Some arcane audio gadgets aren’t really necessary to have, but they can make listening to music more enjoyable. Portable headphone amplifiers to go with MP3 players definitely fall in that category. The bad thing is that not all of those portable amps are actually good, and with some it’s not clear if they even do anything (depending on the MP3 player or headphones they’re paired with).
Quite a few manufacturers are trying to make a living in that rather specific niche market – yet many actually fail to deliver products that really improve either sound quality or a player’s usability. Be it by fixing flaws that are found in an MP3 player’s amp circuitry, by giving better volume controls than the usual +/- buttons, by bypassing arbitrary volume restrictions which make some players unusable with certain headphones, and so on. Many amps out there of course make sound louder, but that’s about it. Only a few of the amps I’ve tested so far actually make the sound – as well as the overall listening experience – better.
Robert Gehrke, the man behind the German Headstage company (also of Penguin Amp fame), makes good amps. There’s no big advertising-speak around his products and he doesn’t put some mere basic CMOY-style circuitry in an overly fancy enclosure and calls it a day. Well, besides the venerable Penguin Amp, which is clearly labeled as an advanced CMOY – and Altoids tins might be considered fancy by some. That being said, Robert’s current amplifier, the Arrow 12HE, is definitely among the best products to hit the portable amp market so far – read on to find out why.
Our friends at the FiiO headphone- and mobile player paraphernalia company sent me their newest oeuvre for reviewing – the FiiO E7, a portable headphone amplifier and USB sound adapter (also often incorrectly called pars-pro-toto ‘DAC’, as the cool people like to refer to sound interfaces), successor of the popular E3 and E5. Unlike some other Chinese manufacturers that cater to an ‘audiophile’ demographic, FiiO managed so far to release products that are of quite high build quality and having good performance while still keeping a fair price. To put it bluntly – in my opinion FiiO doesn’t rip their customers off unlike some other manufacturers, and the E7 is yet another case in point. Despite the E7 being the least inexpensive FiiO product so far, the not so high asking price of around $80 gets one a quite nifty and versatile audio toy.
Our only amp review so far was about the $7 FiiO E3, so it might be time to step things up a bit. Enter the Three Stones MiniBox-E+.
Peculiar brand name… After a bit of sleuthing I’m still not quite sure who is behind the brand “Three Stones”. It seems to be a Chinese one-man project that’s being distributed internationally by US-based Hi-Fi vendor Head-Direct. Three Stones have been in the business for quite some time with several portable amp models, and the MiniBox-E+ I’m writing about in this review is their current top-of-the-line model.
Read on after the jump – especially if you feel the need to drive your 300 Ohm phones properly on the go.
I’ve been using this incredibly tiny and cheap headphone amp we already mentioned earlier for a few days now and I’m really impressed with its performance. My expectations weren’t exactly high when I ordered it, but after testing it with several phones I’d say the Chinese FiiO company managed to design a really fine product.
The amp’s construction is very simple. It’s powered by one AAA battery and sporting only a 3.5mm input jack that connects to the headphone output of an MP3 player and another 3.5mm output jack where the headphones plug in. The output also acts as the power switch. A red LED lights up when phones are plugged in, indicating that the amp is active. Rumor has it that a National Semiconductor LM4917 op-amp works at the core of the amp. However, this has yet to be verified.
The FiiO E3 was not designed to work with line-out connections since it lacks a volume control. However, what it does for low- (and not-so-low) powered headphone outputs can be quite nice – when one’s headphones synergize well with the amp, that is.