HAVING the owner of a high-end hi-fi company in the house is like bringing home a Michelin chef from your favourite restaurant to watch the manner in which you eat his takeaway meals. Denmark’s Vitus Audio CEO and founder Hans Ole Vitus and his wife Britta Mogensen were in town recently – I was fortunate enough not only to interview him in my man cave but also take a road trip with his team to listen to some Vitus set-ups in Malaysia.
Vitus is the genius behind the design topology and Mogensen is blessed with a pair of golden ears, and together, they make an impeccable team. I often heard them discussing the merits and pitfalls as they evaluated sound during listening sessions.
I was innately curious about how he voices his amplifiers, having listened to them with with Marten and Sonus Faber speakers.
“I voice them to have the highs and mids of tubes, with solid state-like control for the lows,” he revealed.
“It’s basically making something that doesn’t work, work. I sent the design schematics of my first module to one of the best op amp designers who used to work for Analogue Devices and Burr Brown (before they were acquired by Texas Instruments), and he said that it measured really well but that it wouldn’t work after learning the design schematics from me. It took me eight years (1995 to 2003) to perfect it. It’s a combination of having a bandwidth of 2.5MHz and zero global feedback. Feedback introduces a bit of phase error into the circuit. Once amplified, the issue becomes bigger.
“My goal is to have it as real as possible with as much resolution as possible. Real equals as close to the original as possible.
“I play my instruments in my garage and record them for immediate playback for a direct one-on-one comparison. People are chasing the ultimate truth but without knowing what the ultimate truth is. For some, live music is like a live concert in a stadium but you are actually listening to the PA system playing back. Go to the streets and listen to musicians playing acoustic instruments to get a very intimate and direct comparison.
“We don’t want this power bass. We want higher resolution in the low frequencies. We want more control with the bass extension. I’m a drummer, when you listen to Hotel California, in the beginning, you hear boom, boom, boom then he goes boom, boom, booooouum every second time when he releases his hand from the skin. You can really hear it and it’s so obvious… this is one of the things I listen to, to gauge the low frequency resolution.
“I always want to improve the sound, make everything better if I can. Plus ease of use, and communication between our products. They must be easier to service and have a longer life.
“We take our time with our equipment. We don’t want to play the usual marketing game. There is so much of quid pro quo in the product review scene. It sounds a bit arrogant but we want our products to speak for themselves ,and depend less on reviews but more on reputation.”
What was the first amplifier you designed?
“The SM-100, the first real signature product. Actually, the first two products were called The Statement. The first two products were a battery driven phono stage and a line stage. Changes in EU lead-free regulations on usage of batteries made them impossible to ship, hence I had to redesign them. After redesigning the power supply, they became the RP-100 and RL-100.”
Does he design all the amplifiers himself, I ask?
“We have a team of engineers. The output stage is a stable design that I have perfected over the years. My main focus is on the analogue side. Particularly on all the small signal modules where I really do all the work. Also the power supply on the current products is mainly me. We are growing the team to work on other product areas so that I can go back and focus on the modules as that’s where the main sound difference comes from.”
One of the things that sold me about Vitus amplifiers is that I get the full spectrum with my Sonus Faber Extrema at low volume, especially the bass weight. I have had similar experiences with other Vitus set-ups, with a pair of Marten Coltrane 3 and Coltrane Supreme 2.
“What’s the science behind that as the Extrema is known to be difficult to drive?” I asked.
“It’s the current! That’s the main reason why we use EI core and UI core transformers instead of toroidal transformers where the voltage can drop up to 12% to 15% per rail between the open loop to close loop and if you are using a split rail, then it is x2. We use EI cores for our Reference series and everything else is UI. This is purely because of size and price. Comparing toroidal transformers to UI core is like comparing Class D to Class A. They are huge, inefficient and really expensive. Of course, you can get cheap ones but the specs aren’t there.”
He went on to elaborate: “That means that if you drop 25% on the voltage, it affects the power that the amplifier can deliver. With our UI core, one of the things we really want is to minimise the voltage drop which we have measured to be only around 1.5% and our supply voltage is extremely stable across the load and it just doesn’t give up.
“When you have a speaker (Extrema or Supreme 2) like that, even at low volume, with low frequencies, it’s difficult to drive and it wants more current hence voltage will drop with lesser transformer designs but our UI core stays stable. In the beginning, a lot of people were saying that our amps didn’t have very good control on the lower frequencies and were a little bit over-exaggerated but that’s because many speakers were designed using amplifiers that were using ‘not so good’ transformers. So when you start pushing them, it becomes thin as they aren’t able to maintain the power at lower frequencies; manufacturers were voicing their speakers to compensate for that. This is the main reason behind your favourable listening experience at low volume with our amplifiers.”
Oil in paper capacitors are somewhat ingrained in my soul as a former tube junkie and I had to ask if Vitus actually uses them in his sweet sounding amplifiers.
“Not anymore,” he said and went to explain.
