How I dug myself a hole
Doug White of The Voice That Is is one of those dealers we read about but don’t really see much of these days: a gentleman. That’s it. There’s really nothing to add here, so I will anyway — he’s respectful, firm in his convictions, provides clear and unassailable value to his clients and is both entertaining and actually helpful. He’s exactly what you want in an audio dealer, and he’s actually refused to sell things to me. Wait, what? No, seriously — it was the right call. His goal is long-term business, and while short-term gains are nice, his keeping me from doing dumb things is probably what keeps me asking for his opinion. I wish there were more dealers like him out there.
That isn’t to say, however, that Doug isn’t a salesman at heart. He most definitely is. And in one of his sneakiest, slipperiest moves, Doug loaned me a $30k Vitus Audio integrated amplifier, the SIA-025, about 18 months ago. You know. Just because. He said he was going on a trip or something. “Its just going to be sitting locked up in storage and”, he said with a verbal shrug, “if you could use it, maybe you’d find that interesting?” Ha! I was totally on to his clever games, so I obviously said “yes”, though the term “blurted” might have been more apt. Anyway, I still had a great time with his amp. The SIA-025 was one of the first Summit-Fi products I’d ever gotten to spend any significant time with, and that visit remains one of my fondest “audio memories”. The pairing of that unit with a Clearwave 7R stand mount loudspeaker was heavenly — Accuton drivers with RAAL tweeter, driven by VA, was what “they” mean when they talk about “system synergy”. My conclusion at the end of that visit was “Holy Cow”, and my only reservation was that the bass impact could have been more forceful. Oh, that and the price. Pfft. Details.
At CES the following year, I ran into Hans-Ole Vitus and told him how impressed I was with his integrated amp. Big smiles. I then told him that I thought that his baby needed a bit more grip on the “down low”. Serious-face. I remember him shrugging, as if to concede the point. Then, he leaned in and added, “It was what I could do with that form factor. You want bass? Check out the monos!” A big laugh and a wink followed that, with a clap on the shoulder that knocked the breath clear out of me. Did I mention that Hans is freakin’ huge?
The monos in question, sadly, retail for $45,000 a pair. [Gulp]. While I’m sure Doug would have been happy to pocket the commission on that sale, he started waving his hands at me as soon as I started asking questions. “First, you need better speakers,” he said. “Amps come after that.”
Shortly thereafter, Doug got a line on a pair of TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers, a pair that had suffered a “minor mishap” at a regional audio show, and offered to help me get them and get them reconditioned. These normally $65k speakers were (and are) way beyond my means, but I invested in them as statement pieces for a couple of reasons. One, because manufacturers don’t take would-be reviewers seriously if their personal references are clearly modest in price. Sad, but true. Two, because “real” audio magazines don’t take would-be reviewers seriously if their personal references are clearly modest in performance. Also sad; also true. I thought of the Contrivas, then, as table stakes. Two birds, one stone, and who needs to retire, anyway? Of course, the problem with table stakes is that they only get you in the game. Playing the game is a whole other proposition — and one the requires its own pile of chips.
The day my Contrivas showed up, I danced a little jig. Happy me! But a few weeks later, the System Building Project began in earnest.
One of the first projects I talked over with Robert Harley, editor-in-chief of The Absolute Sound, was a piece on my TIDAL loudspeakers. I spoke to Jonathan Valin, Summit-Fi expert and Editor-At-Large of TAS, about matching, synergy and expectations for ceramic-driver loudspeakers. He’s had some experience in this particular realm [cough]. But as a result of these conversations, I had plans. As part of those plans, I got a visit from a $50k Soulution 530 integrated and spent a month with that beast driving the daylights out of the big Contrivas. I’m still breathless, even though it’s been almost a year since that visit ended — I’ve never had sound like that before or since. The review that was supposed to fall out of that audition never happened, unfortunately, but my notes have lots of exclamation points. If nothing else, it reset my own personal barometer and threshold for “reference quality” — and that was invaluable. Even if it made me despair for my retirement plans. I mean, do I really need to budget for that? C’mon. Seriously?
When Hans-Ole offered to send me the matching pair of products out of his brand-new Reference Line, I was equal parts terrified and thrilled. Thrilled, because, Vitus = Awesome. Confused because $90k worth of gear hitting the house is clearly going to fubar my insurance policy. But if anyone was going to re-reset my “reference level”, this was the guy that could do that. My mouth started watering at the thought. Yes, I have problems. A natural state best described as “confused” is probably one of those problems.
