Over time, and with the advent of the smart-phone essentially becoming our electronic PA, the ongoing trend has been continuation of a common theme. Thinner, faster, more screen space, more processing power, more storage, better apps, better camera. All of this tends to come at a cost, especially when we look at the battery power required, and as such we often have to make compromises. Two such compromises we are seeing more of is the removal of the headphone jack (as people switch to Bluetooth options), and also sacrificing the quality of on-board DACs and amps. This of course isn’t a big issue for those who have no problem stacking devices (smart-phone + DAC/amp combo), but what about those who want a slim and very portable solution?
For those who want to keep their existing wired earphones and IEMs, who don’t want to spend a lot of money, and who want a decent sounding very small solution, there aren’t a lot of options. And if you’re on Android – those options shrink even more. So what if there was a cable under 14cm in total length, which housed a DAC and amplifier, and essentially turned your USB output from your smart-phone into a 3.5mm socket? And what if said device was only USD 10.00 for the standard edition (you can pay more to get balanced with a variety of different output sockets).
Let’s take a look together at the VE Odyssey from Venture Electronics.
ABOUT VENTURE ELECTRONICS
Venture Electronics (or VE) is an audio company based in Shenyang, Liaoning in the Peoples Republic of China – founded in 2012. I was able to ask Lee a little about the company, and he has been very open and approachable – something I love to see when dealing with a manufacturer. It really shows a lot about a company when they show pride in their own achievements, and are so open about sharing information with their customer base.
VE is relatively small (for now) company, and currently have a small but growing product line (Zen, Asura and Monk ear-buds, Duke IEM, Runabout amp, high end Electrostat and Tube based statement amps, a series of reasonably priced cables, and the Odyssey I’m reviewing today). Their goal long term is “to have the best budget and hi-end gear”, and it was refreshing to see some frank and honest comments in reply to some of my inquiries. I’m going to quote one of Lee’s replies, because it really does add to my impression of VE as a company.
“We see our fans, not just as moving wallets. I see our budget gear (like the Monk) as a walking ad for our brand, among our on-line community (people who love earphones, because they mainly they love the ART the earphones can deliver, like gaming, movie, anime and stuff. We believe the Zen is the best ear-bud in the world, and as we can sell the monk for cheap then it might go viral and get more attention to the other products. We believe to be the best Hi-Fi company, we need to have the best of the best gears, not only budget ones. If we only do budget, people will have a false image of us not being serious enough, so the idea is very simple”
And to close, I asked Lee about VE’s mission statement or values statement, and the answer I received made perfect sense – “keeping it real”.
The Odyssey that I’m reviewing today was provided to me freely as a review sample. VE have asked me to keep it for my personal use, or for follow up comparisons, and I thank them for this. The retail price at time of review for the SE version is USD 10.
If you haven’t read any of my reviews, I suggest starting here, as it will give you an insight into my known preferences and bias.
For the purposes of this review – I used the Odyssey predominantly with my iPhone (iOS) and FiiO M9 (Android). I tested with a selection of different earphones and IEMS – generally trying to stay under a 150 ohm limit with full sized cans, but going right up to the 320 ohm VE Zen.
In the time I have spent with the Odyssey, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (burn-in). This is a purely subjective review – my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt – especially if it does not match your own experience.
The Odyssey arrived to me in one of VE’s ear-bud clam-shell cases. I’m not sure if this is the normal packaging or not – but if it was, I’d be completely happy as the clam-shell case is really excellent for also holding their ear-buds (which I use often).
The package is sparse (which you’d expect from a $10 item), but what I really appreciated was the inclusion of the USB-C to USB-A adaptor. This is really good thinking on Lee’s part, and very much adds even more value to the overall package.
THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS
Supplied by VE.
|Micro DAC and amp (cable)
|137 x 11 mm
|,0.01% (32 ohm)
|Max Power Output
|1 VRMS and 45mA
|~ 1 ohm
|16 bit, 44.1 and 48 kHz
Unfortunately there were no power output measurements into different loads, but we’ll have a look at real world situations later in the review.
