Review: The Virtue Audio Sensation M451 Integrated Amplifier
by Sean Fowler on June 30 '11
Whenever a motivated individual comes along and devotes his entire company to the more affordable side of the high end stereo market, one can't help but wonder - does this guy even know what the hell he's getting into? Didn't anyone give him the 24-size font memo that warned: "There's no real money to be made at the bottom depths of hi-fi"? In all incontestable actuality, most of the guys who enter this business with the sole ambition of producing and selling Best Buy priced hi-fi would be better off breeding lemurs for a living. The work would be easier, far less stressful, and could actually provide enough consistent cash flow to... oh I don't know... make a decent living!
Luckily for you all, no one ever takes my advice to go lemur. If they did, I'd be at the head of a booming lemur empire and the only affordable hi-fi anyone would ever know is decrepit multi-decade old gear.
So be thankful to have enthusiastic guys like Seth Krinsky of Virtue Audio in the business, as it takes a colossal set of stones to invest nearly all of your life savings into the hope of raising a successful company in a niche market whose entire customer base could fit inside Andorra. Seriously folks. I'm not sure how many of you know or appreciate just how much passion and dedication it takes to pursue this kind of goal, but let me tell you, it's huge! So huge in fact, that it tickles my audio strings. Why, you ask?
Because quite frankly, the only people who are crazy enough to bust their ass day in and day out to try and make a living at selling affordable hi-fi are the guys who genuinely want to offer music lovers a chance to own something truly unique and special. There is an authenticity to their mission that, when combined with unshakable determination, usually adds up to one kick ass product. And since I'm a sucker for both artisan craftsmanship and kick ass products, I knew that it would only be a matter of time until I crossed paths with Virtue Audio.
Inevitably, fate... or more like a phone call, enabled Seth and I to connect. After riffing back and forth for awhile, it wasn't long until I found his M451 integrated sitting at my doorstep!
A Brief glance at Virtue Audio... sorta
Now usually this is when I'd begin to expound on Virtue Audio and the inner workings of their M451. However, since the M451 has already been well documented by other sources, I see no real benefit in rehashing information that can easily be found elsewhere on the web. So if you want to learn more about this integrated or Virtue Audio in general, open up your Google search engine and have at it. Otherwise, it's time to dive straight into the meat and tater's of this review.
GENERAL PERFORMANCE SUMMARY
Strengths: Compact size and handsome aesthetics; The ability to fully customize your Sensation in terms of both looks and sound; Solid overall build quality; Has a unique presentation that sets itself apart from most Tripath based amplifiers (particularly with the stock power supply); Quite powerful given its specifications; Features robust and tuneful bass; Sports great midrange articulation (particularly with the battery pack); Has great imaging; Is easy to transport.
Weaknesses: The Sensations rather lively top end (with the stock power supply) may make it a bad match for speakers that are already energetic and lively by nature; Though powerful for its size, this amp is not ideal for driving inefficient speakers in huge rooms to rock-concert volumes levels; The Sensation suffers from a bit of mechanical noise; This noise is particularly obvious when the optional JT Dynamic power supply or Dodd tube buffer is in use.
The Bottom Line: Think of the Virtue Audio Sensation M451 as an aural chameleon. There are a handful of power supplies that attach to it. Some of the internal components can be upgraded. And if that's not enough, a snazzy tube buffer can also be thrown into the mix. The result is a little piece that can occupy all different fragments of the sonic spectrum. Now the good news is that the unit should be able to play well with a huge variety of stereo systems. The better news is that a couple of the combos I tried sound good enough to slap the shit out of Tripath naysayers. So long as you can live without gargantuan current delivery, the M451 is a piece that is well worth checking out.
Product Information: $799 USD (base price) $1,423 USD (price of the unit under review in its most expensive configuration)
Power Output: 30 RMS WPC into 4 ohms stock. Up to 87 RMS WPC into 4 ohms with upgraded power supplies.
Dimensions (HxWxD): 4" x 10.5" x 10"
All other features and Specifications:
THE DETAILED PERFORMANCE SUMMARY
As mentioned previously in this article, Seth decided to send yours truly a number of different goodies to go along with the M451. The idea was to give me a solid all-around feel for how this integrated performs under various configurations. The goodies sent to me included the Dodd tube buffer (a $300 upgrade), the Dodd battery supply kit (a $249 upgrade), the JT Dynamic power supply (a $249 upgrade) and the stock power supply.
