Separate mic preamps and I go back a long time. In the early 1970s, as soon as I learned how to get a better sound with two mics than with five, I converted the insert points on my old Neil Muncy S.S.I. 8/2 mixer to post-fader direct outs, enabling me to bypass the board's summing and line amplifiers. Then, that was 1971, I bought my first set of four discrete mic preamps constructed by Mark Levinson from Burwen MP-202 modules. This preamp was subsequently replaced by one I built myself using four Levinson modules. That unit served me well for the next 10 years, until I started to use Hardy 990 modules. Although I had been using vacuum tube mics since 1984, I had never tried a tube mic preamp until David Manley loaned me one of his stereo units in 1992. I was surprised, and quite pleased, by the subtle improvement it made in my sound. The 990s immediately became relegated to back-up use only. I subsequently purchased much more Manley equipment until, eventually, my recording setup featured a complete Manley front end. With that setup, I was satisfied that my tube chain was giving me as much as I could get. Then along came the hand-built D.W. Fearn VT-2. Although I couldn't imagine how anything could possibly sound better than the Manley mic preamps, there was a nagging curiosity: How would the VT-2 stack up? In a word, the VT-2 is a killer.
Hand built in Pennsylvania, the stereo VT-2 is based on the mono design of the VT-1 that was introduced in 1994. Both versions are said to be a recreation of an amalgamation of several four-stage RCA tube mic preamps from the 1950s and '60s, updated with improved modern passive components and computer-aided circuit optimization. Each channel of the VT-2 features a regulated +48 supply for phantom powering capacitor mics, a switchable 20 dB input pad, a polarity reversal switch on the input, a switchable input resistor network to accommodate very low impedance mics and a true VU meter. All four power supplies are solid state and fully regulated, while the audio circuitry features custom Jensen input and output transformers, with two tubes per channel in between. The hefty unit is three rack spaces high, 14" deep, and weighs 18 pounds. Unlike the single-rack space Manley units, this preamp will definitely not fit into my little Samsonite carry-on suitcase for my trips to Vienna. Each unit is handmade with extreme care given to every detail; even the deep red paint job on the 1/4" thick aluminum front panel, done with DuPont Imron paint that is worthy of a classic motorcycle. A few electronic details deserve mention here. The Lo-Z input position inserts an impedance-matching network ahead of the input transformer, optimizing the VT-2's performance for certain new microphones, such as the Neumann TLM-series (and the M 149 "tube") and the latest Schoeps models, all of which exhibit an extremely low output impedance. Another thoughtful detail: The various switches on the front panel do not switch but rather control precision relays which, in turn, switch the audio itself. The audio path is therefore kept as pure and simple as possible. The hand-selected tubes are either 12AY7s or 6072s; my review unit had 6072s. The VT-2 has two vintage-looking Simpson-like meters. They are extremely cool looking and have great ballistics. Doug said he went through a lot of trouble finding a manufacturer to replace the Simpson meters, which he originally used in the VT-1, but are no longer made. Unfortunately, the meters are not well illuminated.
I auditioned the VT-2 over a month-long period at Studio Dufay, with a variety of input sources. I even lugged it over to Bruce Seifried's Eclair Engineering studio which, unfortunately, is in a fourth-floor loft. Actually, I think I made Bruce carry it up the stairs. I really do wish it were smaller, but since its superior sound probably results from a combination of many tiny details (such as mounting the tubes vertically), I guess I shouldn't complain. Back home at Studio Dufay, I compared it repeatedly with my Manley units. I've designed a switching and patching setup that can feed the output of my 0.9 micron Stephen Paul-modified Neumann SM 69 to both preamps, with proper termination in each case. So I was able to switch back and forth between the two units easily. The largest difference between the Manley preamp and the VT-2 was noticed in the low-end quality. The Fearn's lows sounded deeper, more resonant, and were surrounded by much more room tone. The mids and highs, however, were more difficult to qualify. There were clearly differences between the two preamps; the best way I can put it was that the VT-2 sounded more "real," while the Manley sounded more "high fidelity." The Fearn sound was much easier to listen to for extended periods of time; that is to say, whenever I switched back after listening to the Manley, I experienced a sense of relaxation and relief. And, when I switched to the Manley from the Fearn, I felt a sense of constriction, or claustrophobia. Hardly scientific, I know, but I calls 'em like I hears 'em. Overall, the verdict was definitely in favor of the VT-2. Following Doug Fearn's recommendation, I did one additional test. He supplies, for $80, an LP-1 pad box, that is simply a (heavy-duty, of course) box which pads down two line-level inputs -60 dB to mic level. Although he told me that many of his customers use his preamp during mixdown, to subtly modify the sound of their line-level stuff, I failed to see why anyone would want to do that and suffer a significant reduction to their signal-to-noise ratio. The preamp's noise level specs out, according to the individual test results supplied with my unit, at -74 dB referred to +4 dBm. Nonetheless, I decided to run some line-level signals, supplied by my wonderful new Audio Alchemy CD playing equipment chain (DDS Pro, D.T.I. Pro32, and D.T.E. v3.0), into Doug's LP-1, and then feed that into the VT-2 and Manley preamps respectively, and listen. First of all, and rather unbelievably, I heard no increase in noise! I was incredulous at the fact that the LP-1/VT-2 combination modified my line-level signal to such a small amount -- and that that change was not at all bad. Switching back and forth between the Fearn and Manley preamps, I heard exactly the same sonic differences I noticed when I was listening to the live feed from my Neumann stereo microphone; the Fearn's low-end solidity and "rightness," and its smooth easy-to-listen-to quality in the mids and highs. I could easily distinguish the Manley sound from the Fearn sound, but I did prefer the bigger, more aggressive Manley character as an enhancement on some pop program material. But for classical and simple acoustic music, the Fearn one hands down.
As the owner of more channels of mic preamplification than I could ever possibly need, I began the review period quite a bit prejudiced against this large and expensive mic preamp but, by the time I was instructed to send it on to Frank Wells at Masterfonics for his bench test, I already had decided to purchase one.
Dr. Frederick Bashour holds a Yale Ph.D. in Music Theory and is a musician and classical music producer/engineer who, during the past 25 years, has received credits on hundreds of recordings released on over a dozen labels. He is also a contributor to Pro Audio Review and Early Music America.