|The Vinyl Word
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Herron Audio VTPH-1 Phono Stage
by Kurt Morgan
I recently decided to buy a new electric bass guitar. Most of the guitars, drums and other percussion tools I own are "vintage" because Ive always had a soft spot for old, well-played instruments (my current bass is a 1966 Gibson EBO). This new bass, however, is thoroughly modern. With an on-board active preamp, active pickups, and a laser-cut contoured body, this instrument bears only a cursory resemblance to the simplicity of vintage basses. Our modern cultures trend towards multinational diversity is even evident in this bass. The woods used in its construction were harvested in Canada, the US and Africa (probably southeast Nigeria). Its constructed in Germany by luthiers whose level of precision makes the work of Mercedes-Benz look sloppy.
The resulting instrument does nothing to belittle the qualities of a 1957 Fender P bass, but it does offer tonal characteristics and flexibility quite different to vintage pieces. This bass can cut through a mix where older basses tend to get muddy. Playing solo, the sound has a deep and thick yet punchy bottom end with crystal-clear, silky highs. The active pickups and preamp make for dead-silent operation through a good amplifier. Its quite frightening to hear this thing erupt from the quiet stillness of a rehearsal studio. A fellow musician described it as "bone crushing." As the electronics broke in and all the physical adjustments fully settled, I heard an amazing array of tonal complexity from my new toy. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, but in the end, I am pleased with a truly world-class bass. Yet I know that no matter how well its recorded, there are very few individuals with playback systems capable of appreciating the subtle qualities this instrument is capable of producing.
All of this was on my mind as I replaced the Lehmann Black Cube phono stage, a favorite of mine, with the Herron VTPH-1.
A bit about the Herron
The Herron VTPH-1 is a pretty straightforward and extremely well-executed design: all tube, star grounded, and zero feedback. The RCA and ground connectors are gold plated, the AC cord is detachable, and there is a power-line-polarity switch on the back panel -- a nice touch. Cartridge loading is accomplished via resistors soldered to the input connectors, so there are no switch contacts to corrode over time. The tube complement is four 12AX7WA/Bs and one 12AT7WC. Herron Audio quotes the frequency response at 1Hz to beyond 100kHz (as reported by the bats!). Gain is 44dB for moving-magnet use, 66dB if set up for moving-coil cartridges. The output impedance is 500 ohms nominal (50k ohms or higher recommended load), and the input impedance is 47,000 ohms and 100pF (plus optional loading resistors). The VTPH-1's dimensions are 19"W x 3.5"H x 10"D, and its weight is 20 pounds.
We start with a Benz-Micro Ruby 2 cartridge in a Graham 2.0 tonearm mounted on a Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable. A highly modified Melos SHA Gold line stage, Art Audio Diavolo amp, and Marantz MA700 monoblocks were used along with the other phono stages in the studio: The Groove from the U.K. (review in the works) and the aforementioned Lehmann Black Cube. Speakers are Michael Green Design Chameleons and cabling is also from Michael Green, except for the phono cable, which is the new Hovland Music Groove 2 (no relation to The Groove phono stage). The music studio is served by dedicated 20- and 30-amp lines and acoustically tuned with Michael Greens Pressure Zone Controllers and Clampracks. A big Target stand filled with lead shot and armed with Townshend Seismic Sinks, lead bricks, pucks, cones, and feet of all sorts was also on hand.
The Herron sound
As good as the Lehmann Black Cube is, there was no denying that the Herron VTPH-1 revealed far more detail of the fundamental tones and harmonic structure of the instruments on a recording. More detail is easy if you simply design a component to focus on the upper part of the frequency spectrum, but the Herron phono stage revealed more across the full range of the musical message. It made sense of the harmonic complexity that occurs when multiple instruments are recorded in the same room. Think of massed strings or the powerful crescendos of a rock band. The VTPH-1 allowed me to hear the character of each instrument contributing to the whole. Comparatively, the Lehmann Black Cube masked these details. This difference was quite striking and immediately apparent.
