Class 1a Featured Pick:

Audio Research VTM200

     Wings of air. When you go to a concert, the sound of live music comes to your ears on wings of air. Air is the only medium between live acoustic music and your ears. There are no wires, transistors, or tubes in this signal path. Only wings of air.
     This is the sound that the Audio Research VTM200 gives you, as no other power amp in history ever has. It sounds as though there are no wires, transistors, or tubes in its circuit. The ARC VTM200 brings you the sound of live music, borne on wings of air.
     This is a milestone achievement of historic proportions in audio amplification. One expects continual improvements from ARC, and the many other fine audio manufacturers pursuing audio excellence. The VTM200 is a further evolution of ARC's prior excellence in power amps, and is, in our judgment, ARC's best sounding power amp ever.
     But the VTM200 goes even beyond this. The VTM200 actually surpasses the long accepted benchmark paradigm for amplifier perfection, a straight wire with gain. It is the first amplifier in history to surpass this paradigm, and indeed is the first amplifier whose sonic performance is so good that it calls into question this very paradigm itself of perfection. Oftentimes, we don't realize that a paradigm standard or benchmark for perfection is in fact inadequate - until someone's performance crashes through that barrier and surpasses it. A simple example is the 4 minute mile, which was long accepted as an unachievable standard of perfection, until someone in fact surpassed it. The ARC VTM200 breaks through the long accepted standard of amplification perfection, and has shown us that this old paradigm is now inadequate. The VTM200 shows us that there is a yet higher standard.
     From now on, a straight wire with gain is passť as a standard for amplifier perfection. Wire in fact has limitations, and actually imposes audibly imperfect colorations on music. From now on, the new standard is wings of air. From now on, we will no longer ask whether an amplifier comes close to sounding like there is nothing but a wire between you and the music. From now on, we must ask whether an amplifier sounds like there is nothing but air between you and the music. That is the new standard for amplifier perfection, set by the Audio Research VTM200.
     What does live acoustic music sound like, when there is nothing but air between you and the music? And how does mere mortal amplification, built with transistors, tubes, and wires, usually fall short of that sound?
     Air lets live music sound ineffably transparent, with the subtlest natural timbres and textures revealing themselves. In contrast, transistors, tubes and wires usually struggle to be just 1/10 as transparent - and you can hear the side effects of their vain struggle, as they also sound veiled, or perhaps clogged (which actually blocks inner details of natural timbre and texture). We keep an old acoustic guitar around the lab, and one simple string pluck is enough to remind us of the wealth of transparently revealed detail that you hear when there is nothing but air between you and the music - and to remind us how far most audio amplifiers have yet to go in vainly attempting to give you this same wealth of detail. The ARC VTM200 is a sonic breakthrough that finally captures and delivers that same sense of ineffable transparency that air itself provides when you listen to live music. The VTM200's resolution is so fine that it gives you the sense you are listening clear through to the music itself, with no electronics intervening - with nothing but air between you and the music.
     Air also lets music's trebles sound fast and extended. So fast that live music's treble transients actually sound delicate, since they are over with as soon as your ear/brain can notice them. Yet, even while live music's trebles are fast and delicate, they are also articulate and individuated. Other power amps struggle vainly to reproduce this true sound of music's trebles as heard through only air. Some of these other amps try to capture the articulation of live music's trebles, but they wind up sounding artificially too hard, failing utterly to capture the delicacy that is the hallmark of the true high speed of live music's trebles. Other amps try to capture the sweetness of live music's trebles, but they wind up sounding too fuzzy and defocused, sluggishly smearing together what should be individually articulated musical details. The ARC VTM200 is a sonic breakthrough that finally is able to deliver trebles that combine extraordinary true speed and delicacy with articulate individuation - just like that unique combination that air itself provides when you listen to live music. Note that, when you attend a live concert, the respectable distance of air between you and the performer actually slightly modifies the trebles of live music, sweetening them slightly (but without defocusing them or losing articulate individuation). From the VTM200 we hear this same sonic thumbprint as we do from air itself, a slight sweetening of the trebles, just enough to take the hard treble edge off typically too closely miked recordings, just enough to help them sound exactly like live music's trebles, as heard through the air and nothing but air.
     Air also lets live music sound immediate and dynamic, yet somehow relaxed, unforced, and, yes, airy in its immediacy. In contrast, most amplifiers that can deliver up front musical immediacy also simultaneously sound glaring or forced in their delivery. The ARC VTM200 is a sonic breakthrough that can deliver dynamic immediacy (when the music and the miking call for it) yet can simultaneously sound relaxed, unforced, and even sweet - just like the sound you hear when there is nothing but air between you and live music. Even on a single musical instrument we could hear the VTM200's superiority here. For example, Jascha Heifetz insisted that RCA mike his violin up close, to capture the dynamic immediacy that he himself heard while playing. The VTM200 is the first power amp we've ever heard that is able to accurately deliver the dynamic, gut-wrenching (literally!) immediacy of Heifetz' violin with its powerful projection (especially in the midranges), yet simultaneously remain relaxed and unforced, allowing the violin's overtones to sound airy and sweet.
