I know what you’re thinking. The LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier is probably too good to be true. Living Sounds Audio isn’t exactly a stranger to delivering great sound for an affordable price—Walter Liederman, aka Underwood Wally, has been doing this kind of thing for more than 50 years. But a tube integrated amplifier that offers an incredible number of features and stunning sound for a mere $1,499? How about for a special introductory price of just $1,199? There must be a catch, right?
The buzz surrounding the introduction of the LSA VT-70 reflected that skepticism. I read several comments about this EL-34-based integrated when it was first announced in February 2022. Where did this amp come from? Who made it, and where are they located? One audiophile noted that the knobs on the front panel look just like another amplifier’s knobs, and therefore this must be a stolen/rebadged/copycat design. I hate to break it to you, pal, but most amplifier companies don’t machine their own knobs.
I had to laugh at all the conjecture, mostly because I’ve had the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier running in my system for the last several weeks and I know the answers. At least most of them. But if you think you know the reasons why the LSA VT-70 can be offered at such a low price, you’ll probably get some of those reasons right and some of them wrong. Yes, the LSA Group does sell direct, which does lower the MSRP significantly. That’s how Audio by Van Alstine does it—almost the entire supply chain exists in one location. As someone who spent a decade importing and distributing and having a dealer network with protected territories (aka “the Old Way”), I haven’t always been on board with direct sales. But it does have clear benefits when it comes to keeping the prices low.
But the LSA Group takes that idea a step further. As I mentioned, Walter’s been doing this for a long time, and he’s built quite a business model. This model revolves around one thing: getting the most performance for his customers’ money. Sometimes that means partnerships. Sometimes that means buying companies. The LSA Group is, if anything an expanding empire, and if you’re a company making a good product for a fair price, you might be taking a meeting from Walter in the very near future.
“We design many of our own products and sell them direct to you with low overhead and no distributor or dealer profits,” it says right on the LSA website. Even more importantly:
“None of the Underwood owned products carry the overhead of a traditional ‘brick and mortar’ dealer structure – the profit margins, factory sponsored advertising and promotional allowances, sales rep commissions, distributor profits etc. – and other allocations that just push the price up while adding little real customer value/satisfaction.”
I’ve already discussed the rather interesting niche Underwood Wally has carved out into the hi-fi scene over the last few years. I’ve talked to Wally on numerous occasions, and I’ve reviewed several of his products—most notably the LSA T-3 turntable and a series of cables from Core Power Technologies. Here’s the twist on this whole LSA deal—Wally delivers the goods, every time. I want to add “for the money,” since that’s the instinct when it comes to discussing high-value high-end audio, but that qualifier is not needed because Wally has always provided me with completely satisfying products, at least in my humble opinion. Other PTA writers, such as John Richardson and Graig Neville, have come to similar conclusions.
But this LSA VT-70? It’s something else. You’re going to hear a lot about it in the coming months, I suspect.
Inside the LSA VT-70
When I asked Mark Schifter of LSA about the origin of the LSA VT-70, he simply said that it was co-designed and built by one of LSA’s longtime partners overseas. (Schifter was the key person who spent years making the VT-70 project happen for LSA.) I also remember Wally telling me that he doesn’t just look for existing amplifiers that sound good so he can slap an LSA badge on it. As I’ve mentioned, he finds companies that have already designed good-sounding products, and then he says okay, now make me one of these. And he tells them what he wants. He shows them the design. When he’s happy with the final result, he sells it. This seems to be the case with the LSA VT-70.
In the flesh, the VT-70 looks a little retro in its cosmetics, back to a strange period of silver faceplates and shiny knobs. (Again, another similarity to AVA.) It’s a weird retro, not quite far enough in the past to require distinct rigor in the design, but it’s evocative of the arrival of affordable tube amplifiers such as Primaluna and Jolida and Audio Electronic Supply/Cary just before the turn of the century. Small yet busy faceplate, open architecture for the valves and a shiny black “automotive” finish on the chassis and removable tube cage. It’s a good-looking amp, no doubt. Your eyes are instantly drawn to the meters, however, which double for current and tube biasing.
