VTL ST-85 power amplifier Page 3

Double or nothing
Mr. Tube Man paid another visit, and brought a second ST-85—just as he'd promised. We hooked them up so that one handled the midrange and tweeter for both NHT 2.5i speakers, the other the bass. Doing it that way, instead of giving each speaker its own amplifier, made it easy to compare the performance of one to two—a couple of quick changes at each speaker was all it took. Luke listened for a bit, nodded his approval, and headed back home.

It wasn't long before, to my surprise, I was nodding in the affirmative as well. I didn't expect much of a change—perhaps more control and heft in the bass—but the changes were indeed much. Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West" (from Bone Machine, Island 314-512580-2) was presented more crisply with two ST-85s. By comparison, one amp by itself seemed a little drowsy. Waits' hysterical vocals (and lyrics: "I'm going out west where the wind blows tall / 'Cause Tony Franciosa used to date my ma") were better defined and more solidly outlined in the swampy, reverberant, made-in-the-studio atmosphere.

My expectations of what two ST-85s would provide weren't completely off base (make that "off bass"), as LF performance was indeed improved. On "Hitchin' a Ride," from Green Day's Nimrod (CD, Reprise 46794-2), the bass and drums came across as tighter, punchier, and more powerful with both amplifiers in the system. Likewise on the aforementioned Waits cut, where the bass drum Waits beats sounded as if its head was a little more taut via the pair of ST-85s.

This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but with two amplifiers, I could play music louder, cleaner. Playing these cuts as loudly as I like (which is pretty loud) with one amp, congestion started to become apparent; with two amps, no.

On more, ahem, refined material, also played loudly, such as Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-2374), the increase in available power resulted in what I'd call a reduction of strain. It was as if the system found it easier to present the music, that having two amplifiers allowed the music to simply flow. Focus was, again, tightened—the attacks of pizzicato strings, percussion, and the celeste were sharp and precise, lending a holographic quality to their respective instrumental images. The sense of recording space—both depth and breadth—was also more fully realized. The overall result of this set of changes was an increase in musical involvement.

Nor were the improvements wrought by two ST-85s limited to the larger NHTs. Putting the Joseph Audio RM-7si speakers back into the system showed similar gains. The Stan Kenton Orchestra's Birthday in Britain (LP, Creative World ST1065) sounded vibrant and three-dimensional with one ST-85, but with two it climbed to a whole other level, coming almost to life.

Need an amplifier? Stereo, specifically? Do you have champagne tastes but a beer budget? (Okay, so "beer" here means "ultra-premium microbrew.") And, to complete our qualification questionnaire, would you like a well-defined upgrade path so you can improve your system in a straightforward, no-brainer manner as finances allow?

If so, step right up. The VTL ST-85 is solidly built and a breeze to use—biasing is easy, there's only one output tap, and it has a cover to keep nosy pets and kids from getting burned. It offers outstanding performance driving real-world speakers, performance so good that I'll bet my last EL34 you'll be as amazed as I was at the improvement when you upgrade by adding a second ST-85. After that, if you want to keep going up the VTL amplifier ladder, there are plenty of rungs to climb...but that's another story (footnote 2).

This story is about the ST-85, and it's one with a happy ending. The ST-85 is, in many ways, the finest amplifier I've had in my system. (The Bryston B-60R integrated is its main rival.) The VTL imparts a 3-D sense of the original event while retaining truth of timbre, a combination that very few components can match, at this or any price. Very highly recommended.

Footnote 2: You can read about the ST-85's bigger brothers in previous issues of Stereophile: the MB-175 Signature monoblocks, Vol.20 No.6, p.155; the MB-450 Signature monoblocks, Vol.19 No.7, p.170; the MB-750 Signature monoblocks, Vol.20 No.12, p.157; and the giant Wotan MB-1250 monoblocks, Vol.19 No.10, p.257.
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