Music On A Budget: Sub $100 Portable Amps Shootout

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If you have been following the updates on this website, then you may notice that my recent obsession with sub $100 amps started when I reviewed the JDSLabs Cmoy. I’ve known the Cmoy design for a long time, but it was the JDSLabs that really sealed the deal for me. Obviously the JDSLabs, or most of the other sub $100 portables here isn’t going to match the technicalities of the more costly amplifiers reviewed in The Usual Suspects. But we never expected them to anyway, and so as long as they don’t erase the details out of the recording you’re listening to, I think we’re all fairly content with the level of technicalities these amp provides. On the other hand, there is almost no correlation between an amplifier’s musicality and its price tag, and in this aspect, with as little as $60, you can get an amplifier that is just as musical as the $300 or even the $500 offering. Now tell me if you aren’t excited with that.

Below you can find a diagram, shot with a proper scale, of the amplifiers we’re looking at. The AMB Mini3 used is the high-performance version.


Now, let’s move on to the review.

 
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  • Ricardo Hernández

    On your cMoy’s review, and in some posts in ths thread, you cite your experiences using it to successfully drive the power hungry HD800; but on this review, particularly on the FiiO E11, you say it’s the only one that does “the job” driving the theorethically less demanding HE-500. The question would be: Is the JDSLabs capable of adequately driving the latter? I ask this since I’m planning on getting the HiFiman. Thanks in advance.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Ricardo,
      The HD800 is not a power hungry cans. Not PX100 light, but not power hungry. HE-500 is much more demanding. I don’t know how the tiny E11 is able to drive the HE-500 but it just does. The JDSLabs Cmoy shines with high impedance headphones like the Senns, but not so with low impedance like the HE-500, I wouldn’t recommend using the Cmoy for the HE-500.

  • John Edwards

    which would you recommend for the sennheiser hd 25 ii?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      John,
      Try the PA2V2.

  • John Edwards

    I failed to mention that I primarily listen to hip hop, but would not sacrifice clarity for an “artificial” bass. Was torn between pa2v2 and the cmoyBB, but then I was recommended the e111 so now I’m back to phase one lol.

  • Zac Caslin

    I’m not sure if they fixed the volume on the A10 since you reviewed it, but I have been able to mow my lawn with it my front pocket with no problems. Have you tried a newer one from a different batch?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      That sounds good, Zac. Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to try the newer A10s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sushantarya.arya Sushant Arya

    hey mike,i m in an urgent need of your help..i m planning to buy a full sized headphone..nd my budget is maximum 80 $……..i basically listen to rap, rnb nd david guetta nd edward maya…my focus is on sennheiser,shure nd audio technica..i want to use it outdoors as well…my source is my htc one v nd hp pavilion g6…if u want i could buy an amplifier as well but i could spend a maximum of 40$ on my amplifier…………all i had ever used is my creative ep 635…plzz reply………..

  • Brandon

    Hey Mike,

    I’m trying to decide between the CmoyBB and the PA2V2 to go with a pair of Denon DJ DN-HP500. Some say they would be in the same class as the K-81/K-518DJ and HD-25. I listen to a variety of music. Sometimes I love listening to Progressive House and then switching up to Drum & Bass. I also care a lot for vocals and hearing every instrument. Ex: Grizzly Bear, Gotye, Radiohead, deadmau5, Noisia, Justice, etc.

    Thanks, Brandon

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Brandon,
      The PA2V2 may be the better one to go for, it’s faster and has better attack and pace. But I’ve never tried it with your Denon.

      • Brandon

        Thanks Mike,

        I was leaning more towards the PA2V2 anwyay. I think it would suit the Denon a lot better. Thanks again.

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          You’re welcome, Brandon.

  • titanium1

    Hey, Mike. I have sennheiser 650. I don’t now what is the best from this list for me. I love listening electronic music. Infected mushrooms, shpongle, differend kind of trance, etc. Plz help me :)

    Thanks, Roman

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Roman,
      An amp for electronic music, trance, try the Fiio E11.

      • titanium1

        Thanks, Mike !

  • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

    The RE262, I really don’t have too much experience with it.

