in Markel!

Headphone Ampin’, Part One

When I work and travel, the big thing I always bring with me (that’s not my MacBook Air) is my music. Lots of people buy the largest-storage iPhone they can because they want to load it with apps or video, but I always do because I want to be able to carry as much music as possible.

And I care more about what that music sounds like than I suppose most people do. I will rarely buy music from the iTunes Store, and prefer to buy CDs and rip them to Apple Lossless instead of AAC or MP3.

I try to stretch my listening equipment dollar as best I can with effective and good-sounding ways to hear that music. When I’m at home, if I don’t need the headphones, I like to camp out in my living room, where I have some great floor speakers and a top-notch subwoofer.

As far as the space between my ears, I’m personally partial to the Sony MDR-V6 at home (with Beyerdynamic velour earcushion replacements); over-ear works best for me to not bother others and still get a pleasing sound. I recently replaced a broken pair of in-ear phones with the Etymotic MC5s for air travel, which are good but not great. (I’m planning un upgrading soon to ER-4s with custom molds.)

The problem with good headphones is that they take some juice to drive. The Etymotics in particular see me jacking the output on my iPhone pretty far up the scale to get a good response. To try and remedy this situation—and squeeze a bit more quality out of the source as well—I decided to look into portable headphone amps.

Ideally, I’d like to run my headphones off the line-out source from the iPhone’s dock connector and let a dedicated amp do all the work. I’m giving some low-cost solutions a try. In particular, I’m looking at products from Fiio, a Chinese manufacturer that specializes in portable amps and DACs. (They even have a portable guitar amp, which is an intriguing idea.)

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The first product I tried was the E6, which is a tiny little thing (about 1.5″ square), cost only $30ish, and gets 10 hours out of a charge. It came in today, and I played around with it using both sets of ‘phones I have, using the EQ settings and such. I was using the headphone out on the iPhone and I was disappointed to find that it didn’t drive the signal much more than the default amplifier on the phone.

It’s a neat little product, but I found the lack of visual feedback on the amp level frustrating – I couldn’t tell how far up I had it cranked without just holding the button and hoping for the best. It’s tiny, portable, and cheap, but that’s where the good things end.

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The sound was good, but it didn’t feel like I was getting any real quality benefit from it, so I shipped it back to Amazon today and instead ordered the E07K, which is a portable DAC with an amp (I know that the iPhone won’t pass off it’s DAC duties, but I’m more interested in the more powerful amp). I grabbed a dock connector to 3.5mm cable with it as well and will be testing it out next week.

I’ll be sure to post about what I find. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for portable amplification, please leave a comment and let me know what you have used and whether you would recommend it. When looking up this information, I was surprised to find that information (and especially reviews) of these products were few and far between.

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