August 15, 2008
Herron Audio VTPH-2 Phono Stage
One reason to enjoy the wonderful paintings of the French primitivist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) is for how they present a world as if one were suddenly just given the gift of sight. There are boldnesses of outline, saturations of color, and a magical quality in which each flower and leaf in the painted landscape stands out from every other thing as one gazes at the whole, though they make of their imagistic collective a grand gestalt of details deepening into splendor. Rousseau painted numerous fanciful jungle scenes -- dream tableaux of a lion nuzzling a sleeping traveler in the desert, a dusky flutist charming a boa amid surroundings of Jurassic foliage, a Parisian woman in her Sunday dress strolling through a Hawaii-like rainforest of exotic plants. Though we may have seen such in a flower shop, never are their colors or phantasmagoric auras so sensual as when we see them depicted and placed as elements in a landscape by Rousseau.
I think of the best analog listening in this same way: When I hear a musical passage, it can be as if for the first time, my previous experience of listening to that passage first renewed, then suddenly displaced by a recurrence that makes my memory of having heard it before evanesce as the more beautiful notes of this present listening trail out over the air, striking new chromatic registers. The harmonies are deeper and more complex each time, and the melodies are as new footprints on a beach that, just a moment before, had been washed smooth by a wave.
Such was my experience of the new VTPH-2 phono stage from Herron Audio ($3650 USD). At the end of nearly three months with it, when I put on Claudio Arraus recording of Beethovens Piano Concerto No.5, the "Emperor" (Philips 6570 086) -- an LP Id heard dozens of times before through another system -- it was as if I were hearing it anew. Sonic colors, the lush harmonies of the orchestra, the attack and decay transients of the piano and its deep, tonal resonances -- all were presented in fresh profusion. Bass notes and their warmth through the frequencies rose up as though they were the volcanic breath of the planet.
"I was looking for sound that isnt there, though," said designer Keith Herron. "I didnt want coloration from my electronics, dont want my audio equipment to change the essential character of the music, so my responsibility is to tune the sound out of the circuit so as to leave the music unscathed." Herrons philosophy is that audio gear should stand down, so that it is the music we dream about as we slumber in our deserts of sleep.
But what does this mean, exactly -- to get sound out of the circuit instead of into it? To listen for a sound that isnt there? And how does it result in such audio extravagance as Ive described above?
Herron Audio came into being in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1995, as the idea of its president and chief designer. Keith Herron had already been working for several years in electronics, designing industrial power and control systems. But hed also been an audiophile and amateur musician since the age of four, tinkering with audio equipment, and studying piano and drums. Hed sketched out circuits in his head since high school, and, once out of college, made hi-fi his principal hobby. By 1997, he was selling the VTPH-1, a tubed phono stage, carrying it around under his arm at hi-fi shows because he hadnt rented a display room. His main design principle was that nothing be added to or taken away from the musical recording by the reproducing equipment, and his first phono stage was a meticulous execution of that basic tenet. The mainstream audio press took notice, and the VTPH-1 began showing up in quite a few of their reviewers systems.
The VTPH-1 was followed in 1998 by the VTSP-1 tubed line stage, and in 2000 by the M-150 monoblock amplifier (all three models have since been discontinued). In 2003, after some R&D he calls "accidental," Herron embraced a new look for his line stage, and needed a phono stage to go with it. These were the VTSP-2 tubed line stage ($4995), the HL-1 solid-state line stage ($3495), and the VTPH-2 tubed phono stage. He also produces the M1, a 150W solid-state monoblock amplifier ($6850/per pair), introduced in 2004. Finally, at T.H.E. Show in January 2008, Herron introduced the VTSP-3 tubed line stage ($6550).
The sound of no sound
Whereas Keith Herron designed separate versions of the VTPH-1 for moving-magnet and moving-coil phono cartridges, the VTPH-2 combines MM and MC capabilities in a single chassis. Herron incorporated a new FET in the first gain stage of his MC design, however, which entailed new circuits -- "a whole new front-end," he said. In general, Herron finds FETs to be very linear, acting like little triode tubes that way, but also -- and this is key -- they generate little noise. "Tubes dont get that quiet," he said; "or, to get that reasonably quiet, you have to run them with too much current, which shortens life." He buys FETs from several lots in order to find ones that will work, then hand-matches them -- just like tubes.
