Vincent Audio KHV-1pre headphone amplifier/preamplifier

You know me. I'm not perzackly an audio slut, but I am easy. When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman called me to pitch the Vincent KHV-1pre tube-transistor headphone amplifier, he pretty much had me at "tube" and "headphone." But I wasn't familiar with Vincent Audio.

"That's why I called you," Schuurman said. "I know you were impressed by the Cayin HA-1A (footnote 1). Vincent is also manufactured in China, but it's designed in Germany. Vincent, in turn, is a branch of Thorens. You're going to be impressed with its build quality."

I was.

Paint your palette blue and gray
The KHV-1pre ($899.95) is a vertically configured—tall and skinny, not short and wide—hybrid tube-transistor headphone amplifier with two ¼" headphone jacks on its front panel. A porthole lets you watch one of its two 12AX7B tubes at work (to get just the right amount of tube glow, you can choose among three levels of illumination, or off). Below the porthole is a modest-looking volume control.

The KHV-1pre is hefty without being overbuilt. Its sides are extruded aluminum and its faceplate is solid, but not to the point of being porny audio bling. Its rear panel has one set of RCA inputs and one pair of unprepossessing RCA outputs, allowing you to use the KHV-1pre as a preamp. Other accoutrements are the porthole illumination slider switch, a receptacle for the quick-blow fuse, and an IEC power jack. Audio Advisor says that the KHV-1 employs a stabilized, proprietary power supply.

Catch the breeze and the winter chills
The KHV-1's vertical orientation allowed me to place it next to a Simaudio Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player rather than on a separate shelf, which greatly eased the changing-out of cables. It was also simple and fun to set the amount of tube glow—a silly sort of satisfaction, but it's amazing how juiced you can get from setting the mood for a listening session.

It probably reflects a lack of mental flexibility on my part, but I've always wondered about headphone amplifiers with two headphone jacks. Other than engineers monitoring a recording session, do audiophiles ever actually share a headphone listening session? Probably not—but as a headphone junkie, I have multiple sets of cans around the house, so I plugged pairs of AKG K701s and Sennheiser HD-650s into the KHV-1pre. Yes, I was being a headphone nerd. I was also curious to see if driving two sets of 'phones would cause any audible sag.

No worries there. Singly or in pairs, the Vincent had juice to spare. Perhaps I'll never convince my wife that joint headphone listening might be "quality time," but I did get a bigger kick than any sane person should have out of being able to switch headphones in a flash to compare and contrast. Or maybe the KHV-1pre's designers know their audience.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me
I primarily auditioned the KHV-1 as a headphone amplifier. I did briefly listen to it as a preamp in a system consisting of Definitive Technology Mythos STS tower speakers and a Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier. It was certainly an adequate preamp, if a tad less incisive than I would have preferred, but I couldn't escape the suspicion that having only a single line-level input more than somewhat limited its usefulness as a "real" preamplifier. On the other hand, having a pinch-hitting preamp around the house is never a bad thing.

As a headphone amplifier, the KHV-1 was pretty impressive. Its metal casework kept it reasonably cool, it had grunt a-plenty, and it was quiet as all get-out—a paramount quality in a can amp.

The Vincent delivered the muscularity of Simone Dinnerstein's performances of works by J.S. Bach on The Berlin Concert (CD, Telarc CD-80715), cleanly articulating the clangy attack of her Hamburg Steinway without stinting on the decay of its notes in the big acoustic. As impressive as the Vincent was at delivering the "bigness" of Dinnerstein's sound, however, it was even better at revealing the calm at the center of her talent. She has lots of technique and can deliver cascades of notes at high velocity, but what makes Dinnerstein's Bach special is how she handles the silences between the notes. That's the difference between what I call "sewing-machine Baroque," which just clatters on and on, and the essence that raises Bach above the mundane. The Vincent's power and speed served Dinnerstein—and Papa Bach—very well.

The Vincent also de-murked "The Colors of Chloë," from the Gary Burton Quintet's Ring (CD, ECM 1051). It's a wonderfully recorded disc, but sorting out two bassists, two guitarists, Burton's vibraphone, and Bob Moses' Swiss-watch percussion is a task that confounds less than crackerjack electronics. The KHV-1pre was more than up to it, however. From the swirling vibraphone intro floating above Eberhard Weber's moaning bowed bass to the lyrical flights of Pat Metheny's guitar, the Vincent revealed timbres, nuance, and, above all, grace. Forget harps—Ring is what heaven ought to sound like.

Beyond Standard, by Hiromi's Sonicbloom (SACD, Telarc SACD-63686), was an ear-opener. I'm still not sure I love the band, but the recording is phenomenal, and their take on "Caravan" is a killer, melding the jet-propelled rhythms and loopiness of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" onto the Tizol-Ellington standard. Hiromi Uehara's Scott-ish dervish piano figures kick the piece off, followed immediately by Tony Grey's powerful bass, which in turn is joined by arena-rock heavy drumming from Martin Valihora. It's only when David Fiuczynski starts playing the melody on his lap steel that the piece becomes recognizable—and then it's taken through melodic and contrapuntal changes for another eight minutes.

The Vincent gave "Caravan" immense weight. Sonicbloom plays it heavy, and the amp delivered that power with éclat—and how! Grey and Valihora were thunderous but never ponderous. This is not a "Caravan" viewed from a distance, hazy and shimmering in the heat waves; Sonicbloom's "Caravan" is in your face and diesel-powered. The Vincent delivered everything but the fumes.

Footnote 1: Sam Tellig raved about the Cayin Audio HA-1A in the June 2006 Stereophile. WP wrote about the Cayin in November 2006.—Ed.
Sintron Vertriebs GmbH
US distributor: WS Distributing
3427 Kraft Ave. SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
(800) 942-0220