Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last couple of years, you’re probably aware that Vinnie Rossi has been shaking up the world of high-end audio shows with his tremendous L2 amplification line. I’ve always been a fan of Vinnie’s designs, going back more than a dozen years when I listened to one of his battery-powered Red Wine Audio amps. I used it to review a wonderful pair of WLM loudspeakers from Austria, which Vinnie used to import into the US.
Over the last year or so Vinnie Rossi has partnered with Mark Sossa of Well Pleased A/V, the US distributor of Qln loudspeakers from Sweden, to create some of the most amazing sound I’ve heard in a hotel room since I first attended a hi-fi show almost 30 years ago. These are amazing systems, yet they are simple—usually it’s one of Vinnie’s L2i-SE integrated amplifiers with the L2 DAC module, a pair of petite Qln 2-way floorstanding Prestige Threes and an Innuos music server. These are not big six-figure systems in one of the huge conference rooms downstairs. I’m doing the math in my head, and I think the entire Vinnie Rossi/Qln systems usually run for less than $50K. That’s not chicken feed, but that’s also incredibly reasonable for a system that often winds up competing for Best Sound at Show.
Here’s how I thought this review was going to go down. As I mentioned, Vinnie and I have known each other for many years. We talk all the time, especially about loudspeakers that would work with his amps. I got this Part-Time Audiophile gig around the time Vinnie started showing the with the Qln Prestige Threes. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time in his rooms, long enough to fall in love with the sound, and then I’d make some sort of swooning gesture toward Vinnie and then I’d be on my way. I just assumed that I’d eventually get a chance to hear this combination in my own house.
I must have said something out loud to Vinnie or Mark. I must have.
A funny thing happened, however, on the way to this review. I got the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier in for review. Vinnie brought an extra one to the Capital Audiofest last November, and I put it in the back of my SUV and drove it home. The Qln Prestige Threes, unfortunately, did not make the trip. Instead, they went our very own Dave McNair for review, and he loved them so much he bought them.
It’s my fault, really. Dave was looking for stuff to review, and I already had a house full of gear. I grudgingly told Dave to go ahead and review the Qlns if that’s the way you want to be, New Guy. But I also figured this would be a great way to separate these two wildly synergistic components and find out just how special the Vinnie Rossi L-2i integrated amplifier really is on its own.
Vinnie Rossi L2i
First of all, I didn’t get the same Vinnie Rossi L2i-SE (Signature Edition) that Vinnie brings to the shows. My review amp was the simpler and less expensive L2i. If you’ve had any experience with Vinnie Rossi amplifiers such as the innovative LIO, you’ll know that these designs are both modular and highly upgradeable. (The LIO started at just over $5000, but you could drive it close to $15K with all the goodies, everything from DACs and phono stages to autoformers for the volume control.)
Vinnie explained to me that the biggest difference between the L2i and the L2i-SE was the line stage, and that the stunning L2 Phonostage module is the same in both models, as is the L2 DAC module option. (Each one costs an extra $3495.) While the L2i in its basic form uses a pair of octal triode 6SN7 tubes in the line stage, the SE uses a pair of directly heated triodes. That means you can use 2A3s, 300Bs, 45s, 101Ds, 205Ds, PX4s or SV811s in the line stage. (I’d love to try a pair of NOS RCA Cunningham “globe” 45s, one of my favorite output tubes, in the SE!)
With the L2i, you don’t get to see those fancy DHTs sticking out of the top of the chassis. When I first posted pics of the L2i in my system, a couple of my audiophile buddies asked when I was going to put the tubes in. I already had—the stock 6SN7s simply weren’t tall enough to poke through the tube openings. But you can fix that if you want through tube rolling. Vinnie sent me a gorgeous pair of Shu Guang CV181-T tubes to use, and they were just big enough to easily see from the listening position. Plus, these tubes sounded a bit more three-dimensional than the stock 6SN7s, so I would choose these if I bought the L2i. You can also use 6N8P or 6BL7s if you wish.
