Review: Herron Audio VTSP-3A (RO3) Linestage

The box arrived express delivery. It was Friday and I was excited since I had been hoping to do some listening over the weekend after a three week hiatus. The contents spoke volumes about the sender. Two matched EH 6992’s, each in its own bubble wrap chamber. A small Ziploc bag containing three top plate screws and a printed sticker to apply to the box of the unit.. Another, larger Ziploc bag containing a complete set of loading plugs for my VTPH-2.

Some context. Three weeks prior I had sent my VTSP-3A back to Keith Herron. I had purchased the unit new directly from Keith several years ago as an “RO2” version and since then Keith had worked his magic to draw even better performance out of the linestage--this according to the man himself. Of course, I had no reason to doubt him. But I had remained a little reluctant to risk shipping damage and a few weeks of Pandora through the Bose system for what might turn out to be only an incremental improvement to the very best sounding linestage that had ever graced my system. So months went by before I got the nerve up to box up my beloved VTSP-3A for the trip to Missouri.

True to his word the turnaround was quick, but when I fired up the updated unit--now designated “RO3”--I was getting some low level crackling noise out of the left channel. Needless to say--bummer! I dialed up Missouri. Keith walked me through a few diagnostics and determined that the likely culprit was a tube gone bad during shipping and he was pretty sure he knew which one.

Thus, the box--the one with the tubes. But what about the other stuff? Well, the obvious purpose of the sticker was to allow me to “upgrade” the shipping container so that the box reflected the revised unit within. (I had mistakenly shipped the unit in my VTPH-2 container since they are identical). The top plate screws? I’m guessing these were thoughtfully sent along in case one was lost or stripped during installation of the replacement tube--note the singular here. I’m guessing Keith sent two matched 6992’s rather than a single replacement tube so that the output levels would correspond as they did when the unit left his shop. Or in case more that the one tube he suspected had gone south. Oh, and the loading plugs--I had mentioned to Keith that I had recently upgraded my cartridge, from an Audio Technica OC9MLII to an ART 9 and was interested in trying some different loading values to see how they might impact the sound. (I purchased my VTPH-2 directly from Keith many years before and had always run it without loading the cartridge--the “infinite load” option--so never had use for the plugs. Keith looked up the specs on the ART 9 and felt a 100k load would be worth trying but sent me a complete set to ensure that I could obtain the best performance possible from any cartridge I might use in the future--typical.

All this to share with you the kind of client support one can expect when you join the ranks of Herron Audio enthusiasts. One box, shipped priority so I would be up and running for the weekend with all that I would ever need to get the best out of my stereo system for months and years to come. One experience of many since I became a Herron customer that Keith let it be known through his words and deeds that my passion for music mattered greatly to him and that Herron Audio exists to elevate the quality of each and every client’s listening pleasure.

So then I replaced the bad tube and fired up the system--but allow me back up a little bit. I first purchased the VTSP-3A (RO2) after a number of linestages had passed through my system. Each was very good in many respects but none had succeeded in satisfying over the long haul. Mostly they fell short in terms of sonics, but sometimes it was a combination of sound quality, ergonomics and features. I was extremely pleased with my VTPH-2 but had not seriously considered the VTSP-3A, mostly because it was slightly out of my price range. Then the finances swung my way and I asked Keith if I could give his linestage a try. Of course he said “yes” and upon installation I knew I had found what I was looking for--a linestage that was dead quiet with a host of worthwhile features (switchable gain, absolute and AC polarity, mono/stereo switch, display brightness--many functional via the handheld remote) and, most importantly, sonics that were captivatingly beautiful.

Many of the linestages I had used prior were useful tools for evaluating the rest of the gear in my system. The VTSP-3A’s immediate impression was different--here was an unparalleled tool for evaluating a musical performance. Of course the usual superlatives apply in spades (frequency extension at both ends, precise imaging, expansive soundstaging, tonal correctness, etc.) but more than anything what distinguishes the VTSP-3A from other preamps is how it conveys the musical message. It had exquisite timing, realistic dynamics and expressive tonality--in my system it simply sounded completely real and perfectly right.  

And I would have been happy with the “RO2” version forever had my call about the loading plugs not revealed the tweaks that resulted in the “RO3” designation. So what of the revised unit? Well, the differences are subtle but significant. First, the “RO3” version does better dynamics than its predecessor--particularly at the micro level. Subtle shifts in dynamic intensity are more readily heard--for example, gradations of pressure applied to piano keys or guitar strings come through more clearly, allowing the listener to emerge with a much greater sense of the performers artistic vision and technical prowess. Second, the new version unearths a little more detail across the board, revealing small but musically significant details and individual instrumental lines that better draw the listener into the performance. And what is perhaps most remarkable about both these enhancements is that they coincide with a slightly more relaxed presentation, with a deeper stage and tiny bit less edge to the presentation. Finally, the imaging of the “RO3” version and, particularly, the soundstage, is more realistically scaled and expansive than the earlier model. While the width of the stage is essentially unchanged, the depth is noticeably enhanced, even in my setup which somewhat truncates stage depth (my speakers are only a few feet from the rear wall).

