Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Virtue Audio M5001 Monoblock amplifier

Virtue Audio is the new kid on the block in terms of manufacturers offering ICEpower based products.

ICEpower is by now quite established and there are many companies out there offering amplifiers based on their modules such as Bel Canto Design, Wyred4sound etc.

I normally do not write detailed reviews but was suitably motivated by the M5001 which avoids being a “me too” product by virtue (no pun intended) of its tube buffer supplied by Dodd Audio.

The M5001 is based on the ICEpower ASP500 module, which delivers 250 watts per channel into 8 Ohms and double the power into a 4 Ohm load. The ASP500 module includes a built in switching power supply and accordingly runs cool and efficiently.

The stock module input impedance is raised from 8 kohm to 100 kohm due to the tube buffer. This presents a much easier load for preamplifiers to drive, in particular tube based designs.

Appearance wise, the M5001 is quite handsome with a well finished case and lovely real wood veneer top. A variety of finishing options are available to customize the look of your amplifier. Round the back, an IEC power socket accepts detachable power cords, and input is via either an RCA or XLR balanced socket. A subwoofer output is provided.

The speaker binding posts deserve a special mention. The propeller posts make finger tightening a breeze. Both the binding posts and RCA socket are said to be made from gold plated Terrilium copper.

It is not quite the epitome of hi-fi bling-bling, but is certainly well finished enough to be proudly displayed on your equipment rack.

(Pictures from Virtue Audio's official web-site)
Dimensions are not quite shoe box like, with the width of the amplifiers being about 10 inches across. This makes placing each monoblock side by side a bit tricky for most equipment racks as you will find that the support columns will either block the AC inlet on the left of the unit or the input jacks on the right. The supplied feet are metal discs that screw into the chassis. As they project out of the chassis footprint, this makes each monoblock occupy a fair amount of real estate. The feet are easily removed though if you so wish.

Let us re-visit my impressions of ICEpower over the years :- extremely tight and powerful bass, high resolution and detailed midrange and treble, effortless presentation. The downside ? Dry midrange, lack of treble air and 2D like image.

After about 15 hours of burn in, and with the stock JJ 12AX7/ECC83 tube installed, serious listening sessions were conducted.

Preamplifier duties were handled by Diva Audio’s tube based M7. My M7 utilises a tube rectified and choke loaded power supply and has been upgraded to the latest specification by T.S. Lim with additional voltage regulators on the power supply and star ground wiring. The M7 can be best described as a linear and fast sounding pre-amp with both speed, dynamics and good bass authority.

After some trial with the speakers available at hand, the M5001 was matched with my main speakers, a Focal Micro Utopia BE.

The first impression was that of absolute control over both frequency extremes. Bass was tight and controlled.

Midrange is neutral with just the slightest hint of fullness.

High frequencies are extended with absolutely no loss of detail.

Resolution, in particular micro-detail is excellent with individual instruments in a mix being discernible even under the heaviest of mixes. One would be even tempted to flog the oft-used and abused audiophile claim of hearing detail in familliar recordings that went previously unnoticed.

The tube buffer would appear to mitigate much of the criticism I had against ICEpower. Images are fleshed out with proper depth while treble air and the sense of acoustic space are delicately conveyed. I did not see any downside from the installed tube buffer since all the things I liked about the stock module remained – no slowness in transients, or loosening of bass grip.

All that being said, this is by no means a tube-like amp. If you want tube liquidity, get a tube amp – this is not going to float your boat. The tube buffer does not honey coat the sound, it imparts a subtle warmth and organic flow to the dry sound of the stock module. Tonal balance wise, it still remains on the right side of neutral.

Choice of tube used in the buffer as well as pre-amp used could go a long way to tuning the sound the way you want. As far as I am aware, the M5001 can be used with most of the 12A*7 family tubes, enabling fairly cheap and flexible tube rolling, since you can avoid the insane pricing in the 12AX7 family and go for cheaper equivalents in less popular families like the 12AT7 for example.

Hyper-detailed and analytical with the subtle touch of liquidity and warmth – coupled with loads of power to control almost any speaker out there on the market. Take into account its relatively modest price, and I think Virtue Audio has an absolute winner on its hands.


horchai said...

Excellent review. M7 with ice block is a match made in heaven. All the elements are there. Power, speed, liquidity... With a change of tubes u get a wide range of tonal colours.

Eric said...

Well said. When time permits, I will try substituting the stock tubes with my treasure hoard of NOS tubes.

Jason said...

Hi Eric, Where did you get the Dodd Tube Buffers in Singapore?

Eric said...

Hi Jason, I don't think Dodd Tube Buffers are available separately in Singapore at the moment. The Virtue Audio M5001 is available from Audio Trio

Ch3n said...

hi eric, do you know if the virtue audio have true balanced inputs/topology? (as in it might have the jacks but not the inputs)

Eric said...


I believe that they have a true balanced design (as do the other B&O Icepower implementations).