VTL TL-6.5 Signature line preamplifier Page 2

The VTL S-400 and Mark Levinson No.334 sat 10' away from the shelves on which I'd placed the TL-6.5, which meant I had to connect them to the preamp via 15' runs of interconnect. When using single-ended interconnects, I crimped the shields of their RCA plugs to make a snug fit with the power amps' single-ended jacks.

I flipped on the TL-6.5's rear-panel power switch, then toggled on the front-panel Power pushbutton. After the TL-6.5 had completed its 90-second turn-on sequence, its blue LED display read "00," indicating minimum gain. I pushed the CD1 input button for the Krell player, and the LED's color changed to the default blue, indicating that a balanced input had been selected. Had my CD player used single-ended interconnects, a prolonged press of the CD1 button would have toggled the display to green and switched the VTL to its single-ended inputs.

Other front-panel controls have multiple options. CD1 and CD2 can be programmed to turn on VTL's S-400 amplifier—the buttons then glow red when pushed. Tape 1 and Tape 2 can be used as normal single-ended inputs, but can also handle the Record Out function, where LED is green for input, red for monitor. The MON/PROC button can be set to toggle between the source signal and the monitor head of a tape recorder, or can be used to set any of the inputs at unity gain. This is done by holding down the MON/PROC and input buttons simultaneously.

It was a great help to be able to individually adjust each input's gain so that the TL-6.5's output level was uniform, regardless of the input chosen. This let me match the digital and analog output levels of the Roku SoundBridge network music player for instant listening comparisons. To do this, I simply held down the VTL's front-panel input buttons for the different Roku inputs and rotated the volume knob at the same time. When I reached the correct level for that input, I released the input button. Holding down the Balance button changes the operation of the volume knob so that it now sets balance instead of level. The LED display also switches from a volume number to a number with a bar that indicates "out of balance."

The TL-6.5's lack of a phono stage required the services of my trustworthy Dunlavy MX-10 moving-coil head amplifier to boost the signal from my Spectral moving-coil cartridge, which in turn drove a Margules Magenta FZ47 phono stage.

I auditioned the TL-6.5 in my moderately damped, rectangular living room, which has a 12' semi-cathedral ceiling and a volume of 5400 cubic feet. My Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers are 63" from the front wall and 30" from the sidewalls, and sit on a circular area rug. Imaging and soundstaging has been best for my regular system components when the speakers and my listening chair describe an 8' equilateral triangle, measured from the centers of the Quads' panels.

Sound: First listen
The well-broken-in, original version of the TL-6.5 sounded achingly good. I was bowled over by its transparency, ultrawide soundstage, and extended highs. Several months later, Luke Manley interrupted this reverie by bringing me a production unit and retrieving the original. He'd decided that the 12AX7 tubes boosted tube hiss a bit too much, and replaced them with 12AU7s. On first listen to the production unit, however, I got worried. The transparency seemed hazed-over, the highs constricted, the soundstage flat. What had happened?

Eventually, I learned that the TL-6.5 benefits from a lengthy break-in period. After I'd driven the preamp with an FM signal for two weeks and left the rest of the system off, the new unit opened up, became transparent, and its soundstage deepened and widened. All was well again.

After the break-in period, I found the TL-6.5 a joy to use. The operation of its uncluttered remote control is intuitive, and best of all, the remote was able to trigger the TL-6.5's IR receiver from anywhere in the room.

Sound: Long-term listening
The production TL-6.5's treble register was open and natural, conveying the sizzle of the cymbal that opens "The Mooche," from ">Rendezvous: Jerome Harris Quintet Plays Jazz (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), and the shimmering string tones from Etta Baker's guitar playing in "I Get the Blues When It Rains," from Railroad Bill (CD, Cello Music Maker 91006-2).

Its open treble and upper midrange—extended, effortless, fast, and smooth—allowed the TL-6.5 to develop one of the most transparent, grainless images I've heard in my listening room. The vibraphone on "Limehouse Blues," from Jazz at the Pawnshop (LP, Proprius 7778-79), sounded more lucid and transparent through the TL-6.5 than it did through my Mark Levinson ML-7 preamp.

Associated with that intriguingly transparent treble was the TL-6.5's enormous, all-enveloping soundstage. The wide semi-circle of voices on ...Against the Dying of the Light (CD, Cantus CTS-1202), from the male vocal ensemble Cantus, was brilliantly depicted. When I listened to John Atkinson's "Soundstage Maps and Microphone Techniques," on Stereophile's Test CD 3 (STPH006-2), his voice and the sound of the struck cowbell moved smoothly and easily across my listening room, progressing from behind the left speaker, across the center, and out behind the right speaker.

