If an amplifier is supposed to amplify the signal feed to it while preserving its sound as pure as possible, Mr. Graham Slee for sure don’t hold that belief. The Graham Slee Voyager amplifier is one warm sounding amplifier with a very thick and lush sound. It definitely does not qualify to be called “neutral”, but at the same time its sound signature can be very addictive to people who wants analog and tube like sound.
The first thing that comes to mind when I listened to the Voyager is its smooth treble, smoother than even the highly acclaimed Corda 3Move amplifier. After more listening, I beginning to notice that the low bass frequencies also have more punch on the Voyager than it does on the 3Move. As much as I like the smooth treble, and the low bass of the Voyager, the midrange is actually its biggest strength. The Voyager has a very smooth, very thick midrange. Think vacuum-tube thick, something that analog lover would die for in this age of Digital Audio Players.
While the midrange is thick, it is also quite dominant, sometimes eclipsing the bass and the treble, and this can be a really good thing or a really bad thing depending on taste and application. For example, people who are used to tube amps with a thick midrange will definitely find the Voyager at home. However, if you are used to a solid state, or your music doesn’t revolve around the midrange (i.e Rock, Classical), then the really thick mids muddies everything, and all the frequencies seem to be sucked out by this thick midrange blackhole.
Again, depending on the application: A run of the mill Grado (ie the John Grado kind) has always maintained a very strong treble presence, (with the Grado HF2 being an exception). After a while, people get tired of the strong treble, and they started to feel the other frequencies missing. The Graham Slee Voyager amp would work nicely with these bright cans, filling in the mids, and making it more lovable like the Grado HF2.
On the other hand, the Westone UM3X has a warm sound signature with a relatively flat frequency curve and a fairly good body. When paired with the Voyager, I find that the sound becomes muddy and congested, the thick midrange taking all the roles, and I can’t seem to enjoy this combination no matter what genre I throw at it.
Power wise, the Voyager is actually pretty good, driving the Sennheiser HD650 with enough punch behind it. It is still no SR-71a, but I have a feeling that a 24V DC power supply can really turn the table around. (Too bad that’ll be for another article, as I can’t find a suitable 24V power supply for this review).
One thing about the Voyager that bothers me is its black ABS plastic enclosure. Compared to the offerings from RSA, Headamp, and Meier, the Voyager falls short both in material and build quality. What’s more, it is way too big too be competitive in this age of super tiny amps like the RSA Shadow and Pico Slim. The biggest size I can tolerate these days is the RSA SR-71a, and that’s only because the SR-71a has a superb build quality and just as superb sound quality. Even the Triad Audio LISA 3, though mighty sounding, has often been referred to transportable duties due to its size.
The Graham Slee also has 3 options for power: through 5V USB, a 9V battery, and a 12/24V external DC power supply. The DC power supply that came with the Voyager is 12V, but I’m really curious on what 24V would do. Switching between the 9V batttery to the 12V DC power supply yields no significant change, except that I don’t have to worry about recharging my 9Vs. Last on the feature want list is a DAC and a crossfeed.
What it does have that many other amps don’t have is a contour switch. Basically it’s a fixed equalizer setting, except that Graham Slee wisely reworded the dreaded e-word to read “contour”. The flat setting is not actually flat, but rather, midrange-is-the-superhero presentation that I described above. When you flick the switch to “contour”, it boosts the bass and the treble, bringing the much needed treble back to the music, and actually sounding more neutral than “flat”. This can be a good feature, as you now have two sound presentations to choose from, and you can still boast to your friends that you don’t use an equalizer because you’re an audiophile.
At the end of the day, what’s the verdict on the Voyager? Yes, it has a nice analog sound that can be a love affair for a lot of people. Personally for me, the music works better for me with the contour switch on. Size and build quality is not the best, so this can be an area of improvement for future products. All packaging issues aside, however, you do get a solid performing amp with a great analog sound in this age of digital. Moreover, the reputation that Mr. Slee has gained worldwide over his amplifier is rightly deserved, as he dedicates a lot of time answering people’s enquiries, patiently answering my questions over email. So you can buy his products with confidence, knowing that he will quickly respond should any problems arise.
Very analog sound. Smooth treble. Thick and smooth midrange. Contour switch gives a more exciting sound.
DIY grade packaging and size.
System for auditioning:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD650, Westone UM3X
Source: Ipod Touch 2nd Gen
Amplifier: Graham Slee Voyager, Corda 3 Move.
Big thanks to Alvon and Diboy for making this review possible.