Review: VSSL A.1

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Today we reviewed the VSSL A.1 connected amplifier. Attractive, compact and multi-room compatible, this stereo amplifier delivers 2 x 35 watts into 8 ohms and 2 x 50 watts into 4 ohms. Equipped with analog and S/PDIF digital inputs and outputs, the VSSL A.1 features a subwoofer output as well as a Bluetooth receiver. Consequently, it can be used to listen to music wirelessly, but also to stream sound from a TV (optical connection). It is also compatible with Google Cast (Chromecast built-in), AirPlay 2, DLNA and Spotify Connect via an Ethernet or WiFi connection.

Sold for 649 euros, the VSSL A.1 connected amplifier has all the characteristics of a Sonos Amp killer, at least on paper, but how does it really perform? 

The VSSL A.1 amplifier with our reference speakers in the background: the Elipson Prestige Facet 8Bs and the Focal Chora 826s.

VSSL A.1: the brand

VSSL (pronounced “vessel”) is a young American brand founded by three friends with the goal of making it easier to listen to music from any source, including a smartphone. Aware of how difficult it is to find a straightforward, universal connected amplifier, they decided to create their own with support from the TruAudio team, an American company specializing in producing in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, outdoor speakers, and amplifiers for custom hi-fi and home theater systems.

The amplifier had to meet the following criteria:

  • It must allow easy music streaming from a smartphone.
  • It must be connected to the internet for continuous streaming from any device.
  • It must let the listener use their favorite music apps without imposing a third party app. The brand called this concept Native Streaming.
  • It must use the latest technology and provide automatic updates.
  • It must be an all-in-one solution that even a child can use intuitively.
  • It must replace the physical interface (control buttons) with control via a smartphone and authorize voice control. For this last point, the brand partnered with Google.

As a result, VSSL became specialized in creating multi-room connected amplifiers that meet all these criteria.

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The VSSL A6 amplifier can drive up to six pairs of speakers and handle six separate listening zones.

The first model to be released in the late summer of 2017 was the VSSL A6, a multi-room amplifier able to drive up to six pairs of speakers in six different zones. It was quickly followed by the VSSL A3 (three pairs of speakers across three listening zones), then by the VSSL A.1, the subject of this review.

VSSL A.1: packaging & accessories

The VSSL A.1 connected amplifier comes in a pretty black box that features white lines on the front to represent the device’s power indicator and device status indicator. Inside the box, the VSSL A.1 is held in place by rigid blocks of molded cardboard, not polystyrene. Good news for the environment! 

Accessories are limited to a power cable, a remote IR sensor on a mini-jack cable, and a screw connector for connecting speaker cables. A remote control isn’t provided, but the VSSL A.1 can be controlled using a third party infrared remote control whose codes it will have learned using the VSSL app (volume +/- and mute).  

VSSL A.1: presentation

The VSSL A.1 connected amplifier is capable of driving a pair of compact speakers or a pair of small floorstanding speakers. It can play analog and digital sources that are connected to its inputs, music shared over the local network (NAS, DLNA device), but also tracks played via a music app (Deezer, Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube Music, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz…) on a smartphone or tablet, wirelessly. 

AirPlay 2, Google Cast, DLNA

Unlike its direct rival, the Sonos Amp, the VSSL A.1 doesn’t impose a specific type of connection or proprietary app for streaming music. On the contrary, it is very flexible as it is compatible with the AirPlay 2, Google Cast, DLNA and Spotify Connect protocoles. 

Therefore, it is possible to stream music and use multi-room features with an Apple smartphone and Mac computer via the AirPlay 2 connection, but also with an Android phone or a PC (streaming service via the Google Chrome navigator) thanks to the Google Cast protocol. You simply have to launch your favorite music app (Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal) or a web radio app, then chose the VSSL A.1 as the playback device for it to instantly stream music wirelessly.

Music playback via the Qobuz app on the VSSL A.1 amplifier.

It is also possible to play audio files stored on the memory of a smartphone or on a NAS and shared over the local network. To do this, you can use an audio playback app that is UPnP/DLNA compatible such as BubbleUPnP (on smartphones and tablets), or Windows Media Player on a Windows computer.

In short, with the VSSL A.1 and other VSSL connected multi-room amplifiers, you are free to use any application and streaming service. You don’t have to go through a third party app that might not include the online music service that you are subscribed to.

Amplifier and/or network player

The VSSL A.1 connected stereo amplifier features Class D amplification with 2 x 35 watts of output power into 8 ohms, and 2 x 50 watts into 4 ohms. Therefore, it can power a pair of compact or in-wall speakers, or even a pair of floorstanding speakers with “reasonably” sized woofers.

