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V-MODA VAMP makes the case for audiophiles with money to burn

VMODA VAMP makes the case for audiophiles

Audiophiles who are less than thrilled with the sound that they get from their iPhone 4 or 4S now have a new companion accessory that is bound to make a difference in the quality of their listening experience. The US$650 V-MODA VAMP, available today from V-MODA.com and Amazon.com, is a rather different iPhone 4/4S case that packs a lot of power and sophistication in to a solid metal casing.

This isn't just a battery case, although it packs a 2200 mAh battery. It uses an audiophile-grade digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to extract the digital audio signal of the iPhone, and then runs it through a two-channel 150 mW amplifier (five times more powerful than that built into the iPhone) to bump up the signal.

The VAMP has two audio processing modes built-in: the PURE mode processes audio to provide the truest sounding audio playback, while a VQ mode adds a "slight spatial 3D soundstage, tightened bass, and increased treble attack" to punch up the sound.

All of this is integrated into a brushed aluminum case with red highlights. The area that cradles the iPhone 4/4S is made of a silicone material for easy insertion and removal of the phone, as well as protecting it from bumps.

Probably the most unique feature of the VAMP is the built-in optical audio output. This allows audiophiles to connect the VAMP to an A/V receiver or DJ mixer over Toslink or S/PDIF optical audio. As V-MODA notes, once your phone has been retired from your pocket, you can still use it as a high-grade audio source.

The company is donating $50 of the sale of every VAMP to the InTheLoop Foundation, a non-profit that exists to educate and promote "safe sound." As expected with an accessory that costs more than most iPhones, the VAMP also comes with a one-year warranty.

I had an opportunity to try the VAMP prior to its release. Charging is done through an included USB to mini-USB cable, but a "charging brick" isn't included with this expensive case -- instead, you'll need to use the AC adapter that came with your iPhone 4 or 4S. I tried to use another charging brick that apparently wasn't the right type, as the device didn't charge the first time. After using the suggested Apple adapter, I thought it was charged (a couple of LEDs on the side of the box showed orange and green), but a quick test showed me that was not the case.

After perusing the included user's manual for a few minutes, I finally found the secret -- the VAMP must be switched on prior to charging. That's different from most devices, where the state of the device doesn't make any difference to charging.

The device finally got charged, and then it was keynote Monday... Finally, I had the opportunity to give the VAMP a try. To test, I queued up several songs in a few different musical genres, grabbed my pair of V-MODA Crossfade LP headphones, popped the iPhone 4S into the VAMP, and flipped the toggle switch to "on." You can tell it's on because the switch itself glows red, and the optical output also glows red due to the laser inside.

Of course, my Crossfades don't use optical audio; just a standard 1/8" plug. To compare the sound output from the VAMP, I listened first to the songs through the standard iPhone headphone jack to get a feel for the sound quality. Next, I jacked the Crossfades into the VAMP and listened to the same song at approximately the same volume using the PURE mode.

There was a difference in the quality of the sound that was almost immediately noticeable. Bass was more crisp, highs seemed more precise, and was surprised by how long sustains in some songs could be heard with PURE or VQ turned on. Listening to an acoustic guitar piece I'm very familiar with, I was amazed to hear a fingering error that wasn't apparent when I listened to the tune through the iPhone's built-in jack.

I preferred the PURE sound to V-MODA's eQualization mode (AKA VQ) -- VQ tended to accentuate the bass a bit too much for my taste. For DJs who want to push bass, VQ will probably be the setting of choice.

Music of all genres sounded much more realistic and "live" through the VAMP than it does through the iPhone's jack. Both old recordings and those that benefit from state-of-the-art recording techniques had an improved sound.

As I've mentioned in previous reviews of Mac and iOS audio accessories, a lot of the relative "improvements" in sound can be very subjective. What I hear and what you discern are two different things. But I found that there was enough of an improvement in sound quality through the VAMP to not only be immediately noticeable, but also bump up the emotional impact of the music I was listening to.

I was not able to test the optical audio out, which provides 48 kHz, 16-bit output to sound systems and DJ mixers.

I did experience a few technical issues with the VAMP. When I plugged the headphones into the VAMP's output port, I occasionally heard interference from the phone that was not apparent when I was plugged directly into the iPhone, as well as a very soft hiss. Both sounds were rather quiet, as I never heard them while listening to music, but they might be discernible at higher volume levels. For that reason, DJs using the VAMP might want to put their iPhones into Airplane Mode before connecting the VAMP to a sound system or mixer.

Conclusion:

V-MODA's VAMP is a unique product, providing audiophile-level amplification and sound processing to sound output from the iPhone 4 and 4S. It does a remarkable job of improving the sound from an iPhone. However, the price point of $650 makes it out of reach of all but the most well-heeled consumers who want better sound.

PROS:

  • Obvious improvement in sound quality through headphones.
  • Optical output from iPhone is perfect for audiophiles and DJs.
  • Battery pack can be used to charge the iPhone as well as provide sound processing and amplification.
  • Impressive and attractive design.
  • Silicone liner surrounding iPhone makes device easy to insert and remove, also provides good protection for the iPhone.

CONS:

  • Ridiculously high price point.
  • Interference from iPhone is audible.
  • Adds bulk and weight to the iPhone.

WHO IS IT FOR?

Audiophiles with unlimited money to spend, DJs who want to use their iPhones as a digital music source.

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