Curiosity is an interesting thing. As an engineer I find myself drawn to new ways of building a standard design. Virtue Audio products may not be
completely “out-of-the-box” but at the very least the Sensation M451 and Piano M1 offer a fresh perspective. This past July I was visiting with the founder of Affordable$$Audio Mark Marcantonio. and as we were each savoring a bottle of Fat Tire beer and listening (myself transfixed) to a pair of modified Magnepan 1.6’s with Skiing Ninja crossovers I spied a half-sized black piece of gear in his rack. After an offer to pay for the pizza that would soon arrive I was able to secure the Virtue Audio Sensation M451 integrated amplifier for a weekend audition. Those two days have turned into four fascinating months.
Staff writer Stew Nelless (in italics) had already written up his impressions of the M451 as well as the Piano M1 compact disc player. After securing a Piano M1 myself the review morphed into a twofer, with the perspectives of both Stew and myself.
Power: Stock 30wpc, with upgrades Max 30v, 87 wpc @ 4 ohms
Tellurium copper RCA jacks
Buffered mono subwoofer pre-out
Stereo pre-outs (using LM4562 op-amps)
Aluminum and steel chasis
Three RCA inputs
Dimensions: 4” H x 10.5” W x 10” D
Safe for use with all high-current power supplies up to 30v including battery packs.
Upgrade Options Include: Upgradeable Power Supplies, Dodd Audio Tube Buffer, Dodd
Audio Battery Kit
Price: Base $799
Piano M1 CDP:
16-bit TDA1542 DAC with 176.4 Khz upsampling.
Signal-to-noise ratio 95 dB,
Dynamic range is 96 dB, and THD 0.06%.
Dimensions: 4” H x 10.5” W x 10” D
Sensation M451 and Piano M1 review
Construction and Build Quality
In the budget realm, junky, single production run only audio gear exists and it is the bane of honest manufacturers that wish to provide quality at a reasonable cost. The level of construction is the first indication of quality, and both the M451 and M1 have it in spades. It isn’t just the heft of each piece, but more important the fit and finish of each element of the case that defines these units as honest to goodness quality. Buttons and case edges align perfectly. The volume control has a smooth, slightly heavy feel to its rotation. Where the metal casing meets the wood top is perfectly even.
Well built, well finished. In fact, way beyond what either piece’s price points would indicate. The review samples I received were brushed aluminium with chrome buttons and a Zebrawood top.
Particularly impressive is the “propeller” style binding posts on the M451. With the small case-size connection room on the back is at a premium, thus stacking of the left and right channel is required, leaving precious little room for manipulating the posts with any but the smallest of fingers. With the “propeller” design and an off set placement between the upper and lower posts makes for secure non-banana speaker wire connection a hassle free experience. Another nice touch is the PRE-OUT jacks for those owners needing to add a separate power amplifier as well as the SUBWOOFER.
Inside the M451 you’ll find a full, but nicely organized layout. It’s one thing to just stuff everything into a small space; but it takes true skill to lay it out in such a way that every part is accessible and wiring is as short as possible. Granted, without an internal power supply and with a version of the Tripath chip amplification (Krinsky bough tens of thousands of these chips during Tripath’s Bankruptcy reorganization) there is extra room but designer Roger Shaker chose to kick up the sound quality by going quality with such things as larger Sonicaps. Then add in Gary Dodd’s tube buffer using JJ 12AX7 and well, so much for real estate.
The M1 cd player shares the same casing as well as fit and finish though in a brushed silver aluminium rather than black. Ergonomically speaking the M1 deserves recognition, the power button is large and set far enough away from the buttons to avoid any accidental touches. The six control buttons though small are placed far enough apart to avoid confusion. Visually, I give the silver the nod, as the lettering is easier to read.
The back panel offers three output jack choices, COAXIAL, OPTICAL, and ANALOG. The jacks are secured to the panel so don’t worry about giving a bit of a push when connecting. The big difference between the M1 and the M451 is that the cdp’s power supply is on board with a three-prong receptacle.
Slide off the top panel and one is greeted by a tight but logical layout. The transport is solidly anchored to the frame and a good-sized torridal transformer for quality delivery of power. This is an area where Virtue Audio’s Seth Krinsky could have easily gone cheap but instead, wisely spent the money; a few dollars can make a noticeable difference.
Like all Virtue Audio amplifiers, the M451 is a “have it your way” concept. The ordering process includes all sorts of options from finish choices, to capacitors and power supply choices. To be honest, spend the extra $139 and move up the power supply chain to the 30v/130watt. It’s akin to the difference between a cell phone light and a flashlight.
