[A]ccording to their website “the VTA20S represents Bob’s latest and greatest thinking on vacuum tube amplifier designs. It uses a screen voltage regulator and DC restoration circuit [that] minimizes crossover distortion and output tube power dissipation. The 1.5 ohm output impedance coupled with current and voltage feedback loops also allows the amplifier to listen to the room via acoustic feedback from the speakers.” The Black Magic comes in a small, 17-pound package, with its black chassis with silver fleck and silver trim occupying a space just 13” wide x 9” deep x 7” high. In the back there is the POWER switch, an ungrounded IEC inlet, two fuse holders, a pair of RCA input jacks and two pair of five-way bindings posts.
The amp has a very traditional tube amp look, but the fit and finish of the Black Magic is really nice. It uses point-to-point hand wiring with star grounding. The EL84M output tubes are Sovteks and the 12AX7Bs are sourced from Shuguang. The amplifier features auto biasing and low idle current, greatly increasing EL84M output tube life. The Black Magic is rated at 20 WRMS in 2-channel stereo mode, or 40 WRMS when used in single channel mono mode via a switch.
The reason I said yes to reviewing this little amp is that it uses one of my favorite tubes, the EL84; I love how seductive they sound. Two of my favorite amps over the years, the Beard P35 and the little Shindo Montille use the EL84. So it came as no surprise to me that this amp sounded very musical and very beautiful. Music flowed out of it into my Teresonic Ingenium XR Silvers, and filled my listening room with beautiful music.
Turns out the EL84s have long been one of Bob’s favorite tubes as well. He used the M edition that allows the use of a higher plate voltage, which allows you to get a little more power out of them. Carver uses them in a push-pull configuration. I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a $2,490 amplifier. If I forgot that and begin to expect it to do everything my $29,000 Wavac EC300B did, then I could find some shortcomings; but you should get something for an extra $27,000, shouldn’t you?
One thing you get more of with the “Black Magic” is power. This little amp not only drove my Teresonics, but it also had enough power to drive the Bowers & Wilkins 805S bookshelf speakers. In fact, that combination was quite magical for the money.
Let me start by saying it has been a while since I had amp at this price point in my system. It has also been a while since I had an amp that wasn’t pure class A. As I mentioned above, it is also very unfair to compare this little amp to my Wavac that I listen to every day. I was surprised that you can get this kind of sound for the price. Don’t get me wrong it never made me think I could live without my Wavac EC300B; but I very much enjoyed music through this little amp.
First of all, you can really help the sound by getting rid of the stock Chinese 12AX7s. With them, the amp sounds a little grainy and a little bright in the upper midrange. Replacing them with NOS tubes was a nice improvement. At the cost of this amp you can afford some nice NOS tubes. I used Raytheon black plates which sounded richer and grain free. I also used a pair of Telefunkens; kind of pricy but then again you save on the initial investment with this amp.
The overall sound of the amp is that of a more modern tube amp. Even with the seductive midrange of the EL84s the amp does not have those warm, fuzzy sound.
Next, let’s talk about the Soundstage
The Black Magic has a very large soundstage and it is very wide and deep deep. It has a way of filling the room that brings music to life in a big and bold way. It also does a good job of letting you hear each individual instrument in its own space. I did not find the soundstage to distract me from the music at all.
It was powerful, deep, and yet not overdone or loose at all. It was very dynamic and capable of good scale. It combined good impact with a pretty tight bottom end. In fact, the bass was more powerful, and has more slam than my WAVAC combo, although it was not nearly as nimble or quick, and it didn’t let me hear quite the same level of nuances of the instruments. In addition, it doesn’t have as much air and breath; but for one-15th the price, it does all this better than I expected.
The midrange is an area I have always loved about amps that use EL84 tubes. It was nicely resolving with a natural bloom that gives it life. It has good detail combined with a correct tonal balance that keeps it from ever sounding analytical. It also allows the timbre and natural warmth of instruments to come through. The excellent dynamics of the bass continue into the midrange as well.
Like the bass, the midrange has a robust, powerful sound. Only in the unfair comparison to the WAVAC did I hear what is missing in the midrange. It just doesn’t have quite the micro-dynamics. I don’t get drawn into the music emotionally the same way, but I was never bored with the music either.
The top end was open with plenty of detail, but never bright. It has a refined kind of detail that allows one to listen to all this information in a relaxed yet involved manner. The top end does not draw attention to itself. It could provide a little more sparkle and shimmer, but I don’t think it draws attention to itself or makes one feel like the top end is rolled off.
The Black Magic is not a giant killer, but it had more magic than I would have believed possible at its price point. It’s not as transparent as my Wavac; it doesn’t have the incredible micro-dynamics of it either, but that’s not the point. It provides a very musical experience at a very affordable price.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Carver’s goal was to produce an amp with most of the magic of its big brothers at a very affordable price. They have succeeded in spades with the VTA20S Black Magic.
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