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VHP-1 vs. Marantz CDR630 & Benchmark
The Marantz "semi-professional" CDR recorder sounded dimensionally compressed and relatively flat. Think card-board cutouts. The rear of the soundstage with its sense of space continuing well past the performers shut down. Ditto for the dither-like impression of air whereby sounds seem to enjoy these very short-lived auras or bursts of audible higher harmonic sparks fizzing off into surrounding space. This effect became similar to overdamping, of drying out the music. The Benchmark was drier than the CIA unit but added more body and bass control over the Marantz. The VHP-1 had the same body and grip of the DAC-1 but sounded a bit warmer/wetter and also had a very small edge in the air department. I preferred the hi-gain setting even on the audio-technicas, seemingly giving an added degree of heft and density even at matched levels.

Inserting the Sennheisers further spread out the subjective differences between the Benchmark and Channel Islands pieces. The former was clearly more biased towards the leading edge, the latter more towards the bloom portion of sonic events. The DAC-1 thus sounded distinctly sharper and crisper but also harder, the CIA warmer and softer. Asked to drive the Germans, the Marantz now retreated yet further into semi-transparent fog. It grew especially undifferentiated in the bass. The Benchmark came out slightly ahead of the VHP-1 in controlling the HD-650's nether region. It's seemingly dialed for high-current drive but also monitor-type incisiveness and just-the-facts. At times, this nearly felt a bit brutal compared to the VHP-1. However, purely based on control/drive -- something that the more demanding Sennheiser load transmitted more succinctly than the "feather-to-move" W1000s -- I got the impression that the CIA unit despite its specified impedance tolerance wasn't quite as bring-it-on endowed as the amplifier module of the professional Benchmark Media design.

Jolida JD-100 vs. VHP-1
I had to fully open the Jolida's headphone pot to get adequate levels on the Sennheisers (equating to 5:30) while the VHP-1 output the same gain at 10:45 in the hi-gain setting. The biggest advantage bestowed by the latter on the HD-650s? Differentiated textures. This allowed me to enjoy the aural equivalent of running my fingers over silk, brocade, smooth metal, grained wood and all manner of surfaces telling their own stories. Plainly put, the JD-100 was barely up to the task of driving the Sennheisers. No such wheezing on the audio-technicas though I could still approach 3:00 o'clock settings. Now the primary advantage of the outboard amplifier was poise under duress, i.e. maintaining composure during dynamic peaks which caused the Jolida to get hard and a bit brittle while the VHP-1 remained relaxed and unfazed no matter what. Versus
the Marantz, the Jolida's valved output stage (further modified by Chris Johnson of the partsconneXion in Canada) instantly added weight, bloom and dynamic expansion to make for a far more satisfying long-term listening experience. Truly, the headphone output of the recorder is simply for monitoring, not getting lost in the zone of protracted audiophile adventures.

Eastern Electric MiniMax vs. VHP-1
Few of my reviews have solicited as many reader responses as the MiniMax/W-1000 Blue Moon write-up. The relative affordability of this all-in-one bedroom system continues to stimulate imaginations and plant the lust bug. I'm as enamored of this setup now as I was when I reviewed it - 'nuff said. So I was particularly curious whether the CIA amp could add to this winning recipe rather than just add expense. Not. The only "feature" you gain is more precise control over the volume. The potent MiniMax attenuator comes on real fast with these headphones. It thus reduces the number of in-between steps which the VHP-1 with its continuous wiper especially in low-gain setting stretches out to near infinity. In fact -- though just by a small margin -- I actually preferred the Eastern Electric. Its unique combination of valve output stage followed by a solid-state headphone
stage added a unique degree of glow, pop and pumped-upness over detouring via the VHP-1 that I for one found exceptionally involving and persuasive. However, it's also fair to add that the CIA unit was just a little more extended way on top.

Once the Sennheisers entered the picture, the tables turned. While the MiniMax didn't even come close to hitting its output voltage ceiling -- I personally couldn't even approach 12:00 before clipping my ears -- the stand-alone amp opened up the recesses of the soundstage, shining lights into crannies which the MiniMax left ever so slightly in the shadows. You might say that while the easy load behavior of the wooden Japanese headphones makes them prime candidates to avoid the added expense of a dedicated amp if you hit upon a copasetic headphone output like the MiniMax', the VHP-1 eliminates the chances for less-than-perfect matches. That said, I still prefer the ATH W-1000s juiced from the MiniMax over the Sennheisers driven from the VHP-1, both in wear comfort and musical involvement. The only time when the Sennheisers pulled ahead to perhaps demonstrate why they're so popular was during my review of SinglePower's MPX-3. I thus remain convinced that to truly get them to unfurl their wings and fly right requires a rather potent power supply beyond what Dusty Vawter could stick into his miniature box for the intended selling price.

Clearly fast and transparent and thus mightily dynamic and jumpy when the music demands, the silver Vawter box's stratospheric extension never ever gets shrill, grating, annoying or fatiguing. Rather, it is mated to an overall balance that's modestly warm and thus exceptionally friendly to extensive late-night excesses. Unlike the professional Benchmark DAC whose fact-telling can sooner than later seem too stark, the VHP-1 is definitely hi-rez but also a listening enjoyment device rather than anal probe. Because I enjoy rhythmically active fare with plenty of zinging transients, I'm perhaps overly gun-shy of headphone devices that unduly raise the heat in the zip department. I want speed and startle factor but not at the expense of feeling whipped, especially when the transducers are an inch away from my ears. Dusty Vawter has designed his VHP-1 for listeners like me - foot tapping without punishment, minor warmth and roundness without stuntedness, air and flimmer without sizzle. The only area where others might go farther would be in the very lowest bass (but I didn't have competing stand-alone headphone amps in-house to test this suspicion). This nearly by definition will entail higher expense, i.e. beefier power supplies. And let's not forget that Channel Islands Audio offers an upgraded outboard power supply likely for this very reason.

The greatest compliment for the VHP-1 is how it manages to do both mellow and exciting at the same time. It's like eating spicy food without any discomfort. Who needs inner-ear ringing or short-changed listening sessions because the headphone rig overdoes things? Conversely, who needs components that never seem to get enough traction to raise the curtain unless you play them really loud - in which case you fatigue prematurely? The continuously adjustable volume pot of the VHP-1 is cannily weighted for its intended application. The ramp is very shallow to make finding the perfect volume child's play even on high-efficiency headphones. The unit doesn't even get modestly warm so leaving it on indefinitely is the ticket. The in/out looping feature seems truly invisible. The VHP-1 can remain on permanent install even in a dedicated speaker system. The tonal balance is expansive yet offers a highly resolved comfort zone of subtle innate softness with a slightly silken texture. It all adds up to a winning combination of features and performance for a fair price, from a designer who's been around and presumably will stick around for a lot longer, too. What's not to like? Dusty's latest deserves an unequivocal heads-up.
Dusty comments:

Hi Srajan,
Thanks for the nice review...sounds like you hear things the way I do :-) A couple of points. The amp is based on a new surface mount current-feedback amplifier IC (not really an opamp). The chip actually runs warm because of its high current output, but it uses the ground plane of the circuit board to dissipate the heat, allowing the overall product to run cool. As you sort of mentioned, the VAC-1 is designed as an upgrade for this product and will improve the bass and dynamic performance. I can send you one if you want to try it out.

Thanks again,