VTL’s new MB-450 Series III mono power amps make owning valves easier than ever before. Here is a genuinely powerful amplifier that biases itself, monitors itself, protects itself and given half a chance, would probably feed itself too. No meters required; no matched sets of tubes; no special skills or training; no sacrificial components. If an output tube goes bad you simply get a blinking LED. Which LED blinks and how fast tells you what’s wrong and what you need to do – which in the worst case scenario is pull the indicated tube and plug in a replacement: Power up, wait while the amp goes through its self check and bias procedure and you’ll be ready to go.
Of course, there’s more to making tubes user-friendly than making them reliable and self-serviceable. A fully enclosed chassis keeps the glassware away from pets and little fingers, while hatches in the top mean that you don’t need to dismantle or even move the amps to reach the tubes if or when necessary. Unlike the flagship Seigfried monos (and S400 stereo) the 450s offer a more conventional, flat chassis, but the subtly sculpted fascia, derived from the ‘chimney stack’ casework of the range-toping designs, gives them a genuinely classy, contemporary appearance. However, they are undeniably heavy, and the lion’s share of the weight sits at the back of the chassis.
Any 450 Watt amp should be powerful, but sounding powerful is another thing altogether. The VTLs reproduce music with the sort of substance and solidity that escapes almost all but the very best amplifiers. They also do so with an absolute authority of the kind that leaves you in absolutely no doubt that no matter how large that drum, and how hard it’s hit, they’ll effortlessly encompass the dynamic demand. The result is a sense of actual presence, of real people and real instruments that’s rare indeed. But what’s really impressive is that this presence extends well into both frequency extremes and remains consistent regardless of scale. This is what makes them so engaging. How they do it demonstrates exactly what they add to the performance of their less powerful brethren.
Familiar material, like Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels shows just how effectively the 450s set about their task, revealing new insights and new facets to the music. On ‘Safeway Cart’ Young’s voice is front and centre, the rock-solid backing arrayed behind him in a beautifully layered soundstage. The VTLs unravel the multi-tracked nature of the recording, but they do it without dismantling it at the same time. The band is full of presence with an easy, almost loping stride, and Young’s vocals are clear, natural and intelligible, and his guitar is just there, larger than life, out front, but subtle and full of shape and detail. The attack on the notes is just so, the sustain perfectly separated and preserved, the duration of each note incredibly clear. It creates a sense of intimacy, almost delicacy, that sets up a stark contrast with that powerful backing, the contrast that makes this song so effective; the fragile against the inevitable. This is a song I’ve always loved, and what the 450s do is underline its power.
Equally impressive is the contrast between this track and the also brilliant but very different ‘Trans-Am’, with its less obviously structured and more band orientated layout. Shape and phrasing are just as clear, the relationship between the instruments, lead and backing vocals. But here the sense of scale, of small and large, of man and the vastness of America calls for a different presentation. Again, the 450s deliver on cue, with cavernous reverb around Young’s superb guitar break.
Given the comments above the next observation might come as a bit of a surprise. In discussing what the 450s don’t do, top of the list would be resolution and transparency. They’re not bad in either regard, but there are amps out there that do better them. But the reason that this isn’t a deal breaker is that the VTLs do so much more with the detail and space they do produce that they are actually more musically effective than many apparently cleaner, crisper and more detailed competitors. Which just goes to prove that it’s not what you’ve got but what you do with it that matters. In the case of the 450s, they’ll generate huge space and depth where required (and appropriate), and that space will be both palpable and coherent. They don’t define soundstage boundaries as clearly as some, but the space they create makes sense; you can tell what’s happening, where and when – and more clearly than you can with many a more explicit amp. If you want realistic perspectives peopled by players making music that actually makes sense, the 450s could be just the ticket.