Focusright VRM Box Virtual Reference Monitoring

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Virtual Reference Monitoring
I'm always intrigued when I see a pro-audio oriented company make products that have crossover appeal. There's some nice equipment out there from Benchmark, Grace Design, Apogee, Lavry, Antelope, etc which have become well known in the audiophile sphere. Others such as Lake People aren't quite household names yet, despite having been around since the 1980s. Most of these companies make a wide range of products but we tend to hear only about their DAC or headphone amp units because those are most relevant to our uses.

Another such company is Focusrite, which has also been around for several decades. Most of their catalog is pro gear such as microphone preamps or rack-mount audio interfaces with multiple inputs/outputs and knobs all over the place. One item of theirs did catch my eye though: the VRM Box USB interface (MSRP $149, street price $99). Rather than a wall of dials and jacks, we get a single volume knob, USB and SPDIF inputs, and a headphone jack. That's it. The unit couldn't be simpler and couldn't be more different from their other equipment.

If the VRM Box stopped there it would be only mildly interesting, since there are plenty of compact USB DAC/headphone amp units on the market. What makes this device unique is the Virtual Reference Monitoring feature. Using special software, it can supposedly emulate the sound of various speakers in various rooms, all through your standard headphones. It's one of those claims that frankly I found hard to swallow. One can only take so many bad implementations of "virtual surround" or "MP3 enhancement" before developing a natural skepticism to such claims. But since Focusrite is an established pro-audio company with a good reputation it seemed reasonable to give them a chance. I figured at worst the thing might be competitive as a low priced USB DAC/amp, even if the VRM feature ended up being a dud.

HARDWARE
The VRM Box is a very compact unit. It measures 2.7" in length and width, and only 1" tall. That places it among the smallest devices in this segment, being just barely larger than the Nuforce uDac. The enclosure is silver plastic with a nice looking gloss-black top which ruthlessly highlights fingerprints. A small LED gives the status: LED on, for VRM being active; LED off, when VRM is disabled.

The primary connection type is USB for both power and signal. The VRM Box is limited to 24-bit/48kHz signals as played over USB, but it can accept up to 24/192 via the coaxial SPDIF input. Since there is no separate power supply, USB must remain connected even when using SPDIF. That doesn't mean a computer is always required though---I used the charging adapter from my cell phone to connect the USB cable to a wall outlet. I was able to successfully pair the VRM Box with my iPad 2 via the Camera Connection Kit. In that case the VRM Box is strictly used as a "traditional" DAC/headphone amp since the VRM software is not available for iOS.

I tried opening the enclosure to get a look at the guts but had limited success. All I could get to was the bottom of the PCB which didn't showcase anything exciting. It's always a delicate procedure when opening a review sample because you want to be respectful and not damage someone else's equipment. I'm confident that if I owned the thing I could have gone further but as it stands I reluctantly gave up. Thankfully Focusrite got me connected with someone who was able to give more specifics about the internals.

The VRM Box uses the flagship CS4398 from Cirrus Logic for D/A conversion. It also uses some form of asynchronous sample rate conversion. In this case, rather than upsampling, the device actually downconverts higher resolution signals. So a 96kHz or 192kHz track would be reduced to 48kHz, while 88.2kHz or 176.4kHz signals would convert to 44.1kHz. Bit depth remains untouched. Is there is a reduction in quality because of this conversion? Maybe. All we get to hear is the end result through the headphone jack, and there's no way to separate the DAC stage from the amplification stage in order to assess their individual characteristics. For a $99 compact device with good specifications I really can't complain.

Speaking of the specs: HERE is a link for all the details. Focusrite actually measures to arrive at these figures rather than just listing numbers from data sheets. See for example how the CS4398 DAC has a dynamic range of 120dB, and the VRM Box as a whole manages a dynamic range of 108dB (which is still very good). Measured SNR, channel isolation, and THD+N are also quite respectable.

I particularly liked the volume control. My first impression was that it had to be done in the digital domain---it was very smooth and linear with great channel balance, unlike many low budget units I've experienced. But Focusrite confirmed that it is a standard analog potentiometer being used. Bravo.

