Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: V-MODA VAMP Portable iPhone DAC and Headphone Amp

Review: V-MODA VAMP Portable iPhone DAC and Headphone Amp:
VMODA VAMP main image
High-end audio for your iPhone, to go
The look of V-Moda gear may be a little Versace for some mild-mannered audiophiles, but make no mistake: Val Kolton knows a thing or two about good sound, and beneath the flashy exteriors of his gear you'll find thoughtful engineering, well-conceived ergonomics, and impressive sound quality.
So when Kolton told us he had a portable source device in the works, were we excited? You bet.
The new V-Moda VAMP ($650) is a portable, battery powered, iPhone 4/4S-specific DAC/headphone amplifier combo, incorporated into a form-fit iPhone case that roughly resembles a Mophie Juice Pack or other extended battery packs of that ilk. In terms of functionality, it's like a pocketable version of NuForce's Icon IDo, providing an optical S/PDIF digital output for desktop interfacing alongside its core digital decoding and headphone amplifying  functions. It also incorporates a 2200 mAh battery pack, which'll keep your phone charged as you listen, for an additional 8 hours or so of listening time (or a lot more talking/texting/socializing).
The VAMP is a beautifully finished little device — the brushed aluminum case that protects the unit's guts is confidence inspiring, though such a thing might seem a little crazy to the average gadget lover.
Consider the alternatives, however, and it becomes clear that Kolton does know the market, and his audience. Headphone aficionados (who populate online forums like Head-Fi) are willing to go more than an extra mile for high-quality portable sound, carrying around stacks of outboard devices — DAC, amp, battery pack — strapped to their players or phones with industrial-strength rubber bands. Why? Such a setup lets them use a far wider range of headphones on the move, including difficult-to-drive high impedance and low efficiency cans.
But this is a much, much slicker solution. The VAMP provides high-end portable iPhone audio without making you look like you're carrying around an IED — a pretty big deal, which makes, potentially, for much more widespread appeal.
On the business end of the device, alongside the analog output control (something we always like to see on portable headphone amps), you'll find a small, illuminated three position toggle switch; you can set the device to play, to play while charging a docked iPhone, or you can turn the thing off. On the other end of the device, high and low output gain settings are available (the former will come in handy for hard-to-drive headphones like your HD-650s); there's also a reset switch should the thing crash, though we never found a reason to use it. A mini-USB port is provided as well, though it's for charging the VAMPs battery pack (and acts as a through port to sync your phone when the VAMP itself is turned off).
The main toggle switch also has a little trick up its sleeve. In conjunction with a side mounted button (which itself doubles as a battery level check), you can use the toggle to select EQ modes. In addition to a flat setting (indicated by a red LED), you'll find "VQ" - an EQ setting with a general tilt towards the treble and a subte low-end boost — a bit of a twisted smile profile. Switching between the EQ modes is accomplished in a slightly roundabout way — hold in that side-mounted button, the toggle begins flashing, you switch that to another position, the LED changes colors, you toggle back again, and once the LED stops flashing, you're in the other mode. A bit weird, but it's not something you're likely to be doing frequently, and the steps involve mean that at the very least you'll be unlikely to accidentally switch the thing into or out of VQ mode in your pocket.
Like all audio devices using the iOS accessory protocol, the onboard DAC is limited to 16/48 performance. Realistically, for portable use with an iPhone, which you're probably filling up with apps and photos and whose pesky hardwired memory limits the number of 32/192 files you'd be able to cram in there anyway, that'll do just fine. Those set on portable high-rez audio will still have to turn to a second, dedicated device like the HiFiMan HM-801 or the iPad+CCK+DAC combinations we looked at a few months back.
But on to the matter at hand...how does the VAMP perform?

