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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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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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Pennsylvania-based Rogue Audio has been producing tubed electronics for 20 years. Although they’ve long included headphone jacks on many of their products, Rogue is not oblivious to the demands of today’s ever-growing market of headphone enthusiasts. Many high-quality headphones can sound great when plugged directly into a smartphone, but their sound can often further benefit from connection to a dedicated headphone amplifier fed signals from high-quality source components. Some high-end headphones require greater power than a smartphone, or even the headphone amp in a typical audio component, can deliver. Rogue’s solution to these needs of the headphone aficionado is the RH-5 headphone amplifier-preamplifier ($2495 USD).

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Latest Comments

Brent Butterworth 6 days ago Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Generation) Headphones
@Joel LeeGood question. According to Beyerdynamic:
1) Both plates on the earcup look entirely different
2) The new ...
1 image(s)
How do you know you have the 3rd Edition if the cups only say T5?

Joel ...
Brent Butterworth 20 days ago Where Are We At With The Harman Curve?
@SianaIt's absolutely possible to do that. It's called measuring in phons, which is a unit ...
But when I’m in a car and it’s pretty quiet I don’t experience eardrum suck. ...
This is a super-geeky article! Loved it!