VANGUARD DYNAMICS VAIL AMP IN-WALL SMART AMPLIFIER
If you’re lacking space or perhaps spousal consent for an audio system, consider the VAIL (Voice Artificial Intelligence Link) Amp, which combines an Alexa Dot with neat in-wall amplification.
Is your house wired for voice control? If it is, you probably have either Google Home or Amazon Alexa devices. Or, maybe, Apple Home. Each has their pros and cons, but one good reason to go for Alexa is the rather strong third-party eco-system that has grown up around it. Which brings us to the Vanguard Dynamics VAIL (‘Voice Artificial Intelligence Link’) Amp. This device simultaneously manages an Amazon Echo Dot physically, and turns it into a much higher-performance music source.
Amazon Alexa was the first in the voice control field in the US, and while now being challenged by Google globally, it remains very strong. Most importantly, some Alexa devices have a modest feature which the equivalent Google devices lack: an analogue stereo output. If you want to integrate these kinds of devices into new equipment, an analogue output makes it easy and reliable.
That’s what the Vanguard Dynamics VAIL Amp uses. It is an analogue stereo amplifier which is built into a housing for a second-generation Amazon Echo Dot. The Echo Dot is the smallest of Amazon’s Echo range of smart speakers. It is shaped like a puck, measuring 83mm in diameter and 31mm tall. Clearly, that small size limits its audio capabilities when reproducing music, but that’s part of the point of the VAIL Amp.
Basically, it works like this. The VAIL Amp has a round bay into which a second-generation Echo Dot neatly slips. There are two plugs in the housing. One is a Micro-B USB plug, with which the Vail Amp provides power to the Echo Dot. The other is a 3.5mm analogue stereo plug, which plugs into the Echo Dot to take the audio signal to the VAIL.
You bring your own speakers to provide the sound. So the sound reproduction no longer has anything to do with the diminutive powers built into the Echo Dot. Instead you have an amplifier rated at 30W per channel, supporting both four-ohm and eight-ohm loudspeakers; the impedance must be selected by means of a switch within the housing.
Stated like that, why the VAIL Amp? Couldn’t you just plug an Echo Dot into any stereo amp or sound system for effectively the same results? Well, yes. But the other function performed by the VAIL Amp is managing the Echo Dot physically. The amp and its housing are designed for in-wall or in-ceiling installation. You can basically install it anywhere a cavity provides a usable depth of at least 66mm from the face of the wall. The required round mounting hole needs to be 114mm in diameter.
The housing is secured by two swing-out lugs which can be tightened and loosened from the front. You’ll need to feed cables through the wall cavity, but no rear access is required to install or remove the VAIL amp itself. A lip on the housing stands a millimetre or two out from the surface into which it is installed, and a white faceplate clips over this. The faceplate is square, 133mm on a side. The round hole in its middle exposes the face of the Echo Dot so that its four control buttons can be accessed and its microphones can cleanly receive your spoken commands from the room. And the faceplate can be painted, if required, to match room décor.
There’s more to the VAIL Amp package. Included is a 24V DC power brick, a lightswitch-sized wall plate (pictured below) with additional connections, and two connecting cables, plus an adaptor cable. The wall-plate has a power socket for the 24V power supply, plus three gold-plated RCA sockets. Two of those are for left and right audio inputs, while one is for a subwoofer output from the VAIL Amp. The inputs mean that you can use an additional audio source — say a CD player, perhaps a turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier, perhaps even your TV. (Some experimentation revealed that this input is simply mixed in with the signal from the Echo Dot, so no source selection is needed.)
The other RCA socket means that you can supplement whatever speakers you are using with an active subwoofer. Vanguard Dynamics doesn’t give any specifications for this output.
Included are two 1.5-metre cables to connect the wall plate to the VAIL Amp. One is for power and the other — this is a standard Cat6 Ethernet cable — is for signals. Both can be replaced for longer runs. The power cable has screw-on connectors on both ends. These can be unscrewed and transferred to a longer cable. If you want to keep things simple and don’t need the extra connections on the wall plate, you can dispense with it. An adaptor is provided to allow the power brick to be connected directly to the VAIL Amp rather than via the wall plate. If you have properly-installed ceiling power, you can keep that out of sight as well.
