Luke Manley and Bea Lam of VTL: Vital Sound Page 2

Bea soon became a devoted audiophile. Gifted with a strong self-image, she was never concerned about being the only woman in her class who loved audio gear and had two amplifiers at home. Nor did she feel she needed to apologize for herself when, after landing a high-pressure job in Silicon Valley as software project manager for Hewlett-Packard, she would enter a high-end store with a host of LPs under her arm and begin auditioning gear.

Needing to unwind and uninterested in TV, Bea returned to her Sunnyvale home at the end of each workday to listen to music. In short order, she became a fan of VTL gear. When she met Luke, she was already the satisfied owner of classic VTL Deluxe 225 monoblocks from the 1980s, which she paired with an Audio Research preamp and MartinLogan CLS1 loudspeakers.

"Before I owned VTL [components]," says Bea, "I owned Conrad-Johnson, and before that solid-state. I couldn't stand solid-state. My ears were buzzing, and I'd get headaches. So I started to get into tube amps. The tonal quality was much improved with the C-J, but it didn't have the power to play orchestral music. Given my love for opera and big symphonic pieces, I needed something that would satisfy my need to play those recordings. The VTL gave me what I was looking for. It gave me so much enjoyment that I didn't think that my system needed improvement.

"My audiophile buddies used to bring their Audio Research amps over to compare with my VTLs. Every time, the VTL outperformed their amps. The VTL sound had the depth and foundation that the Audio Research was lacking at the time. Until you have bass, midbass, and midrange richness—the real core—the sound isn't real."

Sometime before the VTL/Manley split, Luke and EveAnna flipped a coin to decide who would conduct a demo in Mountain View, one community over from Sunnyvale. Luke got the job. Bea's friend Philip, who now owns her old 225s, called to tell her that someone from VTL would conduct a Saturday-afternoon seminar at the store. Not knowing what to expect, Bea encountered Luke holding forth to a roomful of people.

Love at first sight? Not really. "Of course, I had a special love for VTL," Bea acknowledges. "To be able to connect a person to the equipment you listen to every day was a really special thing, especially when Luke's personality came through. When you first meet him, you know that he's very comfortable with himself. He's not just friendly; he's sincere. I liked his energy, and wanted to get to know him better."

"All I was trying to do was sell her a preamp," protests Luke with a laugh. "We had two models, the Super Deluxe and the Ultimate. They were very ambitiously named. I went around to her house. Man, I did a custom install. I biased Bea's amps. She had never ever biased her amps."

"Hey!" Bea retorts. "There was no owner's manual. I had no idea."

"Listen," says Luke, "we were the leaders of 'no owner's manual'. My dad was one of those people who said, 'Someone who doesn't know how to bias an amp doesn't deserve to own a VTL.' That was my dad's Customer Service 101."

Luke may have lost out in the preamp department—Bea bought an Audio Research SP9—but he won big elsewhere. Overcoming his reluctance to put the moves on a customer, he responded to Bea's thank-you card by returning for a home-cooked meal. With talk of attenuators temporarily set aside, they married the following year.

Sound Beyond Measurements
Not only did Bea marry Luke but she became a part of the company as well. Together, they set out to refine the VTL sound. They extended, sweetened, and speeded up the top end, and introduced precision-regulated power supplies.

"Our sound was darker then," says Bea. "If you hear the older equipment, the brass and woodwinds sound nothing like they do now. Those sections of the orchestra have been opened up far more, especially when you play huge pieces like the Mahler Second. The sound is very rich and full-range.

"Amps should be able to supply a solid foundation in the lower bass, and be rich in harmonics from the midbass upward. I want to stay away from a clean, white sound. In the older equipment, there wasn't enough resolution. The sound was rounded, but it was blurry; you couldn't hear all the lines. Especially when we designed the 7.5 preamp, it was important to break from a classic, very tubey sound to a neutral presentation that retains the musical harmonics of a tube product without being timid."

"Power, man," says Luke. "You need power. Our amps needed to produce that dynamic, fast sound that seems as if it's never going to give up or gas out on you. We also needed to design a preamp and build our strength in the front-end, which has such a great effect on the sound."

