Vitus Audio RL-101 Reference Series Linestage

The DNA of Spectacular


  October, 2012

Entry Level?!
Hans Ole Vitus has made quite a reputation for himself with a variety of gorgeously built, thoughtfully designed and very expensive audio products. Earlier this year I wrote a review of the fabulous RI-100, 300-watt integrated amp, the first new offering from his “Reference Series” product line. Also part of this product line is the RS-100 stereo amp, RCD-100 CD player, and the subject of this review the $12k RL-101 linestage. All of the Reference Series components cost between $11k and $13k and believe it or not, this comprises the company’s entry level product line! I shit you not!

Having said that, in the universe that is high-end audio, these products do have the look, sound, and build quality of what we audiophiles typically refer to as a “reference quality” high-end equipment. But if the products in this line represent the designer’s “entry level” effort, then what the heck must the products in Vitus’ “Signature,” “Masterpiece,” and “Design Studio Series,” sound like and cost? We got a clue in 2010 when Vitus rocked the audiophile world with the stunning $60,000.00 MP-P201 dual chassis phonostage and its similarly priced sibling the MP-L201 linestage. Those products are probably best off in more well-heeled hands than mine, so I’ll stick with the (relatively) affordable products in the Reference Series. This brings me to the RL-101.

About the component
This is my fourth review of a product from this Danish company so I’ll forego all the yadda-yadda about the history of the company and its founder. In short, it’s a Denmark based company, run by a brilliant designer with fanatical attention to detail, who definitely believes in cost-no-object products. He’s also one of the coolest people you can talk to in this industry and I heartily recommend seeking him out at the many audio shows he attends.

As I mentioned, I had reviewed the RI-100 integrated amp (here) and was so taken with it that it is now part of my main review system. Using an integrated amp the quality of the RI-100 gives me the inherent advantage of being able to use it in a simple single amp setup, or using its high-quality balanced (XLR) preamp outputs, can also be used in a more complex multi-amp setup such as the one I employ with the Magnepan MG20 loudspeakers that I’ve added to my main system. But despite how good the preamp section of the RI-100 is (and it is good) I know that there are most likely to be some sonic enhancements to be had from a dedicated linestage that isn’t sharing any power supplies or circuitry with an amplifier. So when Hans Ole offered to send me the new RL-101, I jumped at the chance.

The RL-101 (which is descended from an earlier Vitus design called the RL-100) is every bit a Vitus component, loaded with premium quality parts and gorgeous internal and external construction. The only obvious difference between the RL-101 (or the rest of the Reference Series products) and the other Vitus lines is the use of a heavy gauge metal chassis instead of the precision cut slabs of aluminum used on the more expensive designs. The front panel is like other Vitus product with nicely sculpted lines, slightly recessed soft-touch control buttons, and a black acrylic LED display down the middle. The rear panel is also identical to most other Vitus units and appears to use the same high-quality RCA and XLR connectors.

Inside, the RL-101 is based on a modular construction, which makes it upgrade friendly since the owner only needs to switch out modules in order to take advantage of Vitus’ sound enhancing technologies. The volume control is a relay based technology used even on the more expensive lines and uses only one fixed resistor is in series with the signal at any volume step. It also has both unbalanced (RCA) and Balanced (XLR) inputs and outputs for optimal flexibility with your system.

The review sample I was sent had a high-gloss white painted finish. It was gorgeous to look at, though in a way it also reminded a little of a futuristic kitchen appliance. Vitus now has the ability to paint its products in numerous colors so visually integrating these components into your home’s décor is now easier.

If I had to quibble about anything with this unit, it would have to be the use of the Apple remote control. If you have other Apple devices that use a similar remote, like the iPod, iMac or in my case Apple TV, you may have issues with one remote controlling two devices simultaneously. There is a way that you can code each remote to work only with its device, but even then, you may find yourself hitting buttons numerous times in order to get a function to work. Every time I hit the button to increase the volume on the RL-101 (same for the RI-100), a light would flash on the Apple TV device but the volume stayed the same. I basically had to cover up the Apple TV whenever I wanted to operate some linestage functions. Frankly, I was surprised that Vitus decided to go with this remote. Not that it’s a bad remote. It’s elegantly styled and fine to use with Apple products, but in our remote control-essential world, I would expect a $12K linestage to come with a more substantial remote like Vitus’ own RC-010 remote which comes standard with the other Vitus product lines. Admittedly, this may only be a small annoyance but still worth pointing out.

System setup
As I mentioned earlier, I made some major changes to my reference system setup by adding a pair of the venerable Magnepan MG20s to my system. I still have great love for my Escalante Fremonts, which have been part of my reference system for nearly seven years, but I’ve always considered the Maggies a special kind of speaker. So when an opportunity came along for me to bring them to Casa del Thomas…

These Maggies by-pass the standard Maggie crossover and utilizes the excellent Bryston 10b Electronic crossover. This meant that I had to use four channels of amplification. Unfortunately, the RI-100 cannot be used as a stand-alone stereo amp so after testing out a few other candidates, I wound up utilizing a pair of Bel Canto Ref 1000 mono amps for the low frequencies and M300s for the upper frequencies.

