Stop me if you've heard this one: Back in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I debated professor of music engineering and magazine columnist Ken Pohlmann on a talk show on the CBS radio network. The subject was analog sound vs digital sound, but I guess when Pohlmann felt I was getting the upper hand, he felt he needed to play the tube card. Derisively, he said, "I bet you're one of those tube guys, too, aren't you?" Before I could open my mouth, he continued: "You know, the Soviet Union's military gear, including the MIG fighters, ran on tube electronics, and look what happened to them!"
The VTL MB-450 series began life in the late 1980s as the Deluxe 300, a pair of which I once owned. Over the years the basic design has been improved and modified, in the forms of the MB-450 (1996) and the MB-450 Series II (which I reviewed in January 2008). The tube complement remains the same: eight 6550s in the push-pull output stage, a 12AT7 input tube, and a 12BH7 driver. Into a 5 ohm load, the MB-450 III is claimed to produce 425W in tetrode mode or 225W in triode, from 20Hz to 20kHz.
Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.
How much power do you really need? What does it do for you, anyway? Even before the single-ended renaissance, the prevailing wisdom was that you really didn't need that much power. When I had a pair of Met 7 speakers, even the "1 watt" indicator LED was hardly ever lit. Ditto for my time with a Threshold Stasis Two—all those cool power-indicator LEDs just sat there dark. Besides, everyone knows that power can be had only at tremendous cost, both monetary and in terms of other performance attributes.
When I reviewed VTL's MB-750 monoblock amplifier in the December 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.12), it was a transitional time for the company. Luke Manley had recently taken it over, and he and his wife and partner, Bea Lam, were aggressively retooling. They introduced new business systems, including rigorous inventory and quality control; rebuilt VTL's dealer network around top-rank dealers; and systematically upgraded the products themselves to improve their consistency, reliability, manufacturability, and performance. VTL's goal, Luke explained to me at the time, was to build amplifiers that competed with the very best, and to "make the tubes invisible to the customer."
During the time of the Native-American Comanches, a young brave had to undergo many trials by fire before he earned the respect of the tribe's adults. He was violently beaten by the men, humiliated by the women, and forced to endure physical torture such as the slow flaying of the foreskin with smoldering pine saplings drawn from the fire. Alienated from the tribe, exiled until he proved his manhood, he had to survive on wriggling cream-colored larvae and infrequent rainwater. Legend speaks of these Indian youths, dehydrated and disoriented, crawling around on their hands and knees and baying like wolves at the moon.
We have to talk. Are you sitting comfortably? Is the reading light okay? Have a little something to drink at hand? (Audio is thirsty business.) The audio world is abuzz over the reintroduction of the single-ended triode amplifier. This is the first of three reviews of such amplifiers I'll be bringing you, along with two speaker systems with which to play them.
Brian Tucker, the US Quad importer, introduced me to the Woodside MA50 tube amplifiers and their manufacturer, John Widgery, during the 1992 Summer CES. Tucker's combination of Woodside MA50 tube amplifiers and Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors sounded unusually neutral, dynamic, and detailed. This was good news; back in 1987, Dick Olsher (Vol.10 No.6, pp.104–5) was unable to recommend an earlier Woodside-manufactured amplifier, the Radford STA 25 Renaissance. Brian mentioned that the MA50's design is a much-improved version of that earlier Radford model. Time for another review.
My stepfather wore only second-hand clothes as a child and never understood why anyone would deliberately wash the color out of his new dungarees. By the same token, the senior members of our hobby, many of whom recall with fondness the transistor's advent, don't understand why anyone would now wish to throw away their newfound power. Some people deserve to be blessed for their point of view, even as the world moves away from it.
I knew nothing of Ypsilon when I first saw its products in a room at an overseas audio show. Even though the speakers in this system were complete unknowns, I was convinced that it was the electronics that were responsible for the magical balance of what I was hearing. That was confirmed when I reviewed the VPS-100 phono preamplifier in August 2009 and PST-100 Mk.II preamplifier in July 2011.