The VTL TL 5.5 Pre-Amplifier
The VTL marquee is well respected for both superior sound quality and exceptional bang for the buck. VTL amplifiers are at the heart of both of this writer's systems: 750 Reference monoblocks in the big system downstairs and Tiny Triode monoblocks in the upstairs system. VTL pre-amplifiers have been somewhat less recognized, possibly because when Luke Manley assumes full control of the company a few years ago he concentrated first on updating and improving the amplifier line. But about five years ago, the new pre-amplifiers began to come along. First was the entry-level TL 2.5, one of which does yeoman service in my upstairs system, while others bring great happiness to several friends. Just now being released is the TL 7.5, a flagship $10,000 line pre-amplifier, which will be reviewed here, probably in the fall. The TL 5.5 is the middle entry in the VTL preamplifier line. It represents a significant step up from the 2.5, and is a natural partner for the middle range of VTL amplifiers, as well as for other makes, both tubed and solid-state.
In appearance, I find the TL 5.5 more functional than glamorous, although the standard two-tone silver and black fascia, diagonally divided at the volume knob, is visually striking. (An optional all-black fascia is also available.) The very large sculpted volume knob is both a visual and a tactile pleasure, and all of the controls have a solid, secure feel. The rear panel sports six sets of line-level RCA input jacks (or five line plus phono, as in the review sample). Its two tape loops also accommodate outboard processors, which facilitates the use of the pre-amplifier in a home theater setup.
With its two toroidal power transformers nestled into the right-hand side of the sturdy steel chassis, the dual-mono 5.5 is a substantial and weighty package. High-quality parts including MIT Multi-caps are abundantly evident throughout the well laid-out interior. The well shielded phono section is located away from the power transformers. A balanced differential design, the 5.5 offers XLR balanced as well as RCA unbalanced main output jacks. The option of running balanced cables is most useful if long interconnects are needed between preamp and amplifier(s). The balanced output may also provide better sonic performance in the 5.5 is matched with a true differential balanced amplifier.
Polarity, Right or Wrong
The TL 5.5 has a beautifully finished aluminum remote control for adjusting volume, mute and polarity (also called phase). My hat is off to VTL for providing remote polarity control in a moderately priced preamp. None of the far more expensive units I had on hand for comparison offers polarity reversal in any form. And although many audiophiles seem more or less oblivious to the benefits of correct polarity, I find the ability to check polarity from my listening seat to be one of the most satisfying aspects of living with the T: 5.5. I am convinced that many of the audiophile complaints about harsh digital sound could be traced back to listening to CDs with incorrect polarity -- and there are plenty of them. The ability to perceive polarity differences may vary with the type of recording (highly multi--mic'd/mixed recordings make it more difficult to detect improper polarity), as well as with different audio gear. Some speakers are simply more revealing of polarity differences than others; planars, for example, and among others my Eggleston Andras and the recently reviewed Meadowlark Blue Herons. Beyond those factors, it seems that some folks just don't notice -- or care about -- polarity differences. For those who do, the polarity flip on the VTL TL 5.5 remote control is a treat.
The Proof is in the Listening
I have put this pre-amplifier up against some superb components, all considerably more expensive than the TL 5.5: my reference tubed Thor TA-1000 line/TA-3000 phono preamps , a newly updated Vendetta phono stage, and the battery-powered Reflection Audio OM-1, one of the finest solid-state pre-amplifiers I have yet heard . Although all of these preamps present somewhat different perspectives on the music, each is quite convincing on its own.
Playing records, the 5.5 is not as dead quiet as the other phono stages. VTL has always been committed to pure tube circuitry, and such a circuit is never as quiet as either of these two solid-state or the internal transformer-aided tube design of the Thor. Playing a variety of LPs, even at quite robust levels, I am seldom bothered by the residual noise of the 5.5 phono stage. When listening to very quiet passages, the noise becomes noticeable, but even then I usually don't find it particularly intrusive. In many cases the surface noise of a record or the tape hiss that lies behind any classic recording--such as the hallowed RCAs and Mercurys -- is enough to mask the noise level of the TL 5.5, even given the low (3.2 mV) output of the Cardas Heart cartridge in use through most of the review cycle. With a higher-output moving coil (.5 mV or more) or moving magnet cartridge, noise would be even less noticeable.
On the Classic Records reissue of Kind of Blue, the TL 5.5 delivers the dense harmonics of Miles' muted trumpet with admirable focus and intensity. The interplay of Coltrane and Adderly, the delicate shadings of Bill Evans' piano, the solid drive of drums and bass--all come through with immediacy and a convincing, stable spatial presentation. And Otto Klemperer's great Mahler Second Symphony [EMI]], one of the finest realizations of this music ever put on record, comes vividly to life. In the third movement, the 5.5 captures beautifully the recurring, taut and deep bass drum strokes, placing them well to the rear of the deep soundscape. With the first and second violins opposed in the 19th-century manner, and placing cellos left and violas right of center, the deep perspective of this recording gives us that vivid "you are there" quality that we audiophiles covet. In this and dozens of other LPs, classical and popular, the 5.5 exhibits the tonal neutrality and balance, fleshed-out harmonics, good high- and low-frequency extension, and fast, powerful dynamics that one expects in a premium-quality pre-amplifier.
