Headroom Micro Amp review

Headroom Micro Amp

It may be micro in size, but the impact on the sound quality through your headphones is enormous.

What to say about Headroom Corporation? Good people making good products for the people. These days, it’s hard to find a company that lives up to its dreams and succeeds. It’s hard to cope with all the competition, all the advertising costs and, you won’t believe it, with DIY (do it yourself) enthusiasts. Young and experienced builders are getting better and better, and there are also many small companies offering their products for a hard to beat price. So how then does it work out?

As their slogan says: “Get it right between your ears!” Headroom Chief Tyll Hertsens audio headphone fanatic is “guilty as charged” for the damage he has caused to many audiophile wallets. As he states on the Headroom site, Tyll needed something to help him stay sane on the road while spending his days flying around the country and fixing stuff. Great music and later, great headphone gizmos were the answer.

Headroom offers quite a broad range of products from simple headphone amplifiers to state of the art balanced amplifiers. This dangerous audio obsession can cost you from $149 to $5000.

Micro Amp uses 1/8” stereo mini jacks for audio connections. It has custom-manufactured heavy black anodized aluminum enclosures and uses a urethane bezel to dress out the enclosure and permit the Micro Amp to be securely stacked with Micro DAC. They fit precisely on top of each other and are also aesthetically matched. All markings are laser etched.

I have to say that, until I saw it in person, the pictures did not impress me. While unpacking at the home of good friend and high end manufacturer Branko Cimerman, even he remarked that the Headroom gear is built “very sturdily and professionally.” From pictures I was afraid that kind of industrial look might be too cold and not really an eye popper, but I was in for a surprise.

The enclosures, built like a tank, are also and very pleasing to the eye. It just shouts quality.

One would say: “Why in heaven would I need a headphone amplifier?” Well if you would ask me the same questions some years back, I would also nod why? But having heard numerous amplifiers and headphones this is not a subject of wonder anymore. As with most things in life, it is the same with audio: once you taste something better it is hard to remain as ignorant as you were. There is a whole cult going on at www.head-fi.com. But I’m warning you. Once there you might be converted yourself.

Headroom Micro Amp is the latest generation of their amps. It features better parts, lower noise and, of course, better sound. Each revision offers advances to compete with other companies and to keep their loyal customers.

The Micro amp will effortlessly drive any headphone up to 300-ohm (such as Sennheiser HD-650). On the front plate, there is a three-position gain switch that helps to select gain for almost any headphone. There are two options to choose from when ordering. One is a micro module and the other a desktop module. If you plan to use Micro Amp strictly or mainly as a portable amp then the best choice is the Micro module, which will give you measured performance of some 15 to 18 hours.

For the same price you could pick up the Desktop module, which sounds better, but its battery life is reduced to seven to 10 hours. Both modules are driven by two 9-volt batteries carried inside. Batteries can be replaced from the backside easily via two screws. All the placements are marked on the enclosure, so there is no “hit and miss” with + and -.

Normally, there is also an external AC power-supply included, nothing special but well designed. For an extra $400 you can a separate, universal desktop power supply that fits almost all models.

I tried to use as many different sources as possible: such as my new MacBook Pro, redbook cd player, iPod, turntable etc. What I can say from the start is that the Micro Amp upholds its reputation very well. In all circumstances, it improves sound. For example, with the Apple Macintosh MacBook Pro laptop the difference in sound was not as distinct at first listening as one would imagine. MacBook Pro would provide enough gain to drive the HD-650, but in longer listening sessions, the Micro Amp showed its own strengths. The Micro holds smoothness, power, attack and bass over the Apple. The whole presentation is more natural and laid back (in a good way). While MacBook Pro might be good enough in the quick listening or for watching the movie, I wouldn’t use it for critical listening. Good old Muddy Waters revealed all the difference. While he roared his blues at the best, the MacBook Pro just could not present all the details and depth to catch the vibe. Nonetheless, some of the harshness disappeared after I connected the Micro Amp.

I made another interesting experiment. While waiting to receive my HD-650 ′phones, I tried to use stock iPod headphones with the Micro Amp. The difference was stunning. The bass had body, the soundstage widened and overall presence improved. One thing is that those headphones matched to work with iPod. This also brought the noise level up too much. But the difference was noticeable even on these tinny headphones.

IPod could drive the HD-650 set for casual listening. But putting the Micro in between changed the sound drastically. Now, if you are a passionate traveler and also a music lover, than this combo would put and ear to ear smile on your face. Putting up Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat brought out the goose bumps. Driving my iPod Nano this little gizmo could freely pass my lonely island backpack. Both units gave approximately the same battery time so they seem for each other;).

Next step in evolution of my test was adding my turntable. I used Hajdinjak Labs phono preamp to get vibe out of those grooves. Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert was first to please my ears. A strikingly beautiful recording by a modern piano virtuoso, it took me away to the magical event. I have to say that at this point, I really appreciated low noise floor of Micro Amp. It’s already hard to achieve a black ground with vinyl reproduction via headphones, and adding more hum or noise would really degrade the listening experience. So thumbs up for that.

There is another great feature of the Micro Amp that I waited to reveal until this point: crossfeed. With headphones, achieving stereo playback as good as that fromo conventional speaker is difficult. With speakers, sound is spread through the room and it recreates the feeling of space where the performance was recorded. Since headphones are directly on the head, it is almost impossible to get the same effect. However, the crossfeed function adds a few millisecond delay to each channels. In that way, sound seems to be reproduced more in the imaginary room inside head. Instruments no longer pan strictly to left and right of the speaker but become more airy and move to the center of the listening experience. Most of the music recorded in the 50s, 60s and 70s is preserved on vinyl. Cannonball Adderley with Bill Evans “Know what I Mean” is one good example. Instruments are moved slightly to the center and they become more focused. In some recordings, bass might become a bit more pronounced and you feel that the attack of the instruments is faster and with much more personality. While a majority of headphone fans are using this function to a great extent, some purists will avoid it totally. In any case, it is there and I urge you to try it for yourself. With some of my favorite artist such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Getz and Jobim I had a really enjoyable listening experience.

I would conclude my journey with another brother in arms, the Headroom Micro DAC. It is designed to work hand in hand with the Micro amp. This combination gave me one of the most pleasing musical experiences for the money. Connected to my laptop via USB I tried several mp3 and original 44khz 16 bit aiff files. In this age of mobility, high capacity storage and instant gratification, this combo might give you affordable audio nirvana. Of course, there are better and more expensive solutions such as the Expert De, but for $600, you would hardly find a solution that is so well and compactly integrated. What it most important, it sounds just great. Adding Micro USB DAC opened a new territory and a new adventure.

If you are looking for a great amp that is portable, sturdy, good sounding and really well built, $299 is a really good price. If it is your first journey into the headphone amplifier society, this is a safe bet. For most headphone fans or audiophiles, this could be the amplifier to stay with. I could easily live with it.

Size: 3.5"W x 1.5"H x 4.5"D
Weight: 7.2 ounces without batteries
Weight: 9.4 ounces with 2 9-volt batteries

Matej Isak
matejisak at gmail.com