My rig is not the best for measuring DACs and amps – so usually all I try and accurately measure is linearity (flat frequency response). The current ADC I use is great for frequency response, but limited by a noise floor around 100 dB.
The aim here was to use both RMAA and then check the results with ARTA. The two graphs are shown to the side. Both essentially show a nicely linear response from 20Hz to almost 20 kHz with just a slight freq drop from about 17 kHz-20 kHz. This drop is less than 1dB, and at those frequencies it is essentially inaudible. Ergo – the Odyssey is what a good DAC/amp should be – linear.
I also took a quick measurement of THD and THD+N (noise measurements). Although I’m limited by my ADC – I was able to compare the ADC (loop-back) and ADC + Odyssey. The Odyssey showed greater THD and THD+N readings than the ADC (by a reasonably large %), so not the best measurable results there – although still below the limits of audibility.
The Odyssey is essentially a cable with two plugs – and thats pretty much it. It measures just under 13cm (once plugged) and 12mm at its widest point (the USB-C plug). At one end is a standard 3.5mm stereo socket encased in metal alloy. This is joined to a twin (internally braided) cable with clear jacket and very good strain relief. At the opposite end is a USB-C plug encased in the same alloy.
The cable is flexible enough to easily be shaped, but sturdy enough to look as though it will easily last the distance with long-term use. TBH, for $10 USD, I’m surprised that the finish and overall quality is achievable – but this looks and feels like a really good build.
USD 10.00 is the base price, but you can also get the Odyssey in 2.5mm TRRS, 3.5mm TRRS, 4.4mm TRRS and 4 pin XLR. If using one of the balanced options – it is not true balanced output – instead simply becoming a balanced adaptor pug as well as a DAC/amp. Think of it as an effective medium to be able to already use pre-wired (balanced) headphones/earphones.
Unfortunately I don’t have any internal information for the Odyssey. Lee has said that the Odyssey was designed for his earbuds, and warned that multiple BA earphones may have issues – and the measured output impedance output impedance does appear to be around 1 ohm. I do know the DAC is limited to 16bit and 44.1/48 kHz native sample rates. For most phones or tablets (which I believe is the real target), this should be ample for normal playback. If I get any further information I’ll add it to the review.
In-Line Controlled Headsets
I was pleasantly surprised that there was some support with the Odyssey. This is better with Android devices. Using the FiiO M9, Odyseey connected by USB-C, and the Sennheiser HD630VB – I could use the head-set devices to pause/play, and the volume buttons also worked. What unfortuntaely didn’t was the next and previous track buttons (double click/triple click).
Using the HD630VB with Odyssey and iPhone (the HD630VB has switchable iOS/Android modes), I could use the play/pause, but no volume or next/previous support. I also briefly tried to use the in-line mic with the iPhone, but had no stable connection. Unfortunately I couldn’t test this with Android.
Stand Alone DAC/amp
The Odyssey can also be used as a DAC (utilising the USB-C connector). On my lap-top the DAC is recognised instantly, and is driver-less. Performance is capped at 16/48, but for playback that’s all you really need (IMO). I also have a very old eeePC which is slow but still runs pretty well. It also has quite noisy integrated audio. Plug in the Odyssey, allow the generic driver to load, and switch to Foobar. The result – reasonably clean and clear audio, and a nice pairing with a suitable earphone or headphone. For someone on the go a lot, it gives portability and versatility in a single package. I can see this solution being quite handy for an Android tablet type set-up – and especally those where audio quality is an after-thought with the hardware sometimes.
The power output on the Odyssey is on the weak side, and I would have loved to see some actual power output measurements into different loads. Lee said that he’d designed the Odyssey to be able to cope with his full range of earbuds, and I think he’s managed that.
If we take a snapshot of the Monk/Asura/Zen range, we see:
• Monk + => ~ 64 ohm with relatively high sensitivity (~112 dB/mW)
• Asura => ~ 150 ohm with relatively high sensitivity (~110 dB/mW)
• Zen => ~ 320 ohm with relatively high sensitivity (~108 dB/mW)
Variations (eg the “Lite” series) will have different specs, but they are not onerous loads.