Howard Dunn and the Dallas Wind Symphony's recording of the Chaconne from Gustav Holst's First Suite in E-flat, Op.28 No.1 (CD, Reference RR-39CD), displayed a wide, spacious image with considerable air and hall presence. The Kyrie of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla (CD, Philips 420 955-2) projected a huge soundstage around and behind tenor José Carreras. And at the end of pianist Anna Maria Stanczyk's performance of Chopin's Scherzo in b-flat, Op.31, from Stereophile's first Test CD (STPH002-2), I heard Stanczyk's manager's "Well done!" emanate from the extreme left, just as the liner notes promise.

The TL-6.5 and Quad ESL-989s produced an acoustic illusion of a cold, chilling, crystalline waterfall spilling into a pool at the beginning of "Running Water," from I Ching's Of the Marsh and the Moon (CD, Chesky WO144). Soundstage depth and width excelled on "Naris," from Patricia Barber's Blue Café (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 5 21810 2), with percussion that was solid, fast, and dynamic.

Like its treble, the TL-6.5's midrange reproduction excelled at clarity, openness, and the ability to convincingly render instrumental and vocal timbres. String tones were exemplary, as I heard in the third movement of Haydn's String Quartet in d, Op.76 No.2, "The Quinten," as performed by the Lindsay String Quartet (CD, ASV 1076). This movement includes a canon with two violins playing together in octaves, followed three beats later by the viola and cello. The TL-6.5 conveyed the differing rhythms, as well as the resonances of the viola and the tonalities of wood and bow. The string tone of the violins sounded unusually sweet.

Both male and female vocalists were holographically presented. The richness and musical information from Cantus's mix of tenors, baritones, and basses, on their ...Against the Dying of the Light, were convincingly conveyed. Subtle vocal tonalities could be discerned as I had not heard before. And the TL-6.5 reproduced the beauty and poignancy of contralto Kathleen Ferrier singing Brahms' Alto Rhapsody (CD, Naxos 8.111009).

Dynamic contrasts were dramatic, quick, and terribly distinct, as clearly heard in the opening movement of {whose performance of?} Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, from an original direct-to-disc LP (Sheffield Labs 8). Teaming up VTL's S-400 amplifier and TL-6.5 preamplifier produced a synergy that was demonic in its ability to communicate sound and meaning, as heard in Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic's recent recording of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (SACD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 6198). The title track of Steely Dan's Aja (LP, MCA/VIM 4039) uses a slow buildup to re-create the suffocating presence of the sad, involving, self-destructive sentiment, which came over well on the VTL. The electrifying rim shot that ends Harry Connick, Jr.'s "I Don't Get Around Much Anymore," from the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally...†(CD, Columbia CK 45319), was stunning—it made me jump, though I'd heard it countless times before.

The TL-6.5 delivered solid, subjectively smooth bass down to 35Hz through my Quads, with excellent extension, control, pitch definition, and speed. I heard this again and again, whether it was the massively forceful drum and bass synthesizer in "Silk Road," from the I Ching disc; the taut, driving electric bass on the soundtrack of My Cousin Vinny (CD, Varèse Sarabande VSD 5364); or the synthesizer on Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy (CD, Circa WBRX2). I was surprised at the sheer power and punch of the bass-drum pulse that opens Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, again with Dunn and the Dallas Winds, from their Fiesta (CD, Reference RR-38CD).

The TL-6.5 also delivered solid, tuneful bass from my LPs. Leopold Stokowski and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Shostakovich's Symphony 6 (RCA Living Stereo LSC-3133) was rendered as a wall-to-wall sonic tapestry with solid bass of wide dynamic range, both for the percussion and the double basses. The TL-6.5 bettered the Bryston B100-DA in its reproduction of the rhythmic drive of the double basses in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-1924). With the VTL in my system, I had a keen sense of the bass providing the musical foundation of the orchestra, particularly when listening to "Anthem," from the Glory soundtrack (Virgin 91329-1).

The VTL TL-6.5 Signature performed brilliantly in my system, revealing dynamic contrasts both subtle and bold, holographic soundstaging, and solid, deep, tuneful bass. Its remote quickly controlled the TL-6.5 from any convenient listening position in my living room, and the preamp's front-panel display is readable from 10' away. The TL-6.5's ergonomics are the best I've encountered for a preamplifier.

For all these reasons, I strongly recommend the TL-6.5 Signature. For $9500, it offers battleship reliability, faultless microprocessor control of tube operation, and extraordinary switching control—as well as first-rate sound, a deep, wide soundstage, and driving dynamic contrasts. Add the five-year warranty, and it's an irresistible high-end preamplifier.

VTL Amplifiers, Inc.
4774 Murrieta Street, Suite 10
Chino, CA 91710
(909) 627-5944