The VTPH-2 has, essentially, two gain sections: a FET front-end used only by the MC circuits, and tubed gain stages used by both the MC and MM sections. "But theres also a passive RIAA section that constitutes an equalization stage between the tube stages," Herron said. He came up with the idea a dozen years ago, but then it was a matter of designing a circuit and finding good parts for it. He goes through thousands of capacitors for his phono stages, using perhaps two out of every hundred to get the RIAA equalization precisely right. For the tube gain stages, Herron looked for suppliers that could provide tubes in decent quantities, then printed out several hundred pages worth of tube layouts in order to document the comparisons of different tube combinations and circuits. Only then did he decide on which tube complements to use.
The VTPH-2 has two basic complements of five tubes each, meaning that the model is produced in two versions. The 69dB version uses four Ei 12AX7 and one Ei 12AT7 output tube, and the 64dB version uses two Svetlana 12AX7s, two Electro-Harmonix 12AT7s, and one Ei AT7 as the output. (My review sample was the 64dB variety.) This is why Herron doesnt recommend tube-rolling for his gear: he chose his stock tube types to work together to create the exact sonic balance and quality of transparency hes looking for -- "the sound of no sound," as it were.
Looks and operation
The VTPH-2 is a low-profile, basic black box (17.6"W x 4"H x 10"D) of anodized aluminum with perforated top and sides, and weighs a slight 16 pounds. The plain, flat faceplate (available in brushed silver or black) is decorated with a Herron logo at the upper left; at the upper right are three blue, circular LEDs indicating the status of Power, Voltage, and Output. On startup, the first LED to fire up is Power. After a few seconds, the Voltage LED gradually brightens as the voltage to the filaments of the gain-stage tubes is slowly increased. Its a soft start -- Herron is fanatical about high voltages coming up slowly enough that the tubes cathodes dont suffer. In fact, there are five voltage regulators for each channel: one for the tube bias supply, and another four for the FET. When the VTPH-2 is ready to operate, the Output LED illuminates and Auto Mute disengages; only then is the source signal passed along to the line stage.
As the VTPH-2s useful, 12-page manual tells you, this entire process can take a minute or longer, depending on how long the VTPH-2 has been off -- its 56 capacitors can store a heap of energy. The Output LED will flash on and off whenever you switch from MM to MC or vice versa, indicating that the VTPH-2 has been muted to protect your speakers during the 15-second mode change. Mute also engages whenever the power cuts out, further protecting speakers from brief outages.
The rear panel is neatly laid out: a Power switch at the upper left, next to it an AC polarity switch, below that the IEC power jack, then vertical pairs of RCA output jacks (the Herron is exclusively single-ended) and RCA MM inputs. To the left of center is the MM/MC mode switch, then two more vertical pairs of RCA jacks for the MC loading plugs and MC input plugs. Farthest to the right is a ground pin.
The polarity switch should be operated only with the input selector switch of your linestage turned to an unused position. By flipping between the A and B polarity positions on the phono, you can find out which gives you the better sound.
The cartridge plugs come in pairs -- my sample came with two sets, in values of 47k ohms and 100 ohms. The VTPH-2 is delivered with no load resistors installed; Herron recommends that it be run wide open for the first 100 hours or so. After doing that, I tried both sets of loading plugs and found the 100-ohm value to be best for my Shelter 501 Mk.II cartridge and for many of my recordings, especially those saturated with upper-mid and high frequencies, such as choral music, or orchestral music with massed strings. The 47k ohm plugs had little effect, though they didnt seem to harm anything either. In general, jazz and pop seemed to need the 100-ohm plugs to tame the highs so they didnt sound overdriven, but classical LPs could sound good run wide open or with the 100-ohm plugs, depending on the recording. Herron will send you a set of 47k ohm plugs, or a set based on the recommendations of your cartridges manufacturer.
Finally, I found it important to dress the phono cables, keeping them away from any equipment that generated alternating magnetic fields: my turntables motor, my CD players power supply, the VTPH-2s own power supply. Otherwise, my partially shielded Nottingham phono cables would pick up a slight hum. Once Id found a good position, I taped the cables down to the top shelf of my audio rack and essentially banished hum from the system.
