SMc Audio VRE-1C Preamplifier


 Bold and Delightful


March, 2012

My first exposure to this preamp came at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I ran into Joe Cohen, who is now distributing this unit. He asked if I had heard Steve McCormack’s new preamp. I said no; where is it? He took me to his suite. On walking into the noisy room with many talking, I knew something was quite different. The sound was very open and involving. Since I knew all the other equipment in the room, I strongly suspected it was the McCormack preamp. I had already noticed Steve talking with someone. After listening for a few moments, I decided to move on but stopped to talk to Steve first and quickly asked for it to review.

At that time, I did not know how original this unit was. I saw LEDs shinning on it so I thought it had the normal electronic gain stage and selector switch. I did not realize its gain was by way of transformers. It really is a passive preamp but with gain. While passive preamps typically have a purity and ease to them, in my experience they also lack dynamics. Were the VRE-1C to have both purity and dynamics, it would be exciting. I must say that this is a very different sounding preamp both in my listening room and at The Home Entertainment Show. At that show in an unfamiliar system, it certainly had outstanding dynamics.

It took some time for me to get one. What I had heard was at the RMAF was the all-manual VRE-1B, and what I got after CES and THE Show was the new VRE-1C, which was much improved and has full remote control. The VRE-1B is no longer available. What you get with the SMc Audio VRE-1C is the preamp, its substantial power supply, the remote, and two dissimilar umbilical cords to connect between the unit and its power supply. It has both balanced and single ended inputs and outputs. While there is a single XLR balanced input, the other 3 RCA inputs can actually be used as balanced, using with connection adapters available from SMc Audio or made by the user according to their specifications. This is thanks to the input transformers on the VRE-1C. There is volume and balance adjustment, a polarity inverter facility, a mute, and a Home Theater bypass. With the exception of the HT bypass, all may be used both from the front panel and the remote.

There are some technical aspects to this unit that merit note. It certainly combines aspects of active and passive designs. Each input goes through a transformer, then to a wideband JFET circuit/buffer, a custom volume control, and finally through output transformers, which can be configured for unity gain (1:1) or for +6dB of voltage gain (1:2 step-up). My review unit was delivered with +6dB of gain, which Steve says is now the standard configuration. The gain was certainly adequate in my system. The VRE-1C also has a precision resistor-ladder attenuator that uses reed switches, Lundahl and Jensen coupling transformers, and StillPoints “technology” stand offs. The external power supply combines a choke-filtered section for the analog circuitry (using Lundahl chokes and a large toroidal transformer from Plitron) and a regulated section to operate the relays, LEDs, and remote control logic. The two sections of the power supply deliver current to the preamp via separate, dedicated cables, and the analog power umbilical was developed through listening tests specifically for the VRE-1C. The box is highly polished Corian and is quite heavy.

Set up
I used the VRE on a StillPoints Rack, which itself gives fine isolation, but the four StillPoints Ultra SSs under it greatly improves the isolation and sound. The heavy power supply was placed on the bottom shelf of my StillPoints Rack. I know from previous experience that adding the StillPoints Ultra SSs under power supplies has a major impact, so shortly after installing the VRE; I put three Ultras under the power supply. What I immediately heard was an open sound stage, great ease to the music, greater clarity, and great dynamics! I used an Exemplar Portal power cord to the ac. I also tried an Absolute Fidelity Power Interface power cord, as this company makes the big umbilical used from the power supply to the preamp. I somewhat preferred the Exemplar power cord. I must say that this unit requires careful placement of the input and output wire as well as the power cords near it. In my initial use, I sought to just remove my BMC DAC1 PRE and quickly install the VRE 1C with minimum cable movement. Later while optimizing my installation, I cleaned up the cabling, and it sounded much better.

While I noticed some change in sound for three days after it arrived, I did not have to be concerned with break-in, as this was the unit used during THE Show 2012.

Listening Sessions
As I noted earlier, one is immediately struck that this preamp is something different. There was wholeness to the music I played, and the dynamics grab you immediately. Also, over and over, I found myself listening at quite high volumes. The unit invites you to listen at a level that the microphones had and does not irritate you. Once in a while, I noticed, or rather my wife, noticed that it was too loud. Also, even at lower volume levels, it had great realism. After it had settled down for several days, the bass became awesome and well defined. But every frequency is seamlessly integrated into a whole. Finally, I need to say something about the detail extracted. I continually heard what you are not really supposed to notice, namely instrumentalists moving or talking, mistaken notes, and shifts in the gain on some mics in the cut. I should say that I also initially heard less of the decay of sounds in the recording area or ambience than I heard on my other preamps. This lead to my noting an important switch on the back of the power supply.

