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).

19 February 2015

Get a Room, You Two of Everybody Else!

Girls, Gyros, and God, what's wrong with me!?

I've made it a personal tradition to refer to the fourteenth of February as Industrialized Exchange of Token Affections Day. I don't pretend this is any sort of subversive social commentary meant to satirize consumerism; I'm a capitalist, of course I want people circulating their money, supporting businesses they like and keeping people employed. The fact is I'm simply bitter because I'm single. It's my own dumbass, manchild fault. I'm bad at flirting, I hate small talk, I'm terrified that the most inconsequential interaction will backfire in the worst way (that one I kind of blame on Tumblr, but that's another story), and no matter what I never end up being realistic about any relationship ever. 
While I like to think I'm far less awkward now than I was in, say, high school, the improvement barely qualifies as "marked". Last Thursday, the 12th, I was at a coffee shop in St. Louis, near Tower Grove Park and nestled between some lovely townhouses. I belong to a "Creative Work Group" that's currently in a state of flux and trying out new locations. We sit around, talking about various writing projects we've got going, and periodically checking in on each other while we work. The night was going well with lots of progress being made despite the group, thanks to a few last minue dropouts, consisting of only myself, our moderator, and her boyfriend. Then, things just started to fall apart for me in the most tedious of ways for the most absurd reasons. 
The short version of how the downward spiral began is that a cute woman sat down at the booth across from us, and I couldn't work up the courage to go talk to her. 
Seems innocent enough, but here's how awkward this got. I went to WikiHow on my phone and legitimately looked up how to approach women. In my defense, I had absolutely no idea what to say beyond "Hi" (apart from the obvious things like, "You're beautiful" or "You have cute hands" but that's not much to build a conversation around, even when you're flirting.) so I don't think looking up icebreaker ideas is all that pathetic. Plus, it's never a bad idea to brush up on warning signs, because some people are just too damn polite to tell you they're not interested, Lords of Light love 'em. After many furtive glances (none of which were returned) while waffling on which approach to take, I resolved instead to take advantage of my phone's position on my keyboard's case/stand and take a clandestine photo before hurriedly leaving. Yeah, I'm just that sad and pitiful... and possibly creepy. I told myself I'd use that "missed connections" section of an ad site, but that never happened because it doesn't help the "approach" problem. 
Capping off the stress of the night was driving down labyrinthine one-way streets to find this Greek place to satisfy a craving for gyros I've had since my trip out to Ohio back in January, only to find out the guys decided to close about twenty minutes early. "That kind of night" eventually turned into "that kind of week" with stresses and frustrations piling up day after day.

In fact, I've been in such a haze since then that I got my days mixed up, and missed the next meetup of my work group. Last night, I texted my work buddy asking if we were still on for tomorrow.

She asked if I was having a rough week.

Yes. Yes, it has been.