It appears that the headphone amplifier market is one of the fastest growing segments around. We really seem to be almost at the ground level of the technology; if you look back 10 years ago, you’ll find very few brands offering headphone amps at all. Now you can find dozens upon dozens of manufacturers, and each often offers several different models to choose from. They range in price point from a Fiio E3 at under $10 to many thousands of dollars.
To break things down further, we can separate home headphone amps from portable headphone amps. The key differences are battery power versus AC power, and then of course size. Most portable amps are solid state although a few somewhat portable tube models exist. Another option that is becoming increasingly popular is having a built in USB DAC integrated into the amp itself. This gives the user more versatility for different types of use.
The market is full of great options. So many in fact, it can become overwhelming to figure out which one to buy. The good news is that with competition being so fierce, the products just keep getting better and better. This is just another of the good choices available.
The product I’m focusing on here is the Vivid Technologies V1. It is a portable headphone amp and USB DAC that sells for $99 on Ebay or directly from the manufacturer at vividaudiotech.com - Headphone Amplifiers. That puts it in the lower end of the price spectrum, especially considering it is a portable amp as well as a USB DAC. The main competition I can think of at this price point is the offerings from Hot Audio. They have a good reputation but unfortunately I have not heard them myself. There are several others, notably the Nuforce Icon Mobile which has been favorably reviewed as a budget component, but I have not had the pleasure of hearing any of them, so I’ll be making comparisons with other amps and DACs that I have on hand. Maybe some day I will revisit this review when I have a few direct competitors to play with.
There are generally 2 different types of amps in existence: those whose designers have obviously spent some time trying to make them look nice, and those whose designers have focused on function over form. The V1 is a clear example of the latter, with its compact ABS plastic body and simple easy to use controls. The whole thing is remarkably compact at 2.6” X 2.6” X 1.1”, and is very light weight. The front panel features a volume knob that doubles as an on/off switch, a 1/8” line input, a 1/8” headphone out, and 2 LED lights to indicate charging and power. The rear panel is even simpler, consisting of just a mini-USB port and a port for the optional quick charging AC adepter.
The user manual indicates that a fact charger can be purchased from the website; however I do not see it currently posted. I didn’t actually time it, but the USB charging option always seemed to completely fill the battery with and overnight charge, so I wouldn’t have a use for the quick charger anyway. The orange LED lights up when charging and turns off when complete.
Speaking of the battery, this thing lasts a very long time! I managed to completely empty it 3 times, and each time it took roughly 22 hours (give or take a few as I didn’t stand over the thing and watch it). That’s longer than my Sansa Fuze and Clip+ that I used the V1 with, so I’d just charge them together when needed. I suppose longer life is always welcome, but I find this performance to be more than acceptable.
Without getting too deep into the technical details, the V1 uses the popular Burr-Brown PCM2704 DAC, an Analog Devices AD8397 opamp, a Texas Instruments TLE2426 precision virtual ground rail splitter, and a lithium-ion battery. Caps are high quality. None of this matters of course unless well implemented, which in this case they seem to be.
The Vivid Technologies V1 comes well packed in a simple cardboard box. Upon opening the box you find the V1, a nice heavy duty Monoprice mini to mini cable, a generic USB cable, and the user manual.
I was impressed to see a nice Monoprice cable in the bundle. I know it costs less than $2 but it is of much higher quality than the average pack-in cable that likely costs about $.25. It is roughly 18 inches long and quite stiff, which makes it kind of a challenge to use with the lightweight little V1 in a portable setup. Still, short of including a 3 inch high end mini to mini (which would cost considerably more), this is one of the better choices that could have been made.
The USB cable is the usual generic 1 foot cable, nothing much to say about it. I know there are expensive designer USB cables out there, but I’ve never personally met anyone who uses those. I have some friends who totally believe in high end cables, but even they don’t do fancy USB cables (yet). This basic cable is enough to get you started with your laptop if you are using the USB DAC.
The manual is fairly basic, just a few printed pages detailing the various functions of the V1. You can download it from their website if you’d like to have a look. I do appreciate that they included a printed copy though.
I used the V1 a lot as a USB DAC but was also able to get some time in as a portable. When portable, I paired it with a Sansa Fuze or Clip+, both of which have essentially line-out quality on their headphone jacks. When portable I used my LiveWires Trips or my Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition. At home I connected to my PC and listened through those same IEMs as well as my AKG K702, AKG K240DF, Sennheiser HD600, and Grado SR325. Comparisons were tricky due to the fact that you can’t separate the DAC section from the amp section, but I did try my best to compare it to the Audinst HUD-mx1 USB DAC/amp, a Creek OBH-21, the HRT Music Streamer+, and the Matrix M-Stage. Cables as always were cheap, either Impact Acoustics Sonic Wave, Monoprice, or some old Monster that I got on clearance (because you can never have enough spare cables!). This is a diverse collection of gear, but I know it all pretty well so I feel it works.