     Air lets live music sound complex and subtle - a constantly passing parade comprising exquisitely filigreed fleeting instants of subtle musical details. And this rich tapestry of airy, filigreed subtlety continues even during those periods when the music might get loud and punchy; live music does not get congested and lose its complex subtlety when it flexes its muscles. In contrast, most power amps have only a single strong suit in handling music, a single personality they then impose on all music. Some amps are good at sounding delicate and airy, and other amps are good at loud punch, but it's hard to find an amp that is good at alternately delivering both, that can adeptly play chamber music one hour and rock music the next hour. And heretofore it has been virtually impossible to find an amp which is able to deliver well what live music actually demands, namely a sound that
simultaneously (not alternately) contains subtle delicacy and loud punch (ARC's own REF600 was the first amp to achieve this milestone capability). Most other power amps strain when they have to use their muscles, and this strain sonically manifests itself as congestion or glare, which obliterates music's filigreed subtleties. The ARC VTM200 can deliver dynamic immediacy and powerful punch when called for (as other ARC amps also do well). And, uniquely, it simultaneously can deliver the sweetest, most delicate, fastest, subtlest musical details you have ever heard from any power amp (even better than the REF600 - though naturally the mighty REF600 maintains an advantage in sheer power and authority). The ARC VTM200 delivers, as no other power amp can, the same combination of punch and filigreed subtlety you hear from live acoustic music when there is nothing but air between you and the music.
     As good as other power amplifiers have become over the years, they still have sonically imposed some sense of electronics intervening between you and the music. There have been amps with obvious personalities that intervene: lean and bright amps, warm and dull amps, hard and glaring amps, fuzzy and defocused amps. But even the best amps heretofore have sonically betrayed the fact that they are mere mortal assemblages of electronic parts: tubes, solid state devices, wires, etc. And scientific researchers in the field (including this researcher) know all too well that these electronic parts are not sonically perfect. Most FETs and bipolar transistors have electronic sounding signatures that they impose on music, and one can usually spot the signature of a 300B tube or a 6550 tube. In IAR we already discussed a public demonstration in which the signature of a single tantalum capacitor added to an amplifier's power supply was deciphered even under infinitely blind test conditions and even on an unfamiliar audio system. Even the wire itself in an amp is guilty; we recently deciphered the presence of Teflon hidden in the insulation of wiring added to an amplification system, by the sonic signature it imposed between us and the music. And even the proverbial short piece of straight wire, our previous paradigm of perfection for amplification, has sonic limitations. A mere 1 inch piece of straight wire added to a system imposes readily audible sonic imperfections, even though the musical signal it is reproducing has already been through perhaps miles of inferior wiring (fellow scientist Bill Low of Audioquest has independently confirmed this in his ongoing research work).
     Somehow, almost magically, the ARC VTM200 transcends the limitations of its merely mortal component electronic parts. Unlike other power amps, the VTM200 does not sound as if there are electronics between you and the music. The VTM200 literally sounds better than the straight wire paradigm. The ARC VTM200 sounds as if there is nothing but air between you and the music, as if the music is being borne directly to you on wings of air. If you know the magic of live acoustic music, and its unique sonic aspects as discussed above, you'll recognize this same magic from the VTM200.
     How does the VTM200 accomplish this magic feat? The secret must be in its new circuitry, developed by Bill Johnson specifically for this amp, and not yet seen in any other amp (the monoblock VTM200 uses a very different design from the older stereo VT200, and is emphatically not merely a split up monoblock version of the stereo amp). This new circuitry also employs new types of FETs and new tube types, not previously used by ARC, including some classic octal base tubes famous for their natural musicality. Indeed, the VTM200 contains so many innovations for ARC that it would be foolhardy to try guessing which specific innovations are responsible for which sonic aspects of this amp's breakthrough performance. Of course, what counts is the magic synergy of the combined VTM200 innovations taken all together, and here it is clear that Johnson has outdone himself yet again in his new creation. Once again, as competing state of the art amps continue to improve and begin to catch up to ARC, Bill Johnson's creativity leaps ahead into the future, and redefines the boundaries of audio's state of the art.
     The VTM200, as a monoblock amp, offers a full 200 watts of power. What if you want even more power, such as the authority offered by ARC's own REF600? And, come to think of it, how does the sound of the VTM200 stack up against the more expensive REF600? ARC's REF600 has been universally hailed, by publications around the world, as one of the very best power amps extant, and by many as the best period. So IAR certainly could not be accused of playing any favorites when it joined in the chorus of universal praise for the REF600. And, true to our commitment to tell it like it is, we won't play any favorites now. It may be heresy to say this, but in our judgment the less expensive VTM200 actually is an even finer sounding amp than the more expensive REF600. The REF600 is still the same superb amp everyone praised, and indeed is now even clearer sounding in today's Mark II version. It's just that the newer VTM200 gets even closer to that unique sound of nothing but air between you and the music. Once you hear that magic from a power amp, you want it.
