World of Zune

Headphone Amplifiers
Headphone amp reviews of the FiiO E5, Rolls HA43, NuForce Icon Mobile

Here, we'll review three headphone amplifiers according to consumer ratings. The three headphone amps considered are the FiiO E5 Headphone Amp, the Rolls HA43-Pro 4 Output Stereo Headphone Amp, and the NuForce Icon Mobile Headphone Amp.

What is a Headphone Amplifier?

Headphone amplifiers are electronic devices that give the user higher volume and better audio clarity than the amplifiers that are included in most audio players (such as MP3 players). Headphone amps put out power between 10 milliwatts and 2 watts, depending on its design, and the headphone with which it is being used.

A headphone amplifier is basically a small amplifier that you can connect to a headphone jack or an audio source's line output. The headphone amplifier increases the power available for moving the transducer, which increases the control that the source has over the transducer's position.

This is where the term "damping factor" comes in. If a headphone has an impedance of 32 ohms and is driven by a headphone amplifier with less output impedence less than 1 ohm, it would have a damping factor of greater than 32. A headphone with an impedance of 32 ohms that's driven by a source (like an iPod) with impedance of 5 ohms, would have a damping factor of 32 divided by 5, or approximately 6.4.

The higher the damping factor, the greater the control over movement of the transducer, especially in the base frequencies and the resonant frequency of the transducer.

FiiO E5 Headphone Amp

FiiO E5 Headphone Amplifier
FiiO's E5 Headphone Amp costs under $30. Like all headphone amplifiers, it's made to improve sound quality of headphones hooked up to portable audio devices. This particular model is made to provide a boost in performance, and it comes in a compact aluminum case with built-in volume controls. The metal case helps reduce interference when it's used with a GSM phone.

It can be used with a line output from audio sources for even better results. Compared to an earlier model, the E3, the E5 offers more power output, lower distortion, and better signal to noise ratio. It can be adjusted for a flat response or bass boost and is USB-rechargeable for 20 hours of normal use.

People who have bought the E5 particularly like the way it improves sound in underpowered MP3 players used with reasonably good headphones. The E5 takes a pair of decent headphones and gets the best possible performance from them. The design, quality, and size for the price were also notable good points of the E5.

When it comes to dislikes, some users reported a persistent buzzing regardless of how the volume was set. The noise was described by others as a hiss.

Other users said that the E5 did not increase the volume very much, and one user said that the E5 would work best for high impedance headphones used with a low quality source amplifier, a situation that may not occur that often, because those who buy good headphones probably aren't listening to a source with a low quality amplifier.

Best price on the FiiO E5

Rolls HA43 Pro 4 Output Stereo Headphone Amp

Rolls HA43 Headphone Amplifier
The Rolls HA43 has dual RCA inputs, slider volume control, AC adapter. The maximum input level is +14 dBV, and maximum gain is 20 dB per channel. It offers full range frequency response with four channels.

It's designed for professional use in the recording studio, monitoring room, and listening room. Every output puts out clean channel gain of 20 dB. The signal to noise ratio is 90 dB. The physical size of the device is 3 x 4 x 1.25 inches and weighs a pound.

People who have bought the Rolls HA43 say that it's perfect for improving the sound quality from PCs. They like that the device makes the bass range sharper, cleaner, and deeper. They also like the 1/4 inch stereo headphone input along with the standard mini inputs.

You can plug in up to four headphones and share the great sound. The device is really small—close to credit card size, and has rubber feet on the base so that it won't scratch furniture. And perhaps the best thing was the lack of distortion from the Rolls HA43.

Dislikes include that there is no battery option and no power switch, so it's always on. It's powered by a "power brick" AC adapter. Also, the very thing it does best, can be it's biggest disadvantage: it gets loud enough that you can harm your hearing.

For those serious audiophiles who have high quality audio sources and expensive headphones, they probably won't notice that much of a difference with the Rolls HA43. But people who have a standard PC and decent quality headphones should experience a much better sound.

Best price on the Rolls HA43

NuForce Icon Mobile Headphone Amp

NuForce Icon Mobile Headphone Amplifier
The NuForce Icon Mobile Headphone Amp has two headphone outputs. One is a 3.5 mm 4-pin mini stereo jack, and a 3.5 mm 3-pin mini jack for powering headphones and speakers. The gain select switch allows compatibility with a range of headphones.

It also has controls for maximizing signal to noise ratios with USB connections and iPods, and a built-in USB rechargeable lithium ion battery that gives you 13 hours of continuous playback for 2.5 hour charge time.

It supports Skype, Messenger, or similar microphones. The stereo output, when it's inserted, has precedence over the USB. This allows the user to listen to music from an iPod without having to disconnect the Icon from the computer.

Users like that the NuForce Icon is small and lightweight. While the initial charge takes about 4.5 hours, after that, charges take 2.5 hours. It has plenty of power for most headphones, and is great for improving the sound quality from PCs.

It is considered by most users to be a good value for the money.

Dislikes include a 40 to 80 hour "break-in" period before getting the full boosting effect. It probably doesn't have adequate power for top end headphones, but they would likely buy a more expensive headphone amplifier anyway.

A minor annoyance is that you have to pull out the earphone plug to turn the device off.

Best price on the NuForce Icon


The FiiO E5 Headphone Amplifier has the advantage of being the least expensive of the three tested, and is a good entry into the world of headphone amps and for those who have limited budgets.

The Rolls HA43 Pro 4 Output Stereo Headphone Amplifier is great for making the bass range of a system clearer and deeper and for sharing the sound with its 4 stereo headphone inputs.

The NuForce icon Mobile Headphone Amplifier is perhaps the best mid-priced headphone amplifier as far as value for the money spent.

Other Amplifiers for Headphones

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