VTL TL6.5 Series II Signature line preamplifier Page 2

On "Amelia," from Joni Mitchell's Hejira (LP, Asylum/Rhino R1 01087), the ringing from Victor Feldman's vibes billowed forth in waves as I'd never heard before (if I had synesthesia, I'm sure I'd have seen bright balls of color), while never obscuring the surrounding guitar strums or Mitchell's voice, which all seemed distinct but enveloped in the same, cohesive space. In "Walking by Flashlight," the first track of Maria Schneider's The Thompson Fields (CD, ArtistShare AS-0137), the accordion, even when submerged in the background, never lost its squeeze-box airiness; ditto the flute's steel-blown air.

The TL6.5 II also proved to be a fast preamp, especially at delivering the front edge of transients. On the Beatles' Abbey Road (LP, EMI PCS-7088), the rinky-dink piano that someone starts playing in the middle of "You Never Give Me Your Money" sounded rinky-dinkier than I'd heard it before. In "Nuages," the first track of James Carter's Chasin' the Gypsy (CD, Atlantic 83304-2), the percussive hand instruments clicked and clacked with eye-blinking ferocity. The same was true, plus some, of Neil Young's hard guitar strumming in "Don't Let It Bring You Down," from his Live at the Cellar Door (LP, Reprise 535854-1). While mentioning that album, recorded by Henry Lewy in 1970, I should add that Young's voice burst forth into the space of that small nightclub, bushels of air surrounding him, his guitar, and—on the few songs when he walked over to play it—the piano. I've long considered this the best-sounding live, solo pop album in my collection, but the TL6.5 Series II seemed to pull back yet another curtain that had previously veiled my listening room from the experience of the concert.

Speed and extended highs usually bode palpable spatial cues, and the TL6.5 II affirmed the correlation. Voices, instruments, orchestral sections—whatever a recording hoisted up onto the soundstage—were arrayed from left to right and from front to back, without excessive beam on either of the speakers or in the center between them (unless the album was engineered that way, as indeed quite a few albums were, especially in the early years of stereo).

At this point, you're probably starting to wonder about that foreshadowing phrase "very nearly," dropped a few hundred words back, when I noted that the TL6.5 II was "very nearly seamless and neutral." I don't mean to be ominous; there is no big thud afoot, no italicized "However . . . " crouching in the next paragraph, ready to unfurl a list of fatal flaws. As I also wrote earlier, this is a damn fine preamp—but no preamp is perfect, and every design involves some trade-offs.

I raised that caveat in the context of discussing the TL6.5 Series II's smoothness, and while I re-emphasize that I don't mean the word in its pejorative sense (especially as it's sometimes used to describe tubed hi-fi gear), the TL6.5 II did seem a little too smooth in one sense—in handling microdynamic contrasts: the slight variations in loudness or softness when a singer stresses a note or relaxes the next one, when a violinist bows a little harder or softer through a complex phrase, when a pianist presses down or eases up on a pedal, when a drummer taps a cymbal in a very slightly different way. By this measure of musical sound, the TL6.5 fell a little short of some other preamps in its price class.

For instance, with Joni Mitchell's Blue (LP, Reprise 74842), my Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamp did a slightly better job of tracking the wavering shifts of her vocalizing. The Simaudio also caught a few more of Scott Robinson's subtle phrasings on alto clarinet in Maria Schneider's "Walking by Flashlight."

These sorts of differences were more noticeable in the low frequencies. On "Hat and Beard," from Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch (2 45rpm LPs, Blue Note/Music Matters Jazz MMBST-84163), the Simaudio let me hear a bit more of Richard Davis's bass plucking, which let me distinguish the bass a bit more clearly from Dolphy's bass clarinet when the two play in unison. On David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta's recording of Górecki's Symphony 3 (CD, Elektra/Nonesuch 79282-2), the Simaudio let me hear the bowing of the double basses a bit more clearly, especially as the cellos, violas, and violins entered with their crisscrossing points and counterpoints.

None of this should suggest that the VTL TL6.5 Series II was bass-shy, or that it muddled complex phrasings. It wasn't and it didn't. In fact, the bass dipped deep and remained musical to the end. For instance, I could hear distinctly all six of the notes that double bassist Paul Chambers plucks near the start of "So What," on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (LP, Columbia CS 8163)—and that's something that can't be said of a lot of otherwise quite good all-transistor amps.

Neither did the VTL quite match the uncanny front-to-back transparency of the Pass Laboratories XP-30, which costs only $1500 more, though I should add that: a) the VTL was still very transparent, b) the XP-30 is probably the world-beater for transparency in this price range, and c) this comparison is based on memory, and is therefore imperfect, as I no longer had an XP-30 in my house while listening to the TL6.5 Series II.

I've recently reviewed or commented on a few preamps priced in the low five figures (the ones mentioned above, plus the Balanced Audio Technology Rex II), and they're all—no shock here—very good. This seems to be the point at which designers are no longer severely impeded by the necessity of compromise: they can unfurl their wings, approach the sound they've been seeking with far fewer vexing trade-offs, and push to the max one or two of their most cherished aspects of musical sound, while doing minimal harm to the others.

In this sense, VTL's TL6.5 Series II Signature hits an optimal point, doing everything that Luke Manley has said he's wanted a preamp to do. I suspect it would cost quite a lot more money to do all that it does and close the few shortfalls. Whether you prefer the TL6.5 Series II, the Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P, the Pass Laboratories XP-30, or the BAT Rex II will depend, in large part, on your listening tastes and those products' interactions with your system's other components. For each of these preamps, we're talking about a large pile of money—shockingly large to people who don't keep up with our strange passion.

Then again, one morning last April, 198,000 people lined up to purchase the new Tesla 3 electric car—which, after a wait of three years, will set each of them back roughly $42,000. And a car just gets you from Point A to Point B on a map in the present tense. It can't transport you to the Cellar Door in 1970, to Rudy Van Gelder's studio in 1964, or any other thousands of roads where you'd like to go time-traveling with a mere push of a button or lowering of a tonearm.

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

fetuso's picture

Mr. Kaplan, I enjoy your writing, both here and on Slate. This was a fun review to read, although the VTL is above my pay grade (I'm no Trump or Putin). Through your words I was able to imagine myself in your listening space, hearing what you were hearing. I most enjoyed your last paragraph. I've often read audio reviewers compare our hobby with others, like buying fancy watches or cars, but you beautifully expressed the real joy of music listening through good equipment; that it can take us a trip like no other mode of transportation. Well done.

Allen Fant's picture

I concur w/ fetuso- FK.
I have always wanted to demo VTL gear( there is no representation here in the deep South). You are very fortunate to have this pre-amp, as well as, auditioning the REX pre-amp.

Most of all, you mentioned the cabling used in your evaluation. It is all too common that reviewer's miss this important aspect in most articles? I look forward to your next Jazz release music review.