Vista Audio i34 Integrated Amp Review

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by Sean Fowler on June 08 '09

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Vista Audio is one of those boutique brands whose small scale operation and reliance on word of mouth sales generate something of a mysterious anonymity. Few people have heard of the name, and even fewer have actually heard or owned something by them. My first taste of the New York-based company came back in 2007 when the owner, Boris Sasic, submitted his 15wpc tube integrate dubbed the i84 in for my review . I admit that the time, I was not expecting anything exciting from this obscure piece. After all, it looked just like every other ho-hum sub $1000 tube integrate, and its plebian tube complement inspired no reason to expect anything extraordinary. It’s funny how deceiving looks can be. Upon first listen, I was instantly reminded of why it’s never a good idea to judge a book by its cover. I ended up enjoying the little i84 so much that I gave it the nod for the 07’ Product of the Year award. Positive Feedback also bestowed the same honors to the i84 that year.


Months later, Boris informed me that he was about ready to introduce a new amplifier, one designed to output twice the power of the i84 while still keeping the price below a grand. When asked if I would be interested to take it for a spin, I answered back when an enthusiastic “Hell yeah!  Shortly thereafter, the brand new i34 landed at my doorstep.


First Impressions


Now I wish I could say that history repeated itself and that Boris had crafted yet another gem, but unfortunately, things didn’t go so well this time around. The new i34 ended up sounding no better than any other affordable tube integrate I’ve come across. Ironically, it was the sort of mediocre performance I initially expected out of the i84. After two weeks of play, I informed Boris that the review was a no-go. The new amp simply wasn’t up to par, and although I could have easily published a not-so-positive review, I knew the i34 had enormous potential and did not accurately reflect Boris’s skill as an engineer. Into the box and back to New York it went. Damn!


So what went wrong? Well, the i34 Boris sent me was something of a Frankenstein, the result of over applied tweaks and adjustments that were influenced by feedback submitted from a number of audiophiles in his locale. Though this garnering of suggestions was an honest attempt to help create a well rounded product, the results failed to cut the mustard and arguably disabled what was otherwise a solid design from the get go. Not so surprisingly, Boris reverted back to the original recipe with sparingly few modifications added to it. A year later, I was asked if I would be interested in giving the i34 another shot. “Absolutely” was my more tame reply.


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Getting to know the i34


Priced at $980, weighing 24lbs, and rated at 35wpc, the i34 takes the helm as the heaviest, most powerful, and most expensive integrate to adorn the Vista Audio badge. Boris designed the i34 to maintain all the virtues of a good tube amp without compromise to linearity and the ability to comfortably drive a wide array of loudspeakers. One of the biggest challenges Boris faced while designing the i34 was finding an affordable output tube that had the power and bandwidth necessary to achieve his goals. Unfortunately, the standard go-to EL-34 tube proved too limited at the frequency extremes to get the job done.


The solution came by the way of the E34L tube, which is a newer, more improved version of the EL-34. Despite the outrageously subtle difference in name designation, what sets the E34L apart from its identical cousin is bandwidth capacity. Since Boris firmly believes that each component should adequately cover an extended frequency range between 10Hz-50kHz, the E34Lwas the obvious choice over the more limited EL-34. According to Boris, other advantages the E34L tube offers is: “Better bass control, clearer highs, midrange smoothness, and longer tube life”.  Crafted around a simple push/pull configuration and armed with a quad set of E34L power tubes and two ECC832 signal tubes, the basic foundation for the i34 was born.


The i34 is built around a very simple circuit. Its short signal path is designed to allow the tubes the freedom to express themselves clearly without the touch of an additional aural fingerprint. When it came time to select a transformer, Boris turned to Trafomatic iron to deliver the sonic goods. “Significant effort was invested in the output transformers. Relative to the transformers used in the i84 (which use more forgiving EL84 tubes), the i34 output transformers are two generations more advanced. Major differences are in winding techniques and annealing of the toroidal cores”. 