Without measured results, I used my SPL meter, and a combination of the iPhone SE and FiiO M9 to run some tests. These consisted of setting the source device + Odyssey to my usual listening level, then removing the Odyssey, and with the same load and same source volume remeasuring the output. The results were a little surprising.
First up was the Zen (if it could drive these, the rest should be OK). Using the iPhone, there was a 3dB difference at the same volume – the iPhone was louder by itself. With the FiiO M9 and the Zen the difference was almost 5dB (again the M9 was louder).
So what about a much easier to drive load – the 64Audio U10 (22 ohm and 115 dB @ 1mW)? This time there was an approx 3dB gain to the Odyssey.
So lets now ramp up to much more difficult loads. First was the MEE Pinnacle P1 (50 ohm and 96 dB/mW) – quite a low sensitivity. This time the difference was quite small, but again the iPhone was louder by itself than with the Odyssey – but only by a little over 1 dB.
My final check was a pretty silly one. There had been some discussion on Head-Fi about the Odyssey showing improvement with an HD600 or 650. My tests showed that the iPhone was louder by itself (almost +5dB) than the Odyssey, and the M9 almost +7dB louder by itself than with the Odyssey.
But how did the Odyssey sound with each of these earphones? In each case, I would say that subjectively both the iPhone SE and FiiO M9 sound at least as good as the Odyssey with each of the headphones / earphones, and I did match as closely as I could with test tones for a sighted quick switch test.
With the HD600 – none of the devices sounded spectacular – because they are all essentially under-powered (single-ended). Adding an amp like the XRK NHB Portable Class A showed a noticeable difference.
Summary from above – the Odyssey will drive all of VE’s earbuds (and most IEMs and portables) pretty well – to my ears anyway. But don’t expect miracles. This is not a powered amp. Oh and with the multi-BA 64Audio U10, there was a slight smoothing of the overall signature – so perhaps indicative of the effect of that 1 ohm output impedance?
Whenever I review DACs and amps I’ve been critiqued in the past for not following the norm of a lot of reviewers (I have no section on highs, mids, lows, or even sound-stage). I will use subjective terms like warm / full / lean – as I find them invaluable to convey true meaning. Comparing my NFB-12 to the Aune X1S for example – the Audio-gd does sound richer and warmer. It’s the nature of the DAC which is used.
But I choose not to comment on bass, mids, treble, and most definitely not sound-stage – simply because when we are talking about a DAC/amp – IMO they shouldn’t be discussed. A DACs job is to decode the signal in as linear fashion as possible, and the amp’s job is to amplify the signal with as low distortion as possible. Basically you should be aiming to output as linear signal as possible. If the device is doing its job properly, there is no effect on bass, mids, or treble – except if hardware boost is concerned. And IME an amp does not affect sound-stage (unless there is DSP or cross-feed in play) – that is solely the realm of the transducers and the actual recording.
So we have that out of the way how does the Odyssey perform sonically?
I listened and compared it to the E17K (one of the most linear devices I own). Both were volume matched and had my iPhone SE as source. For headphones – I used the HD630VB. In subjective comparison, the Odyssey is practically identical – very linear with virtually no colouration. Both appear to be quite vibrant, and have a high level of detail. I doubt I could tell the two apart in a volume matched blind test. If I compare both to the FiiO M9, the M9 is a little warmer and richer.
Detail and overall transparency is very good. As I said above, the Odyssey appears to essentially be colourless, and micro-details come through very cleanly and clearly (especially so with some of the finer detail from Floyd’s “Money”, and Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go”)
How do you begin to make meaningful comparisons when the product in question is a $10 DAC/amp cable? My biggest problem was finding something in a remotely close price and functional bracket – and especially because I am more iOS based than Android.
For this comparison I therefore chose the FiiO i1 (iOS DAC/amp cable with controls) and also ther FiiO K1. Both come in at ~ USD 40.00.
VE Odyssey vs FiiO i1
USD 10 vs USD 40
Both are essentially cables with an in-built DAC and amp. The i1 is a lot longer (over 80cm) and is more designed to be used with your source in your pocket, and the cable output close to your head (it has volume controls and a mic). There is no question that the $10 Odyssey has a much sturdier overall build, but the FiiO i1 has the added cable controls.