Here’s one more detail that makes the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier such an incredible deal—it’s heavy, even for a tube amplifier. 46 pounds, to be exact. The heavier a component is, the more expensive it is to make and push through the supply chain. That’s a basic concept that isn’t mentioned frequently in the world of luxury goods, but it’s always there, eating into your profit margins. But despite the heft, the price is still $1,199.
Once we get away from that low, low price, the LSA VT-70 is a somewhat typical 35wpc ultra-linear class AB tube integrated with remote control (a classy metal one, by the way), three unbalanced RCA inputs, a subwoofer out, and even its own headphone amplifier. It uses a combination of PCBs and point-to-point wiring, which isn’t so typical. Inside, the VT-70 is neat and clean and organized—someone obviously cares about the parts you don’t often see. This is a well-built, compact little integrated.
Tube complement is four EL-34s for the power, plus two 12AU7s and one 12AX7. You can substitute KT-88s and 6550s as well—it’s just a matter of re-biasing the tubes using the meters and the controls on the top panel. Everything is laid out neatly and logically, and I had no issues with the operation of the VT-70 at any point.
LSA VT-70 Set-Up
Review gear tends to arrive in waves in these parts, but the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier arrived at a quiet time, just after I “cleared out” my 2021 schedule. Originally, I had the VT-70 hooked up to a pair of Nola Champ3 loudspeakers—which retail for almost five figures. At first, I felt that the Nolas revealed some of the LSA’s shortcomings, such as a slight blurring of transient edges, a reduced but still holographic soundstage and a loss of fine detail compared to the very best, but over time the VT-70 opened up and started sounding a lot like many of the EL-34 ultra linear class AB amplifiers I’ve had at my disposal. There have been many.
What I enjoyed about this match was the quality of the bass—the Champ3 is not shy in that regard, not one bit. But this 35-watt-per-channel tube amplifier didn’t do what I expected, which was softening the lowest frequencies, making them less visceral. I know EL-34 amps, as I just said, and they sound more linear to my ears than say, a KT-88 amp. The EL-34 sound is a sound that doesn’t shine a sexy, flickering light on the midrange like a KT-88, but it is far quicker. But while EL-34s cover more ground, it can still get reasonably woolly and unfocused down in the trenches.
But with the Nola Champ3s, the LSA VT-70 surprised me with that sense of “bass slap,” that energy transforming into so much more than a mere frequency. I heard those multiple layers of information in the bottom octaves, layers that were filled with plenty of detail. This is something I expect from expensive tube amplifiers.
I also spent considerable time with the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier hooked up to the GoldenEar BRX two-way monitors. This seemed like more of a real-world pairing, a $1,600/pair of bookshelf speakers with an $1,199 tube integrated. I’ve had the BRXs on hand for a long time now, mostly because it’s taken me a while to discover how chameleonic they are. I found this configuration to be far more interesting, because it represents a likelier scenario for the potential owner.
LSA VT-70 Integrated Amplifier Sound
What doesn’t the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier do compared to big, expensive tube amplifiers? From the moment I plugged this integrated amplifier into the system, I thought about that. I knew I’d have to focus on the shortcomings at some point if I wanted to be taken seriously, but when I did write something down I’d wind up deleting it because that’s not what a value-oriented product like the LSA is about. Over time, I cared less and less about what the VT-70 didn’t do, because it did so many things right—bass, midrange clarity and a certain coherence that allowed music to breathe and make sense. Again, that’s what the fancy gear is supposed to do.
The VT-70 did, at times, sound a little less open than some of the big tube amps I’ve had in my listening room over the last couple of years. In absolute terms, the VT-70 wasn’t nearly as open and airy in the treble, which revealed that the boundaries of the soundstage weren’t quite as large and limitless as they can be. The walls in my listening room didn’t exactly vanish. My first impression was of music delivered at perhaps at a 7/8ths scale—realistic and accurate, but with less of a periphery than I knew possible.