A key figure for our purposes is the output impedance of the headphone section. Unfortunately it is rated at 10 ohms which is not ideal. More on that later. The given output is 30mW at 50 ohms and 15mW at 150 ohms. Clearly this is not a powerhouse of an amp, but it ended up being adequate most of the time. I did occasionally wish for a little extra volume with certain headphones depending on the music I used.

Virtual Reference Monitor
So far I've covered the VRM Box as a compact DAC/headphone amp unit, and it does function pretty well in that capacity. But the VRM functionality is what makes the device unique. Virtual Reference Monitoring is handled through special software which gives a choice of different rooms and different speakers to simulate. Ostensibly, this is intended to be helpful when dialing in a mix, in lieu of being in a real studio with several pairs of reference monitors. It can also just be fun to listen to.

The VRM software runs separately from whatever playback software you prefer to use. It gives three choices of rooms: living room, bedroom studio, and professional studio. The room you select determines acoustics but also gives different choices in speaker emulation. There are a total of 15 options for speakers. Some are nice--Adam S2.5A, Genelec 1031A, KRK VXT8. Others are deliberately terrible--you can choose a "Computer Desktop" speaker modeled after some cheap Creative brand speakers, or even a simulated LCD flat panel speaker. The complete list is available HERE. Some of them show up with descriptions rather than the actual name--KEF Q55.2 becomes "British 90's Hi-Fi," Alesis Monitor One becomes "US Passive Nearfield," Yamaha NS-10M becomes "Japanese White Classic."

But does it actually simulate the sound of real speakers?

Company Info
Focusrite Novation Inc
840 Apollo Street
Suite 312
El Segundo, CA 90245
us.sales@focusrite.com
(310) 322-5500
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Comments
mir's picture
AKG K70x with VRM Box

Thanks for the review.

However I have to totally disagree that AKG K70x sound similar with VRM Box turned on with all modelled speakers. I've been using VRM Box for half year now with K702 in studio and I can confidently tell you that all of the modelled speakers sound very, very differently on K702. If you can't hear strong difference on K70X between car-speaker powered mid-fi Auratone and bass heavy Quested (British Studio) or even bass heavier KRK Rokit (which, for your curiosity, is widely criticized in pro audio circles for their mud - yes, they have too much bass in low end, that's fact, some hate them, some love them), then there must be something wrong, sorry. And for too much high end - yes, listening with K70X in overall isn't fun (even with VRM Box used only as DAC with processing turned off), unless the recording isn't bright/flawed itself. 

No offense, but I just don't get it how you can write such thing. I've used VRM Box with K702s to successfully help me balance low end in some mixes and it definitely worked/translated to the outside world. It just doesn't make sense what you write - if that would be true, VRM Box with K702 would have never worked and would be useless - I wouldn't have known then how crappy some mixes were!

John Grandberg's picture
K701 - still the most polarizing headphone in the world!

Seriously, read what I posted again, specifically about the K701 (and W1000X, and Grados).

I didn't say they make all virtual speakers sound the same, as if the VRM processing is rendered completely ineffective. I simply said the differentiation is less than it is with certain other headphones. And I stand by that. Obviously it works well enough for you to mix with, and for that I am glad. 

Have you tried any other headphones with the VRM Box? If so, which ones? I'm curious to hear what sort of results different people are getting with different models. I'm sure VRM creator Ben Supper will like to hear that info as well. 

mir's picture
...

I don't have another studio headphone to compare with, because I'm pretty happy with them actually. They're not easy headphones, they require some hard time to get used to their sound, but I think it's worth it. I've learned to not blame them if something's wrong in the mix - it turns out it's the mix that is wrong Smile

As for the less/more differentiation - I can't compare whether the results would be better with another headphones, but my experience shows this combination just works.

donunus's picture
Not all k70X cans sound the

Not all k70X cans sound the same. The one I got for instance was not an accurate headphone at all due to the upper midrange and lower treble peak that it had. 

Armaegis's picture
I've been using the VRMbox as

I've been using the VRMbox as a secondary rig for a while now and most frequently pair it with the Senn PX100-ii. Perhaps the lightness of the Senns just makes them disappear, but I really do forget that I'm wearing headphones sometimes and have on more than one occasion walked away from the computer and had the headphones rather harshly yanked from my head. 

In general I find the VRMbox works best with open headphones. Closed ones wind up sounding a bit boxy to me. 

