POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
as reviewed by Karl Lozier
Keith Herron burst onto the high-end home audio scene fairly quietly though firmly, just three years before the beginning of this century with his first audio product designed for home listeners. That was the vacuum tube Phono Stage VTPH–1 in MM moving magnet and MC moving coil versions. The vacuum tube Line Stage Preamplifier arrived shortly after, followed by his solid-state mono power amplifiers, with some internal tweaks, an esthetic facelift and a model designation change to "M-1." They are still providing neutral solid-state sound Herron fashion to this day.
It is no secret that as a music lover I have been a fan of Keith's typical offerings for quite some time now and it all started with that unobtrusive and unimposing (visually) VTSP-1 preamplifier.
One of his major goals has been value offered while presenting the highest audio and musical qualities. No extra expense was wasted for visual appeal for example. This is typical of professional equipment in many fields, not just audio. That is exactly where Herron started and to this day reliable and as nearly trouble-free as can be expected ownership is important to him.
Personally, I believe that feeling is mainly what has held him back from introducing a tubed power amplifier. I know that many people, including distributors, in many parts of the world have tried to influence him to do so. Evidently it is extremely difficult to produce relatively high power tube amplification products that can consistently offer truly trouble free operation year after year. All that has little to do with this review other than a glimpse of the thinking of the designer.
The first preamplifier designed by Keith was quite successful for an initial effort by a small company. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that his earliest products achieved cult status. They did achieve wide acceptance largely due to word of mouth and the fact that most listeners that actually got to listen to them in their own systems were very impressed. Please note that he was promoting them as true high-end components. Many, if not most listeners who desired true high-end figured that such performance was unlikely to be achieved at those bargain prices. Other listeners demanded more esthetic beauty along with top performance. Still others would not accept any preamplifier that did not offer remote control.
At that time Keith had not been able to figure out how to prevent any audible degradation when incorporating features such as remote control and visual panel volume output level. He was not willing to accept any lowering of the audio quality he had obtained by keeping things rather simple – the KISS principle. He realized that many of the listeners who wanted true high-end audio quality were also used to the best products in other fields offering luxury touches or conveniences. While experimenting with ways to get around the problem of losing even a small bit of his design's audio quality he eventually did find the way. Keith had then explained that in some cases his cure to the potential losses resulted in slightly better sound quality as revealed by his listening sessions if not always by sophisticated measurements.
Thus was born the VTSP-2 with vastly improved visual appeal, most of the features wanted by many listeners and even slightly but definitely better sound quality. In some international magazines it won recognition such as "finest preamplifier available", "best new preamplifier", and "product of the year". My modesty allows me to mention that I awarded it my absolute top recommendation before any of those international journals were published.
So what happens now is a third tubed preamplifier by designer/engineer Herron, the VTSP-3 (there is actually a fourth model, a solid-state unit). Excellent as it may be, it was never intended to be the better preamplifier. In other words only the Herron VTSP-3 is the model competing for recognition as the best single chassis stereo preamplifier, currently available anywhere by anyone. Its few competitors are from one and a half to three times as expensive. The rather understated elegance of the preceding model VTSP-2 is retained unchanged. Though internally based on the preceding model, the VTSP-3 is a new design and veering slightly from the aforementioned KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle it adds another smaller circuit board between the tubes. It includes an additional voltage regulator for much purer plate voltage to the tubes plus other new circuitry.
In addition there are many significant changes on the main board. Also new is two gain modes. Most users will probably use the higher mode (try both modes though) while users with very efficient loudspeakers (and you know who you are) should notice better sound with the lower gain mode. Even in the higher gain mode the overall gain is slightly lower than with the model VTSP-2. The difference may be around 4 or 5. In other words it might take a setting of 49 or 50 to equal 45 with the preceding VTSP-2. The amount of gain has absolutely nothing to do with quality.
