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As the wicked reviewer I am, I called Steve McCormack right around 1PM locally which was 10AM on the left coast when Steve patiently awaits the effects of his first cup of java to kick in slowly. I was hoping to catch him off guard and steal the secrets of everlasting musical purity. I failed. He kept his secret. But I was rewarded with a very nice phone chat which I have transcribed from the notes I took down feverishly.

Can you tell me a little about your past itinerary in hifi? I assume not everybody knows your past ventures, solo or with Conrad-Johnson (and maybe others before which I do not know of as I'm relatively new to the hobby). This may be a good background to provide for readers to understand your goals.

People know me from the Mod-Squad days but I actually started in the 60s as a kid just fascinated by electronics and technology. It was a great time with Klipsch and the Bose 901, great days for JBL speakers as well. And then of course the first AR speakers with acoustic suspension drivers.

Fascinated as I was with technology, I focused on becoming a recording engineer and graduated in 1974. I moved for a short while to the east cost in Connecticut and sold stereo equipment at Sounds Incredible which still exists today. But I just could not break into the recording world.

In 1975 I returned to Los Angeles and went on selling gear. That's when I met Bill Johnson, Nelson Pass and Mark Levinson and got fully immersed in hi-end audio. I started working on my first gear right about then, modifying Quads, rebuilding and modifying equipment for heightened performance, providing upgrade kits for popular gear. Naturally this turned into a full-time business. In 1979 I started working with Oracle on their turntables and became their first US importer. I then moved to Canada to work more closely with Oracle and among other things set up their US dealer network. By 1984 and back in the US, I created the Mod Squad which eventually became McCormack Audio in the late 80s when we moved from modifying gear as our main business to actually designing equipment from the ground up.

In the Mod Squad days we worked on Quads electronics and Rogers LS 3/5a but also tone arms and even developed the 'Tip-Toes' which started the whole trend around aftermarket feet, spikes and cones for vibration control. At about the same time I realized that the first CD players had enough gain to not need any active preamplification and I started designing and then selling our Line Drive series of passive preamplifiers. The VRE-1 can trace its genealogy back to those first efforts although it is in more ways than not a completely different beast.

When we changed the name to McCormack Audio, we moved away from a modification-only focus and launched our own gear, among which was the Phono Drive and then the DNA-1 amplifier, the TLC-1 passive preamplifier and eventually a CD transport and DAC.

In 1997 the company was sold to Conrad-Johnson and the headquarters moved to Virginia while I started SMc Audio here in California to work on R&D, tinker with gear and provide upgrades for earlier McCormack gear, especially my older amplifiers.

Why pick a preamp as your first design now that you have regained your 'freedom'? Did you feel you had more to offer on a preamp or was it just the appeal of the challenge?

I had actually thought of starting with a new amplifier design, something new I had been thinking about. But the upfront cost was very high for a small start-up company so I went on to design a new preamplifier which I thought would require a lot less investment but turned out to be far more challenging instead. Considering how demanding designing the VRE-1 proved out to be, I probably would have been better off starting with the amplifier despite the higher financial investment.

Designing the VRE-1 forced me to face all sorts of very subtle problems. In principle, designing a preamplifier is trivial but when shooting for true neutrality and trying to open a window on the performance, one runs into tremendous problems. At some point, I actually thought it might be impossible to combine all of the performance attributes I wanted in a single design. I did not know upfront what the best technology would be to reach my goal so I had to try them all. Each design (tube vs. solid state, passive vs. active, circuit topologies etc) had its strengths but also weaknesses. Yet in this preamp I wanted no weakness.

The light went on when I finally learned how to use transformer coupling to its best advantage and was able to match it with a non-regulated power supply. What you hear in a preamplifier is the power supply. Its quality is critical. Minor changes can have a very profound effect on the sound. The more neutral the design, the more obvious the issues become with power supplies. Regulators in power supplies act more or less like amplifiers and are plagued with the same issues that will impact the final sound. When I was able to move to a choke-filtered unregulated power supply for the VRE-1, I managed to remove the last level of distortion and coloration that I had been chasing for a while. In fact, I believe the same factor explains the interest in battery operation we are seeing lately. Battery power is very attractive because it is not regulated and brings most of what the choke-filtered power supply brings to the table but I believe my design goes even further. And, it does not use batteries that will eventually need to be replaced and require regular recharging.

What were your objectives when designing the VRE-1?

My objective was simple and modest - just design the best preamplifier in the world (laughs). I am fully engaged in the recording industry as mastering and editing engineer and I know the disappointment I feel every time when I
hear the difference between the original tapes or lacquers and the final CD or vinyl. I wanted the VRE-1 to provide a window on the sound of the original recording as authentically as humanly possible. I wanted for the VRE-1 to convey the emotional intent of the musicians unlike so many 'straight wire with gain' preamplifiers that fail in the musicality department and sound cold or analytical. If audiophiles prefer and choose a certain coloration because it suits their tastes better, that's great - as long as they know and understand what transparency is first. If they choose to cater to their own taste, that's just fine. But if they choose coloration because they have never heard what undistorted transparency sounds like, then they have been misled.

