If you use a pair of portable headphones, or even budget headphones, you could probably do with a decent amplifier. But if your favourite way of listening involves music on the go, it's got to go with you. This week, we're looking at five of the best portable headphone amps on the market, with prices starting at under $40.
Title photo by Miki Yoshihito.
The FiiO E12 is a mid-range amplifier that's still small enough (and battery powered) to be considered portable. You can get a full 12 hours of juice out of this pocket-size amp, which measures around five inches by three inches. It weighs approximately 140 grams, so whether you keep it in a pocket or in your carry all, it's not going to add a ton of weight while you listen to it. The E12 has an all-aluminium body to protect it from drops and shocks, can boost the performance of just about any set of headphones (16~300 Ohm), and has a USB port on the side to charge from a laptop, your phone, or a tablet as well as a wall charger. If you want one, they will set you back $169.90 at minidisc.com.au.
FiiO's Alpen 2 E17K is the most recent model of the older Alpen E17, which made our list of the best digital-to-analogue converters (DACs). The latest model is a little bigger than its predecessor (about 6 x 4 inches) and a good two-plus inches thick. Despite its larger size, it's still only about five ounces, and packs a serious punch when it comes to audio performance. It's also battery powered, and packs a bigger battery and holds about 15 hours worth of charge, again rechargable via wall socket, your phone or tablet, or any other USB device. This model is designed for more demanding headphones (15~150 Ohm), and can be used either as a standalone DAC or headphone amp, or (with added equipment) as an external sound card for desktop use. The E17K also supports dual-function inputs, and has a coax input, adding to its versatility as both a portable and a desktop device. If you want one, it will set you back $179.90 at minidisc.com.au.
If you've ever wanted your superior sound to come out of an Altoids tin, or an old ginger candy tin, or a mint tin, or even just a plain aluminium tin, Lucid Labs is worth checking out. It makes quality amplifiers that come in a variety of altoid-tin sized cases that come in eight different varieties. Best of all, it's an extremely portable, excellent-sounding amplifier that can drive all sorts of headphones (30-300 Ohm.) They're battery powered and pocket sized, and can run for up to 20 hours on a pair of 9V alkaline batteries. Plus, every single amp they make is tested before it's shipped, and they're all custom made. You get a standard stereo input and output, but that's about it — don't expect too many bells and whistles, but they do sound great. You can snap one up direct from Lucid Labs for $33.99 (plus $13.99 shipping)?
The Objective2 amplifier from JDS Labs actually made an appearance with the ODAC in our list of the best DACs a while back. The newer model is still small and still doesn't have to be paired with the ODAC if you don't want one. While it's definitely pushing the line of "portable" thanks to its design, it's still only four inches by three inches and about an inch or so thick. The knob off the front is a little tricky to handle in a pocket, but if you keep it in a bag, you'll have no issue. It's also battery powered and rechargeable, and can run for about six to eight hours on its pair of internal 9V NiMH batteries. It's also customisable, so you can tweak the components and the inputs to suit your needs. The standard models though come in silver and black, have standard stereo or RCA inputs, 3.5 or 6.3mm stereo outputs, all of which can be customised if you prefer a different configuration of inputs and outputs. The O2 is built for virtually any type of headphone, and promises improvements at all levels, regardless of the headphones you're listening to or the source. It costs $219 from minidisc.com.au with free shipping.
The FiiO E6 is a tiny (only 1.6 inches square and less than a half-inch thick) headphone amplifier that epitomizes the idea of "portable." You could stick this sucker on the back of a phone case, or just leave it in your pocket with your phone and have no idea it was even there. Of course, in this case its strength is portability and price, not necessarily power — which even FiiO is quick to point out. It boasts a simple single input, single output, and a volume rocker on one side, concealed power indicator that changes colour when charging or on battery power, and the battery usually works for about 10 hours on a charge. Somehow there's even a triple-mode EQ built into the tiny thing. It also has a removable clip you can attach to a bag strap or inside of your pocket to keep it in place while you listen to it. It's designed for a decent range of headphones (16~150 Ohm), and will set you back $40 from minidisc.com.au, a great starting point if you're curious whether the audio source you listen to (or the headphones you wear) on the go could use an amplifier.
This week's honorable mention goes out to the Emmeline, The Shadow, from Ray Samuels Audio. It's a custom made amplifier — bespoke, as it were — so you'll have to wait your turn to have one hand-crafted for you and your specific needs, but once you have one, you'll have something truly personal and handmade that you can appreciate both on the go or sitting at home listening to whatever audio source you may have to listen to. These things are almost works of art, not just amplifiers, and just reading the description at the homepage tells the tale — just enough goes into the making of each one, no more, no less, and certainly not so much that it's over the top. Some of you shared your experiences with them, and suffice to say, we're impressed. It's pricey, at around $500, so it's certainly not an entry level model.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favourite, even if it wasn't included in the list? Don't just complain about the top five, let us know what your preferred alternative is — and make your case for it — in the discussions below.