Cheap n’ Good: Soundmagic A-10 Portable Amplifier

The tremendous growth of the portable audio industry has brought us tons of new amplifiers, each with their own claim of a superior sonic quality. It gets up to the point where we become wary of manufacturers claims, as power ratings and “special” technologies implemented in the design of the amplifier are rarely a guarantee of good sound. Among this sea of products, I have to sort of do a curator’s job, selecting which products actually have the sonic quality to be presented to the readers.

When I first came across this generic looking portable amp from the manufacturer by the name of Soundmagic, honestly I didn’t think much of it. “Just another plastic portable amplifier in the sea of chinese made amplifiers flooding the market”, I thought. We’re all guilty of that sort of pre-judgment once in a while, but what matters is to be willing to admit our mistake and confess objectively if a product has truly delivered the goods.

If you’re used to the build quality of Ray Samuels Amps, then you’ll probably look down at the build quality of the Soundmagic A-10. Fully enclosed in a molded plastic rubber housing, the overall housing quality feels sub par to the Fiio E11 or the E7. And yet, the A-10 actually earns a serious enough sound quality mark that it may earn a permanent place in my portable amplifier recommendation list. So, this thing actually sounds good, and enough to give me some highly musical moments, even with the highly scrutinizing Sennheiser HD800 headphone.

The overall sound signature is warm, dark, with full mids and lows. In a way that sounds like a description of RSA portable amps, only the A-10 tend to be slightly looser in the bass and mids. The slightly loose bass, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that the A-10 is highly musical, and even more musical than some of the RSA amps I’ve reviewed in the Usual Suspects review (please don’t ask me which specific model though). And again, though the bass is looser than say the Fiio E11 (and likewise the maximum power output is much lower than the E11), the overall musicality of the A-10 is higher than the E11 and matches the smooth sounding JDSLabs Cmoy, which has been my #1 favorite sub $100 amp for a while now. The E11 on the other hand sounds dryer especially on the mids and bass, where the A-10 can be so liquid it sorts of reminds me of a hybrid tube amp design like the Hifiman EF-5 amplifier.

Overall the layout is pretty well designed, EXCEPT the fact that the volume control on the edge loves to move around accidentally.

 

Compared to the JDSLabs Cmoy, the A-10 is slighly less refined and is less smooth. But tonally, I prefer the A-10’s balance as you get more body in the lows, compared to the more mid centric JDSLabs. And what an amazing discover it was when I found out that despite having a slightly narrower soundstage than the JDSLabs, the A-10 has a far deeper soundstage than not only the JDSLabs, but also the amplifier section of $799 Fostex HP-P1! The Fostex is an excellent portable DAC/Amp box, so this is not a bash to the Fostex, but rather a testimony of how well the A-10 scores. With that deep soundstage, combined with the Fostex HP-P1’s D/A conversion, playing some live piano recital by Horowitz out to the Senn HD800 gave me some of the most musical moments I’ve ever heard from a portable set up. The A-10 may not look like much, but the sound is among the musical I’ve heard in portable amps.

The A-10, however, is not without flaws. While I enjoy the sound of the A-10 very much with the JH16Pro, the level of channel imbalance in low volume levels is so bad that I am stuck to a single spot in the volume level where I can get a clean left/right channel tracking. The A-10 definitely wins the award for the worst volume pot I’ve ever encountered in a portable amp, and in that sense I wouldn’t be recommending this amp to IEM users. The level of volume gain is also a bit limited, quite a bit higher than the standard Ipod headphone out, but still lesser than many other portable amps, and definitely out of league when compared to the Fiio E11’s maximum power output (which drives the Hifiman HE-500 so successfully over and over again). So in this sense the A-10 should be limited to fairly easy to drive portable headphones, like the Sennheiser HD25-1, Audio Technica M-50, Fostex TH-7B and T50RP, and other similar headphones in that range. The USB recharging feature is very welcome, but not so welcome is the design of the volume control where the knob never stays still when you put the amp in your jeans pocket.

The A-10 is quite small and light. It would make a better pairing, footprint wise, to a Sansa Fuze or an Ipod Nano.

 

When I switch gear to a more aggressive music like Muse and out to the Sennheiser HD25-1, the additional bass I get from the Soundmagic A-10 is so much, I actually think it’s a little excessive. The bass section is not as articulate as some of the more expensive amps, and as I’ve mentioned, the bass section on the A-10 is a bit loose. But when I say excessive with the HD25-1 and Muse combination, it’s actually not the boomy kind of excessive bass. Rather, it’s a bit excessive on the punch area, which is the kind of excessive bass I like. Surprisingly the additional bass comes already with the bass boost switch off. Turning on the bass boost gives me a very slight boost on the lower bass, but really not that significant depending on the recording, unlike the Fiio’s or the JDSLabs’ bass boost. Not a big deal, in my opinion, as the A-10 already comes with its own “bass boost” even without the boost switched on.

The volume control flaws and the limited amount of voltage swing will definitely get in the way for the A-10 to earn a serious recommendation from me. Although I think that it would be fairly easy for Soundmagic to release an updated A-10 with an improved voltage swing level for higher level of loudness, as well as replacing the volume control design with something better. At the moment though, ignoring those shortcomings in the design, I’m really in love with the A-10’s sound quality. If you evaluate it on a score basis, it’s probably going to get beaten on every category by some of the $300+ portable amps. But when you forget about the scores and simply listen to some good music to it, the A-10 suddenly becomes a very solid performing amp. The JDSLabs was a very strong favorite sub $100 amp for me, but this time I think the A-10 is giving it a real competition in terms of overall musicality. Oh, and last, I think I need to mention the cool fact that the A-10 turns itself on only when you have a headphone plugged in to its output, something that I would definitely love to see on higher end amps.



