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Reprinted with permission
Autumn 1999

Listener Magazine
36 Chestnut Street
Oneonta, NY 13820

Still Waters
Don't Always
Run Deep

And then again, they often do.

Review by Art Dudley

  Herron Audio VTSP-1 line level preamplifier: $3650.
Herron Audio VTPH-1 phono preamplifier: $2750 configured for high output cartridges (a higher gain version for low-output cartridges is $3250).
Manufactured by Herron Audio, 12685 Dorsett Road, Suite 138, St. Louis, MO 63043. (314)434-5416.
Compared to such bon vivants as Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner, and Alanis Morissette, we don't know much about Anton Bruckner's life outside the world of music. Contemporaries describe him as unexceptional in every way except for talent and devotion to God (which, for Bruckner, were interdependent), and apart from his skills as an organist and a composer, you'd think the guy didn't have a lot to say for himself. Ultimately, since Bruckner's life was so free of scandal, wealth, adulation, romance, triumph, tragedy, and (especially) self-promotion, his legacy is limited to the work he left behind.

The same could be said of Herron Audio. Keith Herron, who is very much alive, is an unfailingly nice, intelligent man, unadorned by piercings, tattoos, designer clothes, or Civil War-era facial hair. He looks like someone who coaches Little League on the weekends, and you could imagine loaning him your hedge clippers, Herb Woodley-style, and getting them back in better than new condition. If, like me, you picture high-end designers as people who drive around in Ferarris, high on Absinthe and cooing about the arugula at La Circe, then you'll agree: Keith Herron doesn't fit in.

So it goes with Herron Audio's products: Neither this line stage nor matching phono preamp look like anything special, inside or out. The sizes are rackmount standard, more or less, and the faceplates aren't anything you haven't seen a bazillion times before (neither do they try to appeal to those souls who associate gross faceplate thickness with sonic quality--a folly which I'm hoping Saint Peter will explain to me Some Day, along with Bruce Springsteen's popularity and the ending of Foucault's Pendulum). The working parts, most of which are Good and Better if not Best, are mounted on big, green printed circuit boards. Nothing new here.

My Artieometer, which is at least as reliable a predictor of sound quality as any of the standard technical measurements, told me this: Try listening to some Bruckner symphonies through the Herron line stage and phono preamp. It might be a really good match.

I'm unashamed to admit that this made sense, much as I'm unashamed to confess my love for all of Bruckner's grand yet sometimes childishly simple--almost naive--musical structures. A hi-fi is useful only to the extent that it takes the listener where he or she wants to go on any given whim, whether that place is Nashville or Bayreuth or some crappy bar. For me, still, it's Linz.

It also made sense inasmuch as I mostly listen to tubes these days, and tubes are what make the Herron components go. The VTSP-1 line-stage preamp and VTPH-1 phono preamp replaced my own Fi preamplifier for a few weeks. In the case of the lower gain (moving-magnet) version of the Herron phono preamp, the combination of the two Herron Audio components is virtually an even swap for the capabilities and essential qualities of the Fi: tube preamplification with a decent number of line level inputs, plus phono equalization and enough gain for moving-magnet cartridges (stright in) or moving-coil cartridges (in tandem with a step-up transformer).

A few of the Bruckner pieces I tried were Bernard Haitink's Concertgebouw recordings of Symphonies No.1 and No.2, and Steinberg's flawed but emotionally convincing reading of Symphony No.7 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra--all on LP. I also threw some of my favorite Bruckner CDs at it: Horenstein's live Symphony No.5 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a brand new release, Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic doing Bruckner's Symphony No.9.

In every case--and this is the most important thing of all--the Herron combination renders these performances every bit as involving as the Fi, which until now I'd considered peerless. The Herron gear charms, insinuates, and draws me in with its seductive sound (more on that later)--but at the same time as they're warming my lap, the Herrons throw ice water in my face and command my full attention during each minute of music. Based on what I've heard so far, I'm convinced that a hi-fi rig with a Herron preamp at its center would be utterly useless for background music. And I believe that's because the Herrons are so free of musical distortions, of mistakes that render pitch and rhythm relationships fuzzy and inaccurate, and which make music subtly hard and unrewarding to concentrate on.

The sound is identifiably tube in that the Herron preamplifier combo knows the difference between textures that belong and those that don't--and it banishes the latter while doing a superb job of communicating the former. The textural subtleties that distinguish Miles's playing with and without mute on the Lift to the Scaffold soundtrack (apart from the obvious timbral contrasts, that is) have never been clearer, and the natural bite of the strings in Szell's reading of the Beethoven Egmont Overture comes across that way, and not as something harsh or unreal or mechanical (like clipping).

