The Usual Suspects: 12 Portable Amps Compared

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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.

THE SUB-CATEGORIES
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.


The Usual Suspects: 12 Portable Amps Compared
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271 Comments

  • Reply October 16, 2014

    Robert Madison

    Here is an extremely creditable review about the Creative Sound Blaster E3. Check it out!

    Review: http://www.toptengamer.com/creative-sound-blaster-e3-dac-review/

  • Reply May 8, 2013

    Marco Cavazzana

    Great article Mike! I have a pair of Shure SE535’s, not overly pleased by the fullness / warmth of the bass. What gear would you recommend?

    Cheers

    M.

  • Reply April 26, 2013

    Eli Segal

    If I listen at a low to moderate volume, will the mustang be enough for the hd600 or the sr-71a is better on lower volumes as well

    Thanks

    • Reply April 26, 2013

      Mike

      The SR71a will still be better.

  • Reply March 18, 2013

    Michael

    Hello Mike,
    Would you please be so kind to recommend anything for Sony MDR-MA900?

    • Reply March 19, 2013

      Mike

      I would go with the RSA or the ALO amps. The portaphile is also good. If you’re on a budget try JDsLabs.

  • Reply January 6, 2013

    Kenneth Ong

    Which amp would you pair with the JH16 Pro?

  • Reply October 3, 2012

    Justin Q.

    How does the DACport feeding 2Stepdance (sonically similar to stepdance) compare against the DACport feeding Leckerton UHA6s MKII?

  • Reply September 11, 2012

    Alfani Gunawan

    still confusing which amp is the best for my HD6500? headstage arrow, RSA 71A, alo rx MKii, Ibasso PB2. can you recommend me with the exception of price and size of the amp.

  • Reply September 9, 2012

    Mark Edmondson

    Hey mike, just wondering your preferences for portable amplifiers for the T70 250 ohm?

    • Reply September 10, 2012

      Mike

      Mark,
      I didn’t spend too much time with the T70 250 ohm, but it would probably be something with a good bass weight like the ALO national.

      • Reply September 10, 2012

        Mark Edmondson

        Thanks 🙂 ill have to think about it

        • Reply September 11, 2012

          Mike

          Alright, Mark. 🙂

  • Reply September 8, 2012

    George Lai

    Hi Mike, Your website is truly amazing though my credit card would disagree. From a technical viewpoint, why can’t someone build a USD100 portable DAC that can take a signal from an iDevice’s LOD and feed it into a portable amp? Right now I use a HRT iStreamer with my headphone amps but I can’t venture too far from the wall wart!

    • Reply September 8, 2012

      L.

      Maybe Fiio one day will, but I think it’s mostly related to the costing price of the apple Certification

      • Reply September 8, 2012

        George Lai

        I’m sure you’re right and if HRT can build that into the cost of their iStreamer, I agree that Fiio can do it for less.

        • Reply September 8, 2012

          Nick Tam

          Go Android. USB Audio support with all Jelly Bean updated devices.

          And down goes the pricey CLAS and Fostex HP…

    • Reply September 10, 2012

      Mike

      Thanks, George.

      I really don’t know if that can be done. One thing we don’t have an idea on is the amount of money Apple demands from manufacturers before they get access to tap the iDevices’ digital data. As time goes and manufacturers come out with more affordable solutions, I think we’ll be able to see how low you can build one for.

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Jessie Stevens

    Digging up an old article but …..I have a Denon D7000 that I’m happy w/ on my home rig, but I’ve been spending more time away and would like to go portable. Any suggestions on what portable amp that would match up nicely w/ them? I would like to stay under $200 unless there’s something that is just out of that range that would be a good match. They would also be used w/ FS Atrio M5’s if that matters. Music variety is electronic, hip hop and acoustic being paired to an (gasp) iPhone. Thanks 🙂

  • Reply August 13, 2012

    James Huynh

    Hi there Mike,
    I’m deciding between the ttvj slim and the pico slim to go with my JH16’s and the Iphone 4s.
    I miss the lush mids of the sm3 when i changed to the JH16’s
    Do you think the TTVJ slim amp is a better choice?
    Cheers
    James

    • Reply August 13, 2012

      Mike

      James,
      I think you should look into the RSA Mustang. It has a really smooth and lush mids.

