On The Precipice of Buying More Amps
Writing Audio Reviews is a Slippery Slope for my Wallet. Mountain Metaphors.
This was supposed to just be a comparison of portable headphone amplifiers, and a discussion of how, beyond a certain level of quality, it’s hard to tell the difference between different amps.
I own a small collection of portable headphone DAC/Amp combos. They’re little boxes that contain all the hardware you need to put nice-sounding music into headphones, whether they require no power or serious power.
Equipment like this used to come in large cubes that would sit on your desk.
In fact, you can still buy amplifiers of the cube variety…but for more and more users, small models are the way to go. They’re portable for laptop use, and many of them use similar chips to the bigger units.
The general rule of thumb is that headphone upgrades are the most noticeable. If a new headphone can make an 80 percent difference in your sound quality, a new amplifier can make, at most, a 20 percent difference. This depends on stuff like output impedance, power delivery, the tonal character of the chips, blah blah tech stuff.
Currently, I’ve got a Soundblaster E1, a SoundblasterX G5, an Astro Mixamp, and a Schiit Fulla.
Three gaming products and a discontinued mini-amp. Pretty exciting right?
Until recently, it was very hard for me to describe their differences outside of their extraneous features. They all sound a little better than the onboard sound on my PC and my 12 inch MacBook, but beyond that it was down to ports and EQ settings.
The Astro Mixamp is the most bulky, but still just small enough that you could probably put it on a coffee shop table without looking like the biggest jerk. It also has Dolby Headphone built in, and a nice array of EQ options.
The Soundblaster X G5 is about the size of other popular all-in-one amps like the Fiio E10K. It has really nice chips in it with names I’ve forgotten, and a low output impedance of 2 ohms, and the ability to drive 600 ohm headphones… though I imagine the crossover between “600 ohm headphone owners” and “people who want a gaming amp” is low.
You might think that the much cheaper E1 is outclassed by its big brother the G5…but it has one amazing feature: a wonderful microphone. The microphone is so good that I’ve used it for pro voice-over recording gigs.
And then there’s the Schiit Fulla. I like that it’s able to sit away from my laptop, even though it uses an outdated mini USB connector. I like that it has a tiny analog volume knob on it. I like that it never promised the world, just good portable audio. It’s a shame that one of its main components was discontinued, forcing it off the market, as I think the Fulla 2 is a very different sort of thing, and the Audioquest Dragonfly doesn’t appeal to me as much.
“Alex, this just sounds like the comparison you mentioned in the opening. What’s the big problem?”
The problem is the Beyerdynamic DT990's.
I got some DT990’s last week. I’ve been listening to them, and enjoying them quite a bit. They’ve got a love-it-or-hate-it sound signature that’s aggressive in many areas that, in my opinion, are useful for critical listening.
Their special nature has had an interesting side effect: I can now hear a larger difference between these amps.
The gap between my MacBook’s audio port and the G5 is now more dramatic. On the G5, the bass impact is cleaner, the bass frequencies on the whole are richer and more satisfying, and the midrange is a little more pronounced too.
The E1 now has an airy, more open quality to it. And I can tell that it doesn’t have the same oomph as the other amps.
With the Fulla, there’s a…a compressed sound? It’s like. It’s not quite harsh or tizzy, it’s just beefy and...
You know what? I should probably just go and buy some more amps and see if I can hear differences there! Tubes are interesting too because they change the sound more than solid state components and it would be interesting —
I Can’t Do This
Yes, there’s a small difference between headphone amps. And you can hear it with the right headphones. I’ve even read measurements showing differences in distortion, frequency curve, and power delivery. And the placebo effect is probably worming its way in there too.
Yes, all of these amps I mentioned above are totally fine for most users. They all render sound more or less accurately, and their differences are down to tiny changes in character, not huge sweeping improvements.
Yes, I probably wouldn’t see a vast difference if I started filling my desk with cubes.
And yet, the temptation of filling my desk with cubes is now stronger than it has ever been. I’m not even chasing “upgrades,” I’m just suddenly curious to see what all of these products offer.
Why are there so many of them?
How has the amp market sustained such competition when the differences between them are so minute?
How are people supposed to decide between them without hearing them?
This is ridiculous.
Damn it. I might fill my desk with cubes.