VTL's Big Launch

For many of us in the press, RMAF 2010 began with VTL's well-orchestrated press breakfast launch of the new MB-450 Series III monoblocks ($18,000/pair) and TL7.5 Series III preamplifier ($20,000). Speaking before a full house that included representatives from Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, Positive Feedback On-Line, Enjoy the Music, and many other media outlets, VTL's Luke Manley explained that the Series III is VTL's first fully balanced amplifier.

With auto-bias, and three layers of fault sensing, the amps feature a shorter, faster and fully balanced negative feedback loop, with user-adjustable negative feedback. The amp's "DF" (variable damping factor feedback control) allows the user to precisely adjust the amplifier's output impedance by setting the amount of negative feedback to one of four possible levels. Manley called it a "stem to stern redo" that can drive and successfully control a far wider range of speakers than before. Currently available with either 6550 (Manley's favorite for their linearity in the bass) or KT-88 (my favorite for their greater richness and warmth) power tubes, the Series III monoblocks will soon arrive in an EL-34 version.

The 7.5 Series III preamp uses a two-box (clean box/dirty box) approach with a fully balanced differential audio circuit using hybrid tube/FET architecture. Together with the monoblocks and the TP6.5 phono preamp ($8500), it comprised VTL's contribution to an impressive chain,

Brad O'Toole then introduced Transparent's new Reference MM audio cables ($70,000); in addition, they supplied power cables and isolation ($26,000). The interconnects and speaker cable had been precisely calibrated to the Wilson Sasha, subsequently introduced by Peter McGrath. Most gratifying were O'Toole's references to John Atkinson's measurements in Stereophile, which he acknowledged as the company's source for correct impedance measurements.

AJ Conti showed off the Basis Audio "Inspiration" turntable ($47,000), inspired by his top-of-the-line "work of art," complete with Vector arm and a Mysonics Ultra Eminence cartridge. Finally, dCS's David Steven called attention to the fabled four-box dCS Paganini, "the product we're most proud of." This comprises the Paganini CD/SACD Transport ($16,999), Paganini DAC ($17,999), Paganini Clock ($7,999) and Paganini Upsampler ($10,499).

As the music began, Stephen Mejias and I agreed to share our favorite Luke Manley quotes of the day in this blog. Stephen's: Prior to playing Dire Straits' Communique LP, Luke declared, "Even with this expensive rig, this is a $4 record." Mine: "When I told my father, from whom I acquired the company, that Bea could hear the sound of feedback, he replied, 'bullshit.'"

The system produced genuinely deep, immaculately solid bass and an amazing airy soundstage. This was a system that was not afraid to go deep on one end while reaching to brilliant heights. Anyone who claims that tube components cannot achieve the low-end control of solid-state needs to hear VTL's latest achievement.

The system's brilliance, however, added an aggressive silvery edge to everything from Dire Straits and The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from the LP of Love to the voice of Arianna Savall and McGrath's high-resolution WAV files of pianist Valentina Lisitsa performing Schubert. Even VTL's favorite lyric tenor, Fritz Wunderlich on LP, sounded unnaturally forceful and less sweet than usual. This sonic signature was consistent on CD, LP, and computer master files.

Given that both Bea and Luke adore Wunderlich, and use his voice to tune their components, I am certain that they did not sign off on such a sound. (I use VTL's prototype Series II monoblocks in my reference system, and know very well the beauty that the company strives to achieve). I'm also assured that the Sasha's sonic signature is quite different from what we heard. A puzzlement, to be sure.

Undoubtedly by the last day of the show, the sound will be very different. It just goes to show that a show can show you only what a show can show. Ya gotta take it home to be sure.

Postscript from John Atkinson: I returned to this room on the second day and was pleased to hear a much better-integrated sound, with none of the bright edge that had disturbed me the first day. Listening to both a Peter McGrath operatic recording and some of my hi-rez recordings of choral group Cantus (played with Amarra running on Peter's laptop), the sound pretty much lacked for nothing. I asked Jason Serinus to take another listen; let's see what he has to say.—John Atkinson

Postcript from Jason Victor Serinus: I want to follow up John's postscript with my own. I don't ordinarily do follow-ups when exhibitors frequently contact me to proclaim that their sound has improved dramatically since I visited on the first day. If I routinely revisited exhibits, I'd never finish auditioning all the rooms on my list. But since I had already visited my 45 assigned rooms plus five or so; I love the music that VTL's Bea Lam and Luke Manley and Wilson's Peter McGrath tend to play; and VTL, dCS, and Wilson Audio are some of the biggest and best quality companies in the high end, I accepted Luke Manley's request and headed back to the room Sunday afternoon for another listen.