The line stage performance is also impressive. In a most demanding test of resolution , the distinctive key clicks coming from the various woodwinds during the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances [Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, RCA Red Seal -- engineered by Tony Faulkner], the VTL TL 5.5 falls slightly short of the uncanny low-level detail retrieval of the Reflection OM-1, the Vendetta and the Thor TA-3000. With those higher-priced preamps, I can actually distinguish the key clicks of, for instance, a clarinet from those of a bassoon. But of course differentiating those key clicks and placing them accurately within the soundscape are audio-only experiences; we don't normally hear those sounds in the concert hall.
I especially enjoy the TL 5.5 on music with a strong rhythmic pulse. Bob Marley, Steve Earle, Son Seals, Count Basie -- I never get the sense that the TL 5.5 is getting in the way of the music's drive. This feeling of great timing may be a family characteristic, as I hear it in my VTL amplifiers too.
NOTE: After a bit of experimenting, I find that CD sound improves when I connect the player to one of the tape inputs activated by a front-panel toggle switch, rather than connecting it normally so that the signal passes through the Source Select switch. The difference is not great, but it is audible.
This writing comes soon after three consecutive evenings of concerts encompassing symphonic scores by Mahler, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Strauss and Tchaikowsky. Upon returning to my home audio system, and the TL 5.5, I am struck by two thoughts: first -- once again -- how inadequate even a great audio system is for realistically reproducing the scale and impact of a live orchestra; and secondly, within the limits of audio, howl well the TL 5.5 captures the essential musical qualities of a large orchestra. It is gratifying to report that the TL 5.5 does right by every kind of music I feed it: solo piano (always a tough test for any system), chamber music, solo and massed voices, organ--you name it. The TL 5.5 handles all kinds of music with aplomb.
The sound of the VTL TL 5.5 pre-amplifier is characterized by a poise, a grip on the music, that rivals the authority of more expensive preamps. It is not the last word in low-level detail retrieval and resolution, as I described above. So, if your thing is counting heads in the orchestra or catching every chair squeak as the musicians play, this is probably not going to be your choice. But if you want to concentrate on the music -- to listen to it as an organic whole rather than as a series of disconnected sonic events , the TL 5.5 may well be for you. During my time with it, I have found the TL 5.5 unfailingly able to draw me into the music, whether it be a Bach partita or a blues riff.
The TL 5.5 strikes me as an excellent example off thoughtful price-point design and engineering. It's dual mono, but that design is executed within a single chassis rather than the far more expensive separate power supply approach. It provides a balance control--a rarity these days--but only via the front-panel knob (and yes, it's out of the circuit when the knob is at the center detent position). Remote balance adjustment would add considerable cost for what is in most cases a rarely used feature. I will gladly take the remote polarity switch in its place -- that represents real value.
One question I always ask myself at the end of a review is, "Could I be content with this in my system?" In the case of the 5.5, the answer is yes. Its honest, robust musical presentation, coupled with its well selected convenience features, make the VTL TL 5.5 pre-amplifier a worthy addition to most any good system. I encourage you to listen for yourself; you may be surprised at the level of musical refinement available at its price.
Tube Complement: Four 12AT7 and two 12AX7
Inputs: Six single ended line inputs, two RCA Processor / Tape in
Outputs: One pair XLR Balanced, two pairs Single-ended RCA, two pairs Processor / Tape Out
Remote Control Functions: Volume, Mute and Phase Inversion
THD: 20Hz to 20kHz at 0.01%
Signal to Noise Ratio: 109dB
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20KHz (+- 0.1dB), 1Hz to 60kHz (+0, -3dB)
Maximum Output Voltage: 45 Volts
Input Impedance: 100Kohms
Channel Separation: 75dB at 1 KHz
MM Phono Stage: Tubes used are two 12AT7, two 12AX7; 45dB gain; load impedance is 47Kohms; S/N 85dB
MC Phono Stage: tubes used are two 12AT7 and four 12AX7; 68dB of gain; load impedance 300ohms; S/N 70dB
Power Consumption : 150 watts
Dimensions: 19 x 15 x 4 (WxHxD in inches)
Weight: 27 lbs.
Price: $3,500 line stage only, $4,250 with phono stage
Warranty: Five years parts and labor with return of owner registration card; tubes six months
Vacuum Tube Logic, Inc.
Voice: (909) 627-5944