December 1999Herron Audio VTSP-1 Line-Stage Preamp
by Bill Cowen
Description and setup
The VTSP-1 is a black box with silver knobs and switches. If youre looking for the latest in art deco, youll have to look elsewhere. The appearance of the VTSP-1 is an uncanny reflection of its designer -- pleasant and understated, and strictly to the business end of things. On the front panel reside volume and balance controls, a mute/operate switch, a tape monitor switch, a source selector, and a stereo/mono switch, which is something I (and most other turntable totin audiophiles) wish all preamps had. Finishing the front panel are three LEDs to indicate power, filament voltage, and operate, or more specifically, whether the unit is in mute or operate mode. On the back panel, an ample number of (unbalanced) RCA inputs are provided, along with two sets of outputs (bi-ampers take note). In addition to a heavy-duty gold-plated grounding post and the male IEC power-cord receptacle is a polarity-inversion switch for incoming power.
Popping the lid of the VTSP-1 reveals a clean and uncluttered layout. Keith Herron is a PE, and engineers normally like things to be tidy. And all of us who claim to be audiophiles know that cleanliness is next to Godliness. More importantly, there are several commonly accepted practices in high-end tube-preamp design that the VTSP-1 takes advantage of: star grounding, zero feedback, a regulated tube bias supply, and loads of power supply capacitance (72,000 uF). Thrown in for free are some other niceties, like a soft-start DC filament supply (your tubes will love you), gold-plated TIFF RCA jacks, relay-input switching, and very low operating current on the tubes. Herron claims that you can remove the tubes immediately after powering down the unit and they wont blister your fingers. I didnt try it.
The VTSP-1 also offers a unique feature referred to as a "perfect tracking volume 142-step control system." Thats a whole lotta words for attenuator, but the end result is an attenuation system that tracks both channels consistently regardless of position. No small feat, as even premium (and expensive) potentiometers have channel imbalances as high as 10% depending on position. In a nutshell, the perfect tracking system is an electronically controlled stepped attenuator. The exterior volume control knob rotates smoothly (as opposed to having detents as the word "stepped" would imply), and both channels are operated with the same control. Thanks, Keith, for sparing us the dual-knob/control routine. The VTSP-1 sports four Russian 6922 small signal tubes, mounted in high-quality ceramic sockets.
Upon the VTSP-1s arrival, I unpacked the unit and placed it in the same location that my Cary preamp normally resides. I was left with two questions: how much time does this thing need to break in, and should it be left on all the time or turned off when not in use? I fired off an e-mail to Herron, and was somewhat perplexed with his answer. One, the unit did not need any break-in, and two, turn it off when not in use -- it would sound fine after only a brief warm-up. Now I wont claim to know everything, but I have never heard a component that didnt need some sort of break-in. Secondly, Im used to most electronics needing at least several hours of warm-up to sound decent after a cold power up.
What to do? When in doubt, revert to what youre comfortable with. So I turned it on, let it warm up for a couple of hours, and then sat down to listen. Ill describe the sound in a minute, but for now, I can tell you that during the entire review period, Herrons words proved to be true. I did not notice any perceivable difference in the sound of the unit as it accumulated the hours. OK, maybe it gained a little in the warmth department, but the difference was so negligible as to be irrelevant. Additionally, I did not hear any notable sonic changes after the unit had been on for at least 30 minutes after being off overnight or even for several days. Immediately after power up, and until reaching that 30-minute point, the sound was not grainy or harsh, but just didnt flesh out like it did thereafter. Ive had some rather serious undoing of preconceived notions lately, and without going further into the details here, suffice it to say that my notions on break-in and warm-up have been readjusted since the VTSP-1 came to visit.
