the AR2ax speakers, computer as source, my brand spanking new (but burnt in) Eastern Electric DAC feeding the AVA Insight+. I had the Fritz speakers on here not too long ago. The sound I’m hearing right now is truly astounding. Using the Fritz speakers in the setup would be too much…far too much. I can assuredly tell you I wouldn’t be writing this…I’d be parked on the couch, listening to the music issuing forth from the AVA and Carbon 7’s.

Frank Van Alstine has been using Dyna and Hafler amps as the foundation for his circuitry for quite a few years. My Insight+ is in a Dyna chassis. The amps Frank makes are available in his own chassis, too. There is a lot of competition in the world of $1000-$2000 amps, but Frank Van Alstine’s amps, utilitarian looking rather than paying for gorgeous faceplates, etc. are definitely among the very best.

 

 

As I’ve gushed, I don’t think the combination of the Fritz Carbon 7’s and the Insight+240 could be bought for any price except for the going price of the two, but then both companies sell direct so they've already cut out the middleman's 40% bump or so. Both products are made in the USA if that's a factor for you. For $2700 or so (the Fritz Carbon 7’s are $1700) for the pair, you’ll get awesome, musical sound in every way.  You could even add an inexpensive subwoofer like those from Hsu Research and have a killer full-range system that will absolutely kill anything you can get from BestBuy or any big box store and even - dare I say it - Bose!

Even if you are not in the market for for a system like this for yourself, keep it in mind the next time a friend tells you he's going shopping for a "stereo".

On the down side, the Insight+ does not have balanced circuitry and it definitely will not impress anyone with it's plain black, non-bling appearance.

Should you ignore all other $1000 amps? That is up to you, I realize some exemplary combinations of speaker/amp exists, I offer up but one in this review, but as once was said and still hold’s true… “It’s a real Deusy!”

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