VAMPing it up

So we went ahead and plugged an iPhone (admission: we also tried an iPad, via a 30-pin extension cable, and that worked just fine too — it even charged our tablet) and put the VAMP through its paces.
First things first: the VAMP sounds good. Quite good — with our primary pairs of test headphones (the relatively inefficient HiFiMan HE-500 and the high-impedance Sennheiser HD-650), it clearly beat both the iPhone and iPad on sound quality and volume. Neither headphone was in its comfort range with the onboard headphone amps of the iDevices; the VAMP did a fine job or remedying the problem. On the HE-500s, even loud mixes like the Talking Heads Remain in Light were dull and boring straight out of the iDevice; the VAMP gave the music useful life.
With a more efficient pair of headphones (we've been using V-Moda's own Crossfade M-80), the SQ differences were less apparent, though the VAMPs horsepower became more obvious — earsplitting levels were a lot easier to achieve given the VAMPs output power of 150 mW/channel into 32 Ohms (Apple doesn't cite specifics, but the stock iPhone 4 measures around 30 mW/channel into a similar load).
VQ was hit or miss for me. With the difficult-to-drive phones, the effect was not necessarily to my taste, but definitely pleasant, and I'd imagine it will be liked by many listeners. Engaging the mode produces a clear tilt toward the treble; engaging it created something akin to cranking up a brightness control. Mick Jagger's vocal and Keith Richards' rhythm guitar on the Stones "Midnight Rambler" became just more forward in the mix, the bass got a little more oomph and correspondingly less definition.
Sitting in a quiet environment, I preferred the flat setting, though when the office was noisier or I was out and about, the VQ EQ made for a nice presence boost that was more competitive with the sounds of the outside world, especially with open-back phones. It's a bit of a hyped sound, but paired with a reasonably neutral set of headphones the effect it's far more minimal an effect than you might expect.
Switching back to the flat setting you'll definitely feel at first that things are too dark, but given a few minutes of listening you'll adjust. Checking out "Jeep's Blues" from the venerable Jazz at the Pawnshop recording, I felt that the VQ setting gave the cymbals too much sizzle and the sax an ever-so-slight strident edge. Basically, I think that your average audiophile is going to much prefer the flatter setting — but it's definitley worth trying out the VQ mode, especially if your tastes run to vocal music, rock, or electronics. And if you're the kind of person who finds HD-650s a little dark, you might find the effect welcome across the board. It's there, and you can easily disable it, so it's certainly not a negative.
With more efficient phones like the M-80s, I felt that the low end became a little too cloudy and the highs too strident; that said, I'm not sure that an amp is even necesary with those headphones. The VAMP, to my mind, makes quite a nice addition for those who want to use high-end phones, but it's worth keeping in mind that the iPhone 4 is very well suited to driving portable headphones right out of the box.
We did some rough comparisons with other devices, of course. We had the ADL Stride and FiiO E17 portable headphone amplifiers on hand, and while these devices aren't direct competitors — neither provides 30-pin connector interface for its DAC, for one thing, and they're not chargers — they are typical of what folks are using to power high-end headphones on the go.
Via a line-out cable, I felt like both the ADL and FiiO devices were able to drive our test cans to somewhat louder levels than the VAMP, even when the latter was used at the higher gain setting. The VAMP's output was more than adequate to reach levels that were, admittedly, excessive, but with lower efficiency headphones you'll definitely find yourself in the upper portions of the analog volume knob's travel.

Bottom Line

There's nothing quite like the VAMP out there right now — it's the only high-performance portable we've seen that integrates so seamlessly with the iPhone and so transparently preserves your Apple device's other functionality. That's a real plus in our book — it may well save many headphone audiophiles from carrying around a dedicated digital audio source device in addition to a phone, and for that audience, it may well be worth the cost of admission on those grounds alone.
The only serious competition on the US market in terms of feature set is the equivalently priced Fostex HP-P1, another battery-powered unit which also incorporates a made-for-iPhone DAC and a high-quality headphone amp, but that device requires the ol' rubber bands if you want to "integrate" it with your phone. Plus, it's bulky to begin with and it won't charge your iPhone.
With a new Apple handset on the way, the VAMP's iPhone 4 specificity seems a bit of a risk to us (though with the 2012 WWDC Keynote safely behind us now, that bullet has been dodged for a bit). In the event that the iPhone 5 is a radically different device in terms of form factor or connector, Kolton is betting that those who pick up a new handset will dedicate a decommissioned iDevice to media-player only use, with a permanent home in the warm embrace of the VAMP. A VAMP paired with an iPhone is a tad less bulky and not that much more expensive than, say, a HiFiMan HM-801, and if you're going to carry a second dedicated listening setup, it certainly beats the pants off strapping a DAC and a headphone amp to an iPod Touch with a pair of rubber bands.
A note for the highly motivated: you could seek out the OEM version of the VAMP, VentureCraft's charmingly monikered Go-Dap Unit 4.0, which was shown in prototype back at this year's CES. It's a bit cheaper than the VAMP at around $425, but given the difference you get a smaller battery (1,500 mAh to the VAMP's 2,200) and a cheaper complement of op amps in the output stage, as well as a somewhat different EQ (said to be more mid-forward). And since you'd be buying outside of its supported region (V-Moda isn't selling the VAMP in Asia, by the way), you don't get V-Moda's 1-year warranty either. Caveat emptor!
Overall, the V-Moda VAMP is a highly intriguing device, its somewhat high price compensated for by the fact that there's just nothing else on the US market that performs all of the tasks it does so well. I can't imagine that it's the kind of thing that'll chalk up big sales numbers, but among the expanding ranks of headphone audiophiles — especially those committed to using high-impedance cans as daily drivers — it's almost sure to find favor.

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