Vinnie Rossi: Larry – thank you for this opportunity!
In 2005, I received a 4th generation iPod as a birthday gift. After loading a few albums and listening, I really wanted to see what was “under the hood” because I was impressed with the iPod concept. To my surprise, it used a good quality Wolfson DAC, but the analog output stage that followed was of poor quality. I performed the first “iMod” and used it as a source via the modded line-out, and was very please at how natural it sounded with Apple Lossless (ALAC) or WAV files. Knowing how popular the iPod was, it made sense to break the stereotypes about “iPods are not for audiophiles!” In fact, at that time, most audiophiles did not know you could load WAV or Lossless files into an iPod – they thought it only could play iTunes MP3 downloads. Since then, a lot has changed with computer audio in general. The iMod has been compared favorably with CD players less than $1k, and is very popular with portable audio enthusiasts literally all over the world.
LB: I imagine that at the time you had a “daytime” job; what kind of work were you doing, and what is your background?
VR: My background is in Electrical Engineering, and I was passionate about music and electronics at an early age. Before I started Red Wine Audio at the beginning of 2005, I was working as a Test Engineer for Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs designing automated test systems for high speed laser transmitters and receivers used for fiber optic communications. Digital eye pattern jitter analysis, auto laser biasing and characterization were just some of the functional tests performed using test sets that I helped develop. I enjoyed doing this for quite a few years and I learned a lot, but my audio passion was very strong and I would spend evenings modding audio gear and listening to music, and I would daydream about turning my hobby into my career. I decided to go for it and started Red Wine Audio – making it my full-time job.
LB: When did you decide to manufacture your own equipment, and what was the motivation?
VR: Modifying audio equipment was fun (e.g., the “famous” Toshiba 3950 modification), but when you modify, you are trying to change circuitry to obtain the sound that you are looking for. You also find where corners were cut in the design of the product you are developing modifications for. Many times I found a lot of unnecessary complexity in designs and found improvement by simplifying with fewer (but higher quality) parts. Modification service helped put Red Wine Audio on the map in the early days, but at that time I was already gearing up for my own products – designed from the ground up.
LB: Your initial offering was an amplifier based on the Tripath module. What was it about that technology that intrigued you?
VR: The lower powered “T-Amp” chip offered a sound that traditional solid-state amplification didn’t have. It was closer to that of a push-pull tube sound; some thought more like SET, but to me the bass performance was cleaner than SET. I also loved the relatively small number of parts needed, and the low voltage required. This was the case for the lower powered Tripath chipsets.
LB: The distinguishing feature of all RWA products is the use of batteries. What was the impetus for going this route, and what hurdles did you face along the way?
VR: With our first product, the 6 watts-per-channel Clari-T-Amp, we needed 12VDC to feed the Tripath chip (it was their 2024). After emails with Chris Own of Ack!Industries, who was the designer of an SLA battery powered, non-oversampling DAC that I was very fond of, I was intrigued with the idea of making an amplifier with a larger 12V SLA battery. This would provide huge current due to the very low internal impedance, and would completely avoid the AC-to-DC conversion process inside of the product, as well as the need for clean AC power to feed the product. No fancy power outlets, no power conditioners, no audiophile power cords. Just pure “DC-Direct” as I coined it.
The advantages were clear from the start. No AC hum or high frequency noise picked up from the AC line when playing, so the background was very black. The dynamics were excellent because there was huge amperage on demand, without the choking of a step-down transformer, rectification stage and voltage regulation stage.
Regarding hurdles we experienced early on – SLA batteries do not like to be deep cycled, and the early RWA products (the Clari-T-Amp and original Signature 30) did not have the voltage monitoring and automatic recharging circuitry (our SMART board), so if the customer left their unit ON by mistake and deeply discharged the battery, its play time would be reduced and replacement was soon needed. It wasn’t until the Signature 30.2 that we installed our generation 1 SMART board, which would automatically shut off the product and begin charging if the battery voltage dropped low. In general, SLA batteries are not expensive, but they don’t have the cycle life of the battery technology that we switched to in 2010, nor the other numerous advantages (see below).