"It was hardest to get the 7.5 preamp right," says Bea. "It took almost five years of listening, redesigning, and listening again to develop it. We kept on working, looping and looping the process. We needed to push the last 5 or 10% of the envelope, to go all out and create a breakthrough product, not just the 'same old.' Now we're happy. We know we've done something good."

Bea speaks with authority. In addition to managing VTL's day-to-day operations, she serves a unique function in the company. With her knowledge of classical music and fine attunement to natural sound, Bea serves as VTL's "ears."

"My basic skill," says Luke, "is going to our dealers and finding out what kind of product they want in terms of power, price, and features. I then go to the engineers and tell them what we want to come up with and how we want to approach it. Once they design a circuit, we rig it up, put it on the bench, and make sure it works and measures right. I also ensure that the product conforms to VTL's vision.

"Then we take it out to the listening area. That's where Bea comes in. Sometimes we've developed a design that would measure fantastic, with wide bandwidth and incredible linearity. Bea would listen to it and say, 'Yes, everything is there. It's got the top, it's got the bottom, and it measures perfectly. But boy, is it boring to listen to.' Then we go back to the drawing board many times. Even after the prototype is developed, we produce several cuts to fine-tune the sound. You can't do that if you don't have the basic sonic characteristics in place."

"Boring refers to the color and timbre of the music," Bea explains. "A good piano has a lot of overtones. It's the overtones that make up the sound, rather than the single frequency of a given note. Other instruments are similar. What we're looking for, besides the dynamics and power of the full orchestra, is the ability to correctly convey the sound of instruments. Whether it's a single violin or piano, our equipment absolutely has to get it right. If you're designing reference products and you can't get the color, you cannot capture the essence of the music."

When VTL first tried to figure out how to make its sound less boring, the engineers tried zero feedback. In Luke's words, "it sounded grainy and not very good." Then they slowly added feedback until music sounded "interesting and right." Sufficient feedback also permitted error correction for nonlinearity.

Bea Lam's Listening Routine
When evaluating a VTL prototype, Bea avoids the kind of music often heard at demos—music that tends to mask flaws in equipment—and instead chooses material that presents significant challenges. First she tests for tonal balance and color. Playing the first movement of Schubert's Piano Quintet, D.667, the "Trout," in the version with Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Quartet, she focuses on the tone and color of the five different instruments—especially piano, violin, and viola—as their lines intersect and diverge.

Next she establishes the degree of clarity (resolution) in those same, often dialoguing instrumental lines. "It's important to be as close to the live experience as possible," she explains. "When you're listening live, all your senses are open, and you can hear the interplay of the instruments. To me, that's very important. Do the different instrumental lines blend well together? Is there something missing?"

Of equal importance is what Bea calls "the continuity of the music itself." Playing Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's LP of Beethoven's Piano Concerto 2, she listens as his hands glide across the keyboard from the bottom octave to the highest notes. Only when the tonal quality is continuous does Bea find a piece of equipment promising.

"I'm also sensitive to the overtones and harmonics of the piano," she notes. "In a good system, the piano's tonal depth and overtones should open up. When it's not right, the tone is compressed. It lacks roundness, and the piano sounds veiled. Knowing what a Hamburg Steinway sounds like in a live concert hall, I listen to see how much of the tonal quality the equipment can capture."

In the all-important vocal department, Bea favors tenor Fritz Wunderlich and baritone Frank Sinatra. "Sinatra is very interesting, because he has a rich baritone," she says. "If the equipment is not right, he almost sounds as if he is only singing from the head upward. But if the equipment is doing its job, you should hear his voice coming from the diaphragm all the way up to the chest."

For large-scale symphonic fare, Bea uses Elgar's Enigma Variations because it has short sequences with different instrumental combinations, some very fast and dynamic, others quite calm. At home, on the Wilson MAXX 2s, she listens to Georg Solti's recording of Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre to hear how well VTL gear can capture the impact and dynamics of the full orchestra. "The $45,000 Siegfrieds and the 7.5 preamp had better be able to do it!"

I think they do.

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nunhgrader's picture

Lovely article!

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