Schiit Audio's tiny, but powerful $119 tube headphone amplifier
Schiit's made in the US Vali desktop amp will wake up your ears!
Regular readers of this blog will recognize the Schiit name, I've covered a number of their headphone amplifiers and digital converters over the past few years. The newest little Schiit, the vacuum tube Vali, looks exactly like the company's $99 solid-state amp, the Magni, but the internal electronics are completely different. As I listened to them both and switched back and forth they sounded similar. I listened more and the Vali sounded a wee bit sweeter and richer. Not as big a difference as I would have thought, but different enough.
I liked it best with Grado headphones, especially my SR225i and RS1. The Grado/Schiit synergy was perfect, the Vali warmed up the Grado sound just a bit, and I've heard Vali also clicks with AKG headphones. Bob Marley's "In Dub Vol.1" CD had a pleasantly full sound, but bass definition was still admirably tight. I also had good results with my Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones.
One thing is for sure, with full-size headphones the Vali will sound a lot better than what you're hearing from the headphone jack on your computer. The Vali has a pair of miniature vacuum tubes, they provide "voltage gain," a solid-state Class AB output stage delivers up to 650 miliwatts per channel into 32 ohm headphones. One downside to some tube amps is they add a small amount of background noise/hiss to the sound, and with the Vali the noise was (barely) audible with my full-size headphones. The Vali's tube noise would be more intrusive with in-ear headphones, so if that's what you have go for the Magni.
The Vali's 5 inches by 3.5 inches by 1.25 inches all-metal chassis isn't fancy, but it feels well put together. The front panel has a volume control and a 6.3mm headphone jack, around back there's a set of stereo RCA inputs. The amp's cool-running tubes should provide 10,000 to 20,000 hours of playing time before they wear out, but the tubes aren't user-replaceable. The Schiit factory will install new tubes for $20.
Schitt also makes digital-to-analog converters, starting at $99 for the Modi. The Vali, like all Schiit products, is made in the US; the chassis, boards, and assembly are all handled here. The wall-wart power supply comes from China.
I also tried my Hifiman HE 400 planar magnetic headphones with the Vali. They have a lot more bass than the Grados, and the Vali's low end oomph was impressive, but I noted a loss of transient "snap" and detail relative to the Magni amp. I'm not saying the Vali is thick or murky, it's just not as clear as the Magni.
The Vali is sold direct from Schiit's Web site for $119. You can listen for up to 15 days and decide if you want to keep it, get a refund (minus a 15 percent restocking fee) or 100 percent credit towards another, more expensive Schiit amp or digital converter. Schitt's warranty runs to two years for the Vali, Magni and Modi, and five years on the other models.
If you want to get a taste of tube sound on the cheap, the Vali can't be beat. If you're not sure tubes are right for you, buy a Vali and a Magni, listen for yourself and return the one you like less. Schiit actually encourages this sort of home trial. Or buy one of those two amps, and the $249 Schiit Asgard 2 headphone amp and see if the extra investment is worth it. I think so, the Asgard 2 is much better, and well worth the difference in price. Of course, before you even think about buying an amp, get a great headphone.