  • Simon

    The jds can drive good the DT 990 pro 250ohm?
    Thanks mike.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Simon,
      Never tried it directly with the DT990 250Ω but it shouldn’t have a problem judging from my experience with the 300Ω Senn HD650 and HD800.

  • Fabien

    Hi Mike,

    Which of these would you recommend for the ATH ES10? Am I right in thinking that the Cmoy is a good fit in that it will avoid “overdoing” the bass on these headphones?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      As long as you turn the bass boost off, the Cmoy would be good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1585849882 Jeremiah Jerome

    hi i am currently shure se215 i brought it cause of the better bass that it offers when compared to the se315 and about with are using armature driver, but i need a some extra bass kick which would you suggest. thanks.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Jeremiah,
      Bass kick, I think one of the best is still the Triple.Fi 10 which is a triple BA. The SE315 I thought was still a dynamic (micro dynamic or whatever Shure called it).

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=692862021 Nick Tam

        To clarify, 315 is single BA which is why the 215 is often favored for having better bass kick.

        Also consider the Sony MDR-EX600 as their dynamic drivers have really good controlled bass to it if the TF10 isn’t your thing.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1585849882 Jeremiah Jerome

          but in terms of amp and dac which should i get, i am also planning on getting JH audio iems are they really that good for the price that they are charging?

          • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

            Jeremiah,
            JH Audio is really good. Amps and DAC, later when you already got the IEM. 😉

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1585849882 Jeremiah Jerome

              okay thanks.

              • Reesh

                Hi Mike, I just got the JH5 and loving them! I’m looking for a cheap portable amp to pair with my Galaxy s3 (have a ud100 dac on the way). Which of these amps has good synergy with the JH5s? Thanks

                • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

                  I don’t really have a good recommendation from this for the JH5 to be honest. I’d just use it direct from your phone, or if you can swing the budget, the Pico Slim is about ~$300

  • http://www.facebook.com/ranon.sim Ranon Sim

    Hi there,

    I just purchased a standard cMOYbb v2.03 and am currently pairing it with the bose oe2(32ohm), samson sr850(32ohm), superlux hd668b and a panasonic rp-htf600(55ohm).Surprisingly, the difference in sound quality(e.g. soundstage) w/o bass boost is almost insignificant if not absent when driving it using my mp4 player(a sony A864 walkman). Also, when connected to my laptop, the hissing noise coming from the headphone is really audible when the volume knob is turned about half-way up. Any idea whether this could be due to a faulty amp unit or that my set-up isn’t ideal? Will the difference in sound quality only be perceived when driving bigger ohm headphones because right now I don’t have any above 55ohms and am not sure what to do…Thanks:)

  • Guest

    hi mike.jsem from Czech Republic and I can not english.where power amplifier is suitable for shure SRH 440? I listen to rock, alternative and pop.thanks for answer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.krol.31 Daniel Krol

    hi mike.i am from Czech Republic and I can not english.where power amplifier is suitable for shure SRH 440? I listen to rock, alternative and pop.thanks for answer.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Hi Daniel,
      Try the Cmoy from JDSLabs.

  • Atriya

    Hello folks; I have an HE-400 and a dacport lx. For a sub-$100 amp, would you recommend the Fiio e11, cmoy bb, or something else? (looking for best synergy) thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/karan.khan.77736 KAran Khan

    Hi Mike, I was thinking to buy Fiio e11.

    I would be using it on my Mobile Samsung Galaxy Ace. I really don’t know should i go for a good in ear headphones or first try it on Fiio e11 with onstock in ear headphones then after a couple of year (when my budget get lil fine) jump on to better in ear headphones. I generally listen to psychedelic trance music which has more electronic with beats and bass from Kindzadza, Sonic Species and this radio station: http://www.trancemoon.com/home.html

    One more question is that i don’t know whether my phone has good DAC. So E10/E7 if used could give a better difference??

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Karan,
      If you’re going with an In Ear, I would recommend just using it without an amp. In Ears are generally easy to drive and doesn’t require amping. Adding an amplifier in the chain is unnecessary and adds bulk.

      As for the DAC, I’m pretty sure that the DACs on the E10 & E17 are better than any mobile phones internal DAC, but that’s just an educated guess.