The VSSL A.1 can also be used as a network audio player so that it can be connected to an existing hi-fi amplifier. A switch on the front panel lets you select the “Line Out Only” mode and deactivate the amplification.

The Line Out Only switch lets you deactivate the amplification of the VSSL A.1, which then becomes a simple network audio player.

Multi-room

The VSSL A.1 connected amplifier can be used as a traditional stereo amplifier in any room in the house. However, its network connectivity, integrated Chromecast module and AirPlay 2 compatibility mean it can be easily added to an existing VSSL multi-room audio system and paired with Chromecast or AirPlay 2 compatible speakers. 

Consequently, it is possible to listen to different music in several different zones at the same time if your home is equipped with multiple VSSL A.1 amplifiers, or with a VSSL A.1 and one or several AirPlay 2 compatible speakers or Chromecast built-in speakers. 

The registration process for the VSSL A.1 only takes a few seconds in the Google Home app.

Note: before the VSSL A.1 amplifier can be used in a Google Chromecast multi-room setup, it must be configured in the Google Home app on an iOS or Android smartphone. When this is done, you can then ask Google Assistant to start streaming from your favorite online music service, as long as you have a speaker with a built-in voice assistant.

If you own a Google Home Mini speaker or any other speaker with the Google voice assistant built-in, you can control the VSSL A.1 amplifier vocally.

VSSL application

The VSSL app is free to download on iOS and Android smartphones. It provides a large number of features, such as multi-room management with volume control for the VSSL amplifier(s) connected to the local network. It also allows you to set the default volume level at switch-on and the maximum volume level for each connected VSSL amplifier. A graphic EQ allowing precise adjustment up to +/- 10 dB is also present. The simplified version lets you adjust the level of the highs, mids and lows (without specifying the affected frequencies), and the advanced version (Advanced EQ) lets you adjust the level across seven frequency ranges (60Hz, 200Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz, 4kHz, 8kHz and 15kHz).

The VSSL app provides access to many audio settings and allows you to manage different listening zones.

Removable feet, wall mounting ports, infrared sensor

Although the VSSL connected amplifier is compact and rather elegant, the user can choose to mount it in a rack, in which it will take up half a unit (therefore, two can be mounted side by side). Make sure to remove the magnetic anti-vibration feet beforehand. 

The VSSL A.1 amplifier features four conical magnetic feet that are very easy to remove if you wish to wall mount the amplifier, for example.

On the bottom side of the VSSL A.1 amplifier are two cross-shaped holes so that it can be easily wall-mounted. 

The two cross-shaped holes underneath the VSSL A.1 allow it to be easily wall-mounted.

Lastly, to make daily use easier, it is possible to control the volume of the VSSL A.1 amplifier with any infrared remote control. To do this, simply connect the included IR sensor to the dedicated connector (named IR Remote), then teach the amplifier to detect the commands via the VSSL app.

Turning the amplifier on & standby mode

Without an on/off button, the VSSL A.1 amplifier automatically goes into standby mode if it doesn’t receive a signal for 10 minutes. But the VSSL A.1 is a light sleeper! It remains available and can be taken out of standby mode by any user that selects it as an audio playback device on their smartphone or tablet, or their computer via the local network.

Key specifications

Features

  • Connected stereo amplifier
  • Zones managed: 1
  • Channels: 2
  • Adjustable subwoofer crossover frequency (from 50 to 200Hz)
  • Adjustable 7 band EQ

Amplification

  • Type: Class D
  • 2 x 35 watts RMS into 8 ohms
  • 2 x 50 watts RMS into 4 ohms

Wireless connectivity

  • 2.4 & 5GHz WiFi (integrated dual antenna)
  • AirPlay 2
  • Chromecast built-in
  • Spotify Connect
  • Bluetooth

Connectors

  • 1 x Ethernet input (RJ45)
  • 1 x Ethernet output (RJ45)
  • 1 x stereo RCA Line input
  • 1 x stereo RCA Line output
  • 1 x optical digital input
  • 1 x optical digital output
  • 1 x coaxial digital input
  • 1 x coaxial digital output
  • 1 x subwoofer output (RCA Mono)
  • 1 x connector for an IR sensor

General

  • Dimensions with the feet (W x H x D): 18.9 x 4.3 x 22cm
  • Dimensions without the feet (W x H x D): 18.9 x 4.3 x 22cm
  • Weight: 1.59kg

VSSL A.1: listening conditions

For our review, we connected the VSSL A.1 amplifier to a pair of Elipson Prestige Facet 8B compact speakers mounted on NorStone Stylum 2 stands, as well as a pair of Focal Chora 826 floorstanding speakers, using NorStone W250 speaker cables. 

The VSSL A.1 comes with a proprietary connector for speaker cables. The screw terminals can accommodate size 14 to 20 gauge wire.

