AXPONA 2017: VTL creates mid-priced magic with Dynaudio, Naim

It’s not unusual for high-end amplifiers to be a particularly good match with some speakers, but not others.

It’s been rare for me, however, to hear an amp from Chino, Calif.-based VTL sound anything less than impressive — and, more often, mind-blowing — on a broad range of speakers.

The company kept that string going at AXPONA, where its ST-150 tube amplifier ($6,000) was driving Dynaudio’s floor-standing Contour 60 ($10,000 a pair) in one of Chicago retailer ProMusica’s rooms.

VTL, during its two decades of operation, has figured out how to design higher-power tube amps without losing the magic of lower-watt units. The extra wattage allows VTL’s amplifiers to be used successfully with a wider variety of transducers — very successfully, in fact.

For years, the company’s Siegfried monoblocks, now in series two configuration, have been on a very short list of my favorite amps. These fully balanced behemoths produce 650 watts per channel in tetrode mode and a still-not-shabby 330 watts a side in triode (into 5 ohms).

I have heard Siegfrieds do things that I’ve never encountered in any other amplifier. Just one is how these monoblocks produce music with a texture that is tangible.

For instance, with the Siegfrieds, Bob Dylan’s jacket-cuff buttons rattling against the face of his acoustic guitar on “Tangled Up in Blue” sound like you are standing next to the singer in the sound booth.

The Siegfrieds, though, cost $65,000 a pair. Enter the ST-150, where VTL aims to bring some of that magic to listeners for a more affordable price — way more affordable.

I hope the comment section on Part-Time Audiophile’s website won’t blow up from me saying this, but in today’s audiophile market the ST-150’s $6,000 price tag is pretty darn attractive for a hand-built (at VTL headquarters in the USA), high-parts-quality, exquisitely finished tube amp.

What you get for your six grand is 150 watts per side in tetrode mode (70 in triode), a high-energy-storage power supply (>200 joules), four individually biased 6550 tubes per channel, premium-grade foil and film caps, and a thick, handsome, extruded-aluminum front panel.

At AXPONA, the ST-150 and the Contour were joined by a VTL TL 2.5i preamp ($5,000, including phono stage), a Rega Apollo CD player ($1,100) and a Roksan Radius 7 turntable ($3,500) with a Dynavector 20H cartridge ($1,000).

Completing the gear portion of the system was a handful of components from Naim — its Uniti CORE music server ($2,600), DAC ($4,300), XPS5 power supply ($3,300), DCI digital cable ($550) and NAC speaker wire ($20 per foot). Quadraspire provided its EVO rack ($210 per tier).

I listened to a track by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. As for texture, the ST-150 was plenty good (you really could hear Satchmo’s raspy vocal cords vibrating), although not in Siegfried territory. The presentation was nicely balanced, too, with full-bodied bass and extended highs on either side of the focused tube midrange.

Also, for a valve amp and an old recording, the noise floor was remarkably low. This allowed individual instruments to emerge with great clarity and precise placement in the deep soundstage. Pacing also was excellent — no tube sluggishness here.

All in all, it was quite a performance for a system costing less than $40,000. For those who require the ultimate — and have the appropriate-size pocketbook — the Siegfrieds are hard to beat. But for others with a lower budget, the ST-150 has enough of the VTL flagship’s attributes for many hours of satisfying listening.

AXPONA coverage generously provided by NOBLE AUDIO.

About John Stancavage 196 Articles
Contributing Editor for Part-Time Audiophile