Vacuum Tube Logic TL-7.5 Reference line preamplifier Page 3
Big rock'n'roll was enrapturing through the TL-7.5. "Sultans of Swing," from Dire Straits' live album, Alchemy (LP, Warner Bros. 25085-1), slashed and swept across the room like a controlled tornado. Particularly wonderful were the ways the VTL handled Mark Knopfler's voice and his passionate raging against the dying of the light in the concluding guitar solo. Lightning was in the air.
As well as the power amplifiers listed in the Associated Equipment Sidebar, also spent an afternoon each with the TL-7.5 driving Atma-Sphere MA-2 triode monoblocks (250W, OTL) and a Tom Evans Audio Design Soul S30 stereo amp (30Wpc). Paired with the VTL, each of these sterling amplifiers gave a strikingly individualized sonic picture. Unsurprisingly, teaming VTL's own MB-450 Signature power amps with the TL-7.5 produced a synergy that was devastating in its ability to communicate both sound and meaning. Equally impressive if somewhat different results were achieved with the tubed and hybrid Lamm amplifiers. I've long thought that the ability of a component to maximize the differences between recordings and the sounds of other components swapped into a system is the single most reliable indicator of neutrality. There, the VTL pegged the meter.
The line stage that wasn't there
I haven't focused quite as much here on the catalog of sonic particulars that is the sum and substance of most reviews of audio gear. Components at the topmost levels of performance are now so good that, when evaluated against a checklist, the same commentary will apply to almost all of them, with only minor variations. Tonal neutrality, dynamic responsiveness, and spatial excellence are taken for granted at these levels. Traditional audio terminology was developed primarily to describe the absence of the flaws to which components have been subject. It is another thing entirely to try to describe the presence of positives; I can resort only to imperfect analogies.
When I was a law student, my legal philosophy professor assigned the class an article from the 1930s by an academic named Felix Cohen. Professor Cohen puckishly described lawyers' heaven (hold your snickering, please) as possessing a machine that could split a hair into 10,000 pieces, then parse each piece another 10,000 times.
The TL-7.5 was the audio equivalent of Professor Cohen's marvelous machine. You name it—timbre, soundstage width, depth, height, the positions of each instrument and voice, the most infinitesimal difference between dynamic shadings—the TL-7.5 resolved more subtle information from each recording and imposed less of itself on the music than I had previously heard from any piece of electronics, save possibly the Halcro dm58 power amplifiers. Nothing on any recording escaped the VTL's grasp; whenever anything seemed inappropriately thrust into prominence, it was unmistakably a reflection of choices made by recording engineers. The VTL's package of image density, continuity, and completeness was a new kind of audio experience.
In the names of transparency and detail retrieval, many components have broken down music into its tiniest component parts with the fanatical precision of a 19th-century botanical taxonomist. Though all of that detail can be something of a wonder, it is not, by itself, enough to convincingly re-create the illusion of real music coming from an audio system.
A visual analogy: Listening to LPs and CDs through hyperdetailed components is much like standing too close to a brightly spotlit painting by Monet or Seurat. The bits are all there, but the point of the work being observed is obliterated. The totality of the work, its atmosphere and the intention of the artist (or musician), are overlooked in the name of accuracy to the details. The whole is the sum of the parts in context, not merely a list of those parts; absent context, the result is an unnaturally vivid differentiation of elements that must, ideally, all be working together in harmony to properly communicate the artistic experience. Rather miraculously, the VTL TL-7.5 combined a seemingly molecular level of resolution with an agile, flowing facility at presenting context, meaning, and emotion. While no component constitutes a Platonic ideal, the TL-7.5 is the closest thing I have experienced to one.
This is not to say that the big VTL was not vivid. It was, and remarkably so, but this was a different sort of vividness from what most electronics can manage. The TL-7.5 passed tons of information; its excellence in this regard might be singular. But how all of that information was so easily and totally integrated into a coherent, continuous, and seamless whole was what made the TL-7.5 something new under the sun. With any music recorded in a way that made musical sense, there was a sensation of total effortlessness and full-body immersion in the sounds that poured forth from the speakers, regardless of the music's scale or complexity.
Get in the Ring
It is no easy thing to attempt to describe the "sound" of a component that had less intrinsic sonic character than anything else I have ever reviewed. The TL-7.5 had such an infinitesimal sound of its own, and did everything so supremely well, that I found nothing to rationally criticize. Sonically, it simply did not exist in the signal chain. I've walked this road before, with the (sadly) discontinued Jeff Rowland Design Group Coherence II line stage, which I reviewed in 1999 for The Abso!ute Sound. Living with the Coherence for nearly three years imprinted its "sound" on me permanently. The VTL was even better at disappearing. It is, by no small margin, the finest line stage I have ever heard at length.
But I offer a word of caution: A couple of super-heavyweight competitors are warming up in the bullpen as I write this. The VTL TL-7.5 has set a hellaciously high standard for line-stage performance. Is it unbeatable, at least to my ears and tastes? Will the challengers match or better the big VTL? Only time will tell, and there is never any single universal "best" in any component category. Stay tuned—this could get really interesting.