Speaking of good words, ‘nonplussed’ is awesome. It means “surprised and confused so much that you are unsure how to react”. For example, when someone trots out the term ‘reference’, I’m usually inclined to think that they mean “superlative in every way”. In high-end audio, this would usually mean something that roughly translates as equal parts “absurd” and “awesome”. What it does not usually mean, at least to my rudimentary and admittedly limited grasp, is “entry-level”. When used this way, the natural reaction is to be … nonplussed. See? It’s a great word.
So, it turns out there are three levels of awesome coming out of Vitus Audio. There’s the ‘Master’ level — this is way past the point where I recognize landmarks, and all the prices are in the “if you need to ask …” category.
Then, there’s the ‘Signature’ level — this is the one I was familiar with (and mistakenly thought Hans-Ole was referencing). These are products that cost as much as a brand-new, fully kitted-out BMW, and anything in this category (or higher), I tend to call “Summit-Fi”. I want to be able to play here, but that’s not really possible. Kids, retirement, food — not to mention not actually having that kind of money — kind of limit my engagement with this level in ways I find fundamentally dissatisfactory.
But, it turns out, there’s really a market for products that are a bit more approachable. Who knew? Enter the Reference. And yes, Vitus means it — these products, while more affordable than the others, are all still related and all share the design aesthetic, the approach, and to a large extent, the house sound. $14,000 for a DAC and $14,000 for a power amp are not cheap, not by any measure, but coming from this particular vendor, you’d be forgiven if you started reaching for words like “bargain”.
But using the term ‘reference’ as your starting point? Nonplussed! I mean, what is he trying to say?
Oh. Right. Got it!
He’s just ballsy. Really, really ballsy.
Am I the only one that fondles stereo equipment? It’s not like I put on frilly underwear or anything, but I really do like the way gear can feel. I like buttons, dials, switches and knobs and I like it when the design actually takes into account the feel and feedback that a well-made piece of machinery brings to the experience.
Vitus Audio, as a brand, is really into build quality. The Signature Series is uber-posh, with an extremely modern minimalist look and feel, all the while practically oozing sex pheromones into your listening space. And before you ask, no, I’ve never spent time with the Master Series gear, so I have no idea how quickly it’d have me making inappropriate comments or spontaneously complaining about how constricting my clothing was. We’ll just have to imagine that it would be quick. And yes, I meant that double-entendre, too. Lewd and self-deprecating. That’s how I roll.
The Reference Series shares the same understated modern look, and the retro LCD is still front and center, iconically set back from giant flanking aluminum face plates neatly bracketing it. The casework, however, is bent-metal and not custom-fit interlocked blocks. There’s a big drop in outlay between a $40k line stage and a $14k one and that’s got to come from somewhere. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Reference build — no no no, not at all. That is, the touch-me level is down a bit.
The good news about the remote is that, if you’re absent minded, replacing one is now a rather trivial matter because the remote control for the RD-100 is actually one many of you have lying about from purchasing something from Apple Computers. Yep. The remote is a $19 Apple do-jabber. If that sort of thing matters to you, my recommendation is to get the optional, radically upscale, $1k RC-010 remote control that is included with the line stages in both the Master and the Signature lines.
The chassis fascia have buttons flush-mounted into them for power and input selection, and the RD-100 has some more for setting the volume and navigating the surprisingly complex menu structure. These click with a satisfying give, but fetishists be aware that there are no knobs anywhere to be seen. Again, think “modern” and you’ll see the aesthetic shine through here.
Around back, there are remarkably robust binding posts for the speaker terminals. The XLR and RCA jacks are all superbly laid out, with clearly adequate spacing and discrete modular terminals. Both chassis have their own grounding post, too, but note that there are no ground-lift toggles.
My review units came with a standard matte black finish.
The RS-100 is a big, bad-ass stereo amplifier. The biasing is locked to Class A/B, unlike the user-selectable biasing on the Signature Line amplifiers. At full tilt, the amp is good for 300 watts into 8Ω and that doubles into 4Ω. This is a lot of juice, and the power-on sequence will likely make the lights dim. Like all Vitus gear, there are custom transformers and other secret-sauce bits in there, all beefing up to that 100lb curb weight. The input impedance on the amp is a healthy 100kΩ on either RCA or XLR input.