      • http://www.facebook.com/karan.khan.77736 KAran Khan

        Thanx for quick reply!! Then would buy a decent In ear headphone, i have searched for these:
        VSonic GR02 BassEdition

        SoundMagic E10

        Brainwavz ProAlpha (ViSang R02)
        VSONIC GR99
        Sennheiser CX-180
        Sennheiser CX-175
        MEElectronics M11+

        Any thought for the above for trance music?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    Hi Mike,
    Looking for a portable amp for my PS500’s. Is the CmoyBB the one to go with. mids and vocals are my main concern here.

    Thanks,

    Dustin

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      It’s a good amp but I don’t recommend it for Grados. What’s your budget?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    I should also note that my source is an HM-601 and sometimes use my 4th gen ipod classic as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    Thanks for the fast response. I`d like to keep it around 100 dollars though I might push it up to 200 if there`s a really good recommendation. I figured the cmoy because I heard it`s similar to the RA-1 which I found had great synergy with my RS-1`s I had a few years back. What are my options, and thanks for the speedy reply!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes the RA1 is great for the RS1. Actually what you can do is email John at jdslabs and tell him you’ll be using a grado and he can tailor build the cmoy with a higher output current capacity. Ask him as well if you can have a same opamp as on the Grado RA1.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    Thanks for your help Mike. Much appreciated! I love the simple look of the cmoybb. Definitely a sweet looking amp that doesn`t look like it takes things too seriously

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Yes it’s a really nice amp. I hope John can do those customizations

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    What would you consider the reference amps for the PS500`s to look into. I will have more of a budget in the future and looking for something in the next year or so. Any suggestions?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustijohnston Dustin Johnston

    Thanks Mike, I`ll check the link out!

  • Aakshey Talwar

    Hi
    I have a HD 650. I want a bright/lively portable amp with good forward mids. Budget is sub $100-150. I am debating between Fiio E12 or O2 or CmoyBB. Which one do you recommend? Will be using with an ipad or iPhone.
    Thank You
    Aakshey

    • Dave Ulrich

      The mids are a little thinner on the O2, and while the cMoy has good mids that are a bit forward, it isn’t the liveliest amp.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      CmoyBB

    • Alberto Martinez

      What did you buy? I have an HD600 and I have same question?

      • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

        Are you also using iPad or iPhone?

        • Alberto Martinez

          PC Windows 7 or iPad Mini usually connected to Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2 and this DAC connected to the portable headphone amplifier to buy and then to HD600; other headphones used are Senn PX100-II and Senn PX450 noise cancelling.

          • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

            For low budget I would get the E12, for 2 reasons. One, the power to drive the HD600 with headroom to spare, and two, quality of build for portable use.

            • Alberto Martinez

              After reading and reading I have decided to increase my budget for portable DAC/Amp to $600-700 and more choices are Centrance HiFi-M8 and iFi micro iDSD to be used when travelling with Senn HD600 or PXC450 or PX100-II connecting to iPad and/or PC Windows 7.

              Which one do you recommend? Any other alternatives?
              Thanks in advance

              • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                Centrance or Theorem seem good choices. Configuration, compatibility, portability, battery life – those would be deciding points.

                Never mind Theorem (for phones etc.) You just need usb, but self-powered DAC/amps are needed for more output power.

                Edit: I need to check more things.

              • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

                For Ipad and PC, I can recommend the theorem and Centrance. The Ifi is the most neutral and analytic. The theorem the most musical and the Centrance the most powerful

                • Alberto Martinez

                  Thanks; this is like to choose among BMW, Audi or Mercedes, all of them are the best ones but you want to be sure you buy the best one as it will be used for a long time (and it is not cheap). Doesn’t the potential hires limitations to 48kHz on CEntrance and Theorem affect to your election?
                  Which configuration do you suggest to recommend iFI?
                  Thanks a lot for your patience.

                  • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                    The 48 khz limitation is inherent to Apple devices, and some of the Apple-compatible DACs will play 96 khz or more when used with computers.

                    • Alberto Martinez

                      Then, what sense has to use an Apple devices as DAP storing on it 24/96 or 24/192 FLAC flies (thru FLAC Player App i.e.)?

