VTL/Wilson/Transparent at Innovative Audio: Selling “Happy”

Photo: Jim Austin

"'Happy' is our primary product," Elliot Fishkin, the proprietor of Innovative Audio, which is entering its 45th year of business, told visitors early Thursday evening, January 21. "We want you to be able to be connected to the music in profound ways." A small crowd was gathered in the lobby outside Innovative's newly renovated showrooms, in an expansive underground space on the east side of Manhattan, to hear amplifiers by VTL, cables by Transparent, and loudspeakers by Wilson Audio.

The evening's guests included Luke and Bea Manley of VTL, Transparent's Josh Clark, and a dozen or so music lovers ranging from young to not so young. One of them was Bernard Flom, who, 14 years ago, fell off the roof of his house and broke, he told the crowd, "almost every bone in my body. I spent 6 weeks in the hospital for multiple surgeries. The only thing that saved me was listening to music."

Photo: Jim Austin

After some introductory remarks by Fishkin (above), Luke Manley (below), Clark, and Scott Haggart, the store manager, visitors were invited to enjoy stereo systems at four price points, all featuring VTL amplification and all but one with Wilson Audio speakers, from the new Sabrinas through the formidable (655 lbs each) Alexandria XLFs.

Photo: Jim Austin

First up for me was the "budget" system in Room 2—"budget" here is a relative term—with VTL's "Performance" series including their new TL-2.5i preamp ($3000 linestage-only) and ST-150 stereo amplifier. The source was a Linn LP12 turntable, cabling was Transparent's latest generation ("GEN5") MusicWave speaker cables, MusicLink interconnects, and PowerLink power cords, and the loudspeakers were Spendor D7s. Haggart started things off with a personal favorite, "Ritual Love Songs," by Jim Bartow, the musician, poet, and Harlem Renaissance historian who died in 2015. Bartow sang Duke Ellington's "Solitude." Soon, VTL's Bea Lam (below) arrived in the room bearing Record One from Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, with new music composed by current musicians to lyrics by Bob Dylan; Record Two of the 2-LP set was with Luke Manley in a different room. On the track Bea played, Rhiannon Giddens sang "Spanish Mary;" Why don't I own this?

Photo: Jim Austin

Apart from the music, the most interesting thing in Room 2 was, to me, the preamp—and in particular the optional, internal phono stage, which adds $2000 to the price and includes both an active MC section and a step-up transformer, allowing for optimal MC-cartridge matching. The phono stage can be retrofitted, not only to the 2.5i (which is just starting to ship) but also to the previous generation 2.5 preamp. By the end of the evening, that's just what attendee Erik Martin (below) was planning to do. For those seeking an affordable VTL stand-alone phono stage, it's coming soon.

Photo: Jim Austin

The next step up the price-and-quality ladder was in Room 5, but Transparent's Clark, an old acquaintance and former neighbor, was in the middle of a cable demo there, so I went straight to Room 4, which featured VTL's 6.5 Series II Signature preamp, VTL MB-450 Signature Series III monoblocks, and Wilson Alexia speakers. The source was a Meridian 813.3 DAC, and cabling was Transparent XL GEN5. This room gave me my first opportunity to hear MQA ("Master Quality Authenticated," the new technology from Bob Stuart of Meridian), via several classical works recorded by Wilson's Peter McGrath. These tracks sounded great, but I was unfamiliar with the recordings and the equipment, and there was no comparison with non-MQA files, so I'll have to suspend judgment on MQA.

Photo: Luke Manley

The evening's highlight was, naturally enough, the reference system: VTL's TL-7.5 Series III Reference pre-amp and the company's S-400 Reference stereo amplifier driving Wilson Alexandria XLF loudspeakers. (Michael Fremer gets to listen to these speakers every day? Unfair!) Sources were both analog (Spiral Groove SG1.2 turntable and Centroid tonearm; Lyra Etna cartridge; VTL TP-6.5 Signature phono stage with MC step-up transformer) and digital (MSB Diamond V DAC; Meridian Sooloos zone player). I spent a lot of time in this room and heard a lot of good music, including a new discovery: Céline McLorin Salvant, the classically trained American jazz singer who won the first Thelonious Monk competition in 2010. Salvant was there in the room singing "Easy to Love" from her debut album; I intend to go find it as soon as we're dug out from this blizzard.

