Belles Statement VT-01 Preamplifier
Loudspeakers -- Affirm Audio Lumination
Preamplifier -- Audio Research LS26
Power amplifiers -- Art Audio PX 25, Belles
SA-30, Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III, Audio Research VS115
Analog sources -- Linn LP12 turntable, Graham
2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Frog cartridge, Audio Research PH5 phono stage, Sony ST-SA50ES FM/AM
Digital sources -- Meridian 508.24 CD player,
Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player
Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e, Blue
Marble Audio Blue IC, Clarity Cables Organic, Crystal Cable Piccolo, Purist Audio Design
Venustas, TG Audio High Purity Revised
Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 e, Blue Marble
Audio, Clarity Cables Passion, Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Power cords -- Audience powerChord e, Blue
Marble Audio Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Accessories -- VPI HW-16.5 record cleaner,
Walker Audio Talisman LP/CD treatment
The preamplifier is the nerve center of
a hi-fi system. It provides one or more gain stages, input switching, volume control, and
any other controls the manufacturer deems important. Back when I got started with hi-fi,
manufacturers competed to see how many knobs, switches, and sliders they could cram onto
the front panels of preamps, which made for some pretty big front panels. Then, in 1975,
along came the Mark Levinson JC-2, which set the industry on its heels with a bare minimum
of controls, which Levinson claimed degraded the sound. The JC-2s pancake-flat face
looked much different from those of its knob- and button-festooned competitors, and it
started a trend that continues to the present: the minimalist preamp. Since then, as many
manufacturers have dispensed with the internal phono stages that were universal at the
time of the JC-2, preamps have gotten even simpler. The resulting component is called a
line stage, and this review is about one of them.
David Belles is a highly respected audio designer who has
plied his trade for over 30 years. In that time he has produced a steady stream of
products, many of which have won excellent reviews, including, in April 2008, a review
of the LA-01 preamplifier and MB-01 monoblock amplifiers published in our sister
publication Ultra Audio. But Belles never rests, continuing to produce newer and,
usually, better designs. One of his latest products is the subject of this review: the
Belles Statement VT-01 tubed line preamplifier ($4695 USD).
The VT-01s four Mullard DV4003 tubes, a variant of
the ubiquitous 12AU7, amplify the audio signal to drive a power amplifier, such as
Belles own matching SA-30 or SA-100 (all three models are members of the Statement
series, Belles top line). Other 12AU7 equivalents can be used, such as the ECC82
(the EUs designation for the 12AU7), ECC802, 5814A, 5963, or 6189, but the Mullard
CV4003 is perhaps my favorite. I prize it for its rich, creamy sound and spookily
realistic reproduction of voices. The 12AU7 is very popular; you can easily find
replacements, and new old stock (NOS) units are still readily available, albeit at often
steep prices. The tubes are completely enclosed by the VT-01s case, so they
shouldnt pick up any extraneous radio-frequency interference (RFI). Although the
case has no cooling vents, the VT-01 ran only slightly warm to the touch.
Belles obviously thinks a top-line component should not
only sound but look good, and the Statement models are gorgeous enough to make many far
more expensive products look cheap. The thick front panel with beveled edges sports
Belles hallmark keyhole design, which is also stamped into the top plate. The case,
which measures 17"W x 3.5"H x 13"D, is constructed of thick aluminum slabs
screwed together to form a rigid structure. Although SoundStage! reviewers
arent encouraged to engage in destructive testing, the VT-01 looks as if it could be
run over by a Hummer without any damage -- to the VT-01. The case is available in silver
(the review sample) or black; I thought the silver finish better showed off the chassis
contours. The caseworks thickness also made itself known when I lifted the VT-01:
its shipping weight is 27 pounds.
Inside, the circuit is built from premium components
carefully selected by David Belles, who is very demanding. After auditioning and rejecting
numerous expensive designer capacitors, for example, he finally had Teflon capacitors made
to his own specifications and taste. Nor are premium parts limited to the VT-01s
interior; the case is supported by Stillpoints feet, one of my favorite support systems.
Most of the components in my system rest on external Stillpoints, so having them built
into the VT-01 is a real plus. And, unlike aftermarket Stillpoints, these dont fall
off when the VT-01 is lifted.
The VT-01s specifications rival those of virtually
any other preamp on the market: hum and noise better than 100dB down, distortion less than
0.001%, and crosstalk unmeasurable between inputs, and 60dB between channels. The input
impedance is 100k ohms, while the output impedance is 100 ohms -- low for any line stage,
but extraordinarily low for a tubed design. The maximum output voltage is 30V (!). All
this means that the VT-01 should work with any source, with any power amplifier (as long
as the latter has unbalanced inputs), and with any length of unbalanced interconnect.