Further, Herrons take on power conditioning is somewhat at odds with a few of my other standard practices. The VTSP-1 has a built-in surge suppressor, and additional protection built in to the power supply. Herron suggested that I experiment, but that ultimately going straight into the wall could provide the best sound. He presented very logical reasoning for this, which I wont go into here, but perhaps Keith would consider adding his views to his website in a FAQ section or something. You simply must check out his website anyway to see the input selector switch!
Reviewing dos and donts
Ive never been enamored with the sound of Russian 6922s, finding them to be almost universally sterile and boring. They are plentiful and very reliable, to be sure, but sonically they can be surpassed by many a different tube. I understand the reason that manufacturers use them; namely, how can a manufacturer design and outfit a current production piece with NOS tubes that may be unavailable tomorrow? That would certainly be of little benefit to anyone, as tubes do age and wear. I mention this only because it brings up an important issue. Call it a personal thing if you like, but I do not believe that a component under review should be tampered with. My job is to describe the sound to you as delivered by the manufacturer, not the sound I obtained by tube swapping, power-cord changes, or tweaking with after-market products. If the manufacturer wishes to use a certain power cord, for instance, then that's fine as long as it is sent with the unit, and such facts will then be noted in the review. You, of course, may choose to tweak the product to your hearts content, but I cannot and will not during the review process. Can the sound of the VTSP-1 be improved with some NOS Telefunkens? Possibly. But consider that the final sound of the VTSP-1 was obtained with the Russian tubes, so be aware that any tube-rolling efforts may have an adverse effect as well.
Im going to have a hard time with the next few paragraphs. How do you describe the sound of something that virtually sounds like nothing? Dynamics: excellent. Soundstage: excellent. Imaging: excellent. Tonal color: none. Harmonic detail: excellent. Bass: excellent. Treble: excellent. Oh please. Try this instead: the VTSP-1 sounded as close as Ive heard in my system to a straight wire with gain. Sorry to toss in the old cliché, but I cant think of a better way to describe it.
Getting down to some music, I popped "Shadow and Jimmy" from Was Not Wass What Up Dog [Chrysalis VK41664] into the CD player. I was immediately startled at the level of dynamic contrasts as the first few notes came out of the Alóns. The macrodynamics were excellent, but what took me by surprise were the shadings from quiet to loud. Ive always been a harmonic-detail freak, with which the VTSP-1 does a fine job, but I wasnt prepared for the contribution that such miniscule volume shifts add to the music as a whole. After listening to this cut several times just cause it sounded so good, I ran to the cabinet for some really dynamic stuff. In the player went "Autobahn" from Kraftwerks The Mix [Elektra 60869-2]. Unless youre a fresh n young music listener, you have to remember this tune that spun the capstans in many an 8-track when it first came out. Wow. Incredible! Im not sure which gave in first -- the Alóns woofers or the KT-90s in the SLM-200s, but I had to turn things down a notch. If theres anything that can describe the VTSP-1s greatest strength it has to be dynamics -- macro, micro, and infinitesimal.
For those that detest music of the previously mentioned genre, fear not. I spend my listening time these days split almost 50-50 between rock and classical. One of my fave pieces of light classical music is Dvoraks Slavonic Dances [Supraphon C37-7491]. On the first cut, No.1 in C Major, the VTSP-1 did an excellent job with string tone. This particular CD can be edgy and artificial-sounding with less-than-stellar electronics in the chain, but the Herron unit presented things in a very natural and most enjoyable fashion. This music does not lend itself to dynamic duty, but is very telling of a components noise and grain structure. The VTSP-1 came through with flying colors. Bruckners Symphony Number 9 as conducted by Gunter Wand [EMI 60365-2-RC] gets into classical on a bit more serious note. This particular CD was the first piece of classical music I ever purchased, and has accompanied my audiophile trail (or is that trial) from its most humble beginnings. With the VTSP-1, Ill spare you the shop-worn "It was like I heard it for the first time," because thats stretching things just a bit. What stood out was the VTSP-1s ability to convey the pace, timing, and organic wholeness of a full-scale orchestra. For me, its very easy to lose the conductors interpretation of a composers work if all the subtle inflections and timing issues arent right or are masked by grain and a heightened noise floor.
