An Odd Opening Move
Before we lived in Denver, my wife and I were from Oregon. In spite of the fact that Denver and Portland often are compared, being similar in size and facing similar issues, they are very dissimilar. Portland is not a sports town, whereas Denver (along with only New York, Chicago, Miami and Dallas) supports teams in all 4 major sports leagues. Denver fancies itself a "brewpub" town, but Portland has 26 brewpubs owned by one family! Denver has 7 total. Denver, while still a cowtown, fancies itself a cosmopolitan place. Portland has best been described as 50 small towns that just grew together. But the most obvious difference is the weather. While it doesn't rain all the time in Portland, 45 inches of precip a year creates a vastly different landscape than Denver can manage with its 15 inches a year.
Don't get me wrong, Denver is not a brown, arid place. It's just that the vegetation tends to be smaller, lower to the ground, and sparser. The funny thing is, we've adapted to Denver almost completely, so much so that the first time we went back to Portland for a visit we were overwhelmed by the greenery. 100 foot tall fir trees blocked the horizon. Maples sent branches across the road to their neighbors, creating green tunnels over every roadway. Blackberry bushes seemed engaged in a war with open space, throwing 8 and 10 foot high impenetrable bunkers in every empty lot. If there was a shady spot, ferns had squatters rights. To tell the truth, it felt like we had walked on the set of a 70's sci-fi flick, something along the lines of "The Plants Strike Back." Still, after a couple of days we reverted to the Pacific Northwesterners we had been. The odd part was getting back to Denver. After having our mental clocks reset in Portland, Denver seemed a desert. The sky was oppressive without trees to soften it. Trees seemed twig-like, the pale green of the aspens looked immature. The clarity of the thin air felt unnatural, giving everything a sense of hyper-detail. Fortunately, after several days (and a quick trip to the mountains) Denver became home once again. Now that you've put up with my little travelogue, I'm sure you're wondering what connection this has with high-end audio. Well, tube amp and solid state amps are often compared
The Heart of the Matter
One of the ways tube and solid state amps differ is in their harmonic richness. Most tube amps seem to have it, but it is often accompanied by an unnatural darkness. Solid staters, on the other hand, have a way of accurately depicting the details of the recording process, but with a concomitant bleaching of the harmonics. In many ways tube amps remind me of Portland - wet, lush, alive, dense and somewhat overdone. Silicon based amps remind me of Denver - clear, detailed, lean and beautiful but dry. The problem here is that both presentations are wrong. A recording such as The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds is not meant to evoke feelings of place yet many tube amps (falsely) place in an identifiable location. On the other hand, Mstislav Rostropovich's version of Bach's Cello Suites is far more than a recitation of notes. The bow, rosin and cello itself are as much a part of emotion of these pieces as the notes themselves. Many solid state amps get the notes right but miss the harmonic density of the music making.
Further, because of what seems to be different approaches to musical reproduction, solid state and tube amps have different strengths. The deep bass is almost the exclusive territory of the super solid state amps. Here their brute force is an advantage. Mid bass is where many tubes amps live. The ability to accurately present harmonics allow plucked upright bass to sound, well, right. The mids are often better represented by tube amps as well, although solid state designs bring a snap and punch that can make music dance. Highs are another mixed bag, as tubes seem to deliver better sheen on cymbals and more air, while solid state amps often have better extension in absolute terms.
Condensing this (and a whole more), what would the perfect amplifier have? First, the harmonic density of a good tube amp. Next, the frequency extension (top and bottom) of a solid stater. Third, the sense of air and place of a tubed unit. And last, the power and effortlessness of a big silicon job. Oh, one last thing, it would be available for under $2000. A geographical metaphor would state that the perfect amp would combine the best of Denver with the best of Portland. Is the Warner that amp?
Stop the Presses!
Come on, I'm not even going to kid you. Such an amp does not exist. The big Audio Research amplifiers get most of the way there from the tube side, while the Krell amplifiers approach equally as close from the solid state end of the continuum. Oh, and they do it for considerably more than two grand. But the Warner VTE-201S does get closer to that theoretically perfect amp than anyone has a right to expect, especially for $1995.
