“Making tubes user-friendly”; so runs the VTL tag-line. For once it’s a sentiment that’s more than just marketing speak, one that’s embedded in the very form and substance of these amplifiers. Indeed, at first glance, you’d barely know that these amps used big glowing bottles or even bigger chunks of steel for their output transformers. The sleek, aluminium casework, sculpted, softly latched buttons and sheer range of control options are more akin to the best modern solid-state designs – and a world away from the likes of the ARC SP8 or D115, products which marched in the vanguard of the valve revival. Given that it’s over 35-years since those products helped define the nascent high-end, perhaps that should come as no surprise – except that in many cases, tube design seems to be regressing rather than the opposite. This commitment to maintaining the virtues of valve amplification, while applying modern engineering and technology to minimising its challenges is more than what makes VTL products so different; it’s what makes them so good.
When it comes to high-powered tube amps, today it is VTL that set the standard against which the competition are measured. Look a little closer at their products and it is not hard to understand why; listen and it becomes more obvious still. This pairing of the latest TL-6.5 line-stage with the new S-200 stereo amplifier is a classical UK combination, a one-box pre-amp teamed with a capable single-chassis power amp making the most of our smaller rooms and limited space. Yet despite the reduced real-estate, these products still embody everything that sets VTL so far apart.
Let’s start with the latest version of the well-established TL-6.5. Wedging the full feature set and functionality of the company’s two-box flagship line-stage into a single chassis was no easy feat, requiring a vertical extension to the established casework used for the TL-7.5’s PSU and control section. The resulting box can be supplied in silver, black or two-tone mix, the latter making the most of the original’s elegant design and front-panel proportions. On the inside it houses a fully balanced and differential circuit built around a single pair of ECC82 tubes, used for the critical voltage gain. Paired with a sophisticated FET-buffered, high-current output stage, you could argue that this should be more properly described as a hybrid design, but frankly, I’m more interested in the performance than the labels. With its large and highly regulated power supply, what the 6.5 does is deliver the coherent dynamics and presence that make tube pre-amps so musically appealing, combined with an incredibly low noise floor and the ability to drive almost any load – both extremely unusual in a tube design. Even more unusual is the functional versatility, with a full suit of balanced and single-ended in and outputs, processor and tape loops, adjustable overall and individual input gain. Look inside and you find a mirror-imaged circuit, precision resistor ladders and more by-pass capacitors than you can shake a stick at. The package is topped off with a sensibly sized, full function remote and a display that you can actually see from across the room.