The Odyssey can be used with both iOS and Android devices (with appropriate devices). The FiiO i1 is limited to only iOS (iPAD / iPhones). Odyssey can also be used with any laptop or compatible tablet (as a DAC/amp). The i1 does add volume controls and a mic.
The i1 is limited to 24/48 and is driver-less with iOS devices. The Odyssey is also driver-less but limited to 16/48 output. It does cover a lot more devices though.
Both devices are low powered and both do not add practically any headroom to their source devices.
Sound Quality Overall
In side by side comparison, both the i1 and Odyssey are very linear with a flat frequency response and virtually no colouration. I would struggle to tell the two apart in a blind test. Both sound pretty good, and will lift the sound quality on a poor device, hover they made little to no difference to my iPhone.
TBH – I find the iPhone’s output to be good enough for most of my IEM’s, ear-buds or portable head-phones etc. And neither device adds anything of note to my other portable sources – so I really don’t have a use (or preference) for either device. If I was invested in Android infrastructure though, the Odyssey would be the pick for a low cost dac/amp action (eg for a cheap tablet).
VE Odyssey vs FiiO K1
USD 10 vs USD 40
Both are quite simple devices with good overall build. With the K1 you’ll need an appropriate cable to pair with your device (added cost). Both are very small, ideal for truly portable use, and can be adapted for iOS, Android and PC/lap-top use.
Both are pretty simple DAC/amps – straight input and output. The Odyssey does have some use with limited pass-though of head-set controls.
The Odyssey is driver-less and limited to 16/48 output. The K1 can cover PCM up to 24/96.
Both devices are low powered. The Odyssey does not add practically any headroom to it’s source device. The K1 has reasonable (although low powered) amplification which applies gain to the source.
Sound Quality Overall
In side by side comparison, both the K1 and Odyssey are quite linear with a flat frequency response. The difference here is very slight, and to me the K1 seems to have the very slightest hint of warmth. Both sound pretty good, and will lift the sound quality on a poor device, however they make very little difference to my iPhone.
Again I find the iPhone’s output to be good enough for most of my IEM’s, ear-buds or portable head-phones etc, so I don’t really have a use for either device. Again, if Android is your thing, or if you have a cheaper lap-top, then for $10 its hard to go past the Odyssey – unless you need a better feature set.
This one is pretty easy. At $10 the Odyssey is well priced, and although its amplification is weak, it will still clean up the audio if you have a poor sounding device (more an Android thing than iOS I suspect). In terms of delivery of value relative to price, like VE’s Monk ear-phones it would be a good option for a small gain at a very affordable cost. Whilst perhaps not a killer deal like the Monk ear-buds, the Odyssey still delivers reasonable performance at a low price.
VE ODYSSEY SUMMARY
The Odyssey from VE is a good device with a distinct purpose. IMO it’s been designed to work with Android based tablets or phones which may not have quality audio hardware, and also with similar budget laptops. There is a caveat however – the output devices (headphones, IEMs and earbuds) need to be relatively efficient and not requiring a lot of power. The Odyssey actually supplies very little (if any) overall gain.
The Odyssey has excellent overall build quality, and a small footprint making it ideal for portability. The fact that it comes with a USB-C to USB converter OOTB adds value. I did not expect this in a $10 device.
The audio output is very linear, although it does show some distortion (not exactly “clean”). Benefit will depend on your source, and it may help a somewhat noisy or very weak sound-card/source.
In terms of value, the $10 outlay is a no-brainer for someone on a very tight budget, who wants to get the best out of a budget set of earbuds like the Monk+, and has a poorly spec’d Android device. It’ll handle the Zens OK as well – but for my preference, I still like the Zen out of a dedicated amplifier (they are better subjectively with my XRK NHB Portable Class A amplifier). It’s also potentially useful as a balanced adaptor (if you buy the balanced output version).
For its intended use, the Odyssey is a reasonable device – and I’ve ranked accordingly. I’m personally not in the Odyssey’s intended demographic – but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Lee and his team have tried to accomplish on a limited budget. My thanks to VE for allowing me to review the device.