Von Gaylord Audio LAD-L1 Mk IV Pre and Alpha Stereo amplifier
The Legend of Von Gaylord
On a wet and dreary night… wait, wrong legend. This tale begins when I was speaking with Key Kim, a fellow ST reviewer about nice sounding amplifiers during last year’s New York Audio Show at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Key told me about Von Gaylord Audio (formerly Legend Audio Designs), a company he believed made some good valued and sonically impressive components. I then made a mental note and stored it in my noggin under long term memory to visit the Von Gaylord room at T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach, California last June. At that show I was able to listen in every room and thought Von Gaylord’s room was among the best sounding ones.
Since Key Kim recently reviewed an entire Von Gaylord system (except source component) and ably described Legend Audio Design’s beginnings which morphed into Von Gaylord Audio, I won’t repeat it here. For this review, I will feature two other Von Gaylord products, the recently introduced LAD-L1 MKIV preamplifier and the Alpha stereo amplifier. While the LAD-L1 and the Alpha are Von Gaylord’s least expensive offerings in their respective categories I wouldn’t call them entry level. As a combination they produce refinement above entry-level high-end sound.
About the components
LAD-L1 MKIV preamplifier ($2,995): The LAD-L1 is a Class-A 5814A (12AU7 military variant) tube based line level preamplifier. It is extremely quiet in operation; absolutely no noise from the tubes. This is an old school design; a throwback really, with no remote, no balanced inputs and outputs, no headphone jack and no separate power supply. Couch potatoes not wishing to get up and adjust the controls will miss out on this fine sounding preamp. I suspect these same couch potatoes also don’t play records anymore, if they ever did. Hey wait, that sounds like me! But I don’t mind getting up to change or adjust the controls every so often since I have to change CDs anyway. The LAD-L1 exudes simple elegance with its mat black case and mat silver knobs and switches. The unit is fool proof to operate. The front panel has selections for three line inputs (CD, Tuner and Auxiliary), toggle switches for tape/monitor and mute, and a non-stepped manual volume knob. All connections are located on the back panel which also has two mains outputs, allowing for bi-amplification or adding a subwoofer. An on/off toggle switch is also on the back panel and standard IEC AC plug receptacle allows the owner to choose whichever power cord he/she desires.
Alpha amplifier ($4,495): The Alpha uses four 5814A driver tubes and four 6550 output tubes producing 50 watts per channel in triode Class-A operation. The output and power transformers are located in the back of the chassis with its own protective cover. The Alpha is a no fuss push-pull amplifier. What is the ideal bias setting for the 6550 tubes? Forget about it! It is a self adjusting auto-biasing design. Only one set of speaker terminals are provided because the Alpha was designed to partner the company’s line of loudspeakers. If potential buyers wish to buy the Alpha but want to use their own speaker model, Von Gaylord can set the speaker termination for either 4 or 8 Ohm at the factory, depending on the chosen speaker’s impedance. If you have 6 Ohm speakers, then either choice will work.
If I didn’t see the tubes glowing I would swear it’s a solid-state unit, as it is about as easy as possible to operate for a tube amplifier. This amplifier should appeal to music lovers who are thinking about buying a tube amplifier but are sitting on the fence because they are afraid of the amount of fiddling associated with such gear. And if that isn’t enough to change one’s hesitation, another positive reason is the Alpha’s ability to sound good only a few minutes after turn-on, due to the high efficiency design and quick response to full bias of the output tubes. On average I would say that the Alpha takes only about half the time of the typical 30 minutes than most tube amplifiers to sound its best.
There are quality parts and hand soldered, point-to-point wiring in both components. Both the LAD-L1 and Alpha run amazingly cool no matter how long they are on, although I would turn them off when not in use to preserve the life of the various tubes. The LAD-L1 is fully enclosed but the 5814A tubes don’t seem to contribute much heat, and the Alpha is the coolest running amplifier, either tube or solid state, that I have ever experienced! It is even cooler running than my Virtue Audio integrated Class D amplifier, which I bought for summer use in place of my preferred tube equipment. Even after long listening sessions of several hours, I could put my hands on top of the transformers without barbequing them! In fact, the chassis is barely warm to the touch. The Alpha is also very quiet from my listening position, with absolutely no noise from the driver or output tubes. There is, however, a slight hum from the transformers if I get close enough to the amp (approximately two feet).
