VIRTUE ONE INTEGRATED AMPLFIER
Life is full of little dichotomies. Example: why is it that people who spend their lives making and enjoying live music rarely have decent systems with which to play their treasured recordings? My youngest brother is just such an example. He went all the way through high school and college playing multiple instruments and has been a member of several rock and jazz ensembles. Even today, he surrounds himself with various musical instruments that he plays for his own enjoyment. He also has a great deal of recorded music, both on cd and mp3 formats that he plays regularly while he works and relaxes. His playback system consists of a personal computer with the cheap powered speakers that come along with such pedestrian devices. While visiting him and his family last summer, I casually noted that he needed a bit of an audio system upgrade. He agreed, but mentioned just as casually that he really couldn’t justify the cost, but that maybe a trip to the local thrift shops might solve the problem. I should note that his wife is a stylish lady who values the appearance of her home, so the typical dorm-room audio system just won’t do, and to my knowledge, the problem has yet to be solved.
So what does all of this have to do with the subject at hand, namely Virtue Audio’s new Virtue One integrated amplifier? Well, Dear Reader, please read on…
Virtue Audio is a new company that to date has specialized in the design and manufacture of class-T (Tripath) amplifiers. These little guys (the amps, I mean), a subset of the class-D phenomenon, have been around for a few years and have garnered something of a reputation for packing refined sound into a very small, cool running package. I personally first became involved with class-T amplifiers around a year ago when I started looking into putting together a decent nearfield listening station for my workplace desk. Among other information sources, I looked here at Stereomojo.com and happened across a shootout among a fairly large group of chip-based amplifiers. The winner was a little integrated called the Trends TA 10.1. I immediately purchased one of these little jewels and put it to work. Small enough to hold in the palm of your hand and not offering much in the way of aesthetics, the little Trends nonetheless impressed me sonically and remains in my office system to this day. Unfortunately, the Trends only puts out around 15 watts per channel, so it is somewhat limited to either very efficient speakers or the type of desktop application to which I have committed it. I spent a little bit of time with the amp in the downstairs audio system in my home, but came away a bit disappointed due to the lack of power and dynamics offered by the device. Thus summarizes my experience with class-T amplifiers until Mr. James Darby, our exalted Publisher, asked if I would be interested in reviewing a Tripath amp with some real power! Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.
The amplifier I received is Virtue Audio’s smallest and least expensive model, the Virtue One, which can only be obtained directly from the company for $249, less than $100 more than my Trends TA 10.1 now sells for. Now for some specifications, straight from Virtue Audio’s website. The Virtue One offers 30 watts per channel into an eight ohm load with the stock 24 V power supply, but can be goosed up to 45 watts per channel with an upgraded 30 V supply. Now these are specs worth getting excited about, because one can finally get all of the sonic advantages of the Tripath chip, but with enough power to drive real-world speakers in real-world systems. This is still a physically small amplifier: 5” high by 2 ¾” wide by 5 ½ “ deep, and weighing just a few pounds. According to Seth Krinsky, founder of Virtue Audio, running a Tripath chip at 30 V creates some daunting challenges regarding heat dissipation. Virtue’s “heatpipe thermal management” solution addresses this problem by attaching the chip to several copper slugs, which are in turn coupled to the amplifier’s aluminum chassis, making the whole unit one big heat sink. I can attest that the approach works, as the amplifier never got much more than warm to the touch. The manufacturer recommends that the amp be broken in for at least 100 hours before best listening results are achieved.
The photos at Virtue Audio’s nicely done website make the amp look gorgeous, but mere photos don’t do the product real justice. It’s a joy to handle and is really exquisite to
look at; I got the version in black with the chrome volume knob on the front. This thing just exudes quality, craftsmanship, and artistry. The amplifier guts are housed in a beautifully crafted aluminum case with the volume knob packaged separately, and that alone weighs a ton (well, not really, but it seemed that way when I hefted it out of the box). Attention to detail is apparent throughout, from the novel “propeller” binding posts that can easily be tightened down by hand, to the offset placement of the posts themselves so that the large gauge speaker cables favored by many audiophiles can be easily attached. There is even a buffered output for a subwoofer! Virtue Audio threw everything but the kitchen sink at the development of this amplifier, including the talents of Audience Audio chief designer Roger Sheker and Tripath mod guru Michael Mardis, who together are responsible for its design and engineering. The product specifications indicate use of such audiophile-approved goodies as “VirtuCap input capacitors” and “Cryo-treated Auric wire.” Oh, yes, did I mention that the amp is available in five different colors?