Now because the sound of this unit changes in accordance to the goodie attached to it, I will have to break down the performance of the M451 per each goodie configuration as opposed to writing my normal sectional styled reviews. So to kick things off, let's start with the...
Stock Power Supply
Now as much as I love good sounding hi-fi, I also love a good laugh. And that's exactly what I got when my eyes first scanned over the stock power supply that ships out with every M451. It turned out to be nothing more than a pulse-based power supply. You know, the small black box that every laptop on planet earth uses. Only, this particular supply was even smaller than the one that came packaged with my Toshiba A505 laptop! Can you say red flag? Hell, the only audio related electronics I can think of that use such cheap power supplies are aftermarket PC Loudspeakers, which are perfectly fine for blasting Lady Gaga, Blink182, or various Windows alert tones. But adequate for serious audiophile level performance? Eh....
Still, I always do my best to heed my mother's sage advice to never judge a book by its cover. And so I tentatively hooked the half pint M451 up to my main system, which at the time housed a set of Wilson Audio Watt Puppy5.1's (which have been upgraded by the good folks at Wilson), and the beguiling AMR CD-777. While I admit that the substantial price imbalance between the aforementioned components is laughable, the system nonetheless does a damned good job of telling me exactly what a piece of gear is doing. And so I loaded up the first disc, Radiohead's 'In Rainbows', fast forwarded to the third track and pressed play.
Seconds later, I realized that I had heard this kind of presentation somewhere before. As Thom Yorke's haunting vocals leapt in front of the gentle strumming of a simple yet charming guitar riff, it became all too clear what the Sensation sounded like - and the realization surprised me! This thing sounds a lot like a Naim piece, or at least it shares a lot of the same general tonal characteristics. As the Radiohead disc played on, I noticed the same kind of punchy, energetic, muscular, and musically engaging qualities that I've come to know and expect from the Naim Nait 5i, another excellent integrated whose street price is nearly double that of the M451 en' stock form. Quite honestly, I was taken off guard by just how good the tiny Tripath-based amplifier sounded while being fueled by a freakin' laptop power supply.
Once Radiohead was done with their set, I decided to move onto more challenging jazz and classical pieces. This is when some of the M451's caveats became more obvious. While the Sensations lively and warm tonal colorations are perfectly ideal for rock, pop, electronic, and hip hop styles of music, its lack of smoothness along the treble and general lack of refinement may leave some listeners feeling as though they are missing something. This holds especially true for the folks who want to discern every detail within the recording, even if that detail is nothing more than two mosquito's going at it during a violin concerto.
Otherwise, the stock Sensation M451 is a surprisingly adept performer that has the ability to delight it's listeners with qualities that are almost the antithesis of what most people associate with class D performance.
Dodd Battery Power Supply
Power supplies make the difference. In fact, I'm so confident in this belief that I'll gladly swear on a package of double stuffed Oreo's that the M451 on batteries sounds nothing like the stock unit. It's as if someone took some aural Pledge and then scrubbed the living shit out of the M451.
Seriously! While the regular M451 has a character that could pass as being a part of the Naim family, the battery driven M451 sounds a lot like a mini-me version of the McIntosh MA7000. Now for those of you who are not already familiar with the MA7000, it's an integrated whose aural arrangement strays a bit from McIntosh's usual array of warm and meaty sounding equipment. So instead of blanketing the music with vivid harmonics, the MA7000 brings forth a very "tell it like it is" presentation that slides ever so slightly to the forward side of the neutral yardstick. Sonic highlights of the MA7000 include wonderful top to bottom coherence, exceptional treble and midrange articulation, great detail, strong bass, and a dark back-round that allows for pinpoint spatial focus across a capacious soundstage. Now the only reason I mention all of this is because that is exactly how the M451 sounds. The only thing that really separates the M451 from the MA7000 is $6500 and how well each piece gets the above job done.
Suffice to say, you won't need to play dozens of recordings to pick up on the sonic shift that occurs when you go from the stock pulsating power supply to the optional Dodd battery power pack. The differences in presentation are exceedingly obvious. Gone is the punchy and warm sounding mid-band. Gone too is the lively and gritty treble. It's all been replaced by bass that sounds as though it's been fed Liquid Swartz, midrange that sounds cleaner, more articulate, and more refined than ever before, and treble that is far more extended and easier on the ears.
