State Of Play – Part Two

Attainable excellence with Wilson Audio, VTL and the VPI Avenger

By Roy Gregory

Ask any hi-fi magazine about buying a system and the first advice they’ll probably offer is some variation on the theme of “don’t just choose a set of ‘Best Buys’!” After all, that’s pretty much the point of system reviews like this; the opportunity to step beyond the single product review and place a set of carefully matched products in a system context. However, one of the great things about giving good advice is knowing when to ignore it – and this system is just such a case…

On paper, the Wilson Sasha DAW and the VTL S-200 Signature amplifier are both classic ‘Best Buys’. The latest iteration of the WATT/Puppy, the high-end’s longest running (and most successful) loudspeaker system, the DAW is also by far the best of that breed, representing a step-change in expressive performance over its already impressive predecessor, the Sasha 2. Not surprisingly it has received multiple ‘Class leader’ reviews, a status shared by the S-200. Like many a stereo chassis before it, the VTL amp proves to be the right size, the right power and the right price for many a domestic system. The Signature suffix indicates that it also includes VTL’s auto bias, fault-sensing and variable damping factor features, all of which contribute to a cost/performance standard that the competition struggles to match.

It might be called the Sasha DAW (in honour of David A. Wilson) but it’s still unmistakably a WATT/Puppy

But, although the Wilson/VTL pairing is a proven combination, if we look once again at the paper performance, the DAW/S-200 simply shouldn’t work. Dave Wilson always claimed that in any audio system it was the speakers that had the toughest time – and he wasn’t wrong – but that didn’t stop his designs taking a big stick to their driving amplifier(s). In the case of the Sasha 2, nothing short of the VTL MB-450 mono-blocs (twice the chassis, twice the power, twice the price of the S-200) did the trick. But that was then and this is now. The Sasha DAW offers a slight increase in efficiency over the earlier model and, much more importantly, a somewhat but significantly easier load. Seemingly trivial in numerical terms, combine those changes with the S-200s variable damping factor and they bring Wilson’s ever-present offering within the operating range of VTL’s high-value-high-end power amp, making the WATT/Puppy a far more practical, versatile and accessible solution. For a whole generation of audiophiles, Wilson’s compact four-box system was an unattainable dream. Well – it suddenly got a whole lot closer to reality!

VTL’s TL-5.5 preamplifier and S-200 power amp

Of course, while the amp/speaker junction is the most critical interface in any system, you still need a source and a volume control. VTL’s TL-7.5 and TL-6.5 line-stages have an enviable reputation for both performance and operational versatility, but such sonic and musical sophistication doesn’t come cheap. In line with our “things just got a whole lot more accessible” I wanted to look a little lower down the range (and price range). Enter then the TL-5.5 Series II Signature, a one-box pre-amp that might look like a slim-line version of the 6.5, but is actually a cat of quite a different colour. Where the 7.5 and 6.5 are hybrid designs, each built around a single pair of 12AU7 twin triodes, the TL-5.5 is an all-tube circuit with no fewer than six twin-triodes in its line-stage. I say “in its line-stage” because there’s also the option to specify a J-fet MC input, tube phono-stage, based on the highly regarded TP-2.5 standalone unit. In MC guise that adds another half-dozen (four for MM) glowing bottles to the mix – from which you can deduce that the 5.5 doesn’t just sound warm. MC loading can be selected from five, sensibly spaced values and gain set in 6dB steps between 54 and 66dB. The front panel layout uses the same elegant fascia, legible display and excellent control logic as the flagship designs and round the back you get two pairs of balanced/single-ended and six single-end only inputs and both balanced and single-ended outputs. There’s even a set of buffered tape outputs. Combined with comprehensive facilities, that makes for a genuinely full-function pre-amp – a pre-amp whose slim proportions also make it the most attractive of all VTLs products.