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It’s amazing how many choices we have in headphone amps these days. I’ve covered portable amps, portable DAC-amps, component DAC-amps, amps with programmable digital signal processing, and more. The new EarMen TR-Amp ($249, all prices USD) fits into the portable DAC-amp category, with a twist: a rechargeable battery. The advantage of the battery is that the amplifier section isn’t dependent on the limited current available through the USB output of a computer or smartphone; the battery provides about ten hours of power.

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Reviewers' ChoiceI’m less demanding than Winston Churchill, at least when it comes to headphone amps. Churchill is often quoted as saying, “My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best” -- but with headphone amps, I don’t even need the “best.” I just want one that’s powerful enough to drive the notoriously insensitive HiFiMan HE6se headphones, and that has balanced output, because a lot of headphones I get in for review offer a balanced connection. And I want it to be affordably priced, which shouldn’t be too tough considering that even very demanding headphones need only about 1W of power. The new Schiit Magnius ($199 USD) seems like it was made according to my specifications.

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The new Helm Audio DB12 AAAMP follows the path least taken for top-notch sound on the go. Path #1 is a high-quality portable media player, like an Astell&Kern -- nice, but often pricey and complicated to configure. Path #2 is a portable DAC-headphone amp, such as the iFi Audio Hip-dac -- nice, but sometimes clumsy to carry and fussy about formats and connections. Path #3 is a small, analog-input headphone amp, such as the DB12 AAAMP -- an option many audiophiles insist is not nice, because it relies on the DAC inside the source device. And of course, that source device is typically a phone made by a tech company we assume is too colossal to care about audio.

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Reviewers' ChoiceFounded in 2012, UK-based iFi Audio has been busy the past few years, releasing a slew of small audio products designed “to improve your music enjoyment.” iFi makes some lifestyle and hi-fi components -- two of them, the Aurora wireless music system and the Pro iDSD DAC, were recently reviewed by Gordon Brockhouse for SoundStage! Simplifi -- but most of what iFi does centers around improving the sound quality of earphones and headphones. A recent result is the diminutive Hip-dac ($149, all prices USD), designed to enhance the sound of a smartphone or other portable digital device by bypassing its internal DAC, headphone amplifier, and output.

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Reviewers' ChoiceAs I’ve written before, headphone amps are typically more critical to headphone sound quality than speaker amps are to speaker sound quality. That’s largely because there’s so little standardization of headphone impedance and amplifier output impedance. The amp might be even more critical to the sound if you’re using expensive headphones of the type Focal is known for, such as the Utopia ($3999 USD) and Stellia ($3000) designs. So it’s no surprise that Focal launched the Arche ($2500), a high-end DAC-headphone amp with features intended to get the best sound out of the company’s headphones.

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No matter where you might stand on the subjective vs. objective, measurements vs. “trusting your ears” debate, you can’t deny that the miniDSP IL-DSP DAC-headphone amp ($99 USD) can have a radical effect on the sound of your headphones. Like other roughly finger-sized DAC-amps on the market, the miniDSP plugs into a computer, phone, or tablet, and performs digital-to-analog conversion and powers a set of earphones or headphones. But while most of those products’ marketing claims are simply that they sound more awesome than other companies’ DAC-amps, the miniDSP incorporates a digital signal processing chip that can be user-programmed with different EQ curves.

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Latest Comments

Brent Butterworth 3 hours ago Eardrum Suck: The Mystery Solved!
@NawidThat's interesting. I have a friend whose car gives him eardrum suck even without headphones. ...
Brent Butterworth 3 hours ago Eardrum Suck: The Mystery Solved!
@Doug SchneiderThat's a very good idea, Doug. I'd start there. Shai, it could be due to ...
Doug Schneider 11 hours ago Eardrum Suck: The Mystery Solved!
@shaiBrent might have some ideas -- but have you tried reversing the headphones (i.e., put ...
hey.. you can think about the reason why for me it happens only on the ...
Brent Butterworth 5 days ago Shure Aonic 5 Earphones
@toddSome people thought they were the best, I think. But as I suggested in the ...