If not for the placement of the volume control, the A10 may have been one of the favorite amplifiers in this review. From the dimensions, the A-10 is the smallest amp in the group, and though you can argue that the E11 is not that much bigger, I wholly preferred the smoother sound of the A-10. I really have nothing new to add here, and all of the things I’ve said on the A-10 reviews pretty much still applies:
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.Compared to the JDSLabs Cmoy, the A-10 is slightly 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. Indeed the placement of the volume control is a pity, as it actually is a big deal on day to day use, far more significant than it may sound in a sentence read over the internet. They could’ve done something more conventional or even doing something like the E11’s volume knob design because at the moment the volume control is very unpredictable.
I think that at the moment I would easily prefer the bigger amps like the PA2V2 or JDSLabs, or the Fiio E11 for its overall better ergonomics, rather living with the compromised design of the A-10.
ELECTRIC AVENUES PA2V2
Between the three bigger amps (JDSLabs, PA2V2, and the AMB Mini 3), the PA2V2 has the lowest level of technicalities. On brief listen the difference in technicalities are not that far different than from the JDSLabs, but when you spend a few days with the PA2V2, it is quite obvious that the PA2V2s’ soundstage is not as big when compared to the JDSLabs. But I still think that the PA2V2 is still a better amplifier overall when compared to the two smaller amps. The sound is smoother and bigger when compared to either the Fiio E11 or the Soundmagic A-10. Clearly, simple designs with big through the hole components do have a strong advantage over amps populated with SMD parts.
If we consider the sound signature of the PA2V2, it remains to have a unique place in this shootout as being the more forward sounding amp of the bunch. There is more emphasis on lower treble and upper mids, and the lower mids are clearer and less colored than the JDSLabs. Even down to the bass region, the PA2V2 is more linear, giving a clearer impression on the bass. I think the PA2V2 and the JDSLabs are two amps that’s good to have as they cover different types of music better. The JDSLabs is the better all rounder of the two, but the PA2V2 does the job better for fast rock music. Even though the JDSLabs has a more powerful bass punch even with the boost off, the overall pace is faster and the attack better on the PA2V2. Overall the toe-tapping just happens more with the PA2V2 than with the JDSLabs.
The JDSLabs and the PA2V2 stands at roughly the same level technically, and as I’ve said above, their different sound signature are quite complimentary, and at $60 each, I would gladly pay to have both amps in my possession. If you want to stick with one amp, the bottom line is that the PA2V2 is better for faster paced and more aggressive music, while the JDSLabs’ smoother mids and warmer voicing would be better for Vocals, Jazz, RnB, Blues and even Classical (due to the bigger soundstage). But the two amps are not too polarizing and so they can cover the other’s specialty quite well, hence I would gladly recommend either of them and just forget about the technicalities and enjoy the music.
AMBLABS MINI 3
The Mini 3 is the technical giant of this shootout. I don’t doubt a bit that AMBLabs whose Beta22 is pretty legendary among headphone users, would have the technical edge when compared to simple designs like the PA2V2 and the JDSLabs Cmoy. This is the amp for the crowd that pays attention to instrument separation, low bass performance, treble extension and such. If you put a technical mark on each area of the sound reproduction, the Mini 3 will trump all the other amps with little competition. It will even put a serious challenge to the other more pricier amps. Now I’m not saying that amps like the JDSLabs Cmoy or the PA2V2 have a lousy instrument separation, but with the Mini 3, everything is just more distinct. The separating line is clearer, the background blacker where with the JDSLabs everything still sorts of “blends in” together.
If you’ve been a long time reader of Headfonia, then you’re probably aware of the debate going on between complex all discrete designs to simple chip/op-amp based designs (likewise single vs multi driver IEMs, yada yada yada). Now I realize that the Mini 3 is op-amp based, but somehow I’m hearing the same lack of coherence I hear with the bigger brother, the B22. Yes, the frequency reproduction curve is the flattest on both side of the frequencies, something that the JDSLabs and the PA2V2 can only dream of. However, along with the very distinct instrument separation, the frequencies also sorts of take “their own different routes”. I don’t hear the same coherence on the Mini 3 that I hear on the PA2V2 or on the JDSLabs and I think it gets in the way of feeling the energy or the soul of the music. But that’s just my opinion.
There is no denying that the performance is superb, though. The bass impact is excellent especially on the low bass, the pace is quickest among all the amps listed here, the presentation is quite forward, lively, and engaging. The transients are clearly the best. Repeating what I’ve said earlier, the Mini 3 is the technical giant of this shootout.
Built on the solid Hammond case, the Mini 3’s build quality is the slickest and the most solid of the amps in this shootout (though I sort of dig the PA2V2 and JDSLabs’ more grassroots look as well). It comes with a rechargeable battery and a choice of standard and high performance version (this one is the high performance version). There is no complaints with the ergonomics. Yes, it would be nice if the Mini 3 can be smaller like the Fiio or the A-10, but I’ll be happy to use it as it is right now. For the avid DIYer out there, you can also build the Mini 3 as the Carrie Amp, a USB powered amplifier with a built in USB DAC (you get to choose between tooleAudio’s BantamDAC or Mute Audio’s grubDAC). I also have the Carrie Amp around and the sound quality is the same that you get with the stand alone Mini 3, but with the added convenience of having an inboard USB DAC. You can read more about the Carrie Amp on Head-Fi.
Continue to the next page…