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Review - Channel Islands VHP-1

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 
I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with the Channel Islands VHP-1 around the time of the last Northern California meet, so with the amp getting some press in this month's Stereophile, I though it'd be a good idea to put a few of my impressions out there. I haven't actually read the Stereophile review yet, I didn't want it to taint my own writing, but I've heard that it is very positive.

For those who don't know, Channel Islands is a small Southern California audio company run by Dusty Vawter of Audio Alchemy fame. He was hired at AA originally to manage their service/repair department, and he made quite a few friends in the audiophile community in that role, working the phones and solving problems in a friendly, customer-centric way.

Eventually he graduated to job entitled "Technical Services Advisor", in which he began working on solutions for problematic products to make them reliable, and also improve them sonically. Channel Islands was formed shortly after AA bit the dust as a mod shop for AA products. Indeed, Alchemy gear boasting "Channel Islands mods" still turns up on Audiogon from time to time.

Channel Islands began selling their own products around 4 years ago. So far they seem to be living up to the Audio Alchemy pedigree of sound quality that belies its price point, yet with more attention paid to solid build quality and reliability.

Despite the VHP-1's palm-sized footprint, it's height and large volume knob give it an air of authority. The power supply, while tiny compared to the Gilmore Lite's massive Elpac supply, actually cranks out more than 3x the amps.

About the VHP-1

The VHP-1 is a little guy! All the CIAudio products actually share the same chassis (except the monoblock amps, I believe): a diminutive 4.5"x2.5"x4.5". It feels pretty solid in your hand, not exactly a "carved from a solid block of aluminum" mega-buck job, but certainly more confidence-inspiring than the AA gear I've owned.

Dusty designed the VHP-1 around the TI TPA6120, a chip chosen for it's high current output, speed, frequency response, and ultra low distortion. Listening tests during development were done with practically every brand of headphone common to Head-fiers (but mostly Senns and Grados), with music ranging from heavy metal to classical.

Dusty's goal was to create an amp that works well for all 'phones...enough voltage for high impedance types, and enough current for low impedance models. The amp boasts a gain switch to that end, but besides that the feature set is straightforward: single pair of rca inputs, loop out, single 1/4" headphone jack, "power on" LED, and a large, custom-milled volume knob. Interestingly, a power switch has been omitted...I asked Dusty why:

"I simply don't think you need one," was his reply. The unit draws very little current, so can be left on all the time without even showing up on your electic bill. Another factor, which certainly hails from Dusty's repair background at AA, is that "most electronic items will last longer being powered all the time. The surge they get at power up is much harder on the electronics. Ever notice your lighbulbs usually go out when you flip the switch on?"

"Any fancy parts inside worth bragging about?", I asked.

"If a product sounds good, it's mostly the circuit design, and using the correct type of part for it's function in the circuit," Dusty told me, "...the brand means almost nothing. All of the brown resistors on VHP-1 are Vishay/Dale. We use these because of low noise and 1% tolerance (not because they say Vishay/Dale). We also use Nichicon Muse low ESR caps in the power supply...again the important part is 'low ESR', not so much the brand. We use UltraFast bridge rectifier diodes, alot of bypassing with film caps, and a SwitchCraft jack, but what makes it sound good is the circuit design & proper layout."

Listening Impressions

After giving the VHP-1 about 200 hours of burn-in (recommended by Dusty to help charge/uncharge the caps several times) I was ready to put the unit through it's paces.

I did all my listening with Grado SR-225s and Sennheiser HD-580s, with either an NEC 6xe/Rotel RDP-980 combo, or a Desktop PC/M-Audio Sonica/Audio Alchemy DDE 1.1 as sources. For these listening sessions, I had the VHP-1 powered with the VAC-1 optional power supply. Tried to be as diverse as possible in my music selection:

Mahler Symphony #6 - Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony
SFS Media, CD Layer (with HD-580s)
This recording has a crystalline clarity to it that comes across well with the VHP-1. Lots of air around individual instruments, percussion sounds taut, and horns sound crisp and blatty in a pulse-quickening way.

