updated 09:23 pm EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Buying a headphone amp is money well spent if you love music
Like many people, I love music and have an extensive iTunes collection. I also record my own music and even released a single with Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens on lead guitar. All of which means that, like many people, I take the quality of my listening experience seriously and am always looking for a great listening experience at home, in the car, and when on the go. I have managed to get a great sound at home, and in my car, but struggled to get an ideal listening experience on the go. Like some I've bought far too many headphones as part of this quest, when what I really should have done is buy a portable headphone amp as I recently discovered.
Earlier this year, I attended a Sony product launch for its new high-resolution audio lineup. As I noted in one of our recent articles, there has been a growing interest in the purported benefits of high-resolution digital audio files. Lossless audio codecs like FLAC and ALAC have become increasingly popular, although there is often a lot more to the quality of a listening experience than whether a file is recorded at up to 192kHz/24-bit. While many question the benefits of going fully high-res, there is no doubt that the quality of the converters coupled with high quality amplification makes a massive contribution to your overall listening experience - whether it is a high-resolution audio file, or even one of the lossy formats like 320kbps MP3 or 256kbps AAC.
Even though Sony's new audio gear supports high-resolution audio, the best aspect of its push into this burgeoning market is the quality of the DACs and amplification that it is using its new line. One of the highlights of the Sony high-res audio was getting the opportunity to go ears-on with Sony's new PHA-2 portable headphone amplifier hooked up to its new NWZ-ZX1 high-res Walkman. I listened to some tunes with this set up using some of Sony's new high-res headphones and was really impressed by how good the sound was. I'd known for some time that portable headphone amplifiers are big among audiophiles, but it was one of those added expenses that I felt I could live without. Furthermore, it is yet another device to carry around and keep charged.
A few weeks ago, I finally pulled the trigger and bought myself a Sony PHA-1 portable headphone amp with DAC that you can now pick up on eBay for around $300 (it was $600). It is at least a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than the model that replaces it (the PHA-2), but represents one of the best purchases I've made on a gadget in quite some time. The main difference between the two models is that the Sony PHA-1 supports high-res audio files up to 96kHz/24-bit, while the new model supports high-res audio up to 192kHz/24-bit (it also comes with a short Lightning cable for the iPhone 5/5s). If you want the latest and greatest, and have the extra money, I can highly recommend the newer model. However, I know that if I was to listen to the two units in a double blind test, I probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Which is why I was happy to save the money and grab the older model while it is still available.
The portable headphone amplification of the Sony PHA-1 has transformed my listening experience when on the go far more than the quality of the audio file or any headphones that I've ever purchased. I've used it with all of my past headphone purchases and each set sounds much better than they ever have. Even sets that I thought were lacking in some areas now sound much richer and substantially punchier. This includes headphones with high impedance that would normally be much better suited to being plugged into my home amplifier thanks to the option to switch between low and high gain on the PHA-1. The other aspect that I've been enjoying about the PHA-1 is the ability to finely control the volume thanks to its analog volume control - listening to music directly from a smartphone and getting the volume at exactly the right level can be somewhat hit and miss.
The Sony PHA-1 (like the PHA-2) is built using a solid aluminum enclosure with zinc alloy cast bumpers that protect the volume control. The DAC is a high quality WM840 model from Wolfson, while the headphone amp is a high slew rate type TPA6120 from Texas Instruments. The device supports digital input from Apple's iPods and iPhones, meaning that these effectively become glorified hard drives when docked, with all the signal processing work done onboard the PHA-1 (it also comes with the rubberized straps pictured). In this usage case, battery life is rated at 5 hours. When processing an analog signal through the amplifier alone, in the case of an Android smartphone or media player, battery life is extended to 10 hours. As an added bonus, the PHA-1 can be hooked up to your Mac or PC for outboard audio processing as well, helping to substantially boost the quality of your listening experience in that context as well.
There are many different types of portable headphone amps out there at a range of different price points and it is worth doing some research to find one that is best for you. As it is in run out, the Sony PHA-1 makes for especially good buying while you can still get one. Sure, portable headphone amps are something of an inconvenience to carry around and keep charged, but it has certainly given my iPod classic a new lease of life. It has now become an essential device that I am taking on the road with me wherever I go as it has improved the quality of my listening experience that much. The Sony PHA-1 has delivered the listening experience that I have been looking for some time and comes highly recommended.
By Sanjiv Sathiah