VAC 160iSE integrated with NOLA speakers

Given the superb home audio that I have been enjoying recently thanks to my new VAC 160iSE integrated coupled with my NOLA Metro Grand Reference 2 speakers and Synergistic Research cabling/power, I thought I would post a few brief comments about my set up for those who might be looking into any of these products. When making my recent amplification changes the enormously talented team at VAC gave me open and very insightful advice, as I hear they always do to anyone trying to set up a system with products of his design. By the way I understand that there will be a very similar VAC/NOLA set up by Mike Oltz of Xtreme Fidelity (who sold me my VAC160iSE) will be exhibited at the upcoming September 2014 audio show in Brooklyn, so there is an opportunity for anyone interested to hear this set up for themselves.

VAC’s 160iSE integrated puts out 85 wpc just like the original 160i, differing from the original in having (as I understand) a superior transformer, and also a special phono stage (that I have yet to use). It uses trickle down technology from VAC’s statement products. I had and loved the VAC 300.1a and Renaissance Mk3 preamp before the 160iSE. Given that my 87dB NOLA Metro Grand Ref 2 speakers don’t need the extra power, I decided to trade them on Audiogon for the 160iSE especially after hearing from Kevin Hayes at VAC that the new integrated performs in some ways at the level of VAC Statement products.

Having had the VAC160iSE at home now for two or more months or so, I can only say that the sound it produces in my system is truly fabulous – superb, open, rich mid-range without any edge and full of presence, great clean high frequencies. And I never find myself missing anything in the bass area compared to what I got from my NOLAs using my old higher powered VAC electronics. By the way, the NOLA Metros reach down into the low 20 hz region. I should also say that my room measures about 21 feet X 14 feet X 8.5 feet, and I understand that for larger rooms I might need more power or more efficient speakers.

The VAC160iSE definitely outperforms in very gratifying ways my previous, already superb VAC separates. And while I don’t really know the ultra high-powered VAC Statement system, I have heard it with NOLAs similar to mine, and based on that I would tend to echo Kevin’s insight about the 160iSE relative to those amps, although of course there is a big difference in the wpc output which probably has an impact in some ways. Since it needs far fewer tubes and has all its tubes out front, it is friendlier both cost-wise and logistically for tube swapping.

I should also say that I also very much like my NOLA Metro Grand 2s, with their open, 3D and natural yet detailed sound, and their (from all that I have heard) unequalled way with vocals. They are an excellent match with VAC amps. I understand that NOLA has a brand new upgraded Metro Gold version (newer even than the Gold version he introduced last year) that is a significant advance over earlier Metros. So I am looking forward to hearing those in September at the Brooklyn show.

My cabling is SR Element Tungsten, and I also use SR’s PowerCell8 Mk 3 which is a very helpful thing in NYC. I have had extremely positive outcomes using SR’s innovative UEF technology based bullets, HFTs, FEQ, ECTs, XOTs, etc. Their excellent products definitely work very “synergistically” with the rest of my set up.

Perhaps those with similar audio set ups or preferences have suggestions of interest for me. Look forward to those.

Thank you for the feedback. I am looking at the VAC integrated for my Sonus Faber Evolution monitors. My only concerned that my speakers require a lot of power to perform at their best. Ideally I would love to try SET but that is definitely out of the question given my speakers.
Nice post, congrats on the VAC and the NOLA's!! I've long been a fan of Kevin Hayes, as a person and as a manufacturer. He has a great ear and is very honest. I still regret selling a VAC Avatar Super integrated amp that I was using a few years back, it played well above it's price tag. I'm still using a VAC amp, but I would look forward to going back to a VAC integrated amp one day for the sake of simplicity, as well as knowing that it is NOT a sonic sacrifice at all.
Enjoy the music!
Congrats on what must be a dynamite system. Very interesting that the integrated outperforms the bigger VAC separates. I just received a fully-updated 300.1a a few days ago. The new tubes are burning in but it sounds great already.

Don't want to derail the thread but I have a quick question about your experience with the 300.1a and Ren III preamp. Did you run the amp direct from the preamp, by-passing the front panel pots? This amp has sure has a lot of gain, and that preamp has a lot of gain, too. I'm curious whether you felt the need to back it off a bit by switching the amp to variable. My Phi Beta preamp, which is quite a bit lower in gain than the Ren, limits me to a fairly small range on the volume control when the amp is switched to direct.
You can't go wrong following the advice of Kevin Hayes or his team at VAC. I heard the 160i in a demo and it was certainly excellent so it is interesting to learn of the SE version and to get your insights. I found that when I had my Avatar Super that the best tubes were Genelex Gold Lion re-issues. Good luck.
Wrm57 I can't say that the outperformance is night and day. The 300.1a was certainly beautiful sounding, the best I had heard till then. And I may not have had all the updates. I ran the amp in fixed mode and used the preamp's volume controls. I almost never had the volume knob past 9 o' clock with digital, only with vinyl.

