Pros: Smaller physical size than expected. Top notch build quality. Stays fairly cool even when on 24/7. Soundstage larger than V181.
Cons: Smears detail in comparison to V181. Textures have little depth.
Click the spoiler for a copy of my introduction and listening preferences. This is from early 2012, so it isn't quite up to date, but it works well enough.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
My philosophy regarding audio gear has always been to buy the best I could afford and sell the rest to fund that purchase. This philosophy extends to any items of quality; watch, television, computer, even non-technical items such as musical instruments, furniture, pens, etc. Items I purchase are those I find that mix the highest quality with a minimum of diminishing returns. If it is an item I can't currently afford, I will patiently save up until I get it. I do not compromise and purchase a cheaper option in all but the rarest cases. I live life on a cash only basis, so I have no credit cards and currently owe no money to anyone, and thus I carefully consider exactly where my money is going when I make purchases. In that vein, I am probably one of the most boring people on the planet because I am logical to a fault. My highly analytical nature has benefits when it comes to judging audio, but I have problems getting past this phase and into enjoying the music. I consider myself what I define as a true audiophile, someone who is obsessed with quality of audio of any kind. I am not a music lover. For me, music is a tool to judge gear, and to enjoy when I can. You might be thinking 'poor guy, can't enjoy his music', but this isn't it at all. My thrills come from hearing what the gear is capable of, responding to all of these different combinations of instruments and effects. There are certainly times where I kick back and just listen to the music, but this isn't regular. I could say I feel sorry for those who are music lovers but don't really enjoy the fine details of sound production, but I realize everyone has their own approach, so please understand my perspective, but don't judge or pity me because of it. I'm still the only person I know of who goes to Head-fi meets with a notebook and pen and takes notes for every rig he listens to. Analytical listener or not, I still don't understand why people don't do this.
My priorities are center focus by far the most important. What does that mean? When a singer is present, the voice should be directly in front at a 12 o'clock position if you were standing on the face of a clock. It should never sound like it is coming from a range of 11 to 1, which I call fuzzy to varying degrees, and absolutely should never come from both 10 and 2 with a gap in the middle. This is horribly distracting and I cannot listen to the rig even if everything else is touched by God himself. Next is the balance of the spectrum and if it is seamless or not. This is somewhat personal taste in how much of what I want, but it being seamless is not. One range should not bleed into the next or overpower to the extent where it completely covers another. Far lower in the priority are things like texture, bass presence, extension, detail, soundstage depth and width, and imaging (excepting center focus, which is technically a part of imaging, but I make a special category). These last several are not in any particular order, but are much less important than the first two.
First impressions of these Violectric pieces were that they were significantly smaller than I expected. I didn't look at the dimensions before receiving them, but for some reason I expected them to be nearly twice their size. A V800 and either the V181 or V200 makes for a relatively compact higher-end desktop setup. Another surprising bit was that even having all 3 devices stacked together and on for days at a time, they are all 3 just barely warm. This means you should be able to tuck them in an enclosed part of a desk or entertainment center and not worry about ventilation too much. Build quality is excellent as well. Every part of each device feels tight and solid. The volume knob is smooth, but with confident stops for the steps. Headphone plugs are smooth but firm, as are the inputs and outputs on the rear. The look of these devices is a little plain, but that suits me just fine. They have some heft to them, but are not exactly heavy. You should be fine to put a 2 stack on a small shelf with no problems so long as the shelf is somewhat strong. The flexibility of gain switches on the rear is appreciated, but I found I didn't need to change them at all with HD800s and IEMs in the mix.
Getting to the sound, this review will focus on differences between the V181 and V200 exclusively. Before getting into detail, I wanted to talk about where these stand with the competition at this $1000 price point. I feel these amps not as good of a deal as some of the competition. Some quick examples are the Schiit Mjolnir at $250 less that I feel gives similar or slightly better performance than both, the Bryston BHA-1 that betters both, but is $400 more, the Decware CSP2+ that is no longer available new, but was $1000 (IIRC) that also betters them. Going from quite old memory I would rate the performance of the Little Dot MKVI with HD600s to be similar to either of the Violectrics and runs roughly $850. The Little Dot will not be as flexible with lower impedance cans. I do feel the Violectric amps are worth a listen and that their performance is at least in the ballpark of the competition. Given the very good build quality and attention to detail, I have a hard time calling the Violectric amps lower in value, but since their reason to exist is sound, I must.
Using three different headphones, the HD800, HD600, and Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (UERM) as well as the V800 DAC (coaxial), I put the amps through their paces with everything from classical to electronic. The first bit of good news is that there was no noise with no music playing from either amp, even with the UERM, which is very high sensitivity and low impedance. This is a very different load to drive than either of the Sennheisers, but the sound signature was largely unchanged, a sign of good design. Another sign of good design is that each headphone sounded as they usually do, so neither amp was imparting an overarching signature to the headphones. With the basics out of the way, lets get into detail. First impressions of the V181 were that it had great texture, that reach out and touch it type of texture. Moving to the V200, the first thing I noticed was the soundstage was larger than the V181, both depth and width, but layering was worse. I didn't get much time to listen before packing them up to demo at the Austin meet, but after coming back I've let them both play for several days to shake off any remaining potential 'rust'. Today I sat down for a proper evaluation and ran them through my collection and took further notes.
Better texture on V181 for sure. Cymbals and bells clearer with ring sounding more realistic. Noticeable with all 3 headphones, the UERM most of all (a surprise). Switching to V200 cymbals and bells have a sheen over them, they sound more synthetic. Piano is noticeably better on V181, overtones are produced properly and with good depth of tone. V200 piano is shallow in comparison, but not bad. I don't engage with the V200 as easily due to the texture problem. The V200 helps with the larger soundstage, though. Things are more spread with fair to good imaging, but layering still goes to the V181. The detail makes the layers more believable on the V181. The V200 just throws sounds out in the distance, but between the listener and the back, it's sort of a cloud of sound. Left-right imaging is still good, but front to back placement is problematic. Both amps are identical in dynamic capacity, both very good, but not the best I've heard. Macro dynamics are very good, micro dynamics could be better. Listening to 1st Mov Symphonic Dances has plenty of both to test them. Sound is acceptable for this price range. Recall Mjolnir having better dynamic contrast. Other than texture/detail and soundstage size, I can't tell much difference between the two amps. I don't find either amp to be particularly warm or dark as some have characterized the Violectric stack. Sounds similar to the X-Sabre in that it is just slightly warm, but still quite neutral, IMO.
In summary, I find the V181 the superior of the two for my taste, but both amps are very close. The larger soundstage of the V200 (though still smaller than several amps I've heard) would normally be an insurmountable advantage (I am a soundstage junkie), but the lack of layering makes it a bittersweet advantage. Counting the smearing of textures of the V200, the V181 with it's smaller, but better assembled soundstage comes out on top. Compared to other amps in this price range, I find the Violectrics performing on the bottom side of value.
I will try to get the V800 review out today as well. Thanks for reading and thanks to Violectric (German) and Arthur of Violectric USA (English) for the opportunity to try these items I'd long been curious about.