GoVibe VestAmp+ in Review – Jaben’s Coming of Age
GoVibe products have come a long way, thank God. Remember the Hippo Box+? Rife with mis-labelled parts, a broken website, and costing a pretty penny for what, essentially, was just a battery box, it was embarrassing. It sounded good, though, and therefore got away with a TAP. Today, GoVibe, together with its cheaper Hippo branch, is generally a badge of quality. The VestAmp+ is a high-performance headphone amp with a 24bit DAC thrown in for good measure.
- Dual Wolfson WMA8740SEDS DAC chips
- 24 bit/96kHz USB DAC, upsampling to 192kHz
- Battery life of up to ~30 hours
- Internal gain switches for low and high impedance headphones
As per GoVibe usual, finding product specifications is like bobbing for apples. This is the last hurdle GoVibe products have to jump if they want to be seriously considered by potential customers, especially since a few specifications are excellent. The use of dual DAC’s, for example, should be trumpeted. It’s not. And battery life? I had to sort of suss that out myself. I could be wrong.
The VestAmp+ is well built, but then again, it’s not hard to make an aluminium box look and feel sturdy. What’s great about this amp is that all controls are flush with the body. The only item that even slightly juts out is the charge switch, and then only barely. The body uses T7 screws (an odd choice) made of steel, except for the volume pot which is fastened to the body via a H 1,5 screw. The only niggle I have with VestAmp+ build is the volume pot, which rests too close to the nearest wall. Constant wiggling of the volume pot will result in scarring on the aluminium wall. Jaben designed the VestAmp to look like they call a vest camera. Jaben may or may not have succeeded in making the VestAmp+ look like one of those cameras, and for that I applaud; on the other hand, here I think function followed form.
Ergonomics and Polish
Overall, the VestAmp+ is an easy-to-use product. The charging switch at the rear is functional, and the combination of volume pot and power switch into one item is well-executed. Feature-wise, there are two niggles. The first is the proximity of the in and out ports on the amp’s front plate. If your headphones and LOD cables have thick terminating plugs, fitting both into the amp will be difficult, and put extra stress on both the jacks and the amp’s internal hardware. The second is the gain function. For some reason, Jaben hid it on the circuit board, and unlike ALO’s Rx, which also hid it on the circuit board, you have to pull the entire board out in order to switch the gain. It’s a royal pain involving 9 screws, two different screw drivers, and about 5 minutes. A simple switch on the front or back would have been so much more elegant.
That aside, the VestAmp+ plays well with portable sources. It is slim and comfortable to hold, and has a silky-smooth volume pot. The front LED glows blue when the amp is switched on, and the rear LED’s glows red when USB is plugged in and/or is charging the battery.
Aside from the hidden gain switch, no further surprises wait the VestAmp customer. The DAC is an easy-to-use plug and play affair, though admittedly, I had some trouble with my 2007 MacBook Pro. The VestAmp+ proudly proclaims 24Bit/192kHz across its breast, but that’s a punt; USB audio devices aren’t compatible with 192kHz without a special driver, and even then, I’m skeptical. The VestAmp+ upsamples from the compatible 96kHz, and does a good job, though I’ve encountered a few instances of stuttering whereas the CENtrance DACport, another great DAC/headphone amp, never stutters with any material.
You can’t change op-amps in the VestAmp+ like you can with some amps with larger chassis. Honestly, I can’t imagine who would care. The VestAmp+ is a super slim amp/DAC whose main feature limits what can go on on the inside. And that inside is packed.
iPad users: if you have the Camera Connection Kit, the VestAmp+ works perfectly. Of course, the iPad will not be able to charge the VestAmp+’s battery and will display a power warning if the charge switch is in the on (right) position. Otherwise, it is much easier to use with the iPad than with a mid-2007 MacBook Pro, but I’ve found 24-bit files to be hit-and-miss with my iPad. Your mileage may vary.
There are several tiers in the Jaben amp lineup. VestAmp+, which falls into the upper echelon, is fantastic. Its sound can be summed up simply in two words: neutral, and smooth.
Across the board, from the most sensitive of iem earphones to large, power-hungry home headphones, the signal is neutral. There are no peaks or troughs whatsoever in the frequency range even with extremely difficult to drive iem earphones like the Earsonics SM2. The signal is also among the cleanest I’ve heard, rendering very low levels of background noise. This results in effortless detail from low to high frequencies even with very sensitive earphones such as the FitEar Private 333.
At low gain, the VestAmp+ supplies ample volume to power-hungry cans such as the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω and a handful of extra decibels at high gain. IEM’s fair well in low gain. The volume pot has good balance even at low volume levels, and again, there is very low hiss.
As for the word, ‘smooth’, I’ve got some explaining to do. My ultimate reference is the ALO Rx, which has both more background noise and more detail than the VestAmp+. The details in the Rx show up in incredibly wide stereo separation, and nearly no distortion of any kind, effecting a bright and brittle sound with almost any headphone. The VestAmp+ isn’t as compelling a performer as the Rx is, but it is better for relaxed listening. The stereo image sits comfortably for almost any genre of music. It’s never eery, nor wild. There is an appreciable amount of distortion in the signal in comparison to the Rx. It isn’t overly expressed, but it does soften the signal somewhat. Therefore, the ruler-flat high frequencies presented by Jaben’s newest DAC amp give the slight impression of being laid back, at least in comparison to the Rx.
For the sake of reviewing as an audiophile and not merely objectively, I’ll have to admit that there is little beef in the signal. The VestAmp+ is strong, but hardly causes any frequency to roar. Don’t expect bass from anaemic earphones/headphones to suddenly yawn with subwoofer power. Enjoy, rather, the equally detailed full-range spectrum.
Recordings where this flat and relatively wide presentation aren’t a perfect combination are binary albums such Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. Mother could do with some channel bleed and maybe some more distortion.
That’s it, really. The VestAmp+ does a remarkable job of preserving the original signal. It isn’t cold but it isn’t overly warm either. It errs on the side of detail, but is never grating or flighty. There is an appreciable amount of distortion in the signal which sounds great, and is why I tend to dub the sound ‘smooth’. The wide stereo image collapses slightly when used as a DAC, making the VestAmp+ a better listen for binaural recordings.
It holds up a high quality square wave image, too, despite some distortion on the back edge of the wave. Note: when under load, the square wave image remains just as detailed.
The VestAmp+ average selling price is about 300$. It is a good price for what you get. Performance-oriented detail-loving listeners will love its wide stereo separation, computer listeners will love its dual DAC’s and easy plug-and-play. Jaben have taken pains to design an ergonomic amp, and have mostly succeeded. The volume pot, hidden gain switches, and close proximity of the in and out audio ports are the niggles that detract from the overall score of this otherwise, excellent piece of audio gear.