REVIEW: VINCENT AUDIO KHV-1 HYBRID HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER
Germany's Vincent Audio has a reputation for delivering value for money Hi-Fi products, so as a headphone enthusiast its KHV-1 amplifier piqued my interest. We take a closer look at its Hybrid Headphone Amplifier.
Hybrid Headphone Amplifier
The Germans brought us Porsche, the washing machine, the MP3 compression algorithm, and the first ever digital computer.
German engineering is widely accepted as being among the finest in the world, and this reputation spreads to both the automotive and audio industries. Companies such as Sennheiser, Thorens, Beyerdynamic and Koss all have design roots planted firmly in Germany. Accordingly, the quality of these brands is second to none.
Vincent Audio is another German audio company which offers no exceptions to this rule, with outstanding German research, development and design, at a realistic price point that won’t destroy your wallet.
Vincent's amplifiers are unique, in that the entire range is split down the middle. There are two categories: “Solidline” and “Tubeline”. The SolidLine range of products utilises pure transistor technology for solid-state amplification. While the TubeLine series still uses solid-state amplification, but with tubes inserted into the topology to create a hybrid valve system.
The two ranges complement each other nicely and even share a similar build and aesthetic. The TubeLine range of products proudly showcases the glowing tube on the front. This aesthetic is consistent among the Vincent CD players, amplifiers and preamplifiers.
If you’re in the market for a hybrid tube amp for your cans for around the $1000 mark, your choices are surprisingly slim these days. The Cayin HA-1A (RRP $999) is often the popular choice and known for its abilities to drive fussy headphones, and for its versatility as a pre-amplifier.
Designed and developed in Germany but manufactured in China, the Vincent KHV-1 has a spec sheet and looks that scream “top shelf”, but at an accessible price point.
From the moment you remove it from the box, the killer looks of this headphone amplifier draw you in and leave you wanting more. Instead of a typical horizontal headphone amp, the KHV-1 stands up straight like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The black brushed aluminium plating around the entire unit certainly helps push this fantasy.
It has gently contoured grill-like edges on the side which not only look sleek but also act as a heatsink for heat dissipation.
Despite standing tall, the Vincent is entirely sturdy; four flat feet hold it firmly in place and avoid it toppling over. It’s so sturdy in fact that it also functions as a marvellous headphone stand.
At the rear is the I/O: two pairs of line level inputs, one pair of outputs (for connection to an amplifier), and a fuse. Around front, there's a headphone jack, a power switch, an input switch, a volume knob and a window.
You may notice the absence of a digital input, but that's intentional. Not only would the inclusion of a DAC drive the KHV-1's price north, but the market for DACs is also alive and well today, and most enthusiasts already have their DAC of choice.
A glass window lets you peek into the beating heart of the Vincent KH-1Pre: the 12AX7 vacuum tube. Enclosed in a small tunnel of reflective surfaces and adorned with orange LEDs, the tube is the showpiece of the unit, glowing brightly for the world to see.
While the KHV-1 is also available in silver, for me, this black version is one of the best looking amps I’ve seen in recent years. It’s a unique piece, which is beautifully made and carefully designed, with a good mixture of subtle craftsmanship detail and bold highlights.
This isn’t the first time that the Vincent KHV-1 has appeared on the market. The first release was unleashed back in 2009, and it contained two headphone jacks, one set of inputs and some solid internals. It received positive feedback from users and reviewers alike.
In 2014 however, it was updated to include a second pair of inputs (and a button to switch between them), an upgraded faceplate and some improved circuitry. While on paper it might look like an incremental upgrade, adding another set of inputs was a game changer for the KHV-1; instead of being used solely for headphones, it opened up the market for it to be used as a dedicated pre-amp for a simple Hi-Fi system as well.
As mentioned, the KHV-1 is a hybrid tube-transistor headphone amplifier, delivering the best of both worlds; some tube flavouring as the signal enters the amp, and the reliability of solid-state amplification on the way out.
