VTL Compact 160 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

The more I listened to the Compact 160s, though, the more I liked them. Rather than grab me by the cojones like the Tiny Triodes, they just blew me kisses from across the room. Extended listening proved the new VTLs to be more neutral than their forebears, with a softer but still detailed high end. If a cymbal crash was there, the VTLs reproduced it in all its doped-brass glory. Jug Ammons's tenor (Groovin' With Jug, Capitol/Pacific Jazz CDP 7 92930 2) came through with all of its squeals and overtones happily intact. But bright I wouldn't call the VTLs.

The midrange, long an area in which VTL amps have excelled, is really special: fast, transparent, holographic, it made vocals like the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins (The Trinity Session, RCA 8568-2-R) sound as real and lifelike as I've heard in my living room. Depth and soundstaging, too, are excellent. The Compact 160s throw up a wide, spacious soundfield that all but commands you to close your eyes and submit. During the course of the review, I made a cassette dub of some of my original music for a friend; the song, Eden, is a multi-tracked instrumental with a lot of guitars, some forward and some backward, moving all across the landscape. Listening to this recording with the VTLs was like listening to a brand-new mix; there were depth and subtlety I wasn't even aware of before! (footnote 3) The psychedelic title cut of my Austin homeboy Eric Johnson's Ah Via Musicom (Capitol C1-90517) swirled, sparkled, and neighed like a horse all over my room; suffice it to say, the 160s give good space.

Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Switch!
Hell, I'll just save you the suspense: I dug the VTL Compact 160s the most in triode mode. The dynamic headroom lowered considerably, the gain was reduced, and the KT90s probably won't last as long, but the triode mode was so seductive I couldn't help myself. Every time I auditioned the pentode-switched amps, my monkey bone kept whispering, "But imagine how this would sound in triode mode!" Set up for triode operation, the Compact 160s are clean and clear, as devoid of grain and hardness as any amps I've heard.

Now just because I preferred the triode mode, that doesn't mean the pentode mode is lousy; far from it. Even though the amp didn't quite sound as loud as its claimed 160W, the pentode mode did offer quite a bit of additional headroom in comparison to triode operation, which I'd guess put out no more than around 60W before clipping. Still, the triode mode was the more vivid and alive. Vocals, especially, were much more fleshed-out, with more of a sense of weight. AudioQuest's stunning recording of bluesman Robert Lucas (Usin' Man Blues, AudioQuest AQ-CD1001 (footnote 4) perfectly demonstrated the difference between the Compact 160's character in pentode and triode modes: with the amps set for pentode operation, everything the recording had to offer was right there, laid out in all of its detail. But switching over to triode brought Lucas's guitar and vocals into even sharper focus, with spurious resonances on his steel-body National gaining more clarity and prominence. On the cuts with a full band of acoustic stringed instruments, the triode was the better mode in fully delineating the image outlines; it was just plain more exciting to listen to!

One area of weakness both modes seem to share is an overly ripe midbass. This was immediately noticeable on both the Angeluses and the NHT 2.3s; male vocals became slightly fuller than normal, lending them a sense of bloat in stark contrast to the neutrality of the midrange and the highs. And as far as ultra-low bass goes, the VTLs are better than most tube amps I've heard in control and weight, but aren't in the same league as good solid-state amplifiers. The Muse Model One Hundred had much better definition and control throughout the low bass; even the much less expensive Adcom GFA-555 II had substantially tighter and more powerful bass than the Compact 160s. Gee...if only there was a way to harness the bass control of good solid-state design with the crystal-clear midrange and highs of the triode-mode VTLs...

Won't you come back, Muse Bailey?
Aw, c'mon! It was sitting right there; I had to try it! As I said in my July turntable roundup, the Muse Model 18 subwoofer has been absolutely killer in my system, giving the Spicasbass and dynamic capability across the board they never dreamed of. Inside this huge black bass muh-cheen is a Muse 225W MOSFET amplifier driving twin slot-loaded 10" woofers below 75Hz; the promise of the Muse and the VTL Compact 160s was too great to ignore, so after I'd listened to the VTLs solo, I hooked up my preamp's outputs to the Muse and ran its high-pass line-level outputs to the VTLs/Spicas.

And The Gods Made Love.

It's all there. Once I had the Muse aligned spatially with the Spicas, it simply ceased to exist; the VTLs just suddenly had several octaves more bass, along with the extreme tightness and power of good solid-state. The upper-bass emphasis was reduced as well, though still marginally audible on some vocals. But the coolest thing was the transition point, where solid-state handed off the baton to the tubes: there wasn't any! I mean, I listened for that sucker, and I just couldn't pick it out. The tight, muscular bass just effortlessly moved up into the triode-clear upper-bass/midrange as if the two amps were simply one awesome, all-encompassing unit that had it all. The audio "holy grail" of a true hybrid was before me, and I was gulping its sweet nectar like a wild pig!

Relieved of the hassles of the sub-75Hz workload, the Compact 160s sailed through music even more dramatically. Yes, I realize that I'm not supposed to be able to aid and abet an amplifier under review by making its life easier with a monstrous powered subwoofer, but life's too short for supposed-to's; the name of the game here is Making The Musicians Jump Out Of Those Wooden Things With The Grille Cloths, and the VTL/Muse combo is a real winner. Here's a way to look at it: consider the VTL Compact 160/Muse Model 18 subwoofer combo a pair of tube amplifiers (footnote 5) that will dramatically extend the bass and dynamic-range capabilities of almost any speaker on the market; at a combined price of $5500, less than either Stereophile's Class-A–ranked Air Tight ATM-2 or Prodigy 150 OTL tube amps, I think this combo is a giant-killer.

Taken on their own, the VTL Compact 160 monoblocks are highly musical amplifiers, offering extreme ease and clarity throughout the midrange and high end. There's a total lack of fatigue with the 160s, especially in their triode mode, that makes extended listening an almost sensual pleasure. Sure, I wish they'd had more juice, but then I always wish that of most everything and everyone I encounter. For $3000/pair, the VTL Compact 160s offer excellent value, and if they'll play your music loud enough to suit you, I strongly recommend them.

Footnote 3: The monitor system in the studio I recorded Eden at wasn't remotely in the same league as the VTL/Spica combo.

Footnote 4: I still can't believe this recording ever really happened; Kavi Alexander sets up his superbad EAR mikes and tubed 1" Studer open-reel machine, the whole thing's wired with Lapis for chrissakes, and what does he point this whole wonderful recording system at? A guy playing Delta blues on a steel-body National!! I mean, this is absurd! Stuff like this isn't supposed to take place; it's too perfect. I can't stand most modern blues recordings, but this guy Lucas can really play. And his singing is very appropriate; none of that Amos'n'Andy whiteboy shuck like George Thorogood. All Robert Johnson got for his soul was some poisoned whiskey and the legacy of yuppies listening to his CDs in their Beamers; what did Lucas sell to get this amazing recording?!

Footnote 5: And, admittedly, a big speaker cabinet that, for best performance, should really be sitting right between your speakers; just where you probably want it the least. Mine's right in front of my equipment stand, about 2' out, but the stellar bass performance is far and away worth the hassles of walking around the big galoot.