What John says is absolutely true. Most of the problems encountered at the press launch had resolved themselves on their own accord as the system settled in. I'm not convinced that the LP playback apparatus was totally in synch—Fritz Wunderlich sounded better, but still not as I have come to expect—but the CD playback was nothing short of wondrous.

I asked to hear the remastered CD of Joan Sutherland's famed 1960 recording of "Bel raggio" from Rossini's opera Semiramide. This is but one astounding track on one of the greatest operatic recitals ever recorded, Sutherland's two-LP set, The Art of the Prima Donna.

Having heard Sutherland live on several occasions, including her 1961 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, I had a good idea what to expect. What I heard, however, surpassed all expectations.

Once Joanie rose into the stratosphere, I heard the biggest, brightest, most glowing sounds I have ever heard from one of her recordings. The experience was almost as wondrous as anything I heard from Sutherland live. (True, the thrill was greater when I was 16 years old and seated in the top balcony at the Met—it's often the same with the first time you make love, even if you do so in a balcony or the back seat of your car—but the experience was nonetheless phenomenal).

This was the best digital reproduction of the soprano voice I have ever experienced. It was impossible to listen to that track without understanding why Sutherland was dubbed La Stupenda. All I could do was shake my head in awe.

As a follow-up, I played two tracks from Vittorio Grigolo's new CD, The Italian Tenor. Not only did the system handle the bright ring of Grigolo's voice superbly, but it also showed how superior London/Decca's 50-year old analog recording is to Sony's very recent digital wannabe.

A system that can reveal differences that clearly is worth a hell of a lot in my book. I would have had to visit the much smaller Magico room again, and ask to hear the same Sutherland track after it was burned onto their computer playback system, in order to determine which of these rooms deserved my personal "Best of the Show." That didn't happen, so I'll declare this room my runner-up by default. For more on that, see my show summation that may already have appeared at the head of this blog.—Jason Victor Serinus

Andrew Chen's picture

I loved the TL7.5 (original) for the two years that I owned it. I didn't really like the changes they made in the Series II, now I wonder what the differences are in the Series III.Nothing on their website. Any clues?

Darren's picture

I heard it at the end of the day on Saturday. I was smitten. Felt like I left a live concert. They pushed the system limits and it was amazing. The amps held on much longer than I thought they ever would. I own MB750s and I feel these 450s are better. So neutral but live and extended. Just amazing. The extra detail of the Sashas with stunning bass and shimmering highs. The only problem that existed is that Amarra would lose the lock on the clock and put out a tiny click every now and then. I know this from personal experience having tried Amarra. Preamp is upgradeable but no price established. I asked. The upgrade is to the power supply. The easiest way to describe things is to take the best of Solid State and Tubes and put it together. Not in terms of convenience but in terms of sound. Only wish my 750s had that sonic signature (or lack of it to be exact). It sounded like real music.

John Atkinson's picture

The click you heard was not due to Amarra, but due to the fact that the dCS's DAC was being driven by its own word clock and not by the incoming data. The input buffer would therefore overflow or underflow at infrequent intervals, due to the small discrepancy in the clock frequencies.

Darren's picture

John,I will give it a try in my system. I have always used the Clock on my Orpheus DAC. Are you saying to use the Clock from the Source? I thought that was not the way to go.

John Atkinson's picture

Darren, the dCS Scalattis DAC can be clocked either from external sources, from its internal clock, or from a separate master clock module. But if an external source is used but the user hsn't reset this to be the clock source, there will be the occasional glitch, which you heard. Either the Scalatti DAC should have bene set to derive its word clock from the incoming data or the master clock should have been used to drive the external source.

John Atkinson's picture

When I wrote "Scarlatti," I was having a brain fart. Should be "Paganini," of course.