  • Reply July 19, 2012

    thethirty3rd

    Hey,

    Which tiny amp would you recommend for the HD25s, the Shadow or the Slim?

    • Reply July 21, 2012

      Mike

      I would use a bigger amp, I’m afraid the Shadow and the Slim won’t have enough gain for the HD25

  • Reply July 16, 2012

    Stephen Loke

    Hi Mike,

    Which one would you recommend for the Westone 4R? I listen to mostly: Pop, Rock & Alternative.

    • Reply July 18, 2012

      Mike

      You need bass impact with the 4R right? I’ve only listened to the Westone 4 and I think the main problem is bass impact.
      Try the RSA Shadow. Small, precise volume control for IEM, good bass.

      • Reply July 18, 2012

        Stephen Loke

        Hi,

        Thanks for reply. Just wondering, are there any other cheaper portable amplifiers that would help the Westone 4R for Pop, Rock & Alternative? Yes, the bass is lacking.

        • Reply July 18, 2012

          Mike

          The Shadow should help, but I doubt it can add that much bass.

          What I am talking about here is the bass punch. I find the W4 to have very weak bass punch.

          • Reply July 19, 2012

            Stephen Loke

            Hi,

            Are there any other cheaper portable amplifiers that can suit the Westone 4R?

  • Reply July 4, 2012

    boonh

    Hi Mike,

    Now I have the HRT Music Streamer II, which amp would you recommend for the Ultrasone Pro 900?

    Thanks!

    • Reply July 4, 2012

      Mike

      Budget? Desktop/Portable?

      • Reply July 5, 2012

        boonh

        Under $500 would be ok. Since I will use it at home, either desktop or portable one would be accepted. From this article, I think SR-71A, P-51 and TTVJ slim are good for pro900 but I’m not sure. So I wanna ask for your recommendation.

        • Reply July 6, 2012

          Mike

          Boonh,
          SR71A is best, but no rechargeable batteries if you can live with it. P51 I think doesn’t have enough impact power for the Pro900.
          The TTVJ Slim can be a good pairing.

          • Reply July 6, 2012

            boonh

            Thanks Mike!
            I will have a chance to try both SR71a and P51 soon. Hope I can also try TTVJ slim in the future.

  • Reply June 27, 2012

    Stephen Loke

    Hey Mike,

    Which of these would you recommend for the JH5 custom Pro In-ear monitors?

    Thanks.

    • Reply June 27, 2012

      Mike

      Stephen,
      I like the JHs best with the Pico Slim.

      • Reply June 29, 2012

        Stephen Loke

        Hey Mike,

        How about Universal fit IEMs? Would you still recommend the Pico Slim?

        • Reply June 30, 2012

          Mike

          It would depend on the IEM. Some people pair bright IEMs with dark amps and so on.

  • Reply June 22, 2012

    Stephen Loke

    Hey Mike,

    Which one would you recommend for the Cowon J3 and the Sennheiser
    HD25-1 II?

    • Reply June 23, 2012

      Mike

      There’s a lot to choose from, Stephen. I think something small like the RSA Mustang.

      • Reply June 23, 2012

        Stephen Loke

        How about the Sennheiser HD25-1 II with an Ipod Classic? Would that change your opinion on ‘somthing small like the RSA Mustang’? Will the Alo Audio National be better than the Mustang?

        I listen to mostly: Pop, Rock & Alternative.

        Thanks Mike.

  • Reply June 18, 2012

    james74

    HI Mike,

    Just to update you on some advice you gave me 6 months ago on amps to use with Sony X walkman – JH16’s & Sony MDR-Z1000’s. Been bit of a delay but have finally picked up the TTVJ Slim from someone I know and is is the non dac version but have to say it was worth the wait as I am currently still without a desktop rig this is the best I have heard my MDR-Z1000’s since I have had them and despite those cans meant to be efficient to drive @ 24ohms they sounded as if they was lacking sonically even with my new Z series Walkman and now the TTVJ Slim has defined to me the Z1000’s are a keeper. The Slim is just what I was looking for and is a tad more fun to listen to than my old PB1/DB1 set up.

