Review: VTL VTL - 7.5 Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

Disclaimer: I am a great fan of VTL and consider Luke and Bea (owners of VTL) among my friends. I sell a lot of used and demo equipment at AudioGon for a friend of mine who owns Krystal Clear Audio in Dallas. This is why you may notice that I am listed as a commercial member. I am actually just one of you at heart looking for the best sound I can attain in my system. Beacuse my wife works at Krystal Clear, I can obtain certain products as employee accomodation. This is how I acquired my 7.5.

I would like to take a minute and let you know about one of the most important achievements I have ever experienced in my 30+ years of enjoying our hobby. You may be skeptical since I own the product, but if you are in the market for a superior upper echelon linestage, DO NOT buy anything at any price until you experience this VTL 7.5 in your system. To put this review in context, my system consists of the following:

Sony SCD-1 (w/ Audiocom Superclock Modification (more mods soon))
VTL 7.5 Linestage
Atmasphere MA1-MKII.2s
ZEROs (Paul Speltz amazing autoformer at 2X)
Soundlab A-1s (Updated and Modified to include Auricaps, toroids, copper diffusion, etc.)

Prior to the upgrade to the 7.5, I most recently used VTLs previous headliner preamp (the VTL 5.5). I was always happy with the 5.5, but I also longed for the opportunity to use my SCD-1 in a balanced configuration. This was not possible with the 5.5. I also previously owned and used a Counterpoint SA-11 and 5.1, a Melos SHA-1, and a Conrad Johnson Premier 3. I regularly attend trade shows and have access to many great product lines including BAT, PASS, and Halcro.

One summer evening about 2 years or so ago, I had the privilege of having a new prototype preamp in my system. It turned out to be the embryo of the VTL 7.5. Draped in sterile clothes (exterior metalwork), this new circuitry grabbed our attention. It expanded on the strengths of the 5.5 across the board and eliminated any perceived weaknesses. It drew us into the music in a very seductive and exciting way. I wanted it and had to have it. I am not a particularly patient individual, but in this case patience was required. Year after year seemed to go by, but the 7.5 was just not yet ready for the birth canal. Luke and Bea of VTL had a goal in mind. The 7.5 had to push the edge of the audio art. It could not just be a step forward, but had to redefine what was possible.

Skip forward two years or so.

The 7.5 is born. New and modern casework houses electronic genius. I refer you to Arther S. Pheffer's excellent review in Absolute Sound and VTLs website for all the circuit details.

The 7.5 finally arrives in Dallas. I see it and hear it briefly at a wonderful seminar hosted by Krystal Clear Audio in Dallas. No time was wasted making arrangements to get one ordered. You see I had been waiting for years, literally.

It is now time for CES 2003 and I have to wait a while longer.

Finally the day arrives and the two huge cases arrive. Is this thing really a preamp? Feels like a big power amp by the size and weight of the boxes (two of them by the way). One contains the sophisticated control center and multiple power supplies while the second box houses the magical audio section.

Saturday morning comes slowly, but I finally get this baby in the rack. My musical taste is predomintately jazz and female vocals. My first spin with the 7.5 was the new FIM SACD: Antiphone blues. Unbelievable sound. The hall effects are amazing. Disk after disk from Chet Baker to Ella and Louis spring forth with a reality I have honestly never experienced in a sound system. The 7.5 weaves it's magic on non SACDs as well. Sam Cooke appears in the room on his amazing album called "Night Beat". All words seem cliche.

From the first nanosecond, the 7.5 has been reshaping my expectations of what a music system really is.
After a week of break-in, I could sit here and write about all the audiophile superlatives, but they seem trite and outmoded when trying to describe what the 7.5 brings to the table or should I say the music? I make one absolute cautionary statement: DO NOT USE THIS PREAMP with any of the popular power conditioners / re-conditioners or their ilk. These products absolutely and completely destroy the 7.5s magic. I can't say why, but they do. Hear for yourself if you don't believe me!

Someone wrote a comparison review between the CJ Art and the 7.5. As I recall they thought the 7.5 was a little sterile compared to the CJ. I bet they were using a power conditioner! The 7.5 is MUSIC! warm, creamy, detailed, REAL...

Changing out the 5.5 for the 7.5 for me is an expectation changing experience. I could never go back. I guess if one could afford it, it would be like going from driving a Toyota to a Rolls Royce or Mazzeratti. Once you experience what is possible you never want to compromise.

