HeadAmp Pico Power Portable Headphone Amplifier

Headamp Pico Power portable amplifier (MSRP $475) (still available for pre-order at $375 until Jan. 31, 2013)
Disclaimer #1 - This is a review of a to-be-released product. The specs are finalized so the only noteworthy detail is that it'll be a few more weeks before you can get one in your hot little hands. Disclaimer #2 - I've known Justin for 6 years or more. I have a better than reviewer/manufacturer relationship with him as I do with several other industry folks. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. It actually makes me one of his more harsh critics. I have very high expectations of him because I know what he's capable of. But any time I write a review of a product where this comes into question I want to make that clear so there it is. Let's get down to business…

As an engineer I have a great deal of respect for any thing (product, device, tool, whatever) that's able to serve multiple functions and more importantly do them all well. I understand the need for laser-focused, niche products (and own a few) but there is something very valuable about a device that can serve multiple masters without disappointing any of them. And so it was with no small amount anticipation that I unboxed the final pre-production prototype of Headamp's (www.headamp.com) latest portable offering, the Pico Power.

See, I'd been talking with Justin about the amp and where it was in the production cycle as I geared up for a week long training session in the Pacific Northwest - a place both far from home and lacking in weather suitable for outdoor activities. What that meant for me was either many an hour cooped up in a hotel watching bad TV or a glorious research opportunity. Thankfully Justin rescued me from the boredom. The Pico Power is, on the face of things, something that you might have expected to come out a few years ago before LiPo batteries took hold of the world and everyone and their cousin was producing portable headphone amplifiers. Back in the day if you wanted something that offered both decent voltage swing and the ability to be recharged you only had one choice, the trusty 9V cell. So why a 9V powered amp now, good question and one the Pico Power answers with authority.


In the box is the amp, a nice leather sleeve/case, a pair of alkaline (non-rechargeable) 9V batteries good for 40hrs or so to get you started and that's it. What's it look like? The unit I had on hand was your basic black. Which is to say an outstanding-looking, polished-case work of near-art. The production version will be offered in your choice of black, silver, gray, blue, orange, red or purple. The chassis is also quite lithe boasting dimensions just smaller (in footprint) that an iPhone 5 - albeit substantially thicker. Translation, easily pocketed, totally portable. For technical chops the circuit is, at least in my experience, not all that typical. It does use an opamp for voltage gain (as most portables do) but employs a discrete diamond buffer for the output stage, nice touch in a portable. Heck, I can think of a fair number of home-style amps costing many multiples that leave that job to a chip. And the Power will swing upwards of 16Vpp on its output, more than enough to drive just about anything out there. It also boasts selectable gain (a must have for me) with three choices, unity (yay!), 5x and 9x. I could go on about quads of NOS current sources matched to within 0.01mA, hand matched transistor sets and volume pots carefully selected for only the best channel matching but it can all be summed up as follows - if you think that Justin (the man behind Headamp) pays a lot of attention to how his products look, and he does, he obsesses about the part that really matters, the circuit.

HeadAmp Audio Electronics, Inc.
200 Douglas Ave #3C
Charlottesville, VA 22902
(434) 981-2829

Dano91's picture

Thx for the review! How would you compare it to O2 amp ? (Just curious - why there is still no review of this amp??) 

n_maher's picture

I haven't heard the O2 so I can't comment on how the two would compare.  As to why there's no review of it on IF Tyll would have to address that but my guess is that it's because it's more of a DIY project than commercial product and we've already got more things that we'd want to review than there is time to review. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I've got an O2 that was sent off to Skylab for his consideration. It's up to him if it gets reviewed.  

I fundamentally like the amp. 

AsSiMiLaTeD's picture

Tyl, couple questions for you:

1 - I know you're a fan of the Momentum, were you able to test those on this setup?  I'm curious how those would pair with something like this.

2 - You mention the HD600 above, is a review of those still forthcoming?  Most of us have owned or at least heard that model by now and I think it would be great to use as a baseline, if people know where the HD600 fits then it can put alot of your other reviews in perspective.


n_maher's picture

1. Tyll didn't review this product, I did. :)  So no, the Momentum was not tested with the Power as a part of this review.  I'm not sure if Tyll would have the opportunity to do that in the future. 

2. Tyll should be able to answer this.  I can offer my 2¢ about the HD600 though.  I've owned all of the older Sennheiser models from the 580 thru 650 and if I had to pick one it'd be the 600.  The 650s may be slightly better but I think it's a matter of personal preference at that point. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Yup. The HD 580/600/650 review is coming down the pipe.  Stuff got in the way, and I'm adding a bit of aftermarket cable info, but it's coming.

MorbidToaster's picture

First thing I noticed was Blackmill on the iPod. Great choice of music right there. 

n_maher's picture

They're really good.  I'm not much into the ambient/dance/whatever you want to call it scene but I discovered Blackmill a couple years ago and have really enjoyed it.  I try to sample whatever it is I'm reviewing on a wide variety of music. 

Cami's picture

I think Headamp's great Amps and DAC/Amps have been very absent here at Innerfidelity, and it's about time they receive some attention. It's true that the Blue Hawaii has been featured more than once, but there are many other really solid performing Headamp products that very much deserve reviews and attention.

I have to agree on the absence of the O2 as well, and the fact that it hasn't received a thorough review. I also think that NwAvGuy's work deserves a longer note, and even an interview with him would be a really interesting feature.