Of course, detail retrieval and microdynamics are only part of the picture. If a component is not musical, if it doesnt draw you in, if the music doesnt move along with aplomb, it hardly matters that you can hear the subtle details. Being able to hear how recently the guitarist changed his strings is no substitute for losing yourself in the music. When I first connected the VTPH-1, my first impression led me to fear that this was an attention-grabbing product that sacrificed music for hi-fi. I thought more about the sound and less about the music. So to be fair, I let the unit warm up for a while.
Well, all right now. Thats much better. After a day of warming up, the VTPH-1 fell into place. With gobs of insight into the musical message and a presentation that was downright fun, the Herron phono stage proved to be not only a superb tool for understanding the sonics of the original recording, but a thoroughly musical device. The VTPH-1 is just one of those components that strikes a great balance between the sound and the music.
Put on David Sylvian's Secrets of the Beehive [Virgin V2471] and listen to "The Boy with the Gun" -- how the swirling synthesizer sounds mesh within the arrangement. The Herron VTPH-1 did an amazing job of revealing the detail of these modern instruments. Their tone, color and subtle pitch variations were brought to life to play the role they were meant to within the song. The tendency for lesser phono stages is to mask the detail, making the synths on this track sound more like sheets of white noise than instruments. The VTPH-1 is a supreme retriever of the detail.
Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light til Dawn [Blue Note F671007] is a sultry album that demonstrated two wonderful traits of the VTPH-1. First, you hear acoustic instruments in a closely miked studio setting with all the in-your-face realism one hears, well, in the studio! Listen to the opening cut, "You Dont Know What Love Is," and if you can keep from dreaming about Cassandras luscious lips (and other fine attributes), you should hear Brandon Ross guitar come in with scary realism. You should also hear that the guitar is not tuned to standard 440Hz (concert pitch), giving it a very different harmonic structure. Through the Herron VTPH-1, I heard this immediately. The second point that this entire album demonstrates is the Herrons ability to take the sonic picture out of the box. Most phono stages present the music with somewhat defined sonic parameters -- or a frame, if you will. Even if the music is wonderfully presented, its often still contained. What Im describing is not soundstaging but the VTPH-1s ability to dissolve sonic boundaries, letting the music expand naturally.
Speaking of soundstaging and imaging, you get what I would call a balanced visual of the music through the Herron: not too etched or laser-sharp, not ill defined. The soundstage is wide, very wide in fact, but without having the sense of out-of-phase trickery. The images are solid and three-dimensional without sounding detached or fake. Take Telarcs Omnidisc demo/test disc [Telarc DG-10073/74] as well as several of the "Japanese jazz" records on Three Blind Mice label. These albums include a sketch identifying the positions of the instruments and microphones at the recording session. The "sonic visual" of what I heard perfectly matched what the microphones saw with the previously mentioned balance in presentation.
I suspect many of you have Patricia Barbers Modern Cool [Premonition Records PREM 741-1]. While many consider this an audiophile classic, most also believe that in the mix-down/mastering process, the engineer was a bit heavy-handed with the low frequencies (probably an EQ miscalculation). Michael Arnopols bass tends to sound overwhelming and bloated on this record, especially on the opening track, "Light My Fire." Does the Herron VTPH-1 fix this problem? Of course not! As with most high-end products, you get what was recorded, good or bad. However, what the Herron did do was present the music with a better balance of impact across the entire frequency range. With my Black Cube and several other phono stages Ive tried, the bass on this cut seemed more out of proportion in that the midrange, and the upper frequencies were also overcome by the bass, which can be very distracting. Through the Herron, the mids and highs were more secure, more powerful, which meant that the heavy bass did not interfere with the musical message -- at least not nearly as much.
