Funny how a cash injection can transform one's philosophy. Not that tube wizard Nic Poulson has suddenly become a fire-breathing capitalist, and the fact that he now drives a staid vehicle with four wheels instead of two mustn't be regarded as a sign of incipient old age. It's just that his company, Trilogy, has attracted sound financial backing, so the stakes are therefore higher for the responsibilities now involve others. While I for one have long-admired his adherence to no-nonsense styling of a purist mien - even his budget 900 series stuff never seemed cheap because of its clean look and superb finish - I have to admit that the almost Germanic futurism of the new VTi remote control integrated amplifier heralds a more commercial chapter in Trilogy valve amplification.
• Read audiophile power amp reviews from the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Audio Research, Linn, Naim, VAC, VTL, NuForce, Pass Labs and many others here.
• Read about tubes on the Audiophile blog, AudiophileReview.com.
• Want to read audiophile stereo preamp reviews? We have dozens from brands like ARC, Krell, Classe and many more.
• In the market for audiophile loudspeakers? Here are over 100 reviews from brands like Wilson Audio, THIEL, MartinLogan, Bowers & Wilkins, PSB, Vandersten, Magnepan and many more.
Before contemplating the innards, we must discuss what will surely be one of its key selling points: the carbon fibre base and feet. Now carbon fibre is nothing new to audio; elder farts will recall the Infinity Black Widow tonearm, while Wilson-Benesch has made it a company fetish. And the stuff is good fun, especially if it can be used to provide more than mock-GTi go-fasterness. We're all too familiar with the genuine article to be wooed by mock-carbon fibre, as certain car makers are prone to use in buzz-box hot hatches to suggest motor-racing connections. Poulson, being too serious by half, wouldn't dream of using it for mere effect, and he told me with a straight face that it was employed for its self-damping characteristics.
This was odd coming from a valve-amp manufacturer who seemed to have dealt with microphony, rattling and other structural weaknesses through far more cost-effective if conventional means. And when he told my how much he pays for a single, folded-corner sheet of carbine fibre used per VTi - over £100 per unit - I had to assume that he believed in it. Poulson is not seduced by frivolity, and he has no desire to incite the wrath of the sorts who still refuse to believe that you can hear the differences in cables. What most observers of the carbon fibre element will appreciate is not is its sonic worth - rattles and microphony are things you note only when they're present, not banished - but its aesthetic contribution.
Without prodding, Poulson unashamedly told me that he and his colleagues were inspired by Nordost Pulsar Points, feet substitutes which he feels are absolutely capable of delivering what they promise. They tried them first with prototypes, but when the carbon fibre sheets were fitted, they learned that the carbon fibre rendered any improvements by the Nordosts as inaudible. That may seem a back-handed compliment, but Poulson remains convinced that the Pulsar Points are wonderful; you just don't need 'em under a Trilogy VTi.
Contrasting with the deep sea-blue of the case, the visible-weave of the carbon fibre complements the fascia by providing a crescent-shaped panel at the bottom. It is drilled to hold the on/off/standby LEDs, but is otherwise left in its natural state. Where some of the cost comes in is in the folding, for this single piece is also the base plate and its corners have been turned down to form the front feet and a single foot at the rear. The unit is therefore absolutely stable, it's never in need of levelling and the design obviates the tweaker's native craving for aftermarket feet.
Because the review sample lacked a couple of the aesthetic elements which will be part of the production version (sonically, the review sample was exactly as per a production version), I don't know quite how the Trilogy logo will appear. Also, the hand-held remote hadn't arrived, so I can't comment on the movement of the motorised ALPS volume control or source-to-source switching. That aside, I can say that the beast is a handsome one, with a large rotary knob to the extreme left, the on/off-from-standby button in the middle, and an arc of seven tiny press buttons, six for the line level sources including two tape/processor loops with bi-directional dubbing, and the last one which toggles between monitor and record for each source. Trilogy has opted for tiny blue lights to indicate on/off - warm-up is accompanied by a minute's worth of flashing - and a single light comes on below each button to indicate which input is being used.
At the back is the main on/off switch, gold-plated inputs for each source and sufficient multi-way binding posts to allow connection for 4 or 8 ohm speakers. The top is slotted to allow for adequate ventilation, but allow more space than the 15x15x16in (HWD) dimensions: the front feet splay out an extra inch on each side. Just what this does for the performance I don't know, but the company proudly boasts that the chassis has 'near 50/50 weight distribution In both plains'. In keeping with the dual-mono design, the layout is mirror-imaged, with modular construction consisting of six discrete PCBs 'for optimum channel separation and ease and speed of servicing'. The VTi's case features entirely non-magnetic construction, the base and internal mountings made from 2mm stainless steel while the lid uses 3mm anodised aluminium.
With true dual-mono operation bar the use of two AC cords, the VTi includes four separate secondary windings per channel in the common mains transformer. Two pairs of ECC83s serve in the pre-amp section, while JJ-branded (es-Tesla employees) E34Ls are fitted as output valves, with servo bias rendering user bias adjustment unnecessary; the valves are mounted horizontally below the vents. The unit is rated conservatively at 50W/ch into 4 or 8 Ohms, easily within the range of a pair E34Ls per side.
Trilogy has installed multiple parallel Nichicon electrolytics in the power supply for 'faster and more seamless balance', while mains filtering includes separate discrete supplies for all standby, remote and servo electronics. An onboard circuit will turn off the VTi if any of the valves should become problematic and will indicate which valve is causing the problem. In the three weeks I used the VTi, it demonstrated nothing less than perfect behaviour, whether driving quirky loads such as BBC LS3/5As, Wilson WATT Puppies or Quad ESLs. As a source, I fed the VTi from the fixed outputs of the Krell KPS25sc - I'm gonna get as much use out of the World's Best CD Player until they collect it - as well as the SME 10 turntable with Lyra Cartridge and SME Series V, through a Musical Fidelity X-LP.
£2500 is a lot of money for an integrated amplifier by anyone's standards, even though you can spend two or three times that on the new Mark Levinson or other exotic high-ender single-chassis packages; for this kind of dough, there are at least a half-dozen stonking Italian Jobs, all manner of quirky British units and plenty of pre/power combos. So what is it about the Trilogy that gives it a fighting chance? Especially if you factor out superb build quality, comprehensive remote control (rather than just playback level), handsome styling, the novelty element of carbon fibre, anticipated longevity, utter quietness, modular construction to facilitate upgrades, and those cute blue LEDs? I mean, you have to ask?
In the end, it all gets down to sound, for everything else is almost incidental. If you wanted just the styling and the features, you'd buy B&O. If all that mattered was build quality and reliability, you go solid-state via Japan. What Trilogy offers is a very subtle, almost deceptive finesse which not only marks it as a British amplifier of the old school, it also renders it - absolute power aside - a true high-end contender. While the Wilsons demanded more on the dynamic front than the VTi could muster, it dealt with less hungry/ambitious* but no-less-refined speakers like the old Quads and the LS3/5As with the sort of guiding hand which inspires confidence. And (though I don't know why, given that Poulson doesn't strike me as a bass fanatic) it starts with the VTi's lower octaves.