When writing about equipment from top-tier companies such as those participating in this year’s The World’s Best Audio System, it is incumbent on us reviewers to convey our observations in such a way that the reader understands what we are saying without our having to make comparisons with other similar products. Why? Because, many times, there simply aren’t any products just like those under test.
The manufacturers of such products carve out a niche in the market with innovative technologies that are often proprietary, and by setting no limits on the cost of development and manufacture. This allows these companies to not only transcend the status quo, but to also build products that exceed the highest standards of quality, and to hopefully raise the performance bar. The fact is that, as they continually push to do better and offer more, most companies that are this high-end see their biggest competition as being themselves. Such firms are fueled by passion and driven by excellence. They’re a lot like Vitus Audio.
Vitus Audio was created by Hans Ole Vitus. In his early teens, he tore down and re-engineered some of his own hi-fi equipment and built his own speakers. His love for music and passion for electronics led him down a focused path that resulted in his earning an engineering degree in electronics in 1990. Five years later, Hans Ole created Vitus Audio, and focused all his energy on creating his own products, until, in 1998, an opportunity to join Texas Instruments as their area sales manager for Denmark and Norway presented itself. Vitus gained immense technical knowledge and experience while at TI, and by the time he left, in 2004, had built a highly valued contact network. This departure, a tough decision, was necessitated by the release of Vitus Audio’s first products, in 2003: the Reference RP-100 phono stage and Reference RL-100 battery-driven line stage. Less than a year later, at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, VA released the Signature SM-100 monoblock amplifier.
The MP-L201 has been available for a little over two years now. With a retail price of $60,000 USD, it’s largely based on its similarly priced phono sibling, the MP-P201. With a combined weight of just over 110 pounds, each of the MP-L201’s two chassis -- one each for the preamplifier and power circuits -- measures about 17"W x 5.25"H x 16"D. The MP-L201 can easily be placed on or in most audio racks with plenty of breathing space. The appearance is clean and modern, yet timeless in approach both inside and out. It’s available in standard Bright, Black, or Gunshot finishes, but can be ordered in pretty much any finish you like at additional cost. The front of each chassis comprises two slabs of solid nonmagnetic aluminum separated by a glass panel. The side, top, and bottom plates are made of a combination of that same aluminum and nonmagnetic steel.
Typically placed on top, the preamp chassis has only three buttons per slab, each subtly mounted flush with the thick aluminum face, for selecting or controlling Input, Mode, Volume, and Mute. Each slab of the power-supply faceplate has a button of its own, for Standby and Power. I’ve seen the inside of one of these units, and if there were ever an audio component that begged for a clear top-plate, this is it. The circuit design and execution truly are of Masterpiece quality -- the MP-L201 deserves to be seen and heard.
Around back are, up top, three balanced and two single-ended inputs; below, a 15A IEC receptacle feeds the power supply. Constituting roughly 75% of its mass, the MP-L201’s power supply is simply massive for a preamp. Extensively regulated by 24 voltage regulators, power delivery is exceedingly stable and noise free. Like all Masterpiece components, the MP-L201 is a fully balanced dual-mono design from input to output; any nonbalanced signals fed to it are quickly converted to balanced in the very first circuit stage. The volume control is Vitus Audio’s proprietary relay system, which uses only one resistor in series with the signal path, regardless of volume. All internal wiring is Vitus Audio’s own proprietary Andromeda wire, though the short signal paths mean that little of it is used.
Moving down the signal path, the MP-L201’s gain stages are all fully discrete, and based on shielded modules that benefit from a unique material designed to help damp mechanical resonances and aid temperature stability. In an effort to keep phase shift to an absolute minimum, Hans Ole Vitus designed the MP-L201 to use no global feedback. He explained to me that in his time with TI he worked extensively with hearing aids, and learned that the human ear can detect phase shifts as small as 0.1°. Therefore, a zero-global-feedback design was a must for the MP-L201 and for every Masterpiece model. Also available is an optional active subbass crossover designed to fully integrate larger speaker systems with active subwoofers, and a beefy rechargeable remote control.
Vitus Audio’s new Masterpiece MP-M201 monoblock amplifier (no picture currently available) is a true embodiment of the cost-no-object culture mentioned earlier -- not only because it costs $160,000/pair, but because it’s the culmination of what that culture tries to deliver: the meticulous implementation of cutting-edge technology in the service of unsurpassed sound.
That’s a bold statement, but I’m confident in making it: Vitus Audio has never wavered in their commitment to this culture. Look back to 2004, when Hans Ole Vitus introduced the Signature SM-100 monoblock at CES. If memory serves, the SM-100 was one of only two amplifiers then on the market that could confidently drive a pair of Sound-Lab Ultimate 1s at concert-level sound-pressure levels without melting down. The SM-100 evolved into the SM-101 in early 2006 and won several awards; due out in the second quarter of 2012 is the Signature SM-102, which borrows technology used in the MP-M201.
The MP-M201 has four chassis: each stereo channel is driven by separate power-supply and amplifier sections. The construction is similar to the rest of the Masterpiece components both structurally and aesthetically, but differs in that each component measures 17"W x 9.5"H x 24"D. Even more staggering is the weight: 99 pounds for each amplification chassis, and 143 pounds for each power-supply chassis. If you do the math, that’s 484 pounds’ worth of amplifier taking up roughly 11.5 square feet of floor space -- Hans Ole does not recommend stacking these units.