The RL-101 would replace the RI-100 whose linestage section I had been using for preamp purposes. I use a TEAC UD H01 DAC to provide the digital signal from an OPPO Digital DV-980H Universal Disc Player and an Apple TV device which streams music from my iTunes account. The system was connected with my reference Entreq Konstantin and the new Apollo cables and cables from relative newcomer, M&G Audio.

In order to get the proper attitude, I first spent a solid day and a half listening to my system in its usual configuration, utilizing the preamp outputs of the RI-100 going into the Bryston crossover, etc., etc. Then finally I installed the RL-101 and began my listening to the same tracks I had the day before.

The first song I played was Melody Gardot’s “Baby I’m A Fool” from her My One and Only Thrill CD [Verve]. Music flowed from the Maggies exquisitely. Her soft and smoky voice filled the room. It was as I had grown accustomed to hearing it in my system with the RI-100 except now there was slightly greater definition to her voice and the instruments. The RL-101 gave the music more life while maintaining its natural character. Violins continued to sound like string instruments instead of a synthesizers like they do in a lesser system. Depth and width of the soundstage seemed more expansive but not overblown. Track 6, “Our Love is Easy,” was another song that came to life through the RL-101 in much the same way. What really caught me was the richness of the silent pauses. I mean it was orchestra hall quiet. So much so that once she resumed playing the piano it was delightfully startling.

The next disc was James Taylor’s brilliantly re-mastered self-titled album, James Taylor [Apple Records]. Track two, “Something’s Wrong,” begins with an acoustic guitar intro that is nothing short of spine tingling. Songs like this are why I love this hobby so. Especially when his mellifluous voice just pours out of my speakers. The RL-101 renders this music with all of the nuance, snap, and instrumental subtlety that makes listening to acoustic music such a joy. The sound was tight in a natural – not constrained – way. Track nine, “Night Owl,” opens with horns that are airy and resonant. The sonic spectrum sounds real from the upper frequencies to the deepest bass, making for fuller sounding music.

I had high expectations for what this linestage could 
do with live music, particularly jazz, and baby, did it deliver. I played one of my favorite live discs, Patricia Barber Live: A Fortnight In France [Blue Note]. Track three, “Crash,” is a dynamic tune that features Barber’s drummer Eric Montzka. The RL-101 draws the most from his play with its ability to deliver pace, detail and clearly defined performers within the soundstage. Track 8, “Norwegian Wood,” highlights the uniqueness of Barber’s voice and again plays to this linestage’s strengths. Not only is the breathy quality of her voice captured well, but so too is the feeling and atmosphere of the venue, Chicago’s legendary Green Mill Jazz Club.

Compare and Conclude
The RL-101 did for my system what I thought it would do once it replaced the RI-100. I got a slightly wider, deeper soundstage with instruments and vocals that were better rendered and defined. But that’s not to say that the RI-100 is a slouch, no, not at all. Overall, the RI-100 held its own; never sounding too far off from the RL-101 and it comes with a beefy 300 watt amp. That is more a testament to the design prowess of Hans Ole Vitus. He simply can’t help himself. Even when trying to design to a specific price point, he creates reference quality products such as these.

Clearly the competition for the RL-101 is not the RI-100, it’s every other linestage on the market. And in its price range (and below) there is a ton of competition, the excellent Classe’ Audio CDP-800 which I reviewed earlier this year immediately comes to mind. But I can’t imagine a linestage that the RL-101 wouldn’t compare favorably to, save for another of the other Vitus products. Despite being part of an entry-level product line make no mistake, this is a reference quality product. You simply have to consider the company that the line is part of. It’s like buying the least expensive Bentley. It’s still a Bentley. Highly recommended.

Frequency Response: +800KHz
SNR: 110db
THD+Noise: 0.01%
Volume Control: Type – Relay controlled fixed resistor network
Gain: -91.5db to +18db
x3 (L+R) XLR (Sensitivity 2/4/8VRMS / Impedance 10kohms / Slew Rate 1000V)
x2 (L+R) RCA (Sensitivity 2/4/8VRMS / Impedance 10kohms / Slew Rate 1000V)
Outputs: 1 x RCA, 1 x XLR
Impedance: 75 ohms
Dimensions: Height – 100mm, Width – 435mm, Depth – 377mm
Weight: 9kg
Power Consumption: Standby – 30W, Operation – 30W
Optional: Phono Stage Module, DAC Module
Price: MSRP $11,250

AVA Group A/S
Sandgaardsvej 31
DK-7400 Herning
Phone: +45 9626 8046
FAX: +45 9626 8045

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