State Of Play – Part Two

Looking at the particular parts in question it’s hard not to reach certain assumptions about this system. The WATT/Puppies have a well-entrenched reputation for boisterous dynamics – a reputation they share with the big VPI record players. Throw in 200 generous Watts of tube power and the phrase “Party Time!” seems to miraculously infiltrate your thought processes. In one sense at least, you’d be right. This system goes loud, goes loud gracefully and goes loud with a seriously satisfying thud when required. Dance tracks or high octane rock, new wave thrash or the controlled aggression of Ian Dury and the Blockheads – you will not be disappointed. The Wilsons (pretty much regardless of model) have always done scale and dynamic impact better than other speakers the same size and this is a system that’s well equipped to demonstrate that fact. But while, with a set-up this potent it’s tempting – awfully tempting – to reach straight for the loud setting and leave it there, even playing one big production after another makes you realise that there’s a lot more here than just loud – and it’s making that loud a lot more effective. To really understand the what and the why of this system, you really need to look at the other end of the spectrum and appreciate how its established constituent parts have all, individually evolved.

It’s when you look at the back of the TL-5.5 that you realise what “full-facilities” really means…

Suzanne Vega’s recent live album, An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories (Cooking Vinyl COOKLP763) sees the singer playing a small club concert with an intimate atmosphere, backed by guitar, keys and upright bass. It perfectly catches the personal, communicative nature of Vega’s songs. Played on this system, her crystal clear vocals are unmistakable, as are the fractured, dotted rhythms and halting vocals on songs like ‘Pornographer’s Dream’ and ‘Freeze Tag’. The way it articulates and brings a fluid grace to those angular moments communicates her personality as clearly as it underlines the sentiment in what are deeply personal songs. But what’s really impressive is the sense of presence. It’s not just that Vega’s vocal is stable and separate, perfectly scaled and generated by a real, three-dimensional body, it’s the overall sense of space – the space between the players, the acoustic as a whole – the way it allows the audience noise and applause to reach forward from the soundstage, inviting you in.

That intimacy is built on expressive range, from the smallest nuance of diction, note weight or finger pressure, to the length of a note, a line and the gap or overlap between them. It’s a quality that is found in the DAW, a musical coherence and expressive subtlety that separates this latest WATT/Puppy from its predecessors. The Sasha 2 was a major step forward, but the DAW steps further still and sideways too, completely redefining the musical capabilities of the high-end’s longest standing speaker design. Of course, the speaker only gets to play with what it’s fed and the rest of the system all plays its part – the cartridge more than most. With all the grace of the original Etna, the Lambda adds a serious measure of transparency, focus, dynamic precision and attitude to the mix, a bit like Merce Cunningham exploding into the world of classical choreography. Its grasp of musical timing and direction, the space between performers and the space between notes, invests the VPI record player with exactly the taut discipline and clarity that it needs, eliminating any fleeting resemblance to an overly excited St Bernard puppy that might result from the coincidence of too much energy and not enough control.

Balancing act…

Channelling that energy into musical presence and purpose is where the amps come in. The TL-5.5 has all the classical attributes we associate with a good tube line-stage, with plenty of body and colour, dynamic range and musical momentum. It might be warmer and a bit more rounded than VTL’s flagship TL-7.5 and it doesn’t have the bass transparency and authority that the two-box, hybrid design offers, but in this system its overall balance ensures that you get plenty of weight, while the adjustable damping factor in the S-200 gives you the means to control it, allowing you to maximise the benefits of the available weight rather than hunting for it. The end result is a set-up with impressively easy sense of overall scale and a musically forgiving demeanour, an invaluable combination when it comes to building a satisfying audio system.