Even at $4,000, this tube amplifier is a remarkable value

Hand-crafted in New Jersey, the all-tube stereo VPI 299D integrated amp looks, feels and sounds like a winner to the Audiophiliac!

This is special -- VPI may be best known as New Jersey's leading turntable manufacturer, but it now has an integrated tube amplifier, the 299D. Inspired by the legendary H. H. Scott 299 amplifier that was made from 1958 to 1966, the VPI 299D is a rethink of the original design.

The story really began when VPI associate Stephen Leung purchased an original H.H. Scott 299D a few years ago and loved the sound so much he just had to bring the design back to life. Leung uses "point-to-point wiring" instead of printed circuit boards because he thinks the amp sounds better when made that way. I hope so -- point-to-point wiring is all done by hand, and Leung builds the 299D amps in the same VPI factory where the turntables are made, in Cliffwood, New Jersey (the chassis' metal parts are made in China). The VPI 299D is offered only as a limited edition of 100 amplifiers. Warranty coverage is three years, not including the tubes, but Leung estimates the tubes should last 2,000 or more hours before they need to be replaced. He put his business telephone number on the cover of the owner's manual, so customers can reach him directly.

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The VPI 299D tube integrated amp

VPI

I think the 16-by-15-by-7-inch amplifier is simply gorgeous. The "champagne" hued faceplate and the silky feel of the controls harken back to the glory days of Japanese audio from the 1970s and 1980s. Power output is specified at 38 watts per channel when the amp is fitted with EL-34 power tubes, and 40 watts per with the optional KT-88 power tubes. The amp's rear panel hosts four sets of RCA input jacks, including a moving-magnet phono input, and there's one set of Tape output jacks. Up front there's a 6.3mm headphone jack. The heavy-duty speaker cable connectors are designated for 4- and 8-ohm speakers. The all-metal remote control handles all functions, except the front panel's bass and treble controls.

Some tube amps have thick, overly ripe bass, but the 299D's secure grip with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Carlos Paredes' "Dialogues" album quickly dispelled any concerns about flabby bottom end or midrange softness. I've played this music on countless systems, and a lot of them blur and muddy the sound of Haden's stand-up bass. Not this time -- the 299D, paired with my KEF LS50 speakers, let me hear every pluck and strum with utmost fidelity

I moved the LS50s aside to play my Magnepan .7 speakers, but I had low expectations for this pairing because the .7 can be a rather power hungry beast. Carter Burwell's lush orchestral score for "Fargo" (the movie) left no doubt about the amp's ability to light up the .7s. In fact, all that's great about the .7s was better; there was more "body" and more dimensionality to the sound of instruments and voices with the 299D/.7 combination. Still, with just 38 watts per channel on tap, the White Stripes "Under Blackpool Lights" concert DVD didn't rock out to my satisfaction. Switching over to my much easier-to-drive Zu Druid V speakers, that combination kicked butt!

Still, I was curious how the 299D would compare with my fully solid-state Schiit Ragnarok amp. With Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" album, the low bass synth lines were more distinct and deeper over the Ragnarok. The 299D presented a juicier, richer balance with the "Fargo" movie soundtrack, but the Ragnarok was still impressive, but a tad leaner and spatially flatter.

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The VPI 299D tube integrated amp, with tubes exposed!


Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The 299D really shined with headphones and handled even the hardest to drive headphones, including my Hifiman HE-6. I watched a bunch of movies with headphones, including "Time Out Of Mind" with Richard Gere as a homeless man living in New York City. The scenes on the streets, buses, subway and homeless shelters were all eerily realistic. Then I popped on the White Stripes' DVD again and donned my Audeze LCD-3 headphones, and this time I focused on Meg White's drum kit, which had tremendous power and visceral impact; the LCD-3 sounded awfully good with the 299D.

Granted, if you want to rock out with hard-to-drive speakers, the 38-watt-per-channel 299D won't be the best way to go -- get yourself a powerful solid state amp. But if you listen at just reasonably loud volume and want to be seduced by the sound of your music, the 299D gets my highest recommendation.

The VPI 299D amplifier retails for $4,000 through VPI dealers in the US and Canada; quantities are limited. No other tube amp in my experience can compete on the basis of features, build and sound quality for the price.

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