Madonnas "La Isla Bonita" from The Immaculate Collection [Sire/WB 26440-2] is an interesting piece. This is one of those Q-Sound recordings, which never seemed to gather much of a following. The Q-Sound effect is rather artificial-sounding, but is kind of fun if you just want to listen and not get all critical and cranky about it. The Madonna CD is recorded clearly (something that not all the Q-Sound recordings can claim), and is almost hilarious when the sounds come from behind you. The VTSP-1 made me laugh even harder, as I now had sounds coming from the garage. The neighbors garage. This is really great news if you like recordings of sound effects and train whistles, but the point for those of us that listen to music is that the VTSP-1 is going to let you hear exactly whats on the recording, good or bad.
So is it better than my Audioscream Holographier?
All writers for SoundStage! work under the same directive, and that is simply to describe the component and its sound to you to the best of our ability. SoundStage! reviews are not about the product of the week, which product is better than another, or whose dad is bigger and badder. But there almost has to be some comparison to the stuff were familiar with, as its impossible to complete any description in a vacuum. The modified Cary SLP-50 ($1295) and the Audio Electronics AE-3 ($599) preamps were on hand, and although the AE-3 is a relative newcomer to my system, the SLP-50 has been around for about a year. And as the SLP-50 is the better-sounding of the two units, most of the comparisons were done with it. Its not at all fair to compare preamps with a nearly 3x price differential, so be aware of that disparity before reading further. But the SLP-50 was all I had on hand to compare with.
On most music, the VTSP-1 came across as significantly more dynamic (both micro and macro -- surprise), more extended and better controlled in the bass, and capable of greater detail resolution. Both units did well at the re-creation of space, soundstaging and imaging, but the VTSP-1 offered things up with a little more width and depth. The SLP-50 seemed to romanticize the sound somewhat when directly compared to the VTSP-1. This romanticizing was not extreme, but more of a different hue to the color of the sound. Dont confuse this difference with what is often referred to as traditional tube sound, or an offering of six gallons of maple syrup on your pancake. But the SLP-50 brings across more of the sound of the tube than does the VTSP-1, which can be either a good thing or bad thing depending on your desires.
So whats not to like?
When confronted with a component of this caliber, trying to pick nits becomes an exercise in futility. But I persevered, and finally came up with a couple things to complain about. First, the VTSP-1 doesnt have a remote volume control. When youre old and lazy like me, the eight feet between the listening seat and the component rack seems like a mile. What did people do before remotes? Walk? Yeah, right. Secondly, the appearance of the unit is rather, well, plain. Yes, I know this hobby is about sound, and thats all that really matters. But even though the unit is, in my opinion, kind of plain, its a very nicely done plain. So let beauty rest where it should -- in the eye of the beholder. That said, if you consider the fact that the only (personal) complaints voiced by this reviewer had nothing to do with the sound quality, you get an even better idea of the sonic virtues of the VTSP-1.
I have found the Herron Audio VTSP-1 to be sonically unflappable. It does not flavor the sound or project a character on it, which is high praise for any electronic component. If youre looking for a tube preamp to add some lushness and syrup to the mix, then youll be disappointed with the VTSP-1. If youre looking for razor-sharp detail retrieval and a whitewashed, electronic, and mechanical character to the sound, then youll be disappointed again. The VTSP-1 does not sound traditionally tubey, but it doesnt rob the music of the body and dimension that bothers me with many non-tube designs. If you need a preamp to balance out other irregularities in your system, then dont bother auditioning the VTSP-1. If, on the other hand, youre looking for a preamp to amplify and switch between line level signals, do so without imposing its own will on the sound, and still fall within checkbook range of those of us born with a lead spoon in our mouths, then the VTSP-1 should be at the very top of your auditioning list.
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