LB: You have changed the type of batteries recently; was this for convenience, sonics or both?
VR: Both! We now only use our OEM-designed LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) battery packs. They feature a built-in circuit board that balances each cell in the pack during charging, so all the cells are equalized and one never gets over or undercharged. This explains how we achieve over 2,000 charge cycles. This circuitry also allows for playing and charging at the same time, so the customer can listen 24/7 if they choose to do so with the flip of a switch. This is not as pure as running without the charger, but it is great for burn-in and background listening. You can never overcharge the pack.
Our LiFePO4 packs also do not care if you fully discharge them or not during your listening session – their cycle life remains the same.
Another excellent feature of LiFePO4 is their much greater energy density, so we have more space inside our enclosures (which allowed us to fit the tube stage in the LFP-V Editions and offer it as an upgrade). Their lighter weight (less than half that of an SLA with the same voltage and capacity) also saves the customer on shipping costs.
Regarding sonic advantages, our LiFePO4 packs boast less than half the output impedance of SLA, and you can clearly hear how this delivers superior bass response, dynamics, and micro-detail. LiFePO4 also has a flatter discharge curve compared to SLA, so they are very consistent- sounding throughout the entire listening session.
The only downside to LiFePO4 is that the pack costs 10x more than an SLA, and the charger is almost 10x the cost as well. But the reliability of these packs are far superior. All these advantages easily justify the increased cost, and we have NOT passed this onto our customers.
LB: How powerful an amp can you practically make, using batteries?
VR: Very powerful! Generating the higher voltage would not be too difficult, nor would be expanding on the cell balancing circuit board. But due to their very low output impedance, high voltage can become dangerous (potentially lethal) if one were to open up the unit and tinker without knowing how to safely work inside.
LB: Some claim that batteries deliver current slowly, as a result of which dynamics are diminished. What are your feelings on and experience with this?
VR: I have never found this to be the case, as long as the correct batteries and implementation are used. SLA batteries and our new LiFePO4 packs can easily deliver very high instantaneous current – much better than using an AC-to-DC power supply. In fact, I have found that using AC-to-DC power supplies results in reduced dynamics compared to using our battery packs. Power supplies require a large transformer to step down the voltage from the AC mains. From physics or basic electronics class, you learn that the inductance of a transformer “chokes” instantaneous current delivery. But the story does not stop there. The AC output of a transformer needs to be converted to DC. This involves a diode bridge (or tube) rectification stage. These can only deliver so much current before they overheat and burn out, and I won’t even get into the noise created in this stage. If the power supply is regulated, voltage regulators can only supply so much current before collapsing. This is why non-battery powered amplifiers feature large “reservoir” storage capacitors – to compensate for the inability to deliver large instantaneous current.
Anyone who has accidentally shorted out an SLA or LiFePO4 battery pack knows that the wire turns to molten copper – it gets too hot so quickly and becomes a fuse. That is because a shorted high current battery can output hundreds of amps. AC-to-DC power supplies in home audio components typically do not deliver this kind of amperage.
LB: In addition to the new batteries, another significant change in your products is the addition of tubes. Had you previously worked with tubes? What criteria did you use in selecting the tube and the circuitry around it?
VR: Yes, I’ve worked with tubes and they are not much different from working with transistors. The challenge was designing our tube preamp (Isabella), and later our LFP-V Tube buffer stage, running directly from our battery pack without the use of any DC-DC step-up converters. We found that the 6DJ8/6922/7308 family of tubes worked brilliantly in this application. I wanted to use the tube(s) for voltage again and buffering of the line-level signal, but continue to use solid-stage for the output stage to deliver the high output current to drive speakers. I found that this gave all the attributes of tubes that make the listening experience more engaging and seductive, but with the control and dynamics that sounds the most realistic.
LB: What other changes have you made over the years to the amplifiers?
VR: With our new Signature 15 and upcoming Liliana Monoblocks, we are no longer using Class-T (Tripath) in our design. Instead, we are using a Class A tube input stage, and a discrete, Class AB, FET output stage. This, combined with our LiFePO4 battery pack design and SMART circuitry has taken the performance of our products to a whole new level and sets them apart from competing products in the same price class… and beyond!
