VTL Tiny Triode monoblock power amplifier Page 2
This startling sense of palpability was most readily apparent on track two of the Groove Holmes/Gene Ammons CD Groovin' With Jug (Capitol/Pacific Jazz CDP 7 92930 2), the ballad standard "Willow Weep For Me"; on this track, Groove lays out and lets Jug float the after-hours melody out over the candle-lit tables, the golden tone of his tenor punctuated by the clacking of the keys under his fat and nimble fingers. At the end of the song, the rest of the band pauses to let Jug wrap it up solo, and the VTLs put him in the room, as in, here's Jug Ammons, his blue-black hair fried, dyed, 'n' laid to the side, standing dead center and a few feet in front of the speakers. John, you were here, you heard the man; kin ah git uh witness?!
Another good example of the Tiny Triodes' remarkable ability to breathe life into the music was Kris McKay's What Love Endures CD (Arista ARCD-8586); my favorite track is the last, a stunning cover of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." This is one of the most realistic recordings of the female voice I've ever heard, and a track I can listen to a hundred times in a row (footnote 2). Unfortunately, producer Barry Beckett (of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section fame) hoses Kris down with some rather icy digital reverb, but the VTLs placed it farther back in a space distinctly separate from the direct vocal, so I could pretty much ignore it and concentrate on Kris's beautiful singing. As with Jug Ammons's sax, the Triodes uncannily put her in the room; I heard the same effect with Margo Timmons on the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session (RCA CD 8568-2-R), which was even more realistically portrayed than the multi-miked Kris McKay CD. With these three recordings (Holmes/Ammons, Kris McKay, Cowboy Junkies), the VTLs came alive to a degree no other amp in this review could even approach.
Unfortunately, it was only these three that made magic with the VTLs; almost everything else I listened to revealed one or more of the amps' weaknesses in ways that made enjoyable listening difficult, if not downright impossible. Anything with a wide dynamic range and/or strong bass (hell, midbass even) caused the sound to collapse in a decidedly abrupt manner; no "soft clipping" spoken here. You've heard the classic line, "Mama don't 'low no gi-tar"? The Tiny Triodes don't 'low no bass, which means I didn't get to play any Meters, Sly & The Family Stone, or Red Hot Chili Peppers; these are definitely not the amps for the urban dancefloor guerrilla on your Hanukah list.
Earlier, I alluded to limitations with the baby VTLs, and here it behooves us to break down their very name: Tiny Triode. Triode, of course, is the operating mode in which David Manley has chosen to run the output tubes, and, in my opinion, the main ingredient behind the sense of vivid presence. As Manley points out in The VTL Book, there are "triode-philes" silently walking among us who listen only to triode amps and nothing else; there's a certain seductive and engrossing quality triode amps seem to have in common, and the VTLs are definitely in that camp. In terms of fleshing out the outlines of instruments and vocals, soundstaging, depth, and that startling sense of "there," the VTLs were far and away the most impressive amps of the group, and the only ones that consistently distracted me from doing other chores around the house!
But as always, every yin has its yang, and here it's the word "tiny." As impressive as they may sound, there is a very real and mostly frustrating ceiling of operation with the Tiny Triodes, and this is where the dream meets reality. I was somewhat skeptical of the 25W VTLs' ability to adequately drive my Spica Angeluses, which have an average sensitivity for sealed-enclosure speakers of 87dB/W/m; David Manley suggests the Triodes be matched with higher-efficiency speakers like Klipsches and JBLs, but he was excited at the marriage of the Triodes and Spicas, and encouraged me to introduce them. And they did sound fantastic together, unfailingly musical even. But whenever I put on a CD with real bass and/or a wide dynamic range, the soundstage collapsed and audible distortion across the band could clearly be heard. The most striking example of this was JA's piano recording of Anna Maria Stanczyk on the Stereophile Test CD; even at lowish volumes, the Steinway was robbed of body and low-end extension, and the distortion was audible and amusical. This was not "tube warmth," the euphonic distortion so beloved by many audiophiles; this was IM and odd-order distortion if I ever heard it.