     The good news is that the new circuitry advances in the VTM200 will soon be migrating to the REF600. So, if you have the desire and the budget for a REF600 (or already own a REF600), be patient, and you can soon have what promises to be an amazing musical experience, with all the benefits of the VTM200 and then some. Meantime, the VTM200 itself at $7495 is much more affordable to many more music lovers, and is a historic breakthrough in bringing you the sound of live music on wings of air.
     The VTM200 is in our judgment the best sounding power amp you can buy today. And it is also immensely more practical than most other tube amps. With its push-pull class AB transformer output topology, it can drive any loudspeaker, regardless of efficiency or impedance, with plenty of power. In this IAR survey we have considered some very fine efforts in other kinds of tube power amp topologies. But each of the others is really a niche product, with a particular specialty and particular limitations, rather than being an all around power amp product. Interestingly, the VTM200 is so sonically extraordinary that it usually beats these other amps even in their own niche strength, while also being far more practical and well rounded. For example, a few OTL power amps in our survey sound superbly transparent and fast, as they should because they dispense with an output transformer. But they are narrowly limited in applicability to niche speaker systems with high impedance and relatively high efficiency, whereas the VTM200 is not thusly limited. Moreover, the VTM200 sounds even more transparent and faster than these OTL power amps, so it beats them even at their strongest suit.
     Or consider what we call golden glow amps, which euphonically transform recordings by adding a rich bloom and liquidity, and by tonally recessing music's upper midrange. Most of these are single ended tube amps, which face severe limitations in distortion, tonal coloration variability (due to their high source impedance interacting with varying loudspeaker impedance curves), and often small power output (which restricts you to a limited choice of high efficiency speakers). Furthermore, that very golden glow which is so euphonically charming on some recordings becomes objectionably syrupy treacle on other recordings. The golden glow transformation is in fact an inaccuracy, which puts all music at a greater distance than it was actually recorded, and on some recordings puts the music so far away that it becomes dark, muddy, and dull. In contrast, the VTM200 is far more accurate, letting you hear the music as it would sound live from the perspective at which it was actually miked. Through the VTM200, musical instruments located stage front sound accurately immediate and up front, while still retaining that hint of sweet, airy liquidity that air actually imparts to the sound of live music.
     Incidentally, this accuracy of perspective also yields superior stereo imaging from ARC amps. Golden glow amps tend to put all the music at stage rear, far away from you but with little depth among the ensemble. In contrast, the perspective accuracy of ARC amps separates the stage front instruments from the stage rear instruments, thereby portraying much greater depth within the stereo image (we found that even ARC's junior VT100 MKIII amp was superior to its golden glow competitors in stereo image depth, thanks to the depth layering of its perspective accuracy).
     Bass quality is outstanding, as it now is in most of the current ARC tube amps (as noted in our review of the VT100 MKIII, even this junior ARC amp trounces other tube amps in bass quality, and equals the best solid state amps). ARC has evolved the bass quality of its tube amps so that the bass transient attack has tremendous power and impact combined with very high definition, far better than other tube amps. And then the sustain of the bass note is full and rich (better than many solid state amps that are too lean) - without going into the realm of overhang or boom (as many other tube amps do).
     It goes without saying that an amp so revealing of the subtleties of live music as the VTM200 will naturally also be revealing of the quality of other links in the music reproduction chain. Therefore, it goes without saying that if you feed the VTM200 from an inferior preamp or use inferior cables, it will fully reveal the inferiority of those other links. And of course it goes without saying that it would be the height of folly to blame the sound of the VTM200 itself, if you were to hear the VTM200 reveal the inferiority of these other links, perhaps better than previous power amps had done. All this is obvious and goes without saying, but we'd better say it anyway. Only because another reviewer employed inferior preamps and cables to evaluate the VTM200, and then made the howling mistake of blaming the VTM200 for what he heard.
     The VTM200 allows you to enjoy the quality of your music as never before. And it also allows you to enjoy the quality of your associated audio components as never before. We won't say that the VTM200 is demanding, of the quality of associated components, because that word "demanding" has negative connotations. In fact, we find the VTM200 to be quite forgiving, since its very absence of electronic artifice is so remarkable that you should enjoy the music more, whatever your system. But you will surely be rewarded by exploring upgrades to your other links once the VTM200 is in your system, and this exploration will be a musically enjoyable experience, as you climb the heights to musical reality that you never dreamed possible before, now that you have the VTM200 to bring you your music on wings of air.

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