I have had several music system epiphanies in my time, but none as amazing as the 7.5. The scary part is that mine is just getting started.

Please take the opportunity to experience this amazing product in your own system. Take one home for an audition...

The wait was worth it!!!

Associated gear
Sony SCD-1 (w/ Audiocom Superclock Modification (more mods soon))
VTL 7.5 Linestage
Atmasphere MA1-MKII.2s
ZEROs (Paul Speltz amazing autoformer at 2X)
Soundlab A-1s (Updated and Modified to include Auricaps, toroids, copper diffusion, etc.)

Similar products
VTL - 5.5
Counterpoint SA-11
Nice review. Thanks for the effort and time you put into this account of your initial impressions. I wanted to know if you were tinking of possibly mating VTL's 750's or 1250's now that you own their preamp. Also, I wanted to know if you describe VTL's sound as warm and wet (liquid) or warm and dry (more texture). I have heard VTL sound both ways. What is your take on this?
I want to know if they have improved the service dept?
Whew! Thanks for the opening disclaimer, else I might have been convinced that this VTL is the devil's own preamp! (However, you did leave out the part about you only making 2 posts in five years, both pimping products you helpfully added are sold by KCA.)

But then I realized that preamps aren't really magic, and that you didn't really describe how it sounds anyway.

Hope your friends' businesses sell lots of these, and don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's a great preamp (I'm a VTL owner myself), but I've gotta ask: Have you ever tried plugging your SACD player directly into your amps? (Nah, on second thought better not - I wouldn't want to be responsible for bringing you back down to earth...)

OK, sorry, I'm done. I hope you can excuse me for not believing that I've never heard music reproduced before if I haven't heard this piece. Finding a preamp that first does no disqualifying harm is still an unavoidable eventuality for most of us (if we can afford it!). I'm glad you've found yours - enjoy it in good health.
To Zaikesman - I totally understand your skepticism. In fact I have used a souce directly into amps in the past. I had a Wadia 27 that I used in this manner. Of course one can not plug an SCD-1 directly into the amplifiers. I challenge you to go to your VTL dealer and try out the 7.5 in your system. What do you have to loose? If I had read this review before hearing the 7.5, I would have reacted the same way you did...Happy Listening...
To Zaikesman - I also want to point out that the only products that I have posted comments on are products that I own or have owned myself. If I was in the pimping business as you suggest, I would have posted hundreds or thousands of threads pushing products for KCA. Most importantly, I recommend that people experience these items in their own systems in order to draw their own conclusions. Thanks for your thoughts.....
A friend of mine owns a VTL 5.5. He borrowed the 7.5 from his dealer, and didn't like it as much as the 5.5, saying it sounded more sterile, and he generally didn't like the sound of it.
You can run the SACD player into your amps directly, you just won't have any control over the volume, so be careful and use quiet disks or passages at first (or check with VTL to see what setting on your preamp equals unity gain, and whether you ever advance the volume control to or near that point during normal use). Be judicious here, and you can audition the real difference by simply setting the preamp volume to the unity gain point, listening to a track recorded at a palatable level, and then moving your preamp-to-amp interconnects over to the preamp's tape out jacks (turn off the power amps while you move the cables) and listening again, thereby enabling you to make a matched-level A/B comparision between the sound of your player as run through your preamp's gain and volume-attenuation stages, and the sound of your player run straight into the amps while still maintaining use of the same two sets of interconnects and in/out jacks in the signal path (the validity of this comparision depends on the preamp's tape outs being unbuffered, BTW). In other words, this simple little test will tell you what the preamp's active and passive stages are doing to the sound of your source. If the preamp shows a very high degree of fidelity to the source signal, just giving you transparent control over volume and source selection, then the A/B comparision will reveal very little difference between the sound from the main outputs and the sound from the tape outputs. Most preamps will audibly degrade the signal from a robust source, like your player, capable of driving a high impedance amplifier input and a reasonable length of interconnect without requiring the aid of a preamplifier in between. I'm not trying to be a bummer about how great your preamp sounds, but I'm also not a believer in the notion that a preamp can somehow make a good source sound 'better' than it naturally does - maybe different, but different usually means distorted somehow (unless the source isn't capable of driving the interconnects and amps on its own, a relative rarity in these solid-state digital days).

