I recently wrote about Musical Fidelity's M1 HPA headphone amp. It sounded spectacular, on par with what I'd expect to hear from a $799 high-end amp. It's expensive, but a significant portion of its retail price is the result of its gorgeous chassis and excellent build quality. Right, just like with all luxury goods--cars, watches, and hi-fis--some portion of the price is just for show, but doesn't enhance the performance capabilities of the product. When people buy luxury goods, they better look the part.
I love the sound of the Musical Fidelity amp and recommend it to anyone who has already invested in a set of pricey full-size headphones. But what about the headphone buyer who can't justify dropping $799 on an amp? Musical Fidelity has something for you, the $199 V-Can headphone amp.
It's part of Musical Fidelity's V-Series of "all-go, no show" components, which also include the V-Dac digital-to-analog converter and V-Lps phono preamp that are as basic as hi-fi components come. The V-Can's compact chassis (3.6 inches wide by 7.2 inches long by 1.6 inches deep) has stereo RCA inputs and outputs in the rear, and upfront, 3.5- and 6.3-mm headphone jacks and a volume control. The amp weighs almost nothing, but seems durable. It's a no-frills design; the money was spent on the insides. There's a small outboard power supply, and that's it.
I spent some time comparing the V-Can with the Schiit Asgard amp ($249) with a few different headphones, starting with an Audio Technica ATH WS55. Both amps sounded great, but tonally different. The Asgard had a rich and fuller balance; the V-Can was clearer and more immediate sounding. Listening to the Konitz/Mehldau/Haden/Motian jazz quartet's new "Live at Birdland" CD, it was easier to hear Haden's low bass notes and drummer Motian's delicate shimmering cymbals with the V-Can. Konitz' alto sax and Mehldau's piano seemed closer over the V-Can; more distant on the Asgard. Switching to the more expensive Sennheiser HD-650 headphones, the differences between the two amps remained. The Asgard was fuller; the V-Can was leaner.
Next up, we tested the V-Can amp driving the Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones (review to come) while listening to Gillian Welch's new "The Harrow & the Harvest" CD. It's a beautiful recording of voices, acoustic guitars, and banjos, and the sound was well-defined and pure. I really love these headphones, their bass--midrange--treble balance is exceptionally smooth and unfatiguing.
The V-Can has a lot of gain, so by the time I had just barely turned up the volume control the sound was very loud. This amp can push the most difficult to drive headphones with ease.
The big drums thundering away on Grizzly Bear's "Veckatimest" CD demonstrated the amp's ability to deliver deep bass without boom or bloat. Definition and low-end control are well above par. It's a neat little amp, but for a bit more money the Asgard delivers a more fleshed-out, if less detailed sound. I like them both for different reasons, but if I had to choose I'd go for the Asgard. That may have something to do with the fact that I like the richness of tone I hear from tube amps (the Asgard is solid-state, but has tube-like warmth). If you prefer a leaner and more accurate tonal balance, check out the V-Can.
Tempo High Fidelity is the U.S. importer for Musical Fidelity; its Web site will direct you to a local dealer.