Review: V-MODA VAMP Portable iPhone DAC and Headphone Amp

The look of V-Moda gear may be a little Versace for some mild-mannered audiophiles, but make no mistake: Val Kolton knows a thing or two about good sound, and beneath the flashy exteriors of his gear you'll find thoughtful engineering, well-conceived ergonomics, and impressive sound quality.

So when Kolton told us he had a portable source device in the works, were we excited? You bet.

The new V-Moda VAMP ($650) is a portable, battery powered, iPhone 4/4S-specific DAC/headphone amplifier combo, incorporated into a form-fit iPhone case that roughly resembles a Mophie Juice Pack or other extended battery packs of that ilk. In terms of functionality, it's like a pocketable version of NuForce's Icon IDo, providing an optical S/PDIF digital output for desktop interfacing alongside its core digital decoding and headphone amplifying  functions. It also incorporates a 2200 mAh battery pack, which'll keep your phone charged as you listen, for an additional 8 hours or so of listening time (or a lot more talking/texting/socializing).

The VAMP is a beautifully finished little device - the brushed aluminum case that protects the unit's guts is confidence inspiring, though such a thing might seem a little crazy to the average gadget lover.

Consider the alternatives, however, and it becomes clear that Kolton does know the market, and his audience. Headphone aficionados (who populate online forums like Head-Fi) are willing to go more than an extra mile for high-quality portable sound, carrying around stacks of outboard devices - DAC, amp, battery pack - strapped to their players or phones with industrial-strength rubber bands. Why? Such a setup lets them use a far wider range of headphones on the move, including difficult-to-drive high impedance and low efficiency cans.

But this is a much, much slicker solution. The VAMP provides high-end portable iPhone audio without making you look like you're carrying around an IED - a pretty big deal, which makes, potentially, for much more widespread appeal.

On the business end of the device, alongside the analog output control (something we always like to see on portable headphone amps), you'll find a small, illuminated, three-position toggle switch; you can set the device to play, to play while charging a docked iPhone, or you can turn the thing off. On the other end of the device, high and low output gain settings are available (the former will come in handy for hard-to-drive headphones like your HD-650s); there's also a reset switch should the thing crash, though we never found a reason to use it. A mini-USB port is provided as well, though it's for charging the VAMP's battery pack (and acts as a through port to sync your phone when the VAMP itself is turned off).

The main toggle switch also has a little trick up its sleeve. In conjunction with a side mounted button (which itself doubles as a battery level check), you can use the toggle to select EQ modes. In addition to a flat setting (indicated by a red LED), you'll find "VQ" - an EQ setting with a general tilt towards the treble and a subte low-end boost - a bit of a twisted smile profile. Switching between the EQ modes is accomplished in a slightly roundabout way - hold in that side-mounted button, the toggle begins flashing, you switch that to another position, the LED changes colors, you toggle back again, and once the LED stops flashing, you're in the other mode. A bit weird, but it's not something you're likely to be doing frequently, and the steps involve mean that at the very least you'll be unlikely to accidentally switch the thing into or out of VQ mode in your pocket.

Like all audio devices using the iOS accessory protocol, the onboard DAC is limited to 16/48 performance. Realistically, for portable use with an iPhone, which you're probably filling up with apps and photos and whose pesky hardwired memory limits the number of 32/192 files you'd be able to cram in there anyway, that'll do just fine. Those set on portable high-rez audio will still have to turn to a second, dedicated device like the HiFiMan HM-801 or the iPad+CCK+DAC combinations we looked at a few months back.

But on to the matter at does the VAMP perform?