December 17, 2011

Quintessentially Tube - VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature Preamp

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you’d know that we are having a roll with pre-amplifiers. It started with the Ayre KX-R in the beginning of the year, then we went through a number of others from Pass Labs, Jeff Rowland and TAD in the intervening months. This latest pre-amp that came our way has a twist in that it is the first tube unit in this long line of pre-amps. How does it compare to those solid state units? In short, it sounds quintessentially tube. Having the tube magic is what I’d call it. Read on and I shall elaborate.

The VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature amplifier is the third from the top in VTL’s pre-amp line-up. It is a fully balanced differential linestage. The circuit is all tube, its tube complement consists of 2 X 12AU7 and 4 X 12AT7. The inputs are 2 pairs of XLR/RCA, and 6 pairs of RCA. The outputs are 1 pair each of XLR and RCA, plus a record out. Input impedance is 35k Ohms and output impedance is 150 Ohms. Power consumption is 60w.

The review unit had the black fascia, though VTL produces a silver version too. This black version does look rather classy especially if the rest of your equipment is also black.

The TL-5.5 Series II Signature lists at RM31,815. The review unit is the line-only version. If you take a peep inside, only half of the real estate is occupied by the circuit board. This also means that the weight distribution is lopsided, so be a little careful in your handling. The weight is a 30lbs (13.6kg).

There is a good reason for the unused space. You can opt to add a phono board later, which will be bolted onto the unit taking up the space.

The TL-5.5 II Sig has 2 additional features that are rarely found on other pre-amps. One is Phase setting, which I found to be having audible effect on some recordings, these recordings sounded lifeless when phase was switched to the 'wrong' setting. The other is the ability for the user to select gain. The normal setting is 11dB single ended, 17dB balanced, switchable to low gain 6dB single ended and 11dB balanced. To access the gain setting, you have to open up the cover to set the toggle switches inside.

The TL-5.5 II Signature has a very useful 117 steps volume control

The unit was the distributor’s demo unit, so no long run-in period was required. I left the unit on overnight and there was no change to the sound quality, so subsequently the unit was left on standby when not playing. Upon switch on, the unit went into a count down, and about a minute later, it was ready to play.

Did I say that the VTL had the tube magic? The VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature had a sound with a rich, melodious and delicate quality that tube equipment does so easily and so matter-of-factly, which many solid staters try to imitate but end up a poor cousin.

The highs was glorious, it was ethereal and so sweet that your heart melted and you just wanted to wallow in it. The mids was creamy and it embraced vocals like nobody’s business, voice has a humanness that made it very relaxing and beautiful to listen to. The bass was rounded and had warmth, and it was here that opinion might be divided - if you value bass articulation and tunefulness, the VTL would be the winner; if you wanted more bass slam and impact, then some solid state pre-amps would prove to be a better bet. The thing is that the VTL’s bass had excellent body and not the anaemic kind, so the sound remained balanced throughout the audio band all the time.

One of my long term reference, the 2V1G CD incorporated a lot of ambient information in the recordings (my favourites are tracks 4 & 8). This CD played right into the VTL’s hands. The voices were honeyed and breathy, like a beautiful girl whispering sweet nothing into your ears. The soundscape was swirling with air, illuminating the space in the recording studio. Roger Wang’s guitar surrounded the voices, the guitar plucks were clear and harmonically rich. Turn the light down, close your eyes, and the whole intimate performance would be transported into your room.

I turned to another excellent acoustic recording, Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live CD. The track ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is at the top of my list. It consists of just Nils’ fast and furious guitar playing and his vocal, together with a responsive and appreciative live audience. If I were to nit pick, I’d say that the VTL perhaps just sacrificed a little bit of snap and bite on Nils Lofgren’s guitar plucks compared to the solid state units I heard in my system before. However, the VTL turned in a performance that pulled ahead of the others in terms of atmosphere and airiness, capturing in a coherent manner the feel of the performance and the venue. It brought the space and its actors into my room. When the audience interacted with Nils, I could almost feel that I was looking into event itself, that was how palpable the portrayal was.

The well-built remote

The TL-5.5 II Sig flies the tube brigade flag proudly. The sound I heard from it was always smooth, rich and non-aggressive. The VTL is transparent enough to reveal the recording quality of CDs, however, its mission was to make the most out of anything it was fed with. Focusing and delivering on the musical message is its purpose in life. The VTL TL5.5 Series II Signature will let you enjoy your music collection tremendously, yes, musicality is at the heart of this pre-amp.

This is a sound that has music as its soul.

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

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