Red Wine Audio makes some of my all-time favorite headphone amplifiers, but they're pretty expensive. The Isabellina HPA LFP-V Edition, for example, runs $2,500; it was designed and built in Vinnie Rossi's small factory in Durham, Conn. The Isabellina is more than just a headphone amp, it features a spectacularly good digital-to-analog converter and a hybrid transistor/vacuum tube audio amplifier. While the amp can be run off an AC power outlet, it sounds best powered by its built-in 25.6 volt Lithium Iron Phosphate battery pack. The battery can play for up to 10 hours, and it gets charged whenever you play the amp with AC power and when you turn off the amp.
The new Corvina goes for less than half the Isabellina's price, just $1,000, and it uses the exact same battery supply and transistor/tube electronics, but this amp doesn't have the Isabellina's built-in digital-to-analog converter. The amp measures 10 inches long by 6 inches wide by 3.5 inches tall, so it won't hog much desktop space. The rear panel has two sets of RCA inputs. The amp sounds phenomenal teamed up with my $295 Halide Design DS DAC. The Corvina is handmade in Connecticut.
The Corvina sounds more see-through transparent than the Schiit Lyr headphone amp, which sells for less than half the Corvina's price. The Corvina sounds more natural, but the Lyr is definitely more powerful, so dynamics kick harder and the Schiit amp can play louder.
The Corvina is the more natural sounding amp. There's an unforced beauty to the sound that's rare in audio; it lets me forget about the electronics and just lose myself in the music. What I'm trying to describe with words isn't easy, but I will say this, you may not notice "grain and edge" in the sound, until you hear an amplifier that doesn't have those irritations. With the Corvina, Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album revealed new layers of spatial depth and more of the heartbreak in Jeff Tweedy's voice. I used some of my best full-size headphones in the course of this review; My Grado RS1 loved the amp, so did the Sennheiser HD 580, Shure SRH1840, Audeze LCD-2, and Beyerdynamic T 70 headphones.
I can't say the Corvina is perfect, but what is? Its sound will appeal more to people who listen to a lot of acoustic music -- jazz and classical -- than it will for rockers or rap fans. Not that the Corvina can't rock out, it can, but if that's a priority Red Wine offers a higher current version of the Corvina that will drive the heck out of Audeze and Hifiman headphones. That model bumps up the price $500 over the standard Corvina (which played loud enough for me with the other headphones I mentioned).
The Corvina doesn't gloss over detail; the amp definitely revealed the hard-edged distortion lighting up the sound of the keyboards and electric guitars on Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" album. The cloud of reverberation floating above the band sounded gorgeous. Davis' sharp trumpet jabs were fully present and alive. I've listened to Rosanne Cash's "10 Song Demo" CD on countless systems, and the Corvina's sound is up there with the very best and significantly pricier headphone amps.
Red Wine Audio products are sold factory-direct, with a 30-day money-back guarantee and no restocking fees. The company also offers a stereo preamp, power amps, and other components. All are battery powered. As Rossi improves his designs, he offers performance-enhancing modifications for older Red Wine products and 100 percent trade-in credit for Red Wine Audio owners when they upgrade to newer, more expensive products. The traded-in products are reconditioned and sold at a discount with a full five-year warranty.