I had a wonderful audio moment the other night. It was late in the evening, after a long day. I was standing in the middle of my makeshift listening room—Trish's dining room—and in spite of the fact that we were moving in just a few weeks, I'd just unpacked and set up my combo of VPI TNT Mk.V-HR turntable and tonearm with Grado Statement cartridge and dug a box of LPs out of the stacks in the garage. I cued up Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic CS 8192), and the first notes of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" froze me in my tracks.
Over the course of several months, during which time I auditioned the Vacuum Tube Logic TL-5.5 tubed line-stage preamp with a variety of power amps and loudspeakers, I began to reassess many long-held notions about the "characters" of solid-state and tube components. Sometimes the TL-5.5 revealed its musical pedigree with all the midrange juiciness and sublime textural detail that one traditionally associates with a triode front-end, while at others it evinced a level of focus, transparency, and frequency extension I more readily associate with solid-state purity—all in a stylish package featuring a remote volume control and a full range of performance enhancements that belied its affordable price.
What comes to mind when you think of VTL? If you're like most of us, enormously powerful tube power amplifiers are inseparable from the name. To contemplate VTL is to think of some of the finest-sounding, most potent amps ever built—from the late-1980s, 400Wpc Ichiban, the first massively powerful tube monoblock of the audiophile era, to the mighty Wotan and Siegfried amplifiers of today. All well and good, as far as it goes.
You know me. I'm not perzackly an audio slut, but I am easy. When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman called me to pitch the Vincent KHV-1pre tube-transistor headphone amplifier, he pretty much had me at "tube" and "headphone." But I wasn't familiar with Vincent Audio.
As I've lately had the pleasure of reviewing some impressive tubed components, I asked myself why I hadn't ever reviewed anything from VTL Amplifiers. My history with VTL goes back to the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago (wouldn't it be great if CES returned to that city?), where Vacuum Tube Logic cofounder Luke Manley and his father, the late David Manley, made a big splash with David's preamps and amplifiers. To publicize the fact that amps were designed and made in Britain, the Manleys wore the cheesiest Union Jack T-shirts I'd ever seenthe kind they sell in those cheap tourist traps in Piccadilly Circus. When I recently ribbed Luke about those shirts, he admitted that "They fell apart as soon as we returned home." I told him that I hoped his products were more rugged.
I've long admired Vacuum Tube Logic's line of amplifiers and preamplifiers. Owners Luke Manley and his wife Bea Lam routinely appear at the Consumer Electronics and Home Entertainment shows with luxurious, microprocessor-controlled tube gear, soothing new music, good-sounding rooms, and a friendly, unhurried manner. Their show setups are dialed in so well that I often find myself taking refuge there, sitting and listening for hours with other Stereophile writers.
I had been sent a sample of the Woodside SC26 tube preamplifier during my June 1994 review of Woodside's MA50 monoblock amplifier (Vol.17 No.6). Although I used a number of preamplifiers during that review, I was most impressed with the MA50s' spacious, three-dimensional soundstage when driven by the SC26. At the time, I had an impression that the SC26's sonics combined a midrange richness with a good dynamic range. Although I had to return the Woodside MA50s to the importer after I reviewed them, I continued listening to the SC26.
Though essentially a two-man operation based in Athens, Greece, Ypsilon Electronics has been, since 1995, turning ears and eyes throughout the audiophile world with purist, hand-crafted electronics whose sound seems to defy characterization. Even under audio-show conditions in difficult hotel rooms, and often driving unfamiliar loudspeakers, the sound of Ypsilon electronics seems to evaporate in ways that few products manage, leaving behind less residue and more music.
When Carolyn Counnas, co-founder of Zesto Audio, contacted editor John Atkinson to ask about getting the Leto, the company's tubed line stage preamplifier ($7500), reviewed in Stereophile, JA suggested that I do the job. I'd recently reviewed competing designs from Nagra and VTL (see reviews in April 2013 and June 2013, respectively) and I was thrilledI always look forward to hearing a tube preamp from a company I'm unfamiliar with, and besides, I'd seen pictures of the drop-dead-gorgeous Leto. After nearly 30 years of reviewing all sizes and pedigrees of preamps, power amps, and integrateds, I'm weary of staring at nondescript rectangular boxes in various shades of silver and black.