“Oil caps are not really what they used to be. The problem with oil is that they dry out with temperature. The quality of oil capacitors has also changed as when we used them in the past, you could hear the oil within when you shake them but nowadays, you hear nothing and the same capacitors are much lighter in weight as well. We did a comparison between the old and new capacitors in the same amplifier and you could hear the difference between the old and new caps. This is for some specific huge main capacitor we have used – not everyone in general.
“For the Masterpiece Phono stage, we use Duelund as the only capacitors in the signal path. I want all my products to sound the same from the first unit to the 8000th unit. We measure everything that we receive from suppliers to make sure that it’s within our specifications which includes them being the same size for PCB mounting. We give a lot of heat to our suppliers.”
With much excitement, he went on to share:
“We do as much surface mounting as we can with SMT machines. It’s very divided amongst manufacturers. Some say chip resistors are really bad for sound and that’s total bullshit. The only real non-inductive resistors that are absolutely non-inductive are chip resistors. Why are non-inductive resistors good? If the resistor is only a resistor, it won’t react to frequency but it does as there is some capacitance and inductance within. If they are inductive and you pass current through, they will induct some noise and that’s not wanted. With a system we have just listened to in Kedah, you said that it’s so quiet and that’s one of the reasons why. Because we go into the details with the resistors.”
How would you describe the change in sound from your first amplifier to now?
“Not much actually. It just became more refined, better resolution, better control. The overall topology is the same but we have done so much work to make everything better. You know the saying, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
You have also modularised your design topology. Tell us more.
“Where do I begin? There are three main reasons. The main reason is obviously protection of IP. It’s all moulded in and the main IP is within each module.
“The second rationale is to improve on sound quality. When the input stage comprising of smaller components is sitting on the main board, it’s better to solder them on a different heat profile and you can do that when you modularise.
“Finally, I can do upgrades to the modules, in term of technology, when available. Just plug in. It’s also easier to service. When we were planning the production of the newly launched RI-101 (integrated amplifier), we underestimated the demand for upgrades from (the previous) RI-100. We sold more than 100 units of upgrades within the first two months. Demand is good.”
One of the features that struck me with the Vitus Signature and Masterpiece series of amplifiers is that they have two output modes – Classic and Rock. Certain that there is no EQ chipset within, I ask what the thinking was behind this?
“It’s interesting as Asia is the main reason why we developed the Rock mode.
“The feedback was that our equipment lack excitement and needed more energy. They were comparing it with many other brands, and as an engineer, I know the ‘common’ way they design, that makes it sound that way, and for me, that has nothing to do with realistic sound. It’s aggressiveness or compression, etc. This type of feedback challenged me and I just decided to develop the Rock mode.
“Now our amplifiers have the same, (customers) thinking it’s faster and more dynamic with better low-end grip and better resolution. They buy our amplifiers for Rock mode and in a very short time, they all switch to Classic mode.’
“This happened many many times in Europe too and people go ‘Brand XXX is like better’ when they listen to Classic mode. When we switch to Rock mode, their jaws drop and say ‘now it sounds the same but better with so much control in the low frequencies’. Over a period to time, they all went back to the Classic mode. The same with our customers in Asia as we find them listening primarily in Classic mode, too.
“It’s not about speed, whether if there is more speed or dynamics. In technical terms, there is more third harmonic distortion so it seems more exciting but you get listening fatigue. Our ears don’t like uneven harmonics. Some people like tubes because tubes have even harmonic distortion. Listening fatigue to me is enemy number one. I don’t want the system to dictate to me how long I can listen to it.
“The dual modes were first introduced on the MPS and SM-011. We progressively rolled out across more of our products to give customers more listening flexibility.”
Are you planning to introduce any new features to models in the near future?
“We may introduce new chassis colours. Perhaps a titanium hue accompanied by orange and red as well. White was the previous bespoke colour as you can see in the room here (in Alor Setar, Kedah),” Mogensen said.
Vitus added: “The SIA-030 (integrated amp) is being finalised and there will be an option to include a DAC streamer module. It will use a similarly-sized chassis like the MPM (Masterpiece power amp) but not as deep. The SIA-025 (mk.II) will remain in production as an eternal classic as it is a really good design that we are proud of.
“We would like to introduce a 1/2dB per step resolution volume control in the future but the limitation is space.”
Having travelled across the globe, is there a distinct difference between customers’ demands across the globe?
“Not so much now compared to five years ago. Back then, in Asia, there was a tendency to play extremely loud but not as much anymore on this trip. It’s completely different. Then in the US, they want this extreme amount of bass that is not controlled at all. It’s different from the subdued Europe that I’m used to. Now, they are all coming closer to a single ideal.”
As for his Malaysian experience, he smiled and said: “Lots of great systems, lots of very nice people and lots of great food.
“One of the things that struck me is that there are plenty of near-field set-ups. In Europe, they have it pretty much in one line about 1.5m from the front wall.
“It’s a new and positive experience here for me. With near-field, you get more focus, the sound stage is narrower but is much deeper. You can pinpoint things with higher precision. For my next development system, I will probably use near-field.”