Beyond showcasing first rate aural chops, the i34 was also engineered to be incredibly reliable and easy to operate. Boris knows that one of the largest compromises inherent to tube ownership is the maintenance required to keep things running smoothly. For all the virtuous ear candy that tubes provide, the cost of tube replacement and the effort it takes to replace those tubes properly is a turn off for many listeners. The good news is that the tube complement that the i34 uses boast of long operational life and are inexpensive to replace. The better news is that the i34 features an auto-biasing circuit, meaning that when it comes time to replace your old tubes, all you have to do is take the new tubes, plug them in, then sit down and enjoy the music. It doesn’t get much easier than that!


Top it all off with a robust stainless steel chassis, a well written user-manual, a two-year warranty, and a relatively compact profile, and you’ve got the makings of a very well rounded piece of hi-fi. The question then becomes, how does it sound?


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Performance Summary


Absolutely fantastic! Take this for what it’s worth, but the i34 is one of the few electronic components I’ve come across as both a hobbyist and a reviewer that I could recommend to just about anyone running conventional loudspeakers in a medium sized room. It’s all-around performance competes well above its price point, and may in fact be one of the best sounding integrates that I’ve encountered at this level, be it tube or solid state. So what is it about the i34 that incites me to make such bold claims?


Let’s begin with one of the i34’s most salient attributes, linearity. Most affordable tube components in this class tend to tip towards one particular side of the sliding scale or the other. Either the sound is big and meaty (think Prima Luna), or it is powerful with tilted treble (think Jolida). Each example comes with its own set of virtues and vices. The beautiful thing about the i34 is that its sound falls into neither category. There is no annoyingly fat mid-bass hump woven into its presentation, nor is there an over emphasis of detail. Instead, the i34 maintains exceptional balance across the entire frequency range, allowing the music to express itself clearly. It is a talent that is usually exclusive to gear that occupies a much higher echelon of stereo exotica.


Still, there is no component that is completely free of an identifiable sonic fingerprint. Though the i34 never strives to over achieve in any one particular aspect of reproduction, its tube complement imbues a subtle yet noticeable organic richness into the sound. This texture, combined with the habit of delivering the music in the classic ‘mid-hall’ denotation, creates a character that I would classify as being on the dark side of neutral. This results in something of an introspective sound, which is a presentation that invites you to listen into the musical performance as opposed to pushing the event so forward that it’s within inches of your nose.


A common approach used by many manufacturers offering electronics in the $1000 territory is to either depress high frequency response to create a sense of smoothness, or to artificially boost the treble in effort to achieve the illusion of greater detail and air. You’ll find no parlor tricks with the i34. Holding true to the 10hz-50Khz mantra, Boris keeps the bandwidth wide open to allow the i34 to extract as much detail from the recording as possible so it can reproduce that detail with a natural sense of ease. Indeed, the sheer amount of detail the i34 is able to muster up is extraordinary. I heard information on familiar recordings that I’ve never heard before through components at anywhere near the price. Never once did the treble sound rough or forced. Instead, all the elements of air, detail, and liveliness were presented in very natural form. The low level resolution also proved to be exceptional. While I would expect this type of performance from an integrate hovering in the $3000 territory, coming across these kind of aural chops at under a grand is flat out exciting! Hmm, maybe Boris is onto something with that 10Hz-50kHz stuff. 


Like the majority of tube amps, the midrange is where the i34 makes its strongest showing. The i34’s midrange is incredibly open, linear, and clear. It does not suffer from the routine over/under emphasis of mid-bass that plague most competing products in this range. While lovers of syrupy blossom and bloom may be slightly disappointed with the i34’s lack of faux body, I’d imagine that it wouldn’t take long for anyone to appreciate the i34’s “rightness”. “Right”, being the key word. Although painfully subjective, it is the word I keep coming back to time and time again to describe the i34’s midrange. Vocals do not suffer from chestiness. Guitars do not sound overly full and resonant. Brass and strings never come across as unnaturally thick or breathy.  Instead, everything is rendered with proper scale and tone. The i34 really is an overachiever in this regard, especially when you consider its price.


