Frank Van Alstine has been designing, developing, and manufacturing high fidelity components for over fifty years, and his consumer-direct business model allows him to offer high performance, no-frills products at affordable prices. With 850 watts of power output in a hybrid tube/transistor design, the DVA 850 Mono-Blocks offer up a tremendous amount of performance for the money.
Audio by Van Alstine DVA 850 Mono-Block Amplifiers
- Hybrid tube/transistor design
- Massive 850-watt output
- Dynamics to spare
- RCA and XLR inputs
- Doesn’t weigh as much as a truck
- Designed and built in Minnesota, USA
- 30-day satisfaction guarantee
Those who have been in and around the high-fidelity audio world for a while know exactly who Frank Van Alstine is. He has been designing and producing audiophile-grade equipment for over 50 years now. With Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) products, you won’t get flashy components, billet aluminum faceplates, or high-dollar advertising. The company and its products represent simplicity with high performance, all wrapped up in affordable price tags.
Hybrid transistor / vacuum tube mono block amplifier
17” x 13” x 7”
RCA and XLR (switchable)
Double gold plated for those wishing to bi-wire
12AT7 (input stage)
IEC power cord, well-written manual
Audio by Van Alstine, Mono block amplifier, amplifier reviews 2017, DVA850, Amplifier Reviews 2017
AVA has also represented a consumer-direct business model for a couple of reasons. For one, it allows him to offer great products at relatively low prices. Secondly, it gives the company an opportunity to work directly with the customer. This personal approach has worked quite well for AVA over the years. Some may see this as a negative since you can’t go into a brick and mortar store and audition their products, however their generous 30-day satisfaction guarantee and 3-year warranty on their equipment make up for this.
One area that really separates AVA from other manufacturers is that they generally do not disclose specifications of their equipment, other than power output. To quote Frank Van Alstine: “Unfortunately there is no predictability between good IHF static specifications and good music. It takes a much more serious in-depth mathematical and bench analysis to find links between good design and good sound, and there are no standards for providing this information to you. The best we can do is incorporate good design principals into our equipment and be confident that outstanding and thorough design will yield obviously musical audio reproduction.”
While some may wish to argue this, I personally embrace the philosophy and applaud Frank for his approach. You simply cannot determine sound quality from specifications. Granted, you can gain some basic insight, but its presentation and emotion can only be determined by listening. To me it’s no different than cars. You can look at horsepower and torque specs, what size and type of brakes it has, and the design elements of the suspension to get a general idea of it. But it won’t tell you how it feels to drive! Two cars with the same basic specs can drive and feel completely differently from one another, just like two pieces of audio equipment can have similar specs and sound completely different. Music reproduction for me is very similar to the artist’s intent… it’s about feeling, and the emotional experience that comes with the sound.
The DVA 850 Mono Block amplifiers are a hybrid design, meaning that they utilize 12AT7 tubes on the input stage, with solid-state circuitry for the output stage. This hybrid design provides an extremely accurate reproduction, with virtually none of the coloration sometimes found in all-tube or all solid state designs.
Like most AVA amps, the DVA 850 utilizes a fully regulated power supply with huge power reserves. In fact, each individual audio stage of the DVA 850 is powered by its own regulated power supply. This allows the amp to be completely stable, and will not drop or degrade when pushed hard.
And speaking of pushing the DVA 850 amp, AVA clearly warns people in their (well-written) manual to be careful of pushing too hard and destroying your drivers! These amplifiers are capable of very high output levels, but those levels are designed for on-call dynamic swings as opposed to setting SPL records.
On the outside of the DVA 850, it is business as usual within the AVA product line. You have a very simple design with a power button and a light. If you’re a big fan of high-level industrial design, billet knobs, or glowing meters, then you may want to look elsewhere. If you are simply looking for high quality componentry and sound inside the box, and don’t care nearly as much about the appearance of the product, then you’re in business with the DVA 850.