Upon its arrival, I immediately slid the Virtue One into my downstairs system mentioned previously. Specifically, this is a “family use” system that is part of our entertainment center; the audio part consists of a Logitech Squeezebox 3 directly feeding an amp/preamp combo, which in turn powers a pair of Von Schweikert VR-1 monitors. Initially, the Virtue One was inserted directly between the Squeezebox and the speakers, thus taking over full amplification duties. Cold out of the box, my first impression was that the Virtue One could pump out some seriously low and well-defined bass for an amp its size! The midrange and treble seemed a bit rough around the edges though, so I left the amplifier on all night and decided to take another quick listen in the morning. I had just returned from a two-hour concert with a choral group I am part of that was accompanied by full orchestra in an acoustically wonderful venue, so I doubt that any system would have satisfied me at that moment anyway.
By the next morning, the amp had settled in enough that I felt like I was getting a better picture of its true sonic character. In fact, I had a hard time pulling myself away from it, as it immediately drew me into the music, thus really piquing my interest. As time passed, it was abundantly clear that the Virtue One is a “foot tapping and dancing” kind of component. I couldn’t help myself in this respect as I listened, and seemingly, neither could my wife and kids. Everyone commented favorably on the “little box with the big sound” that was making dinner preparations that much more fun and enjoyable. Was this due to an overly tilted-up treble presentation? Not likely, as my wife, who like most ladies probably hears the highest frequencies better than I do, assured me that there was “nothing harsh” about the amp’s presentation. So what makes the little Virtue so virtuous? After some analytical listening sessions, I have come to the conclusion that it’s really a combination of attributes: well-defined and satisfyingly deep bass; plenty of detail in the midrange and treble, but without being too forward; and a particular vividness that seems almost unique to me in an audio product. I suppose the term “vivid” can have connotations to someone reading an audio review, but I mean this in the best possible way: one is drawn into the recording by details and tonal colors not noticed previously, but without the earache that might result from too much emphasis in the upper midrange or treble.
I will note that I made a few changes to the system as I listened to the Virtue One. First, I began with the stock 24 V power supply, and found that the amp was eminently listenable in this configuration. However, after a few days, curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn’t help switching over to the upgraded 30 V (90 watt) supply that was so courteously provided. I immediately noticed a bit deeper bass, a bit more control, and a slightly lowered setting of the volume knob to get the same volume levels that I was getting previously. Needless to say, I stuck with the upgraded supply for the rest of my listening. Secondly, the Virtue was engaging enough that I decided to put my trusty Benchmark DAC 1 USB converter between the Squeezebox and the diminutive integrated. Is the Benchmark really a better DAC than the one native to the Squeezebox, and could the Virtue convey any improvements? The short answer is a resounding “YES”! Immediately apparent were a huge improvement in the lateral soundstage, space around instruments, and yet more textural detail. As a matter of fact, I had just made the switch and turned everything back on when my 10- year old son walked in from school and started listening intently. After a minute or two, he exclaimed, “Dad, this sounds awesome! Is this surround sound?” Enough said…
The last big test for the Virtue One was a stint in my “serious system,” which resides in a dedicated listening space in my attic. Here, the digital front end is a Macintosh Mini computer feeding its digital output to my Benchmark DAC 1 via its usb input; all music was ripped or downloaded at cd (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) or better resolution, and all managed using iTunes. I’m also an analog guy, but my turntable setup can wait for another time. My preamp is a Klyne Audio Arts SK-6 with phono stage, passing the signal off to a Threshold SA 3.9e stereo amplifier, which drives a pair of Shahinian Compass speakers. Cables are a combination of Kimber, Signal Cable, and Harmonic Technology products. Initially, I removed both the Klyne and Threshold from the chain, and replaced them with the little Virtue. This might seem a bit strange, as the amp/preamp combo originally retailed for around $7000 together, while the Virtue goes for a paltry $250, a mere 28-fold cost differential. While it was initially obvious that certain things were missing, I was amazed at how well the Virtue held up! Shahinian speakers are well known for being current hungry, which is one reason I mated them with the big Threshold. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some of the bass punch, control, and depth I am used to hearing were more or less AWOL.
Also, the system lacked some of the presence and midrange warmth I normally experience. Surprisingly though, by the next morning when I turned the music on, I had forgotten about the Threshold/Klyne combo and was again being sucked into the music, just as I had been in the downstairs system! Again, it was that darned vividness and immediacy through the midrange that made the music sound so real… As a funny aside, the Virtue really threw my cats for a loop. They really dig sleeping on the big, hot class A Threshold during the winter, and they actually fight in true “king of the hill” fashion to see who gets the place of honor. I had to laugh out loud when each would repeatedly slink up to the Virtue, sniff it, and then walk off in disgust. I suppose that “hot ‘n’ heavy” applies to class A amplifiers and activities in the back seats of certain teenagers’ cars, but certainly not to Virtue Audio’s amplifiers!
