Last Preamp? Could The Search Finally Be Over?
I have owned four different preamplifiers in almost as many years. Each was a solid performer with a particular set of attributes and few serious weaknesses. Throughout this period of time I came to really appreciate the impact that a preamp can have on the overall sound of my system and as a consequence I never felt completely satisfied with the tradeoffs encountered with each of these prior models—so the quest continued.
Last month I took delivery of Keith Herron’s latest incarnation of the VTSP-3A, designated the “Revision 2” or “R02” for short. Keith has a generous 30 day trail purchase policy that has allowed me to carefully consider the merits of his work and assess overall system symmetry before making a financial commitment. Well, the 30 days are just about up and this puppy is not going back. Let me cut to the chase—the Herron VTSP-3A (R02) is by a very wide margin the most musically satisfying and thoughtfully designed preamp I have ever had the pleasure to own.
What I find most unique about this unit and what clearly distinguishes it from the past models I’ve owned is the way it stiches together the notes into a coherent whole that brings a dramatically fresh sense of realism to the reproduction of music in the home environment. There is a superior sense of pace, rhythm and timing that enlivens performances and creates the very realistic impression of artists performing in your room. I used to own Naim equipment back in the 1990’s and my first reaction to the R02 was “it’s like Naim with tubes”. What I mean to say is that the R02 reproduces not only the individual notes and their relationship to each other, but also vividly distinguishes between the various instrumental lines within the mix in a way that is not unlike what I recall from my Naim setup. However, the R02 goes further by providing the body, tonal purity and soundstage perspective typically associated with the finest tube gear. In my experience, this is an uncommon blend of attributes and one that moves the Herron into exalted territory.
Put simply, the R02 has done more to increase my listening pleasure and musical appreciation than any other system upgrade I have made in the past five years. (In terms of qualitative improvement I would put it on par with the upgrades Lou Hinkley performed on my Daedalus DA-1.1’s, which involved installation of an all polypropylene crossover network, upgraded internal wiring and Cardas binding posts, all of which substantially improved an already great speaker). Since inserting the R02 into my system, I have on numerous occasions asked myself whether I had ever really appreciated recordings I’ve played literally dozens of times. Songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Norah Jones’s “Nearness of You” are literally a revelation, as the guitar, piano and voice become a seamless and musically compelling adventure. One night I was listening to Carol Kidd’s trio performance of “The Glory of Love”, a song I’ve played literally dozens of times. The musicianship and vocals flat out knocked me over.
These surprising musical insights happen even during casual listening sessions. The other day I was working around the house with the stereo on as background music. There were at least half dozen times when I heard something new or different that had been buried by past line stages. Subtle guitar work which had gone unnoticed, background vocals which had sounded homogenized now revealed as three distinct voices, the left hand of the piano now clearly supporting the right—it is as though I am listening to my record collection for the first time, experiencing the subtleties, nuances and emotional impact of recordings that are staples of my playlist. I realize this may sound like something you have read in another review about another product. But trust me when I say that there is something very special going on here—something that transcends any prior experience I have had with any product I have used over the past 25 years. The R02 is an extremely high resolution instrument that manages to sound incredibly musical at the same time.
I have read many reviews in the past which describe a components ability to “simply get out of the way” and let the music through. This, I think, applies to the R02 in spades. I detect zero tonal editorializing, no constricting of dynamics, no loss of resolution, no background noise, no—nothing really except what is on the recording. That is not to say that the R02 is “ruthlessly revealing”. However, it does an extremely good job of telling you what was captured on the recording tape and conveying that through the rest of the signal chain. Compared to my previous line stages, the R02 is considerably more resolving, nuanced and tonally even handed. It not only sounds “better” but also sounds considerably “different” as well—and I mean this in the most intriguing and complimentary manner possible. If pressed, I would say it sounds like a tube unit however it is much less colored than other the other tube preamps that I have owned and at the same time is more tonally pure; having no artifacts common to solid state designs.
The R02 is also packed with highly useful features (and devoid of what I consider unnecessary ones) and solid engineering. The unit comes with a full featured remote control, phase inversion, a back panel switch to invert the power line phase, high and low gain settings, home theater bypass and the ability to dim the front panel display (which can be ordered in green or blue). Of these I have found the low and high gain option to be invaluable, since I have very high sensitivity speakers which require very little gain. Running the unit in low gain mode provides greater ability to fine tune my listening volume and reduces the noise level of the unit (already quieter than all my prior line stages) to astonishingly low levels. The volume control is also highly sophisticated, providing infinite adjustability while introducing both zero noise and a lifetime of trouble free use. There is a ton of really good engineering packed into this preamp—a technical sophistication beyond my pay grade so I’ll leave it to Keith to explain if you should require more along these lines.
As I mentioned, I purchased this unit (and the VTPH-2 before) directly from Keith. In my experience Keith is the kind of person who stands behind his work and builds lasting relationships with his customers. I have owned his VTPH-2 phonostage for several years now and he and I have had an ongoing dialogue which has been both edifying and immeasurably helpful in getting the most out of my audio system. Like Lou Hinkley of Daedalus, Keith is both musician and audio engineer and in my experience you really need to be both if you are going to successfully produce audio equipment of the highest caliber—and the R02 certainly qualifies.
Having lived with the unit now for several weeks, I can point to a few nits that are worth mentioning. First, the remote control is not one of the best I have used. It is about the size of a large credit card or small playing card (somewhere in between) and is relatively thin. I am a big person with large hands and I find it ergonomically challenging. I also find that you need to fire it directly at the unit faceplate to get a solid and instantaneous response. Compared to the remotes that come with similarly priced units it is an underwhelming design.
I also have one very minor sonic quibble—the bass response does not seem as weighty as I have heard in my listening room. In terms of frequency response, the Herron reaches down as deep as any preamp I have owned and in actuality the bass response sounds more natural and better integrated into the sonic mix and therefore sounds better to my ears than the other units—I just feel like it doesn’t provide quite as much authority in the bass as I have experienced in the past. To be clear, we are talking about a smidge less slam but with a more seamless integration of the bass and upper frequencies. So, if you are about putting on the sonic spectacular with the 1812 Overture this may be an issue. That, my friends, is all the nits I have to pick.
This is not a preamp that will appeal to everyone. It does not have a serious “bling” factor, being smallish and straightforward in appearance (though I find the design purposeful, elegant and (obviously) a perfect match for my VTPH-2 phonostage). It also lacks a handful of features that may be popular with some, for example an internal DAC, phonostage and/or headphone amp. It also won’t add or subtract anything to counteract other system anomalies. The VTSP-3A (R02) appears to be designed, above all, for genuine music lovers who see the gear as a means to an end. If this statement describes you then I would suggest you give Keith (or your local Herron dealer) a call—you really owe it to yourself to hear what the R02 can do. For me, the trail period has come to a close and the R02 is going to stay with me. I know this is going to sound absurd given the addiction most of us share but I have a strong feeling that this is the end of the line stage journey for me. The R02 does everything I want a line stage to do and nothing more. Though slightly more expensive than two of the prior units I have owned (and substantially more expensive than two others) it outperforms them all by a wide margin and in ways that I now consider fundamental and essential. While the R02 represents a perfect synergistic match for my listening preferences and existing system components, I have to believe that it will represent itself quite well in a wide variety of system configurations and be widely appreciated by those who place sheer musicality at the very top of their list of audiophile priorities.