Review: Vuum Audio VTi-B1 Vacuum Tube Amplifier Speaker System with Dock and Remote
Pros: A chrome and black vacuum tube amplifier, dock, remote, and twin speaker system, capable of delivering the user’s choice of rich default sound or user-adjusted treble and bass levels through either the speakers or your choice of headphones. Good looks and good-sounding audio won’t turn off any typical listener. System’s peak treble performance is a slight step above certain peer systems.
Cons: Audio quality is roughly on par with 2-channel audio systems costing less than half the price, including Logitech’s class-leading all-in-one and Monitor Audio’s multi-component i-deck systems; similarly lacks subwoofer. Amplifier and dock are electronically separate, with different volume and power controls, and included remote controls only the dock’s settings. Tubes are warrantied for only 30 days and will require replacement after extended use.
When you’re testing two extremely similar pieces of audio hardware, blind testing with multiple listeners can be a useful way to reveal sonic differences. When neither you nor your listeners can tell the difference between two such systems, or decidedly prefer one to the other, you can come to worthwhile conclusions about both of them.
Such was the case when we tested VUUM Audio’s VTi-B1 Vacuum Tube Amplifier Speaker System with Dock and Remote ($699), two speakers bundled with a black and chrome, triple vacuum tube amplifier, a matching iPod dock, and 27-button remote control. Packaged with all necessary audio cables, twin power cables, a dusting brush, and white gloves for safe handling of the components, the VTi-B1 is virtually identical to a British offering called the Fatman iTube with Speakers Retail Bundle, save for a slightly different remote, and VUUM’s omission of some especially nasty-looking Fatman branding on its components’ front surfaces. But we’re not comparing the VTi-B1 and iTube here: rather, we were interested in how much better the $699 system would sound than Logitech’s $300 AudioStation, which uses a highly similar speaker design, but lacks VTi-B1’s signature vacuum tubes, and sells for less than half the price.
For those unfamiliar with vacuum tubes, here’s our standard primer: for decades, some audiophiles have believed that these fragile, somewhat short-lived electronic tubes produce richer, warmer sound than newer, digital audio components, and therefore have willing to pay a premium for tube-based amplifiers and their eventual replacement parts. Others disagree, pointing to improvements in digital amplification technology, digital bottlenecks in vacuum tube amplifier design, and limitations imposed by the audio sources themselves. Thus, to hear tube fans tell the story, almost anything piped through a tube amplifier becomes silkier and warmer, while dissenters suggest that most vacuum tube amps these days are substantially digital, fed sound by all-digital or otherwise inferior quality sources, and outstripped by less expensive all-digital amplifiers.
iLounge’s view of vacuum tube amplification is simple: while we’re open-minded about the potential benefits of the technology, at the end of the day, we’re almost entirely concerned about how something sounds for the price, not why. The only major exception would be longevity. If a system without tubes sounds as good as one with the tubes, we’d prefer the tube-less option because tubes wear out over time, need to be replaced at a cost of roughly $50 per pair, and require special handling - VUUM warranties these parts for only 30 days by contrast with the 1 year warranty on the rest of the system. Notably, VTi-B1 includes a special chrome cage just to protect its tubes from dust and other damage, in the process substantially obscuring the appearence of its key components. We had to pull the cage off to take the detailed tube shots you see here.
The VTi-B1 and Dared’s MP-5
While the VUUM Audio brand name isn’t especially well known, the VTi-B1 system is based largely upon MP-5, a vacuum tube amplifier developed by Dared Music Instrument Company, a ten-year old Chinese firm known for above-par aesthetic designs and audio engineering. MP-5 is that company’s least expensive tube amplifier, sold separately from any other component for $399, and boasting a total of three tubes: one called the “magic eye” that glows green and pulses with your music, and two for amplification. VTi-B1 preserves MP-5’s black and chrome looks, but loses one of MP-5’s key features - a USB port with a DAC for connection to your computer. It gains a second set of standard stereo audio inputs, toggled with an integrated switch, plus a protective chrome cage for the all three tubes, and preserves the MP-5’s front-mounted stereo headphone port.
More significantly for iPod owners, VTi-B1 adds another big piece to the package: a standalone, amplifier-matching iPod dock. Unlike the disappointing dock included with GINI Systems’ iTube, VUUM’s dock - cosmetically near-identical to the one packaged with the aforementioned Fatman system, confusingly also called iTube - is a generally well-made component. It includes full composite AV and S-Video outputs, plus its own power supply, and with the included cabling connects to one of the amp’s two inputs. Twin blue lights - one on the unit’s top right next to the iPod Dock Connector, one on the front above an Infrared sensor - indicate power status; both turn off when power is switched off with the remote. On a side note, blue is oddly also the color of VUUM’s included speaker cables, which are thankfully very easy to connect and disconnect, but mismatched with the otherwise generally attractive black and silver system.
From a usability standpoint, our only issues with the separate dock and amplifier boxes were common complaints about multi-component audio systems of this sort: the dock and amplifier require their own separate power cables, aren’t fully integrated into the remote control, and have different volume and power settings. The amplifier’s volume is set with a dial that isn’t controlled with the remote, while the dock’s volume appears to be of the variable line-out variety, dampened in set stages with the remote’s buttons. For this reason, serious listeners will need to properly set the dock’s volume level to make the most of the amplifier, and then make separate volume and power adjustments on the amp’s body, rather than handling everything via the remote. Fully integrated amplification and docking solutions almost invariably handle this a lot better.