On the RD-100, it’s tempting to think of the unit in terms of being a DAC first and a preamp second (though I’m not sure this is the best way to think about it). Anyway, this might go a long way to explain why there’s only one balanced and one single-ended analog input — but there are five digital inputs: one USB, one Toslink, two RCA S/PDIF and two AES/EBU. All of these inputs are re-nameable inside the Menu. Interestingly, they’re also disable-able inside the Menu, too, and disabled inputs are skipped when cycling through.
The DAC on the RD-100 is 24bit/192kHz capable, which is a fine and dandy thing, but there is no DSD support. About that: like all Vitus electronics, the unit is fully modular, so should DSD take off or Hans-Ole decide to fiddle about, swapping out the DAC module is apparently straight forward. The USB input does require a driver (even for Macs), sadly, and that USB input (and driver) is sourced from M2Tech.
To me, the strength or weakness of a preamp (or a DAC masquerading as a preamp) lies squarely on top of the volume control. Here, the RD-100 gets a bit fancy:
The topology of the volume control used in the RD-100 is very different compared to the “standard”. The RD-100 uses a series of fixed resistor networks to control the volume. Relays are used to switch between the resistor networks. Across all volume steps, a fixed resistor is in series with the signal path. This gives the best performance possible. When you change volume, a different number of shunt resistors are used.
To prevent pop in the output, we have chosen to first add the new shunt resistors, and then wait a short time, before removing the unused shunt resistors at the new volume step. This will give a minor fall in volume before settling at the new volume step. It takes only very little time to get used to this type of operation of the volume, and it will give you superior sound quality over the traditional digital and analogue potentio meters. — from the RD-100 manual
This is very cool — and probably why it sounds so damn good. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For speakers, I used the Magnepan 3.7 panels and my current references, the TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE. For notes on the former, check out that discussion I referenced earlier; for the latter, read on.
I typically chose to set the speakers up with toe-in, and settled on an over-the-shoulder aim, with placement that kept the speakers at least 4′ off the front wall and 3′ off the side walls, with 8′ or more between the tweeters.
Room treatments included a full set of Monster Bass Traps from GIK Acoustics.
Isolation platforms from Symposium Acoustics were used for all components.
My listening area is carpeted, unfortunately, and the pad sits directly on concrete. Not ideal. To help mitigate this, I set the speakers on custom-made Terrastone plinths from edenSound, in large part so that the isolation footers on the speakers could achieve far better coupling than what the Berber carpet would allow. Generally speaking, this arrangement is dramatically superior to the directly-on-carpet placement, and brought the side benefit of placement adjustability since they were easy to slide about (FTW!).
Digital Audio Converter
I used the Vitus pair to drive my Magnepans and my Contrivas, primarily. For most of this tour, I was able to leverage DACs from Auralic, Berkeley Audio and Light Harmonic for comparison. Of the three I had on the bench, the Da Vinci from Light Harmonic made the deepest impression, and at $20k, that’s hardly out of line with expectations. The sound of the heavily-buffered, non-oversampling, non-upsampling R2R implementation is remarkably non-fatiguing, deeply detailed, and fully extended. An extended tour of that DAC is available at The Absolute Sound. Of the three, I own only the Berkeley Alpha (Series 2).
Berkeley Alpha USB
For comparing the various inputs on the RD-100, I used the Berkeley Audio Alpha USB to S/PDIF converter with a WyWires LiteSPD AES digital cable. This converter has been my go-to since it was released, and to my experience, has not been significantly bettered. Insertion into the digital chain typically results in a tighter, more focused low-end and an airier, more holographic mid-to-top end. Very few USB implementations have been able to match what I hear when using the Alpha USB (with either the BNC or AES digital connections), with typical shortcomings of transparency, grain or PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing). I purchased this device about 4 months prior to its launch and have been using it with increasing rarity since — the quality of direct-USB inputs has come a long way in the last two years, making this unit less and less necessary.
Purist Audio Design Praesto Revision Cables
For wire, I used a full loom from Purist Audio Design. Speaker cables and interconnects were Corvus/Praesto Revision ($3k/2m for speaker cables; $2k/meter for interconnects) and all the power cords were Aqueus Aureus/Praesto Revision ($2k/m). This lineup has been since revised to a new standard, called Luminist, announced at AXPONA this year. Unfortunately, this means that a stand-alone review is now hopelessly dated, but oh well.