This in itself is nothing new -- most of us have seen huge twin-chassis monoblocks before. What separates the Masterpiece MP-M201 from other monoblocks is Vitus Audio’s fully balanced, zero-global-feedback discrete topology, which makes use not only of one input stage to feed two output stages, but also of VA’s proprietary fully regulated power supply and exceedingly high-quality components. What’s more, with the exceptions of the PCB boards and the CNC milling of the chassis themselves, every component used in the MP-M201 and the other Masterpiece models is designed and/or built in-house.
When I first read that the MP-M201 has one input and two output stages, I was a little confused. Hans Ole explained it by walking me through the signal path: The MP-M201 has both balanced and single-ended connectors, selected with a toggle switch on the rear panel. Once the appropriate input signal type is selected, all incoming unbalanced signals are immediately converted to true balanced signals by the first amplification stage. The signal then travels to a fully discrete active crossover that separates the frequencies above or below a crossover point specified when you order the product. (This feature can be defeated by the user, as it will be in TWBAS 2012.) The idea here is that by using the same input stage to feed two output stages, you’ll essentially be able to biamp your speakers with a signal that matches that of your speakers’ crossovers. This permits the most efficient use of the amplifiers’ power while taking advantage of the ideal phase, gain, and speed characteristics. As the signals are being divided, a fully discrete buffer stage handles any impedance problems that may arise. Once delegated by the crossover, the signals travel along their very short path to the ULN discrete gain stages to be amplified. Before fully passing through the output stage, however, the signal goes through a final protection circuit said to have zero influence on the signal, but mandatory for protection purposes.
With now a better understanding of what was going on inside the amplification chassis, I was ready to move on to the MP-M201’s power-supply chassis. First, however, I asked Hans Ole Vitus what kind of power output the MP-M201 is capable of, and he told me: 100W of pure, continuous class-A power (or 300W in class-A/B) dedicated for the higher frequencies, and a whopping 500W of class-A/B power on tap for the lower frequencies (1400W peak). I began to understand why the power-supply design was so important here, and was less surprised -- but still impressed -- by its weight. Vitus is a bit of a stickler when it comes to power supplies. Not satisfied with anything available on the market, he and one of Europe’s foremost experts in transformer design took it on themselves to design his own UI-core transformer, which Hans Ole could then adapt for use in all of his Signature and Masterpiece products, and which would outperform any EI, toroidal, or other UI designs available. To generate the kind of power Hans Ole had in mind, nothing less than two of the 2.2kVA transformers found in the SM-101 would be used in each chassis of the MP-M201.
Another effort made to endow the MP-M201 with almost limitless power was to design a fully regulated power supply. Purpose-built to the same specifications with the components as the output stages to avoid any possibility of a bottleneck, this proprietary design ensures the immediate delivery of the highest-quality power. Although Vitus said little about the particulars of how this is done, he did say that the new power supply provides 100% stable voltage and current, which allows for full control of all possible configuration options offered by the dual output stages, including the non-biamp mode. This essentially turns the MP-M201 into a "traditional" monoblock amplifier, allowing both transformers to provide a maximum 4.4kVA worth of power to a single output stage channel. One other advantage offered by the regulated power supply and transformer design is that the 100% stability of the current and voltage supply negates the need for a power conditioner.
Despite all of this remarkable engineering, dedication, and awe-inspiring performance capability, I still had to ask Hans Ole what else contributes to the enormous cost of these flagship amplifiers. I mean, let’s face it: you could buy a pair of these, or a brand-new Aston Martin. Vitus took the question in stride, and didn’t give me some lame excuse like "It’s the best in the world" or "It took ten years to design." He gave me a very logical answer, and proceeded to convince me that if I were to buy a pair, I would be getting excellent value for my money. Although engineering cost was a component, much of the cost is also due to the materials used. Vitus made it no secret that cost, size, and weight were not considerations in his sourcing of any of the MP-M201’s components.
Take those 2.2kVA transformers: There are two of them in each power-supply chassis, and each weighs over 48 pounds and costs four times what a normal high-quality transformer would. To produce these, Vitus Audio must buy core material in substantial quantities, roughly 50% of which cannot be used because it doesn’t meet VA’s stringent quality standards. It then must be stored for at least a month before it’s able to be used in production. Hans Ole also stated that smaller items, such as transistors and relays, are all extensively tested, categorized, and paired by hand. The same process is followed for capacitors, which are sourced solely from Elna and Rifa, some of the best, if not the best, in the world. All internal wiring is VA’s own Andromeda, and all connectors are of a copper-rhodium alloy sourced from Furutech, which also supplies the binding posts -- the same posts used on the Magico Q7, the loudspeaker of TWBAS 2012.
But the costs don’t stop there. The casework is milled from solid slabs of aluminum and fitted to a vibration-canceling chassis of steel that fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch. All assembly is done by hand, followed by the testing of every unit that comes off the assembly line, to ensure that everything works perfectly. Finally, two stages of listening test are performed on every unit -- an initial listen to make sure it sounds right, then a burn-in period of one to eight weeks, followed by a second listening session -- before granting it a passing or failing grade.
All of this adds up to some of the most cutting-edge amplifier and preamplifier designs the world has to offer. Extreme? Yes -- but then, that’s what The World’s Best Audio System is all about, and Vitus Audio’s Masterpiece MP-L201 and Masterpiece MP-M201 are the perfectly logical choices for it.
. . . Aron Garrecht
Manufacturer contact information:
AVA Group A/S
Phone: +45 9626-8046
Fax: +45 9626-8045