VTL Tiny Triode monoblock power amplifier
It was at this nadir that the young braves experienced spiritual enlightenment: hallucinations in which a Great Chief rode down from the sky on a brilliant white Appaloosa stallion with flared nostrils and burning red eyes. This Great Chief produced a painted arrow from his headdress, with scenes of the birth of man, the struggle for survival, and the horrors of the Apocalypse intricately carved along the wooden shaft. The arrowhead was a flint piece, razor-sharp and glinting in the bright yellow sun, and this he plunged deep into the boy's heart until it was shoved clear through his chest and emerged out of his back just beneath the shoulder blade. The young brave cried out, but no blood rushed forth; rather, he saw visions of the Great Plains, of the Comanche Nation leading a union of all tribes against the tyranny of Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker, of himself in full war-paint, his gangly limbs and clumsiness replaced with rippling red muscle and oneness of spirit. As the storm clouds burst open and green lightning danced across the valley, the young brave pulled the arrow from his chest in one long, triumphant gesture and held it aloft for the Great Chief to receive, but when he turned to offer it, the Great Chief had vanished into the blue night sky, leaving only the frenzied hoofprints of the stallion in the steaming mud. Thus, the brave returned to the tribe a man, and was welcomed back with much celebration and wild mushroom tea.
This is why, when John Atkinson suggested I listen to a handful of amps for my very first Stereophile review, I instinctively clutched my chest; the Great Chief had ridden right up to my doorstep, albeit in a rented Oldsmobile, and this was my trial. I knew what he was thinking: let's send this young brave a bunch of amps, all in the same general price range, and we'll just see if he doesn't start gobbling caterpillars and barking like a dog.
VTL Tiny Triode monoblocks: $1200/pair
When I saw the single small box from VTL marked "Tiny Triode," I was crestfallen; the other one must have been lost in shipping. To my astonishment, I opened it up to find both amps! You can read the dimensions, you can look at the picture, but you simply cannot get a feel for how tiny these babies are until you hold one in the palm of your hand; they're so cute you want to burp them. And it would be no more difficult than with the average infant, as the Tiny Triodes weigh only ten pounds each! In fact, they seem almost too tiny to be "real" tube amps, but that's getting ahead of the story.
The styling, while mostly similar to the larger VTLs, departs from the rest of the line with handsome red-anodized side panels that extend all the way to the top of the amps. Running between the side panels in front of the tubes is a small-diameter metal "nose-guard"; this presumably protects the tubes from being trampled by mice, sea monkeys, etc. VTL usually mounts their power and output transformers above the chassis in full view; here, they've opted for an "L-shaped" chassis, with a raised rear section concealing these parts. Only a single 47µF decoupling capacitor, two 6201/12AT7s, and four EL-84s stick out of the chassis. The actual B+ reservoir capacitors are two 350µF electrolytics hiden in the "tunnel" between the two transformers. Curiously, while VTL has fitted a very high-quality Tiffany-style RCA jack which is gold-plated, the 5-way binding post is not. A nondetachable three-prong power cord is fitted with each Triode; I found it necessary to use a cheater plug on one of the amps to break a ground loop; with both amps grounded they hummed like Druids.
Internal construction looks much improved from various VTL amps and preamps I've seen in the past, although there is still some solder flux present bridging high-impedance printed-circuit traces; the boards really should have been washed. Also, a number of the components are "tack-soldered" to the main PC board. Tack-soldering means that rather than providing a plated hole in the board to secure the component's leads through before soldering, they've simply been soldered on top of the traces. Strictly speaking, this is not good engineering practice, as solder should never be used to provide structural support; only electrical continuity.
I used the same listening system for all of the amplifiers reviewed here. The signal source was a reworked Philips CD-50, the preamp was my active-buffered passive preamp, and the speakers included my Spica Angelus speakers as well as the Thiel CS1.2s. Interconnects were Straight Wire Maestros, but David Manley also sent along some of the new and unique VTL cable. I say "unique" because the VTL was designed for use as both interconnect and speaker cable! (footnote 1) Speaker cables were 8' runs of Maestro or Cardas Hexlink Five for the stereo amps; for the Tiny Triode monoblocks, I used 1' runs of the VTL cable. All line-level components were plugged into the Audio Express NoiseTrapper Plus.
Like most amplifiers, the Tiny Triodes sounded overly bright and rough at turn-on; however, this congestion was gone after I let them cook overnight, and thereafter only a half-hour or so was needed for them to sound their best.
And how do they sound at their best?
Considering their size, amazing. Used Within Their Limits (more on this later), the VTL Tiny Triodes are some of the most musical amplifiers I've yet heard. I've always felt the true mark of a great system is when you notice how nice it sounds when you're not really paying any attention to it; I found myself constantly jerking my head up from the table as the Triodes played background music during a meal, struck by a sense of "What the—?! That sounded like a real brushed cymbal!" Or voice, or acoustic guitar, etc. There were nights when I literally couldn't finish reading a book's paragraph because my subconscious kept pricking me in the boo-tocks with a syringe labeled "REAL." In fact, I'd decided early on that it would be useful to write my reviews while listening to music with the specific component I was writing about; I even went and bought a "breakfast-in-bed" lap tray with legs so I could use my laptop while sitting on the couch in my listening room.
Footnote 1: The VTL cable consists of a twisted array of five Teflon-insulated conductors: three legs of 18ga OFC solid-core and two of 20ga stranded silver-plated OFC, all encased in a braided shield. For use as interconnect, VTL advises tying a solid-core and a twisted leg together for signal, tying another solid-core and stranded leg together for ground, and terminating the third solid-core leg plus overall shield to ground at the load end only. For speaker wire, two configurations are given: the first is to tie all five legs together along with the shield and use this for the positive side of the cable (another such leg is used for return, or negative); the second is to tie two solid-cores and a stranded together for positive, and the remaining solid-core and stranded legs plus shield together for negative. Of course, I used neither approach for my 1' lengths of monoblock cable, choosing instead to tie one solid-core and one stranded conductor together for each leg of the speaker cable, leaving the third solid-core leg and the shield unterminated at both ends.