The reference system was stupendous with orchestral music, including, especially, a 24/96 PCM file of the first movement of Shostakovich 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra (on the LSO label). This is an unusual recording in that the conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich, set out to demonstrate that this symphony really isn't very good—that it is nothing more than "a Soviet artist's banal reply to dumb criticism." Rostropovich failed to make his case, in my opinion, but never mind that: The sound was stunning, with a colorful, nearly full-size orchestra arrayed left to right and on risers front to back. It was like having an elevated front-row orchestra seat but with no perfume or cell phones and better top-to-bottom balance than you'd get in a front-row seat. An ORG (originally Decca) reissue LP of Mendelssohn's "Scotch" Symphony, with Peter Maag conducting a much earlier version of the LSO, made an interesting contrast with the Shostakovich; it sounded similarly huge but much vaguer, with less precise imaging and far less natural texture.

Photo: Luke Manley

It's hardly surprising that a system with 650 lb speakers and a 400W, 200 lb tube amp can do orchestras well, but this system was also capable of great delicacy—with Salvant's lovely, flexible, multi-octave voice, Rostropovich's solo cello (in an excerpt of the Bach suites), and in several short piano pieces and excerpts. This was probably the best-recorded piano sound I've ever heard. A dream system.

I spent so much time in the reference room that I had to stay late to experience the cable demo in room 5, with VTL's TL-5.5 Series II Signature preamp, their S-200 Signature stereo amplifier, and Wilson Sabrina loudspeakers. Transparent's Clark played a short excerpt from Currency of Man, Melody Gardot's recent CD, played it again, and then switched out last generation's Ultra MM2 speaker cables and interconnects for the company's current (GEN5) Reference cables. He then played the excerpt one more time.

I think of myself as a cable agnostic, or an open-minded skeptic; my training as a physicist virtually requires some skepticism. But with the newer, more expensive cables, Gardot's voice had more core and less electronic glare than with the older cables. That glare might have been the microphone, but Clark insists it's microphonics, vibrations in the cables that end up in the sound, polluting the music. In the GEN5 cables they've reduced microphonics, Clark says, by bundling and wrapping them more tightly—not, he said, an easy thing to achieve.

So, am I now convinced about the efficacy of high-end cables? Not completely; having read a lot—maybe too much—about how suggestible we humans are, I remain skeptical of my sensory impressions. I would need to spend more time listening to be completely convinced. But in the moment the change—improvement—was clear enough.

Snooty high-end audio dealers is practically a cliché, and I've experienced snootiness myself in a few stores. But there was no hint of snootiness on Thursday night at Innovative Audio. Everyone present was treated with respect: this Stereophile writer; well-dressed (if, in a couple of cases, slightly inebriated) businessmen; passionate music lovers of apparently limited means (a judgment based on appearances; I didn't ask to see bank statements). "If somebody ever wants to come in and just hear some music for an hour and bring a friend, there's no pressure to buy things," said Innovative's Elliot Fishkin. He's not being charitable; it's enlightened self-interest: "The challenge our industry has is to convince people that they should decompress for 20–30 minutes in their homes," he added. He encouraged those present to spread the word—to lead others toward taking music seriously—but creating an inviting space full of great music and welcoming people in is a great way of addressing that challenge. "We want people to take advantage of our facility and 'get it,' and then know what to do with it afterward."

Photo: Innovative Audio

spacehound's picture

Leaving aside the fancy cables. As no one knows why some cables MAY (assuming for the moment they can) sound better than others there is no reason whatsoever why good sounding cables need be expensive - "They all cost us 10 dollars to make, this one sounds the best, so that'll be 5000 dollars and we will go down from there."

Snooty dealers? Yes, and it's not just audio. When I turned up on my big Kawasaki motorbike at the local BMW car dealer they were very snooty indeed.

The decidedly UNsnooty Mercedes dealer a mile along were happy to take my 130,000 dollars. And they do it in bright yellow!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Cables can make a huge difference. For instance, I went to great expense to install a pair of Cardas Hexlink Gold interconnects between my DAC and preamp. They made digital in my system tolerable, which it otherwise wouldn't have been.

I say this despite the fact that I firmly believe that digital has made hi-end irrelevant and obsolete, and that mid-fi is more than adequate to reproduce it. But I already had a hi-end analog system and the only way to tolerably incorporate digital into it was with the Cardas interconnects. If I were building a system today, of course, I wouldn't go that route.

Incidentally, I've never liked Wilson speakers. I find them over analytical and unmusical, and way overpriced. Talk about snooty tooty ...

spacehound's picture

From what you say I know EXACTLY what your Cardas cables were doing. They must have a poor frequency response at the top end. So acting as a low-pass filter to remove the REALITY of the music that 'digital' finally lets you hear.

Your "analytical" comment re Wilson speakers are in line with that too.