Setup and Listening
For this audition, associated equipment were my trusty AAD 2001 monitor stand-mount speakers (86dB efficiency, 8 ohm), heavily modified 24/96 ART DI/O DAC connected to an Oppo 981 DVD player used as transport. Cables and power cords are my usual assortment of Audio Sensibility, Supra and Triode Wire Labs. Ray Leung, proprietor of Van Gaylord Audio, also provided a one meter pair of the company’s Legend 6 RCA interconnects to try, which I used to connect between the LAD-L1 preamplifier and Alpha amplifier. Towards the end of the review, I substituted the LAD-L1 with my Rogue Audio 99 Super Magnum preamplifier for a comparison. I also did a quick listening comparison between the Van Gaylord duo and my modified Jolida 302 integrated amplifier.
I started the audition with a recording that prominently features the most important part of the frequency spectrum to me, namely the mid-range. If any audio equipment doesn’t communicate the mid-range properly and even if the other frequencies are produced adequately, then my attention will wander and I won’t want to listen for very long. The mid-range is what connects me emotionally to the music playing. Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) [Alcony Records] is a fine collection of Americana, folk, rock and roll, and blues tunes. Sparsely produced, with just Gillian’s singing and collaborator David Rawling’s harmonies with both playing acoustic guitar it is almost all about the mid-range. On the track, “April The 14th Part 1” Gillian’s voice is dead center and very present in my room, as she sings about two significant events on the date referenced in the song’s title: Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the sinking of the Titanic. With the LAD-L1 and Alpha combination, I can hear clearly the different tunings of the two guitars; resulting in excellent tonal colors. The guitars are harmonically rich and timbrally correct, while the plucking or striking of notes sound similar to what I hear at a live concert. The Von Gaylord combo produces a slightly warm presentation resulting in a seductive mid-range which is very engaging. When I substituted the Rogue 99 in place of the LAD-L1, I could also hear the different tunings of the two guitars, but with this setup they sounded like they were tuned slightly differently than produced by the Van Gaylord duo. That’s interesting, a slightly different tonal flavor in favor of neutrality. Both presentations captured my complete attention, which I enjoyed equally. This is why I like listening to different tube equipment because it’s much easier to tell sonic differences than when comparing solid state equipment (with some exceptions).
Moving on to something with more frequency extension and dynamic range, something with “more meat on the bones” so to speak, I selected a superb performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition [London], with Ernest Ansermet conducting the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in a 1959 recording. This is an early 1980s digital transfer to CD from the original analog recording. In the past, with some audio components, I have heard some leanness on this CD as if some of the orchestra members were missing from the performance that day. The LAD-L1 and Alpha combination does a better job of adding fullness to the sound. So perhaps some members were only taking a smoking break! I didn’t expect to hear much dynamic contrast from the 50 wpc Alpha but the amplifier exceeded the expectation. I suspect if I was using higher efficiency speakers, the dynamic contrasts would be greater still. As a comparison, my modified Jolida 50 wpc integrated doesn’t quite have the same dynamic swings as the LAD-L1/Alpha combination. In terms of tonal balance, the Von Gaylord duo is not as warm sounding, and conversely has more treble extension and slightly tighter bass than the Jolida. Overall, the Jolida is more “romantic” sounding. In this regard, the Von Gaylord duo sounds closer to typical modern or current tube equipment, though not as neutral tonally as my Rogue Audio 99 Super Magnum preamp and Music Reference RM 10 combination. My modified Jolida integrated sounded a bit duller and the Rogue 99/Von Gaylord Alpha combination was a little less rich sounding, so I ultimately preferred the LAD-L1 and Alpha duo on this recording. The Von Gaylord duo presented a mid-hall perspective to the performance with each section of the orchestra playing in their proper places within the sound stage. Stage depth was pretty good, although I have heard a deeper stage with a couple of other products.