Out back you have convenient switchable RCA and XLR inputs, with double gold-plated speaker jacks for those who wish to bi-wire.
Also of important note is that the DVA 850 amplifiers are only 36lbs each, which is a big departure from many of the truck-like mono block amplifiers on the market. My FedEx delivery driver and I were both happy to see boxes arrive with modest weight!
For the majority of my evaluation time with the Audio by Van Alstine DVA 850 Mono Block Amplifiers, I had them configured into my 2.1-channel system as listed below, and changed it up a few ways in order to truly get a feel for how they performed. Since I combine a 2-channel system with a full Dolby Atmos system, I utilize a JL Audio CR-1 crossover that splits the signal for my mains and my JL Audio F113 subwoofer. For part of the evaluation I ran it through the CR-1, and at other times I went straight into the Revel F208s in a full-range setup.
Pre-amplifier: Pass Labs XP-20
CD / SACD: OPPO UDP-205
Turntables: Shinola Runwell, Pro-Ject Perspex 6 w/Sumiko Blackbird cartridge
Phono pre-amp: Sutherland Engineering 20/20
Speakers: Revel F208
Crossover: JL Audio CR-1
Subwoofer: JL Audio F113
Cables: Clarus Crimson
Power Conditioner: Audioquest Niagara 1000
I also installed the DVA 850’s into my 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos system and had them power the F208 mains.
Before I get into some of the specifics of the DVA 850’s, let me tell you a bit about my style of listening because it directly relates to how my evaluations go. Listening is in large part subjective, and it’s about feeling, emotion, and personal preferences. Your listening habits may be different than mine, as is your equipment, room, etc. So given this, what I may find in my system and likes may differ from yours. Please keep that in mind when reading my reviews and from others as well.
Granted, I have heard a lot of tremendous music and systems over the years, and my ears have been trained to know the difference between good, better, and best according to what I like. I played percussion in the school band when I grew up, which most likely attributed to my fondness of dynamics, slam, and fun-factor. I had loud (and great sounding) car stereos, and while I ate mostly mac & cheese in college, I had a system that would rock the entire apartment building (priorities!!). The first concert I attended back in the early eighties was Judas Priest, then followed by a steady diet of shows by the likes of Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC-DC, etc. Are you starting to get a feel for how I like my music?!
These days I really appreciate great sounding music, and will take sound quality over sound quantity any day. But having said that, the emotion, the impact, dynamics, and fun-factor are still the tops of my list. Just like when the artist wrote and recorded the music, I am all about the feeling and the emotion that the music brings. And also like the artist, I don’t concern myself with mathematics, electrical theory, charts, or graphs. As a psychiatrist may say: “how does it make you feel”?
Now having said all of that, you can appreciate the fact that I pay a lot of attention to dynamics and fun-factor when reviewing gear. And with the DVA 850’s, dynamics is where they excel. I found this to be their strongpoint, regardless of the music choice or source. From top to bottom, these mono-blocks possessed a tremendous amount of fun-factor.
If you’re like me and really enjoy authoritative bass capabilities, then you’ll love what the DVA 850 can do to bring out the full potential of your speakers. Driving the Revel F208’s directly (without going through the crossover to my subwoofer), the Van Alstine’s did a tremendous job of showcasing just how much low-end these speakers are capable of.
With huge power reserves and dynamics, the DVA 850 showed that it performs best with the likes of instrumental jazz, big band, and orchestral recordings. Also, guitar, piano, and percussion were well represented. Just a quick listen on Keith Don’t Go by Nils Lofgren (guitar) or Daraijin by Kodo (percussion) and you’ll immediately know that these amps get it right in those areas of evaluation.
When connected to my Dolby Atmos system, the huge power reserves and dynamics make the DVA 850’s shine. All action was taken to a new level. I can imagine what a home theater would be like with five of these. The power and realism would be downright scary.