As for the 'pimping' charge, I was mostly just trying to give you a hard time, seeing as how you're lucky enough to have this great preamp that I can't afford - I realize that if you were really a pimp, you've been a pretty damn lazy one! Now, how about joining us here on the forum and posting again some time before five years from now? ;^)
Thank you for the invitation. I generally spend most of my available online time at the AtmaSphere and Soundlab owner's forums or responding to ads I have placed at AudioGon. If you have any interest in Electrostatic speakers or OTLs, please stop in for a visit at SLOG or ASOG...Your thoughts on no preamp certainly have theoretical and practical merit in some circumstances. It can be a bit impractical if you have multiple sources. I experienced the frustration of not being able to switch sources with my Wadia 27. Maybe the 7.5 is the first linestage I have used that can just get totally out of the way. Maybe it is the system synergy. Whatever the reason, I am extremely pleased with the result! I've heard the 7.5 now in three totally different set ups with similarly pleasing results. In any event it has made a phenomenal improvement in my system. As already noted in the comments above, not everyone will have the same experience..I am anxious to hear from others in this forum as they have an opportunity to hear the 7.5..Regards...
Both the Atma-Sphere and SoundLab products hold a lot of interest for me, and I have read quite a bit about them, but have auditioned very little and only casually. But it's mostly academic for me, as I can't yet see the day where I'll want to live with speakers or amps as large as these (I'd give more serious consideration to the reasonably-sized M-60's if I had appropriate speakers for them to drive, but Thiels ain't it).

As far as the preamp thing goes, I know where you're coming from (as I think most of us do). I'm on my third upgrade in a year with a recently acquired Levinson 380S (the best I've had yet, gotten used here on the 'Gon), but am still open to going back to tubes if this doesn't work out in the long run. Speaking of which, I'm curious why you seem to have forgone Atma-Sphere's preamps - did it boil down to wanting a remote? Or were you certain that the VTL was better?
To Saxo - Do you know if when your friend auditioned the 7.5 if his source was single-ended? If so, was the input on the 7.5 configured for a single ended source?(green led) The balanced configuration for the input will have a blue led glowing? If one uses a balanced configuration for the input with a single ended source or vice versa the unit can sound a bit rough as you described...Fruit for thought..
To Zaikesman: Atmasphere preamps are also fabulous. I have several considerations that went into my decision. I don't use vinyl anymore although the calling is very very strong. Every time I see a ClearAudio Table my resistance declines! I also wanted the remote control. As much as I love the retro look of my Atmasphere Amps, I have just never cozied up to the MP1s or MP3s cosmetics. The Atma has no single ended inputs. I integrate my system with several single ended sources. The VTL offers a lot more flexibility in this regard. Another compelling reason for me is the tube compliment. The Atma preamps have an extensive tube list while the 7.5 uses only 2 12AX7s. I know, I know..How can this thing be so musical with only two tubes? I don't know, but I do trust my ears. My 2 cents on the subject.....
Hey, the 380S seems to do not too shabby a job with zero tubes in the circuit, so I'm game...(and its user interface and configuration flexibility are likewise strong selling points with me...)

...Can't believe you haven't rolled the 12AX7's yet ;^)

Let me know when you perform the bypass comparision test (one day, I'll inspire someone on this site to try this too, and won't feel so alone in the wilderness anymore...eeyeah, dream on!)

Second your strong opinions. Heard a shootout today with an ARCREF2.2 and the 7.5 and it was quite revalatory to say the least. The host had been convinced to include the 7.5's at the last minute in his ultimate pre hunt by yours truly and reluctantly agreed only due to my strong insistence. He was already sold on the ARC and really did it only to shut me up. Well! Turns out he formed some strong opinions within a very short timeframe and today is fairly convinced. As far as the 5.5 goes, it does sound a slight bit more dimensional and is very good, but the 7.5 is just at a whole new level. Magic indeed. Oh, by the way my friend is (was) a professional classical musician.
try a Placette Active for a much less expensive, natural sounding and transparent preamp. You may be sorry to have spent $7,000 more. The Placette is under the radar and "out of this world!! Sorry.

Just to let you know I switched from the Placette to the VTL 7.5. Not to go into much detail but the neutrality of the Placette was not lost, but there was an improvement in overall palpability of images and musicality mating w. the VTL 750 amps. This was subtle while using the 7.5 as a single ended preamp. Once you use it is "Super Balanced" mode the improvement is anything but subtle.