Ever since Keith Herron introduced the VTSP-360 I’ve been wondering how it could possibly improve upon the VTSP-3A (R03) that I have been enjoying for many years as my reference linestage. I loved the 3A so much that I blissfully upgraded nearly my entire system around it--new speakers, amp, disc spinner, turntable/arm/cartridge, cables--and the 3A remained. Why? I shared my impressions of the upgrade to the R03 version of the 3A in a lengthy REVIEW posted here in 2016 so won’t repeat myself here. But a pre-holiday conversation with Keith compelled me to upgrade--he had recently introduced next level revisions to the VTSP-360 (now referred to as the “ESP” revision) and he was excited. This really caught my attention because if you know Keith you know two things: one, he LOVES his work in audio and his many loyal clients, and two: he rarely gets “excited”. In fact, I’ve known Keith for at least a decade and he never sounded “excited” in all of our many conversations. Well, there he was, “excited” about the sound he was getting from the new “ESP” unit--VERY excited. So, I figured if he was that “excited” I better order one. So I did. Now I see what his “excitement” is all about. So how does Keith’s latest linestage compare with my beloved 3A? Before I tell you, a major caveat: I sold my 3A and moved to a new, larger listening room, in which I installed the 360 ESP. So, no direct A-B comparison and a new, very different room to complicate the comparison. So, with that in mind, here is what I have discovered:
The scope of improvement is quite large--this is not a subtle upgrade. Two observations which confirm this impression. First, when you are listening to the system “from the other room” it sounds like a live band is playing--really. Before, it sounded like a great stereo system was playing. That suggests a very big swing toward the absolute sound. Second, I am “getting” music I’ve heard a million times before--understanding it in a way that is much deeper and more meaningful. I’m not (just) talking about discerning lyrics that escaped me before (which has happened numerous times) but really “getting” the song or performance--the feeling and emotional message that makes music so powerful.
Now the checklist: Improvement across the board but a few areas worth noting as particularly significant gains over the already awesome 3A:
Dynamics: Yikes! The music just leaps out of the speakers. Both macro and micro gradations so much more clearly rendered. Things like rim shots on the snare, piano notes, and plucked instruments have an unrestrained quality that makes them appear to be live in the room. The overall effect is to make the music much more exciting, compelling, and FUN! Genuine Technicolor for the ears!
Soundstage: Wow! An unbelievable soundscape is created. Incredible depth, width and precise placement within the stage. Listening to a string quartet and hearing the voice of each member within the mix, properly scaled and projected onto a lifelike stage with all the ambient cues intact. Here is where the new room may be amplifying the effect, making the comparison with the 3A a little unfair. But, as I said, WOW!
Transparency: The 360 ESP is quite a bit more transparent to the recording. Voices are portrayed with much more lucidity--the specific qualities and characteristics that make Sinatra and McLorin Salvant so compelling are revealed more fully. Less homogenized, more true to the source than my 3A. Hard to believe, but that is what I’m hearing.
Again, improvement across the board but, importantly, preservation of all the signature elements of Keith’s craft still present and accounted for: pace, timing, FLOW, tonal correctness, uncolored, QUIET.
Can there possibly be a better linestage? What would you need to spend to get one? I can easily see the 360 ESP representing the heart and soul of any reference quality two-channel system. Paired with the VTPH-2A and a nice table/arm/cartridge, you are on your way to some of the best sound imaginable.