Truemaineiac, thanks for the tip on the Genalex reissues. Might try them.

Congrats on your Vac purchase! I have some matched quad GLs and I prefer the Shuguang KT88Z from Grant, much more musical, better decay and lifelike imaging.

I'm loving my Vac 160I and will upgrade to the SE at some point...
Nice. Thanks for taking the time and sharing. I became disy at the thought of racking a four component dual mono preamplifier from a recent periodical review. Good to hear that many of the older mark designers are putting their best ideas and efforts into integrated amplifiers. It's interesting how the eveolutionary path takes us to separates only to consider the improvement that eliminating cables and their terminations may have, not to mention the simplicity.

I have vivid momories of my first hearing and touching a VAC system. My first thought then, some day, still burns hot today. Congratulations!

Color me green with envy.
Also, thanks Jmcgrogan2. Simplicity was a major factor for me too: fewer cables, less space, fewer connections to fuss with. Easier and cheaper to swap (and check tubes) as needed was another important factor. Lower power draw was a factor too. Originally I was thinking of the 160i which my guess is would have been the approximate sonic equal in my set-up of the separates I had before. BTW the VAC separates I had before were 2 and 3+ years old, and so probably did not include all the updates that Wrm57 just got on his set.

Wig, I am now using PSvane KT88 T-IIs as power tubes and these seem perhaps just a bit better than the VAC KT88SCs that the unit came with. I may eventually try some of the other Chinese tubes that you mentioned. Did you ever try the Shuguang Black Treasures? I hear they need 200-300 hours of burn-in? I would probably have them professionally tested and burned in if I ever tried them.

Kevin mentioned once in the context of my 300.1a that one needs to take particular care with power tubes in these applications. I had until recently been using some NOS-fitted KT88 socket savers which may have been the cause of some new stock tube failures as the fit was rather tight. I would love to get some NOS Genalex tubes but they seem extinct or available only as used and very expensive.

The KT88Z Black Treasures are what I'm using now and I've noticed the best sound at the 340 hour mark. They don't have the top end extension of the GLs but they are superior in every other area.

I almost bought the Psvane TII but was warned by others not to buy them based on reliability issues and hear they a tad better the BTs.

Happy Listening!
Tboooe, don't know the Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolution specifically, but I have heard some great SF speakers in shows and dealer rooms. Also superb for midrange and vocals particularly I recall and have read. So sounds like a good match with VAC. The Evolution's 86db sensitivity might permit the use of the 160iSE. I guess you would have to demo it. As I mentioned the NOLA Metros are rated for 87db. You might be able to borrow a 160i from a dealer or someone to test the power aspect and then order a 160iSE. Or of course do a home demo of the 160iSE if that is possible. Would be worth a try would be my thought.
I use the VAC 160I with Sonus Faber Minima Vintage Speakers and it is fantastic.
I came very close to getting the 160i to use with my Nola Micro References, but fell in love with the Shindo sound so got a Monbrisson preamp and a Phi 200 amp. Got the amp and speakers from Mike Oltz (Xtreme Fidelity); I will second him as a fine dealer who really knows how to show the strengths of these two products. Those with the opportunity should check out his setup at the Brooklyn show.

I have a similar problem to Wrm 57's, as the amp is very sensitive and the Shindo has a lot of gain, so it has been difficult to get past 7 o'clock on the Shindo's volume control. Ultimately I have used some 12db attenuators to solve the problem, seems to work quite well.

Not sure at this point if I have any suggestions for the OP, sounds like he has a great combination. How do you have the Metros set up--toed in or firing straight out? Short or long wall? I know Carl has told me to go straight out/long wall placement in my fairly small room, and I've been happy with the setup, curious if you've tried otherwise.
Hi Rcprince:
Yes, firing straight out is how I have the NOLA Metros too. Mike had suggested that to me. That is how he had them set up and he does know these products well and is great to work with. They disappear quite effectively in my room tis way.
The new NOLAs will be interesting to hear as well in Brooklyn.
Kevin and the VAC team will have their 450IQ amps set up with Focals as well and that will be interesting to hear. Mike mentioned that was about the best sound he has heard.
I finally broke down and bought a VAC 160i, picked it up today. First impressions are very good. More powerful and dynamic than my previous separate setup (Cary preamp/VAC amp). The separates may have the edge with a creamy midrange, probably due to the EL34 Mullard Xf2 tubes. Overall I am really digging the 160i.

Agriculturist, do you know the differences between the 160i and the 160iSE?
I am sure you made a good decision JMcgrogan, I believe better parts, input transformers etc, many the same as the Statement amps. Here is what the VAC website says:
"The Sigma 160i SE (Special Edition) enhances performance by upgrading the input transformers and many passive parts to the types used in the premium Statement instruments. Greater size, detail, speed, and weight is the result."
This is also what Kevin and Brent had explained to me.