I hadn’t had much experience with Purist prior to this, and bowed to Doug’s suggestion that I check them out, a trial which he then arranged. In his experience, the Purist wire was an unapologetically fine match for the sound of the big TIDAL loudspeakers and one he commonly recommended.
Usability was a bit challenging — the liquid insulators used in the wire housing make the tubes very unwieldy and difficult to orient correctly. Patience proved more than a few virtues here, but with the new Luminist wire, this challenge has been largely resolved.
There was absolutely no reduction notable in any part of the spectrum, something I’ve not always found to be true in my wire swapping. From bottom and top: bass was deep, full, round and the top end was likewise grain-free and extended. In the middle was a good sense of depth and weight, with real meat on the bone. In general, I found the Praesto wire to contribute similar textural depth and richness I’ve noticed with Tel-Wire, but with a slightly darker presentation over my reference collection of Silver and Gold Series wire from WyWires. Given the components I was testing out, I learned that this latter character was a fine thing for a wire to bring to the party.
TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE
These are impressive loudspeakers. It’s probably best to just start there. They’re physically dominating simply due to their size, and have a level of finish that is unparalleled in my experience. I’ve seen a “piano finish” on a wood veneer before, but this is something beyond that. I will say that of all the gear I’ve ever owned or borrowed, this pair of speakers earns gasps, a whites-around-the-iris look, accompanied by spasmodically clenching hands. As I said, they’re impressive.
On the design side, this is a 3-way/4-driver full-range loudspeaker, so there is a separation of duties and full, clean extension down to the mid-20Hz region. The “Dia” in the speaker’s name tells you that the tweeter is diamond; the “cera” refers to the ceramics used everywhere else; all of the drivers are fully custom proprietary designs made by Accuton. From what Doug tells me, the design process for all TIDAL speakers is thoroughly measurement-driven — a 180º deviation from the designer-chasing-sound approach I’ve found many designers to take. I’ve also been told that the speakers are an “easy” load, in that the impedance/phase response is a completely benign 4-6Ω throughout the response range. Minimum power recommended is a startlingly low 20 watts. On a whim, I thought I’d test this latter bit directly so I borrowed a 20 wpc S20 amplifier from Gary Dews at BorderPatrol. That paralleled 300b amp run into these speakers produced some truly lovely sound and also produced my first “eureka!” pairing for the System Building Project.
Marc Mickelson of The Audio Beat has a detailed review of the speakers available online, so I’ll refer you to his excellent and on-point comments there. The primary differences between his review pair and mine seem to be related to a transparent upgrade made to the line since that included the all-new all-black Accuton drivers and some tuning tweaks. Mine also enjoy the upgraded finish.
The sound of any given component is nearly impossible to tease out, as what you’re really hearing is the combination of efforts made by the system as a whole. I feel like I have to keep reiterating this as 1) it gets lost, and 2) it’s variable. What I attempted to do, then, was keep the variations to a minimum, swap in the new component and give it a listen and then swap back. Some very obvious downsides to this fast-switching means trying to keep the components on-song while not in use — and lugging 100lb amps to opposite ends of the house to accommodate this methodology and isolate two systems isn’t really feasible. So, instead, I just reversed the process — I used Amp A for a couple of hours to warm it up, swapped in Amp B, and swapped back. Then, I used Amp B for a couple of hours to warm it up, swapped in Amp A, and swapped back. These trials took a lot of time, obviously, but I’m sure you’re feelin’ me right about now.
There is, in my opinion, a “house sound” that Vitus Audio products tend to achieve: rich, detailed, sweet. That is, there’s a lot of texture to enjoy, and there’s very little “smoothing” that some reference amplifiers tend to indulge in; not here, there’s lots of detail on offer. The uppermost treble seems very clean and grain-free, but not perhaps as forward as some might prefer or expect. Here’s the design goals, as laid out by Vitus Audio:
Generally we’re after super neutral, super detailed and super dynamic reproduction without “loosing” the nerve in the music which often is a drawback of many high-end amplifiers. Our real strongholds are complete silence, unbelievable depth and width in the soundstage resulting in a far more open sound with higher resolution -you could say, closer to the artist. As a result of the above, our amps do not “focus” on any specific frequencies – i.e. no extension of top or bass, which of course results in high clarity of the midrange since it’s “naturally present”! — from the RS-100 manual
So, let me offer that yes, taken on whole, Vitus Audio pairs extremely well with ceramic-driver loudspeakers. I was very satisfied with the overall impact and drive my system was able to realize. While the dynamics aren’t horn-like — I had the Vittora loudspeakers from Volti really give me a master-class on what that term actually means — but then, no dynamic speaker is.
