When you think of VTL, the first things that spring to mind aren’t low-powered amplifiers. This is a company that specializes in building the Hummers of the audio industry. VTL offers hulking amplifiers that are named after brawny Norse gods—Siegfried, Wotan, Brunnhilde, and the like. These were amps built to power the Ring Cycle into your living room so that it sounds almost as if Richard Wagner’s ghost is hovering in the room. VTL head honcho Luke Manley’s credo, as he put it to me, is, “You can never have enough power.” Those are words that he certainly lives by—this is a man who once tri-amplified MartinLogan Statement speakers with 1250-watt Wotan monoblocks at a hi-fi show. He also happens to be right. If you want a massive soundstage and Stygian bass, high-current amplifiers will light up your room (and, by the way, most loudspeakers are less sensitive than their manufacturers would like to admit).
So it came as something of a jolt (no pun intended) to realize that VTL also makes a low-powered amplifier—the 60- watt integrated IT-85, to be precise. And for the latest version of VTL’s integrated amplifier, the factory actually cut the power to 60 watts in order to gain a purer sound. Still, when the diminutive IT-85 landed on my doorstep, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It sure looked handsome. Nice glass plate in front, big VTL legend emblazoned on it, solid metal chassis, some Svetlana El34, 12AT7, and 12AU7 tubes inside, and a small remote. Nothing fancy, but it certainly sounded seductive. While this integrated amp doesn’t have the muscle of the powerhouses further up the VTL feeding chain, it is incredibly sweet and relaxed sounding. If you want, you can even just use the preamp section inside to run another amplifier or to drive a separate powered subwoofer. And by engaging the processor loop, you can bypass the preamp section altogether and have the surround processor in a hometheater system directly drive the amplifier in the IT-85. Nifty, isn’t it?
This amplifier was really built for the apartment dweller, who isn’t going to be playing music at head-banging levels. As someone who used to lived on a sprung wooden third floor with a stereo, I vividly remember inciting the ire of my downstairs neighbor, who would stand at my door, arms akimbo, fairly quivering with indignation when I played some orchestral passage too loudly. Isn’t Mahler worth a few chandeliers swinging from the ceiling? Alas, for most people, apparently not. This VTL amplifier is the equivalent of a governor on a rental car; it’s just not going to let you exceed, in this case, sound limits that will antagonize your neighbors. I used the IT-85 with a small system next to my office. (Running it on the Magnepan MG 20.1s would have crippled it, and I’m not into abusing equipment.) Designed for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time messing around with cables, it slid perfectly into my system upstairs. Given how well it performs, I’d be surprised if anyone who uses it really feels tempted to start rolling tubes. It’s not an amp that cries out for changes. Designed to mate with high-sensitivity mini-monitors, the IT-85 is a no-brainer for someone who just wants to listen to music without any hassles.
One of those hassles can be taming a hot tweeter. Many of the super highend systems I’ve heard tend to have a less than linear treble. The culprit may be a particular recording or it may be a room that has been insufficiently treated. Whatever. The fact is that it’s an aggravating problem, and the better the system, the more revealed it will be.
This amplifier does not suffer from that particular problem. It’s all midrange. The treble is soft and forgiving and rolled-off. Never did I hear even a trace of sibilance on familiar recordings. On jazz, this ended up blunting the impact of cymbals a little bit, and bass extension wasn’t as taut as it might have been. These amps simply were not built to power substantial woofers in the bass. They get tubby and boomy awfully fast.
None of this, however, should come as a surprise. Low power means that you simply will not get the same kind of grip and extension that a bigger amplifier delivers, or is supposed to deliver. But there is a trade-off in big amps. The more tubes you use, the more distortion you’re listening to. One way to think about it might be the difference between a single voice and a chorus. The full chorus is more majestic, but it will never, no matter how good it is, stop and start perfectly in unison. It just can’t happen. Low power can often mean tonal richness, and that is what this amplifier offers.