There has always been the tendency of some audiophiles and manufactures to separate "tube watts" from "transistor watts"; "Tube watts are louder," says this camp, and while it may be a romantic notion, it just ain't so. Watts is watts, shoot they out of a tube pin, a transistor lead, or fully grown out of Zeus's split skull. The reason for tube amps' greater apparent loudness is their Grace In Overload; most tube amps clip very gradually and gracefully when driven beyond their limits. Most transistor amps, on the other hand, reach a point where everything's hunky dory right up to rated-output, then WHAM, the distortion suddenly shoots up into many tens of percent of mostly odd-order products; this edgy, unpleasant behavior when driven into overload is why transistor amps of the same rating usually don't sound as dynamic as their tube brethren.
The Triodes tended to run out of steam more like a transistor amp than a tubed one; that is, they reached a point where the gently rising distortion just shot up into the rafters, scattering some nesting bluebirds who were grooving to the Ammons CD. The Tiny Triodes are rated at 25W and they sound as if they meet that spec and no more. Don't push them beyond those 25W; they, and you, won't like it.
I have always had a tendency to label things "The X of Y's," as in "The Dr. Seuss of riot guns," "The macaroni and cheese of sports cars," "The duck-billed platypus of the Third Reich," etc. Well, these Tiny Triodes are, to my way of thinking, "The Spica TC-50s of amplifiers": they don't go low in the bass and you can't play them very loudly, but when Used Within Their Limits, they sound utterly terrific! This is the best way I can describe them in terms of what they do so well vs where they fall short.
At $1200 the pair, the Tiny Triodes come under some stiff competition, most noticeably from the Muse Model One Hundred reviewed in this issue. The Muse is a more capable amp all around, and I suspect it would be the better choice for most audiophiles interested in a wide range of music. Also, for nearly the same amount, a pair of B&K ST-202s or Adcom GFA-555 IIs can be had, delivering far more power and better bass capability. I haven't heard the B&K, but JA sent along the new Adcom for me to listen to in comparison with the other amps, and I agree that it is much better than the original 555. However, in direct comparison with the Triodes, only the VTLs drew me into the music. The Adcom never flinched, but neither did it seduce; the Triodes made me put down a barbecued pork rib with Sam's spicy sauce dripping down my arm in mid-bite to stare slack-jawed at the Spicas teleport Jug Ammons into my living room!
I asked the same question of everyone who came over and heard them: "Would you buy these $1200 25W amps that have no bass and don't like to be driven hard?" It was like asking them if they'd buy little Scotch terrier pups that whizzed on the carpet and chewed the upholstery: "But they're so cute!," often baby-talked with one or both of the amps resting in the palm of their hand.
Now, would I buy the Tiny Triodes? Hard call. Of all the amps I listened to here, the VTLs had the most uncannily realistic sense of space and presence, but were ultimately frustrating to listen to with most of my favorite music; Elvis was not put here on Earth to sing "Do The Clam" at 65dB. The Triodes make me want to hear VTL's larger amps in my system, particularly the larger triode models like the MB300 models and the Deluxe 225 monoblocks that have Robert Harley so entranced. At $1200, the VTL Tiny Triodes must be considered specialty amps; that is, for the select few who aren't particularly bothered by the low power and lack of real bass. If this applies to you, I can definitely recommend them. They are, limitations aside, a whole mess of fun!
Footnote 2: Which is the only way I can use something as an evaluation tool...I gotta like it! I'm sorry; no matter how well-recorded Ana Caram's voice is on the Chesky Test CD, that stuff just isn't my cup'o'chamomile. I once had a dream that the Chesky Brothers hitched along with Sherman and Mr. Peabody back to Nashville ca '55 and helped Owen Bradley record Patsy Cline with all that 128x-sampling voodoo; that'll teach me to eat pickled okra before bedtime with "I Fall To Pieces" on infinite repeat.