This varies from an OTL configuration, where the tubes are essentially doing all of the work from start to finish.
This combination approach offers excellent levels of efficiency and low output impedance, allowing the Vincent to be versatile with a wide range of headphone types.
The KHV-1 utilises a combo of two 12AX7 tubes, which are not user replaceable. Vincent recommends pairing this unit along with monoblock amplifiers such as the SP-995 or SP-996, the former sharing the same OPA2604 op-amp as the KHV-1, which explains the perfect pairing.
Usage and sound
Switching the unit on, the LEDs inside the tube enclosure light up right away, but don’t be fooled. The KHV-1 unquestionably still needs a few minutes for the tube to reach optimal temperature. The LEDs feature adjustable brightness which is also a neat touch, but I have left them on 100% (because I love them!).
After a brief warm-up period, it's good to go. The KHV-1 headphone output is rated at 1.75 watts @32ohms, which means it has enough power to re-ignite a small planet. Everything I threw at this amp was powered to perfection, even thirsty old vintage planar magnetic headphones.
With even the least efficient headphones, the volume knob of the Vincent never went past 12 o’clock. Seriously, the power on this thing is unrivalled.
The volume knob is an absolute dream to turn. The potentiometer has ever-so-slight notches in it, allowing for pinpoint precision turning, and can be adjusted by just a tiny little fraction if need be.
My favourite pairing with the Vincent came as a surprise in the form of a pair of modded Grado headphones. The warmth the Vincent delivered was an absolute dream to listen to, and the usual shrill highs of the Grado headphones were tamed to perfection.
The other strong player here is Sennheiser's HD800S. Also designed in Germany, the Sennheiser open-backed flagship is easily controlled with the KHV-1, with plenty of body, depth and detail to boot. It’s a solid pairing and one that is very difficult to beat, especially in this price bracket.
With IEMs, things weren’t quite as romantic. The sheer power the Vincent brings doesn’t play so nicely with small and delicate balanced armature drivers, and the noise floor becomes ever so slightly more apparent.
An OTL amp would usually struggle with low impedance over-ear headphones. However, being a hybrid design allows the Vincent to play nicely with even sensitive headphones such as the Denon D5000. The KHV-1 preserves all of the warmth, detail and rich bass of the wooden Denon headphones, and only gently sprinkles a touch of tube flavouring over the existing sound signature, leaving a tantalising gooey midrange and taming any pokey highs.
Regardless of the larger sized headphones used, the Vincent is a versatile, powerful, dynamic and detailed headphone amplifier, capable of driving a wide range of drivers (including planar magnetics). As a pre-amp, it will deliver a mild tube flavouring to any gear you put inline after it, and won’t introduce any nasties into your mix.
With only the Cayin HA-1A as a direct competitor, I can’t find any reason why you would choose it over the Vincent. It looks and feels incredible, it's designed and developed in Germany (and built in China), and it can drive almost anything you throw at it.
The 2014 revision adds more inputs, which enables the unit to be more than just a headphone amplifier. It's quite simply a solid all-rounder that can be integrated into any Hi-Fi setup as an excellent pre-amp.
At a price that's hard to beat I'm putting my money where my mouth is. I'll be buying my own KHV-1 Hybrid Headphone Amplifier to sit proudly on the desk.
- Frequency response: 20 Hz – 50 kHz +/- 0.5 dB
- Nominal output power: 400 mWatt (300 Ohm), 1.75 Watt (32 Ohm)
- Nominal output voltage Pre Out: 2V (max. 4 V)
- Harmonic distortion: < 0.1 % (1 kHz, 100 mWatt), Input sensitivity: 600 mV
- Signal-noise ratio: > 90 dB, Input impedance: 47 kOhm
- Inputs: 2 x stereo RCA 1 x headphone Jack 6.3 mm Outputs: 1 x stereo RCA Pre-Out
- Tubes: 2 x 12AX7
- Colour: Black/Silver, Weight: 3.8 kg
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 160 x 265 x 210 mm
For more information visit Vincent Audio.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.