VTL IT-85 integrated amplifier Page 3

As the IT-85 burned in, my appreciation of its grace and musicality only deepened. It had all the mellowness and sweet extension you'd expect from a good EL34 output circuit, but with a surprising level of rhythmic authority. Comparing apples and oranges, the IT-85 didn't have the ultra-transparent purity, alpine airiness, and backlit detail of a solid-state box such as the 100W Magnum Dynalab MD 208, but it more than held its own in terms of linearity, bass focus, and harmonic detail.

Still, for all its resolution and articulation, the IT-85's midrange was, if not exactly opaque, then slightly shaded in a manner that suggested the presence of negative feedback. But the IT-85 doesn't use feedback as a sonic tourniquet; its signature was more perceptible as a slight mellowing than as a loss of resolution, conferring more drive and clean headroom, more pure level before the onset of clipping. When I tried to clip the amp with a raw, forceful live mix of Jimi Hendrix's harpsichord-like chord/melody improvisations on "Bold As Love" (from the recent 4-CD The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Experience Hendrix/MCA 088 112 318-2), there was an onset of midrange grain and some compression, but little glare.

While the EL34s didn't deliver the kind of low-end weight and rhythmic impact you might expect from 6550s (the better to reproduce the scale and chakra-rattling slam of a live rock event), the IT-85 no longer seemed so light in its loafers. Even in such a distorted live recording as the Hendrix, the IT-85 was able to deliver a convincingly deep soundstage, realistic dynamics, and rock-stable images, with the kind of aged-in-oak Balsamic midrange bouquet that fans of EL34s and coherent two-ways hanker after.

Cable Synergy
I was further able to accentuate system synergy by completing the circuit with Monster Cable's Sigma Retro speaker cables and interconnects. Early in the audition process I was using JPS Superconductor 2 speaker cables, which had sounded splendidly linear and extended with my reference Nu-Vista combo. But as the Sigma Retros were specifically engineered for tube gear, I tried a pair of their speaker cables and right away was taken with the enhanced warmth, focus, and detail in the upper bass and lower midrange.

I replaced all of my interconnects with Sigma Retros and enjoyed their euphonic tonal palette, with its surprisingly crisp, laid-back top end, smooth, balanced frequency response, and pleasingly plump bottom end. While the Sigma Retro interconnects brought out the elemental creaminess of the EL34s, they kept a tight enough rein on the proceedings that, when I played some fresh 20-bit re-re-masterings (minus the original CD issue's blinding digital glare) of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra's magisterial 1951 cycle of the Brahms symphonies, recorded in Carnegie Hall (RCA Red Seal 55838 2), the overall presentation was very triode-like and airy—yet I never lost sight of the music's complex inner details or rhythmic verve.

Two Over Easy
I spent a lot of my listening time indulging my senses in the all-singing, all-dancing possibilities of the VTL IT-85. Reduced to the bare essentials of running our integrated amp sans pickle, hold lettuce, the IT-85's performance parameters came more or less down to earth, reduced somewhat in scale and ease of reproduction. Still, this is probably the most cost-effective, musically satisfying performer of all the tubed integrated amps I've yet encountered. And while I was more than sold on the IT-85's attributes as a $2500 integrated amp, I see the upgrade path as less an option than a Biblical destiny. I mean, this combo represents such a sonic gusto dunk—there's just more of everything!

Did I hear someone say "double-decker"? If you can afford the extra $1750 for VTL's matching ST-85 power amp, and another $1395 for the clear, speedy Soliloquy S10 powered subwoofer, then you're talking layers of goodness—a Wendy's Triple Decker Bacon Cheeseburger with extra onions and all the fixings. Have it your way, indeed: immense, uncolored bass extension; taut transient response; uncommonly deep soundstaging; enhanced stereo separation and lateral imaging stability; a velvety, open midrange that never shortchanges detail for euphony; smooth high-frequency extension; and a lack of peakiness throughout the entire frequency range.

Hey, forget the Soliloquy pipe dream if you like; a subwoofer represents a significant enhancement but it's hardly a necessity. While I loved the extra bottom-octave speed and heft, ultimately it was the enhanced headroom I achieved through the use of a dedicated power source for each individual driver that made the critical difference. Sure, there was a tradeoff in terms of absolute bass, but the low-end extension was still exceptionally taut, linear, and realistic, while the overall presentation became even more open and transparent. There was more sparkle and shimmer without Mr. Sub.

The ability to biamp would likely be of even greater import if the second amp covered only the frequencies below, say, 300Hz, a popular crossover point in many three-ways and other full-range systems. But biamping was anything but an indulgence for a coherent pair of two-ways like the Joseph RM7si Signatures, with their steep crossover at 2kHz. In the straight horizontal biamp mode I was able to minimize all kinds of distortion, crosstalk, and impedance anomalies, which translated into an intoxicating level of sonic purity on the top end: the tweeter was no longer echoing the bass driver's life-and-death battle for juice. All of the performance parameters I've come to appreciate in the Joseph RM7si Signatures were enhanced to the max—particularly in terms of dynamics, dimensionality, and stereo separation. Comparable to the high-current capabilities of my Nu-Vista amplifier (300W into 8 ohms)? No. I could indeed drive this 60W-per-driver rig hard enough to clip, but I rarely came close.

What's really magic about biamping speakers is how you're able to approximate some of the steely slam, focus, and frequency extension of solid-state while further accentuating the elemental liquidity of a vacuum-tube midrange. You don't have to sacrifice tone to achieve driver control and stability—suddenly everything about your speakers is more vivid and cleanly articulated, more layered and involving, without being louder: high-resolution audiophile sound for roughly the price of my Mesa Baron alone.

No, the IT-85 doesn't convey the elemental slam, speed, and luster of the $4000 Baron (at 90Wpc in two-thirds triode mode with no negative feedback). But for another $250 you've added a versatile, great-sounding preamp to a pair of discrete, gain-matched, 60W tetrode amps.

So don't jerk around: You're an audiophile, living large and on a roll at the blackjack table of life—you've earned it. Always wanted a fine tube rig? Look your retailer in the eye, say "Hit me," and draw 21 on the nose by throwing down for the IT-85/ST-85 combo. Then walk away from the table flush with the glow of good sound, found money, and the inner contentment that comes from knowing you really don't need much more than this.

4774 Murrieta Street, Suite 10
Chino, CA 91710
(909) 627-5944