I have been neglectful--life has been busy and I’ve been sitting on a gold mine of a preamp for several years, sharing my experience with Keith and his masterpieces only fitfully and largely in response to other posts. But the revisions to my VTSP-3A and the related customer support experience with Keith has compelled me to post. For those looking for the very best in traditional separates (linestage and phonostage) and want the peace of mind that comes with a client support model that is absolutely second to none--look no further. Though I have not heard everything and certainly nothing above $10K in my system, I am pretty certain that the VTPH-2 and VTSP-3A (RO3) can compete with anything out there at (or above) their price point in terms of reproducing the essence of a musical performance. I can only imagine (and hope to one day discover) how Keith’s M1A monoblock amplifiers might complement the rest of my system. If you are thinking of spending anywhere near the ticket price elsewhere, I would strongly encourage you to give Keith (or your local dealer) a call and ask for a test drive--you will be overjoyed with the results.

@dodgealum Congrats on a very well written review and your "new" preamp you sound very happy indeed and sounds like Keith is a pleasure to deal with. One thing I would be curious to know, what was the RO3 upgrade? What changes or improvements were made to your unit? Thanks and I wish you many hours of happy listening!
M1As are a dream. I have a full Herron stack and it's been three best audio experience of my life dealing with Keith!

Thanks so much. I don't know specifically what upgrades are performed to bring the unit from "RO2" to "RO3" status. First off, I'm not at all technical so if Keith told me I wouldn't understand much of what he was saying. I can tell you this:

1. Unlike many manufacturers who frequently come out with new model designations that render prior models "obsolete" and diminish their market value, Keith has a very client focused business model in which he retains model designations and provides his customers with cost effective upgrades so they can retain their equipment for many years while enhancing the sound quality as he develops design improvements. (Lou Hinkley does the same at Daedalus Audio, maker of my speakers). 

2. I know from conversations that Keith is always tinkering with his designs, swapping in different parts, trying different approaches, all to see what kind of sonic improvements might be wrought. I suspect that once he obtains enough of a performance gain from a collective series of tweaks and he feels confident in terms of reliability and the ability to replicate in production he announces a revision. It may be that changes to the model number designation attest to the significance of the changes--for example, the linestage is VTSP-3A with updates signified as "RO2" then "RO3" and so on until the cumulative effect is large enough to warrant a VTSP-3B. (I'm just guessing here so don't quote me). 

In any event I just appreciate this kind of ongoing product support. There is a level of confidence at the moment of purchase that you are not in danger of having to sell your gear at a loss to upgrade to the (often more expensive) new model in order to enjoy the fruits of progress. I know I will have my VTSP-3 for a good long while and will simply be able to send it back for upgrades as Keith continues to refine his art.
@dodgealum , nice review, congrats!
For references sake, you mention:
Many of the linestages I had used prior were useful tools for evaluating the rest of the gear in my system.

Could you tell me what some of the other line stages were, and how the Herron stood out from them?

A Herron VTSP-3A -r03, just popped up on the 'Gon, and I am considering it. I have no experience with any of Keith's products.

They seem to have a good following, and from what I've read are on the more transparent side of the fence when it comes to tonality, versus the musical camp.
Say more comparable to the VAC or ARC sound then the CJ, BAT, or Cary sound? I've owned preamps from all of the above, and am trying to get a feel as to what tonality to expect from a Herron preamp.

Hey John:

I'm on vacation so can't really give you a proper response. That said, the unit which just came on is very well priced and I cannot imagine a better value line stage for that money. If you would like to discuss my path and experience with the Herron just send me a pm with your phone and ill ring you when I get back on Monday.
I'm looking forward to getting my pre amp and amps back from Keith.  I have done a couple of upgrades over the years and each time it's a welcome change.  These are the only electronics I haven't changed over the years.  Besides being a great guy, Keith continues to squeeze performance improvements out of his products and passes them on to his customers at a reasonable upgrade price.  It sure beats buying new equipment all the time.
Update: After sitting on the fence reluctant to part with my VTSP-3A (R03), I have decided to bite the bullet and give Keith's VTSP-360 a spin. For those who may be interested, I've posted the VTSP-3A for sale over on "that other site". I'll circle back and let you know how the VTSP-360 compares.
Looking forward to your write up of the VTSP 360 - Im a fan of Mr Herron's products and your excellent reviews!
Im currently enjoying a VTSP3a Ro3, and maybe one day will make the jump to a 360 as well!
Did my first listen to Keith's VTSP 360 in comparison to the VTSP 3a-03.  What I noticed was that the soundstage was deeper and wider than the 03 and there was better definition in upper frequencies and depending on the recording it was more holographic.  The bass also seemed to be more extended but I need to let it break in for some time before I can make any final judgements.  What I have heard so far is that we are off to a good start.  More to come. 
Cool—thanks for sharing. It will be interesting to hear your impressions after the unit breaks in properly. Great that you have the R03 on hand to make a direct comparison! My 360 just arrived but it will be a while before I get to put it in my system. I’ll report out once I get to have a listen.