Hows that for flexibility? And if you really want to use it with an amplifier
with balanced inputs, I recommend Cardas Audios RCA-to-XLR adapters, which I use
with my Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III amp. The VT-01 doesnt invert phase, so you
dont have to fool around with reversing the polarity of your speaker connections, as
you do with line stages that do invert phase.
The VT-01 is definitely a minimalist line stage.
Theres a single knob, the volume control, on the right side of the front panel, and
three small toggle switches on the left: Power on/off, Mute, and Input selection. The
Input switch toggles sequentially through the four inputs; you cant directly select
a source without switching through the other inputs in between -- a minor annoyance. Above
the toggles, LEDs numbered 1 through 4 indicate which input is active. The Mute circuit is
engaged for about a minute when the VT-01 is turned on, allowing the tubes to slowly reach
equilibrium before starting to play music. Im not sure how long the VT-01 needs to
warm up for best sound, but it took a lot less time than any of my amplifiers. The
toggles labels are below the switches, making them a bit hard to read if the VT-01
is placed on a lower shelf of your equipment rack. Early in my time with the VT-01, I
flipped what I thought was the Mute switch. It was actually the Power switch, and I turned
the unit off -- while the power amplifier was still on. That can be disastrous with the
many preamps that emit strong pulses or pops when powered down. Luckily for my speakers,
the VT-01 was totally silent when switched off. Whew!
On the rear panel are four pairs of sturdy RCA input jacks
and two pairs of RCA output jacks. The jacks are widely spaced -- your huge audiophile
interconnects should fit just fine. Theres also an IEC jack for the power cord.
Although Belles includes a hefty molded cord, I used an aftermarket model, the Audience
powerChord e, which sounded more open and dynamic. This is a change from my practice of
using only stock AC cords, but Ive decided that aftermarket cords let review samples
reach their full potential, which is what our readers really want to know about.
Given Belles metalworking prowess, I half expected
that the VT-01s remote control would be more audio jewelry -- instead, the VT-01
comes with a small remote of black plastic that duplicates all of the front panels
control functions. While I appreciate heavy, metal remote controls, I can personally
attest to the fact that, when dropped, a remote made of light plastic inflicts less damage
on a toe or coffee table. I would have appreciated a few more controls -- for monophonic
output, phase reversal, possibly even balance -- but those are my personal preferences;
most audiophiles probably wouldnt use them.
Because I received my review sample of the VT-01 from local
Belles dealer Blue Marble Audio, in San Antonio, it arrived already broken in, for which I
was grateful. (For those who think reviewing equipment is a glamorous profession,
heres how it really works: break-in of almost anything takes at least 300 hours,
critical listening takes a week (casual listening usually takes much longer, but happens
during the last hours of break-in, writing takes a couple of weeks, and then its
time to pack up and return the review sample to the manufacturer.)
The VT-01 displaced my SACD player on the shelf in my
equipment rack just above my reference line stage, the Audio Research LS26. After
adjusting the Stillpoints feet to ensure that there was a little play in each, and that
all four feet were contacting the shelf equally (no wobbling permitted!), I connected the
VT-01 to my system. Interconnects were primarily Clarity Cable Organic RCAs (CD player to
VT-01 and VT-01 to power amp). These extraordinary interconnects have an extremely open
sound and a wide frequency range.
I also tried the VT-01 with my Art Audio PX 25, reasoning
that a single-ended-triode amplifier, which uses a radically different type of circuit,
would provide a severe test of the VT-01s compatibility. And, of course, since I
still had on hand Belles SA-30 solid-state amplifier, I couldnt resist hooking
it up to the VT-01. About the only thing the Belles and Art amps have in common is that
they both run in class-A, and thats a good thing.
Sound with the Belles SA-30 amplifier
Belles claim that the VT-01 is exceptionally quiet
proved no lie. I hate noise, and the VT-01s jet-black background let music emerge
with more detail and dynamics. The sound wasnt excessively "tubey";
although the tonal depiction of music was quite succulent, I heard none of the
second-harmonic distortion that is sometimes mistaken for harmonic richness. If the
recording had good harmonic detail, the VT-01 reproduced it, without adding anything not
already on the recording. It was very neutral, in the best sense of that word.
The VT-01 was also, clearly, a wideband device. Bass was
deep and firm, with plenty of impact. The bass on "Way Down Deep," from
Ciscos reissue of Jennifer Warnes The Hunter (gold CD, Cisco Music GCD
8012-2), extended as low, and with as much slam, as Ive heard from this recording.
(By the way, if you dont have this reissue on LP, gold CD, or both, run, dont
walk, to your computer and order it -- its spectacular.) At the other end of the
frequency spectrum, the treble was extended without being etched or peaky.
