The midrange I alluded to above sounded glorious. This was a luscious and smooth presentation with an ease that was to-die-for. Listen to Jay McShann’s initial, low, and dragged-out “Yeah” on the song “Piney Brown Blues,” from What a Wonderful World [Groove Note SACD]. It emerged from nowhere, and the palpability was superb. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that the tubes were smoothing out transients in the midrange. As McShann’s performance went on, it became clear that his voice had lost much of its robustness. Similarly, on The Beatles [EMI], Paul McCartney’s vocal on “Oh! Darling,” sounded strained—just as he wanted it to (story has it that he showed up early in the morning to record because he didn’t want his voice to sound too smooth). On Maurice Andre’s Trumpet Concertos [EMI], I was impressed by the way the VTL captured both the initial attack and fluidity of Andre’s piccolo trumpet. (Andre was perhaps the greatest performer of the piccolo trumpet, an unbelievably lyrical player with total command of the instrument.) One thing that happens with a trumpeter like Andre is that you get almost an explosive attack from his instrument. If you think of a note as diamond-shaped and you hit the center, you get maximum resonance out of the note, and a kind of “pop” as the note is enunciated. That’s part of what makes a good orchestral trumpet section sound not only powerful, but also able to produce such a burnished sound. Hit the note too low or too high and it can start to sound tinny and harsh. The VTL nailed it on the Haydn trumpet concerto. Andre’s crystal clear attacks sounded right on target to me.
This clarity also helped ensure that the soundstage, while never cavernous, never strayed or wandered. Instruments were securely in their place with a good sense of space. The somewhat rolled-off treble, of course, helped focus attention on the midrange, since a hot treble will almost invariably seem forward and overshadow the midrange. The VTL’s nice sense of accuracy in the midrange was complemented by a lack of grain and also by an ever-present feeling of continuity. This seamless flow is something I think VTL amplifiers provide more than their competitors; that may even be a VTL “house” sound. There is a sense of ease that seems almost unrivaled. They don’t have quite as billowy a soundstage as Audio Research products—a guilty pleasure if there ever was one—but the VTLs let the music flow so effortlessly. To put it another way, they sound organic. In fact, this is one of the most amiable amplifiers I’ve ever heard.
But to hear those qualities, the IT-85 has to be run at reasonable levels. This isn’t an amplifier that wants to be pushed too hard, or it loses its composure. It’s about affability, not assaults on the ear. I don’t think solid-state equipment at this price level will offer as much of the ineffable grace that tubes provide. The tubes just do so many things right that you won’t find yourself thinking about the shortcomings of this little number. Unlike most solid-state equipment, however, the IT- 85 needs a goodly amount of room for ventilation because the numerous tubes inside will heat up the chassis; to make sure that they’re running properly, it’s important to bias the tubes with a voltmeter upon receipt (or your dealer can take care of it for you). Other amps, including VTL’s top-of-the-line Siegfried, feature auto-biasing, which remains controversial in some quarters. The amp’s binding posts and RCA jacks are of high quality, but I was mildly disappointed to discover that it doesn’t have any balanced connections. Then again, this is an entry-level amp in the VTL line. To pack this much into a single unit, VTL had to forego some of the luxuries that can be taken for granted at higher prices.
VTL has been around now for a couple decades, offers reliable and friendly service, and is always there if something should go wrong. For anyone wanting more than a taste of the high-end, this is one sweet integrated amplifier. TAS