Also Sprach Zarathustra - Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony
RCA Living Stereo CD Layer (with HD-580s)
Strings had a lush, woody tone; brass was edgy & impactful. Not edgy in a harsh, digital way, edgy as in incisive & cutting. There's a great transient about 1:20 into part 7 "The Convalescent"...that made my eyes blink! Not an effect I usually get with the Senns...I'm starting to get really curious how this little guy will do with more intense material, so...

Green Day - American Idiot
Warner Music Group (with SR-225s)
Killer, freakin' rockin'!!! Toe-tapping PRaTty drive; deep, involving bass; powerful transients. Proof that the VHP-1 knows how to rock!

Hamiet Bluiett - Young Warrior, Old Warrior
Mapleshade Records (with SR-225s)
If you've never heard a Mapleshade recording, you should...recorded music that sounds this lifelike is rare. The VHP-1 faithfully captured much of what makes this recording unique...crisp, lively, and detailed, with the rich harmonic texture of Bluiett's baritone sax clearly evident.

Emmylou Harris - Spyboy
A breathtaking live performance, this recording has a touch of siblance in Harris' vocals that the VHP-1 didn't conceal. Just the same, the fresh, soulful musicality of the performance wasn't lost, in partucular the sweetly screaming guitar work of Buddy Miller and Darryl Johnson's resonating, impactful bass.

Eminem - Lose Yourself
I listen to everything except country & rap...NOT! All of the emotional impact of this song came through with the VHP-1. The bass seemed a little rolled off, but then again I'm used to listening to this track in my car...

Overall, the CIAudio unit is quite the crisp, detailed performer. Almost ruthless in its clarity, honesty, and accuracy...this is not a good amp for those who like to hide the true character of their recordings beneath a warm mid-bass hump. Feed it well, however, and it will reward you in spades.

Comparisons with the Gilmore Lite

The VHP-1's closest market rival is certainly the Gilmore Lite: similar size, color, features, price... The stock VHP-1 retails for $349 as opposed to the GL's $299. Both amps offer an upgrade power supply, which levels the scale a bit more...$508 total for the VHP-1/VAC-1 combo, and $499 for the GL/DPS.

I don't have the upgrade ps for the Lite, so these comparisons were all done with the respective unit's "wall wart" power supplies, and almost exclusively with my favorite test recording: McCoy Tyner's New York Reunion, masterfully recorded by Bob Katz.

I spent a lot of time listening closely to these two using a headphone amp A/B switcher that I made, and honestly differences between the two were almost impossible to spot. I was performing these "tests" myself, so they weren't even single blind, but I'm certain that I could not correctly identify these amps in a double blind test.

I got in the habit of having extended listening sessions with the test setup in place, switching occasionally and often not really knowing which amp was playing. On New York Reunion, the musicians had a lot of fun putting in tiny microphonic details during the fade-outs on several of the tracks...little thumbnail scratches on bass strings, light tapping on the edges of a cymbals, etc. Over time I found that with the VHP-1 I was hearing a lot more of that type of non-musical detail than before. Every time I heard something new I'd switch quickly over to the Gilmore Lite to see if the newly discovered detail would vanish...it didn't. I couldn't put my finger on it, the VHP-1 wasn't revealing details on the recording that the Lite couldn't, but something about how it presents information (and details in particular) makes them stand out in a more obvious way.

Curious, I listened for this closer, and found that the VHP-1 seemed to put more "space" between the musicians on most recordings, which gave me the ability to hear each musician's performance individually. With the Gilmore, on the other hand, the sound came across a touch smoother, with the band sounding more cohesive. In the case of a quartet, the band sounded more like a single musical unit than 4 individual musicians.

