VTL S-200 Signature Stereo Amplifier

Vacuum-Tube Chameleon

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers
VTL S-200
VTL S-200 Signature Stereo Amplifier

For a while I was convinced that the triode setting (which cuts the amp’s output power in half, to 100Wpc) was my cup of vacuum-tube tea—more ethereal, breathy, warmly seductive, and deeper of soundstage. Especially with something like Parsifal—where the initial rise of the string sections was laid out with a remarkable sense of harmony, layered depth, and a rainbow of string colors—or, say, Jeff Buckley’s famous cover of “Hallelujah,” from Live at Sin-é [Columbia/Legacy LP], where the delicacy of his guitar work and breathiness of his vocals were mighty seductive indeed. (And was this Buckley fan delighted to finally get a fine vinyl limited edition of this set, released especially for this year’s Record Store Day.)

But the more I listened, the more I realized that in most cases a brief seduction is less the real deal than what I believe is a more “accurate” take on the recording.

For example, on Gerhard’s exceptional-sounding Astrological Series: Libra, Gemini, Leo [Decca], the S-200 in triode operation caused the lightning-strike percussive acoustic guitar strums and violin trills to initially sound more expressive, but the remarkable staging effects of this recording weren’t anywhere near as precisely defined as they should have been, and the speed, dynamic snap, and high frequencies were noticeably shorn off, resulting in a relatively dull rendition of this otherwise edge-of-your-seat performance.

In tetrode mode, not only was the music a thrill from the get-go—that magical sense of instruments being played in real space (the absolute sound, after all)—surrounded by halos of air, with split-second interplay between the musicians, but the performance was now rendered as musically riveting throughout.

Likewise, listening to Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Though one could argue that the vocals and guitar picking were more subtly expressive in triode mode; at the end of the day Buckley’s voice also came across as a bit softer (hooded), and the tetrode setting lent keener presence to his vocals and the room’s ambience, and again delivered greater musical involvement and excitement.

I should point out that, though it’s a vacuum tube design, the S-200, in the tetrode mode, does not belong to the overtly warm or “sweet”sounding tube camp. Rather, I think that Manley’s goal of “natural” sound applies very well, because in this operation the S-200 never sounds like it’s imposing its own stamp on a recording but instead allowing it to be heard, warts and all.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t warts, we simply want beauty. For instance, as much as I adore the Karajan/Janowitz performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs [DG] it is a bright recording, and came across as notably harsh-sounding in tetrode, whereas the triode option transformed it into something much more beautiful, ecstatic, and sensual, with soaring high vocal notes and a lovely orchestral presentation. 

 In tetrode the S-200 can rock, too. From Hendrix’s 1967 rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Reprise’s original issue of Jimi Plays Monterey (with Otis Redding on the flip side), where the amp never flinched and held rock-steady (pun intended) with tremendous overall drive, snap to Mitch Mitchell’s Premier drum kit, and the crunching distortion of Hendrix’s Strat/Marshall stack rig, to Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball [Nonesuch LP], where another Dylan cover—“Every Grain of Sand”—was simply glorious, as if being sung by an angel. Harris’ heartfelt yet driving take on the song was rendered with a huge soundstage, percussive wallop, fat yet punchy acoustic guitars, and notable detail to Harris’ and Neil Young’s harmony vocals.

After many hours of back-and-forth listening comparisons, I decided to (mostly) leave the S-200 in tetrode operation. But, as you see, it’s a fine thing that VTL gives listeners this option either to assess which we prefer—again, your system will certainly have its own effect on your choice—and/or which moods we may opt for.

Even though my general recommendation would be triode for chamber music and small jazz ensembles (or hard/bright recordings), for a better depth of soundstage; and tetrode for large-scale, wider-dynamic, and wider-range discs that are well recorded—we often won’t know until we sample both.

One interesting example was my well-worn copy of Milstein playing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin [DG]. Here, although I thought I would prefer triode operation, Milstein’s fiddle came across as muffled and rhythmically plodding, less immediate and immersive. Whereas in tetrode there was far more upper-end air, a keener sense of bow on strings, lilt and momentum to his playing, and a conveyance of the instrument’s whiskey-warm sound.

Beyond its outstanding sound and sonic flexibility, I’m highly taken by this amp because it does what I firmly believe is the most important thing our gear should do, which is to present music as a cohesive and engaging whole. Or, to borrow from the German—gesamtkunstwerk, a total, all-embracing work of art.

Specs & Pricing

Power output: 200Wpc into 5 ohms (tetrode); 100Wpc into 5 ohms (triode)
Number and type of inputs: One pair single-ended RCA; one pair balanced XLR
Tube complement: 8x 6550 or KT88, 2x 12AT7, 2x 12BH7
Dimensions: 18.5" x 9" x 18"
Weight: 105 lbs.
Price: $12,500

4774 Murrieta Street
Unit 10
Chino, CA 91710
(909) 627-5944

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Oppo UDP-205 disc player
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Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers
Nordost Tyr 2 interconnect, speaker, and power cables
Nordost Qx4