In other words, the L2 integrated amplifiers are hybrid. While the line stage of the L2i is dual-mono Class A with zero feedback, the power stage is dual-mono Class AB MOSFET with only one pair of output devices. That gives the L2i 100 wpc into 8 ohms, and 170 wpc into 4 ohms. That’s more than enough for any speaker I had in the house—and there’s a lot of them right now.
While the Vinnie Rossi L2i-SE costs $18,995, this simpler L2i costs just $13,995. Vinnie supplied the review unit with the optional phono stage module, which brings the price up to $17,490.
That Phono Stage
Vinnie Rossi knew that I would want the L2 Phonostage module installed. “I think you’re going to love it,” he told me when he handed me the box.
At first I thought okay, whatever, since I’ve had a steady flow of excellent phono stages in my system over the last year or so. I don’t need an inboard phono stage but if you include one, I’ll certainly check it out. Well, I was flabbergasted by this phono stage. It’s flexible, and it sounds utterly fantastic—so fantastic that for a while I had the L2i running an all-analog system with two turntables and I was in heaven for months.
The secret to this phono stage module is Belleson. Vinnie uses Belleson super-regulators all through the L2 product line, and he collaborated with Brian Lowe of Belleson to design this module. It uses the Belleson split-supply voltage rails and four low-noise, low-distortion gain stages. The module has three inputs—one for MM and two for MC. You can adjust the gain for MM at 40 or 46 dB, and MC at 60, 66 and 72 dB. You can set loading via the remote control, a feature that always makes me giddy.
At the Capital Audiofest last year, I met Brian Lowe and his wife Christina. They were such lovely people to hang with, and we had a great time at the show. I wanted to go back to South Carolina with them. It’s incredibly gratifying when such nice people make such a great product.
When I used that battery-powered Red Wine Audio integrated, I vaguely remember that it had 25 wpc. I know that the LIO had just a bit more power. For some reason I thought the L2i was going to dwell in that same range, so I started thinking about which speakers I wanted to use with it. Then I looked at the spec sheet. 100 watts per channel? Really? As I mentioned, I have plenty of speakers in my humble abode right now, and once I experienced the high level of performance of the L2i I wanted to try them all.
That list includes the Living Voice OBX-RW3, the Trenner & Friedl Osiris, the MartinLogan Motion 35XTi, the Brigadier Audio BA-2, the Fern & Roby Raven II and the Von Schweikert Audio ESEs—everything but a pair of Qln Prestige Threes, of course. While the Vinnie Rossi L2i didn’t meet a speaker it didn’t love, I had very high hopes for the ESEs. Although they are 91 dB efficient, the impedance is 4 ohms and VSA’s Leif Swanson is adamant about using powerful amplifiers in order to get that incredible sense of dynamic energy from his loudspeakers.
It’s not a surprise that the ESEs were my preferred speakers for use with the L2i, or that the L2i was my preferred amplifier with the ESEs. I had it all with this combo—deep bass, a huge soundstage, a profound sense of quiet between the notes and, of course, plenty of excitement.
Finally, I used plenty of different analog rigs with the amazing phono stage module including the Palmer 2.5 turntable with Audio Origami tonearm and Hana ML cartridge, the Fern & Roby Montrose turntable and arm with the ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge, the Technics SL-1200G turntable with the Sumiko Starling cartridge and finally a $500 rig consisting of the Fluance RT85 Reference ‘table and the included Ortofon 2M Blue. (This probably the first time I’ve used an MM input in many years.)
Before I launch into the sound quality of the Vinnie Rossi L2i, I must remark about its visual impact. If I told you that an $18,000 integrated amp that came in a simple, no-frills metal box offered this level of performance, you might say “Oh, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll check it out.” With the L2i and all the other products in Vinnie Rossi’s L2 product range, you get a product that’s at the vanguard of industrial design. Spend a little time up close with this beast, and the price suddenly seems very reasonable.
