VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature line preamplifier Page 2
The low end of the TL-5.5 II's frequency range was one of its strengths: all acoustic, electric, and electronic bass instruments sounded deep, punchy, clean, uncolored, and dynamic. Although for the past 20 years Bill Laswell has been best known as a music producer, I'm more a fan of Laswell the bassist. He can pull a wider range of timbral textures from a Fender bass than any other human being, but his live performances are infrequent. I had to travel to London to hear his New Yorkbased band, Material, perform in the early 1980s at, of all places, an S&M club (the gift shop was interesting). My favorite of Laswell's bands is Massacre, a free-form power trio with Fred Frith (who trades in his bass guitar for a Gibson ES-335 guitar and a Marshall amplifier stack) and drummer Charles Hayward. (I did see this band perform in New York early in the century, but they'd unfortunately added John Zorn on alto sax, and despite my worship of Zorn's compositions, I felt his work as a saxophonist interfered with the ability of the other three to create space and drama.) When I played Massacre's Meltdown (CD, Tzadik TZ-7606), Laswell's axe thundered through my listening room with the VTL, yet I was still able to discern his subtle fingering technique and tasteful use of the occasional electronic effect. Drummer Hayward was also kicking and forceful, and the VTL had no problem differentiating between the kick drum and Laswell's stringed machinations.
Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 19691974, Laswell's brilliant remixing of Miles Davis's recordings (CD, Columbia CK 67909), layers groove and detail. The VTL's resolution was such that I could imagine myself at the mixing board, visualizing every step of Laswell's innovative DJ machinations. The preamp also made it easy to analyze the techniques of piano virtuosos. I played through much of my Van Cliburn collection in honor of his recent death. With recordings both solo (My Favorite Chopin; LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2576) and with orchestra (Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3 at Carnegie Hall, with Kiril Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air; LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2355), the VTL revealed the master's chops to be clean, crisp, uniform, airy, and dynamic. David Chesky's technically challenging New York Rags, for solo piano (CD, Chesky JD359), is a hoot that combines classical and jazz textures in a quirky collection of very short pieces that barely follow rag form. Through the VTL, Chesky's rapid-fire passages were cleanly executed, with a noticeable bed of air between notes.
The TL-5.5 II's excellent ability to articulate transients was evident with a broad range of recordings. Iannis Xenakis's Akrata, with Lukas Foss conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic (LP, Nonesuch H-71201), includes a passage in which tutti brass play a series of repeated rapid-fire notes. Through the VTL, each note was distinct, with no sense of smear, and I could hear each one decay. In John Tilbury's recording of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (LP, Decca Head 9), all percussive textures were delicate, fast, and airy. I even enjoyed listening deeply into George Martin's execution of his faux-harpsichord solo (it's actually an upright piano played back at double speed, and thus an octave higher) in "In My Life," from the Beatles' Rubber Soul (CD, Parlophone PMC 1267), which sounded clear and clean through the VTL.
The VTL's ability to deliver dramatic, high-level fortissimos made it an excellent match for orchestral war horses, such as Paul Paray conducting the Detroit Symphony in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (CD, Mercury Living Presence 434 328-2). With certain orchestral recordings, however, such as Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra in his own The Composer and the Orchestra (CD, Mercury Living Presence 434 371-2), I did feel that there was a bit of tension and forwardness in the most highly modulated passagesas if the TL-5.5 II had to work hard to reproduce every last ounce of bombast. However, at the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, the VTL revealed every inner detail, subtle instrumental phrasing, and sense of air and space in Witold Rowicki's recording, with the Symphony Orchestra of the National Philharmonic Warsaw, of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra (LP, Philips 6500628).
I've been preparing for a live recording gig in May in New York City at which my jazz quartet, Attention Screen, rather than our usual free improvisation, will perform original jazz and classical works. Instead of my usual piano, I'll play the recently refurbished Ralph and Alice Greenlaw Organ, a 1928 Austin instrument completely rebuilt by Peragallo in 2010. To get in the mood, I dug out my favorite Keith Jarrett recording, Invocations/The Moth and the Flame (LP, ECM 1201/02), in which Jarrett improvises on a pipe organ at Ottobeuren Abbey, in Bavaria, then overdubs himself playing soprano sax in the same space. The sense of space in the huge sanctuary was captured perfectly by the VTL. From my notes: "the air, the drama, the organ!"
Finally, a series of jazz piano-trio recordings let me hear the TL-5.5 II's ability to portray a coherent sense of rhythmic unity. I worked my way through several discs of The Complete Blue Note Recordings of pianist Herbie Nichols (CD, Blue Note CDP 8 5932 2), and found myself tapping my feet and swinging my knees to Nichols's up-tempo grooving.
I compared the VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature ($7000) with three other line stages: my own Audio Valve Eklipse ($5799), the Nagra Jazz ($12,250) and Audio Research Reference 5 SE ($14,000).
The Audio Valve Eklipse revealed more inner detail, decay, and ambience in the midrange, though its midrange was more forward than the VTL's. The Eklipse's highs also seemed more extended and airy. Although both preamps excelled at bass definition and high-level dynamics, the Audio Valve sounded more relaxed with the latter, and did not exhibit any sense of tension in highly modulated passages.
The Nagra Jazz resolved even more inner detail and retrieved more ambience than the VTL or the Audio Valve, with even greater senses of high-frequency purity and clarity. However, the TL-5.5 II was more forceful and extended at the extreme low end.
ARC's Reference 5SE produced the greatest sense of space, with even more resolution of detail and superior articulation of transients. The ARC was also the best at articulating low-level dynamics. However, the VTL TL-5.5 II had a more forceful midbass in high-level dynamic passages.
VTL Amplifiers has produced a winner. The TL-5.5 Series II Signature has a detailed, liquid, uncolored sound, a wide dynamic range that mirrors that of live music, rugged construction, and a long list of featuresin short, a good value for the price. I'm sorry I waited so long to review a VTL product.