I met Dave Belles, owner and designer of Power Modules, at AXPONA earlier this year in Atlanta. Mr. Belles is not exactly an unknown in the audiophile world. He has been designing amplifiers for over 30 years, beginning with the Belles ‘A’ Class A power amplifier. Today’s extensive line-up of Power Modules consists both of Class A and Class AB power amplifier designs, as well as solid-state and vacuum tube line stages.
Belles Power Modules, David Belles’ latest company, provided the horsepower to a sound room at the 2011 AXPONA co-shared with European Audio Lab and Legacy Audio. It was clear that this room’s mission was to present a well-balanced, musical system experience using equipment that provided lots of value for the buck. At the time of my initial visit, I commented to Mr. Belles that I thought the room was sounding very well put together. I visited the room on several occasions throughout the weekend and as a result, Mr. Belles offered me an opportunity to review the Statement Series top-of-the-line VT-01 Tube Line Stage and the Reference Series, 350A v2 power amplifier; both of which were running at the show. Of course, I accepted the privilege! The Power Modules Statement Series VT-01 Line Stage is the focus of this review.
Installation and Break-In
The Belles Statement Series VT-01 vacuum tube line Stage arrived just a few weeks after active duty at AXPONA 2011 in Atlanta. The VT-01 is a hefty and ruggedly built single chassis Line Stage amplifier. The VT-01 circuit topology consists of a vacuum tube differential input amplifier with a transistor current mirror, followed by a transistor voltage gain stage. The output stage is a dual cathode follower with a transistor constant current load. In other words, the VT-01 is a tube hybrid design.
The unit proved to be very easy to insert into my main system for initial impressions. The VT-01 has plenty of hook-up options, all single-ended, with two sets of outputs and 4 sets of line level inputs. In the case of my reference system, the complement of outputs easily accommodated connection to the Pass Labs X350.5 stereo power amplifier and the pair of Martin Logan active subwoofers. I utilized the superb Aural Symphonics Chronos and Tel Wire “Connect” interconnects for these output connections throughout the review period. On the input side, the phono and digital front-ends were connected to the VT-01 line stage utilizing the TRS Audio Pure Note ‘Designer’s Edition” interconnects. Power cords used throughout the system were my reference standard, Aural Symphonics Magic Gem v2t’s. Rounding out the cabling were the TRS Audio Pure Note Designer’s Edition speaker cables.
I noted that the Statement Series VT-01 line stage benefitted very little from different platform materials. This may be in large part due to the heavy rigid chassis and use of the excellent Black Ravioli feet. These are certainly nice touches in this moderately priced line stage amplifier. That said, I did note that the best results in image focus and bass clarity were obtained with a ½” Delrin plate platform, but the improvements proved very subtle. Although this particular unit had already had plenty of hours on it, I still played it for roughly 50 hours during which time it improved noticeably in image depth and smoothness on transient peaks in initial critical listening sessions.
The VT-01 requires a couple of hours to sound its optimum. Playing a CD through it at medium levels gets you there a bit faster than simply idling the unit. The first thing that struck me as I settled in to my first extended listening session was the absence of the familiar background hiss that you would normally associate with tubes. The VT-01 was very quiet and exhibited no tube rush.
As I listened to albums by Kate Bush, Rickie lee Jones, and Nils Lofgren, strengths and weaknesses began to emerge. For instance, Kate Bush’s “King of the Mountain” from the LP Aerial revealed that the VT-01 was capable of excellent dynamics and slam. Switching to Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled debut album, Easy Money, the sound was well-balanced, drums were clean and dynamic and accompanying vocals were well-placed within the soundstage. Lower-level details such as the subtle textures of the brushed skin of the drums, were noticeably muted. On Peter Gabriel’s Scratch my Back, the sense of space and the subtle shadings and movements of Peter as he plays piano on “The Boy in the Bubble” are muted and somewhat masked. Playing other such recordings mirrored these results and confirmed that the VT-01 comes up a bit short in the area of micro dynamics and low level detail when compared to my reference. Even as I write this, I have to continually remind myself that the Power Modules Statement Series VT-01 is not an $8,500 preamplifier, it is nearly half that at $4,695. This preamplifier’s mission is thus quite different from that of the Conrad Johnson CT-5 and expectations should reflect that reality. In this regard, I can honestly say that despite the apparent errors of omission, the Belles Statement Series VT-01 proved to be very listenable and easy to enjoy.
Switching to the superbly recorded live CD by Nils Lofgren entitled Acoustic Live, my prior impressions were not only confirmed but became even better defined. The song ‘Little on Up” was nicely balanced and clean, however the lower-level details were somewhat veiled when compared to my reference preamplifier and the Pass XP-10 linestage that was still on hand, causing the performance to sound not quite as alive and spacious as it should. The size of the venue in general was diminished due to this apparent reduction in subtle dynamic shadings and ambience retrieval.
Still, when playing livelier rock music, such as the superbly recorded Toy Matinee’s self-titled CD, the VT-01 acquitted itself remarkably well. Its heart and soul is most definitely one of an iron-fisted rocker. The sound was clean, dynamic, punchy, and with an immediacy that is especially entertaining on rock music recordings. Once I discovered this, I rolled through CDs and records through my rock collection and indeed, the VT-01 never disappointed.
I am reasonably certain that rolling through different tubes from the stock 12AU7’s will undoubtedly alter the sonic results I describe here. That said, experience has taught me that the tubes utilized in a finished product are no accident. They are carefully selected by the product’s designer as providing the best combination or compromise between overall sonic qualities, low noise, and highest reliability. I therefore did not entertain rolling through different tubes during the course of this review period.
Putting it all into Perspective
There is no doubt that the Belles Power Modules Statement Series VT-01 has much to offer for the money. At $4,695 MSRP, it is clearly on a different mission from my reference, the $8,500 Conrad Johnson CT-5. With excellent ergonomics, superb build quality, silent operation, and a ballsy sound that would be the envy of many similarly-priced line stages, it is abundantly clear that the Statement Series VT-01 accomplishes its mission handily. If you are on the market for a line stage and do not want to seriously break the bank, the Belles Power Modules Statement Series VT-01 is a must audition. Recommended.
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