So unless you love the punch and tonal palette of the stock M451, I can in all confidence recommend the Dodd battery pack as a great and worthwhile upgrade.
JT Dynamic Power Supply
I'm going to keep this particular assessment short, not because the sound of this power supply sucks, but because it commits a sin that is pretty unforgivable to my ears. The problem? It uses an u-n-r-e-g-u-la-t-e-d Toroidal power supply, which means that unless your power lines have been blessed by the Audio Gods themselves, you're going to hear this thing when it's on. And for guys like me, this is a problem. You see, I'm the kind of guy who at the end of a tiring day wants nothing more than to plop my ass in front of the system, throw on some good music, pop open a brew, close my eyes, and get lost in my own little world. That's why I got into hi-fi in the first place. It's my release. And I find it pretty damned difficult to find my happy place when that peace is being interrupted by the irritating sound of transformer buzz and a proverbial cauldron of voltage noise running through my speakers.
Now some of you engineering types may be clamor; 'but, unregulated power supplies get less noisy as the volume increases'. To that I say... So what? I can't speak for everyone out there, but when I'm listening to the tail end of Loreena McKennitt's 'Dante's Prayer', I don't want to blast the passage in order to enjoy it. I want to just sit there and soak up the magic in silence. If that silence is interrupted, be it by phone, car alarm, or low passing alien space craft - I'm mad. If that silence is interrupted by a $249 power supply 'upgrade' - I'm downright pissed.
The sad thing is that the M451 sounds pretty damned good with the JT Dynamic power supply in place. Think of it as a sonic bridge between the stock power supply and the battery power supply. In fact, if it didn't have all the noise issues, it would have likely emerged as my favorite of the bunch. Oh well...
Dodd Tube Buffer
First, the good news. The Dodd tube buffer sounds excellent when used in conjunction with the Dodd battery power pack. Think of the combination as the audio equivalent of peanut butter and jelly (or mayo and french fries for all you European readers out there). So why does this combo work so well together? Simple. Because for all of the great performance that the battery fueled M451 has to offer, it can still sound relatively cool across the upper midrange and lower treble. The warmth of the tube buffer mitigates those issues - thus resulting in a full and balanced sounding presentation that is quite exceptional for the money.
Now for the bad news. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the tube buffer to play well with any other power supply. It muddied up the presentation of the M451 when used in conjunction with the stock pulsating supply, and it dragged down the performance of the JT Dynamic power supply in similar fashion. It's also worth noting that whenever I flipped on the tube buffer, I was instantly met with a good amount of audible hiss - hiss that I could easily hear from my listening chair even when using 83.5db efficient loudspeakers.
So at the end of the day, my stance on the tube buffer upgrade is one of indifference.
The Wrap Up
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, running a small hi-fi business ain't easy. There are trials that every owner must go through before they can enter the world as true hi-fi braves. Right now, Seth is going through those trials. And from what I can tell, he's doing great. After all, he has already managed to bring a number of unique and award winning products to the market despite being in business for only a handful of years. So the musical mojo is there. The only thing missing right now is mechanical maturity, or more specifically, the process of recognizing and then addressing mechanical issues before a product is released to market (makes a hissing noise to emphasize my point). That said, I'm in no real position to bust Seth's balls. He is a great guy who offers a great product, and until I walk a couple miles in his shoes, it's either put up or shut up.
As for the Sensation M451; call me crazy, but I perceive this unit as being like the BBC loudspeaker of affordable solid state integrated amplifiers. Though it may be compact and unable to reach rock-concert volumes (unless matched with power-efficient speakers), the M451 can sound utterly musical and engaging when used within its limitations.
So here's a well deserved tip of the hat to the crew at Virtue Audio. The Sensation M451 is truly a unique and compelling product that reminds me of why I am thankful that no one ever takes my advice to go lemur. Well done boys!
Addendum: A gargantuan thank you goes out to Seth Krinsky for showing Zen-like patience throughout the entire reviewing process. So thank you Seth, for understanding all the crap going on in my day to day routine and for giving me the time that I needed to take care of this review. Much appreciated!