Some audio manufacturers seem to be almost skipping the prototype stage these days and instead leave it to buyers to do the testing. Issues? Improvements? We’ll just get ‘em in Series II or Series III, which usually follow one after another at a rate that can make your head spin and wallet empty.
That’s never been the business model for Luke Manley and Bea Lam at VTL Amplifiers Inc., though. The married couple doesn’t get in a rush to see how many products they can introduce in a year, or seem very interested in playing the update game just for the sake of having something new.
When they do upgrade a component, you can be sure there was a good audible reason apart from the cries echoing out of the marketing department.
Take VTL’s new preamp, the TL-6.5 Series II Signature ($15,000), which is getting its official roll-out at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The single-box, tubed unit is one notch down from the company’s two-chassis, state-of-the-art TL-7.5 preamp. But that notch has just narrowed.
Looking at the TL-6.5/II, I tried to remember how long the original had been out. Three years? Four, maybe?
Try more than seven years.
Other companies have started up, made a splash and then gone out of business in that time. VTL, however, has just been growing steadily, spreading the gospel of tube worship.
Luke Manley pointed me toward a center seat, marked with a piece of masking tape. “Let us play something for you,” he said.
VTL again was partnering with Wilson Audio for its RMAF room. Wilson was showing its new Sabrina speakers ($15,900), which readers with a good memory will recall I tipped them off to last year, when the company brought the prototypes for a silent display.
Amps this time were the formidable VTL MB-185 Signature monoblocks ($17,500), driven by a dCS Rossini player and clock ($35,998 for the pair), a Brinkman Spyder turntable ($24,600) and Lyra Etna cartridge ($6,995). Cable was a mix of Nordost brands that, if I added correctly — and I’m pretty sure I did — totaled more than $325,000.
Now it was time for listening, however, not math. I get the feeling that Bea Lam, given her druthers, probably would just stick to wonderful vinyl recordings of impressive classical pieces at shows like RMAF — if not for rock and pop fiends like me. But she always patiently takes my CDs and plays tracks all the way through without making a face.
This time, my demo consisted of the Eagles’ Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Dire Straits’ Communique, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s self-titled LP and one of Bea’s, Ahmad Jamal’s Crystal.
‘Hotel California,” the song, has been so played to death by classic-rock radio that it’s hard to get the same feeling as when it was released. This was the Eagles? A rock tango with a spooky lyric, synth-drum accents and then-new guitarist Joe Walsh joining the now-much-missed Don Felder (lead writer on this tune) dueling to the death at the end. With the VTL-Wilson system, though, some of that freshness returned. It literally was like hearing the track for the first time,
One thing I noticed straightaway was that the combination of the very low-noise, wide-bandwidth TL-6.5/II and the new Wilson silk-dome tweeter was a perfect match. Whereas older Wilson models (which sported aluminum tweeters) were kind of like my Jack Russell terrier mix, Oscar, who barks to get attention, the new Sabrina-VTL 6.5/II matched my smaller terrier-Chihuahua, Felix, who just cuddles up beside you.
Indeed, the Wilson-VTL duo made everything I heard sound good. And it did so without masking the signal with too much warmth. Instead, the Sabrinas and TL 6.5/II offered detail and resolution, yet the music flowed with an ease that brought to mind the best electrostatics. In this case, though, there was actual deep, tuneful bass and shimmering highs, along with the wonderful midrange.
Overall, there just was a rightness to the presentation that presented the illusion you were in the control room when the engineer got the mix nearly perfect. Top-to-bottom balance was superb, rhythm and pace were top-notch, and image depth was impressive.
Another outstanding trait of the Sabrina-VTL 6.5/II combo — as if it needed any more — was its ability to locate images precisely in space. When Coltrane takes his first solo on “They Say It’s Wonderful,” for instance, you can almost see the tenor sax man stepping out of the shadows into the spotlight. Ditto for Walsh and Felder, whose harmony guitar parts can be easily followed individually on the climax to “Hotel California.”
Another observation here about the ability of the Sabrina-VTL 6.5/II to convey something intangible is the combo’s recreation of mood and atmosphere. Take, for instance, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” where a romantically shattered Stevie Nicks wails in the night while Mick Fleetwod’s cymbal crashes and John McVie’s rolling bass emulate an approaching thunderstorm. On some systems, the chorus comes off as a series of thumps and bumps, but with the Wilson/VTL combo the emotional storm was right in front of you.
So, what’s to explain all these noteworthy accomplishments, especially in gear that sits below the most expensive offered by each company?
Let’s start with the TL-6.5/II.
“The main thing we did was improve the power supply,” Lam told me. “It’s more like the (flagship) TL-7.5, except in one box.”
VTL believes the improved design provides much better noise rejection and enhanced performance in environments with AC fluctuation.
Other improvements to the TL 6.5/II include newly available FET technology developed for solar panels and electric cars that continuously conducts current, but meets “green” standards. There also is a shock-mounted, high-current gain stage, zero negative feedback and re-voiced audiophile-grade capacitors.
So much for the VTL unit. How about the equally impressive Sabrina? When we left RMAF last year, the project was essentially a nice-looking box with holes cut out for the drivers. Wilson already had decided on a modified 1-inch silk dome tweeter and a 5.75-inch doped paper-pulp midrange, but still was testing woofers. Head honcho David Wilson eventually decided on an 8-inch paper-pulp bass driver.
“It’s similar to what we use in the Alexia and the Duette 2, except we modified it for this speaker,” Wilson’s director of marketing, John Giolas, told me. “It has the same cone and surround, but a different magnet and a new voice coil.”
The Sabrina sounds so good, I asked Giolas if there was any worry it would cut into the sales of models farther up the line.
“We design for a purpose, not to a price point,” he said. “The Sabrina is aimed at the buyer who appreciates good sound, but needs a smaller-footprint loudspeaker. At the same time, the Sabrina still will perform well in larger rooms.
“It also is very revealing of electronics. So, the better gear you chose to drive it, the more its performance will increase.”
Wilson seems to have found that “better gear” in VTL, with the pair’s growing history of show pairings demonstrating that a long-term relationship doesn’t have to grow stale. As for the new Sabrina and TL-6.5/II, I feel the same way toward this small combo as I do my equally compact, but big-eyed and fluffy, Felix. I just want to curl up with it and a good book for hours on end. What’s not to like about that?