I installed the VTPH-2 on the second shelf of my five-tier Finite Elemente Pagode Signature audio rack, below my Nottingham Spacedeck turntable (with heavy kit), and above a Cary Audio Design 303/300 CD player. The Herron was a handsome newcomer, adding its clean and Spartan looks to a stack of mostly black equipment. My line stage was the deHavilland Mercury (on loan, with custom-installed Audience 600V Teflon 2.2uF Auri-T capacitors), my reference phono stage an EAR 834P, my cartridge a Shelter 501 Mk.II (0.4mV output), my tonearm the Nottingham Spacearm with Pete Riggle VTAF, and my power amp the Air Tight ATM-2 stereo amp (80W ultralinear). Cables were a mix of Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval, Verbatim, and Atlas Questor. I use 12 Verbatim copper-foil speaker cables and a mix of AC cords: Fusion Audios Venom and Predator, the Cardas Golden Reference, and Harmonix xDC Studio Master. Tweaks were three Finite Elemente Ceraballs under the CD player, a Townsend Seismic Sink under the Nottingham table, and a Harmonics Resolution record clamp. A Thor TA-1000 Mk.II line stage also spent some time in the system, mostly in the first 100 hours of listening to the Herron VTPH-2. Speakers were a pair of Sonus Faber Grand Piano Homes (90dB/6 ohms). My fairly small (14L x 12W x 8.5H) listening room is lined with bookshelves on opposite walls on both sides of the speakers, its other flat surfaces treated lightly with sound panels from Acoustic Sciences Corporation.
The Herron VTPH-2 arrived having already been burned in for 48 hours. After Id run it in for the recommended additional 100 hours, its sound noticeably improved. Throughout the review period, its operation was completely trouble-free -- no pops or clicks on startup. It sounded best after about 40 minutes of warmup.
Listening to the sound of no sound
At the height of the now much-maligned jazz-fusion movement of the 1970s, two "supergroups" were at the top of the heap: Weather Report, led by Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, veterans, respectively, of the Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley quintets; and Return to Forever, led by keyboardist Chick Corea, a veteran of the group Davis had assembled (and which also included Shorter and Zawinul) for Bitches Brew, the 1969 landmark album that broke fusion jazz/rock into the mainstream. Corea made five albums with various lineups of side musicians before he came up with the group that sealed his reputation: classically trained funk bassist Stanley Clarke, acoustic and electronic drummer Lenny White, and flamenco refugee and jazz-conservatory-trained guitarist Al DiMeola. Romantic Warrior (Columbia PC 34076), released in 1976, pretty much set the standard for this music.
Id been saving Romantic Warrior for the moment when I thought the Herron was as far along as I could take it -- about the 200-hour mark. I thought it would be interesting to try to hear how fast, well-timed, and tonally and rhythmically coherent the VTPH-2 sounded with such technically precise electronic music. From the start of the first track, "Medieval Overture," as Clarkes propulsive bass line launched the entire ensemble forward into the score, it was as fully articulate and chest-thumping a slap bass as Ive heard -- a combination of Funkadelics and the aforementioned Bitches Brew. And pace, rhythm, and timing like hell with Whites soft-thumping kick drum, splash cymbal strokes, and rapid passes on the floor toms. Further into the piece, Coreas Mini-Moog ostinato was a revelation of what good audio equipment can do, as notes whirled from channel to channel as if on a carousel, his arpeggios as liquid as guitar runs. And after DiMeolas guitar stated the major theme, backed by Clarkes precise, contrapuntal bass, both flew off into dueling solos -- the notes rippling through my listening room like the animation in The Sorcerers Apprentice segment of Disneys Fantasia. After they dropped away, Whites drum solo was full of depth, multiple surface strike tones, and just plain, raw speed.
About two-thirds into the track, a deep, painterly, unfretted moan rises from Clarkes special Alembic bass (equipped with instant flanger) -- a dark, shadowlike presence that flickers through the musics current like a Balrogs malicious roar. Through the Herron VTPH-2 it was at first almost subsonic, then rose swiftly from the infernal depths to create an immense backdrop for the entire soundstage. These electric-bass notes are subtle, refined, almost light in character in comparison with those of a plucked or bowed string bass, but sublime and a touch dreadful for their immensity across the soundstage. In general, the imaging was like that of a concert in a club -- instruments outsized for their amplifiers, but tight, well balanced, and precisely placed in relation to each other. To me, this is electronic chamber music, vigorously played, both anagoge and forerunner to the Kronos Quartet playing acid rock on classical instruments. The Herron VTPH-2 was up to every bit of it, on time all the time, generous in its tonal presentation without being overripe or fat, rapid with entries and exits, as precise as Coreas New Age compositions themselves.