On recordings where vocals sit center-stage however, I found the presentation to be a bit forward for my liking. In many instances where the singer is usually centered equally between the speakers, the 850’s presented them to be twice as close to the listening position. This didn’t present itself so much at more moderate listening levels, so if you don’t like to crank it to 11, or if your musical preference is instrumental jazz or classical, this would never be an issue.
Now let’s take a look at some specific music notes:
This album has been one of my favorites for a long time because first, it really captures Roger Waters’ strengths as an artist and song writer; and second, it sounds amazing when played on the proper system.
Recorded in 1992 in Q-Sound (3D sound processing algorithm), the album presents itself in an enveloping soundstage, with effects that seem to go beyond the boundaries of the walls in your listening room. Keeping true to the original recording, the DVA 850’s produced the music’s three-dimensional sound as it was intended. At times I found myself looking over my shoulders because the music seemed like it was coming out of my surround speakers.
The drawback however came when Roger was singing, as his voice was too forward, and it took away from the playback a bit. At lower volumes this wasn’t an issue, but who plays Roger Waters at low volumes?
Patricia Barber is my go-to material for sound quality evaluation, as her recordings are simply that good at all levels. Vocals, instrumentals, soundstage, and imaging are all reference level, and the “Un-mastered” version of Café Blue is in my opinion, one of the absolute best albums in terms of content and sound quality. So given this, I use it a lot for evaluations.
On this album, Patricia and her band treats you with long jam sessions between vocals. It’s within this realm that the album shines as it gives equal time to piano, bass, guitar, and drums. And it’s within this same realm that the DVA 850 shines and brings you to the original recording as if you were there. Instruments are placed where they should be, and both the soft and loud passages are presented as they were intended.
On Ode To Billy Joe, the opening bass was reproduced with stunning clarity and authority. Not only could you clearly hear Michael Arnopol’s fingers slide across the strings, but you could literally feel every pluck as well. But when Patricia sang however, once again I found her placement and voice to be a bit too forward in its presentation.
GoldenEar, Demo Disc
While I was attending the AXPONA show in Chicago this spring, I got to spend some time with Jack Shafton from GoldenEar. I really liked the music he was playing, so I asked for a copy of the playlist. He was kind enough to send me their demo disc, and I have been using it for evaluations ever since. It just has a great mix of music ranging from The Beach Boys, to Dean Martin, to classical. Good stuff GoldenEar!
Since the DVA 850’s had shown such strengths with instrumental music, I decided to play Dave Grusin / Prologue (West Side Story). This recording is big-band jazz with fast, wide dynamic swings. The DVA’s really shine in this environment! They presented well-defined layering from front to back with each section of the band separated from one another.
THE AUDIO BY VAN ALSTINE DVA 850 MONO-BLOCK AMPLIFIERS offer superb dynamics in a hybrid design that won’t break the bank!
- More output power than you’ll need
- Wide dynamic range
- Fantastic bass output
- Crystal clear highs
- Relatively light weight
- Low heat output
- Speaker jacks more suited for spade connectors
- Less forward presentation on vocals
- Five of them in my home theater!
In the realm of mono-block power amplifiers, pricing can quickly approach the upper stratosphere, making them purely unobtainable for the masses. While $7,400 for the pair of DVA 850’s isn’t cheap by any means, it’s far more affordable than most, particularly with as much performance as you can get out of them.
For all-out dynamics and fun factor, the DVA 850 mono-blocks excel in spades. So if your listening habits focus around instrumental jazz, big band, or classical, you will have a great time with these amplifiers.
Also, don’t think of these only in terms of two-channel audio reproduction, as that would be selling them short. Given their dynamics and power reserves, they would be a great choice for home theater applications if you had three of them across the front stage, or five in a 5.1 system.
If you prefer vocals to be more laid back in their presentation, you may want to look at other alternatives. If you like a more forward sound, then you’ll love the Audio by Van Alstine DVA 850 Mono-Block Amplifiers.