I think you will be very happy with your purchase. Enjoy it!
The Vac 160i is a great amp and I'll upgrade mine to the SE at some point.
@Wig, keep me posted on your upgrade adventure. I may be interested in moving up to the SE one day myself.
Do any of you happen to know what the combined (preamp/amp section) gain is for the 160i. Specs shows only the gain for MM at 37db and MC at 57db but not the amp itself. I am seriously considering replacing my ARC separates with a Sigma 160i but with an Ortofon A90's output of ,27mv i may not have enough gain to drive my Verity Parsifal even with the MC input option of 57db. A way around this would be to use the MM input along with a SUT like those Bob's Devices make but still, need to know what the unspecified amp section gain is.
Thanks guys.
Here is what I know about this in relation to the 160iSE. You will as always get the best advice from Kevin and Brent which is where I got mine. As you say your Ortofon will likely not have quite enough output for the 160iSE. But given the very low noise/EMI/RFI etc that at least I experience from the phono section of my 160iSE I could perhaps get away with keeping the volume dial at 11 am or 12 noon. The other option is to send the amp to VAC and have them double the step-up ratio. All of this may be possible for the 160i too. You should call them and see. I do know the SUT in the 160iSE is very good indeed. Don't know about the VAC160i. I used my old VAC separates with Bob's Blue Cinemag 1:20/40 SUT, but I now get much better sound from my records with the VAC MC input. Part of that is everything else about the 160iSE, but part of it is also surely the very high quality SUT built into the VAC160iSE.
Thanks for this info John and Agriculturist.

Does the MC input of your 160iSE offer selectable resistive loading values through a rotary switch of some kind or is it fixed at the factory?

Will try to connect with either Kevin or Brent to discuss the MC input options.
Thanks again.

Agriculturist, I am using NOS 12AX7's and 12AU7's in the 160i, but I am currently using the VAC KT88 tubes. What KT88's are you using? Have you tried any Gold Lions, EAT, Psvane, Northern Electric, etc.?


I am using VAC KT88 tubes too now. I plan on sticking with those.

Here's what I have liked for the rest. In place of 12AU7s for the three amp section driver tubes on the right front I am using three Philips E80CC SQ - a 12AU7 variant with a higher filament current requirement. I checked with VAC and this is fine to use in this spot. However, it is not OK to use the E80CC as a sub for the 12AU7 needed in the rear left preamp section. I don't know whether the E80CC will work for the 160i.

The preamp 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes I am using are NOS Raytheon long blackplates, i.e., one of each.

This combo works well for me. What have you liked?
Sorry for the delayed reply, life has been hectic. So far, I have not really experimented too much. I just plugged in some tubes that I've had good success with previously. As stated earlier, I am using the stock VAC KT88 tubes.

In the driver stage, I am using (3) Phillips JAB 6189W's (another 12AU7 variant). In the line stage I am running a Cifte 12AU7 and a Telefunken 12AX7, with (2) Pope 12AX7's (fancy version of Amperex Bugle Boys) in the phono stage. So far, so good, of course I've only had the amp for 3 weeks now.


One of my BT KT88Z went bad after 4 months of use; noticed a popping in one channel and then noted that that tube wouldn't bias. Took them all out and put the stock tubes back in.

No issues at all with the GL but no more Treasures for me unless their QC improve...
Wig, good to know. Thanks for the update. I have stuck to the stock VAC power tubes, but have been having a lot of fun recently experimenting with various 1950s blackplate Tung Sol 12AU7s and 12AX7s in the preamp section. I also really like NOS Philips longplate 12AX7s there. The Philips E80CC tubes as drivers in the amp section are really great as they add authority, punch and separation very impressively. Also, I am using Herbies O-Ring dampers on all tubes to good effect. The sound I now enjoy is great.
Wig, is it possible you got one bad tube?

My experience with Reissued GL KT88 is not good. Had several failed after ~200 hours and took out bias resistors.
It sounds as if the safest bet is just using the KT88's supplied from VAC. I am using them too, as is Agriculturist. I have owned 3 VAC integrated amps, all using KT88 tubes. I have experimented with the power tubes previously, and though I had no horror stories, I can't say the sonic differences were very noticeable. Certainly not of the level noticeable by swapping the preamp tubes.

Has anyone tried any 6550 tubes, KT90 or KT120 tubes in this amp? I ask because someone is giving me some 6550 tubes, and I don't know if they are compatible with this amp or not.

