VTL MB-450 Series II Signature monoblock power amplifier Wes Phillips, March 2009
VTL Amplifiers head honcho, Luke Manley, promised me a pair of his MB-450 Series II Signature monoblocks ($13,500/pair) to audition when he delivered a TL-6.5 Signature preamplifier for my Follow-Up in the July 2008 issue. Apparently, it took him a while to pry them out of Michael Fremer's hands. I had other things to worry about, but Michael Fremer's review in the January 2008 Stereophile (Vol.31 No.1) had really piqued my interest. I was once a rabid tubeaholic like Mikey, but have drifted away over the years as clever designers have wrested more and more information from recordings using solid-state circuits. Would the MB-450 IIs reverse my apostasy?2
Not in the first system I tried them in. As I observe in my review of the YGA Anat Reference II Professional loudspeaker elsewhere in this issue, the MB-450 II Signatures sounded good driving the YGAs, but seemed to lack luster in the upper frequencies. Was that a signature of the power amps, or was I simply asking them to drive a load that was less than ideal?
I left the humongous YGAs in my large listening room and lugged the MB-450 IIs down to my smaller roomfar easier than doing it the other way aroundwhere I hooked them up to the VTL TL-6.5 Signature and Thiel CS3.7 speakers and used Simaudio's Moon Supernova CD player as the source. Although the Thiels are a bit of a load (as John Atkinson might say), the MB-450 IIs were able to sort them outeven in triode mode.
Ernie Watts's alto saxophone on "Etude," from Charlie Haden's The Private Collection (CD, Naim CD108), had oodles of harmonic overtones floating above the fundamental, and Alan Broadbent's piano had heft and body. When Billy Higgins added a cymbal flourish at the end of the verse statement of the melody, they shimmeredno, sizzled. Oh, there was lots of top end there. Haden's small-bodied acoustic bass was also quite specifically delineatedas was, when the crowd applauded, the large acoustic of At My Place.
Patricia Barber's "Romanesque," from her Café Blue (CD, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 737), was awash with reverberation that the MB-450 IIs revealed to be a blend of a large acoustic and studio sweetening. It was lush and atmospheric as all get-out. Still, the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar was vividly set off within the overall warmth and washbrilliant flashes of brightness in the mist.
Speaking of brightness, the Beau Hunks' "In the Dark," from Contrasts (CD, Basta 9128), perfectly balanced a solo clarinet against the rest of the woodwinds. The balance of solo against ensemble was very subtlybut emphaticallyrendered.
James Carter's Chasing the Gypsy (CD, Atlantic 83304) was astonishing. It's Carter's homage to Django Reinhardt, played (on three tracks, at least) on that most unlikely of instruments, the bass saxophone. Even if you actually have heard a bass sax (they're rare), you've never heard one sound like this. Carter goes down deep and plays with remarkable agility. As marveled Fred Kaplan, who introduced me to this disc, "Where does he get the air?"
On "Nuages," the VTLs kicked the Thiels in the seat, creating a hugeand therefore realisticimage of Carter's horn, with all the growling, grunting physicality of his ungainly instrument. For the title track, Carter turns to soprano sax, and the MB-450s and Thiels nailed that, too, as Carter and his cousin Regina Carter, recapitulating Stéphane Grappelli's role on violin, chase each other over the musical landscape.
Listening to Joe Cea's arrangement for 15-piece ensemble of Gershwin's Three Preludes on Rhapsody (CD, Stereophile STPH010-2) returned me to the First United Methodist Church in Albuquerque with a specificity that I found remarkable. I know this place, I thought. I have been here before. True, but not in over 10 yearsand seldom so vividly.
My initial experience with the VTL MB-450 Series II Signatures simply proved that most basic of all audio axioms: Systems have synergy, and the best component in the world might not work well within a specific system. Clearly, the MB-450 IIs sounded remarkable when used with the Thiel CS3.7 speakersand with the Usher Be-718s and the Dynaudio Special 25s.
Further, I found that the VTLs lived up to Luke Manley's stated goal of producing tubed components that are as easy to live with as their solid-state compeers. They auto-bias the output tubes, and even turn on sequentially after the preamplifier when you connect them using VTL's bidirectional RS-232 interface. When you don't have to think about the gear, you tend to concentrate on the music.
With VTL's MB-450 Series II Signatures, I concentrated on a lot of music.Wes Phillips