The VT-01s midrange was exceptionally natural.
Intending to listen to only a couple of cuts, I spun the late Eva Cassidys
posthumous album Somewhere (CD, Blix Street G2-10090). It was only with great
difficulty that I avoided listening to the entire CD. I could hear exactly how Cassidy
modulated her voice to produce vibrato, which Ive never heard reproduced so
When I reviewed the
Belles SA-30 amplifier ($4695) in September, I lauded it for its strong dynamic
contrasts both large and small. The VT-01 was cut from the same cloth; its dynamic
contrasts were equally well defined, in both the large volume swings as an orchestra
changed gears from pianississimo (ppp, or very soft) to fortississimo
(fff, or very loud), and in the very small volume changes that a
musician uses to shape a musical phrase. But it didnt reproduce well only the
loudest and softest passages; it also showed exceptional agility in tracking changes that
occurred throughout a performance. On Jordi Savalls La Folia 1490-1701 (CD,
Alia Vox AFA 9805), whose constantly changing loudness level is particularly challenging
to some components, I was impressed at how precisely the VT-01 rendered the dynamic levels
as they ebbed and flowed freely throughout the disc. Overall, Ive never heard better
tracking of dynamics in my system.
An area I dont always comment on in reviews of amps
and preamps is pace and timing. By that I mean how well the music moves along with forward
momentum, and how well tempo (speed) changes are depicted. A line stage shouldnt
affect musical timing, which is mostly handled by the source component; about all a line
stage can do to the timing is screw it up. The VT-01 definitely didnt screw up the
timing; in fact, I was able to hear unusually small changes in tempo. On "Folia
Rodrigo Martinez," from the Savall collection, the musicians not only continuously
change volume levels, they also speed up and slow down throughout the piece, all of which
the VT-01 rendered with uncanny precision.
When I reviewed the Belles SA-30, I said that its
soundstaging was a bit less precise than that of other amplifiers; the VT-01 substantially
changed that impression. I think this is a classic example of the synergy between two
components designed to complement each other. When I listened to the same recording
Id used to judge the SA-30s soundstaging -- A Sei Vocis performance of
Allegris Miserere, Mass, and motets (CD, Astrée E 8524) -- the soundstage
produced by the SA-30 plus VT-01 was every bit as open as Ive ever heard it,
the individual singers placed with pinpoint precision within the soundfield. With the
Baltimore Consorts Adío España (CD, Dorian/Sono Luminus DSL 90901), the
VT-01 clearly depicted how the musicians rearranged themselves onstage for different
pieces. When the entire ensemble played, the musicians were spread out more widely; with a
more intimate song for soprano and lute, the duo was more centered in the soundfield.
Sound with the Art Audio PX 25 amplifier
So the VT-01 sounded great with its stablemate SA-30
amplifier. Big deal -- if it didnt, Belles would be in serious trouble. But would it
work as well with amplifiers it wasnt related to? To give it a
challenge, I connected it to my Art Audio PX 25 ($9500), which is about as different from
the Belles SA-30 as possible. The PX 25s single-ended-triode (SET) circuit uses
tubes exclusively (except for the heater voltages) to produce a "measly" 6Wpc;
but with speakers rated at 103dB sensitivity, youd be surprised at how loud 6W can
be. As an SET amplifier, the PX 25 uses only one output tube per channel to reproduce both
the positive and negative halves of the signal. Because that single output tube must be on
at all times, the PX 25 is, inherently, a class-A design. Like most SET amps, the circuits
in its input and driver sections are unbalanced: specifically, 6922 input tubes and 12BH7
driver tubes. Unlike most tube amps, however, the PX 25 uses a separate 274B rectifier
tube for each channel, so that each channel will have all the current it needs. Thanks to
my reviewing schedule, it had been six months since Id been able to enjoy hearing
the Art Audio amplifier, and I was eager to get reacquainted.
SET amplifiers are known for their ability to throw a deep,
palpable soundstage, so the first CD I spun was the Allegri Miserere. Holy
mackerel -- where did my room go? It was if Id been teleported to the recording
venue, where I could almost see the small choral group precisely placed within the space.
I could hear way more information about the individual voices in the group,
including how each singer enunciated the words. The soundstage was eerily
three-dimensional, with a significantly enhanced sense of depth. The SA-30 had impressed
me with its depiction of spatial information, but the Art Audio was just stupid good. And
the VT-01 passed all that spatial information along to the amplifier.