Previous Herron offerings have all been known to have neutral audio qualities. In other words it has often been difficult to tell if his components used tubes or solid-state devices. Some people wondered if he deliberately tried to eliminate typical characteristics of both drive systems or if his emphasis on neutral sound characteristic and relatively simple circuits simply did not sound "tubed or solid-state". This I have demonstrated and have often seen/heard it demonstrated to the minor astonishment of unknowing listeners. This characteristic has now changed a bit with the introduction of the downright superb sound offered by the VTSP-3.
The past two or three years I have deliberately scaled down reviewing components and even extended listening to new products while doing many more music (CD, SACD and DVD) reviews. The upside to that situation is that changes, even very small changes, in my reference system are easily and quickly apparent. This of course has to allow for sufficient "break-in" time for new components. That has turned out to be variable and unpredictable. It is also of great continuing interest to Keith Herron. From time to time he has made serious efforts to investigate the situation and eliminate or ameliorate the problem. Rapid delivery may be a part of the answer to the problem. In my case, this time, ultimately it seemed that the effects of break-in, pretty much though not quite completely, were absent within twenty hours at most. Readers of my recent review of Nola's new loudspeakers the Viper 1A, should have noticed my and Carl Marchisotto's shock at the long and continuing burn-in as he had put on at least a hundred powerful hours just before shipping. After that and my added break-in time he flew down here to hear them and they still had not broken-in completely!
About a week after he left, seemingly rather suddenly, his new model loudspeakers broke in and simply changed very significantly and audibly for the better. I am emphasizing the break-in phenomenon, not just because it is often an important consideration and over looked. Much more importantly, when I asked Keith Herron why or how he started to develop this new model, he replied that it all started as a result of his investigating the whys of the break-in phenomenon. And how to at least drastically reduce the length of time for it to dissipate it if not eliminate it. As a perfectionist oriented designer/manufacturer he had been extremely disappointed that purchasers of his preamplifiers were not hearing what he and they wanted to be hearing soon after plugging in the component. Then one thing led to another and then on to many other efforts and trials and eventually the unexpected VTSP-3 was born as a result.
So, what should owners of any of the preceding Herron models expect from the newly designed VTSP-3? My response is rather simple and I apologize for not being able to use some new or different audio terminology. Unfortunately descriptive audio terminology that is used and typically understood by hobbyists and music lovers is relatively limited. With that in mind, what I hear with Herron's new creation, is audible improvement in essentially every aspect of audio performance whether measurable or not. I would not call any of the improvements a night and day difference, but differences they are, as well as being improvements. The overall and distinctly noticeable effect has been to make listening to music more enjoyable and another step closer to realistic. For music lovers that may be all that needs to be said. Extensive listening should become more fun and rewarding. If you find that to be true, Keith's goal has been achieved for you. The all important power supply and its improvement is a factor here and probably is the major factor. That is where much of Heron's initial efforts to significantly reduce the amount of break-in time started. The impedance of the power supply is now much lower and independent of time. The newly added circuit board plays a part in all this but it is not just simply a power supply board. It is an important part of Keith's new design. As Keith puts it, "the essence of timing is reality." Do not confuse words such as pace and rhythm with timing. If in doubt talk to a performing musician.
Many of my acquaintances in both the audio and music spheres of interest either have the same brand preamplifier and power amplifiers (some as integrated units or even AV-receivers) or that is the goal. There seems to be a great deal of logic to that choice though much of the current crop of component choices work well with other component brands. Specifically, Herron addressed that situation in his first preamplifier and everything offered since then. For those who are thinking about mixing and matching with current power amplifiers I offer some comments as follows. If the VTSP-3 is chosen to replace typical good vacuum tube preamplifiers the end result is likely to be a bit less fullness and richness in that mid and upper bass spectrum. Though there will be a definite hint of that quality from the Herron it will probably be replaced with more apparent detail in that range and a more natural or real quality if the loudspeakers are not "lean" in that area.
