This Article Was Originally Published On: June 3rd, 2015 #Issue 16.
The Company Line
Back in BGM issue #14, we brought you a full review of the Demeter HBP1-800D bass head, which is basically the HBP-1 preamp with an 800-watt class-D output section added. As an added bonus, in addition to full bench testing of the HBP1-800D, we also tested the stand-alone Minnie 800D power amp from Demeter. Both of these units tested quite well, with continuous power appropriate for their 800-watt rating (at 4 ohms), and burst power capabilities exceeding 1,000 watts.
With the HBP1-800D, you have a single rack space solution. With the Minnie 800D, you have a compact, non-rackmount amp to pair up with your favorite preamp. The VTBP-M-800D adds yet another form factor to consider. I suppose you could call it a “mini head case” format, and it is super cool! It has the styling cues of a vintage tube head, but it is much smaller and weighs a fraction of what an all-tube head weighs. This little unit immediately won over every one who saw and heard it at the 2014 Winter NAMM Show (winning a Bass Gear Magazine Best of Show Award), and we’ve been chomping at the bit to review one ever since.
Origins of the Beast
The front end on this Demeter has an interesting back story. Much like with the HBP1-800D, James looked to one of his prior tube preamps for inspiration. In this case, that inspiration came in the form of the very first VTBP-201 preamp he built. This unit was originally given to Lee Sklar, who fell in love with it and used it for 25 years. In 2012, Lee finally gave VTBP-201 #1 back to Demeter, and James was amazed by the tone. As luck would have it, around this same time, James found about 150 of the original PCB’s which he used for the initial 201 preamps. ‘Nuff said!
A Closer Look
It is abundantly clear at first glance that this is a tube preamp. First off, the two tubes (one 12AX7 and one 12AT7) are mounted front and center, in the upright position. If this does not make things obvious enough, both tubes are also lit up from beneath with blue LEDs. Oh, and by the way, these tubes are being fed by a full 280v power supply. Very nice. The single 1/4″ input (1 megohm) features an internal trim pot to adjust input gain. This is followed by the lone external gain control, labeled “Volume.” Before we get to the tone stack, James has placed a 3-position toggle switch to select between the three modes: dark, normal and bright. These three options definitely tweak the character of the head, and provide a great starting point. The Bright setting was a little much for me (and the stainless steel roundwounds I typically employ), but it might work well with other basses, possibly with flatwounds. I did find both the Normal and Dark settings to be very usable, though, with some of my basses favoring the Dark settings and others favoring the Normal setting.
The EQ section is comprised of controls for treble, middle, bass, and presence. The treble control allows for 6dB of boost or cut at 4kHz. This is a shelving control, with a slope of 6dB per octave. The middle EQ band is centered at 500Hz (with a wide Q) and also allows for 6dB boost/cut. When you get to the bass control, you have the option of selecting the frequency of the shelving control (also 6dB per octave) at either 60Hz or 120Hz, and the level of boost/cut is upped to 9dB in either direction. I like to think of the presence control as an independent EQ option to be layered onto the more traditional 3-band tone stack. It offers up to 12dB of boost (no cut option) at either 2kHz or 4kHz, with a slope of 6dB/octave. The power switch and its corresponding LED round out the front panel controls.
On the back of the unit, we find such typical offerings as the AC receptacle and main fuse, but several other nice touches, such as the 115v/230v switch and the pair of very nice Speakon® and 1/4″ combo speaker outputs. These are followed by 1/4″ jacks for pre-amp out and the line-level effects loop send and return. Our review unit is also equipped with the optional studio quality Jensen DB-E balanced output transformer, and this DI has switches for ground lift and EQ/flat. One of the things that you will notice about this head is the lack of a cooling fan. Another thing you will notice – which explains the lack of a fan – is the large aluminum heat sink, visible between the two transformers through the rear grill. One feature which you cannot see, but which adds to the quality and performance of this head, is the Jensen transformer which drives the 800-watt class-D output section.
The enclosure, itself, is definitely part of what makes this head so appealing. It is made from wood and covered in tolex, with a large, sturdy leather handle on top, and four large rubber feet on the bottom. It just screams both “cool” and “quality.” The front and back of the unit both feature round-aperture metal grills, to allow for adequate airflow. The name “Demeter” is stenciled in white paint across the front grill. All in all, it is one slick-looking package, and it feels at home sitting atop pretty much any cab, be it big or small, vintage or modern. In fact, the only thing about it that is somewhat unwieldy is the name. That’s a lot of consonants and numbers, with some dashes through in… I would call it the “Demeter Mini Head,” but James just introduced an even smaller, 400-watt version at the 2015 NAMM Show. Hmmm… perhaps the “Mini800,” then? Oh, wait, we already have the Minnie 800D power amp. I guess I can see where James had trouble coming up with a catchy name for this one. “VT Head,” perhaps?
From our previous reviews, and my personal experience with a Minnie 800D, I knew that this head would pack a punch. I also felt like I had a pretty good idea of what it would sound like, as I have had one of the 1.5U rackmount VTBP-201 preamps for many years. The baseline tone of the VTBP-M-800D certainly captures the harmonic complexity, clarity and articulation of my VTBP-201. I also happened to have my Demeter HBP-1 preamp on hand, so I thought I’d compare it against the VT Head, as well. Running the unbalanced output from the HBP-1 into the effects return of the VTBP-M-800D, there was a strong family resemblance. The HBP-1 comes across as more smooth and a tad more “round,” while the VT Head is more lively and a touch more bright. I also compared the output from the VT Head to that of the Minnie 800D (by driving the Minnie 800D with the preamp out of the VT Head), and as expected, they each match the other, punch for punch.
I was able to try the VTBP-M-800D with a variety of cabs, and I found many good pairings. One of my favorite matchups was with my Bergantino HD212, which is a very balanced-sounding cab, with pleasing heft and great clarity. It really showed off what the VT Head can do. The bass control on the head has more juice on tap than you’d expect from “just” +6dB, and it was more than enough to make even comparatively thin-sounding cabs come across as full and authoritative down low. As you might expect, this head really helps to bring potentially dull-sounding cabs to life. It is also worth noting that this head has a lot of power on tap, so care must be had when using it with cabs that do not favor high power handling.
In addition to its great sound, powerful output, and immensely portable form factor, I also found the VTBP-M-800D to be very quiet in operation. There is no hiss or other extraneous “signal noise,” and the lack of any fan noise really highlights this characteristic. This would be a great head for either stage or studio use.
Products from the mind of James Demeter always strike me as having at least one foot in the audiophile world, and I consider that to be a very good thing. This head is no exception. It offers the kind of piano-like clarity and harmonic complexity which I have come to expect from really good tube gear, and them combines that with a truly powerful output section. These are reasons enough to fall in love with the VTBP-M-800D, but once you factor in the light weight, compact form factor, and the slick esthetic presentation, it is a clear winner.
|Rated Output Power:||800 watts (4 ohms)|
|Inputs:||One ¼” (1 megohm), ¼” effects return|
|Outputs:||2 combo ¼”/ Speakon, XLR (DI), ¼” pre-amp out, ¼” effects send|
|EQ:||Treble, Middle, Bass, Presence, Mode Switch|
|Other Features:||Jensen DI output transformer|
|Dimensions:||13" wide x 5.5" high x 9" deep|
|Price:||$1,599.00 List ($1,359.00 Street)
$1899.00 list w/Jensen DI
($1599.00 street w/Jensen DI)