Equipment Review No. 1   July-August 2002

Tri VP-Mini88 Mk. II Tube Integ. Amplifier
$1200

US Distributor:
Yama’s Enterprises Inc.
16617 S. Normandie Ave., Suite C
Gardena, CA 90247
310-327-3913 (voice)/310-324-7422 (fax)
http://www.yamasinc.com/vpmini88mk2.htm

Basic Description

12 WPC Single-Ended Tube Integrated with KT88s; 3 line inputs; stepped volume control; will work with loads from 2-8 ohms; 22 lbs; 8.7 W x 14.6 D x 7.5 H inches.


Equipment

Rega Planet 2000 (as transport), Tri Luminous 1.0 D/A Converter, Adcom ACE-615 conditioner, B&W CDM1-NT and Linn Katan speakers in bi-wire configuration, Linn Majik (for comparison), Audioquest cabling.


The Look

When I first took the unit out of the box, the front faceplate of the Tri amp seemed a little crooked. I contacted Yama’s, and was told by Tats, the National Sales Manager, that it might have been an issue with shipping. As it was, my unit was pretty well worn. The gold plating on the input jacks had been scratched/come off in large areas. The binding posts seemed solid, but squeaked. I took an Allen wrench and unscrewed the faceplate, but was not able to get it perfectly straight no matter what—I’m very finicky about these things. The wood panels on the side are rounded at both ends, but they don’t really flush up perfectly with the contours of the amplifier. The top cage and transformer cover are not chromed and the finish did not match the chassis of the amplifier. My sample may not have been entirely representative of other production units. It was definitely nice looking in many ways, and whether this is a concern or not, will depend on you.


Setup

I played the Tri unit for a few days straight for burn-in (even though my unit was supposedly used by other reviewers and/or it was a show demo). I wasn’t sure if it would be safe to unload it during the comparisons, so I turned it off, and then let it warm up again. Sound was good even from first turn-on, and I don’t think extended warm up is necessary with this amplifier.

I used the unit directly from the analog outputs of a Linn Genki (which sounded fine), but for evaluations (at the request of the manufacturer), I used the Tri Luminous 1.0 D/A converter. It was fed from the Rega—used solely as a transport. Later in the test, I used the Linn Majik integrated (~$1200) for comparisons.

I began the casual listening with a pair of Linn Katan loudspeakers. I felt the sound was just a little too soft, and might not be the best complement to the amplifier. So, I switched speakers, and continued with the critical listening tests with the B&Ws. They are rated at 88db Sensitivity with an 8-ohm nominal impedance, with a 4.6-ohm minimum. Before the beginning of the review, I informed Tats that I would not have any “high efficiency” speakers that I could use, but he told me that it would be no problem. In addition, he said that the Mini88 got many compliments at the 2002 CES while driving 85db Spendor SP3/1P’s.


Listening--Part I

The first question I had in my mind at the start of this review was: “Is 12 watts going to be enough power?” The answer to that question is: “For me, yes.” Not that I couldn’t get it to distort, as you can with any amplifier, but that it was unnecessary in normal listening. Listening distance was typically between 7 and 8 feet away from the loudspeakers.

I began the listening with track 2, “Hurt So Bad,” from Willie Bobo’s Uno Dos Tres/Spanish Grease album. This is an older recording with some distortion on percussion throughout the song. On this track, voice was excellent, and percussion was lively and snappy. Every instrument was well defined and easy to pick out. Transients had a touch of smoothing, excepting the distortion mentioned earlier. There was a nice sense of depth and presence at the same time. It was obvious that this amplifier added ever-so slight warmth to the overall character, but not as much as some other SE tube amplifiers I’ve heard. An important thing to note is that this amp did not seem to be largely dynamically restrictive, like many of the SET amps that you hear.

Next I listened to track 2, “Dear Ruby,” off Philip Bailey’s Soul On Jazz. Piano sound was large and very lush, while vocals were excellent. I felt there was a slight bit of space truncated at the very top end, but you might not notice without consciously listening—or by comparison. The overall presentation had a huge soundstage, with lots of depth and dimension, and had a very lifelike quality. There was a nice sense of warmth without going overboard. It is clear that this amplifier was subtly imposing a certain character on the sound, but it was completely euphonic in nature.