I have also missed a review on Anedios D2 DAC, Resonnesence Lab's Invicta DAC, Violectric's V100, V200 and V181 Amps, and their V800 DAC. These are all great products which feature the very best performances out there, and yet they fail to appear and to be mentioned in the most obvious contexts. The GS-1 and the V100/V200 are reference quality Amps; the D2 DAC, the Invicta and the V800 DAC are reference class performing DACs, yet nowhere to be found when it comes to thorough and extensive reviews including measurements (they are all inexistent at Stereophile, for example).

John Grandberg is the only person I know who has given credit to Anedio's first DAC, to Violectric's Amps and DAC, as well as to the Invicta DAC (and headphone Amp), but they are nowhere to be found on other better known websites and more massive specialized media, as well as here on Innerfidelity, where one would expect they would have received their proper recognition.

I hope that you can consider these and other great products in the future, and that this blog continues to maintain its good quality, and doesn't fall into the usual coverage of the weeks latest gadget. I know that you have pretty high standards as to which products deserve reviewing (yet I can't fully argue that it has been a necessarily continuous tradition), and I believe that the above mentioned quality gear certainly deserves consideration under those standards.



burnspbesq's picture

The Invicta got an in-depth review at audiostream.  If you have this site bookmarked, you should bookmark that one as well.

John Grandberg's picture

My take on this stuff (since you mentioned me by name): I kind of feel like I've already covered the Violectric stuff, and the Anedio D1, and the Invicta, about as much as I could. My write-ups on HeadFi were detailed and (if I dare say without sounding too full of myself) authoritative. Each of those reviews has hundreds of thousands of hits already - everyone who would read them here has probably already done so over there...  I'm not really sure what it would add to have them redone. 

I suppose we could work something out with John Atkinson to have measurements taken, but even so it wouldn't be adding much as each company is already very measurement oriented on their own. Once Tyll gets the headphone measurements all squared away, you can count on me sending him all kinds of amps to add to the database. 

That said, the Anedio D2 is something I could probably make an article out of, as well as anything new by Resonessence or Violectric. It's just a matter of finding the time.  

Cami's picture

I totally agree with you on that you've been more than thorough with your Violectric reviews, and they are certainly the most comprehensive out there. The same goes for Anedio's first DAC, although I think the Invicta derserves revisiting, since you reviewed it when it was still a prototype, and since it has undergone several tweaks and corrections.

Eventhough - as you point out - the manufacturers mentioned are all quite accurate and careful when it comes to measurements, it has always been positive to have Atkinson measuring Amps and DACs (like CEntrance, who is also one of the more careful manufacturers coming to measurements) and drawing conclusions. I also think that most manufacturers are quite informative regarding the rest of the features of their products, but reviews play a different role and are as such always welcome. This, besides the great fun of sharing impressions and having the fun this hobby is all about (and within that spirit, music and recordings should also have a spot in this kind of blog).

I mentioned Violectric, Anedio and Resonessence Labs as three manufacturers whose reference performing products have been so systematically absent at Stereophile - and other hifi publications and websites - that it at times appears deliberate (maybe they're just too darn good). My emphasis is nevertheless directed at Headamp, who being an American manufacturer could just as well be Bulgarian when it comes to the attention it has received in terms of reviews. I don't know if it's plain negligence or if maybe Justin Wilson doesn't like to send his products for reviews, but it is certainly noteworthy.

I have to acknowledge that 6moons has reviewed the Invicta and the GS-1, but also that I don't share their more subjective review approach. On the other hand, I don't think that reviews of products which already have detailed specs or which have previously been featured at other websites, forums and blogs don't deserve the chance to be measured and reviewed from different points of view, and in this case it's about products which appear to have been systematically excluded from being reviewed, despite their obvious quality.

In other words, some of the reviews I believe have been due for a long time and that I would most like to read - also given the diffculty of bumping in to one at a store, let alone get the chance to listen to one - are the GS-1, the GS-X and the portable Pico Amps and DAC/Amps, and very much with measurements.



Mimouille's picture


Thanks for the review. How does the Pico Power compare to other portable amps in the same price range ? (portaphile 627, Tralucent T1, Continental Amps, etc.)


n_maher's picture

I haven't heard any of the portables that you referenced in a long time so I can't make an informed comparison.  I do have some experience with the Portaphile so I can at least makes some comparitive statements about its design. 

1. One problem that I would have with the Portaphile is the extremely short run-time.  To me 4hrs is unacceptable for a portable.  This is likely a result of running the BUF634's in high current mode (which is how you get them to sound their best) but makes the amp power hungry.  The Pico Power has at least double that battery life and runs off of conventional batteries so that if, in the event you run out you can carry a spare set of disposables if you want.

2. The portaphlie has lower voltage swing potential compared to the Pico Power.  The 'phile uses a 5V power source and likely splits that into a +/- supply at 2.5V.  I don't know how much "voltage boost" they've incorporated into the design but my experience is that using a voltage doubler or something along those lines is not a great way to get clean power. The Power runs on a simple 18V power source.

3. There is a curious statement about ventilation in the portaphile documentation.  I find it strange that they feel that the amplifier requires ventilation.  To me half the reason for a portable amp is so that you can have it tucked in a pocket or bag.

Mimouille's picture

...for the answer, but of course I was more expecting comments about sound quality...even compared to other amps. And the portaphile while come out with a new longer battery apparently. Anyways, still looks like an interesting product. Thank you !

cooperpwc's picture

I see that you got pleasing results using the Pico Power with the 27 ohm ER4P. I wonder if it will also drive16 ohm headphones well. Did you measure the Pico Power's output impedance? 

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