V-Moda Vamp Verza Headphone Amp

PRICE Vamp Verza, $598; Metallo case, $101

Elegant two-piece add-on to enhance smartphone audio
More power, superior DACs
Sleek, serious metal construction
Makes phone heavy and bulky for your pocket
Metallo case a pricey add-on

V-Moda offers a stylish solution to turn your smartphone into the sonic titan you always dreamed it could be.

The Samsung Galaxy S III (a.k.a.GS3) was arguably last year’s second best-selling mobile phone, behind the iPhone 5, and the popularity of this non-Apple device—reportedly over 30 million units in consumers’ hands—in a sea of Android competitors speaks volumes. Smartphones do a lot, often serving as many folks’ primary media player, but they face the quandaries of all modern portable gear: Performance must contend with the realities of physical size and weight, as well as battery life. One such casualty is the diminutive digital-to-analog converter inside the phone, which turns the digital audio signals into analog audio that we can hear over headphones or the built-in speaker. As a GS3 user for the past 11 months, I have no major gripes about the onboard DAC (in this case built into the Qualcomm WCD9310 chip), but it is fair to say that it wasn’t selected only for audio quality, but perhaps partly because it’s tiny and it won’t overwhelm the phone’s battery.

The more significant limitation of the GS3 might be its ability to drive difficult loads, which affects both loudness and sound quality. Since the topic here is a premium audio experience, we’re assuming the use of superior headphones, which by definition should be more revealing of the electronics driving them. And so a multipurpose aftermarket gizmo like the V-Moda Vamp Verza is worth a listen. A successor to V-Moda’s Vamp for iPhone 4/4S, which I tried last year, the Verza combines an integrated 150mW x 2 headphone amplifier, a pair of DACs, and a 2200 mAh battery pack in its sleek metal chassis. The Verza amp has been designed to drive high-impedance headphones greater than 32 ohms, and I keep a pair of Sennheiser HD 475 ‘phones on hand for such occasions.

Digital Possibilities
The GS3 will play back MP3, AAC, ACC+, e-AAC+, WMA, WAV, MIDI, OGG, and FLAC files. I’ve officially been a fan of this last codec since The Beatles released their remastered catalog in 44.1-kHz/24-bit FLAC a few years ago. Music purveyors such as HDtracks.com meanwhile sell a growing assortment of new and classic albums in up to 192kHz/24bit resolution, in FLAC and other formats. So better-than-CD-quality content is definitely out there, if we can figure out how to truly enjoy the difference.

Concurrent with the debut of Vamp Verza, V-Moda also introduced a companion product, the Metallo phone case (shown above and below on the phone). While optional, and pricey at $101, this heavy-duty, phone-specific metal case matches the sharp lines of the Verza while also allowing easy, elegant mating of the two thanks to a slide-and-lock back plate. In the past, such outboard DAC/amp devices would lash to the player with the use of rubber bands, and to that end a pair of classy, branded stretchy straps (which I mistook for a couple of fashionista wristbands) are also included. So if you have an old iPod classic that you want to sound better and run longer, Verza can accommodate that, too, just not as snazzily as with the Metallo case, which is currently available only for the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5.

The Metallo is a sexy and incredibly durable case all by itself, but its alternate Verzadock back plate bolts securely onto the Vamp Verza, and from then on attaching/separating the two is fast and sure. My review Verza arrived with some gas in the tank already, but I made sure I was charged up full before my tests, which took several hours, and I needed to note the proper switch settings and colored lights to be sure I was doing it correctly. It’s really not so difficult, and a handy card explains the basic usage and configuration. A short double-male micro-USB-to-micro-USB cable links the output of the GS3 to the input of the Verza, and the headphone mini-plug now pops directly into the Verza instead of the phone. The phone automatically detects that a USB connector is connected, and from there we're ready to rock.

Heavy Metal
Holding this assemblage takes a little getting used to, especially if you’re accustomed to the bare-naked feel of the GS3. Yes, this newly accessorized phone is a tad bulky and downright heavy, although for guys like me—technophiles with large hands—the bigness and bold styling are kind of a weird plus. Routine duties such as texting become more of a challenge with the extra hardware in place, however. It’s also a magnet for onlookers, so expect a lot of “What is that?” A pocket might accommodate the Verza combo, but perhaps the most sensible scenario would be to park it on the desk while you work, for example.

The chubby, friendly power knob offers solid resistance as you click on and adjust the volume, which can be quite considerable. The sound quality over premium headphones can best be described as clean, with no audible strain or distracting brightness, and virtually no obvious distortion as you crank it louder and louder. In A/B comparisons of the same tracks over standard GS3 audio and then with the Vamp Verza, I noticed a more natural presence and greater overall immediacy to the music, bringing me one step closer to the original recording in every case. Master volume is significantly enhanced with Verza, to the point that you could do some hearing damage if you venture too close to the maximum.

There’s no denying the benefit that an add-on like this can provide to music listening on the GS3. Video watching is also improved, not so much with any sort of faux surround (there is a 3D button, but that’s more for home or car use); rather, in rendering plainly the elements of the original soundtrack (including often-elusive dialogue, which became easier to understand).

I can’t overlook the bounty of this supplemental battery, either, which of course powers the DAC and amplifier, but it also boasts greater capacity than the GS3’s standard 2100 mAh cell, which has proven rarely sufficient to make it through a full day for me without help. You can now recharge even when there’s nary an AC outlet in sight, although you do need to rejigger with a different cable, and the Verza will not work as a DAC/amp while in this mode. Verza can also serve as an outboard sound card (pulling DAC/headphone amp duties) for a desktop or a laptop, although not all of the cables to perform these feats are included. Some features, such as bass enhancement, are designed for compatibility exclusively with iOS devices.

If you’re on the prowl for a way to transform your trusty, ever-present smartphone into the audiophile device you secretly yearn for it to be, and if you’re willing to pay for the undeniable high-end design and build of the V-Moda Vamp Verza and optional Metallo case, then this is an upgrade you will hear and feel every day. It’s certainly not inexpensive, but at least V-Moda’s modular approach means the Vamp Verza will work with your next phone, too.

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