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.