In operation since 2010, VentureCraft are a local company for local people. Over ninety percent of their portable audio products are sold to customers in Japan. The single digit remainder comes from distribution deals inked in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
And the VentureCraft guys and gals didn’t have far to travel to the Fujiya Avic headphone festival in Nakano. Their headquarters are located in Kanda, adjacent to Tokyo station and within spitting distance of the Emperor’s Palace.
Being shown at the Sun Plaza hotel was the company’s first foray into digital audio player (DAP) territory and their apparently solid reputation in the headphone amplifier/DAC space meant the queue for a seat at the demo table rarely dipped below fifteen minutes all weekend. I whiled away my time in-line on Sunday morning by pondering how such wait times would go down at European or Stateside head-fi/hi-fi events. Hmmm….
The VentureCraft DAP is called the SoundDroid VALOQ and its key point of difference is switchable up-sampling to DSD or DXD before decoding by the Asahi Kasei AK4490 chip. A bypass mode is available to those who demand their data remain unsullied by SRC.
The volume pot is nice and stiff and probably won’t easily be knocked north whilst in one’s pocket. Next to that, industry standard 2.5mm TRSS balanced and 3.5mm singled ended outputs with the latter doubling as S/PDIF spiller. Recharge comes via a microUSB port on the bottom. Battery life if rated by VentureCraft at seven hours.
And I gotta say, the sound of this unit really is something else: wonderfully rich and fluid. However, as of Tokyo show time there were several gotchas that make this DAP hard to recommend at its intended street price of JPY90,000 (~US$850).
First up, the DAP’s shell is an all-plastic affair – probably to keep the weight off – but it’s one heck of a bitter (diet) pill to swallow in the context of the FAR more physically robust TEAC HA-90SD or the sleek brushed aluminium of a Cowon Plenue M, a Sony NW-ZX1 or an Astell&Kern AK Jr.
Secondly, the SoundDroid VALOQ’s screen isn’t a touchscreen. It’s monochrome too. That may sound like first world complaints but without a colour touchscreen, market appeal is relegated to all but the most hardcore of headphiles, for whom the upside of VentureCraft’s screen choice is lower levels of potentially circuit-disturbing electrical noise.
Readers pointing to the aforementioned TEAC’s non-touchy UI are reminded of its ability to juice Beyerdynamic T1 (which the VentureCraft unit will not) and its amour-like build quality. Even the much-maligned Pono Player at US$399 has a colour touchscreen interface.
Perhaps this is the trade-off required for better sound?
Finally, the SoundDroid VALOQ’s system software just isn’t ready for prime time. Like the TEAC, navigation comes via rocker and select switches along the unit’s side (located just above the microSD card slot) but the OS crashed twice during my demo. The first crash necessitated a reboot, the second a switch up to a different (white) unit. You’ll also note from the video how the software fails to properly list SD card directory contents. That’s fixable in time but still…
It’s not unusual for manufacturers to show pre-production units at events like these – I’m told that only five of the VentureCraft DAPs currently exist – so let’s hope the SoundDroid VALOQ’s bugs are ironed out and (perhaps) the RRP dialled downwards before full production ramps up in December and before VentureCraft hit CES with production samples in January 2016.
Further information: VentureCraft