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Numerous as misunderstandings are in the world of audio, I’d guess that in consumer audio, there’s nothing more misunderstood than the amplifier. I think that’s because many audio aficionados base their understanding of amps less on technical knowledge than on what they’ve read in subjective reviews, where writers—almost none of whom possess substantial knowledge of amp design—are typically encouraged to sling exaggerated, exotic adjectives to make what’s often a rather generic product sound like a transformative experience.

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As I reported last month, the number of target curves for headphone and earphone response is growing. Honestly, I’m a bit dismissive of some of these curves. I’m fine with it if people like them, but based on my decades of communication with readers, I’m skeptical of the idea that any target response is a surefire prescription for listener satisfaction—although they certainly can serve as reference standards against which other models can be compared.

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I should have expected this. The original paper that eventually resulted in the Harman curve was published ten years ago. Like practically every paper on audio that takes a strong stand, it was met with a mixture of praise, scorn, and indifference. Now others are responding by suggesting their own alternatives to the Harman curve—and headphone enthusiasts are left scratching their heads, wondering which, if any, of these will agree fully with their own ears.

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As I write this, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just published its long-awaited final guidelines for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. There’s a lot of buzz about this development because it should make effective hearing aids more affordable. But it’s also going to revolutionize the headphone industry—and in ways that might not be good for the listener.

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I’m going to stray a little beyond the headphone beat this month, because I just can’t contain myself. Recording episode 12 of the SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast with Dennis Burger pushed me past my limit of tolerance for nonsensical claims that audio manufacturers don’t even try to back up with valid testing and meaningful data.

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You don’t have to browse YouTube reviews or audio forums for long before you encounter misconceptions about current. Many consider current to be the measure of an amp’s quality. We seldom see current in a set of amplifier specifications, but we often see marketing blurbs that mention current. There seems to be a general consensus among audiophiles that more current—even if it’s just claimed in marketing copy rather than directly specified—equals better sound. We sometimes even see current mentioned in headphone amps, even though headphones that actually demand lots of current (relatively speaking, of course) are rare.

Latest Comments

Brent Butterworth 13 hours ago When Is the Amp Important?
@RyanThanks! Give the SoundStage editors 100% of the credit for the integrity and courage. I ...
Ryan 14 hours ago When Is the Amp Important?
Really appreciate your integrity and courage to write this, as this (accurate) message is counter ...
@Brent Butterworth
I looked at the overlaid curves in the graph that you attached. The Edifier S3 ...
@Brent Butterworthhey thanks, will be out on Dec 10?
Brent Butterworth 2 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
@gzostDescribing these things as "solved problems" is right on target.
gzost 3 days ago When Is the Amp Important?
Clearly stating that DACs and amps are a solved problem and that cables do not ...
Brent Butterworth 3 days ago Edifier Stax Spirit S3 Bluetooth Headphones
@Joe Werner I haven't heard the Oppos in years, and the THX Pandas I sent to another ...
Can you compare with the Oppo PM-3s and THX Pandas?


I realize you may not have ...
Brent Butterworth 9 days ago Focal Utopia Headphones
@Bill SizerIt's not out of the question. But unfortunately, DCA usually arranges for about five reviews ...
Bill Sizer 13 days ago Focal Utopia Headphones
Nice, thorough review...much appreciated! Speaking of top-tier headphones, any chance you guys will be able ...