Gears used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, HD25-1, Audio Technica M-50, Fostex T50RP, JH16Pro
Amplifiers: Soundmagic A-10, Fostex HP-P1, JDSLabs Cmoy, Fiio E11.
Source: Ipod Classic, Fostex HP-P1

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27 Comments

  • Reply June 8, 2011

    Ling Wen Hoong

    hi there, I was wondering could you suggest some entry level (sub 100$~) IEM like how u do with overhead (SJ55 and V-Jays). Thx ~

    • Reply June 8, 2011

      Anonymous

      Frankly I haven’t find one sub $100 IEM that I can consider to be very good for the price. 

      You have stuff like the Hifiman RE-ZERO and the RE-0, perhaps two of the sub $100 IEM that I really like, but even that I realize that it doesn’t have enough mids and bass body to tackle multiple genres. http://headfonia.com/hifiman-re-zero-and-re-0/Or on the other hand of the spectrum you have warm and bassy IEM like the Fischer Eterna, but that’s also way too warm and too bassy. 
      http://headfonia.com/fischer-audio-eterna-with-comparisons/

      The Brainwavs M1 and M2 were good and fairly balanced, but they lack a certain sparkle. 
      http://headfonia.com/brainwavs-beta-m1-and-m2/

      You can always get the ubituous Sennheiser CX300-II. I think it’s quite a good IEM, just don’t have enough hype behind it.

      • Reply June 8, 2011

        Ling Wen Hoong

        Have you tried Shure SE215 ? Any idea is it good ?

        • Reply June 9, 2011

          Anonymous

          I tried it briefly a while ago, and I think it’s a decent sounding IEM.
          Don’t ask me how it sounds though cause I’ve forgotten. 🙂

          I suggest you give some of the IEMs I listed earlier a try. They’re good
          IEMs, they just don’t have the widespread appeal that headphones like
          the V-Jays have.

  • Reply June 8, 2011

    Zart_zaku

    in a few month ahead i will buy ATH pro 700 mk2. i want to know which amp do you recomment between fiio e11 and Soundmagic A-10?

    • Reply June 8, 2011

      Anonymous

      Please stay in tune for my upcoming sub $100 portable amp shootout. I
      have a feeling there’ll be a better match for the Pro700 Mk2.

      • Reply June 8, 2011

        Zart_zaku

        ok. thank.

  • Reply June 8, 2011

    Haja Randrianarison

    Interessting review, I’ve just made a comparaison between the Fiio E7/E11 and the Alo Rx, maybe I’ll watch further to this soundmagic (wich has been released soooo far ago now)

    BTW, great website and great work also 🙂

  • Reply June 8, 2011

    Alphonse Clemente

    Great Review!
    I have a recommendation; can you review the Little Dot 1+ Hybrid Amp?
    It’s one of those “milestone” products, being the most popular hybrid amp on the market among budget consumers. 
    We could use another tube amp review 😀

    • Reply June 9, 2011

      Anonymous

      Thanks Alphonse, I will try to look for a Little Dot 1+.
      You’re talking about the desktop unit right?

  • Reply June 13, 2011

    Sound Magic Tony

    GREAT REVIEWS,
    A10 is nice product

  • Reply July 5, 2011

    Andy

    Just a question, why is it that you seem to test a lot of “portable” amps/sources with the HD800? It doesn’t really make sense to test a portable device with such a non-portable headphone. Maybe something like the 600ohm version of the HD25-1 would be a better benchmark?

    • Reply July 6, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Andy,
      I know it may seem weird. The HD800 just lets me hear more things and so
      I can get the character of an amp better than less transparent
      headphones. I don’t expect people to be using these with the HD800, but
      as a reviewer I think it’s good that I use a reference headphone.

  • Reply August 5, 2011

    Headphoner

    It’s true, the A10’s sound shifts to one side at a certain volume, then shift back to the centre again once you go before or after that point.

    • Reply August 6, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes, they really need to fix that because otherwise it’s a pretty nice amp.

  • Reply August 22, 2011

    Justin

    Dear Mike, I own a pair of um3x and i want to know which amp the fiio e11 or the soundmagic a10 would work better with it. Just want a few opinions before i get the wrong amp

    • Reply August 23, 2011

      Anonymous

      Justin,
      If your budget is limited with the UM3X I would just leave it direct unamped.

  • Reply January 7, 2012

    Ron

    Hi Mike,
     
    Currently using the AKG 518LE, and im torn between this and the Fiio e11. Just want to get your “expert” opinion also before doing anything harsh ;D

  • Reply July 23, 2012

    Nigel Kaw

    Hi Mike, would a soundmagic A-10 pair well with a 4G ipod and a um2 or would you recommend the c421 or the ibasso dzero instead?

    • Reply July 25, 2012

      Mike

      Nigel,
      The UM2 is warm sounding. If you want it to sound even warmer, the A-10 or the C421. If you want it to be more spacious, the Dzero.

      • Reply July 27, 2012

        Nigel Kaw

        Thanks mike. Will it be too warm with A-10 or c421 (if there is such a thing!) more spacious soundstage would be nice, of the 3, which would give more detail? Your own personal preference and reasons would be welcome too. 🙂

        • Reply July 28, 2012

          Mike

          Nigel,
          The detail level would be best on the C421. Personally it is also my favorite amp of the three, but I know that some people will prefer the D-Zero + UM2 combination rather than the C421 + UM2.

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