While doing all this close listening I discovered something else about the VHP-1...hiss. The unit I tested had a very faint perfume of hiss at all volume levels. I don't know what caused it....I tried adjusting my setup, moving cables and things around, tried both wall wart and the VAC-1 power supplies, to no avail. I know this could be a deal-breaker for some, so I want to emphasize how minor the hiss really is...it was only audible with the music paused, late at night, with the lights and nearby appliances turned off. Seriously, even the sound of a refrigerator or air conditioner humming would drown it out, let alone music playing, and it was only noticable in direct comparison to another amp (not exactly normal listening conditions). Nonetheless, I heard it, so I feel I must report it here.

Later on, I brought both amps to a meet and put them both up on the RMAA "test bench". Wouldn't you know it? The amps measured within 1dB in almost all areas. Just goes to show you, there's more than one way to skin a cat...there's a certain quality level required to design a good solid state amp, and once you're there, you're there...it doesn't seem to matter a whole lot which path you take.

The VHP-1 and Gilmore Lite going head-to-head in my home setup.


The VHP-1 is a good sounding amps with strong build quality, as is the Gilmore Lite...you really can't go wrong with either one. However, they do present music in subtly different ways, so anyone considering either of these amps should take into account their own sonic goals for their system.

I think the crystalline, detailed character of the VHP-1 has a great synergy with Sennheiser cans, really snapping their more laid-back qualities to life. If I were mostly a Sennheiser guy, I would have sold my Gilmore Lite and bought this review sample in a heartbeat. However, I'm mostly a Grado guy, and while the VHP-1 is no slouch with Grados (especially on punchy, high-energy material), for me the oft-reported Grado/Gilmore synergy has a slight edge.

It wasn't all that long ago that dedicated headphone amplifiers of this quality weren't available at all, let along having multiple choices at this price point. Overall, this is a great time to be into headphone audio, with more and more affordable options becoming available all the time.

Extra special thanks to Dusty for sharing your latest (at the time) creation, and for all you're doing down there at Channel Islands. I wish there were more people like you, fighting for great sound for us regular guys. I hope this latest wave of media attention brings you a ton of sales, and I'm looking forward to hearing about/hearing the VDA-2!

So that's it...my first review! Let me know what you think. I'll be out of town for a few more days, when I get back I'll post some pictures and answer any questions. Thanks for reading!
post #2 of 12
very nice review! it's good to see amps that aren't RSA, Headroom, Headamp or Singlepower being reviewed!
post #3 of 12
Thanks for writing up that review! Does the hiss get louder when you turn up the volume with the source paused? Did I miss a part about a comparison between using the wallwart vs. the VAC ps? If it's not something you can point me directly to in the review, would you mind commenting on it please?

Much appreciated!
post #4 of 12
I agree, the amp sounds great with Grados and Senns. I have personally found no hiss, with the VAC1, and the CI Audio dac. Both of them have a nice synergy together, but I still haven't enjoyed the sound of the AKG 501 with them. Though, I have yet to find any amp that makes that particular headphone sound nice. I am thinking about picking up another power supply for the dac, and then have a nice heavy block of CI Audio gear. Really, the amp sounds just as good as my previous amp, the Headroom cosmic reference, even with it's own ps, which had cost over twice the amount of the Vac1/vhp1 combo.
post #5 of 12
No hiss here either in my VHP-1/VAC-1 combo driving Senn 600s w/Cardas cord. Mine has lots of tubed gear upstream so I always listen for spurrious noises including hiss. My system is dead quiet. Either clarke68 got a bad combo or he has a system problem. 100 or so hours and just when I think they are done breaking in, they improve some more. I ain't sending mine back.
post #6 of 12
Great review!

I've always wondered how the Gilmore Lite compares to the VHP-1. If you had a hard time differentiating the two, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to tell the difference at all.

I also can't recall ever noticing any hiss. I'll check it out tonight...
post #7 of 12
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the nice comments, guys! I put a few pictures in above.