LB: The RWA product line has expanded considerably; in addition to amplifiers, you now offer the Isabella preamplifer, Isabellina DAC, Isabellina HPA headphone amp, and the latest addition, the Ginevra phonostage. Is there a particular “house sound” you strive for in your product line?
VR: Yes – a sound that offers an emotional connection between the listener and the music. This sound is dynamic, with seductive midrange warmth and tonality, and a detailed top-end that is clear and natural. I avoid sonic attributes that initially give the listener a “wow factor” but then leave them with fatigue and the desire to “take a break” from listening because they had enough (or too much) of something that just sticks out too much in the presentation. The sound needs to be balanced, but not bland.
LB: Without revealing any trade secrets, please tell us a bit about your circuitry.
VR: Premium parts used throughout, purist circuit design, including short and direct signal paths, discrete FETs vs. lesser sounding (and less expensive) Opamps, switches on rear panel for shortest signal paths, all designs run off-the-grid, eliminating the AC-to-DC conversion process when listening, and as mentioned above, using tubes for the line-level signal, and solid-stage for the speaker output stage.
LB: Tell us about the upgrade path for customers who own earlier models.
VR: When we release a new version of a product (e.g. the Signature 30.2 was updated to the Signature 30.2 LFP-V Edition), we offer our customers an upgrade to the latest version. The cost for upgrading is much less than the cost of having to buy the new product.
We also have a 100% trade-up policy for our customers. For example, if they purchased an Isabellina DAC and later decide they want an Isabella preamp with built-in Isabellina DAC, we give them 100% trade-in value towards their upgrade. We then sell the traded-in unit as a pre-owned unit, with a new 5-year warranty and at a reduced price – everyone wins!
LB: Many modders began by working on their kitchen table. A full product line must require considerably greater infrastructure. Do you do all the manufacturing, or is some of it farmed out? And please tell us about your new factory.
VR: I started in 2005 in my basement, but when we came out with the Signature 30, I had to find a larger manufacturing space to keep up with demand. We do all the manufacturing in house, except for our enclosures which are made for us by a local company. I do not plan to farm out any aspect of our products unless it is close enough to Red Wine Audio such that I can verify the quality of the work, and that every wire is soldered and positioned in our units the way we do it. I admit to being a control freak with this. Red Wine Audio (translated to Italian is Vini Rossi, which is how to pronounce my name) is me, and every unit we build is tested by me and my reputation is tied to it. I have no desire to manufacture off-shore. We develop long-term relationships with our customers and do all upgrades in house, offer customer service here, and this will not change if it is a Red Wine Audio product.
LB: You currently sell your products online, direct to the consumer. Is it your intention to retain that model, or do you envision establishing a dealer network?
VR: We do have dealers/distributors outside the USA, but here in the USA, we have been selling primarily factory-direct with a 30-day refund policy, with no re-stocking fee. No dealer show room is going to sound like your listening room, nor does every dealer have the same speakers and other equipment that you have. So the only true way of knowing if a component is right for you is to be able to take it home to listen.
That being said, we are still open to working with select dealers (ALO Audio in Portland, OR is an example) who offer the same 30-day refund policy and are not looking to sell a brand on-the-quick via Audiogon, eBay, etc.
LB: In addition to the RWA house brand products, you also are the exclusive U.S. distributor for WLM speakers. Do you plan to distribute any other products?
VR: At this time, our product line has expanded to the point where we are so busy selling Red Wine Audio products. This is what we do best, and we offer our customers the highest level of customer service before and after their purchase. At this point, we are not planning to distribute other products besides the cables and portable headphone amplifiers from ALO Audio, who makes our iMod dock cables and OEM builds our interconnects and speaker cables.
LB: Vinnie, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We wish you continued success, and hope you will provide Dagogo the opportunity to review some of your fine products.
VR: Thank you, Larry! I appreciate your thoughtful questions and interest in Red Wine Audio, and thank you to Dagogo for publishing this interview. I would very much enjoy submitting a new Red Wine Audio product to Dagogo for review. Did I tell you about our Ginevra Phonostage? 😉
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