The craftsmanship of this amplifier is stunning. Like a Ferrari, it’s been designed to look beautiful at every angle. While I was running the two-turntable rig with the L2i, it was placed on the middle shelf of my Fern & Roby equipment rack. If it wasn’t for the second analog rig, the L2i would sit on the top shelf, lit by several spotlights. If you walk into a room and there’s an L2i in it, it will be the first thing you see. The first words out of your mouth will be “What…is…that?”
What’s even more amazing about the L2i is its relatively compact dimensions. You get a high-quality power amp, preamp and optional phono stage or DAC in one chassis. That chassis weighs 50 pounds, which is both substantial and manageable. If you’re the type of audiophile who has exquisite taste in hi-fi without having a lot of space to situate multiple components, the L2i is the answer.
After hearing the pairing of Vinnie Rossi amplifiers and Qln speakers so many times, my first objective was to recreate that immense sense of spaciousness in my listening room. That really wasn’t possible in my room—Vinnie and Mark conjure up that mind-boggling soundstage by bringing the speakers far out into the room, almost half-way, in a diagonal set-up. I’ve had rooms that have allowed me to do that, and the results are always incredible. In my current room I could probably remove most of the furniture and get that deep, deep sound, but it would be a much less comfortable room, one where I might not want to be.
I made a compromise and set the speakers in their usual position about three feet from the back wall and slightly toed-in. It wasn’t much of a compromise, since the ESE/L2i combination still possessed everything else that I heard in those exhibit rooms such as a pure, clear midrange that seemed realistic in size, scope and physical presence. (By that last term I mean any sound that helps to complete the illusion of not just notes, but of notes played by a real human being.)
The soundstage was not so deep that I had to shake my head in disbelief, but it did expand in all directions. The walls disappeared, and I could easily see the distant horizons of sound. My brain still exclaimed “wow” at regular intervals, goosebumps still appeared. It didn’t take long for me to forget about the magic combination with Qln and settle into the nearly perfect realism of what I was hearing in my listening room, right at that moment.
Usually this is the point where I start trotting out my favorite recordings and telling you how the Vinnie Rossi L2i reproduced that part where the singer takes a sip of their martini in between verses, or where the drummer drops a stick and has to play a couple of bars one-handed. If I don’t mention favorite recordings, someone will make a comment like “What music did you use?” I’ll be honest for a second and tell you that I hate when half of an equipment review sounds like an amphetamine-fueled listening session that went on for three days. I listened to this! And then this! Which led me to this!
I had the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier in my system for many months, and I listened to hundreds of LPs during that time. I can’t pick out two or three that stood out. I can tell you that this was one of the most rewarding periods of my life as an audiophile. It’s all a happy, satisfying blur.
I’m concerned that my reviews are starting to sound the same. Each review sounds like I’m crowning a new King of the Mountain. I’m not. What’s happening is this: I’m lucky to have this gig. Eighteen months ago, I told Scot Hull that I would be happy to review those middle high-end audio components since we have people like Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis and Richard H. Mak to handle the exotic stuff, and others to handle the more affordable gear.
That’s not what happened. As my tenure goes on at Part-Time Audiophile, that sound system in my living room is becoming more and more impressive, more and more of what I really desire when it comes to reproducing music. I think about that a lot, especially when it comes to reviewing products as the Von Schweikert Audio ESEs, the Mactone amplification I just reviewed, the Palmer turntable and, of course, the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier. Would I buy this if I had $20K to budget for amplification? I would.
That’s not the first time I’ve said that this year, but I really feel it in my bones.
That said, I’m still curious about those Qlns and the sound I hear at those audio shows. How will this be resolved? Well, there’s a new Qln speaker, one that’s a step up from the Prestige Three, and Mark Sossa is sending it to me. There’s only one problem—the L2i integrated needs to go back to Vinnie. I’ve had it a long time.
Here’s the good news. I explained my dilemma to Vinnie, and he’s going to send me the L2 separates to use with the Qln Prestige Fives. I’m also moving to Portland this summer, so I’ll be looking for a house that has a room where I can try a diagonal set-up and bring those Qlns way out into the room. Because when gear is this awesome, audiophiles like me will buy a house just to make them sound better. Highly recommended, and an Editor’s Choice Award winner.