Without going into many possible examples, suffice it to say that the interaction of the preamplifier with the power amplifiers, loudspeakers and the various cables, is variable, important, and usually predictable to a great extent. An aside to owners of the presiding model VTSP-2 follows. If you have done anything to add fullness to the mid-bass area, such as placement of your loudspeakers, change of cables, separate adjustable woofers' output or so on, consider changing those efforts when auditioning the new VTSP-3, they might not be needed. As many of you realize, it is often true that it is more work and time to change or significantly update many products than to simply build a new one. The price of the new VTSP-3 is $6550, exactly $1555 more than the preceding model. Herron will update your VTSP-2 completely to the new current model VTSP-3 for exactly that price differential.
The Herron is a deceptively simple appearing vacuum-tube stereo preamplifier. Its specifications yield state of the art numbers. Its design considerations are seldom surpassed and offer convenience, flexibility, and performance rarely seen in such a compact single chassis model in its price range. I have not found any other preamplifier with better frequency response or distortion specifications than VTSP-3. So what …unless the audio or listening quality is also unsurpassed. I agree and so would Keith Herron. Go to Herron's web site to check out the complete listings. Here I list only a few of them: Remote control, switchable absolute polarity, full-range balance control, mute control, plus automatic muting at startup and shutdown, two main outputs, hand picked components for accurate response and volume control with 100-position electronic stepped. Listing the volume control last on this partial list enables me to discuss it a bit as I have asked Keith about it more than once in the past few years. The "steps" in raising or lowering the volume are not all the same, but vary slightly. This would possibly bother a few listeners or technicians that would like each step to have identical gain. There are some volume controls that offer such exacting control. As you would guess, like other component parts, every volume control has a "sound of its own". Though still looking after some years now, Herron has never found another volume control that sounds as good as the one he discovered some time ago.
It is time for some serious listening to be done. I am not going to give you a litany of recordings to try to show off some specific aspects of this newest Herron creation. That is not where the appeal of this music reproducer lies. It lies in making your experience with listening to a favorite recording more satisfying than ever before. The fact that it has a tad (a southern word meaning a little bit or definite hint) more bass fullness, richness and power in the mid to upper bass is only a part of overall experience and does tend to reveal its vacuum tube heritage. The audibly extended high frequency response has its own attraction at the same time being silky smooth and sweet while revealing even more inner detail. That is a really tough balancing act for an audio designer to successfully accomplish. It also appears to be more extended and—very definitely—adds the natural sensation or feeling of the recording location and strong hints of its size! That is probably at least partly responsible for the added detail as is the seeming lack of background noise. This is a very quiet preamplifier and listeners may find it even quieter in the lower gain mode.
The all-important mid-range extends from its lower reaches adds detail and presence to the bass, to its upper extremes giving body to beautiful harmonic overtones is where music lives. The Herron vacuum tube VTSP-3 preamplifier makes that all important range come nearly alive, and the better the recording the closer it comes and the more the music will be savored, enjoyed and appreciated. It is as if the listener is moved a few rows closer to the orchestra compared to the previous VTSP-2. I must award Keith Herron's model VTSP-3 preamplifier my highest possible recommendation and hope that many music lovers will have the opportunity to discover it for themselves. Karl Lozier
1) In case you are at a loss to choose a well recorded disc to demo this preamplifier may I be so bold as to mention the following (all excellent, yet different) recordings that may still be listed in this issue's music reviews or scheduled for the relatively near future:
Crown Imperial - Reference Recordings (organ+orchestra)
Pathetique Symphony - Tchaikovsky, Telarc- (full orchestra)
Messiah-Handel - LSO Live (choral)
Folk Song Symphony - Harris, Naxos (orchestra + vocal)
Butterfly Lovers Concerto + Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Canary Classics CC04 (beautiful violin concertos + very different orchestrations)
2) The clearly beautiful response of the Herron preamplifier will also clearly reveal but not exaggerate any shortcomings of preceding gear such as players or interconnect cables. Herron still offers but does not promote his fine and modestly priced interconnects to go with his components. Check previous reviews here for good disc players.
Herron does not recommend tube swapping and particularly not with "new/different model number" replacement tubes released in the past few years.