Vacuum Tube Logic TL-5.5 line preamplifier Page 2
To bring out the best in my preamps, I used the same massive yet flexible JPS Labs Aluminata AC cords I obsessively use with my power amps and Equi=Tech Balanced Power Transformers (review in the works). The fact that, dollar for dollar, one of these anaconda-sized AC cords retails for as much as the VTL TL-5.5 itself is laughable, but they offer me galactic-black silences, electron-microscope resolution, and enhance the speed and dynamic range of high-current devices by letting them operate at optimum efficiency, making it sound as if I've doubled my power and added an octave of bass.
Sweet & Lovely
I first played Arcadi Volodos' remarkable live-to-DSD CD of Schubert's Sonata in G (Sony Classical SS 89647), which I'd used in my evaluation of Simaudio's Moon i-5 integrated amplifier—though since that review I've purchased the SACD edition. For a contrasting perspective, I turned to pianist Ito Ema's dazzlingly ambient recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (M•A MO24A).
The 5.5 offered me a very moving emotional connection with the Volodos performance; I was taken aback by the top end-extension and up-close detailing, which was neither etched and analytical nor unnaturally bright and peaky. Smooth, sweet, and richly detailed, without glare or sibilance, the 5.5 gracefully tracked all of Volodos' extreme dynamic contrasts with exceptional speed and clarity, while translating the subtleties of the pianist's touch, the instrument's spectral decay, and the wealth of room cues with rhythmic ease and spatial aplomb. The VTL delivered all the enhanced depth, transparency, and dimensional realism that this definitive SACD mastering promises.
Likewise on the Bach: The 5.5 offered richly rewarding insight into the lateral imaging and more distant, symmetrical perspective that producer-engineer Todd Garfinkle achieved by removing the vintage Steinway's lid and floating his stereo array of mikes well above the performer. This God's-eye view serves to emphasize the linear aspects of Bach's conception.
Head to head, the VTL TL-5.5 split the difference aesthetically between the creamy, laid-back intimacy of the Galatea and the smooth, cool immediacy of the Nu-Vista. The Blue Circle offered a touch more holographic depth, but the Nu-Vista was more transparent and extended. The VTL handled the high frequencies in a more vibrant, involving manner—not softly inflected like the Blue Circle, but smoothly and infinitely extended, like the Nu-Vista, which contributed to the transient speed and exquisitely layered, textured dimensionality of its soundstaging. When I listened through the VTL TL-5.5, both pianos sparkled and glowed with high-frequency effervescence and midrange illumination. More significant, when the VTL was mated with the Nu-Vista 300 power amp, visitors to my den of iniquity never rushed to conclude that they were in the thrall of a tubed line stage.
I always found its midrange to be the Galatea's glory, but the TL-5.5 trumped it. I satisfied myself that the VTL was comparably juicy and detailed, but blissfully free of euphony with Alison Kraus's devotional vocal performances from T Bone Burnett's Grammy Award-winning production of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Lost Highway 088 170-069-2). We're talking about the difference between midrange tone and midrange character—between my-ode and triode. The mids of the Blue Circle and VTL were both very detailed and inviting, but the Galatea tended to smooth things over, while the 5.5 invited me deeper and deeper into the vivid acoustic of Kraus, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris on "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby." While fleshing out all manner of distant, teasing sonic artifacts (such as the faintest echo of a musical saw), the VTL localized the beckoning images and sultry tonal signatures of these three Appalachian sirens in a devoutly intimate manner.
But the VTL's luminous midrange really shone in its portrayal of the cumulous waves of vocals accompanying Kraus's angelic performance of the hymn "Down to the River to Pray." Voices seemed to manifest out of silence and recede into nothingness, suggesting the eerie presence, ambient potency, and harmonic weight of tubes, as well as the tranquil iridescence, soothing stillness, and lifelike distinction of solid-state.
But in the end, it was my experience of the 5.5 with a cornucopia of jazz and blues recordings that really gave this sonic pilgrim some of that old-time religion. On a spectral performance of "Minor Mystery," from Roy DeNunn's classic 1959 recording of that most masterful of jazz guitar trios, Pollwinners Three (Contemporary OJCCD-692-2), the VTL got the signature rhythm, pacing, dynamics, and tonal balances of a jazz combo just right. It was all there: the fundamental tonality and shimmering overtones of Shelly Manne's cymbal; the earthy bottom and woody, transient snap of Ray Brown's bass; the pungent attack and indigo intricacy of guitarist Barney Kessel's horn-like lines and chordal fanfares. The 5.5 delivered a soulful emotional connection to the collective and individual aspects of this improvised performance, just as I hear them in the mind's ear of a musician who himself plays drums, bass, and guitar.
When I find in a component as much to kvell about as I did in the VTL TL-5.5, I can't help wondering if I've gushed too fulsomely. But in head-to-head listening sessions against quality preamps that have afforded me enormous pleasure over the past few years, the TL-5.5's quickness, clarity, depth of resolution, layered soundstaging, and arresting midrange depth always proved warmly involving and musically compelling.
Richly detailed, tonally accurate, and nonfatiguing, the VTL TL-5.5 is a fine example of the midrange liquidity and human character that a finely tuned, non-invasive tube design can add to any signal chain by fleshing out a realistic palette of earth tones—even as its bass control, midrange smoothness, sparkling highs, and quiet authority suggest the performance of solid-state.
With a minimum of fuss and primping, the VTL TL-5.5 delivers useful features, no-compromise build quality, and audiophile authority at a most competitive price point. You'd have to spend a lot more to make this preamp take a back seat to any line stage, tubed or otherwise.