I believe one of the most important aspects of a good playback system is its ability to make sense of the music played through it. I want a hi-fi that will give me insight into the composers intentions and maybe even a glimpse into the inspiration of the musicians, something I often hear when playing live. "Making sense" of recorded music, particularly complex music, is the most difficult thing for a hi-fi rig to pull off. Its not easy for, say, complex experimental jazz to sound right when recorded. With so much going on, it can be very difficult to sort everything out (its sure difficult for the musicians and the recording engineer). And yes, its difficult to build equipment that can play back this music with the same clarity that was captured in the studio. One such record that made me really like the Herron VTPH-1 was Wayne Shorters SuperNova [Blue Note BST 84332]. Check out the cut "Dindi" and all its complexities. The VTPH-1 was able to present this piece with all the subtle rhythmic interplay in place. Even at its most complex moments, the music remained focused and understandable. Its easy for a component to get lost with music like this. It was nice to have the Herron VTPH-1 as my guide.
A little tweaking
So can the sound of the VTPH-1 be improved? Perhaps, but first you should understand that the Herron is a world-class phono stage as it is. The entirely positive music I heard through the Herron and described above was with the unit on a standard rack shelf with the supplied feet and standard A/C cord. However, tweaking is something I enjoy, so squeezing the most out of the VTPH-1 proved fun and fruitful, as it is quite sensitive to such changes. Comparatively, many of the other phono stages Ive had the studio revealed less of a change when various tweaks were applied.
Without going into great detail, here are the basic tweaks I undertook. I tried: two types of racks -- a very heavy, lead-filled Target stand and an ultra-light Michael Green Design Clamprack; numerous footers, including cones, pucks, marbles, wood blocks, and various rubber-like jobbies; different AC cords, including those utilizing copper as well as silver in PTFE; Seismic Sinks with varying amounts of lead weights; and phono interconnects from XLO, Cardas, and Hovland.
Although each tweak had its pros and cons, in my system, a light clamping in the MGD Clamprack and use of brass cones revealed by far the best sound. Most notably, the frequency spectrum was seemingly extended without muddying the bottom end or brightening the top. In fact, every aspect of the musical message, from subtle nuances that reveal the mood, attitude and intentions of the musicians and composers, to the weenie, audiophile characteristics we all love, were superbly presented with the Herron VTPH-1 in the Clamprack. Of course, your results will vary -- because you dont have my system, my room, or my ears!
Its lonely at the top
Comparing the Herron VTPH-1 to the Lehmann Black Cube didnt seem fair. Its just not in the same league, especially in terms of price. For a comparable-sounding phono stage, I could only rely on my memory of the Art Audio Vinyl One. I raved about the Vinyl One, and I miss it! Although a direct comparison was not to be, I recall obtaining similar results with the Art Audio phono stage as I did with the Herron. Both are killer units. While Im unable to declare a winner in my system, the Art Audio may be better suited to a Clamprack as it is lighter and more simply designed compared to the Herron. I also really liked the Art Audios built-in volume control, allowing direct connection to the power amp. If you have a vinyl-only system, the Vinyl One may be best for you. If, like most folks, you utilize a linestage, you should probably try both units in your system, regardless of what tweaking you undertake.
The only potential downside I have to report is going to be a consequence of any high-resolution, star-grounded component. Such pieces are going to be sensitive to noise. If youve got a grounding problem (as I had with my old phono cable before I purchased the Hovland cable), the Herron VTPH-1 will reveal it directly. But if everything in your system is in good order and the other components are of high quality, you should have no problems. The well-traveled review sample performed flawlessly.
The Herron VTPH-1 is a great phono stage -- definitely world-class. It just draws you into and makes sense of -- what else? -- the music. If youre a tweaker, the Herron will respond to your efforts. If you cant be bothered with such compulsive behavior, the Herron VTPH-1 sounds wonderful straight out of the box. Simply put, if youre in the market for a state-of-the-art phono stage, you must give the Herron VTPH-1 a listen.
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