I've reviewed a number of portable headphone amps over the years, but they just took the analog output of a phone or MP3 player and made it sound better. Ideally, you want to totally bypass the player's digital converters, but up until recently that was a very expensive proposition. The V-Moda Vamp Verza cuts the price to less than half, and works with iPhones, iPads, and iPods, as well as Androids and computers. I'm really impressed with the little Vamp Verza's sound.
The look and concept were designed by V-Moda's Val Kolton in Milan, Italy, but the Vamp Verza is one of the few audio devices that's still made in Japan. It's a great looking piece of gear, but since it's really designed to be used in tandem with a phone, Kolton also designed the machined Metallo case ($101) specifically for iPhones or Samsung Galaxys. The Verza and Metallo case together form a sleek phone/audio system. The 'Verza comes in three colors: white/orange, red/black, and matte-black; the all-metal construction gives it a high-end look and feel.
Kolton listened to a bunch of converter chip sets and amplifier circuits to get the best possible sound with Apple and Android phones. He couldn't find one that sounded great with both Apple and Android phones, so the Vamp Verza houses two separate digital-to-analog converters. For iDevices (iPod/iPhone/iPad) there's an Asahi Kasei Microsystems AKM 4353 DAC chip; for USB-DAC and Android, the Vamp Verza uses a BurrBrown PCM2902 converter. Both converters offer the same maximum resolution of 16-bit/48-kHz sampling rate.
I was thrilled to see the Vamp Verza has an actual volume control knob, which I consider a huge improvement over up/down buttons. The knob makes it easy to zero in on exactly the volume you want.
Partnering the Vamp Verza with my iPod Classic and V-Moda Crossfade M-100 full-size headphones seemed like a good place to start. No doubt about it, the M-100's sound was transformed by the Verza, the bass firmed up, so the Black Keys' visceral kicks kicked harder than ever. Crosby, Stills & Nash's vocal sound was far more natural, and straight ahead piano jazz CDs definition and clarity were much improved.
Comparing the iPod's headphone jack with the Vamp Verza's, it sounds like it's providing a more direct connection to the music. Miles Davis' trumpet cuts through more, the bassline on Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" is easier to follow on the Vamp Verza. The iPod Classic sans Verza sounds veiled, softer, and blurry by comparison.
My Jerry Harvey JH13 in-ear headphones with the Vamp Zerza were a terrific combination. The Los Lobos' "Live at the Fillmore" concert CD had a remarkably spacious sound; the Vamp Verza opened up the JH13's stereo image a lot. In-ear headphones tend to keep the image inside your head, but the Vamp Verza pulled the sound out. Nice!
The two high-impedance (250+ ohm), full-size headphones I tried -- Sennheiser HD 580 and Beyerdynamnic T 90 -- were sonically underwhelming with the Vamp Verza. Switching over to a low impedance (50 ohm) headphone, the Hifiman HE-400, the Vamp Verza regained its composure, and the sound was incredibly clear, dynamic and lively. Bass power was spectacular. I also compared the Vamp Verza with the new $479 ADL X1 iDevice-only digital converter-headphone amp, and it was a close contest. The ADL has a slightly warmer, richer tonal balance, but still has plenty of detail. I'll have more to say about the ADL in a few weeks.
I also used the Vamp Verza on my desktop as a USB DAC/sound card, hooked up to the Adam Audio F5 self-powered speakers. The sound was rich, highly detailed and dynamic. Activating the Vamp Verza's 3D processor generated a much bigger and more spacious soundfield, but I preferred straight stereo with the speakers.
The Vamp Verza comes with a USB-to-Micro-USB cable, a 3-inch USB-to-Apple 30-pin cable, a 4-inch Android Micro-USB-to-Micro-USB cable, and two V-Moda rubber bands to secure a smartphone or iPod to the Vamp Verza. The Verza's DACs will work with iPhone 5 and the new iPads with Lightning connectors soon; V-Moda is getting ready to ship its Tuono, a "short" Lightning adapter this summer. The price hasn't been set yet, but will probably be $20 or $25.
You don't have to take my word for how good this thing sounds -- you can buy the Vamp Verza for $598 from the V-Moda Web site (or Amazon) with a 60-day return policy, and there's no restocking fee. Other V-Moda outlets may not offer such generous return options.