Monday, July 20, 2015

Bravo Audio Ocean Tube Amplifier

Bravo Audio is a small Chinese startup that deals primarily with budget oriented and simple vacuum tube powered amplifiers for headphones. Most of Bravo Audio's amplifier lineup looks more like homemade DIY amplifiers than a production line from a company, a design aesthetic that I personally like for it's uniqueness. The Ocean currently represents Bravo Audio's top of the line headphone amp, and unlike Bravo Audio's other amplifiers, the Ocean is housed in a beautiful blue and black brushed aluminum enclosure.

The Ocean is a mini-valve class A tube amplifier that utilizes a Shu Guang 12AU7 tube which is essentially a pre-amp tube. It's 100% tube, as there is no integrated op-amp circuit.  The Ocean has 30dB of set gain, and a 20 Ohm output impedance.  Being a tube amplifier naturally make's the output impedance relatively high.  It's small footprint is a nice addition as it takes up minimal desk space and you can also see from the picture that internally, it is a fairly simple design.

While the striking blue color of the brushed aluminum enclosure is disagreeable to some, I think that it looks very nice and gives the amp a unique flair.  It stands out from the rest of the plain black hardware on my desk.  The unit ships with a power brick, cord, and the amplifier itself.  No other accessories are provided.  The only other thing I wish Bravo Audio included were some rubber feet to tack onto the bottom of the amplifier.  As it is, no rubber feet are provided or preinstalled, making the Ocean prone to sliding around on a desk.  I ended up adding my own rubber feet to raise the amplifier off my desk (which also aids in heat dissipation) and prevents the amplifier from moving around on my desk.  It is extremely easy to find and purchase your own rubber feet for very cheap, however it would be a nice inclusion to just have them shipped with the unit and I can't imagine it costing Bravo Audio much to include them.

Connectivity is not a problem with the Ocean, as the rear of the unit provides an RCA style L/R line in and line out, as well as a traditional 3.5mm input in addition to the power input.  The line out allows the Ocean to act as a preamplifier, an aspect of the Ocean I utilized extensively during my testing.  With the 12AU7 vacuum tube being in essence a preamp tube, the Bravo Audio Ocean worked quite nicely as a preamplifier for my speaker system.  Front I/O includes a nice on/off flip switch, a 6.3mm headphone output and a 3.5mm headphone output as well as a silver brushed aluminum volume knob. The amplifier does not output sound on both headphone outputs simultaneously, it's either one or the other. An extremely bright red power LED is also located on the front of the unit and the amount of light it produces could definitely be reduced. The Shu Guang 12AU7 tube protrudes from the top of the unit, and is protected by a silver metal bar.  As far as build quality is concerned, the Ocean is a very solidly built amplifier that looks and feels the part.

The Ocean is clearly designed to dissipate some of its heat by essentially utilizing the aluminum chassis as a giant heatsink.  Because of this, the surface of the Ocean does get noticeably hot during operation, thanks in part to the tube itself which emits a generous amount of heat in addition to the mosfets used inside the amplifier.  Anyone who has used a vacuum tube amplifier before won't be surprised, but to the uninitiated it can be slightly alarming. Just know that it is normal for this amplifier to run rather hot.

The Bravo Audio Ocean definitely provides that extra oomph of power to your headphones that any decent headphone amplifier should provide.  The gain is set at 30dB which doesn't make it a great fit for super sensitive IEM's and just generally sensitive headphones.  The noise floor with sensitive headphones is also noticeably high, so this amp is simply not suited for these types of headphones.  That being said, the Ocean is a very powerful headphone amp and can drive high impedance headphones with relative ease.

Rear I/O
The Ocean is much more neutral and balanced than many other vacuum tube amplifiers I have tried.  Some vacuum tube amplifiers tend to add too much warmth and distortion to the sound.  The  Ocean remains relatively clear and precise.  It does add noticeable warmth over something like my solid-state Objective 2 amplifier, which is extremely neutral (which is it's primary reason for being my benchmark amplifier).  It's interesting that this amplifier, despite being tube powered, remains only slightly colored in it's sound reproduction.  Reading online, it was indicated to me that a more warm sound can be achieved by replacing the stock Shu Guang 12AU7 tube with an Elector-Harmonix, Genalex Gold Lion, Telefunken, or Mullard 12AU7 tube.  Each tube has slightly different characteristics, so you will just have to do some research before purchasing a non-stock tube.  While some other reviews have criticized the performance of the included Shu Guang tube, it suits my needs and I have no problems with it sonically.  At some point in the future, I hope to acquire a few different 12AU7 tubes to try in the Ocean, but for now I am overall satisfied with the stock tube's performance.  The Ocean helped fill out the mid range in some of my headphones that are known for being particularly lacking in the mid range frequencies.  It also helped to really let the upper ranges sing out without becoming too harsh.  Depending on your headphones, your mileage may vary, but in most cases the Ocean did a good job.  With a good pair of headphones, guitar driven rock music sounds spectacular with this amp.  Those of you using discerning mastering and monitoring headphones may run into trouble with the Ocean however.  In select songs, my notoriously discerning Sony MDR-7506's picked up some upper frequency distortion.  Replaying these same songs on the Ocean with my ATH-M50X's and various other headphones did not reproduce the same results.  In short, monitoring headphones probably shouldn't be used with a budget tube amplifier anyway.  Distortion is an inherit part of any vacuum tube powered amplifier, and extremely discerning headphones will pick up on that in an often times not so pleasant way.

If you are dead set on going the vacuum tube route as opposed to solid state and you want to stick to a reasonable price, the Bravo Audio Ocean is a fantastic choice.   While the Bravo Audio Ocean sounds absolutely fantastic with many headphones, just be aware that certain headphones will pick up some of that tube distortion, and if you are using sensitive IEM's you should be looking at something in the solid-state amplifier realm.

CLICK HERE for Bravo Audio Ocean Product Page
CLICK HERE for Bravo Audio Ocean Amazon Product Page

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  1. This post is really valuable that designed for the new visitors. Pleasing work, keep on writing. best wireless headphones

  2. hello, I have the following headphones: senn hd598, grado ps500, vmoda m100, dunu titan 1 iem and a fiio x3 as source/dac. do you think this is a good amp for me? am i gonna fell difference between using this amp and using the fiio x3 alone? thanks.