We connected our LG OLED TV’s optical digital audio output to the amplifier’s corresponding digital audio input in order to test the amplifier with soundtracks from movies and TV series. Naturally, we switched the TV’s digital audio output to PCM beforehand.

Close-up of the back of the VSSL A.1 when connected to the speakers, television and local network.

The VSSL A.1 amplifier was connected to the satellite of our Netgear Orbi RBK50 pack with an Ethernet cable to access the local network and the internet. Consequently, we were able to play music stored on a computer connected to the local network (FLAC HD), but also our review playlists on Deezer and Spotify via an Android smartphone.

En Lastly, we added the VSSL A.1 amplifier to our Google Home environment so we could begin music playback by vocal command (“Ok Google, play my Deezer flow…”) with a Google Home Mini speaker.

VSSL A.1: listening impressions

During each of our listening sessions, whether it was with Deezer (Deezer Family subscription, MP3 320 kbps) or via Qobuz (Sublime+ hi-fi subscription, 24/96 streaming), the VSSL A.1 amplifier demonstrated smoothness and precision from the lows to the highs, as well as dynamism and a perfectly balanced sound.

On movie and TV series soundtracks, with both Youtube and Netflix, our listening sessions revealed excellent dynamic qualities, as well as a great stereo effect. We would have liked the voices to have been a little more centered in the soundstage, but despite this, the VSSL A.1 proved to be a very efficient solution for boosting the sound of a TV when associated with a pair of compact speakers and a subwoofer.

With the VSSL A.1 at the wheel, the explosions in The Dark Knight were realistic.

VSSL A.1 + Elipson Prestige Facet 8B

The Elipson Prestige Facet 8B compact speaker is a two-way bass-reflex model. It features a 7” midbass driver with a central phase plug, accompanied by a 1” soft dome tweeter. This speaker covers frequencies ranging from 47Hz to 25kHz, has a sensitivity rating of 91dB, an impedance of 6 ohms and a power handling capacity of 85W RMS.

The Elipson Prestige Facet 8B’s technical specifications are therefore an ideal match for those of the VSSL A.1 amplifier, which is compatible with speakers with an impedance between 4 and 8 ohms and delivering a maximum of 50 watts per channel into 4 ohms.

Powered by the VSSL A.1’s Class D amplification, the Elipson speakers offered us exceptional musical emotions. Despite a “modest” output power, this stereo amplifier managed to make the most of the 7” driver to produce full and generous lows. Never overpowering, it brought texture to the sound without obscuring the voices, which were realistic and excellently embodied.

The Elipson Prestige Facet 8B compact loudspeakers were a perfect match for the VSSL A.1 amplifier. The listening experience was balanced and dynamic.

The soundstage was enhanced by the clarity and smoothness of the high frequencies produced by the speaker’s fabric dome tweeter. The spatialization wasn’t overlooked, providing wide and well-defined stereo, as well as a deep soundstage. 

Whether it was with Deezer or Qobuz, or when listening to files played over the local network, the sound was very pleasant, with a beautifully balanced sound spectrum, substance, details and great energy.

VSSL A.1 + Focal Chora 826

The Focal Chora 826 floorstanding speaker is the crown jewel of Focal’s Chora hi-fi speaker range, entirely designed and assembled in France in the manufacturer’s workshops. This 3-way bass-reflex floorstanding speaker features four drivers: a 1” TNF tweeter with an inverted dome in aluminum and magnesium alloy (Al/Mg), combined with two 6.5” woofers and a 6.5” midrange driver.

The 2 x 35 watts of the VSSL A.1 are barely enough for the Focal Chora 826 speakers to fully express themselves.

Focal recommends an output power of 40 to 250 watts to drive these speakers effectively, which feature a nominal impedance of 8 ohms for a sensitivity rating of 91dB. Consequently, the VSSL A.1’s 2 x 35 watts (8 ohms) fall a little short on paper. This was confirmed in practice when we were trying to obtain high volume. The sound was satisfying at moderate volume in our test room, which is approximately 20m², with a nicely structured sound spectrum and an excellently spatialized soundstage. However, we had to push the volume of the amplifier to almost 80% in order to achieve a volume level that truly allowed us to enjoy the Focal speakers’ dynamic qualities, especially in the lows, with both music and the action scenes in the movies The Dark Knight and Avengers End Game.

It is therefore best to use the VSSL A.1 amplifier with compact speakers or in-wall speakers, accompanied if need be by a subwoofer, rather than with floorstanding speakers. Unless you opt for a model with an impedance lower than 8 ohms and drivers with a maximum diameter of 5”, such as the Highland Audio Aingel 3205 speakers, for example.

