Vincent Audio KHV-1pre headphone amplifier/preamplifier Page 2

During my auditioning of the Vincent KHV-1pre, I was never able to remotely tax it with either the AKG 701s or Sennheiser HD-650s. Even if I needed headbanging volume levels driving both pair of cans, I could barely get the Vincent's volume control a little past 9 o'clock. Maybe you have a pair of headphones that could stress the KHV-1pre's output capabilities, but I never came close. It had plenty of headroom.

Perhaps they'll listen now
The Cayin HA-1A, which sort of started this whole thing, was still on hand, so it seemed only natural to compare it to the Vincent. Both have preamp outputs and, with the Cayin's recent price increase (to $875), cost about the same. Both are well built, the Vincent having the heavier casework.

There are some differences. The Cayin has a tube output section that can be run in triode (1.2Wpc) or ultralinear (2.3Wpc) mode. It has a hefty toroidal power supply and weighs twice as much as the Vincent. It also runs quite a bit hotter, thanks, no doubt, to its two EL84 output tubes. The HA-1A also has switchable output impedance, allowing you to set its output to match that of your 'phones—a nice touch, although I never got the impression that the Vincent needed more flexibility in that regard.

Playing Dinnerstein's Bach disc, the two amplifiers sounded remarkably close to one another. Clang? Check. Drive? Check. Decay? Check. Interstitial silence? Double check!

However, on Burton's "The Colors of Chloë," differences became clearer. Both amps did a good job of sorting out Steve Swallow's plummy bass tone from Weber's mooey wail, and both gave the bassists a solid bottom, but the Cayin had more of that special glow—that sense of three-dimensionality that distinguishes live from electronic sound.

Similarly, the Cayin seemed to separate the attack of Burton's mallet work from the hash of overtones that the attacks floated on. It didn't dissect the music, artificially removing one from the other, but rather allowed me to hear all of the sound, and more readily discern its components. Was it a day-and-night difference? No, but it was audible.

With "Caravan," both amps had slam, but through the Cayin, Grey's bass had an extra helping of heft, Valihora's drums a double dose of slam. The Vincent seemed a tad harder on the attacks—and, perhaps, a shade less rich in timbre.

Which was right? I'm not certain. Michael Bishop recorded Hiromi's Sonicbloom direct to DSD with no editing and was obviously going for an aggressive live sound. Was the Vincent giving me more of that? Was the Cayin "tubing it up" and rounding off some of the nasty sharp edges?

Repeated comparisons made me suspect that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Yes, the Cayin sounded consistently "tubier" than the Vincent, which might well be the more honest amplifier. I preferred the Cayin's warmth for long listening sessions—contemporary recordings too frequently need a little aggression management—but it wasn't as if the Vincent caused listening fatigue. After all, I'd already spent many happy hours listening to it before these compare-and-contrast sessions.

In addition to mildly preferring the Cayin's sound, I also appreciated its features, especially its impedance matching—which, I grant, is just me being an OCD-afflicted audioweenie, as I never had problems with the Vincent in this regard. I even liked the Cayin's flea-watt output, which drove the Definitive Technology Mythos STS speakers nicely, if not very loudly.

How you tried to set them free
The Vincent Audio KHV-1pre is well built and sounds really good. I wouldn't jettison my Cayin HA-1A in favor of it—but if I'd had the Vincent first, I probably wouldn't throw over the Vincent in favor of the Cayin. While I slightly prefer the Cayin, other listeners might find it guilty of sonic sweetening. Chacun à son goñt.

As to the question of value, is the KHV-1pre worth $899.95? To a hard-core headphone enthusiast, certainly. It extracts an amazing amount of detail from its input signal, and controls 'phones with an iron hand. On the other hand, if you don't listen to headphones much—or don't have a first-rate pair of them to listen through—it probably won't constitute good value. For you.

The only reason to buy the KHV-1pre is to hear everything that a great set of headphones can deliver. In the final analysis, it's how well the Vincent achieves that, plus its feature set—eg, its double headphone sockets—that might compel someone to choose it in lieu of another headphone amp. But driving one set of 'phones or two, the Vincent Audio KHV-1pre's performance was superb.

Editor's Note
When Tom Myers of Vincent's North American distributor WS Distributing received the preprint of the preceding review text, in order for him to prepare his "Manufacturer's Comment" letter, he was alarmed because the review sample Wes had written about was more than two years old and the KHV-1pre had since been significantly revised. He therefore asked if we could postpone publication of the review until Wes Phillips had the opportunity to audition a current version. I felt this fair; Wes Phillips' thoughts on the sound of the second ample (serial number 010707K01B111) follow.—John Atkinson

Addendum: Sample 2
One obvious difference between the old and new editions of the KHV-1pre is that current production has only a single headphone output jack, not two. In addition, the current model has two line-level inputs and a front-panel switch that lets you toggle between them. I'm told that a circuit change also makes it more tolerant of lower load impedances. The question is, did the new KHV-1pre sound different from the older one?

In a nutshell, not really—although it is slightly better with difficult loads. All the clarity and detail that had captivated me in the original were still present, but I didn't feel there was a noticeable and consistent improvement over the older model, which I still had on hand. However, the new features—the extra input and the front-panel switch—changed my overall impression of the component's usefulness. I already considered the Vincent first-rate as a headphone amplifier, but I questioned its versatility as a single-source preamp. Funny how doubling the inputs made such a difference in my opinion.

Wow, I said to myself on unpacking the new unit, this would be really useful to have around the house. Yes, I was possibly putting a lot of emphasis on that second input, but I'm not a huge fan of single-use tools—and that extra input really does make me think of the Vincent as a preamp with a superb headphone amp built in. What a great system building block: begin with a headphone listening station, add an amp and speakers when finances and space permit, and Bob's your uncle. Handy to have around the house, indeed.

I grabbed my AKG 701 headphones with the Cardas Fat Pipe cables and gave the KHV-1pre a good workout. I chose the 701s because their 60–65 ohm impedance would give me a chance to see if the new KHV-1pre actually did deliver higher performance with lower impedances. I cued Simone Dinnerstein's recording of J.S. Bach's French Suite 5, BWV 816 (CD, Telarc CD-80715), and was transported to Berlin. I went back to the older model and ditto—but with minor differences. Through the new model, Dinnerstein's left hand dug a little harder—not enough so that I'd be able to put on my cans and declare within a few notes which version I was listening to, but still: Different. Better.

Hmm, thought I. Wonder what it would do with some really deep bass?

I pulled out Robert Rich's Seven Veils (CD, Hearts of Space 11086) and cued "Lapis," through which is woven some extremely deep electronically altered cello. Again, the new KHV-1pre dominated the AKG 701s slightly better than did the older version.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Repeated comparisons generated similar outcomes.

Bottom line: Vincent has improved an already noteworthy product. The sonic differences might not be a big deal to many headphone users, but those who own AKG 701s—and, most definitely, Grado 'phones—will derive some benefit from the changes. To my way of thinking, that's almost minor compared to the difference that an extra line-level input makes in the KHV-1pre's flexibility. That makes it a keeper.—Wes Phillips

Sintron Vertriebs GmbH
US distributor: WS Distributing
3427 Kraft Ave. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
(800) 942-0220