Just the Facts Ma'am
Warner Imaging is a relative newcomer to the high end world, although Emil Rotar, the brains behind the amps, has years of circuitry design expertise. The VTE-201S, at 100 watts a channel, is their entry model in a line that includes a 200 watt a side stereo amp, a 150 watt mono block amp and a 300 watt mono block amp, with SE versions of each of these amps available (the SE versions are designed to be paired with high sensitivity speakers, more that 92dB, and include upgraded parts as well). Styling has undergone extensive revisions and now each amp features a simply gorgeous aluminum sculptured ¼ inch front face plate, with ½ inch panels and rack handles on the SE versions.
Parts quality on the standard version of the VTE-201S is outstanding. The rear boasts TIFF speaker posts. You know the ones - thick, gold plated and silky smooth. The RCA input jacks are also by TIFF, and look equally good. This beast weighs in at 54 pounds, a sizable portion of which is taken up by the heat sinking fins in the rear. These fins are the only thing that bothered me about the VTE-201S. While very effective, they are also 7 inches long! This limits the amount of space for inputs, outputs, fuses and a power cord. In fact, it's so tight that the RCA's are stacked vertically, rather than horizontally. When I asked Emil why he had placed the heat sinking only on the back he said that all the output devices are located on the back plane, and that to move them to the sides would lengthen the signal path. I have to applaud his desire to keep the path as short as possible. Also, in actual use the tight quarters were only an inconvenience, not a problem, although if I had been using the Audio Magic Sorcerer speaker wire they would not have fit.
Warner conservatively rates the VTE-201S at 100 watts a side. While lacking measurement capabilities, I'd have to agree. This amp responded smoothly at all volume levels, and with several different speaker loads (Sound-Lab Dynastats, Platinum Audio Studio 1's and Martin-Logan CLS II's). It took the feed from the Audio Synthesis Passion passive pre-amp with as much aplomb as it did from the Audible Illusions L-1. All in all, the VTE seems to be exceedingly well engineered.
Get On With The Story, Morning Glory
After unpacking the VTE-201S, I let it warm up in the back room for 3-4 days, and then popped it in the main system for a weekend while I went out of town. After getting back I started the first of many long listening sessions with it. I quickly discovered that a week was not yet quite enough time for it to fully break in. After another week it seemed to finally settle in. For most of the first week it was a little dark on top and overly rich in the mids. Later on, I switched the Warner amp out for the McCormack several times and after replacing it found that it took a day to fully settle in. Since it did not run hot (even after some long and loud sessions) I'd recommend that it remain plugged in and powered up. On more set up tip, the Warner proved very sensitive to feet. I tried Ebony Pyramids (a touch too warm), Simply Physics ToneCones (nice but a little cold) and Michael Green AudioPoints (and the baby bear's porridge was just right!). When you look at a Warner, make sure it's coupled well.
Listen Folks And You'll Hear A Tale
The first and perhaps single most striking characteristic of the VTE-201S is how little it sounds like a solid state amp. The highs are relaxed, grain free and alive. In my system I've never heard cymbals sound so natural. Many solid state amps tend to make cymbals sound hashy, blurred and sharp. The Warner presented them with shimmer, detail, warmth and extension.
The second point about the Warner amp is how much it does the solid state amp thing right. I know this sounds confusing, since I just said it didn't sound like a solid stater, but what I mean is not that it sounds like a solid state amp, but that it successfully does those things that a solid state amp does well. Bass, to take only one facet, was deep and powerful. In some ways with the VTE-201S in place the system sounded as if a subwoofer had been added! Seriously, bass felt extended by at least an extra half octave. Best of all, the bass was as natural sounding as the treble. Relaxed, detailed, rich and powerful.