What was on offer is one of the most detailed, tonally-rich and timbrally assured presentations I’ve ever been able to achieve, much less wallow around in. With that much power on tap, the big TIDALs were alive in a way that made it incredibly difficult to ignore them — this was not background music. Slam was terrific and well-recorded voices were nailed into place with a specificity you could see. Cue the goosebumps, folks, because this was clearly reference-class sound, regardless of how you intend that term. You’ll pardon the drool coming out of my gently swinging jaw, I trust.
Honestly, if I hadn’t had a pile of gear ready to play hot-swap with, I’m not sure I’d have bothered. The big speakers, paired with the “entry-level” Vitus electronics, were exhilarating. I found myself reaching back into the catalog, past all the jazz remasters and reissues, toward “comfort food”, like Zeppelin and Van Halen. Hey, that stuff has all been remastered, too, and in the latter case, it’s all available as a 24bit/192kHz download from HDTracks. So there. I don’t think many ceramic-driver detractors would really expect a whole lot from these loudspeakers when dipping into their classical music library, but the size of these speakers is not something to ignore. Big speakers = big sound, and here with the Vitus pair, this was cliché-city. Up went Coplands’ Fanfare For The Common Man and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just because. Strain, compression, muddling? Hah. Get bent. This was stirring stuff, and I generally
hate avoid Classical.
Okay, so what I’m gonna do in the next two subsections here is attempt to pull these components apart to try to asses their relative performance. On a objective scale, I’d put these four — speakers+pre+amp+wire — as a solid 8 out of 10, clearly bettered only by some extraordinarily expensive components from Soulution and TIDAL (and from Vitus, interestingly), and clearly bettering than any other combination I’ve yet to try.
RS-100 Stereo Amplifier
The big amp is, well, big. Not Biggity Biggerstein from Biggersville, because my old Plinius SA-Reference was a good deal more awkward and bulky. Without the giant (sharp!) cooling fins that the Plinius sported (or that the Pass Labs XA-100.5 amps carry), the RS-100 is downright modest looking. Until you try to move it. Just note that Ibuprofen does not prevent hernias, it just keeps them from hurting quite so much. Okay? Okay.
In the last assessment of the RS-100, I held that it was pretty much on par with the Pass amps, though that’s misleadingly over-generalized. When I pushed myself into a numerical rating system, I’d confidently given them the same scores, if for entirely different reasons. Lets talk about that now.
Both amps have a terrific sonic presentation. Take that as read. With the TIDAL speakers, the RS-100 is clearly more “linear” of the two, where “linear” gets taken as presenting clear extension in the down-low and up-high, with no “enhancements” in the mids. Into this load, the Vitus amp is coming close to 600 watts, vs the 200 watts from the Pass, and that extra power is audibly gripping in a wall-flexing kind of way. Slam goes way up, and overall system dynamics take a very healthy step forward. Give the RS-100 a ½ point for those categories.
Moving into the midrange, the amps also separated a bit, but I ultimately threw my hands up, relegating the difference to the Class A personality of the Pass Labs amps stepping in to provide a more engaging, if perhaps more forward, spin on that part of the presentation. It’s not a big difference, but it is noticeable. Voices, like Natalie Merchant on “Carnival” from the MoFi release of Tigerlilly, just took a subtle step closer to the listener. Give the Pass a ½ point for that.
Detail retrieval on the RS-100 was, by contrast, a few hairs more perceptible. The “cricket test“, a Chris Jones track that has some rather pointlessly entertaining evening fauna mixed somewhere down into the mix, always gets trotted out at some point in some listening session or another, and here, the RS-100 stepped back out in front. Another ½ point to the Vitus.
Alright, time to reset and step back. With these speakers, the two presentations were far more different than they were similar … unless we’re talking about every other amp. Which is why, when compared to the other amplifiers in the shoot-out, the numbers fell the way they did. They’re completely different and totally the same, by comparison. Helpful, right? Ha!
In the end, it comes down to matching and given the natural warmth of the TIDAL loudspeaker — something that may be unexpected given the driver complement — the Vitus Audio turned my crank just a bit harder. Change the speakers — say, moving to the Magnepan 3.7 panels — and that entire equation got reset.
Synergy is not very friendly to sweeping statements.