The second surprise I received from the Art Audio amp was
that it produced appreciably deeper, stronger bass than the much more powerful Belles
SA-30. In all likelihood this was due to the Belles extremely high damping factor
(5000), which may have overdamped my horn speakers; like most horns, my Affirm Audio
Luminations are acoustically well damped enough that they need little help from the
amplifier. Also, while SET amplifiers arent usually all that great at reproducing
the frequency extremes, the Art Audio delivers full power down to 9Hz. On Chris
Jones Roadhouses and Automobiles (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), the opening
bass figures on "God Moves on the Water" were noticeably more deep and weighty.
Again, the VT-01 passed the bass frequencies along to the amplifier, and I was pleasantly
Did the VT-01 sound different with the different
amplifiers? No -- it had very little sound of its own. The salient point of the above
descriptions is that the VT-01 let each amp perform at its very best, and better than I
had previously heard either. It didnt get in their way, but let them strut their
My Audio Research LS26 is a fully balanced line stage
($5995) whose gain stages include both solid-state devices (JFETs) and tubes (6H30s).
Every input and output has two sets of jacks: balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA). While
the balanced connections sound a bit better with balanced sources and power amplifiers,
the unbalanced connections sound excellent in their own right.
The LS26s front-panel display provides tons of
information about whats going on in a system, including which input is selected (by
name), the type of connection (balanced or unbalanced) for each source, and the gain level
for that source (you can set a different gain for each source). There are controls for
monophonic operation (useful when you play a mono LP), channel balance, phase reversal,
and even a timer that tells you how long the tubes have been used. A numeric displays
shows the volume setting, which ranges from 0 (off) to 103, so theres plenty of
range. All of the LS26s controls are available on the remote control, including some
that dont appear on the front panel.
Although ARC components are sturdy and well made, the LS26
looked rather plain sitting next to the Belles VT-01. But what really counts for me is the
sound, which was great. When I first heard the LS26, my reaction was "Utterly
charming!" Apologies if that sounds like typical reviewer hyperbole, but in this case
it was simply accurate, and in the two years Ive used the LS26 that initial reaction
hasnt changed. Its sound is very relaxed and open, sounding particularly spacious.
Its dynamic and punchy when the music is dynamic and punchy, but doesnt
overemphasize dynamics to impress with its "hi-fi" prowess. Bass is not only
deep, it has lots of weight. Treble is bright and illuminated but not at all peaky.
Midrange is exquisite: tons of tonal detail, plenty of momentum, and finely delineated
microdynamics. Youd probably never suspect that the LS26 uses JFETs in its input
stages; it sounds a bit "tubey," in the best sense of the term. Theres no
grain, and everything sounds rich -- not the richness of excessive second-harmonic
distortion, but the richness that comes with the accurate reproduction of the full
harmonic envelope of each instrument and singer.
I found it difficult to compare the sounds of two line
stages designed to have no sound of their own. Both were soundstaging champions, with the
Belles VT-01 possibly generating a tad more three-dimensional soundfield. I think the ARC
LS26 reproduced the leading edge of transients infinitesimally faster, but it was a very
close call. In that respect, the combination of the ARC LS26 and SA-30 sometimes produced
transient leading edges that were downright scary. At times I thought the VT-01 produced
portraits of instruments of very slightly greater holistic accuracy, but this impression
was on the threshold of perception. In short, both line stages were staggeringly good,
quiet as a tomb, and utterly unfussy to set up and use. I have a nagging suspicion that
most of my observations are as much about the power amplifiers as about the line stages
As a reviewer, Id be reluctant to forgo the Audio
Research LS26s full set of features; as a listener, unless I needed to use balanced
sources and amplifiers, I would definitely opt for the Belles VT-01 and save $1300.
The Belles VT-01 line preamplifier is something of a
bargain at $4695. Although its not the last word in flexibility, its sound
essentially matched, and in several important ways surpassed, that of my $5995 Audio
Research LS26. Nor is the VT-01 a one-trick pony; while it proved a superb companion for
Belles own SA-30 power amp, I was elated to discover that it also enabled an
amplifier of a completely different topology -- a single-ended-triode model -- to sound
better than I had previously heard it.
The Belles VT-01 sounds spectacular, looks gorgeous, is
easy to operate, and, considering its performance, is reasonably priced. In fact, I
havent heard anything in its price range that sounds remotely as good. While David
Belles SA-30 amplifier is also a superb performer, I think his VT-01 is even better
-- much better. Its one of the best line stages Ive heard at any price, which
makes it an easy Reviewers Choice. If youre shopping for a line stage at or
near this price and dont need balanced inputs and outputs, I urge you to put the
Belles VT-01 on a very short list of products to audition.
. . . Vade Forrester
|Belles Statement VT-01 Preamplifier
Price: $4695 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; 90 days on tubes.
Power Modules, Inc.
479 East Street
Pittsford, NY 14534
Phone: (585) 586-0740
Fax: (585) 586-4203