Soundstaging was another area of excellence for the VTE. Orchestral music, such as Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light was presented with excellent front to back layering, as well as with a superb lateral spread (I'm not much for classical vocal music, but this disc is simply superb. Susan Narucki's voice is stunning, and the music, while not complex, is interesting and well played). The harmonic accuracy of the Warner showed itself very well on this disc and added to the staging reality. With some amps, solid state ones particularly, an instrument may be located well, but also somewhat thin harmonically. This creates images that are translucent, allowing what ever is behind it to peek through. When listening to live music the harmonic density of instruments usually creates an opaque image. If another instrument is located behind the first, say a bass player behind the sax player, we hear around the sax, not through him. The harmonic power of the VTE re-created that impression, giving recorded music a closer to live feel.
The images cast by the Warner were also incredibly stable - Gibraltar like. On Joni Mitchell's new Hits and Misses discs the images remained so stable that when I would get and move around, until I reached the plane of the speakers, they would stay locked in place, never moving right to left or front to back. Emil attributes this image stability (and the amps harmonic accuracy) to the attention paid to phase angle through the amplifier design process. While I lack the necessary schooling to say if his reasoning is correct, I can say his result is stunning! By the way, these two discs are HDCD encoded and sound very good indeed, especially the earlier tracks. Detail is natural and abundant. Bass, when it's there, is deep, quick and powerful. The songs (especially the early stuff) sound very intimate, as they should.
Dynamics are good as well, especially macro swings. In this respect the VTE resembles its other solid state brothers. Abrupt swings are fast, percussive and detailed. The micro shadings lag slightly behind this amplifier's superb macro abilities. Where I noticed this most was when listening to piano trios, such as Keith Jarrett's Live at the Blue Note album. The big swings in the middle of "The Fire Within" (disc 4) kicked. When Keith builds his crescendo the notes took on a physicality that was very real and very appealing. However, the exceedingly subtle micro shadings that occupy the last 8 minutes of the song were slightly less detailed that what I have heard using my McCormack DNA 0.5 Deluxe. In all honesty, though, the timbral accuracy of Keith's piano, DeJohnette's drum kit and Peacock's double-bass were beyond reproach. And, in my personal pantheon of values, I'd take timbral accuracy over micro harmonics any day.
Speaking of timbral accuracy, the Warner was as accurate a performer as I have had in my room. Bass, as I mentioned, was deep, fast and detailed. The mids were rich, warm and accurate. Among other things oboe and clarinet were distinctly different and easy to pick out. The highs were the best I've ever heard through a solid state amp. Trumpet screams sounds exactly right, cymbals were so spot on that I was consistently fooled into looking for a real musician in my room. One instrument that seemed especially well served by the VTE-201S was guitar. Each string was audible, as was the body. Forcefully strummed guitar burst out the speakers with vibrancy and life. Gently played guitar was gloriously detailed.
Nit-Picking? Who'd want to pick a nit anyway?
Okay, so it's perfect, right? Well, like I said, not even the ultra buck ARC and Krell amps can lay a claim to that. So where does the VTE-201S fall short? Detail, while abundant, falls short of that the McCormack DNA-0.5 delivers (although this may be due to the relative dryness of the McCormack). And the overall presentation is on the dark side of absolute neutrality. Combined, these two nits can, at times, give the amp a slightly laid back and reserved character. That's it. To sum up the Warner's faults, and to (finally) tie back to the intro, the errors that are here are on the Portland side of things. Very slightly too lush, very slightly too warm. By the way, I hope you caught my qualifiers in that last sentence -- very slightly. The errors we are talking about fade to insignificance compared to the brilliance of the Warner's successes. Frankly, I'm surprised at the excellence of this amp. First, a relative newcomer has no right to get so much correct out of the chute. And second, this is a tremendous amount of amplifier for 2 grand. I feel kinda Scrooge-like to even pick the nits I did.
That's All Folks!
So, what do we have here? A solid state amp that has the harmonic accuracy of a tube amp, along with its treble and mid-range purity. And this without losing the ability to drive difficult loads, to deliver deep bass and to clearly delineate the soundstage. For $1995 this is a superb product.