RD-100 as preamp
The RD-100 is a DAC, pure and simple. Except it’s also a preamp, pure and not-so-simple, especially given that the volume control array (discussed above) is quite complicated in execution, even if the result is a very simple, clean signal path. When used with an external DAC (or phono) hooked to one of the two analog inputs, the RD-100 was very simpatico with every other component — completely silent and completely transparent.
It wasn’t until I compared it to the XP-30 from Pass Labs that things snapped into a bit clearer focus. The $16,500 XP-30, in my view, is perhaps the most linear and transparent line stage I’ve come across. It does no favors, hides no flaws, and is the closest thing to a straight-wire component that I know of. This is sometimes a great thing, but paired with the Vitus RS-100, the resulting sound was a little too clean. I know folks that would get rather charged up by this, but I preferred the slightly warmer sound of the RD-100 in front.
Flipping things around, the XA100.5 amplifiers, fronted by the Vitus RD-100 preamp, were a little dull compared to the all-Pass system. Too much of a good thing? A matter of preference? Not sure, but the result was not really my cuppa. More teasing was definitely in order.
Vs. external DAC as preamp
Most computer audio folks will hold that a good digital volume control, where a DAC is used to turn things down from a baseline “unity” (100%) level of gain, is and will always be “the best way” to implement a volume control, that is, it is the least lossy way to preserve signal integrity and will routinely (and always) produce more transparent, and more strongly, “better sound” than any currently known alternative. Strong words, to be sure, but hey, this is audio’s high-end — strong words are part of the game.
Personally, I think there are challenges with this approach, including the required gradual destruction of the digital signal through “bit tossing” — attenuation in this approach is a matter of applying increasing levels of truncation to the bit stream representing the audio signal. Theoretically, this is inaudible, but practice tends to prove otherwise. What I’ve found is that by carefully matching the unity gain with “target listening volume”, small gradations in a digital domain are exactly as claimed: invisible. But when the swings down from unity are large (greater than 20dB, for example), that’s no longer true. Anyway, I brought out the big stealth fighter to see if it could shed some light on the whole volume control thing.
The $20k Da Vinci DAC was clearly designed by someone with serious issues, mostly relating to audio paranoia. I mean, sure it’s a great DAC and all, but it also sports one of the most transparent digital volume controls I’ve found, with a very wide band of sonically unintrusive attenuation available to the user. To set things up, I ran the Da Vinci into the RD-100 balanced input, and was more than a little gobsmacked. The system’s soundstage was achingly three-dimensional with fully analog-like liquidity and airiness. And no, I’m not using any of those terms lightly. Bass, a weakness I’ve found in most under-designed DACs, was equivalent to the Berkeley Alpha DAC, which puts it on par with world-class in terms of reach and physicality. Yum, yum, YUM.
Pulling the RD-100 and running the Da Vinci directly into the RS-100 in a DAC-direct configuration added more detail and an overall gain in transparency. I think this means we were at YUM+ at that point. But, teasing about, I found that this increase was mostly true at the higher volumes. For normal, regular use I actually preferred the Vitus in front of the Da Vinci (especially at “normal listening” levels), for better consistency and preserving more “roundness” in the presentation.
I suppose that makes me an “active pre” kind of guy, as this is pretty much exactly where a preamp wins over a DAC (or over any passive preamp) in my opinion. An active provides more “structural support” as the volume falls from unity (because it’s an amplifier, albeit a low-gain one), where on a DAC-based volume control (even a well designed one) performance seems to fall off rather precipitously. I’ll also admit that the ability to fold in an analog source into my listening routine is still high on my list of desired qualities.
RD-100 as a DAC
Shifting gears, I found my experience with the DAC portion of the Vitus pair to be a bit more problematic. I started with the USB input, because quite frankly, simplicity is almost always better and if I can wire my computer audio source directly without needing an outboard converter box and the associated wiring, I want to do that.
But after loading the appropriate M2Tech driver and restarting my server, the sound coming from the system was not as … involving? Something. Break-in and use did improve this some, but grain and transparency dramatically improved by switching over to the AES input, courtesy of the off-board Alpha USB, so I stuck with that approach for the rest of my time listening.
High-res files played back through the Alpha USB to the on-board DAC on the RD-100 had a level of resolution that was about average for today’s field, which is to say, really quite good. If you think that’s surprising, you haven’t been keeping up. The sweet spot for DAC performance these days seems to be right around the $3k mark, plus or minus, with increasingly minor improvements as you move farther up and away from that inflection point.