THE FACT REMAINS that there is no known 'science' involved in cable sound (other than in producing a poor performing 'filter' cable like your Cardas) so THERE IS NO REASON WHATSOEVER why a 'good' cable should be more expensive than a 'bad' one. ]

Sal1950's picture

You hit the nail on the head there. A perfect description on the tonal changes the Cardas cables must be inducing to make a inferior analog system sound near as good as a modern high end digital system.
My cables are from Blue Jean Cables or SVS interconnects for the sub woofers and are totally flat and transparent.

spacehound's picture

As any low cost cable SHOULD be and likely WILL be.

Including lamp cord for speaker cable (though it might be better to have something thicker).

Resistance, capacitance, and inductance is all that matters and ALL are easily measurable. They should be as LOW as possible, but the resistance is not too important as ANY cable will have so low a resistance compared to what it is 'seeing' that it doesn't matter. Again with the possible excption of speaker cables, but ANY cheap thick cable from, say, Wal Mart will do for them. Wire is wire, there is no such thing as 'special audio' wire, despite what some would have us believe.

Expensive cables? A total nonsense. If anything, with 'fancy' construction to PRETEND to justify their crazy prices the capacitance will likely be high. This will IMPAIR the performance as the Cardas was doing.

I'm not sure about your "inferior analog system". The only change was to his source. Likely a CD player or computer audio showed him what the music is SUPPOSED to sound like. It wasn't what he was used to, so maybe he didn't like it, and 'toned it down' with the rubbish but expensive Cardas cable.

It's an answer I suppose, but High Fidelity means accuracy BY DEFINITION. I have noticed several times that people used only to 'regular' sound, such as from a TV or a table radio, don't like a top quality HiFi system at first, they are just not used to hearing 'reproduced' things as they should be.

(Incidentally I suspect DSD, a current fad, does the same. It 'rounds things off'. They say it is 'smoother and more analog-like' than PCM. Probably they have never heard a REAL trumpet (for example) in their room in their entire lives.)

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

The Cardas interconnects connecting my DAC to my preamp do not filter out any frequencies. They enhance midrange, spacial and ambient detail, allowing whatever poor imaging and harmonics are on the CD to emerge. In fact, they deepen the bass and extend the high frequencies. The bass is made more coherent; they make it easier to discern the musical notes in the bass, rather than the flatulent, unmusical bass of most digital or the anemic bass of the Wilson's.

Unlike Wilson speakers, which are like ultra refined studio monitors, my speakers are aggressively, ruthlessly revealing. They are flat from 20 to 20,000 cycles and, unlike many hi-end speakers, esp. planar speakers, can play loud while maintaining refinement and accuracy.

They, the rest of the system and my ears are NOT euphonic. I like to hear exactly what's on the recording, good, bad and indifferent. I absolutely hate it when high frequencies are rolled off, low frequencies deadened or dampened and the midrange is anemic, which is what happens on 99% of CDs. I do not like a "polite" or analytic sound, which is what Wilsons offer.

If you can't hear the differences made by various cables and interconnects, your ears are defective and/or your signal is poor, such as digital, in which original source information is definitely subtracted. Digital is merely a mathematical approximation, merely a Fourier transform.

mapoulin's picture

Anybody know what was the clear cylinder in the middle of the room.

Is this supposed to be a kind of bass trap, can't tell if the bottom has opening (aka resonator)

would love info on theses.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review and coverage! JA
Beautiful pics as well. I am not certain why a 14 y/o kid was in attendance? Moreover, why was he on a roof?

Bernard Flom's picture

Had you read the review as carefully as you listen to your music, you would have discerned that the accident occurred 14 years ago, just prior to 911/2001. I am not a 14 year old kid. I am a 71 year old "kid" with probably that many years creating and listening to almost every type of music.
As for the products displayed, I reveled the most in the budget system room 2. However, was disappointed in Josh Clark's record choice to differentiate Transparent's cables --too much muddled bass in the selection and not enough refinement to "really" (non-engineered)tell the difference. I saw many speakers on display aside from the demonstrated Wilsons. Some with convoluted, foam packed wave systems. Many produced excellent sound. BUT, I still use primarily Designers Audio DA-Abraxis 4 (4 way speaker system) designed and manufactured by Elliot Fishkin over 40 years ago. [Yes, I traded a pair of 12" Cerwin_Vega for these.] HINT: keep the dust and heat out of your components and they will last. Could I use an upgrade to my system? Surely. But let's be honest --even the most critical listener would not hear monumental differences in the 35-23,000hz range. HAPPY LISTENING

Big B's picture

I visited the a few years back. I told the fellow I was in from outside the country (so definitely no sale) and had never heard XLFs before. He was very kind set up the room gave me the the remote and left. It was bliss to the max. I wish I had stayed a bit longer but I was feeling guilty of holding up the room. Zero snooty