VPI Industries, well known for its extraordinary turntables, linked up with Steven Leung from VAS Audio to remake a modern and simplified version of the classic vintage H.H. Scott 299D integrated vacuum tube stereo amp (1964-1966). Enthusiastic as ever, Leung mentioned to me recently by phone that he had acquired several modified vintage Scott 299 models a while ago, and they sounded so nice to him and VPI that they decided to proceed with their own high-end modern version. The project took 2 years to completion and only 100 were made. VPI is not intending to make any more—so we are told. The price is $4000 and there are a lot of high-performance things packed in. I will expand briefly upon all of this in what follows; I am very lucky to have had one of these on loan from VPI while recently reviewing the Alta Audio Rhea loudspeaker.
Using the VPI 299D was my first experience with using vacuum tube equipment on my system, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable one. I report here briefly on my flirtation with this quite special integrated amp. It contains a phono stage that can handle both MM and MC cartridges, tube preamp, tube stereo amp, and a superb headphone amp which accepts a 1/4” jack on the front panel. It even comes with a solidly made, thin, silver colored remote control, and knobs on the front panel for ‘Bass’ and ‘Treble’, bringing back memories of times past. When changing volume on the remote, the front panel volume knob turns via a motor; fascinating to watch, it kept me more than often to stay seated in the sweet spot of my couch as opposed to wandering around as I usually do. The front panel also contains a knob for selecting the input mode for its preamplifier, a power knob and even a glass covered analogue meter display for output tube bias. Of these, only the Bass and Treble (and tube bias) can’t be accessed remotely.
Weighing in at a hefty 60 lbs, with dimensions of 16”(W) x 15”(D) x 7”(H), the VPI 299D is very solidly built, with a gorgeous metal Champagne-gold-colored front followed by a modern black metal back. Stylish and classy it is.
Right behind the front panel lies the tube section, protected by a black metal cage which snaps on and off easily. This cage is a nicely thought out cover: on the one hand it protects the tubes from damage, danger and mischief (kids, cats, for example), while on the other hand allows one to proudly show off to visitors the VPI 299D’s beautiful orange glowing tubes. There are 9 tubes in total. Behind the tube section are three heavy black and elegant looking transformers.
On the back of the unit below the transformers are the inputs/outputs, AC input (one can use your own power cord or the stock supplied), a grounding post and a red tube selector switch. All analog inputs are single-ended (RCA); a pair for phono, CD (which can also be used for a DAC), and two auxiliary others. There is a pair for tape out, too. For output to speakers (spades or banana is allowed on each post) there are two choices of 4 Ohms or 8 Ohms.
Each of the of Left and Right channels contains a set of 3 sturdy posts. One for the negative, and then the other (positive, Red) two for choice or 4 or 8 Ohms, so you only need to change the Red on each channel when changing the power appropriate for your speakers. So simple -- and convenient for comparing speakers. One can choose the power as either (approximately) 25 or 50 watts per channel. (I kept it at 50.) This is done by using the remote control top button (TR/UL): TR=“Trial Out” is the 25 and it displays a green light on the corresponding front panel input selector of the unit, whereas UL=“Ultra Linear” is the 50 and displays the light as red. On the back of the unit is a red switch allowing to choose the tube type: Either EL34s or KT88s (I used the EL34; that is what the unit came fitted with by default). Bias controls for the output tubes are included and located in the tube section. The unit I was loaned had already been broken in and the bias had already been properly adjusted, so I did not mess with the bias or tube selection at all during this review; I would enjoy exploring that further in the future.
Overall sound quality and experience using vacuum tubes
If you are a solid state amp/preamp user, just make sure when using the VPI 299D to warm it up (power on) first for (say) 15 minutes or so before using and be sure to turn it off at the end of a listening period (such as overnight). As I mentioned in my Alta Audio Rhea review, the VPI 299D has an addictive warmth and sweetness particularly in the midrange and enough details exposed to please most anyone. Further experiments confirmed that (digital or vinyl). Voices female or male were uniformly outstanding. In addition the tubes (with protective grill off) at night, with lights off, offered an ambience that I would favorably compare to sitting in front of a warm fire with loved ones in winter— with a fine glass of red wine in hand. Of great convenience (at such high quality of sound) was to be able to even attach my headphones immediately—to the same unit--late at night so as not waken anyone when I was alone enjoying.
How delightful to experience an 'all-in-one' vacuum tube integrated unit of such high quality construction and sound. And I now have some first hand experience using vacuum tubes in my own home/system. At $4000, an integrated amplifier with such a high performance to price ratio would be very hard to find. It will warm the living room of any abode with its sound and looks, and because of its vintage history and modern approach will satisfy audiophiles of all ages. Very highly recommended.
Further information: VPI Industries