By John Stancavage
Everyone usually can remember exactly where they were on a particularly noteworthy day. For me, the event was the best sound I’d ever heard, and the date and place was Monrovia, California, on the last day of April in 2010.
I had driven up to Brooks Berdan, an audio dealer I knew only by reputation. But, being just an hour away on a business trip, I decided to pay a visit. Once there, I was met by the shop’s namesake (now sadly deceased) and his friendly son, Brian.
The first thing I was struck by was the lack of attitude. Brian asked me what I wanted to hear. Being an electrostatic fan, I motioned to a pair of Quad 989s. After a fairly long demo, he waved his hand. “Come check these out,” he said, and led me into the main listening room.
There stood a towering pair of Wilson Audio Maxx speakers, each looking like a monster praying mantis that had been caught in a Mercedes-Benz spray booth and painted metallic silver.
In between them sat the biggest tube amps I’d ever seen, the VTL Siegfried Reference monoblocks.
“Let me see your demo disc,” Berdan said. For the next hour, we worked through the eclectic mix, consisting of Dire Straits, Van Morrison, Roxy Music, Steely Dan Luna, Julie Fordham, Johnny Hartman and Joe Williams, among others.
My jaw dropped as cut after cut was played. The music was not only detailed and powerful, it had an additional quality. It may be what some reviewers call “bloom,” but I would describe more as texture. For example, whereas Luna guitarists Dean Wareham and Sean Eden sound just fine on my Krell/Revel/Mark Levinson home system, with the VTLs and Wilsons you could hear — and feel — their own tube amps overloading at critical points during solos. It was the closest to live music I’ve ever been in a retail shop.
I thought this had to be the speakers, so I had Berdan swap in a less-expensive amp. The Wilsons still sounded good, but the live illusion was gone.
Since that day, I’ve noticed that VTL and Wilson often are shown together. This musical affair continued at RMAF, with Luke Manley and Bea Lam, the married proprietors of VTL, sharing a second-floor room with Wilson Audio Specialties. This time VTL was showcasing its S-400 Series II stereo amplifier ($33,500 each, with two in use), TL-7.5 Series III Reference line preamp ($25,000) and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage, with step-up MC transformer ($12,000).
Speakers were the Wilson Audio Sasha II ($30,900 a pair), with two Wilson Watchdog passive subwoofers ($9,800 each), and two Wilson control units ($4,000 each).
Cables were Transparent Opus MM2 ($110,000 for four pairs), Reference XL ($40,000 for three pairs), Nordost Odin Digital ($12,000 for three) and Nordost Odin and Valhalla power and distribution cables ($40,000 for 10 pieces).
I asked Bea if she’d mind playing my Luna “Rendezvous” CD. I’d just been turned down requesting a demo in the previous room I’d visited (where the snobby, would-be King of the CD Player displayed the arrogance of a waiter at a chic NYC restaurant being asked for a hamburger). So, I was delighted when the ever-charming Mrs. Manley interrupted a vinyl selection to pop my disc into the dCS. “John wants to hear this,” she told Luke. Wow! Talk about a 180 degree difference from the snobby room.
I requested track one, “Malibu Love Nest,” an atmospheric song that features a driving drum beat and wonderful layered guitar work from Wareham and Eden.
As the song kicked off, I felt a flashback to that day in Monrovia. The sound was enveloping, rhythmic, detailed and emotionally involving. Wareham’s vocals, not much above a whisper, were clear and the spaces between notes, which Luna often used to its advantage, were jet-black. It was the guitars, though, that really had me reliving my memories of the Maxx/Siegfried system. When both players headed for the rafters during their solos, it got louder, but not assaultive. The intentional distortion and feedback Wareham and Eden were wringing from their instruments was palpable, much as I imagined it must have been standing in the studio next to the actual amp.
Bea told me she and Luke were very happy with the way the improvements to the S-400 turned out. Indeed, it’s often said that lower-priced amp B will get you “90 percent of the sound” of much higher-priced amp A. Usually, that’s stretching the truth a bit. With the VTL S-400, though, I’m more inclined to believe one of these units really could propel you close to Siegfried territory ($65,000 a pair) without having to totally fry your nest egg.
As for VTL and Wilson, I hope they keep this affair going for many more years. They make beautiful music together.