28 February 2015

Auvio Headphone Amplifier Review

I like to think I've got pretty good hearing. I don't regularly attend concerts or trade shows, and before I got moved to a quieter building at work, earplugs were my best friends. As such, I've never quite understood headphone amplifiers. I'd heard of them, of course, but only in terms of gear for video and stage crews, people who need that extra boost to hear directors and stage managers over the crowds, pyrotechnics, and walls of Marshalls. As for everyone else, it seemed a bit pointless. Even then, what ones I saw for consumers were specifically marketed as assistive listening devices--hearing aids for people in denial. 
A few years ago, a revelation into the sheer scope of headphone amps available came to me when a game designer I follow posted an image of the FiiO E09K dock into which was inserted an E17. At first, I couldn't even figure out what the damn thing was (I thought the E17 was an mp3 player), literally researching and double-checking my research utterly convinced I was missing something. There was simply no way something could cost that much that was little more than an upgrade to a volume knob. Even considering the existence of bling culture, the handbag industry, and lowriders, it seemed an asurdity. 
I mean, if you had that kind of dough to spend on an amp for headphones, wouldn't it be more prudent to simply buy better headphones? It made me think of that ad for Rhino TuffGrip that showed the signature spray-on spackle applied to a Chevy SSR bed, irreparably coating the hand-polished wood runners. 
It turned out even FiiO thinks their stuff is overkill, and most of their product photos show the amps hooked up to earbuds and strapped to the backs of smartphones.
That's when I kind of got it. 
Remember how expensive the Macbook Air was yet had one of the worst onboard cameras ever made? That's really where FiiO's bread and butter seems to be; lending better audio to devices that skipped out on it despite higher price tags. Granted, that still makes it an impossibly niche market, but no longer a complete absurdity. 
Moreover, I learned that the amps don't merely raise the volume, but actually enhance the sound by picking up the slack for the built-in amps of the device they're connected to. I was skeptical of this, as audiophiles tend to be the homeopathic, free energy flat-earthers of the tech world. There's also the fact that a headphone amp doesn't bypass the internal amp of the device, although I'm sure a sound engineer could fill me in on what I may be missing in this equation. 
Recently, I went to Radio Shack to exploit their financial failings by way of their everyhing-must-go sale and picked up, among other things, a tiny headphone amplifier. In fact, I got two in case I wanted to take one apart. It's from a company called Auvio, whom I'd never heard of before and suspect they may well have been exclusive to Radio Shack. I won't tell you how much the markdown was, but the initial retail price was around 30USD, very close to the now-discontinued FiiO E6. It's about the size of a matchbook with a nice, rubbery finish and capped off with a brittle-feeling clip that I don't trust one bit. Despite its size and notable lack of heft, it's surprising the level of pure tech under that tiny hood. 
Going back to what I was saying about enhancing the audio, it's true that most lower-end headphone amps are simply volume boosters, but some have equalizers built into them. These isolate certain frequencies and bring them to the forefront, namely bass and treble. The trouble with most audio players (specifically devices for which music player is an afterthought) is that the internal amplifier circuits aren't well-made, effectively homogenizing the deep bass and high treble sounds, robbing them of their respective nuances. 
The Auvio's EQ has three settings apart from "OFF" which are indicated by a slick little LED just under the top of the clip and toggled using the power switch. Blue boosts both bass and treble by 5dB, Red boosts bass by 10dB, and pink boosts treble by 5 and bass by 10. It doesn't sound like that much variety (where's the setting that boosts treble alone for, say, spoken word or talk radio?), but the effect on my PSP was surprisingly remarkable. 
For this test, I used three different headphones, all Sony (shameless fanboy here) and all over-the-ear: a low-end mdr-zx300 with a lovely metallic red finish, a mid-range noise-cancelling pair (mdr-zx110nc) and the gold wireless headset for Playstation. The noise-cancellers are my personal favorite, but possibly a bit of overkill with the amp. The mdr-zx300s, on the other hand, sounded great. My testbed, apart from some Pink Floyd, was Falcom's magnificent Ys series, namely Seven and Oath In Felghana. Followers of the flame-headed Adol Christin are likely nodding their heads right now; few franchises have such consistently awesome soundtracks, perfect for testing sound gear. Although none of the settings were really a good fit for either game, they did help give those power rock tracks that added "oomph". The effect was a bit lost on the wireless headset, but that's more a matter of ergonomics than quality. They're not exactly made with the PSP or even the Vita in mind. I can't speak to the volume boost feature, except to say I had it about as low as possible, and it still sounded great. 
Does the amp make the PSP sound better? Yes, but I don't think it's enough to recommend seeking one out. Having the ability to EQ the output was a nice touch, leagues above the presets, but that doesn't make them worth the price tag, even at the marked down price. As I said, it's better to simply get higher quality headphones, ones that emphasize bass boost. If you want the absolute best sound out of your PSP games, the best option is to play them through a VitaTV and use your home sound system. Obviously, that option's only for you if you don't care about portability and your game was a download rather than on a UMD. 
In the end, the experience of using a headphone amp is a highly subjective one, definitely not for everybody. The best advice if you're curious is to borrow one. If you only care about volume and not the depth or fidelity, then you may want to consider making one. The CMOY is a popular hobby project that uses an Altoids tin and a handful of components (no soldering required if you get some conductive glue).

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