Disclaimer: I have very fond memories of the three weeks I spent with the Fostex HP-V1. Fostex, you did yourself proud. But like every proud moment, the end has come. I drank heavily the day I sent the amp back. I even missed a hair appointment. I’m still pining. Evidently, you can buy the HP-V1 at Headfonia’s shop for Rp6,250,000, whatever that amounts to. Musica Acoustics also sells it, for 598$ USD.
Part of the excitement that courses through me as I tear open new Fostex gear comes from expectation. Fostex’ penchant for creating high-quality products at prices that cool their we-build-it-for-you China competition makes me giddy. And unlike many Chinese-made or Chinese-developed battery-powered valve headphone amps, the HP-V1 feels, looks, and performs very unlike its adolescent mainland competition.
It’s a fair question. Personally, I’m a solid state guy. I prefer the lower distortion levels and noise values that solid state brings. But the timeless audio virtues of valves: intimate, homely, smooth- these cannot be understated. Of course, when making the transfer to the portable realm, valves create problems for manufactures; heat being one, battery consumption being another. Thus, in order to hide powerful batteries and still dissipate enough heat, portable valve amps such as ALO Continental, GoVibe Portatube, and the HP-V1 are large. And, they get warm.
But valves done right have a sonic quality unlike anything on the market. The Continental is ultra-warm and soft, which is a taste a lot of people love. I prefer the higher resolution and rich midrange of the GoVibe. In fact, until today, there is not a single portable amplifier out there whose sound I have loved as much. The good news is that the HP-V1 is close to the GoVibe in most cases, and on par, in others.
In the last few years, Fostex have garnered awesome support from headphone enthusiasts. A mere handful of years ago, Fostex were known as an OEM manufacturer for pretty much anyone under the sun. Their break from the unknown has been successful. Today, they are a brand loved by enthusiasts.
And the branding they’ve applied to the HP-V1 is far and away the most thorough among portable valve amps. Logos are engraved, labelling is clear and concise, print quality is good. And the on/off lamp is perfectly understated. What a great bedside rig!
Living in Japan, the MADE IN JAPAN label means nothing. I live daily with Japanese-made sinks that clog at the bat of an eyelash; I skid daily to my foyer on plastic flooring that shreds under foot, bump shoulders on plastic walls and plastic faux glass and plastic handles and doors that no longer align themselves in their frames. I’ve lived in this flat for just two years. I go outside and before my eyes are Japanese buildings erected a mere ten years ago, whose forlorn, greyed-out, pock-marked exterior look like condemned Detroit. This country thrives on fake, on plastic, on cheap. I hate it. To be honest, I shy from Made in Japan labelled goods.
That said, the HP-V1 isn’t like today’s MADE IN JAPAN. It is well made. It’s like the MADE IN JAPAN stuff put together back when Japanese companies did their best to match, if not exceed, the quality goods from from post-WWII Europe. It is a throwback to a better time. And it deserves the space. Especially because I live in this pre-fab-everything country, I wish beyond hope that Japanese corporations will start shooting for the stars again; will stop competing with other ridiculous plastic shit. I wish beyond hope that other audiophile companies will look at what Fostex are doing, and emulate, if not better it.
The Ins and Outs
Rather unique to the HP-V1 is the installation of two line inputs, one aft, and one fore. The performance of both is identical. Ergonomically speaking, the implications of being able to choose which way to feed you amp, are many, and all praiseworthy. For home use, feed the back end from your HiFi, or desktop DAC. For portable use, strap your source to the HP-V1 and feed the front end, assured that nothing will bump or grind the rear end and cause damage to your gear. Genius.
Less genius is the output port. Despite sitting abreast a massive chassis, this port is a 3,5mm single-ended plug, which is a shame. The HP-V1 could easily fit a 6,3mm stereo jack. Carefully engineered, it could fit both a 6,3mm and a 3,5mm jack, much like the GoVibe Portatube. And as the HP-V1 is an amp that works so well atop a nice HiFi set, it is an absolute shame to be stuck using ungainly adapters, that both lower the stability of the amp, and can damage its internal circuitry.
At least the ins and outs are well made. Each is anchored strongly in its niche and sits almost flush to the case. Not a one sports conduction spacers, but in a valve system, absolute signal quality isn’t the be all and end all anyway, especially when plugged into the mains.
The HP-V1’s large chassis looks like it hopped out of a mixing bowl whose ingredients were the metallic stars of Disney’s Star Tours and the original Battlestar Galactica. The amp rests on aggressive, battle-droid feet and the long radiator grills give a scary peak at the inner Cylon eye.
It’s not a design your wife will enjoy. I’d put money on it. But it gushes aggressive geek chic like no other portable valve amp out there. It’s a 1980’s Camaro in a 2000’s world. And screwing all that muscle together are sturdy hex bolts, which are less prone to stripping their Allen counterparts.
As a man obsessed with knobs, it would be remiss of me to forgo the HP-V1’s super smooth volume pot. Its balance is almost perfect, never wobbling, never brushing the casing below it. Its singular boner is rather formidable. I discovered after weeks of use. It rotates too easily. Not that the HP-V1 will fit in your trouser pockets, or that even if you managed to stuff it in, you could still muster the wherewithal to twiddle it (that’s what she said), but it moves with too little force. Earphone users are bound to blast their eardrums many times because of inadvertent changes in volume.
Keep care of your ears, earphone users. When not on the desk and in plain sight, the HP-V1 is a clear and present aggressor.
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