Case in point is the $3,500 Auralic Vega. I tend to think of this DAC as “He Who Commits No Sins”, which is a back-handed way of saying that I think the performance is consistent and still maintains an extremely high-level of quality. It’s ability to delve into DSD and double-rate DSD files is an incredibly handy tool, and it’s precisely here that the organic flow hits its highest stride, but compared apples-to-apples with PCM-only material, I found the Vega and the RD-100 to be distressingly hard to differentiate. Given that I consider the Vega to set an absurdly high bar in terms of value (in terms of over-performing for its price), hitting this target is very happy thing.
Turning to the rapidly-approaching-venerability $5k Berkeley Alpha Series 2 DAC. This DAC set records and won awards when it was released several years ago, and in the intervening time the DAC is usually only clearly bettered on Buzzword Bingo. Sonically, the DAC is a reference, most particularly for its exceptional handling of bass impact and texture. Running the Alpha into the balanced inputs on the RD-100, the only aspect where the Berkeley stepped out in front was in its sweet spot, the down-low, where it produced greater impact with deeper apparent reach. The RD-100, by contrast, was arguably more adept at weaving a more convincing portrayal, with greater midrange intimacy, more air, and a higher degree of detail retrieval.
This is about when the hamster wheel in my head began to spin rather furiously.
There’s this theoretical threshold that products hit, a knee in the arc along the price-performance curve, when you start wondering about the wisdom of spending more. Okay, maybe that’s just me, but for this pair of loudspeakers, I think this Vitus pairing might be it. Yes, I can most definitely spend more. There’s quite a bit to choose from out there and we don’t have to stray far to find it. For example, the Vitus Audio SIA-025 brought more organic mystery and life to the speakers than did the Reference pair, but it sacrificed both detail and bass to do it. Moving dramatically up-market, the Soulution integrated achieved a high water mark for performance with these loudspeakers, and that time completely reset my understanding of what the TIDAL speakers were capable of. But in terms of value, I have yet to find a match with them as lively and as engaging as the reference-quality sound I got from the Reference line from Vitus Audio. And that solution also included a DAC. And that’s interesting.
The RS-100 has one of the most non-intrusive Class A/B presentations I’ve heard, and with 600 watts into 4Ω, the amplifier has more than enough grunt to do anything and everything anyone ever wants it to. It’s a freakin’ beast. But it is also a Class A/B design and even with careful matching (recall the Purist Audio Design cables), it will never be as texturally rich as the Vitus Class A designs. That SIA-025 will remain one of the most thrilling amps I’ve heard, and if not for its lack of prodigious output, it might have been the game-ender for this Project. Extrapolating a bit, I’d venture that Hans-Ole’s first recommendation to me — to try his $45k/pair SM-011 monos — was probably the best fit out of his lineup, based on my preferences and his design goals. But $45k is … ahh … expensive. And then there’s that pesky issue about still needing a line stage … and a DAC.
Taking the RD-100 as line stage, I am very impressed. Given that its performance compared well to the clearly reference-quality $16,500 line stage from Pass Labs, this presents as good value. Looking at the RD-100 as a $14k preamp that includes a quality DAC sets off the fireworks. Most of us inveterate upgraders will look at a preamplifier, with its built-in phono or DAC, as something of a problem — upgrading one component may well require upgrading two. But given that the Vitus architecture is fully modular and upgradeable … ba da bing!
The fact that Vitus Audio decided to bring their Summit-Fi-based offerings to a wider audience speaks well of their business savvy and their dedication to the hobby as a whole. While I (and I’m probably not alone in this) wish I could play a bit more freely in the rarefied air that Vitus Audio is justifiably known for, I have to acknowledge that wishes aren’t typically cashed by my local bank branch. C’est la vie. But the fact that this line, their lowest-tier offer, is called “Reference”, a term usually used to refer to the top-tier performance most brands strive for, is equal parts revealing, hubris and simply dangerous. After a long look, I can only take this to mean that Vitus starts where others finish. Like I said, that’s ballsy. The fact that they back that ballsiness up … heh.
But products in this top-tier, this Summit-Fi level, really ought to come with warning stickers about how deep this particular rabbit hole goes. That said, I suspect that for the majority of you able to make that trip, most won’t ever need to. This offering is not only sonically inspired, it’s got ‘value’ written all over it.