    So thank you for the past advice/ direction in making an informed decision that has been worth the wait but now I have the Slim (non dac version) I just have to ask one final piece of advice; What external portable dac would suit the TTVJ Slim as a good partnership?

    I had the DB1 Boomslang originally and was impressed with that when it was in conjunction with the PB1 but am not sure what other alternatives there are other than the DB2 that have the ability also with both optical & Coax digital input as well as usb for use with my laptop. I am not on a budget as such so just want a dac that has the above digital inputs that can pair well with the TTVJ Slim.

    Thanks again Mike ; )

    • Reply June 18, 2012

      Mike

      Hi James,
      I’m glad to hear that you are enjoying the TTVJ!

      On the topic of portable DACs, what player are you using? You know that the Sony X can’t be plugged in to a separate DAC.

      • Reply June 19, 2012

        james74

        HI Mike,

        I should of clarified a bit more clearer, the dac will be for use with my HP Envy laptop which has the el-crappo Beats audio installed and then I will use my Arcam FMJ cd player via Coax which could be a Meridian 24bit G08 player later on. Then you never in the future could go down a Hi-fi Man/ DX100 route….

        • Reply June 19, 2012

          Mike

          James,
          A bit confusing there. If you are going to use a Meridian G08, why are you even considering these Ibasso DACs?

          • Reply June 19, 2012

            james74

            Sorry Mike, long day @ work yesterday!, was meant to say I will use it with my cd player (arcam FMJ) until I get a Meridian G08 (not sure when that could be though) but ideally need the dac to have coax/optical as well anyway for if I go for a premium dap later.

            But other than the Ibasso DB2 dac I was not sure what else there was to consider that was as good with the same input options in portable form which would go well with the TTVJ Slim as a pairing. Sorry for confusion there ; )

            • Reply June 20, 2012

              Mike

              So this is for a desktop set up yes?

              If it’s so I would recommend you to look into something desktop-based like the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic.
              http://www.headfonia.com/cambridge-dacmagic-review/

              I’ve never tried the DB2 DAC, but from my previous experience with Ibasso portable DACs, I don’t think they are good enough to take on the $300 level desktop DACs.

              • Reply June 24, 2012

                james74

                Hi Mike,

                I ideally needed a portable dac for when I take my laptop on my travels but yes I was looking at also getting a nice desktop dac later on with a budget up to £1K. So portable dac wise there is not much to choose from then?. Desktop – Dac magic looks intriguing, have you had experience with the Audiolab M-dac which also has a built in headphone amp also?

                • Reply June 25, 2012

                  Mike

                  Hi James,
                  Sorry I haven’t auditioned the M-DAC til now..

                  • Reply June 25, 2012

                    james74

                    Ok, Thanks Mike, I will audition the Dacmagic in the near future anyway along side the M-Dac.

                    For portable dac I might just have to get a usb only dac to widen the choice that is currently out there. Just need to find one that pairs well with the TTVJ slim. Thanks again for your advice ; )

                    • June 26, 2012

                      Mike

                      You’re welcome James. 🙂

  • Reply June 13, 2012

    Chaga Jayasuriya

    Hey Mike,

    I’m looking for a portable amp with DAC to power my westone 4’s. I’m looking to add a tubish quality (warmth) to my music as well as enhance instrument separation and soundstage. Tighter bass is always welcome. I’m quite happy with the mid-high range i get right out of my iPhone or macbook (although it just doesn’t feel analog enough for my taste, if that makes sense). I’d appreciate any recommendations.

  • Reply May 24, 2012

    Jordan Ingram

    I’m using the JH11s and I’d really like to audition the Pico Slim, but I have no idea how to make that happen. There aren’t any portable amp retailers in my area, so are there other way to audition things (i.e. a “test drive”)?

    • Reply May 24, 2012

      Mike

      Nothing that I can think of. Find a head-fi meet?

      • Reply May 24, 2012

        Jordan Ingram

        Yeah ok, I figured as much. Guess I’ll have to take my chances on something!

  • Reply May 23, 2012

    Steve Wiser

    Time to update since so many great amps have been released or updated.