I do wish it had more power though. Actually, it never occured to me to try feeding the VRM output into another amp. Hmm...

John Grandberg's picture
Are you stalking me?

Because we keep ending up with the same gear. Creepy. 

Joking aside, I do see your point about open headphones generally working better. My particular Thunderpants (because they aren't all the same) has an unusually open sound for a closed can, which is probably why it is an exception to that rule. 

It's a good thing you weren't using IEMs when your "incident" happened. That could hurt. 

Armaegis's picture
Well considering just how

Well considering just how much gear you've got... heh. I wish I could be able to hear some of the big toys that you've gone through though. How about you send me all your extra stuff and I'll review them too? =P

I preferred the sound with open headphones since in general they have fewer reflections and resonances. The whole VRM thing basically adds that artificial room resonance (sort of not really; you know what I mean), which when re-reflected in a closed headphone makes it sound a bit odd. 

I'm in the middle of reviewing the NuForce Icon2 and S-X & W-1 speaker set. I'm going to see if *maybe* I can get the DAC-100 from them. Maybe if I tell them I've got an HE-6 coming in (I traded 2/3 of my inventory for it!), they'll send me one?

One issue I've had with reviewing is getting stuff across the border into Canada. I've actually once had to send an item back because customs was being a pain and after a week of paperwork and wasting so much time driving back and forth to the customs office and the depot, I just gave up. 

khaos's picture
Concept issue

The concept of simulating speakers via headphones is very nice, the aim, as I understand it is to allow sound engineers to hear how their music translates on various speakers.

Unfortunately, the Focusright Box misses a crucial feature, measuring the headphones themselves, the signature of the headphones is still too embedded in the final result. Conceptually wise, it's not too different from the ambiance settings (Hall, Bathroom, Jazz, Chruch) on an AV Receiver, except tailored to speaker models instead of ambiances.

It's a first step, but still incomplete (though it's understandable given the price).

mir's picture
Accuracy

It's not 100%, but I find it valuable and somehow "accurate" (if I can use such word, you know what I mean) - if several perfectly polished/balanced commercial mixes/masters sound pretty much the same (tonally) on all modelled speakers, and bad mixes sound very differently and unbalanced, that speaks for something great. That's my experience with K702s. I think Focusrite has done a really nice job with VRM Box. It can really help balance mixes and discover flaws/details (to some extent, of course). Well done, Focusrite. I would definitely recommend it.

ultrabike's picture
I was salivating over this

I was salivating over this product in the past for a while. The 10 ohm impendance is sort of a turn off though, but the price and coolness factor is quite good. It's also nice to see a competent DAC in there (same as the one inside the well regarded Leckerton UHA-6S MKII - Cirrus Logic's flagship!).

Hopefully Focusrite will rev it up and lower the impedance in order to better match lower impedance HPs (maybe improve the amp specs.) Or maybe add a DAC output option given their DAC IC choice.

BTW, they did mention they used the HD650, Beyer DT770, and the Proline 650, which may sort of work OK with 10 ohms like you metioned: http://www.focusrite.com/answerbase/en/article.php?id=1134.

John Grandberg's picture
Good start

I agree and definitely see room for a "rev 2" or similar. The ability to feed an external amp would take this to a whole different level imo, and I could see it becoming rather popular. Hopefully Focusrite is listening. 

Lunatique's picture
You must try these alternatives

There are a few software alternatives that you really should try:

TB Isone - http://www.toneboosters.com/tb-isone/

Redline Monitor - http://112db.com/redline/monitor/

Monitor MSX5 - http://www.g-sonique.com/msx5headphonemonitoring.html

They are all pro audio plugins that were designed for headphones, and TB Isone in particular, uses sophisticated HRTF algorithm, and its creator (Jeroen Breebaart) is one of the most respected audio engineers in the world (just read his bio and see). The other two are more conventional crossfeeds, and aren't as sophisticated, but they alter the frequency reponse less than HRTF.

TB Isone is the most realistic of the three, and I never listen to headphones without it anymore. I personally prefer the previous version called Isone Pro, but it's possible to tweak TB Isone to sound like Isone Pro (althought you'd need a copy of Isone Pro as reference). I'm sure Joroen will send you Isone Pro if you ask him.