When installing the Absolute Fidelity Power Interface power cord, I accidentally changed the switch setting on the back of the power supply from chassis grounded through a resistor to floating. Not realizing this, I was struck by the improved sound with this power cord. It turned out to be the floating of the ground, not the cable. This is again evidence of the sensitivity to such controls on the SMc VRE 1C. Afterwards there was no problem with hearing sound decay. In fact it enhanced the feeling of “being there.”

Another unique aspect of this unit is, of course, its dynamics. It sounds the same at all volumes, but as I said, I find it draws me to a volume level probably quite like what was heard at the microphones. But I also noticed great dissimilarities in volume level between recordings. 
The volume of a hot recording coming after a lower volume one can easily blast one. Of course, I have noted volume differences before, but with this unit, the differences seem greater. It is most noticeable on the Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis disc, Two Men With The Blues [Blue Note Records TOCP-70541 Japan]. Often I had to lower the volume greatly. This was accentuated on the VRE-1C. Why this might be, I don’t know.

I use four recordings to assess the sensation I have of being at the recording event. Two are in large halls, one in a large room at a Las Vegas casino, and one in a large recording studio. Diana Krall’s “A Case of You”, from her Live in Paris CD [Verve 00006RG7F] and Holly Cole’s It Happened One Night [Metro Blue CDP 7243 8 52699 0 5] are in large theaters. The other two are, Sinatra and Basie’s Sinatra At The Sands [Vicy 94366 Japan SHM] and the Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” on the K2 Sampler This Is K2 HD Sound UD! [FIM K2 HD 078]. 

Again the lifting of the ground on the back of the power supply, made a big difference. Before lifting it I was not hearing ambience on the first two above. After lifting, this was greatly improved. I find it difficult to verbalize, but this unit’s sonics differ from the other three preamps I have heard recently. Of course, I was not at any of these recordings, so I have no idea, which is correct. Perhaps it is a unique attribute of transformer gain rather than active device gain. Certainly, the VRE has the purity of signal so characteristic of passive devices plus great dynamics.

I should also note that both Holly Cole and Diana Krall’s voices had great body to them suggesting their presence and of course, lending to enjoyment of their singing and sensitivity to the emotional meaning of the song’s lyrics. Again Willie Nelson voice was somewhat altered using the VRE-1C as it was less edgy.

I also noticed a difference in the sound stage between the SMc VRE-1C and my other reference preamps. While the sound stage was satisfying deep and wide, it was not as holographic as the reference preamps. Again, not having been at the recording, or in this case being on the stages where the microphones were, I don’t know which is right or whether I have my tastes are reflected in what I heard. 

First, I should say how responsive this preamp is to changes in controls on it, such as my finding on my system, that a floating ground was clearly best. Second, I found the use of Synergistic Research MIGs and better yet, StillPoints Ultra SSs, under the power supply greatly sharpened and defined the sound stage. Third, the use of a newly acquired Weizhin PRS-6 plug-in box, gave far greater width and depth and inner detail. Similarly, it sounded quite different with different power cords and truly loved the Exemplar Portal power cord. Having heard all these improvements, I doubt if just buying the SMc Audio VRE 1C will get you what I heard.

Despite the SMc VRE 1C’s high price, I suspect that those loving the purity of passive units will flock to it and be shocked by its dynamics. Many others will hear its dynamics and ease and broadly embrace it. Certain it will catch peoples’ ears as something different. It is certainly quiet. I would suggest that those attracted to it might want to evaluate their amplifier’s power as you will probably play your music louder than before, as it is quite dynamic and clean.

I strongly recommend that anyone in the market for a quality preamp, give careful consideration to this innovative device. It is truly thrilling and musical.

norm luttbeg

SMc Audio
929 El Pajodo Place
Vista, CA 92084
Main Office Phone: 760-732-0352
Price: SMc Audio VRE-1C: $16,950


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