The loudspeaker outputs of the Vail Amp use ‘Euroblock’ plugs, common in the installation industry. Although they are relatively unfamiliar to consumers, they are easy to use. You just place the bared ends of cable into the openings on the plug and tighten the screws. Then the whole thing plugs into the socket.
One of the good things about modern network devices such as the Echo Dot is that anyone reasonably handy can install it. I’d suggest that the same extends to the VAIL Amp. If you can cut a hole in plasterboard and are able to feed cables through wall cavities (that’s the hardest part) you should be fine.
Vanguard Dynamics is a Californian firm that primarily produces installation and commercial speakers. So you won’t be surprised to hear that you can buy the VAIL Amp as part of a package with installation speakers. We’re sure that in that role it will do as well as any 30W amp pressed into servicing such speakers. And you can see how well this would work as a practical matter. The speakers are installed, perhaps in the ceiling. The VAIL Amp with its Echo Dot is installed, most likely, on a wall. Importantly, it can be placed so as to most reliably hear your commands. The bane of many voice-controlled speakers is that with the microphones and speakers in the same unit, the former can’t hear you over the music produced by the latter. The VAIL Amp usefully separates microphone and speakers.
With everything wall or ceiling installed, you have a visually inconspicuous but much higher performance voice-controlled audio system. Plus, of course, it will do all other Alexa things for you, like control certain powered appliances, answer your questions and so on. Whenever Alexa needs to speak to you, her voice will emerge from the speakers connected to the VAIL Amp — which can be a bit spooky if you’re used to Alexa or Google coming from a tiny little driver in the corner. And, of course, you can control the volume level by spoken command.
We did our listening in part with a pair of installation speakers. These are a pair from a well-known brand, and they feature an 8-inch bass/midrange and 20mm tweeter. They normally perform the function of ‘Height’ speakers in our Dolby Atmos/DTS:X listening room. The rest we did with a pair of high-quality, largish stand-mounted speakers.
We jury-rigged our installation, not wishing to cut holes in our walls for a device in our possession only temporarily. But we secured the VAIL Amp with Echo Dot 2 in place hard against a wall, to replicate its normal performance. We’d already set up our account to use Spotify rather than Amazon’s own music service. The Echo Dot/VAIL Amp worked brilliantly. Because we placed them on the wall closest to our usual seated position, they picked up our spoken commands without marked interference from the music, even when we were going at quite extreme levels. That’s an unusual experience.
The VAIL Amp easily drove our ceiling speakers to quite high levels, and cleanly. But we used the other speakers for critical listening, not only with Alexa music, but with uncompressed audio played from a high resolution network audio player via the auxiliary inputs. The quality was excellent. Modern amp technology is remarkably effective, even in a device that weighs only a couple of hundred grams.
Importantly, when using the 1.5-metre connection cable (which we purposely draped in some less than ideal locations), there didn’t seem to be any breakthrough of electrical interference, continuing a fine low-noise performance.
This VAIL Amp did its job admirably, but it isn’t quite the end of the story. Since the Echo Dot
2nd Gen is now pretty much end of life (we couldn’t find one for sale on Amazon Australia, for example), a new VAIL Amp ‘3’ is due to arrive in September, slightly larger to accommodate the bigger Dot 3, and priced at $599, with otherwise exactly the same abilities. Meanwhile, if you can snaffle a cheap 2nd-gen Dot or two, the current VAIL Amp is a great way of turning it into a high quality music source, while retaining its general functionality.
Vanguard Dynamics VAIL Amp
Price: $499 (VAIL Amp 3 $599 from Sept.)
+ Useful installation solution for Amazon Alexa functionality
+ Good audio performance
+ Easy installation
- Uses Echo Dot 2; incoming VAIL Amp 3 from September will fit new Dot 3
Power: 2 x 30W, 4/8 ohms switchable
Inputs: 3.5mm (for Echo Dot Gen 2), analogue stereo RCA on wall panel
Outputs: Subwoofer line-level (RCA) on-wall panel, stereo Euroblock terminal for speakers
Cut-out dimensions: 114mm diameter
Wall-panel dimensions: 133 x 133mm
Mounting depth: 66mm
Weight: 215 grams
Telephone: 1800 636 026