I don't believe you can use any of those, except possibly the 6550, but I would
check with VAC first as it could be problematic due to slightly different specs from the KT88.
Check with VAC, but I doubt they'd be recommended. Given my experience in Jadis amps, I would prefer the KT88s to the 6550s for the better midrange (6550s had good bass control but were leaner in the mids and highs). As for KT 120s, read Kevin Hayes' blog on the VAC website as to his feelings about that tube.

The tubes worked flawlessly for 4 months and noticed the static and that one of the leds wasn't blinking with the beat. I removed all of the tube immediately before failure could occur.

Their are a few reputable dealers that have not had a GL KT88 fail but I sold mine months ago when I bought the Shuguang KT88Zs. Wished I would have kept them...

Which 12AX7 tubes are you using in the phono section V01/V02? I'm currently using Tung-Sol 12AX7 reissue because they are so quiet and very clean sounding.
Hi Wig, I am using the VAC supplied 12ax7s. But I have liked Raytheon blackplates there as well as as Philips.

I'll look into some NOS varieties as well. Try some reissue GL or Tung-Sol and you'll be amazed at the level of improvement at a low cost.
If you're wanting a neutral and very quiet tube, the Sovtek 12AX7 LPS is better than Psvane TII and the reissue Tung-Sol at $30 a pair.
I'm running a pair of Pope NOS 12AX7's in the phono stage. They are the best that I've heard, but not cheap.
Interesting auction I saw yesterday on EBay for these supposedly very special "pinched waist" version of the E80cc tubes I use as drivers for my 160iSE.

I don't have the pinched waist version myself, just the regular Philips E80CC gold pin version which cost me between $30 and $50 apiece. But these NOS Valvo pinched waist E80CC tubes must be something else, at least judging from the price they sold at!
Holy cow! That's a lot of money for NOS tubes!
I would not think of spending that on driver tubes.
My Pope's were $500/pair, that is about as much as I'm willing to spend on NOS tubes.
I should mention that Kevin is not 100% sure about the use of E80CC as a replacement for 12AU7 as the three amp driver tubes. Brent said that the higher filament current draw of the E80CC is not a concern, but Kevin did once say to me that there might be other issues that I didn't quite understand when he mentioned them. I do get enough of an improvement in performance from these tubes that I really like using them and plan to continue doing so. This weekend I did have a VAC supplied KT88SC tube fail which I had been using continuously for 16-17 months or so, first in my old VAC 300.1a and then in the VAC160iSE for the last five months. I don't think it has to do with my use of the E80CC as drivers. But I mention all of this as a caution to others who may be considering doing so.
Wig, I see you put your 160i up for sale. What are you looking at getting next?
John, just curious, did you sell your VAC 35/35? It looked kind of interesting, although of course I have no use for it myself as I have my 160iSE. Anyway, after a few months of listening, how does the VAC 35/35's sound compare to your VAC 160i?
Still doing my research but Pass and Hegel are a few I'm considering. It's going to be hard moving away from the Vac but more power is needed...
Looking at your VAC 160i ad photo, I have become curious what those two flat discs are for that you have placed on the front chassis surface of your VAC 160i? Are they to dampen vibrations? Do they work well? And who makes them?
Yes, I did sell my VAC PA 35/35, and it was kind of interesting, especially with all those special tubes to play with. That said, when I first plugged in the 160i, the dynamics, power and extension blew me away, not to mention how much bigger the soundstage got. The PA 35/35 had a sweet little midrange, which the 160i can't quite match, but the 160i won on all other counts. I sold the PA 35/35 to a local fellow who loves it. It's 35 wpc was much more power than his smaller Shindo amp delivered. He is in a smaller room with more efficient speakers too, so the PA 35/35 works better for him than it did for me.

@Wig, I really thought you had a great rig. I was speaker hunting lately, and thought long and hard about those AZ Crescendo's, but in the end decided they would probably be too much speaker for me. I thought they would mate nicely with the 160i though. I wound up buying a pair of Reference 3A Grand Veenas, which I am very happy with.

Thanks for the update John. Good to know about the VAC 35/35. One of the vintage VACs that has always been interesting to me has been the VAC 30/30 which runs on the 300B. Would not work with my NOLAs which I wouldn't part with anyway, but perhaps with DeVores or something like that the 30/30 or perhaps the 35/35 could be interesting.

Wig, seeing your ad photo gave me the idea of sticking a Stillpoints LPI that I happen to have just as you have in your photo. That is I put it on the front left of the 160iSE chassis just in front of the two 12ax7s for the phono stage. I was quite surprised by the impact. So far I am listening to piano and finding a meaningful elimination of grain that of course I did not know was there before. Vocals seem slightly cleaner too. Makes me curious about your experience, what it is that you use there, and where else you have tried placing them. The Stillpoints LPI I am using is meant either for placing on top of records in turntables or on top of DACs, preamps etc. It is supposed to supposed to dampen resonance by sucking it up somehow and converting it to heat energy. Certainly seems to be working here. Thanks.