As usual I broke in the product for a while, mostly to make sure it is not defective but also so people won’t complain that I didn’t do so. I used the burn-in period to test for battery life so it worked out well.
I have Vista on my desktop and laptop at home, and both instantly recognized the V1 as “USB audio device”. I also took the V1 to work and tried it on a few XP machines with the same results. I did not get a chance to try the V1 on any Windows 7 machines or MAC products, but since the PCM2704 is a fairly common USB DAC I can only assume things would go just as smoothly.
As I said before, I use the V1 at my PC a lot. There’s just something about high res music played back through good sounding gear that makes me smile. The fact that I’m achieving such good sound from a little $99 box is even better. I spent a while reading up on the latest and greatest ways of extracting the full benefits of high resolution music from the PC. Ultimately things are pretty easy with the V1 as it only handles up to 16-bit/48k files. I used Foobar2000 with the WASAPI output option to give me bit perfect output on my standard resolution files. For my higher resolution music, I used the Resampler DSP option to convert all audio to 44.1k, and chose 16-bit as the output format. This allowed me to play back my 24-bit and 96k (or higher) files without issue. I did seem to notice a very minor reduction in quality compared to my Audinst USB DAC that can play the 24/96 files without conversion. This difference is small enough to be accounted for by other things, such as the amp section on the Audinst being superior to the V1. The difference is even minor enough to be my imagination, as I have no way of setting up any kind of blind testing. Even down converted, the high resolution tracks are generally very high quality recordings, so you still get a benefit compared to most standard resolution options. I could talk about this point for way too long, so I’ll stop now; suffice to say that although not extremely high end, I felt the DAC in the V1 did a very good job.
Here is a list of music I listened to on my PC. Note that they are the same as I used in my Monster Turbine Pro Copper review. I kind of did the notes for this review at the same time, and also for the Audinst USB DAC, review for that coming soon. Anyway, here is the music:
Marianne Thorsen & Trondheim Solistene: Mozart: Violin concerto in D major – Allegro 24/96 FLAC 2L Records
Ola Gjeilo: North Country II – from the album Stone Rose 24/96 FLAC 2L Records
Joel Fan: Gottschalk – from the album West of the Sun 24/176.4 WAV Reference Recordings
Maeve O’boyle: All My Sins – from All My Sins 24/88.2 FLAC Linn Records
Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Artur Pizarro (piano): Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 ‘Emperor' - Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo – from 'Beethoven Piano Concertos 3, 4 & 5' 24/96 FLAC Linn Records
Claire Martin: Love Is Real – from A Modern Art 24/88.2 FLAC Linn Records
Nine Inch Nails: 1,000,000 and The Four of Us Are Dying – from The Slip 24/96 WAV Self Release Creative Commons
Livingston Taylor: Isn’t She Lovely – from The World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings 24/96 FLAC Chesky Records
For portable use I used FLAC files of the following:
Imogen Heap – Ellipse
Jimmy Eat World – Chase This Light
Big John Patton – Mosaic Select Collection
Albeniz-Fruhbeck De Bergos – Suite Espanola XRCD
All Out War – For Those Who Were Crucified
Shai Hulud – Misanthropy Pure
As you can tell this is quite a diverse collection of music, from thrash metal to chamber music and most things in between. Much of it is very well recorded, especially the high resolution music played on the PC. But some of it is also fairly poor, just to get an idea of how well the V1 does with less than pristine recordings.
The first thing that struck me about the V1 was how exciting it sounded. It really added sparkle and weight to the music, and could be described as somewhat forward. Some people use that word as a negative and taken to the extreme it certainly could be. But I kind of enjoy a bit of “in your face” sound here and there. The next thing that stood out was the power. I was driving my 600ohm AKG K240DFs with this tiny black box and it was sounding rich, full, and dynamic. I don’t think I ever had to turn the volume knob past half way. It was truly impressive.
First, a few words about build quality. Although the ABS plastic housing is not beautiful like a polished aluminum chassis, it is well built and keeps the weight down. The volume knob is in fact aluminum and has a nice feel to it. There is no static while adjusting the volume (a problem which I’ve had with many low to mid priced amps), and channel balance seems spot on even at low volumes. The noise floor is fairly low; with most headphones it is basically non-existent. When using a very sensitive IEM like LiveWires or Shure SE530, there is a slight hiss at mid to high volumes but it never intruded on my listening. Overall the V1 seems built quite well without having any extraneous features that would add to the price.