First, a caveat. I’m not a fan of chip amplification. I find it flat and un-involving, Iacking in sonic impact and dimensionality. I don’t feel an emotional connection. That being said I was intrigued to hear if adding in a tube buffer would sway my opinion. With a hint from Mark Marcantonio to give the M451 some warm up time before listening. Therefore, being the engineer, I decided to test that assumption. Well, it’s right on, cold listening isn’t the M451’s strong suit. At 15 minutes it’s passable, and 30 minutes and beyond is a real treat.
Much of my listening was done through a pair of Paradigm Studio 60v4, floorstanders. At 92db efficiency they mated quite well to the M451’s 40wpc output of the upgraded power supply. Like all Paradigm speakers the Studio 60v4’s don’t lack for an open top end. Thankfully, Mr. Dodd’s tube buffer brings what could have been a gear miss-match into a truly pleasant experience. The M451 with the buffer is seriously musical.
Normally, I avoid listening to piano music on typical chip-based amplifiers as it sounds as stale as week-old bread. Listening to George Winston’s Autumn, I found myself letting go of my analytical state-of-mind and just listening to the music. In addition to the warmth the M451 is able to provide quick, striking punch to intense dynamic passages. There’s also a delicacy in the way the M451 replicates the Winston’s melodic finger work in “Sea” and “Moon”. Across the entire work a flowing richness and warmth that exists in the concept of a chip/tube combination worthy of long listening sessions.
Turning up Gift of Screws by Lindsey Buckingham demonstrates that the M451 does the basics really well and does itself justice in the resolution department. It’s not going to make an owner of a Nelson Pass amplifier think twice about their purchase but it does make its value obvious to any honest audiophile. The compositional details that Buckingham puts down on the various tracks are brought out with a pleasant, but ever so rounded quality.
With efficient speakers such as the Studio 60’s, the M451 can go plenty loud for all but the most die-hard of head-banging fans. This amp may not be able to go back to the late 1980’s and win the dorm stereo war contests but you’ll still find yourself asking “What” to whomever you’re talking to if that floats your boat. Just make sure to give the M451 some breathing space as it can get a little warm. It’s a small price to pay for bargain-busting musicality it gives in return.
A Canuck View
Stew listened to the matching pieces via Castle Durham 900 speakers. He also spent more time with the Dodd power supply. His thoughts:
I initially listened to the Virtue Sensation M451 amp using the included switching mode power supply, but quickly changed to the Dodd Audio battery supply. The changes were not insignificant. The Dodd battery power supply consists of two 12 VDC Sealed Lead Acid batteries strapped together, and wired to allow connection to the 24 VDC “intelligent” battery charger and to the amplifier. In fact, the batteries can be charged and used to power the amp simultaneously to no apparent ill effect. The charger itself could be used as a power supply, as I tried the amp this way. Again, using the charger as the power supply proved to be very quiet, and did not seem to lose anything to the batteries (used stand-alone).
One nice touch is the use of two separate connectors for charging and use, and the two-piece power cord used from the battery to the amp, the short “pigtail” is also used to connect the SMPS to the amp as well.
Listening to Seal, “People Get Ready”, the M451 provided proper attack, and well controlled, credible bass. The top end may be slightly forward, but doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of listening. Orchestral horns are excellent: the orchestra sounds like a homogeneous body of music; the horns have the characteristic “blatt” to them but never shrill. The background choir sounds like it could be here.
Allison Kraus’ “Down to the River to Pray”, from A Hundred Miles or More, Ms. Kraus’ voice seems to get a little lost within the choir. It seems to be less emotionally involving than I recall, but it could very well be more realistic. Having this disc myself, I have a different take on the sonics. I’ve always felt the recording engineer tried to maker voice flat like the water in a slow moving river. Her voice has a natural high pitch that the tube buffer inside the review model rounds nicely, making her performance even more alluring.
M451 vs. the McCormack DNA 0.5 deLuxe, The M451 seems more transparent.
Though in other areas I found the McCormack to hold the edge. One must consider that the old McCormack pair was north of $2000 when new, and the care that Steve McCormack took with these designs and their construction is apparent. The McCormack pair simply has a better tonal balance, with more “body” being portrayed, and to my ears more musicality. Does this make the M451 bad? No! Quite to the contrary, had I not had the reference for comparison purposes I don’t think I would have had anything to complain about. The McCormack amplifier has greater dampening factor and is capable of swinging more current: on the old Castles the sound was startling different and had more impact. The McCormack amplifier drove my Castles with more control than the Sensation M451, and this is to be expected. But unless doing a direct comparison this is not apparent.