The low end is where things get interesting. On one hand, if you have speakers that use energy-efficient drivers that do not require gobs of high octane fuel to respond quickly and tactfully, the i34’s bass, much like the midrange, remains very linear, open, and detailed. During my listening sessions, I was impressed by how deep and how hard the bass could hit when attached to my relatively efficient set of towers from Totem Acoustic. The low end’s definition and ability to follow quick fingered bass lines proved to be exceptional, and things only got better once I paired the i34 with a set of more efficient loudspeakers from Audio Note.

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However, when paired with loudspeakers that feature more demanding woofers, the rhythm and speed of the bass became somewhat compromised. For example, the other set of Totem Acoustic loudspeakers that I own employ a current-thirsty woofer from Dynaudio. When attached to the i34, it’s clear that the speakers could benefit from an amp that has a bit more low-end control. The same also holds true for my set of monitors from Mark and Daniel. Though the detail and weight of the bass remained impressively strong on both speakers, the agility of the bass simply wasn’t as agile as it was when driving the less demanding Totem towers and Audio Note’s.


When it comes to soundstaging, the i34 creates a very pinpoint image that is very focused in between the loudspeakers. Though it does not throw out a holographic wall-to-wall field of sound, what it does present is very clear, detailed, and rich in depth. Those who enjoy their music at low levels will find the i34 to maintain its signature without ever falling into the dull and lifeless side of town. Image height is also very solid and consistent with the rest of the presentation. I firmly believe that any well engineered piece of electronics can image well, and the i34 does not disappoint in this regard.


Performance Summary – What it isn’t


Like all components, not everything about the i34 is perfect. Dynamically, the i34 is no revelation. This is not to say it’s under powered or unable to drive average loudspeakers well. In fact, I was surprised by how comfortable it was driving difficult loads. It effortlessly powered my Martin Logan Vantage towers, which are a set of hybrid electrostatics that boast of a reactive load with a particularly nasty 1ohm dip at 20kHz. Many lesser tube and solid state amps would fry under such conditions. It’s only when tasked to reproduce powerful crescendos does the i34’s gentle rendering of dynamics point to the inherent limitations that you would come to expect from a 35wpc amp that relies on small output power tubes. Do you get good dynamics? Yes. All things considered, you get great dynamics, but they still fall notably short when compared directly to high current solid state devices.


Well constructed and tested thoroughly before shipment, the i34’ build communicates excellent solidarity and pride. That said, it still does not match the kind of industrial strength quality found on electronics from the likes of Prima Luna, Cayin, or a whole host of Chinese-based manufacturers. It’s simple layout also translates into sparse features. All you get is three sets of inputs, an input selector, and a volume control. If you desire a variable output to use with a subwoofer, Boris can convert one of the inputs for a small fee. Vista Audio also offers a remote controlled i34 to the tune of an additional $200.


Really and truly though, when you consider the topology and price of the i34, all of the above can easily be written off as sins of omission. The only damning thing I could find about the i34 has to do with mechanical noise. The problem is that the as the AC current goes through the E34L tubes, the spirals stretch and expand, causing the filaments inside the tube to buzz. This buzz is quite audible, and although Boris notes that I am the only person to complain about the noise, it is nonetheless a legit issue that others may have a problem with. Now, according to Boris, the latest batch of JJ E34L tubes are much more quiet than the set I have. Since I did not try out these new tubes prior to writing this article, all I can do is take the man for his word.


The Conclusion


In summary, the Vista Audio i34 is a surprisingly capable integrated whose operational simplicity and class leading performances makes for an incredibly easy and safe recommendation. The real cherry on top comes from the generous 14 day money back guarantee that becomes retroactive afterwards for up to 60 days! Out of all the components I have owned and reviewed up to this point, the i34 stands as one of the only truly affordable tube integrates that I’ve encountered that has the goods necessary to satisfy both the experienced audiophiles and the audiophile in training. If you are in the market for a one chassis solution that won’t break the bank, the i34 is an absolute must-audition! I cannot recommend it highly enough!


                                                                                                                                    Sean Fowler


Vista Audio

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