Frank Van Alstine’s Hi-Fi designs have graced many an audio show over the years, promoting his affordable yet high-end gear to audiophiles all over the country. All of his stuff is made in the U.S.A., built to order, and sold directly to the consumer, cutting out the middle man so he can keep prices low.
Before an item is sent out, it goes through a thorough inspection and listening test to ensure quality. Audio by Van Alstine also offers a three-year warranty on most products alongside a 30-day satisfaction guarantee to ensure you are happy with your purchase.
Frank graciously sent us one of his latest creations to try out, a new Integrated Amplifier called the Set 120 Control Amplifier. They call it “the best integrated control amp they have ever designed,” a component made to provide high levels of linearity and transparency.
Based on Audio by Van Alstine’s award-winning Class AB SET 120 Power Amplifier, the $1199 SET 120 Control Amplifier adds a basic passive preamp section with an Alps volume pot, a selector switch, four sets of line-level inputs, and a powerful headphone output.
It’s rated at 60W per channel into 8 ohms, (double that into 4 ohms) and built to sound identical to the SET 120 Power Amp mentioned above. On the control amp, the gain is increased in the power amp section to take advantage of the passive preamp. A passive preamp, in theory, should be more linear than an active preamp since it uses fewer components.
The “SET” designation represents their Single Ended Transistor amp design, which provides both linearity and drive via a blend of bipolar transistors on the front end and mos-fets in the amplifier section. The high-current mos-fets also allow the amp to handle tough speaker loads.
Under the hood, there’s an oversized toroidal transformer that takes up about a third of the space inside. This also aids with the power reserves needed to handle tough loads.
True to AVA’s principle of “Function over flash,” the SET 120 Control Amp has a practical design, reminiscent of pro audio components. It’s a black box with a couple of knobs and a power button on the front, juxtaposed with RCA inputs, several fuses, and speaker outputs on the rear.
The back panel also houses a three-prong connector for the included detachable power cable (supports upgrade cables provided they have the correct polarity) and an interesting “Chassis Ground” switch. This allows you to possibly mitigate annoying ground noise, likely caused by grounding issues in your electrical system.
While the SET 120 Control Amp isn’t flashy, that doesn’t mean it’s ugly either. It has a handsome, serious look that gives you the feeling you are handling a quality component. The smooth operation of the controls also conveys a notion of class. You can tell it’s built to last.
It’s a simple design where sonic benefits take precedent over bells and whistles. That inevitably means trade-offs, such as no screen, remote control, or internal phono section. However, Audio by Van Alstine does offer a discount on their Vision Q phono preamp ($399 vs. $499) if purchased along with the SET Control Amplifier. This is gear for hi-fi purists.
Listening to the SET 120 Control Amp
I felt the neutral sound of the SET Control Amp would match well with the lively, detailed sound of Triangle speakers, so I tried it with two sets of speakers. I switched between the Titus EZ bookshelf speaker and the BR08 Floorstander from the entry-level BOREA line.
For my source, I went with the Audiolab 6000N Play, a sweet-sounding streamer that is reasonably priced at $549 in the U.S. Most of my listening was done via TIDAL on the DTS Play-Fi app.
If I had one word for the Control Amp’s sound, it would be transparent. With both sets of Triangle speakers, I felt like I could see into the performance, quickly picking out all the components. Listening to “Armando’s Rhumba” from Chick Corea’s “The Spanish Heart Band – Antidote” was sheer delight.
On that song, the flute danced all around the wide soundstage. The horn sounded so lifelike, and the guitar also seemed like it was in the room with me. The timing of the Latin percussion was spot on, and the sense of space was uncanny. The presentation coming from the Titus EZ’s was downright holographic.
When I switched to the BOREA BR08’s, the transparency was dialed down a bit, but the scale was immense. There was also more bottom end weight, which is to be expected from a floorstander with two 6-inch bass drivers per side.
On the bigger speakers, I played “Father Stretch” by Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir. It’s a song that, when played on a good system, is nothing less than majestic, and the BOREA/SET Control Amp combo didn’t disappoint. The height and depth of the choir, when played on this system, was uncanny.
The scale of the BR08s made the singers sound like a full ensemble in my living room. The SET 120 gave the music nuance; vocals had so much texture and life. I enjoyed every minute listening to the Audio By Van Alstine amp. Clarity is unprecedented at this price point.
Compared with my reference amp at this price point, the Cambridge Audio CXA81, I found the AVA amp to be on another level when it comes to clarity, soundstage, and detail. The CXA81 is a more muscular sounding amp, with more weight on the low end, but I liked the overall crisper sound of the SET 120 Control Amp.
That being said, the CXA81 has some creature comforts like a remote and built-in streaming capabilities that the former lacks.
If you can do without fancy bells and whistles, the Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 Control Amp will reward you with a high-end audio experience never before available at this price point. I fell in love with the fantastic detail, air, and transparency.
I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.