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged [Reprise/WEA] was a staple at many audio shows a few years ago. In fact, I heard the track, “Tears in Heaven” in so many exhibitors rooms in the span of three years that I vowed I wouldn’t hear it again anytime soon. There are reasons though, why that track and some others on the album were played so often. For one, it’s a pretty good recording for a commercial release, and for another the recording is transparent and resolute enough to use as a reference in that regard. For some unexplained reason, the album came to mind during this review process. So guess what I’m going to focus on? That’s right, you win a high five! On “Layla,” the Van Gaylord duo delivers just the right amount of transparency and detail, not too much and not too little. There I go again with the Goldilocks reference. If too little transparency, I wouldn’t be able to hear into the recording environment with veiling covering the music. If too much transparency and resolution, I would hear a sort of electronic artifact, what I consider a form of white noise making the presentation hyper-real. The LAD-L1 and Alpha combination presents a natural transparency which allows me to concentrate on the music instead of listening for detail or wondering what happened to the detail.
I like bass. I like bass especially when the fish is cooked in a ginger/scallion/soy sauce. Oh boy, yum, yum. I also like bass of the musical variety. And what better way to demonstrate low frequencies than by playing pipe organ music? For this purpose, I chose another rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Jean Guillou’s organ transcriptions on Dorian Recordings Sampler, vol. 2 [Dorian]. Thanks to the genius work of Phil Jones, a long time bass player and award winning speaker designer (Acoustic Energy AE1 for example) and designer of my AAD 2001 monitors, fairly low bass output is not a problem in my apartment listening room. While the AAD monitors will not effectively dip into the 20Hz region even though the owner’s manual states the lower bass limit is 25Hz, I do believe they are capable of delivering frequencies in the low 30Hz region, albeit with a few db loss. The Von Gaylord duo produced the lower scale notes of Guillou’s organ admirably, with good pitch and detail (though not as taut as good solid state equipment), only limited by my AAD monitor’s inability to supply the lowest one-half octave overtones. Bass impact was good, and could have been better with a more powerful amplifier. The Von Gaylord duo produced an ephemeral quality of the reverberant echoes within the walls of the Church where this recording took place. Very nice!
The Von Gaylord combination does not exhibit a homogenous or “house” sound. These components reveal the recording intricacies of each album I played and I would go further in that it will reveal the recording differences of each song within a given album. On well recorded albums such as Joni Mitchell’s Blue I had to slap myself several times (figuratively) from becoming too emotionally connected with the music, and thus forcing myself to analyze the sound. The Van Gaylord duo on the tonality scale lies somewhere between “romantic” tube components producing an overly emphasized lush and thick mid-band (e.g. classic Conrad Johnson or VTL) while sacrificing the treble and bass regions; and the cleaner, more neutral spectrum of some current tube components (e.g. Audio Research or Rogue Audio). This will give a general guideline for anyone interested in a certain type of tube sound. Personally, I find the Von Gaylord tonality intoxicating, but I’m sure others may prefer a different tube sound or even solid state sound.
If you’re someone who is more interested in the gear than what the gear produces musically, then I suggest looking elsewhere. There are not a lot of bells and whistles with either the LAD-L1 preamp or Alpha amplifier. The Von Gaylord duo are neither bright sounding nor overly warm sounding but together provides a natural and involving musical listening experience. And if you really care about the essence of music and how it communicates to your soul, then you can’t go wrong with this setup. This combination just plays music beautifully and I recommend a serious audition for those interested. Until next time, I wish you happy listening.
LAD-L1 Class A preamplifier:
2 x 5814A tubes
Inputs for CD, Tuner, Auxiliary and A/V
Frequency response: 10Hz to 85kHz
S/N ratio: >102db
Input impedance: 1k ohms
Input sensitivity: 120mV, 2V out, 30db gain
Dimensions: 19.5 inch idth x 4.25 inch height x 9.5 inch depth
Weight: 30 lbs
Alpha Stereo Amplifier:
50 watts per channel tube amplifier
4 x 5814A driver tubes
4 x 6550 output tubes
Dual mono left and right audio section
Hand soldered point-to-point wiring
Internal Von Gaylord wiring
Gold plated binding post
Load Impedance: 4,8,16 ohms
S/N ratio: 92db
Bandwidth: @ 40 watts: 20Hz – 20 kHz, @ 1 watt: 10 Hz – 25 kHz
Input Impedance: 500k ohms
Sensitivity: 150mV, -14db
Power: 110-120 volts, 50-60Hz
Power consumption: 300VA
Dimensions: 18 inches width x 9.5 inches height x 14 inches depth
Weight: 55 lbs
Legend 6 RCA Interconnect:
1 meter pair, price $1,295.00
Von Gaylord Audio
1050 Riverside Parkway, suite 100
West Sacramento, California 95605