If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you know these are basically my go-to IEMs. They are incredibly revealing, very efficient, and sensitive almost to a fault. If a source is not up to par, these things will let you know right away.
I’m happy to report that the Vivid V1 sounds very good with the LiveWires Trips. There is lots of detail and a crispness to the highs that is quite pleasing. Mids are smooth and refined, and bass has nice extension without losing control. I particularly like the way the combo handled my Suite Espanola XRCD rip. On track number 2 “Austurias (Leyenda)”, the horns come in sharply towards the beginning in a very dynamic fashion. The V1/Trips combo brought those horns a real impact without crossing the line into harshness.
On the down side, this combo made some things seem a bit too bright. Chase This Light by Jimmy Eat World is a fairly good recording, but it suffers from some of the usual over-compression that plagues many/most new albums. The vocals were likely recorded a bit too hot and compressed, because they tend to get sibilant on the S, F, T, and other sounds. This always shows up no matter how you play the music, but it is accentuated through highly revealing monitors like the LiveWires. The funny thing is, it sounds worse when played through the line-in on the V1 than it does when played through the PC through the USB DAC. This indicates to me that the DAC portion of the V1 is slightly better than the line-in, at least with my gear.
MONSTER TURBINE PRO COPPER EDITION
These are one of my new favorite reference class IEMs. They are not as detailed as the LiveWires but have an incredibly smooth, full sound that is very relaxing to listen to. They like a good source too but are more forgiving than the LiveWires, so the V1 seems like it would be a good match.
In actuality, I might call the V1 a great match for the Coppers. The slightly forward and aggressive sound of the V1 really compliments the laid back smoothness of the Coppers, making them sound more exciting than when unamped. The Coppers have amazing low end capabilities, and the V1 has plenty of juice to drive them with authority. That sibilance with Jimmy Eat World? Almost (but not quite completely) smoothed over with the Copper/V1 combo. I think the V1 comes close to the limit for benefits of amping the Coppers. I thought I noticed a slight increase in dynamics and clarity using higher end amps, but the V1 did 90% of the job already. This is a very good combination.
The K701/K702 is still a very polarizing headphone, at least on Head Fi. Some people swear by its clarity, neutrality, and soundstage, while other people call it boring and thin. I happen to be a fan, and I think even a cheap amp like the V1 makes them sound great. However the chief complaint of some people is that the K7XX is too bright, and the V1 will not win those people over. If anything the V1 slightly accentuates the highs, making the K702 sound even more revealing. The Jimmy Eat World sibilance is present here.
On the other hand, the bass gets a noticeable kick with the V1 as well. Some amps seem to have a bit of trouble driving the K7XX to its full potential. The V1 seems to have the power reserves to render deep rumbling bass with life-like control and clarity. Pretty impressive from a small box.
When it comes time to evaluate if an amp has the ability to really drive an inefficient load, the 600 ohm K240DF has become something of a standard test for me. Many nice amps have failed this test, so there is no shame in it. The V1 fortunately does pass the test with flying colors. Everything seems to happen just as it should, from lowest lows to highest highs, without any complaints. The only caveat is that the volume knob needs to be turned to around 2 o’clock to get reasonable volume. But that’s just over half way to maximum, so it really isn’t an issue. I assume that battery life would be shorter when driving the 240s but I didn’t test that to verify. I would only use them at home so again, not a big issue.
This combo proved to be my favorite of all the full sized cans I used. Everything just seemed right, with no weaknesses in any areas that I could discern. Bass is full but very well controlled, and the V1 really brings out the best in the Sennheiser highs. Some people find the Senns to be a little veiled or dark. I really enjoy the Sennheiser house sound though, and the HD600 is one of their best. With a little added emphasis on the upper mids, and a touch of high end sizzle, both compliments of the V1, the HD600 really shines. Contrary to what you would think by looking at it, the V1 seems to have plenty of power to drive the HD600 to ear splitting levels. I also watched some movies on my laptop with this combo and I found it to be the best for that use out of all the cans I tested. I think anyone who has a decent Sennheiser headphone, from the HD485 all the way up to the HD800, would enjoy this amp.
If you are not familiar with the older black SR325, allow me to explain. They have a bit of a different sound than their SR325i and SR325is brethren. In my opinion, they have some of the biggest bass in all of Grado land, and they are also a bit smoother and less aggressive than the newer models. Some people absolutely hated them (which I can understand as they have the least Grado-ish sound) and some loved them. I’m in the middle; I like them but don’t love them. But with the addition of the V1, I like them a bit more. The extra forwardness makes them sound more rich and detailed, without being over the top. They still sound pretty spacious and open with the bowl pads, and that huge bass is kept tight and clean. Overall it’s a nice experience.
