Review: Vanguard Dynamics Vail Amp
Installing a Echo Dot Gen 2? The Vail Amp could offer an easy upsell opportunity, writes Stephen Dawson.
If you make installation systems, you can try to fight the incursion into your area of the tech giants Amazon, Google and Apple. But that’s probably futile. Instead, like Vanguard Dynamics, you can come up with clever ways of integrating those innovations into your system. And thus we have the Vanguard Dynamics Vail Amp.
What is it?
This is a remarkably clever system, that’s also effective and very easy to install. And at $499 pretty good value for money. (It can also come with a pair of Vanguard’s FLC601 installation speakers for $799.)
The main part of the system is a wall fixture, with a square, removeable faceplate which measures 133mm by 133mm. An 83mm hole in the middle of the faceplate accommodates an Amazon Echo Dot, Gen 2.
The round casing behind this – a 114mm diameter hole in the wall is required – provides power to the Echo Dot and has a 3.5mm plug to take audio from the Dot’s audio out socket. This casing has an amplifier built into it. It is rated at 30W per channel output into either 4Ω or 8Ω.
I’m more a Google Home guy, but the audio output on the Echo Dot is a compelling advantage Amazon Alexa’s system has over Google Home. It makes integration enormously simpler, and opens up the range of compatible products to a list that’s unending.
This is all designed for mounting in a wall. Once that’s done the Echo Dot sits the right way up, with its volume keys at top and bottom, ‘Mute’ key to the left and ‘Listen’ key to the right. The illuminated ring around the end of the Dot is clearly visible, so users can know that they’ve successfully invoked it with a call of “Alexa”.
The unit is designed to work with a wall plate, but as we’ll see below you can dispense with that if you wish. But if it is used – it’s included in the box – then you can add an external audio input. This also provides a subwoofer output.
It is very easy to set up this system. The amp already has the Micro-B USB and 3.5mm audio plugs sitting in the right place. They go into the sockets on the Alexa, which you then ease in the cradle. It slips in without much in the way of manipulation. But before doing that, the slider switch inside the cradle should be switched from ‘Off’ to either 4Ω or 8Ω, depending on the speakers to be used.
A hole of 114mm diameter is then required in the wall, along with a depth of 66mm. Two swing-out arms clamp the housing into place.
Cabling for the speakers is required but the two cables to the wall plate from the unit are supplied. They are about a metre-and-a-half in length. If they prove to be insufficiently long, they can be easily replaced. The signal cable is just a standard Cat6 Ethernet cable, so you can use whatever length is required. The power cable – 24V – has Euroblock-style plugs on the ends. You can unscrew them and put them on the ends of a longer cable.
The wall plate is standard power-point-sized. It should be installed in the wall near a power point. On its face it has two RCA sockets for an additional input, an RCA socket as a subwoofer output, and a round socket for the power input. A mid-sized power brick is supplied – it delivers 2A at 24V – for plugging into this.
In some installations it may be preferred to put everything in the wall cavity and forgo the additional inputs and subwoofer output. In that case the cable to the power brick can be replaced with a wired-in connection to the mains. A standard C7 connection is used on the brick. Included in the packet is an inline socket for the brick’s 24V output. This can be attached to the end of the supplied 24V power cable, necessary to power the amplifier.
Given the dimensions involved, placement should be easy. But it’s worth spending a little time on that, principally to ensure that the Echo Dot works properly. If it’s too close to the connected speakers, it may not ‘hear’ voice commands well enough. So, some placement experimentation is in order.
Of course, I didn’t cut any holes in my walls for this review, but it all went together perfectly well out in the open air. In regular use it was just like using the Echo Dot when it was sitting on my desktop. Except that the music – I mostly used Spotify – was far more authoritatively delivered.
I ran a pair of KEF R300 loudspeakers – they sell for more than $2,000 a pair – using this unit. They sounded excellent. KEF recommends amplifiers rated at 25W to 120W for these speakers, but there was no sense of a power shortage. When I pushed the amplifier very hard – the volume set to 100% – the sound harshened up only a little, but quite decent levels were reached, if not exactly room-shaking.
You will be stuck with whatever kind of tonal balance your speakers can deliver. Under ‘Device Settings’ in the Alexa app (look for ‘Audio Controls’ within that) there are bass/mid/treble EQ adjustments available. But on using them, I found that they made no difference to the sound. The Echo Dot Gen 2 must be designed so that these adjustments only work when it’s using its internal speaker. Pity.
The analogue input provided by the wall plate requires no switching. Signals from the Echo Dot and the external input are just mixed together and both are reproduced. Just switch off the source that you don’t want.
Echo Dot: Gen 2 or Gen 3
There is one problem with this system, as I see it. Namely, that the 2nd generation Echo Dot is pretty much now a deprecated product. It isn’t available any more on the Australian Amazon website, and on the US site there are only used ones on offer, seemingly available only from third parties. Google Shopping reveals a few for sale on eBay; however, some brick and mortar stores may still have some.
So, check availability before purchasing. If you already have one or more, or access to them (they ought to be rather cheap), it’s hard to think of a more effective, lower cost way to provide a neat, high quality, voice-controlled home audio installation.
I’m told that some installers who use Yamaha Aventage receivers – the current models come with a bonus Echo Dot Gen 2 and can be controlled by it – are using the Vail Amp as an upgrade to provide an additional zone from the receiver’s zone line outputs.
If you can’t find an Echo Dot Gen 2, well you can wait awhile. By mid-year the distributor Canohm expects to have the Vail Amp 3 available. For all practical purposes this is identical to the current product, except that it fits the new Echo Dot Gen 3 instead of the Gen 2. It has the same connections and the same performance. The only real difference is a slightly larger body to accommodate the larger body of the new Dot. Its faceplate is around 152mm by 152mm instead of 133mm by 133mm.
But the only real advantage of the Gen 3 Dot over the Gen 2 is an improved built-in speaker. Since the speaker isn’t used at all once it’s installed in the Vail Amp, the Gen 2 makes for a better value proposition, especially if you can get one at the run-out price.
As for the Vail Amp 3, at this stage Canohm anticipates selling it for the same price as the current model.
The Vanguard Dynamics Vail Amp is well thought out, easy to install, reasonably priced and an excellent upgrade for an Echo Dot. I expect the Vail Amp 3 will be equally good.