VSSL A.1: compared to…

Sonos Amp: this other American amplifier impressed us with its dynamic qualities and output power of 2 x 125 watts, ideal for driving both compact and floorstanding speakers, even those with large drivers. Equally suited to music and movie soundtracks, for which it is optimized with its HDMI ARC link, it delivers a very wide soundstage and can even be wirelessly connected to the brand’s multi-room speakers, which then reproduce the surround channels.

However, great care must be taken when choosing speakers to use with the Sonos Amp so as not to accentuate the highs and high mids, as the amplifier has a tendency to highlight these frequencies. Although this can be an advantage with movies (clearer dialogues), it can be detrimental to the overall balance when listening to music. In terms of design and features, we appreciated its compact size, understated style and the integration of virtually all online music services at the heart of its app for iOS and Android.

While the VSSL A.1 has a very similar design to the Sonos Amp, it differs in being compatible with Google Cast technology and AirPlay 2 for multi-room audio playback. As a result, it can be associated with dozens of different compatible wireless speakers, amplifiers and compact hi-fi systems, without being bound to a particular brand. Music can also be played from the dedicated app of the streaming service you are subscribed to, meaning you don’t have to change your habits.

In terms of amplification, le VSSL A.1 suffers somewhat from being compared to the Sonos Amp, as its more modest output power means it should generally be paired with compact speakers. Nonetheless, although it is slightly narrower than that of the Sonos Amp, its soundstage enjoys excellent stereo spatialization and, on the whole, is perhaps more natural-sounding. The VSSL A.1 also provides a more balanced sound spectrum than the Sonos model, making it more flexible when it comes to associating different types of speakers. Lastly, the VSSL A.1 amplifier’s broader range of connectors means it can be connected to multiple analog and digital audio sources, while the Sonos Amp has to make do with an HDMI ARC port and a single RCA analog audio input.

Overall, the VSSL A.1 seemed better than the Sonos amplifier when listening to music, but the latter takes the lead concerning movie soundtracks, which are more accurately spatialized.

Marantz M-CR612: also equipped with analog and digital inputs, the Marantz amplifier adds a CD player, which may be considered anecdotal by some but will delight those who still own a CD collection. Featuring two pairs of speaker terminals, the Marantz M-CR612 can deliver 4 x 30 watts to drive two pairs of speakers, or 2 x 60 watts in bridge mode to drive one pair of speakers. More powerful than the VSSL A.1, it is able to power floorstanding speakers and provide a relatively high volume level.

Connectivity is similar on both amplifiers, with Bluetooth, AirPlay 2 and DLNA compatibility. However, the Marantz amplifier omits the integrated Chromecast module (Google Cast technology) in favor of the brand’s Heos multi-room technology, which is shared by all of the Denon/Marantz group’s amplifiers and wireless speakers. Consequently, that means you must use the Heos app to access compatible streaming services, of which there are few (Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Prime Music and internet radios). For example, it is impossible to enjoy Qobuz in high resolution with the Marantz amplifier because you have to use a Bluetooth connection.

The VSSL A.1 therefore provides a more versatile solution as it allows you to enjoy all your online music services and it is possible to connect a CD player using one of its audio inputs, if necessary.

VSSL A.1: conclusion

With the VSSL A.1 connected amplifier, the American manufacturer has managed to greatly simplify home music streaming without tying the user to a specific ecosystem.

By using two of the most popular multi-room technologies on the market (AirPlay 2 and Google Cast), it allows listeners to continue using the music service apps they know and enjoy, without overlooking any of them.

The brand’s decision to favor wireless transmission via the native applications (Native Streaming) means users can quickly enjoy the VSSL A.1 connected amplifier without having to spend hours getting used to a new application or struggling with a vague user manual.

When it comes to multi-room audio, the VSSL A.1’s dual AirPlay 2 and Google Cast (Chromecast built-in) compatibility is complemented by compatibility with other VSSL products. The user therefore has full freedom in creating a multi-room audio system and isn’t prisoner to a specific brand or technology. At least for their initial choice, as AirPlay 2 and Chromecast technologies aren’t interoperable. It isn’t possible to mix speakers with Chromecast built-in and AirPlay 2 compatible speakers in a multi-room system that includes the VSSL A.1 amplifier.

In practice, the VSSL A.1 amplifier is easy to use and has evident musical qualities. One could criticize the lack of output power which limits it to driving mainly compact or in-wall speakers. Nevertheless, although it isn’t very powerful, this stereo amplifier is very musical and displays excellent tonal balance. Lively and precise, it also knows how to create a very satisfying stereo image.

What we liked

  • The ease of use
  • The wide range of connectors
  • The dual AirPlay 2 and Google Cast compatibility
  • The dynamic, balanced and well spatialized sound

What we would have liked

  • More powerful amplification
  • A surround mode for movies

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