The Authoritative and Potent Violectric V281 Headphone Amplifier
Roughly three years ago I reviewed a pair of headphone amplifiers from a German firm called Lake People. I quite liked both models and to this day they remain very strong recommendations in their respective price categories. The Lake People gear is geared more towards studio applications, meaning less creature comforts and practically zero eye candydepending on your definition of course...I happen to like the black box look.
Lake People also has a division specifically for audiophiles and their unique needs. Dubbed Violectric, it takes those pro-audio sensibilities and ratchets them up a few notches. The result is a range of amplifiers which formerly culminated in the $1,069 HPA V200. The V200 is practically legendary these daysseems like nearly everyone has heard one at some point, and I know many people who use it as a reference. I did the same for several years and might still be doing so to this day were it not for the topic of this review: the Violectric V281. At $2,299 the V281 is serious business in every sense of the word, with the looks, features, and most importantly, sound, befitting a world class device.
Frankly, I'm a little late to the party here. Violectric set me up with a V281 review unit some months ago, and I've been using it extensively for various other product evaluations. It's served me so faithfully, without drawing attention to itself, that I found myself slipping on the actual review. I also decided early on that I simply must have one of my own for my reference systemI arranged to buy my own unit, in a different configuration (which I'll discuss shortly), but kept the review loaner around so as to compare the sonic impact of certain upgrades. So, I feel apologies are in order both to the folks at Violectric as well as the many readers who have patiently waited to read this review. I get emails and HeadFi messages on a regular basis asking when it might be complete. The time has finally come, and the V281 certainly deserves the attention.
The V281 is by far the largest piece of equipment Violectric has done. Prior amps including the V200 all used the same compact form factor which made for very easy placement and system integration at the expense of some flexibility. There was only so much room for inputs and outputs, so the devices weren't the most suitable for complex systems. Violectric sought to counter that by offering a wide range of gear in matching compact enclosuresV600 phono stage, V800 DAC, V630 preamp, and of course the various headphone amps. The V281 has the same width (five inches) but is exactly twice as tall as the other units. So V800 DAC and V600 phono stage stacked together would perfectly match a V281 in height and width, though not in depth where the V281 is about three inches deeper. Think "shoe box" and you're on the right track.
This extra room allows for a broader feature set than ever before. The V281 is equipped with inputs and outputs in both RCA and XLR format along with the very useful pre-gain switches, and there's room on board for an optional DAC module. The DAC adds $240 to the bottom line and comes in three flavors: Asynchronous USB, Coaxial, or Optical, all of which boast 24-bit/192kHz capabilities. Up front we get a 4-pin XLR output along with a pair of 1/4" jacks, balance control, a humongous volume knob, and individual buttons for input and output selection. The device also acts as a high quality preamp, allows for routing of any input through any output, and can independently activate headphone out, line out, or both together. It's really quite versatile and should be able to insert into just about any system without much trouble.
Build quality is phenomenal. These are hand assembled at Lake People headquarters in Konstanz Germany with stereotypical Teutonic attention to detail. Even in things as simple as pressing the power button or cranking that huge volume knob, one can feel the quality at hand. It just feels right. I've had dozens of DACs, amps, and other gear come through here in the past year alone and I have to say the V281 is right up there with the very best. The Nextel coated chassis is somewhat unique and the grey color fits in whether one chooses the silver or the black faceplate. Did I mention this thing was fairly customizable? The footers can be had in silver, black, or goldfactor in the various DAC options and the several optional volume control upgrades, and there are quite a few possibilities to be sorted through.
Inside that lovely chassis, the V281 is a beast. Violectric took their already quite potent V200 concepta discrete design using 8 output transistors per channeltweaked it for improved performance, and then essentially doubled it, along with beefing up the power supply. We're talking a pair of large toroidal transformers flanked by 36,000 uF worth of capacitance. When using the XLR output this is basically like having an improved V200 driving each channel of your headphones. This makes for some very serious juice. Max output is 5600mW per channel into 100 ohm loads which corresponds almost perfectly with Audeze's LCD-3 Fazor. For higher impedance headphones, V281 can swing over 40 volts into a 600 ohm load, which is head and shoulders above most others. Competitors such as the Bryston BHA-1 or Schiit's Mjolnir, both powerful amps in their own right, do less than half that. Of course, power means nothing if it isn't of utmost quality, and Violectric certainly isn't just going for big numbers alone. Their strategy remains the same as alwayshigh damping factor due to very low output impedance (.1 ohm single ended, .2 ohm balanced), high current due to powerful output stage, low noise due to low internal gain, and very high output voltage. The formula is unchanged from the lowest Violectric model to the highestit just gets more extreme as you move up the range, culminating in the V281.
It might be worth noting that Violectric also has another new model called V220, for those who aren't interested in recabling their headphones in the 4-pin XLR termination. The V220 ($1,669) sits between V200 and V281it has the upgraded V200 circuit (but only one, rather than one for each channel) while offering increased inputs and options like the V281. My first thought is that it makes sense to either save money by using the still excellent V200 or else go all out with the flagship V281. But I suppose intermediate options are always nice to have. Then again, someone using the device primarily as a preamp in a nice speaker setup, with headphone use as a secondary function, might find the V220 just the ticket. More casual headphone users won't be as likely to have balanced headphones, and the expanded inputs/outputs over the V200 would certainly come in handy. So perhaps the V220 makes more sense than I initially thought.
Of course, expensive gear must do a lot to justify such a high price. At over $2k, Violectric's flagship belongs to an exclusive club with only handful of members. A select few of these expensive offerings do in fact justify the dough in my book. But there are quite a few others which I don't consider worth the money at all. Is the big Violectric worth the increase over the already stellar V200? Let's find out....