While the Nola Champ3s helped considerably when it came to reaching beyond the comfort of an EL-34-produced midrange, all natural and extended, out toward the extremes, I still felt that the bass was unusually tight and controlled. Since I’ve been trying to expand my music reviewing horizons beyond contemporary jazz these days—there’s so much to explore—I’ve been listening to a lot of electronica as well as ultra-modern noise recordings that often defy genre categorizations. We’re talking deep, deep bass.
Two of my current favorites are Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original soundtrack to Chernobyl and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049. These unconventional recordings project both size and dynamics in an almost scary, edge-of-the-abyss manner. With Chernobyl, Guðnadóttir wanted to capture the sound of being in a huge nuclear power plant, with all of the rumbling and vibrations intact. The LSA VT-70 was able to distinguish between low, guttural rumbles and low, guttural rumbles taking place somewhere else nearby. That requires a substantial helping of finesse to capture that sense of distance.
With the Zimmer album, however, the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier proved that it could manage huge dynamic blasts of music that come out of nowhere, shake your soul, and then exit in a completely different direction. That suggests the LSA is an imaging champ as well, and it is—I was thrilled with the movement of those unleashed, wild electronic noises, and yes, there may have been significant goose bump activity.
With the GoldenEar BRX monitors, however, a different type of sound started to evolve and in a surprisingly positive way. This “modest” combination had tremendous synergy, especially when it came more intimate and spacious recordings. Wadada Leo Smith’s The Chicago Symphonies is a 4-CD set, four hours of small-ensemble improvisation led by a masterful and often muted trumpet. The VT-70/BRX combination brought out the gentle interplay between the musicians and preserved the sense of a continuing conversation among close friends. Invisible lines were drawn from musician to musician, and you could hear all the sharing in between the notes.
I grew to appreciate this combo deeply, the way the imaging and soundstaging became fixed and stable in space and soooo listenable and easy to enjoy. We’re talking about a $3000 amp/speaker combination, hooked up with an equally unassuming pair of Rocket 33 speaker cables from AudioQuest, and it was gratifying to know that this level of sound quality can still reach a great many people, and that we should tell everyone that high-end audio isn’t just about sticker shock for the uninitiated. You can get one of these, muggles, and you will be extremely happy with it.
It was hard to avoid the words “for the money” with the LSA VT-70 integrated amplifier review—when you listen to it, you’ll constantly use cliches such as “punches above its weight” and “giant killer.” I had to get past that because the VT-70 just is. There’s a logic and reason behind its excellence, and it’s not completely tied into its price.
I’m not surprised, in general, that a $1500 integrated amplifier (or $1200, for that matter), is this accomplished. I’ve seen, or even owned such animals before, from Naim, Heed, LFD and many more. Brit-Fi, for example, seems to be predicated on a $1000 integrated and a pair of BBC monitors. But I know what you’re thinking—all of those are solid-state designs, and that was a couple of decades ago when $1000 integrated amps were plentiful. Tube amps are a little different from a long-term ownership POV, aren’t they?
You can also find tube amplifiers out in the wild for this kind of money, but chances are it’ll be a low-powered SET that will require you break out your soldering iron—and a set of valves might not even be included. Nothing wrong with that path, either, because you’ll find great sound in many cases. But will you get a headphone amplifier too? A beautiful fit and finish? How about a warranty? How about a manufacturer who’s been doing this for half a century and will take great care of you if something bad happens? And let’s not forget about 35 watts per channel, which will allow you to use the VT-70 with a wide variety of speakers.
That’s one of the many pleasures of the LSA VT-70 integrated, that it’s a tube amplifier that sounds like a tube amplifier, not an earnest replica of one, something that’s been tweaked until it sounds a certain way to please modern audiophiles. It has the warmth, the clarity through the midrange and the linearity I need from an EL-34, and it asks for so little in return. Once again, this is one of those products that I wish they had when I was a journeyman audiophile curious about getting into tubes for the first time. If that sounds like you, take a chance on the VT-70. I can’t think of a better centerpiece for an under-$5,000 system.
When it comes time to look at the Best Value Awards for 2022, I’m unsure of how much magic it’s gonna take to knock the LSA VT-70 off the top of this mountain.