Next, I played Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Buhainas Delight (Blue Note 84010). Blakey is known for his explosive drumming and the merciless, hard-bop speed of his beats. On "Bus Delight," the last cut on side 1, his solo had all the percussive events -- tone, depth, timing -- in order, from stick hitting skin in the rattle of a snare and the soft, thrashing attack of a clapping hi-hat, to the sustained shimmer of a ride cymbal lightly tom-tommed. Blakeys intense control of dynamics came through in how he pressured the skin with his sticks, first soft then heavy, a sustained legato on the snare, then letting loose with polyrhythms on the toms, bass drum, and crash cymbal. When the band came back in for a wondrously harmonic chorus of crescendos from Wayne Shorters tenor sax and Freddie Hubbards trumpet, I felt Id heard the full range of finesse, power, and dynamics that a small combo could produce. It was muscular.
To test the accuracy of the VTPH-2s representation of the full range of frequencies, more complex textures, and even subtler dynamics, I chose an orchestral work and listened for midrange, bass, sustained and complex harmonies, and overall coherence. Rimsky-Korsakovs Scheherazade, as performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta (London CS 6950), is a bold, late-Romantic orchestral piece featuring thrilling rhythms, great pitching swings of dynamic scale, and both staccato and languorous fanfares. In the first movement the strings were open, sweet, and sweeping, with a fine warmth that never lapsed into dryness or went overboard into an ultralush or glossy presentation that might blur the distinguishable performances of the individual sections. As the theme traversed through the entire orchestra, full of forte double basses and thunderous brass, Scheherazades seemingly gentle theme (introduced by a solo violin) swelled with all the grandeur, scale, and amplitude one could want in the performance of a symphonic score. Throughout, there was great depth and layering to the soundstage. The fanfares and crescendos of the full orchestra were particularly glorious, the rich tonalities of the brass never distorting into glare or sounding bleached; nor did the instruments playing fff ever collapse into a hash of confused sound. Instead, the VTPH-2 presented all orchestral sections in their proper lairs and demesnes. The Herron maintained musical coherence and demonstrated immense fortitude. If there is such a thing as Heavy Classical, this tour de force of musical Orientalism might be it, and the Herron phono lifted all of its sultanic weight.
To test an audio components liquidity and refinement in the upper mids and treble, and to closely examine its inherent sweetness and ability to render minute modulations of pitch, vibrato, and tremolo, theres nothing more challenging than LPs of performances by operatic sopranos. Yet listening to such recordings through the Herron was like being hung on a cross of delighted pleasure. Id grown dissatisfied with the inability of my reference phono stage, the EAR 834P, to "track" a given voice through all of its registers, hearing a bad and bleachy "patch" around 5kHz -- a touch of the "shriek" of operatic singers made notorious by the poor recording and playback equipment of earlier eras. I suffered through months of trying to make it work, but eventually just gave up, consigning my collection of divas -- Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathleen Battle, Renata Tebaldi, Monserrat Caballé, Anna Moffo -- to exile behind the closed doors of a storage cabinet on the far side of my listening room.
But once Id heard what the VTPH-2 could do, they all paraded back out. Mozart Arias -- Anna Moffo accompanied by Aleceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Seraphim S-60110) -- sounded sweet, delicate, and gorgeous. "Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!," from Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart (EMI/Angel DS-38297), showed off the refined control of Battles lyric soprano. With the EAR 834P, there was always such an element of glare that I could never clearly hear what Battles voice actually sounded like. Via the Herron VTPH-2, Battle sounded sweet and tremulous, with a decidedly refined, gentle tone. Every pitch was right, and the timing was such that I could track every tremolo and glissando through all the liquidity and vibrancy of her voice. There was no bite, etch, or shriek. The Allelulia of "Exsultate, Jubilate," a Mozart motet, went on and on, full of her exquisite trilling in light vocal cascades.
