September 27, 2010

Musicality Defined – VTL TL2.5 Preamp and MB125 Monoblocks

I have listened to tube amps in dealers’ demos and in friends’ systems, but, come to think of it, I have never had them in my own system. These VTLs are the first.

Despite being VTL’s entry level preamp and VTL’s smallest monoblocks, the trio here flew the flag for the tube brigade pretty darn well. In the 3 weeks I spent with them, every listening session was musically enjoyable. I had much less of my audiophile angst manifesting; after switching them on, I would slip comfortably into my chair, relaxed, and pressed ‘play’. Music would fill the room.

The VTLs were always about serving the music.

VTL TL2.5 preamp, front and back

The TL2.5 preamp’s design is utilitarian. There is no sexy looking fascia or protruding, warmly glowing tubes for ‘eye-fi’ (as Big E is fond to say). Instead you get a standard looking rectangular black box, with a few toggle switches and rotary knobs. A simple remote control is included, useful for the volume control and mute functions. The volume control knob is not clearly marked. Using the remote control for volume setting was convenient, however I found it hard to read out from a distance how far the knob has been turned. The pre-amp uses two 12AU7 and two 12AT7 tubes. An optional tube phono board can be fitted if you also have a vinyl source. The preamp comes in at 25lbs (about 11kgs) and is listed for RM15,690.

VTL MB125 Monoblocks, front and back

The monoblocks are of a medium size. At 42lbs each (about 19kgs), they are easier to move around and have a smaller footprint compared to my Pass Labs XA60 monoblocks that have similar power rating. The MB125 has a quiet elegance about it with its black Perspex and metal fascia. The tubes are hidden under a removable tube cage. The MB125 puts out 60 watts in triode mode and 120 watts in tetrode mode. Switching from one mode to another requires you to switch off the amp first, and toggle a switch at the back. The tubes are four EL34s and two 12AT7s. Unlike its bigger brothers, the MB125 does not come with auto-biasing, so you still have to go through the traditional manual way. A pair of MB125 is listed for RM26,880.

These VTL pre-amp and monoblocks are single ended. I had to ditch my balanced interconnects. Instead, I dug up my Wireworld cables, putting a pair of Eclipse II between my CD player and the preamp, and a pair of Polaris III between the preamp and the monoblocks.

On the word Go, the VTLs made their presence felt. During the very first session, when they were still fresh out from the box, they were already sounding musical. As time passed, their musicality did not wear off; every session spent with them was always musically satisfying.

Now, of course, ‘musicality’ is a hard to define thing. It may mean different sound characteristics to different people. I take it as a personal and subjective matter; it means that I experience an emotional connection with the sound reproduced, that the sound is strung together coherently as a whole, as a composition, not just a cacophony of, uh, sound. So it was less about characteristics like bass slam, dynamics, speed, extended highs, though these things could help in the musicality department (and therefore the two are not mutually exclusive).

Every performance was brought back to life with the VTLs. I especially enjoyed vocal sessions like Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, and Sara K’s ‘Don’t I know You from Somewhere’ from Stockfisch Records. Both are live recordings. The VTLs conveyed excellently the recordings’ atmosphere and immediacy, the vocal part were rendered naturally with a little hint of sweetness, making me wanting to listen on and on.

On big scale work like Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 “From the New World’, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner, the VTLs successfully conveyed the music with a grand sweep and a good scale, the tension in the music playing was held excellently. Again, it was a beginning-until-the-end-listen-through kind of session.

The VTLs also proved capable with more dynamic music, I threw at them Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela’ from his ‘Hope’ album, and also the ‘Jazz Variant’ track from the Manger compilation disc. Both were musically enjoyable. Though I could detect that dynamics was held back a little bit, I still enjoyed listening from the beginning till the end. With ‘Stimela’, I even waved in the air and clapped together the crowd in the recording. The music was infectious.

The VTLs showed that the line between today’s tube and solid state gears is very thinly drawn. The VTLs’ frequency response was fully extended on both ends – there was no flabby bass, nor rolled-off highs, mind you. The VTLs were transparent too. It was not the etched, bright picture sins that some solid state committed, nor the veiled, overly warm sins that some tube committed. The VTLs were rounded, organic, refined. And at the same time, they presented excellent details, not standing out, but forming part of the sonic picture.

The one thing that probably betrayed their tube origin was the mids, which were simply attractive; it had a beautiful tonal colour, with just a little tinge of rosy romanticism. I want to emphasize though that it was not an overt colouration that beautifies everything, it was neutrality with just a wee bit of sweetness that made listening such a soothing and enjoyable exercise.

At the tail end of my time with the VTLs, I swapped the TL2.5 preamp with my own Pass Labs X2.5. Attesting to their transparency, the MB125 monoblocks showed up the differences readily. Well, both preamps were neutral with each veered just slightly to the camp they aligned to – solid state or tube. The VTL showed up with better organic-ness, better rendering of the atmosphere in the recording, the sound was sweeter. The Pass Labs was more impactful and dynamic, the sound was more overt. After a short acclimatization (a couple of hours of listening), I found that I could live happily with either.

I felt that the MB125s synergized with the TL2.5 preamp better though. No point breaking up a pairing that was so natural working together (due to time constraint, I did not try it the other way round – the VTL TL2.5 preamp with my Pass Labs XA60 monoblocks).

I did try the MB125 in its tetrode mode, which gave double the power. They sounded more powerful indeed. The amps had a better grip and were more dynamic. However, I found that you had to sacrifice some of the organic-ness. And curiously, they also lost some of the musicality I so enjoyed. My personal preference was the triode mode.

I am eager to listen to more of VTL’s offerings. If I were to contemplate an amp change, VTL will be on my shortlist!

VTL is carried by A&L Audio Station, Ph: 03-7958 2884

1 comment:

Big E said...

I just loved the way the VTLs sounded in Odiosleuth's system.

Excellent choice of tube amplifiers if one is in the market for some!