Interview with Thomas Mayer - VinlSavor exclusive NEW


How it all started with Tomas Mayer getting into soldering?


With a background in electronic engineering, it was unavoidable that I would start getting into this. My background is actually digital microelectronics. I started building my own D/A converters in the late 80ies. Besides that I initially mostly did just some tweaking to my amplifiers and preamplifiers. In 1994 I discovered an underground magazine called Sound Practices. This contained many diverse articles, including tube circuits and experiences from DIYers. This got me hooked. There was so much enthusiasm flowing out of these articles. Since I did not learn anything about tubes at the university, I looked for everything I could find about vacuum tube circuits. I started with some simple designs. The first experiments were very encouraging. My initial attempt to build a linestage blew out the Audio Research SP9 which I was using back then.  I continued from there, exploring all kinds of circuits and topologies. About 5 years ago I started to do audio commercially. As a side job first and full time since beginning of 2013.

Do you consider yourself an audiophile?


No

What is the difference for you between music lover and audiophile?

The first one can enjoy music over any format or system, even in the car. An audiophile is more concerned about sound and this gets him distracted from the music.

And when and how you jumped into the high-end audio?

I started to get into ‘High End’ around 1985 as a consumer. I also visited the audio show with the same name regularly during the 1980ies. During the 1990ies I felt that the term ‘High End’ got overly used and for me lost it’s meaning. Since I started to build amplifiers myself I was lost for the ‘High End’ market. I also stopped visiting that show. Things changed after I went commercial with audio, and I returned to the High End fair this time as exhibitor.

Who would you say were your influences or still are?

Every author who wrote an article in Sound Practices. Joe Roberts who was the editor of that magazine.

Why VinylSavor name?

I created VinlSavor about 15 years ago when I was looking for a name for my first phono stage with LCR EQ. ‘Vinyl’ obviously stands for vinyl records and ‘to savor’ is a synonym for enjoying. When I got into audio commercially, I kept the name as my company name.

Why tubes?

Tubes are the amplifying devices which help me to get the sound I want. They enable the use of very simple circuits and straight signal paths.
  
Your view on tube vs solid state?

This is an old debate. I’d say people should use whatever gets them the sound they want. There are a lot of clichés out there. ‘Warm tube sound’, ‘cold harsh transistor sound’, ‘even vs. odd order harmonics’ etc. I think there is much more to it than just that. For me tubes are the tools to get the sound I want.

What would you say about the use of IC’s, Opamps and transistors in high-end audio products?

They don’t cut it for me.

N.O.S. tubes. Worthy of high praise or?

Before I met Dr. Schaffernicht of ELROG, I used only NOS tubes. For me the ELROG tubes were the first ones which match and even surpass their NOS equivalents. But to be fair I need to say that I did not try every current production tube. NOS tubes are a difficult topic. With tubes which are out of production since decades it is difficult to tell if it is really NOS or not, unless it comes in a sealed box. Even then without proper testing it cannot be ensured that a NOS tube will perform as expected.
  
How do you see work of Kondo,Shindo etc.?

Both great audio designers who had a big impact. Both artist with a unique style. Other names I would put in this category:

Susumu Sakuma
Nobu Shishido
Nelson Pass
Jean Hiraga

Old tube sound vs new one?

See point above about NOS tubes

Whats changed over the past few decades in tube audio?

A lot. Since the 1950ies tube audio meant push pull beam power pentode or tetrode. After the transistor started to dominate audio, this got further reduced to just a few designs based around the EL34, 6550 or KT66 and only some ‘exotics’ using other tubes. The only variant being the number of tubes which got paralleled to increase power output. Only the Japanese kept using directly heated triodes in single ended configuration. Jean Hiraga was among the first who brought this topology back to the western world. Diversity in tube designs first only grew in the underground among DIYers and mainly driven by the Sound Practices magazine. This continued to spread over the internet when the first specialized mailing lists appeared (predecessor of forums). Towards the end of the 1990ies this trend also swapped over to commercial audio and now we see a huge diversity of tube designs being used.
  
Analog vs digital. What is your take on both mediums?

I am listening 100% to vinyl at home. I am using digital to enjoy music in the car. Although I have a digital background and started my soldering with D/A converters, I still have many ideas to try in phono stages. But maybe there will also be a D/A product from me some time in the future.

Product you’re most proud of?

The LCR phono preamplifiers

Importance of silver and your experiences with it?

For me silver makes a big difference when used in transformers. Not so much when used in interconnects or as hook up wire in amplifiers. I am not into wire at all. I am using rather cheap interconnects in my system. I always recommend people not to spend much money on cables. The differences in cables are audible but rather unimportant for me. I get much bigger differences elsewhere in the system.