    • Reply May 23, 2012

      Mike

      Yes for sure, Steve… I will do that when the opportunity comes up.

  • Reply April 23, 2012

    Ryan Sim

    Hi Mike-

    First off- great article! Really apreciates such insights being available for reference for confused people like myself. 🙂

    Question: I have a Shure se535 + a Grado sr325is headphone and am recently taken interest in the RSA amp line-up to get a better music experience from them.

    With portability in mind- can you help advice if RSA Shadow or Mustang will be able to drive both output with high efficiency and result?

    Thanks and looking forward for your advice! 🙂

    • Reply April 23, 2012

      Mike

      Ryan,
      The Mustang if you’re gonna use the Grado. The Shadow is quite limited, afraid you can’t get enough loudness.

  • Reply April 4, 2012

    saeed zolfaghari

    hi mike, I recieve my arrow 4G recently, but I found it some dark to my taste
    I want to upgrade my IEM.
    personally I think about westone 4, do you think that I will be satisfied ?
    (I think that I will be satisfied with a natural sound ,clarity and instrument seperations .)
    thanks

    • Reply April 4, 2012

      Mike

      If the amp is too dark, why not change the amp?

      What IEM are you using now?

      • Reply April 4, 2012

        saeed zolfaghari

        it’s dark to me, I think that ipod touch 3g is better.

        I’m using shure se315

        I put the amp in my pocket, so the size of amp is very important to me

        do you think that I need to change the amp?
        ttvj is not so big?

        thanks

        • Reply April 4, 2012

          Mike

          It’s probably easier to get a brighter sounding IEM. Say the Fischer DBA-02.

          • Reply April 4, 2012

            saeed zolfaghari

            yes I think about the bright IEMs

            do you think that DBA-02 is on of the best choice?
            what’s about grado gr10 or ath-ck100? ( I can afford about 400$)

            thanks

            • Reply April 4, 2012

              Mike

              The DBA-02 is more popular than the Grado GR10 and the CK100 so I think it’s a safer recommendation. The GR10 is good but somehow lacking any special aspect. the CK100 is quite polarizing, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you can get an audition.

  • Reply March 25, 2012

    Empty Void

    Hi Mike, my current setup is teclast t51>headstage 3g>westone4 and I’m not satisfied… how can I improve my music…sud i change amp…or dap? or wat is a better setup? thank you for your suggestion.

    • Reply March 27, 2012

      Mike

      What do you feel is lacking?

  • Reply March 23, 2012

    pat carlson

    will the RSA Shadow power a set of Swnnheiser HD800

    • Reply March 23, 2012

      Mike

      Not sufficiently.

  • Reply March 19, 2012

    addsa sadasdas

    Hi I have the JH11 Pro and thinking of getting HP-P1/Algorhythm solo, which amps would you recommend to go with this set up? Preferably, also able to drive the HD 700s too because I have pre-ordered them..

  • Reply March 14, 2012

    pat carlson

    Hi I have se 535 iem and was thinking of getting the cypher algorhythm solo what amp would you recommend for portability

  • Reply March 11, 2012

    MSKrishnan

    Hi

    My current setup is iPod classic + algo solo + FiiO E11 + Westone 4 with regular cables.
    All music on iPod is in apple lossless format.

    I seek advice on how to improve the the above.
    Thanks
    Krishnan

    • Reply March 12, 2012

      Mike

      Improve the amp section. There are plenty of amps to choose from, Krishnan.

      • Reply March 29, 2012

        MSKrishnan

        Hi Mike,

        Wanted to put in an update. I bought a ALO RX MK2 to replace the FiiO E11.

        The sound now is a whole lot cleaner and crisper. 

        Thank you for your advice. 
        Krishnan

        • Reply March 29, 2012

          Mike

          Yes for sure the two amps shouldn’t even be compared, the Mk2 is a much better amp. 🙂

  • Reply March 11, 2012

    MSKrishnan

    Hi

    I currently use an iPod classic + Algorhythm Solo + FiiO E11 + Westone 4. All music is in Apple Lossless format.

    I seek suggestions on how I could improve upon the above setup.

    Thanks
    Krishnan

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