More and more I’m getting questions from people who are looking to purchase a portable amplifier and are confused over the choices available in the market. Indeed the selection of portable amps has increased tremendously, and unless you happen to own all of them, it’s a bit hard to decide which is the most suitable amplifier for you. With the generous contributions of my friends Peter and Sem, I am able to throw a big round-up of twelve of the “usual suspects” when it comes to hunting for a new portable amp. It helps that I’ve written reviews about them before, but still, I wish I wouldn’t have to write another one like at least in another 365 days.
Now, when people come up with a portable amplifier question, I ask some simple questions to help narrow down the choice:
- What headphones are you using?
- What music are you listening to?
- What sound signature are you looking for?
Since those questions help tremendously in the process of selecting an amp, I would approach this article with the same method. For instance, if you don’t use big headphones, then I can recommend the tiny amps. If you are allergic of treble, and more into a darker and laid back sound, then I would recommend the RSA amplifiers.
The RSA amplifiers happen to maintain a similar house sound that makes it easy to put them into a box and label them as the “RSA house sound”. However, keep in mind that even among the amps in the RSA box, each would have slight differences in the sound. For instance, Peter consider the Mustang as his favorite #1 amp for vocals. To me, the SR-71A is the best RSA due to the resolution and bass impact I get from that amp. Since I wouldn’t know what your priorities are, I would never be able to give an exact pin-point recommendation that will guarantee you to be happy 100%. What I do know is that the average user will often go through several sets of amps before being able to settle with their one favorite amp.
Similar to how automobiles are divided into subcategories such as SUVs, Sedans, or Roadsters, I will start by dividing the amplifiers into four sub-categories to act as a pre-filter for your search.
Tiny amps: RSA Mustang, RSA Shadow, HeadAmp Pico Slim – Page 2
These amps are put into one category simply based on their tiny size. These are great amps if you’re mostly an IEM user since two of the amps here are designed primarily for IEMs, though the Mustang can also drive bigger headphones quite well. If you need to be really mobile, or you have too much gadget already on your pockets, or you’re exercising in the gym, then a small player like the Sansa Clip or the Ipod Nano would be a nice set up to use.
Slim amps: TTVJ Slim, ALO Rx Mk2, Headstage Arrow – Page 3
The slim amps roughly have a footprint that is similar to the footprint of a standard Ipod, but their thin size made them a good companion to use on the road. Power levels are mostly higher than the tiny amps, so if you are looking to drive big headphones while still wanting to keep the dimension manageable for the pocket, then these amps are the way to go.
Balanced portable amps: Ibasso PB1, PB2, RSA Protector, SR-71B – Page 4
These has been all the rage lately, to bring fully balanced amplification to the portable realm. The move was first pioneered by RSA with the Protector, and soon followed by Ibasso. The portable balanced amps has now entered the second generation models, with the Ibasso PB-2 and the RSA SR-71B offering larger power levels and improved performance over the first generation.
Big single ended amps: RSA SR71A, i-Qube, Meier Stepdance – Page 5
These big single ended amps have the potential to deliver the most sound, simply because they get a much larger enclosure to stuff the parts and batteries. Aside from the Stepdance which is quite a recent release, the SR-71A and the i-Qube can be considered as “relics of the past”. Indeed most people looking to purchase an amplifier shudder at the thought of having to carry these amps, as the tiny and the slim amps are quite capable of delivering quite a solid sound.