VTL MB-1250 Wotan monoblock amplifier Page 3

Pick up Spiritchaser, the new Dead Can Dance CD (4AD 46230-2). Track 2 starts out...actually, I can't imagine how to tell you. It sounds like John Cage on acid playing a didjeridu. Suddenly you find yourself in a sonic landscape of tremendous color and rich forest ambience, supported by vocals so well-delineated in space that—well, next to single-ended triodes, they got me as close to that be-there feeling as I've ever felt.

The frequency balance and linearity in the upper midrange and above, where female vocals lie, is key to the overall sound of many systems I've heard. Single-ended triodes do this so well it's frightening. And the best of push-pull approaches this same level of artistry.

In this way the Wotans were superb. For instance, Patti Smith fans will find much to enjoy in her new Gone Again (Arista 07822-18747-2), the September Stereophile's "Recording of the Month." She's so cool. Her voice sounded somewhat grainy and digitized, but I'll note that the Wotans didn't glaze over it, washing away mortal digital sin. The Wotans do give you what's there, point to make.

Turning to a sweeter example, I pulled Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter (Blue Note CDP 8 32861 2) and tracked up "Last Train to Clarksville"! The Monkees—my generation—for better and, occasionally, much for the worse. That Ms. Wilson so effectively remakes this ditty into such a personal and unique musical statement is nothing short of astounding.

I can truly say, as I sat in the Ribbon Chair and listened to this disc, that the Wotans were treating female vocals to their finest (push-pull) hour. Cassandra's voice was so well developed, so palpable and present, that even for this jaded reviewer the experience was captivating.

But of course. First, spoiled reviewer that I am, I've heard simply stupendous bass to make your ears fall off. My conclusion? Some of the solid-state boys get a better grip on the lowest registers (the Wotans as well, in tetrode), but the transistor boys just get it tighter than any tubes ever can. I can live with it, given the awesome bass the Wotans do make.

And they're a shade less subtle and refined than our reference Jadis JA-200s. (It's often said that huge, powerful amplifiers are less able to communicate the nuance that smaller amps manage.) In direct comparison, the '200s are more elegant and even lighter on their feet, although the Wotans are anything but clay-footed. The French amps manage to touch the music in a uniquely ineffable way.

In the final analysis, the more forward and colorful Wotans have a shade, un petit peu more grain in their presentation than do the Jadis. I suppose it all comes down to those transformers. The Jadises cost almost as much as the Wotans for about 130W of quasi-ultralinear power. Of course, when you flip the '200s over and open them up, you'll see the most gorgeous point-to-point work you're ever likely to come across. It unquestionably impacts the sound. And you can't see (but oh, you can hear) all the work put into the hand-wound power and output transformers of the '200s.

The Wotans make up for it when run in the sweeter and more musical triode mode, with vast amounts of headroom available due to the extraordinary number of power tubes.

Wind it up for us, will you, J-10?
As some kind of bellwether of purity in recording, try Lori Lieberman on her 24k gold Home of Whispers CD (PopeMusic PM1005-2). (It sounds warmer than the aluminum substrate version, what can I tell you?) Cello mike preamps, an externally clocked Nagra-D, SDIF, and a 20-bit Apogee AD1000 do not a turkey recording make. Still, mike positioning is everything, and you can hear that in the chorus on "Roots and Wings"—a miracle of fine recording technique.

And all this refinement and clarity it is the Wotans' pleasure to bring you. Yes, the source components used in this review were all very highborn. In fact, I'm sure the Wotans can be made to sound bad, given enough effort. They navigate so well between solid-state's power and control and tube's verity to the acoustic, that if they weren't so blessed ugly and enormous...well, let's just say I'm really sorry to see them go. (I'd be much sorrier if I didn't have the JA-200s to go back to!)

Thinking back on it, every single listening session I enjoyed with the Wotans was filled with pleasure. They always gave every inch of their considerable hot-running selves to enliven the musical experience. My hat's off to Luke Manley. He has fashioned a true statement of the tube-amp maker's art. Here are incorporated the finest qualities of tubes—and lots of them—with few of their oft-quoted failings. Believe me, you'll search far and wide before you find another tube amp capable of grabbing a speaker and controlling it as do the Wotans.

For those who don't mind fiddling a bit, for those with a passion for music and tubes (and a budget to suit), the Wotans may prove nirvana.

Vacuum Tube Logic
4774 Murietta St., Suite 9
Chino, CA 91710
(909) 627-5944