The blues were up next with track 6, “C.C. Rider,” from the Robert Lockwood, Jr. album, Delta Crossroads. There was an added bit of puffiness to vocals that was noticeable on this cut, and guitar sound was smooth, but lacking just a little bit on the attack. The rightness you hear in a system like this is hard to describe. I guess part of it is due to a freedom from harshness and fatigue that tends to make everything sound really good. The sense of air that helps define the recording space and make the instruments more separate from entire soundspace is somewhat missing. It is a “round” sound, or rounding of the edges of the three-dimensional space that the instruments take up, as well as the acoustic.

“Moonlight,” track 2, by Sting, from the soundtrack to Sabrina, offered another chance for the Tri amplifier to really showcase its abilities. Sting’s wispy vocals are incredibly clean with a hint of space around, and slight reverberation. Brushes and piano are very natural and sweet and smooth. The soundstage is wide and very open, while images are large and of realistic size. Dynamics are good and although they don’t bowl you over—it’s hard to complain. A lush, warm quality, coupled with a nice presence make this amplifier a far cry from bland.


Listening—Part II (Comparisons)

I was able to borrow a Linn Majik solid-state integrated amplifier for comparison with the Tri VP-Mini Mk. II. The Linn is rated at 33Wpc into an 8-ohm load and doubles into 4 ohms. It wasn’t hard to hear the differences between these two designs, and like many things in audio, it will be up to the listener to determine which equipment choice makes more sense from both a practical and sonic standpoint.

I began the comparison listening with track 5, “I’m Like A Bird,” from Nelly Furtado’s Whoa, Nelly! disc. Cymbals on the Tri didn’t sound quite as scratchy as I remember from hearing this cut on other systems. Voice was about as delicious as it gets, but when the music got complex (at around 00:53), there was a change in tonal balance—as if there was an excessive amount of midrange. It turns out that this was on the recording, but read below for the results with the Linn. The sound was very warm, and midrange sounded softer and smoother than I recall. On the Linn, the scratchiness in the beginning of the cut had more of an unclean sound to it. Vocals were a little drier, but still very good. The transition at 00:53 was a more obvious limitation in the recording, than the equipment, although the difference was more noticeable on the Majik. The Linn matched well with the Tri D/A, and produced a slightly more analytical presentation that might still have been on the sweeter side of neutral (most likely due to the D/A converter).

Track 3, “La donna èmobile Rigoletto,” from Andrea Bocelli’s Verdi sounded very good on the Tri. Vocals are really the strong point on the VP Mini—they always had a very seductive, sensuous quality. Instrumentation is pleasant and easy without irritation, like you expect from a tube amplifier. The Linn had a little more edge to the strings, and voice was not as full. However, there was an added sense of space on the Linn that the Tri was missing.

I just borrowed Straight, No Chaser by Thelonious Monk from a friend. I put on track 3, “Trinkle, Tinkle” and was expecting really good sound. The Tri softened the piano sounds, and horn was mellower than I remember. Cymbal hits had that nice swish to them, but again, the recording did not have the same degree of air as with the Linn. With the Linn, the percussion was “clangier,” and the quality of the recording hiss came across differently. The Tri added a silky mesh to the entire soundfield—you’ll either like it or not.

Lastly, I put on track 9, “Corazon Espinado,” from Santana’s Grammy-winning Supernatural. I was expecting the Linn to have a distinct advantage on this particular cut, but I was completely wrong. The Tri handled the dynamics, bass, and complex instrumentation with no strain. The lead guitar riffs flew from the loudspeakers, and Maná never sounded better. Cymbals were smooth and sizzled at the same time. The size of the sound was the first thing I noticed. It was as if someone shot me up to the second row and the performers and instruments got bigger. The sound didn’t get more forward, it was just the size of everything that changed. The Linn did not produce the same “you are there” effect, but still presented the music cleanly.


Conclusion

Aside from the issues I had with the fit and finish (which may have been limited to my review sample), the Tri Mini was a fine example of a tube-integrated amplifier. The power was not a limitation in the system in which it was used—with either speaker that I tried. It did well with all types of music and managed to stay out of the way of the recording. It did have the characteristics of other tubes amplifiers including added warmth, bigger soundstage, more apparent depth and size of image, and a lush, three-dimensional quality. I liken the sound of certain tube equipment to the feel of a warm blanket—soft, comforting, and relaxing. That is exactly the kind of sound you can expect with the Tri VP-Mini Mk. II.

- Brian Bloom        big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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