I’m speculating here, but I think the newer 325i and 325is models might be a bit too bright for me when used with this amp. I haven’t had a chance to try my RS-1s with the V1 though so I can’t comment on that. Maybe I’ll update when I get a chance.
Once again, this part is a bit tough because I can’t separate DAC performance from amp section performance. But I’ll give it a shot anyways just so the reader can get some idea of how the V1 performs.
This is also a USB DAC with a built in headphone amp. It also has some other features that the V1 can’t match, and a higher price at $179. Both products are very nice, well built, and have excellent price points. The Audinst is not portable though; it relies on USB power.
As much as I like the sound of the V1, I think the Audinst sounds even better. It has more of a neutral balanced sound, a more spacious soundstage, and pinpoint imaging. And because it can accept high res audio playback, it is more versatile. But the V1 is versatile with the fact that it can be used as a portable amp, so it really depends on what you are looking for. At this point I’m glad that I own both.
In the areas where the V1 is at its best, it might actually be better than the Audinst. When paired with the HD600 I actually prefer the V1, and with the Monster Coppers I think it is tie.
I tried using the Audinst as a DAC, and then using its analog outs to the line-in on the V1, and I thought it sounded just a tad better than using the V1 alone. This means that either the DAC section on the Audinst is superior, or the line-in on the V1 is inferior. I’m not sure which it is and unfortunately I don’t have time to keep testing various configurations to get to the bottom if this. Realistically the difference is not huge.
HRT MUSIC STREAMER+ WITH CREEK OBH-21
The HRT Music Streamer+ was my first foray into computer audio. I was impressed with its musicality and low noise, as well as its simple operation. The Creek OBH-21 is an old standby, sort of the gatekeeper of the amp world. If an amp is not better than the Creek, I’m probably not interested.
I actually like the Vivid V1 through USB better than the HRT/Creek combo. They have different flavors, with the V1 being more lively and the HRT/Creek being more sterile and dry. Both are fairly detailed but the V1 comes out ahead with its upper mid emphasis. Surprisingly, the V1 seems better equipped to drive tougher cans like the AKGs and the Sennheisers. The only time I prefer the HRT/Creek is when using something very detailed like the LiveWires, and listening to bad recordings or lower bitrate MP3. The V1 is just more revealing and in that case it is not a good thing; HRT/Creek kind of glosses over the bad parts and gets your grooving to whatever there is to enjoy.
Both the HRT and the Creek are somewhat older designs, and it seems that there is improvement to be had by upgrading. Perhaps this means that if you are using an older low or midrange amp, the V1 might be worth a look, even just for use as a home amp. The price is such that it makes trying it out an easy prospect.
I absolutely love this amp, so I didn’t expect the V1 to be superior. After all, this is really a higher end amp pretending to be a budget amp. I used the Audinst as a source, as well as the HRT, just to see what would happen.
The HRT/M-Stage combo did not really impress me. Not that it is bad, but it doesn’t really stand out in any area, especially for over $500 worth of gear. The V1 proved to be just about as good, with sweeter highs but less controlled lows. I suspect the V1 to be superior to the HRT for DAC duty, but I wish the V1 had an analog out to verify that. Then again, that would add cost, weight, and complexity to the design so I guess it’s not a good idea.
The Audinst/M-Stage was very very nice, on a completely higher level than the V1. When I switched from the V1 to the combo, I noticed more resolution, spaciousness, and control, with a real emphasis on micro-detail. A very impressive combination that I will discuss more in my Audinst review.
The Vivid Technologies V1 is a great little budget amp and DAC. It has gobs of power, and is great for quiet classical music that has a wide dynamic range. The sound is somewhat aggressive and forward, but I mean that as more of a compliment than an insult. At this price point your are unlikely to get totally transparent sound; it is going to be colored in some way, and I am pleased with the way Vivid has voiced this amp. It ended up being a good all around performer, but paired exceptionally well with the Sennheiser HD600 and the Monster Turbine Pro Copper. If somebody on a budget could only afford one of those and this amp, they should be quite content for a long time before upgrading, especially if they make use of the excellent USB DAC. The build quality on the V1 is good, and although it won’t win any beauty contests, it seems like it could realistically stand up to life on the road as a dedicated portable amp. The battery life is excellent, and the bundled accessories aren’t too shabby. For $99, there really is a lot to like. There are several competitors in this price range, and honestly I have not dealt with them at all for a comparison. But I can’t imagine anything under $100 being much better. This amp is highly recommended.