The VRE-1 seems almost too cheap to be a cost-no-object design but it's too expensive for large-scale production. How did you end up at this price point which may actually give the wrong impression to people who trust dollar signs more than their ears to disbelief that the VRE-1 can compete with the best efforts of CJ, Ayre or ARC for example?

I have always maintained a focus on high-value equipment and worked to find the right balance of price and quality. Because of this, I may have been pigeon-holed as a designer who could do great low-priced gear but could not author a true statement. The VRE-1 in some ways is my answer to that perception. Now, regardless of their qualities, components should be priced realistically based on their cost to manufacture and the time spent working on them. They should not be subject to artificial inflation and unrealistic margins. Reasonable expectations and no dealer network allow me to keep the VRE-1 extremely competitive in the market. But despite my best efforts, I will probably have to increase the price soon as the new stepped attenuator is more expensive than the original one and I have just found some new capacitors that make a very compelling sonic argument yet are pricier than the ones currently used.

What does 'Virtual Reality' stand for in your mind and why did you pick this name for your preamp?

The name 'Virtual Reality' imposed itself to me when everything came together for the first time and it felt as though I was transported to the performance. I was back there and then. I thought, "Wow - just like virtual reality" and the name suggested itself.

What system(s) did you use while working on the VRE-1?

I have been using Vandersteen 3As for a long time. They are resilient and the speakers I have heard that were superior ended up being also far more expensive. They are great performers, period, and great value for the money. For my design work, I cannot use 5As or Quattros as their internal bass amplifiers don't make them suitable to test the full-range performance of amplifiers.

I use a full stable of my own amplifiers and usually a VRE-1 or other preamplifier of my design. My CD transport is a McCormack SST1 coupled with either a Stax X1T or a DAC of my own making. I also use a UDP1 universal player when I want to listen to high-resolution discs. I am also looking at a new turntable, the Grand Prix Audio – hard to resist.

My current cables are Stealth Metacarbon balanced interconnects and Kubala-Sosna Emotion for speaker and analog AC cords. The digital gear is powered by Magnan Signature AC cords. I would not be complete without mentioning the Grand Prix Audio stands and shelves. You've got no idea what those can do for your system until you've tried them. You also have no idea how good your gear really is until then.

When can we expect the matching phono preamp? Or can we dream of a VRE-1 with a phono board one day?

I am thinking about a phono preamp but it will be a separate component, not an additional board inside the VRE-1. It could actually come to market before the amplifier. It will be derived from what I have learnt with the VRE-1, choke-filtered power, transformer-coupled input for MC cartridges and a zero-feedback JFET buffer for gain.

What were the biggest challenges in making the VRE-1?

Achieving the degree of neutrality I was after was a seemingly endless, exhaustive piece of work. Every element of the design had to be considered. Beyond that, the black Corian chassis is very difficult to make. I probably won't be able to continue offering the solid black color. It can't be polished to a spotless perfection because of flaws in the material and it takes forever to bring it close to cosmetic perfection. The standard color will change to a black granite look with specks but the solid black will remain available at a premium to account for the additional time it takes to finish those enclosures. Corian otherwise is a great material to work with and as I was trying to get rid of as much metal as I could, it offered a good balance of characteristics. I even tried wood but it implied making even more compromises. Personally I like the reversed color scheme a lot (cream with black corners) but it does not seem to be very popular with customers so we'll stay in a dark color scheme - just not solid black.

As an aside, you designed a very well regarded universal/SACD player that now resides in the CJ line. What is your take on the future of hi-resolution digital, namely SACD and DVD-A ? Do you think Blue-Ray will ever be affordable as an audio-only medium or are physical media really on the exit?

I believe the future has more to do with a variety of data formats and file downloads than it will with physical media and the format wars they have triggered. Computer-based music playback will accommodate compressed low resolution files all the way to hi-resolution uncompressed formats regardless of the hardware people own. All the big companies are moving online. It does not mean there won't be a place for hi-resolution discs in the future but audiophiles are a tiny fraction of the market. Sadly, we just don't have enough economic clout. The loss of SACD and the self destruction of that business model are bad for our little world but honestly, nobody else cares. The beauty of the computer platforms is that soon the same equipment will work regardless of the file format and the sonic ambition. One minute it will play a low resolution MP3 and the next a 24/192 FLAC file. It actually bodes very well for high quality and high resolution playback as they won't depend any more on expensive niche players with proprietary technologies.

Any other topic you'd like our readers to know about?

Well, VRE-1 owners do ask me why the volume control does not go all the way to zero. The reason is that the internal wiring is carbon, which does have a bit of resistance. This means the volume control cannot go all the way off. You still hear a tiny signal at the lowest setting. But that's why there is a mute switch conveniently located on the front panel. That completely shuts down the VRE-1 outputs. In addition, not starting at zero provides a greater usable range for the stepped attenuator (that was more of a concern with the old attenuator which had only 24 positions vs. the current one which has 31).

And don't forget to remind your readers to give me a call to discuss which gain level is best suited for their system (-6dB, unity or +6dB). I could have made this feature selectable but it would have forced the signal through more switch contacts which is not ideal for performance. I have found some relays that I like a lot but I tried to keep the VRE-1 signal path as simple as possible so I prefer to set gain at the factory. This can be revised at any time if an owner's system requirements change.