Finally, I put on an old favorite from 1969: Bob Dylans Nashville Skyline (Columbia KCS 9825). Though Id heard various cuts from this justifiably famous LP scores of times on the radio, in dorm rooms at college, and perhaps once or twice on CD somewhere, until recently Id never owned a copy. For this review, I thought it would be fun to have an original LP, and a vinyl-hound friend found me one at a local thrift store. When I put it on the system, I found every tune punchy and toe-tapping, with sparkling, chicken-pickin fills on Fender Telecaster, and that somewhat hollow, somewhat mellow, pre-spooky Dylan voice that was his own, inimitable imitation of a country croon. The Nashville cats playing on this album were spectacular in a funky, down-home country way.
The albums final track, "Tonight Ill Be Staying Here with You," is Dylans guileless culmination of all this aw-shucks virtuosity, a symphonic country pièce de résistance: Pete Drakes pedal steel sang like a full section of oceanic strings, Bob Wilson played his honky-tonk piano like a section of effervescent woodwinds, and Charlie McCoys flat-picking on Telecaster added the capstone of violin-like cadenzas. Dylans voice filled my room with overtones like a big, sleek transcontinental train sweeping through a country tunnel, Kenny Buttrey drumming a light march rhythm behind it all. Though quick as a hummingbird, the Herron nonetheless captured a tone from the LP that was as big and fat as a California Cabernet -- or raindrops in a tropical forest. It was totally satisfying, and, as with the superb singing of Kathleen Battle, the mighty orchestral strings of the L.A. Philharmonic, and Claudio Arraus exquisitely ringing piano, I forgot about the equipment and leaned up into the music like a beast slouching toward Bethlehem.
Comparison and conclusion
My EAR 834P ($2195, deluxe chrome version) is about two-thirds the price of the Herron VTPH-2 ($3650). Like the Herron, the EAR is all single-ended and switchable from MM to MC, although it addresses that function differently, using a 10:1 step-up transformer for MC mode. The EARs gain stage goes through two 12AX7 tubes and a 12AU7 for the output, and the available voltage gain is 53dB for the MM inputs, 70dB for MC (roughly comparable to the Herrons 64dB MC gain). While the EAR offers no provision for custom cartridge loading (its impedance is set at 47k ohms), Ive sometimes used a DIY external resistor box with it, adjusting the loading as I like. And the EAR is very tidy, measuring only 5"W x 3.5"H x 9"D and, at 8 pounds, weighing only half what the Herron does.
The EAR 843P is much more than the little engine that could, however, offering a generally sweet, midrange-weighted presentation of the recording that was a tad more tubey and bloomy than the Herrons -- which was almost dead-neutral by comparison. With large-scale orchestral recordings, however, orchestras sounded leaner and more recessed via the EAR -- I was at least a dozen rows farther back than where the Herron sat me. Complex, dynamic orchestral passages tended to sound a tad congested, losing inner detail -- smearing the violins, for example -- and presenting a more compressed soundstage with much less bass and slam. For jazz and pop, though, I thought the EAR might be more enjoyable for some; its overall tone sounded smoother than the Herrons. In general, the EAR 834P sounded darker and gauzier than the VTPH-2 -- much more Impressionistic, if you will -- but still very enjoyable. The differences were the Herrons superior refinement, timbral clarity, raw power, and drive.
The Herron VTPH-2 offers a far more evenhanded presentation of the music -- a more complete sonic picture throughout the audioband, without the etch or time smearing that translate into haze or glare. I found it an electronic instrument of serious power and finesse that could keep up with the most dynamically challenging and complex music. And for all its transparency relative to the EAR 834P, the VTPH-2 nevertheless produced a more robust, more dynamic, more tonally saturated signal that made my experience of listening to music more complete and satisfying. The Herron increased the number of my LPs that I could listen to, particularly restoring to rotation discs of operatic sopranos, dynamic symphonic recordings, and piano music. As a maestro, the VTPH-2 has a much larger repertoire, is sharper and more definite with cues and silences, and doesnt gloss over musical details. If you can spend the extra $1455 for the Herron, its the clear choice over the doughty EAR 834P.
The Herron VTPH-2 has returned to my analog listening a primitive passion. I place an LP on the turntable, drop the needle in the groove, and sit back as a gentle Rousseauvian jaguar pads soundlessly out of the dark woods of my discontent, bringing to me its sublime kiss amid a bountiful dreamscape full of the most glorious things in music.
. . . Garrett Hongo
Herron Audio VTPH-2 Phono Stage
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