Originally Posted by tim_the_gamer
Thanks for writing up that review! Does the hiss get louder when you turn up the volume with the source paused?
Interestingly, it did not. The unit did present a nominal amount of THD at full volume that actually drowned out the hiss I was referring to in my review. This "nominal THD" is probably power supply noise (according to Dusty) and it wasn't any worse in the VHP-1 than it was with the Gilmore Lite.

The interesting thing about the hiss I mentioned in the review is that it was present at all volume levels, very much like EMI/RFI interference or a ground loop problem. As claud mentioned above, it is entirely possible that the problem originated outside of the VHP-1. You can't see it in the picture above, but my system sits within a few feet of my computer and monitor, so EMI/RFI is a likely candidate. I've had problems with it in the past, but have always been able to deal with it by careful routing of my interconnects and power cords.

Unfortuately, I couldn't get the hiss to go away with the VHP-1. I tried switching places with the Lite, shielded vs. unshielded interconnects, re-routing power cables, different power supplies...everything I could think of. My suspicion is simply that the VHP-1 is more sensitive to outside interference than the Lite, perhaps owing to it's chip-based architecture.

Again, the hiss I noticed is no big deal: it was extremely faint, and the only way I possibly would have noticed it was by doing direct comparisons with an A/B switcher with no music playing. It did nothing to distract me during normal (or even critical) listening.

Originally Posted by tim_the_gamer
Did I miss a part about a comparison between using the wallwart vs. the VAC ps? If it's not something you can point me directly to in the review, would you mind commenting on it please?
You didn't miss it, I left it out because I didn't have a reliable means of A/B comparing the unit with and without the VAC-1.

After posting this review I went ahead and read Wes Phillips' review in the current Stereophile...he discusses the VAC-1 in reasonable (if exagerrated) detail, essentially saying the optional power supply improved the VHP-1's dynamic range.

I won't argue with him...as you read in my listening impressions above, the VHP-1/VAC-1 combo has all the visceral impact I could expect in a headphone amp, but I wouldn't say it was lacking without the VAC-1 either. YMMV, certainly Wes Phillips' did.
post #8 of 12
Thanks for the followup Clarke

With other owners finding no hiss, it seems the possibility of EMI/RFI (or possibly something with just this particular unit) is likely.

I had the Gilmore Lite in my possession a while back for an evaluation and thought very highly of it with my Senn HD25 back then, but it made my Grado SR80's unbearably harsh. Of course my headphone inventory has changed a lot since then. I still think it's just good to know that there are some amps out there in a similar price range that stack up nicely to one another. If it's similar to the Lite, I can't see how one could go wrong (unless maybe if he owns a Grado SR80 too)

post #9 of 12
i too own the vhp 1 with vac 1 and love it. mine is absolutely quiet through my senn 650. is it maybe the stock power supply causing the hiss?
post #10 of 12
I had the VHP-1 and VAC-1 and traded them on to Agile_one for an SR-71. Other than wanting the portable capability this combo really blew me away a lot of the time. With the VAC-1 it was dead silent and I'm not sure I ever even used the wall-wart, so no idea about the hiss. I wrote a little mini-review before I passed it on that commented on the rolled-off bass, but my 3 word analysis is SPEED, SPEED, SPEED! (PRAT for you technical types). Really kills a lot of the other opamp designs out there in this aspect, although other op-amps give a broader, smoother sound (as you noticed with your Gilmore).
post #11 of 12
oops i missed the part where you said that you tried the walwart and vac1
anyways i tried mine again very carefully and have no hiss. there is a warm, sandy sound when u adjust volume with the source paused....but dead quiet other than that
post #12 of 12
wow lets resurrect this thread for new owners of these amps to compare. I think I'm getting the glite because of its reported synergy with the ad2000s but would like to hear more opinions if there are any.
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