Going against the NuForce Icon integrated, the race is a little closer. The Icon has an included DAC and headphone amplifier and is in the same price range as the Virtue 1.2. The Icon sounds at least as transparent. The Sensation has more apparent “slam” and more “presence”. Both have excellent midrange presentation with the M451 offering warmer guitar and horns. Fit and finish on the Sensation is leagues better than the Icon, but as its price is double that of the Icon, it should be. The standard of fit and finish on the M1 Piano CD player, M451 amplifier and the Reference remote are beyond reproach. It exceeds what one expects affordable gear to have in this regard, and it is part of the appeal (and not an insignificant amount) to these units. The fit and finish far exceeds that of the reference McCormack pair.
A small nagging point: put some nice stick on feet or pads on the Reference remote! It’s heavy and if carelessly “dropped” on a piece of furniture it can leave marks. For the duration of the stay at my house, the Reference remote had sticky feet applied.
Now if one is looking at substituting a low output, low damping factor tube amp with the Sensation M451, they should have good results as long as their loudspeakers are suitable for lower powered tube amps (say 30 Watts/ch). I believe this amp to offer a solid-state alternative to tubes. Regarding loudspeaker matches that work well with the Sensation amplifier, my thoughts are that one ought to stay with single driver loudspeaker types that are reasonably efficient and sensitive, or smaller two-way designs with fairly flat impedance curves. Large multi-way speakers with higher order crossovers need not apply. Folks who own speakers that include high order crossovers, complex impedance loads, low sensitivity and low efficiency simply miss the point to the, and pretty much the complete line of Virtue Audio products. Paired with appropriate gear, Virtue Audio’s Sensation M451 is a standout. Compared to any other Tripath based amp that I have had experience with, the choice to purchase is a no brainer.
Piano M1 CD Player
The transport on the M1 operated very smoothly and whisper quiet. Like Stew, my big complaint is the slow “dial-up” time for a disc. Ten years ago this was normal, but in late 2011 it’s disappointing. Beyond that, the Piano M1 is a worthy competitor in the under $1000 cd player marketplace. All the standards of timing, pace, and detail are there. When played thru my personal integrated amplifier the M1 offers up a bounty of bass detail. Pairing it up to the matching M451 with the tube buffer makes for a truly musical budget combination.
With my engineering mindset I can get lost in all the technical details.
But when it’s all said and done, the human brain balances scientific facts with emotional connection. The number of times I got lost in the music during my time with the M1/M451 was the most with any piece of gear in my home. It didn’t matter whether I was playing Rush, John Coltrane, or Mahler, the Virtue Audio combo offered up bucket loads of musical synergy.
The Piano M1 defies the typical brash sound of competitors, instead choosing to warm the sound by rounding off the hot edges. Alex DiGrassi’s “Opening” from the Clockwork disc has several low volume but high frequency guitar notes strung together. When played thru my Cambridge 540V.2 cdp the edge has always been a bit sharp. The M1 softens the passages lending to a more “tube-like” presentation. Discs with a higher level of dynamic compression also sounded better on the Piano M1. Adele’s 19, suffers from the play it loud radio scourge, with her vocals often crackling from the oversaturation.
The midrange is where the truth lies in music and the Piano M1 is a solid performer. From the strong vocals of Melissa Etheridge to the horn section of Chicago and the lounge jazz of Bill Evans, the M1 gives off a light warmth. The richness of the guitar in Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues” offers up a pleasant resonation throughout the first third of the song. All the while still allowing the room for the lead vocal to stay front and center with its hint of an empty hall echo.
Bass is stronger and hits with more punch than my Cambridge 540V.2. The M1 really shined with the bass work in Mark Knopfler’s “Why Aye Man” from The Ragpickers Dream. It’s designed to stay behind Knopler’s lead guitar work yet offer detailed depth. When played off my computer audio system the bass guitar is barely audible. The M1 pulls it onto the stage, giving it a detailed presence.
It’s pretty obvious to say that both Stew and myself were quite taken with both the Virtue Audio M451 integrated amplifier as well as the matching Piano M1 cdp. Both units build quality and choice of component parts exceed what is usual at this price point. The little details such a smooth edges, feel of buttons and knobs, and the tightness of connections all points to quality. As good as the manufacturing is, the sound quality is even better. With an efficient set of speakers of 89 db or better the output performance of the M451 integrated will do just fine for normal performance situations. It may not win any loudness wars, but in the musicality department Virtue Audio has a winning pair of equipment pieces on it hands. Just have fun choosing the various options.
- Cambridge 540 v2 Integrated amp
- Cambridge 540 v2 cdp
- Paradigm Studio 60 v4 speakers
- Blue Jeans Cabling
- McCormack DNA 0.5 deLuxe
- NuForce Icon integrated amp
- Castle Durham 900 speakers
from aﬀordableaudio, By Dan Nielsen and Stew Nelless