I have no technical explanation yet why the silver makes such a difference in transformers (but I am sure there is one). While there seems to be a cliché about silver sounding ‘bright’ my experience is very different. I get a warmer more colourful sound with an increased resolution.

They say the bigger amount of chokes the better result?

Just throwing many chokes at a design will not per se guarantee good sound. They need to be used wisely. My more elaborate designs usually have more chokes in them

What is the high-end audio means for you?

I think the term high end is overly used and for me lost it’s meaning. In the 1980ies it used to stand for HiFi products which bring exceptional sound qualities. Later the term was more or less a synonym for ‘very expensive’. If looked at from the sound aspect it can have a very different meaning for different people. A rather low cost system but with wisely chosen components which match well together can be more High End than a incompetently chosen system of the 100k+ category

When does hi-fi moves to high-end and when high-end step up to ultra high-end audio?

I think such categories are pointless. When the term high end came up, it supposed to say that this is the maximum possible. Now we are looking for new terms even above that. For some time ultra-fi was in fashion. I think everybody needs to chose for himself which category to be in and how to define it. There can be beautiful sounding gems in any of these categories.


Do you think we should be reinventing some norms and fixed references in high-end audio society regarding quality of reproduction? Kindly elaborate. 

There is such a diversity of systems and also listening preferences that any norm does not make sense. People should trust their own ears and use what they like no matter what any norm or other people are saying.


What would be the most exotics or high praised tube in your view?

Telefunken EC8020. I use this tube in phono stages.
  
How important are built in elements in your view?

The quality of components plays an important role of course. But the circuit comes first. The best components are worthless if the circuit they are used in is of poor performance. But it is important to balance. It is pointless to use an expensive tube or capacitor in an amplifier with otherwise less quality components. I strive for a good balance in my designs. I am not into what I call ‘boutique’ parts. That is anything which is labeled ‘audiophile’. In capacitors for example I am using solid industrial quality products or NOS ex-military paper in oil caps.
  
Let alone tubes how does vintage parts (military etc.) hold to modern electronic parts?

There are some amazing ex military paper in oil caps which I use in my 10Y linestage for example. These can be of a quality which is hard to find nowadays. I built up a good stock of military surplus caps for my top line products.

Do you tune-voice your amplifiers and preamplifiers?


Do you feel, that each designer imprints his own musical DNA into his products?

Yes, absolutely.

How do you see high-end world industry?

As mentioned above, a lot of diversity in products started to pour into the industry and a lot of them came from the underground. Many people who had been active in the underground DIY scene as myself, started to go commercial. While the high end world started to go a bit bland during the 1990ies, there is more diversity now than ever. The High End fair shows that nicely. A huge variety of very different concepts and technologies.
  
How about high-end audio society?

One issue which I see and also mentioned already is the dissapearing of the middle segment. This makes it difficult for newcomers to find a good entry into this world. I also see a trend of the average age of people who are interested in High End to increase. Millennials don’t seem to be very interested in high performance audio. I hope this changes and I see a good chance for this. Once positive aspect is the huge variety which is being offered nowadays. And the increasing sales of vinyl records. Vinyl has a certain coolness factor and now you see turntables very often in movies or advertisements. This could draw the younger generation into this and awaken their interest to discover the world behind it.

What about so often overused terms of good old tube analog days?

As you say, overused. In fact I think we are living in the best possible times when it comes to tube audio. The commercial offering of tube amps is more diverse then ever. Old tubes are still available in abundance and new tubes are being manufactured still. There is also a vibrant DIY scene with forums, blogs and festivals like the European Triode Festival.
  
Fetish vs substantial design?

Of course there is a lot of fetish going on. Just look at the cable and accessory offerings which are out there. If people have fun with it, why not. But it is the substantial designs which give long term listening pleasure.
  
Is pure class A a must and ultimate end approach?

I always say there is no single right way or approach. My designs happen to be Class A only though.

Form follows function as a must?

For some people form is an important aspect since HiFi systems are typically placed in living rooms and people use and look at it every day. This has to be respected and I understand it. For others the sound is most important and looks don’t matter much. For me function comes first and the form follows. I arrange the parts such that I get an optimised signal flow. Then due some adaptions so that it is aesthetically pleasing to my eye.

Where is the bridge between old tube designs and and contemporary solutions as many still seems to live in the past?

Every tube design has a bridge to the past and builds on knowledge which was created decades ago. My designs often use topologies which are dated back to the 1930ies or even earlier. But always with what I would call a modern twist to it. I use circuit topologies which give me the sound I want. This has nothing to do with living in the past. As the electronics industry evolved, many new developments were motivated by cost savings and not to get better sound. That’s why it makes sense to look at early concepts which got developed before cost saving measures were applied.

