Bravo Audio Ocean Review. The Ocean desktop headphone amp features a Shu Guang 12AU7 vacuum tube design that colours the audio and adds a silky undertone in a compact format.
With high impedance specialist headphones becoming ever more popular in the consumer and professional market, users are beginning to notice that these power thirsty beasts aren’t exactly performing at their best when driven by the vast majority of media devices. Whilst media applications are now popping up all over the place claiming to remedy this issue by masking the pitfalls at a software ‘algorithmic’ level, such as BBE’s Sonic Max Pro, the truth is these apps are providing false hope where the only solution for the user is to purchase an external headphone amplifier.
In the underground scene Bravo Audio is a manufacturer that has gained a huge amount of respect by their users for their headphone amplifiers that typically centre around a high voltage dual triode (12AU7) vacuum tube design. Having been responsible for the resurgence of old skool transistor technology we are all too familiar with the ‘vintage’ and ‘warmth’ adjectives that are practically the buzz words of the decade. However, Bravo Audio is a manufacturer that mixes a bit of new and old with the new being the modern exterior design aesthetic approach and old being the central tube design circuitry. With this said it is highly important before continuing with the full review to highlight that vacuum tube headphone amp designs have to be considered with a great deal of thought. If you are someone that enjoys transparency or highly articulate transients, such as seen in electronic genres, then this won’t be the solution for you and you may prefer something lighter (such as FET based designs).
Due to the fact that Bravo Audio is based in China they do ship from this location and it can take a number of weeks to arrive at your door. From the point in which Bravo Audio informed us that our unit had been dispatched to arriving in our hands was a fairly modest two weeks, of which during this time you are able to easily track your shipment. When the product does arrive you will be greeted with a brown cube where in the top compartment the 24v laptop style power supply sits. Below this is the ‘Ocean’ is comfortably encased in foam and other than these two items there is no additional information or accessories supplied.
The build quality of the Bravo Audio ‘Ocean’ is really quite a tricky one to discuss. On the whole the chassis appears solid where its structure is maintained from a 3mm thick brushed neon-blue aluminium enclosure with black face and backplates. The distinguishing feature of this amp, being the vacuum tube, noticeably protrudes from the enclosure. However, this is a design feature that allows you to both change the Shu Guang stock tube with ease and is protected by a roll cage. Whilst reviewing the ‘Ocean’ this cage design effectively protected the vacuum tube from damage during the terrifying drop test and performed much better than we expected it to.
Moving on to some of the design features, the faceplate clearly has each value defined as it sits alongside a nice vintage power drop-switch, a rather unremarkable silver finished volume pot that doesn’t have too much resistance, and both 3.5mm and 1/4″ output jack ports. It really is a nice fact that the ‘Ocean’ accommodates both outputs as this means that you don’t need to remember to fit an adapter, but unfortunately where there is grace there is also a design pitfall; being the bright red power LED. Usually such a thing would be overlooked but the problem is that it is so bright that it reflects off the central tube and detracts from the gorgeous orange vacuum tube glow. Moving on… apart from the standard 3.5mm input, the back of the unit has an additional input and output that is not usually available on a product in this price-range; an RCA line-in and out. These additional commodities are not gold plated but this really won’t effect the performance by a great deal so this is not something to take into consideration with the product rating. You possibly won’t be too surprised when I say that whilst gold plating does improve conductivity, many manufactures gold plate purely for aesthetic reasons and nowhere else will the gold plating exist.
Due to the fact that we were sent two of the same product we were able to compare the build quality between them. During our investigation the only variable that we found was in the included 24v laptop style power supply and the overall build quality continuity is good. With regards to the power supply it is pretty much a lottery so you may either receive a branded Bravo Audio or Juyn supply but having either one won’t effect performance. Finally, you should be made aware that the internal ‘Class A’ circuitry utilises the aluminium enclosure as a heat sink so it will get extremely hot – especially after hours of use. For this fact you really do need to be careful about the surface that you ground this device to and also that you must burn the tube in for a minimum of ten hours before you make your mind up on how the ‘Ocean’ performs. Overall the build quality is good but it would have been nice if the LED was a little less garish and the volume pot was of a higher quality.
Overall the sound quality of the ‘Ocean’ is an interesting asset to discuss so again I will highlight that vacuum tube amplifiers suit a certain type of consumer and must be burned in. For the purpose of this review we will be evaluating the ‘Oceans’ performance as it comes with the Shu Guang stock tube fitted. The input to the ‘Ocean’ will be lossless WAV files loaded into Pro Tools with a Prism Sound Orpheus as the audio interface. From the Orpheus we have used an Epiphany Acoustics Solaris MJ2 cable that runs to the ‘Ocean’ input where both a pair of open back Grado RS1i’s and closed back Audio Technica M50’s. If you would like to immediately upgrade the stock tube then you must use a dual triode 12AU7 with a B9A base. We recommend that if you would like to extend the highs and to have a little less characterful tube warmth from the ‘Ocean’ then you might want to switch the Shu Guang with a Electro Harmonix 12AU7. If you perform this change then we cannot guarantee the same sound quality as discussed below.
After burning the tube in for a minimum of ten hours you will notice a significant difference. Before the burn-in the tube will change from sounding harsh and behaving brashly to bass frequencies in to developing a rather round and bold sonic signature. The higher frequencies appear to be well presented with a touch of finesse due to the fact that the upper limits are rolled off and, as expected, there is a certain low level of distortion present that is without aggression. However, when focusing attention to the mids there is a bold presence that isn’t in your face but certainly adds a touch of glue to the male vocal and guitar lines. If clarity in this region was black then you could describe the tone in this frequency band as a stone grey. I know that this may seem like a crazy theory to present but if you had all those definitive mid range frequencies as stones in a square and then you shook the board a little bit this is how I would describe how the ‘Ocean’ presents this frequency range. Now as we progress to describing the bass this is a range that isn’t quite as defined – it has the depth but it doesn’t quite have the speed for those modern electro genres and can sound compressed. This is definitely a headphone amp that provides glue without mudding up the mix.
Although I’m discussing this at the end one of the first things that I noticed in comparison to other headphone amps that I have available is that the stereo separation is a bit more than what I would feel as comfortable. If you crank the headphone up a bit more than usual then this will become quite noticeable; especially with rock genres. Overall this is a characteristic of the ‘Ocean’ that is completely subjective and dependant on what genres of music you will be mostly listening to. I have personally found that listening to classical music is amazing on this little beauty whilst electronic genres sound a little bit more flat. Sometimes this typical characteristic of the vacuum tube design is quite desirable where the sonic signature and subtle compression make for a transformed sound. Either way we believe that the sonic performance of the ‘Ocean’ is good and has a hell of a lot of power behind it. Beware because this headphone amp is capable of delivering volume that will damage your hearing.
The Bravo Audio ‘Ocean’ is a very powerful nice little headphone amp that has a satisfying sonic characteristic and just loves classical music genres. The build quality is excellent and has more features than what you might expect at its price-point. Aesthetically the physical design is somewhat subjective and we have no problem with it especially when there is a beautiful vacuum tube in the middle. Overall The Pro Audio Web Blog rates the Bravo Audio ‘Ocean’ headphone amplifier a 4/5.