Now that I have gotten through the basics, I suppose some further particulars are in order. For example, you really haven’t heard the Virtue One until you have heard it reproduce well-recorded percussion. Here, the vividness I have been referring to repeatedly comes through in spades. Choose a good percussion-laden jazz recording such as Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ reissue of The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Blues at Carnegie Hall” (lp, MFSL 1-206, ripped to iTunes), and hear the impact of the drum kit and the mallets against the vibes. The spaciousness and immediacy of this recording are scary when properly reproduced with a good system, and the Virtue definitely contributes to great effect.
Another good example that demonstrates the Virtue’s strengths would be Alain Caron’s album “5,” (cd, BHM 91002, downloaded from HDTracks.com). This jazz fusion album relies on Caron’s pounding electric bass, which drives the music forward with intense fury. To get the full effect, one needs to turn the volume up a bit and “feel” those bass notes pounding your chest. Surprisingly, the Virtue One through the little Von Schweikerts has become my favorite mode of listening to this album, as not only does the bass go deep and loud enough, it also has the proper definition and “shape” required to drive the music as a good bass line should.
The Virtue One does an equally good job with reproduction of classical music. I pulled a few of my favorites, namely the Sibelius Violin Concerto (Heifetz/Hendl, Chicago Symphony; lp, RCA LSC-2435, ripped to iTunes), and Bartok’s Concerto for Violin (Stern/Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, lp, Columbia MS 6002, ripped to iTunes). Both of these records are from the “Golden Age” of stereo and represent excellent performances and recordings. In each case, the Virtue One allowed me to hear into the recording and easily differentiate the various instrumental lines, but without making the whole thing seem like a disjointed mess. Orchestral recordings are hard to get right and reproduce correctly, which is probably one reason why they aren’t all that popular as audiophile “test and demonstration” examples. I, however, love them when they are done well. Using the Virtue, I can tell, for example, that Heifetz was more closely mic’d than Stern, and it is easy to hear differences in the recording techniques chosen by the engineers. The Columbia recording was definitely more distantly mic’d overall and includes more natural reverberation and ambience from the concert hall, while the RCA is more directly up-front. I like both; it is just interesting to be able to easily hear the differences in perspective, and the Virtue One lets me in like an open door.
Well, if you are still with me at this point, it’s pretty obvious that I really like the Virtue One. Are there any real disadvantages? Of course! Aren’t there always? First, there is only a single set of analog inputs, so only a single source component can be used (unless you want to invest in an up-stream switch box). This should present no problem if you choose to use the amp like I did, in conjunction with a computer based music server. Why not, as this gives you remote access to your music collection, as well as essentially any streaming radio you could possibly want. Otherwise, mate it to your cd or dvd player and go from there. If you really need more inputs, you could also consider upgrading to the Virtue One’s big brother, the Sensation, which offers three sets of inputs along with some other goodies.
Further, the Virtue One offers no internal phono stage, no remote, and no headphone jack. Hey, what do you expect for $250, anyway? Feel good about that lone Calorie you burned by getting up to adjust the volume. A second consideration is one of system matching. Now don’t get too concerned, because this should be done with any audio component one might be considering for purchase. Good as it is, the Virtue One isn’t, and never will be, a 500 watt-per-channel audio arc welder. Consider mating it with a good pair of relatively small and efficient loudspeakers. Indeed, I got better results with the little Von Schweikert VR-1s than I did with my floorstanding Shahinian Compasses. Don’t count out certain relatively efficient floorstanders, however. I’d love to hear the Virtue One with the neat little Role Audio Windjammers that so impressed me a few months ago at my friend “Muzikmike” Peshkin’s house.
So back to my little brother. Virtue Audio claims on its website that one of their goals is to “make audio lovers into audiophiles.” While I like the sentiment, I came away thinking that the Virtue One is almost “anti-audiophile” since it tends to shift one’s focus away from the gear and toward the music. My brother is no audiophile, and in fact, he makes fun of me for being one. He’s a no-nonsense musician and music lover. Yet I think that the Virtue One would be the perfect focal point of a true music lover’s system that I could heartily and enthusiastically recommend to him and people like him. It sounds great; it’s small and inconspicuous, yet elegant to behold; it’s environmentally sound; and here’s the big kicker for us conspicuous consumer audiophiles: it’s inexpensive! In fact, it’s a no-brainer bargain, and not just for us silly audiophiles!
As a final bit of advice, don’t take my word as a reviewer as gospel. We all hear things differently and have different preferences for how we like our music to sound. I know as well as you do that putting together a satisfying music playback system is a very personal affair; therefore, take what you read here (and elsewhere) as basic guidance and listen for yourself. By all means, take advantage of the 30 day money back guarantee offered by Virtue Audio and see for yourself what their products can do. If your experience is anything like mine, I don’t think you will be sorry!