One last subjective point. For me, the ultimate measure of a component's quality is how you feel about it when you take it out. On this score I've got to admit that that taking the VTE-201S out of the system caused me a great deal of loss. I was surprised at how much I missed it and how long that feeling of loss persisted. Even after several weeks I found that music lacked fullness, harmonic detail, pace and ease. I spent less time listening than normal, and when I did listen it was for shorter periods of time. All of which leads us to the ultimate reviewer cliché, it's not leaving. It really is that good.
|Warner Imaging VTE-201S
Price: $1995 USD
Warner Imaging Responds
Dear Editor -
I am honored and pleased that Todd Warnke gave Warner Imaging the opportunity to share his critcal assessment of one of the most advanced audio products availible to audiophiles. Just reading his review of the VTE series amplifiers pleased me because he spent the time to try to understand this new type of amplifier. The true pleasure I received is that finally I've found a well educated representative of the "new" generation, who with great interest, asked all the pertinent questions about the theories upon which this design hinges. Education is a good thing since it gives me a forum to describe the merits of listening to well recorded music through the VTE series of amps.
The design of this amp took 2 years. During that process we "bread-boarded" at least 4 different circuit topologies. Eventually we employed an identical "mirror-image" circuit in the +Vcc leg and the same circuit in the - Vcc leg. The "almost perfect" mirror imaging circuits work against each other, so non-linearities and power supply ripple are canceled. Without diving deep into theory, and contrary to the notions of the single-ended triode amp designers, this is one of the best ways to eliminate almost all non-linearities.
Our second most important design goal was to keep odd order harmonic distortion by-products to an absolute minimum. To this end we utilize magnetic wave coupling (using a sophisticated transformer), rather than the more common DC or capacitive coupling. With this technique odd order harmonics are suppressed into the noise floor. By the way, the human ear responds to odd order harmonics and interprets them as very fatiguing. Our design scheme reinforces the natural harmonic structure of music.
Thirdly, in order to recreate the spatial layout of instruments in a band or orchestra, one must pay enormous attention to the incoming and outgoing audio waveform's "phase relation," as well as the signals propagation delays. In other words, group delays are carefully controlled and keep to the absolute minimum. This way, when you close your eyes and listen to a vocalist, the sound comes from the center of the peakers. You probably have heard an audio system where the singers voice appears to come from the upper left or upper right, but not from dead center. Or worse yet, one where the voice wobbles from right to left as the vocal pitch changes. This is a good old fashioned phase problem at its' worst.
Fourth, we use negative feedback very very sparingly. A little bit of feedback doesn't hurt, in fact it helps smooth non-linearities, reduce distortion and improves transient response. But, if one decides to employ feedback correction techniques, one must very carefully select very fast acting transistors, or as we say in engineering, "high F sub T product (ft) silicon devices". This is because the feedback circuit detects the already amplified audio signal and feeds it back to the input for correction. If the already amplified signal does not get back real fast (in time) to the input, for example, the lips of a female singer will exaggerate the "s" sound. This may even stretch out the sound and in the process make for a "grainy" sound.
We strive very hard to bring all our products, such as the VTE series amplifier reviewed here, to the audiophile market with more simplistic (in terms of component count) layouts, and with new innovations. And we do this to reproduce music with greater accuracy and realism.
Well, I'm sure I have used up my allotted space for "manufacturer's comments." As new models come off the line I will happily forward them to SoundStage! for review, should you be interested in continuing the educational process. I sure learned from this get-together. Among those things I learned is that today's audiophiles are yearning for new and improved products, and that the express the desire that manufacturers explain in everyday language the principles of their designs.
Again, I would like to thank SoundStage! and Todd Warnke for the integrity of their equipment reviews. I am also grateful for the opportunity afforded me to give a few of my insights on good amplifier design. Oh, one final thing. In my opinion, anything that can be done with tubes, can be done as well or better with solid state.
P.S. Todd mentioned our 30 day home trial program. We encourage you to contact your local Warner Imaging dealer, but if you are not near a dealer we have two who will help you. You may contact either one.