                    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                      I never used a FLAC player on the Apple device, although if I were interested in having just a few FLAC tracks for a specific testing purpose, then I might install such a player with those tracks, in addition to any 44/48 khz WAV tracks I use for testing now. Besides, unless I’m doing testing in a hotel room somewhere where it’s very quiet, and I have only the iPhone or iPad etc. and my FLAC player …. well no, that’s not practical. For portable use I’m in noisy places most of the time, and for me the point of having a hires device in those places is for things I can hear – tightness and detail of bass, correct instrument tone etc. – but not the really fine detail that I hear at home where it’s very quiet. So at home where I will hear the things I mentioned (correct tone etc.) PLUS the fine details I hear only when it’s quiet, then that’s when higher resolutions like 24/96 are better, and then I use a computer. And that’s why if you buy a $700 Apple-compatible DAC/amp, it’s good that it can process 24/96 or better from a computer.

                    • Alberto Martinez

                      Good approach and some differences with my mobile use. Yes, you are right, part of the time listening music will be on train/plane which are not the quietest places (that’s the use of PXC450) but I spend a lot of nights at hotels reproducing the same quiet environment as at home, and there is where Apple device plays a key role, as part to be close when layed on bed and I want to have same capabilities as with computer. I will come back to the Headfonia_l.’s criteria to take the decision. gggrrrrr 😉

              • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                Some of these allow direct plug-in to iPad or iPhone, but some require the “Camera Kit”. I suggest caution when using a camera kit, because you can eventually end up with a kludge that’s unsatisfactory. For example, to take full advantage of the fine detail afforded by the DAC, you would want to run entirely on battery power (so no AC line noise gets in). Every additional device with its plugs and jacks degrades the signal slightly, and you can lose the advantage of the external DAC by adding extra components. I think you’ll be happier if you can plug in one box with one cable, for best sound quality and convenience too.

  • Gabriel

    I’m new to headphone amps. I think I’ve read every post on this website involving them, and I would love to at least try a cheaper one like the CmoyBB or PA2V2, but there’s one thing I’m confused about. How does the amp affect soundstage? It is possible I could lose soundstage using a cheaper amp like the two listed?

    I’m just running K550s straight out of an iPod right now.

    • dalethorn

      I think you’ll find eventually that soundstage isn’t just some design aspect of a headphone – it’s the result of a combination of factors, and probably the biggest factors are high quality drivers, well-designed driver housings, and frequency balance – smoothness without peaks and suckouts being the most important aspect. All those high-tech things that the reviewers here mention, whether it’s grain, black background, PRaT and so on – those don’t exist separately in a vaccuum, they’re a result of how everything works together. Just turn down the treble sometime and hear how soundstage and other things can suffer. Everything counts toward good sound. Those amps will no doubt improve your soundstage, but the better connection you get to the better amps – the more you hear of some amazing things.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Gabriel,
      It’s going to be a long discussion and I really don’t want to go there.

  • Cliff Red Elk

    I have a Fiio E6 and I want to step up a bit. I have an iPod 5th gen and V Moda LPs. I was thinking about the JDSLab Cmoy. Do I need customization? Or could I get one that is cheaper on Amazon? Or should I go with the E11?

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      I hope someone else answers this, but in the meantime I use the LP and several small amps, except the Cmoy series. Either the Cmoy or the FiiO should be great, using the LOD cable, since the LP is efficient enough and the amps will improve the soundstage and help the bass be more solid.

      • Cliff Red Elk

        Thanks, I am most likely going with the Fiio E11, because I have enjoyed the E6 for awhile now. I am not as picky as some. I would like to have the best sound around, but I will make do with the best in my price range. I am in school and I have a five year old, so I have to research to get the best affordable items.

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          The E11 should be good. All the FiiO’s I’ve had are good – using mostly the E07k now.

      • Cliff Red Elk

        I bought a Fiio L9 LOD in the past, but it shorted out too fast. Any suggestions?

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          I thought the LOD cables I have are really good quality. Since they cost so much, somebody could be selling fake versions cheaper. Anyway I have a couple of L3’s that work very well.