The Herrons also know the difference between color and colorations. Anton Bruckner had an organist's appreciation for jarring timbral combinations, and you can (should?) hear it especially well in the first movement of Haitink's Symphony No.2--or, for that matter, try Roger Norrington's fairly recent original-instrument performance of Symphony No.3, with the London Classical Players on an EMI CD. The Herrons portray this faithfully. Consider, too: The best performances of Bruckner's symphonies have tended to be those where the composer's religious devotion is mirrored by a similar passion--a glow--from the performers. You can hear that in the Norrington to a good extent, as well as the Horenstein (definitely!) and Haitink (much less so, but it's still there), and the Herron preamplifiers get this across, as well. Here, music has equal amounts of natural color and natural drama (read: a lot).

An unscientific aside: As much as I admire some solid-state amps and preamps (and I very much admire the current work of Naim, Exposure, Pass Labs, 47 Laboratory, and Linn, and I have in the past enjoyed what I've heard from companies like Klyne and Spectral), reproducing all the natural color in a musical performance still seems to be the sole province of tubes: not all tubes, mind you, just very good products like these.

All right. Life is not all Bruckner. It isn't even all Romantic symphony. Happily, I tried almost everything else I enjoy lately with the Herrons--and just as happily, the Herrons keep up with the music. For me, flatpicker Tony Rice is a newly discovered pleasure, and his (early-ish) CD Manzania had me on the edge of my seat: brilliantly paced, completely involving, and--again--realistically colorful. Likewise the time I've been spending with another musical artist whose work is new to me, pianist Martha Argerich. (I know, I know: Where have I been?) In addition to the strengths I've described above, the Herron preamplifier combo is free from the subtly hard, glassy, and sometimes downright mechanical sound that lesser electronics impart to music, and which I find especially annoying in piano music.

I've been taking most of my Argerich by needle, though, and those records, among others, have given me a chance to really compare the moving-magnet and moving-coil versions of the Herron VTPH-1. (Keith Herron kindly loaned me both.) I've tried these components in a variety of combinations, with cartridges including the Rega Elys and Exact moving-magnets; high-output moving-coils like the Lyra Lydian Beta; and low-output moving-coils like the original Lyra Lydian, as well as the Denon DL-103 and loaned samples of the Dynavector Te Kaitora and Lyra Clavis DC. I tried feeding the signal from the latter cartridges straight in to the higher gain Herron, and I also tried sending their output first to the Audio Note AN-2S moving-coil step-up transformer, and then to the lower-gain version of the Herron. (Believe it or not, I even tried using the step-up transformer with the high-gain Herron, but that was not a good match, for reasons I'll get around to in a minute.)

At the end of the day, I very much prefer the low gain (moving-magnet) version of the Herron with all my cartridges, and on all my music. Please note that the high-gain Herron is not an all-tube device (its first amplifying device is a FET), but please also note that I'm not necessarily blaming the poor, misunderstood transistor for this comparative weakness. On one hand, it's possible--even probable--that the addition of one more active stage of any kind would cause me to like it less. On the other, as I tried to describe in Vol.4, No.4, using a step-up transformer can pay performance dividends beyond the mere provision of gain. Bottom line: A good moving-coil cartridge into an Audio Note AN-S2 into the low-gain Herron phono preamplifier is a killer combination.

Used together, the Herron phono preamp and line stage do what all expensive hi-fi products should do (but often don't): they maximize both the musical and sonic pleasures of recorded music, regardless of how that music was recorded (and stored).

The things they don't do are as much a matter of sonic presentation as anything else. The Herron components still don't make music sound as big as my Fi preamp: After owning it for over three years, I am starting to think of the Fi as unbeatable in its ability to portray the scale of a piece of music, for whatever reason. And the Herrons don't slather your music with gobs of obvious if likeable tube distortions. If the egregious warmth and gooshiness of, say, an original Marantz Seven are what you're hoping for (no condescension intended), the comparatively dry and unambiguously neutral Herrons may disappoint you.

The choice is partly down to systems matching, as always. But keep in mind a few Herron qualities that will make themselves known in any installation:

Sometimes still waters don't run deep (thank Jewel for proving that one), but in this case they do. The Herron combo's plain, me-too exterior conceals a wealth of good technical ideas and downright brilliant music-making: I cannot imagine a system that would shame them. As to value, I think Herron's pricing is pretty fair--especially in the case of the VTSP-1. It's instructive to compare the Herron combo with something like the Audio Note M2 (Vol.3, No.4), which sells for roughly the price of the Herron phono preamp alone, yet combines the functions of both pieces in one box. The Audio Note is unassailably fun to listen to, though less "accurate" (the Herron combo is flatter in response, and in particular offers a more truthful proportion of bass frequencies to everything else, in contrast to the AN's larger than life bottom), and it isn't as quiet. The Herron combo is just as much fun, but more refined, as well--and better built, and a little easier to get the most from (love that polarity switch!).

Is it worth $6400 for the pair? Only you can answer that one--but rest assured, I've heard preamps that sell for more that don't give you half this much music. Lovely gear from a very nice company: highly recommended.

Quality: -3/4
Value: -3/4

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