Thankfully, VUUM’s remote control is one of the nicer ones we’ve seen. Black and chrome with gray buttons, it includes dockside bass and treble controls, full iPod menu navigation controls, plus shuffle, repeat, album, chapter, and playlist toggles. As with most Infrared controls we’ve seen recently, it works properly from 30-foot distances under typical lighting conditions, but must be pointed directly at the dock’s IR sensor, and indicates most button presses by flashing the dock’s top blue LED. If you play with the bass and treble controls, you can’t see their relative levels in any way save to note that the blue light stops flashing at the extreme end of either parameter.
There’s one other nice feature in the VTi-B1 system: the amplifier’s front-mounted headphone port. While we’re not big believers in adding oversized headphone amplification packages to our iPods, particularly ones that require us to plug two cables into a wall and sit in front of a speaker system, the VTi-B1’s headphone port provides lots of extra juice for especially inefficient headphones. Our reference AKG k701s, superb earcups that require roughly 70% power from an iPod, blared at VUUM’s 30% mark, so if you’re the type of person who switches off between speakers and quiet, amplified listening, VTi-B1 offers both options.
Speakers, Sound Quality, and Conclusions
Whatever else can be said about the VTi-B1 package, VUUM didn’t skimp much on the quality of its included satellite speakers: like the ones found in Fatman’s iTube package, these are piano-finished wood cabinet speakers, housing 1” tweeters and 4” full-range drivers behind detachable fabric and plastic front grilles. Large, substantial-feeling, and stable thanks to rubber bottom feet, these speakers look, feel, and sound better than the single-driver speakers found in the GINI system - not a huge surprise - and, like the other components, can be handled with the included gloves to prevent fingerprinting. As we’ve seen before, when properly tuned and amplified, the 1”/4” driver combination enables a system to cleanly reproduce almost the entire discernible audio spectrum save for rumbling lows, an omission that can be aided by a fifth driver dedicated to bass. Unlike GINI, VUUM doesn’t include such a driver, and the 15-watt amplifier really doesn’t have enough power to drive one, either.
The good news is that VUUM’s package will sound good enough out of the box to impress virtually any listener accustomed to a Bose SoundDock or most similar $200-300 iPod audio systems. When combined with the vacuum tube amplifier and separated by a few feet, VTi-B1’s speakers produced sound that had the classic characteristics one has been taught to expect from such a setup: soft, warm mids and mid-lows, with a sound signature that listeners described as “rich” and lacking in mechanical harshness. In short, VTi-B1’s audio was smooth, and thanks to its dedicated tweeters, wasn’t lacking for enough high-end detail to satisfy us, either. The blue cables enabled the speakers to be separated by roughly 12 feet if we wanted them so far apart, the major advantage of any multi-component audio system.
There was only one problem. Our test environment was comprised of the VTi-B1 and Logitech’s AudioStation, which as we’ve noted in the past is a superior piece of audio engineering relative to the Bose, Apple, and other all-in-one iPod speakers we’ve tested at or above its $300 price point. Like VUUM, Logitech uses twin 1” drivers for its highs and twin 4” drivers for its mids and lows, and has tuned them exceptionally well, creating sound that we’ve described as “best of” in virtually all the ways important to consumers at its price point. It was, and is, an aggressively priced sound system, designed specifically to take out competing products. Two similar offerings by Monitor Audio, i-deck (iLounge rating: A-) and i-deck plus (iLounge rating: B), both sold for under $330, use similar driver pairings with slightly smaller tweeters, but AudioStation’s user-adjustable equalizers made for the more interesting comparison here.
During blind testing, our goal was to see whether a listener could tell the difference between a properly equalized AudioStation and the VUUM system, which defaults at warm, as described above. We tried a few tricks: make the systems as close to equal as possible, make AudioStation a little richer, and made AudioStation a little less rich. The results weren’t totally shocking: when the systems were equalized, they couldn’t be told apart. When AudioStation wasn’t as rich, our blind listener preferred VTi-B1. And when it was richer, the listener preferred AudioStation.
Major differences were two in number, and rather striking: first, AudioStation’s bass and treble equalization affords users the ability to have sound that’s as warm as - or warmer than - the vacuum tube amplifier system. While we noticed that the VTi-B1 system was capable of slightly stronger highs than the AudioStation when we tweaked its own dock-side equalization, the difference wasn’t especially noticeable unless we also stripped down VUUM’s bass to unusually low levels. Apart from VTi-B1’s user-positionable speakers, and AudioStation’s far superior integration of its dock and amplification features, the systems were amazingly comparable.
It’s the second point that’s the killer: AudioStation sells for less than half of VTi-B1’s $699 asking price, and nearly comparable systems such as Monitor Audio’s i-deck and i-deck plus have been priced about the same, or less. Admittedly, there’s a crowd of people out there with $700 - or more - to spend on iPod speaker systems, and we’re not going to discourage these people from experimenting with various high-end products if they’re so intrigued. As Bose’s SoundDock demonstrated, some people are willing to pay $100 or more of a premium for a system that pleases their ears good out of the box, even if something cheaper can sound equivalent with 5 minutes of tuning. In our view, however, that amount of money would be better spent on a substantially more powerful and visually impressive system like Geneva Lab’s Model L rather than something with roughly equivalent performance to a $300 tabletop unit. As with several other iPod speaker systems we’ve recently tested, this isn’t to say that the VTi-B1 system is bad; it’s just really overpriced given how excellent its competitors are, and the tube amp isn’t amazing enough to justify a $400 price premium.