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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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Many companies selling DAC-headphone amps snazz them up with every possible feature and a design that grabs attention. Lehmannaudio has a different approach. Its Linear USB II DAC-headphone amp ($2199 USD) is about as simple as it could be: basically one digital input, a stereo analog input, a volume knob, and two 1/4" unbalanced headphone outputs, all in a plainly designed rectangular chassis. I’m only mildly familiar with the company -- Lehmannaudio is a German brand that seems best known in Europe, and I’d previously encountered it only at Munich’s High End show -- but I gather from reading around a bit on the Internet that elegant simplicity is the company’s thing.

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The Periodic Audio Nickel is the gutsiest audio product I’ve seen in many years. It’s a headphone amp that measures only 2” long, comes in a plastic enclosure, has no controls, no Bluetooth, no DAC . . . yet it costs $299 USD. I can’t find a directly comparable product, but the FiiO A3 amp has about as much rated power, plus volume, gain and bass-boost controls, and costs only $49 on Amazon, although it is about three times the Nickel’s size. The first time I encountered the Nickel at a CanJam headphone show, I had to wonder what kind of sonic juju this thing could have to justify its price.

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