Western Electrics legendary 300B tube. A holly grail or overrated hype?

A good tube, but overrated.


You have any special bonds to 300B tube?

No. I was never very fond of the 300B. But it was mostly the hype which drove me away from it. I like to discover sleeper tubes outside of the mainstream which can be bought cheap but offer great sound if used correctly.

The Elrog ER300B changed that for me. So far it is the best sounding output tube I ever heard. But that potential can only be unlocked if all other components in the amp are of excellent quality

What is you view on OTL? 

I use many transformers in my designs even in the preamp, so there is no motivation for me to eliminate the output transformer. Audio design is about finding the best possible compromise. For me the compromises necessary to get tubes to work without transformer are bigger than those of using transformers. Besides there is now a huge variety of excellent transformers available.

What do you think about balanced topology?

That is a huge field. There is balanced, differential, symmetrical. This is widely misunderstood in the audio community and again full of clichés. I also have some balanced/differential designs. I used the topology to achieve a specific goal. I will certainly do more in that field.

What is specific to your topology?

My goal is to offer the best possible sound quality at any given price point. Depending on the budget I choose the circuit topology and do the parts selection.

Usually my designs have very simple and controlled signal paths. I prefer tube rectification and passively filtered supplies. When moving up in the hierarchy of my products there tends to be more transformer coupling and more chokes in the power supplies. Also the general parts quality rises up to silver wound transformers in the top category.

Importance of output transformers?

The output transformer is an important component which contributes a lot to the overall result. But it needs to fit into the overall concept. Output tube, driver tube, driver coupling method and power supplies are of equal importance.

Do you still believe in recognised Made in Germany quality?

I think great products are made all over the world. While my amplifiers and preamplifiers are assembled by me in Germany, the parts I use come from many different countries besides Germany: Japan, Sweden, USA, Switzerland, The Netherlands, China, Taiwan, etc.

How close we can come to the real life performance in high-end audio?

Audio will always be an illusion of the real thing. If you want real life performance you need to go to a concert. But when electronic instruments like synthesisers, electric guitars, etc are involved, what is the real life performance?


What do you use as your own reference when creating anything new?

My goal is to have a certain family sound in all my designs regardless of price level. What I am looking for is a involving sound with lot’s of tone colours and musical flow. Yet with high resolution but not dissecting the music into distracting details which are not integrated into a harmonic presentation any more. The higher up in the hierarchy a design is the more it has of all of that. I test every new development in my own system to check if it has these qualities. Not only new developments, but every single amp or preamp is used in my system for several days before it is delivered, to ensure the sound is according to my standards.

How do you see the importance of proper gain stage and what makes it special?

Every gain stage in the chain needs to be designed for it’s specific purpose in terms of amplification and output impedance. Best is to have just enough gain as is needed but as much overhead as possible. Overhead means he maximum signal the gain stage can handle vs. the maximum signal it actually sees. In my entry level designs I shoot for 6dB overhead in the power amp driver stages. More in the preamps. In the designs higher up in the hierarchy this increases to a minimum of 12dB and as much as 20db in linestages.

We all heard about the power supply being the hearth of any exemplary created preamplifier or amplifier. Can we hear your take?

As mentioned above already: Balance is important. Focusing too much on just one thing will not yield good results. My power supplies tend to be rather large and heavy, but the signal circuit is just as important and the power supply needs to be optimized for it’s purpose. Everything has to work in conjunction.

What is your view of vinyl?

VinylSavor says it all, no?

  
Do you think digital reproduction is coming close to analog?

I think digital reproduction has improved considerably. It is still improving and can give a lot of joy. I think it will always be different from analog and especially vinyl.


Where do you draw the line and say I call this a finish product?

For someone who is doing audio for a living, it is important to stop development at some point and call it finished. Otherwise you will never get to an end and earn some money. When I develop a product I have a sound in my head I want to achieve. When this is achieved, I call it finished. If not I will not release the product at all.

Is classical music the highest reference for playback?

No. Everybody should use his favourite music. A good quality system can reproduce any kind of music well.

How would you define your typical customers?

All my customers are music lovers. Most of them use vinyl as their main format, but some use also digital only. Often they went through the typical cycle of improving their system by exchanging one component after the other and got tired of that. Many of them are looking for their last amplifier or preamplifier and want to come to a rest with their system and just enjoy the music. 

Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?

I think the typical HiFi system as it was common in the 1970ies and 1980ies is gone. There is no mid segment any more. There is cheap mass market stuff and what is referred to as high end. The upper segment got considerable more expensive than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. But on the other side there are a lot of specialised small companies with niche products.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

Always trust your own ears.