Hold the presses! After hearing about my attempts to drive my Shahinian Compasses with the Virtue One, Seth Krinsky and Michael Mardis kindly sent on the “big daddy” upgraded power supply, which puts out 130 watts at 30 V. This is a “super upgrade” option that costs an extra $119, and is designed to be used in conjunction with inefficient and current-hungry speakers. I initially tried the supply in my downstairs system and noticed a small change in bass control, as well as some fleshing out of the lower midrange. An improvement indeed, but maybe not worth the extra cash when used in a smaller system employing efficient speakers. However, when placed in the bigger attic system, I immediately heard a considerable improvement in both bass control and extension; now we were getting a bit closer to what the Threshold can do. In short, I was still hearing plenty of detail and tonal color, but with a considerably more potent and fleshed out bottom end. Quite an improvement, but I still think I preferred my Threshold overall, most likely due to some midrange warmth that seemed to sneak in with the Shahinians, as well as that last bit of slam the Virtue still couldn’t quite muster. Overall, I’d have to say that my favorite combination, regardless of power supply used, was still the Virtue One/ Von Schweikert duo. There is a real synergy between the two that I can’t explain, but it’s truly a keeper! I’m already bugging Seth to get me a Sensation…
Review coming soon!
I auditioned the Virute One before I sent it to John for his full review. I treid it with several different speakers in two different rooms, but it spent the most time driving the large but super efficient Coincident Super Victory floorstanding speakers. The Virtue provided plenty of power with audio qualities that surprised me as much if not more than John.
I was also able to compare it to the Trends John mentioned as well as the Super-T amp and I must say I prefered the little Virtue. It simply conveyed more of a musical presentation. I have also seen and heard the One at a couple of audio shows including the recent CES in Vegas where it was demo'd driving another large pair of floorstanders, this time the ClairAudient speakers which are over 5 feet tall and cost $21,000. (See pic below). This caused a lot of buzz because no one could believe what they were seeing and hearing, especially from a $250 amp! I wasn't surprised. (The little yellow thing in the center on the stand is the Virute one)
The One is also pretty versatile. Chek this from the Virtue website in thier very good FAQ section:
Q: Do the units have a bridged mode?
A: The units are already bridged. Each channel on the ONE supports 100 watts. Choose L or R and you'll get a bridged "mono" unit that uses all the power you can throw at it. Warning: outputs are not ground and the units outputs cannot be connected together in any way.
Q: Can I use the amps for bi-amping?
A: You can certainly use the amps for bi-amping. If you use one amp per channel, you can use both each of the buffered sub outputs to drive powered stereo subs.
We also have the One's big brother "Sensation" in house.It has more of everything - more power, more inputs as well as a remote control.
I've had no trouble with my unit, but they us: Very frankly, we had production issues with Sensation and are reworking the unit prior to releasing it in April/May 2009 or later. The Sensation will be nothing less than sensational when released. But don't wait for it. If you buy a Virtue ONE or TWO now, and want a Sensation later, we will accept your unit for 100% trade-up to Sensation. If you need more power from your ONE/TWO, we suggest that you buy two of them with the 130w supply and bi-amp them.
Wow. A free trade up. Combine that with their 30 day in-home trial and it indicates how confident the guys at Virtue are in their products. As John wisely said, speaker selection is important. If you have read our reviews and some of our "Dirty Little Secrets, you that just because a speaker's specs may say 89db efficient, it doesn't mean they actually are.
A great cheapskate (all of at the Mojo are audiophile cheapskates...well, VALUEskates anyway) combo would be the $250 Virtue One with the $300 Hsu HB1 MK2's we reviewed and is one of our Products of the Year for 2008. Add an appropriate Hsu sub and you'd have one killer full-range audiophile system for about one grand.
Big things really do come in small packages: the Virtue Audio One is a great little integrated amp that would more than do justice to a high quality stereo system. While the One is certainly small in size, it would work in any sized systemAs long as you can live with a single pair of inputs and no remote, just be sure to match it up with reasonably efficient speakers and keep the volume at a humane level. Keep in mind, however, that you can tailor the amp to some degree to a particular speaker or application by choosing the most appropriate power supply - there are three of them. No matter which way you choose to go, be prepared to be drawn in to the music and have some fun… An amazing audio bargain!
The Virtue One, because of it's extreme value, is a Stereomojo rare multi-award winner. One of our 2008 Products of the Year, a Best of Show CES 2009 as well as our Maximum Mojo Award. We might point out the Virtue is NOT an advertiser with Stereomojo. Our awards are based strictly on merit and value.