Headroom Total Airhead

Headroom Total Airhead

Dan Dzuban

13 July 2001


HeadRoom Corporation
P.O. Box 6549
Bozeman, MT 59771
(800) 828-81-84

I remember hearing good things about HeadRoom headphone amplifiers generally, but I always found myself wondering if I could ever really appreciate a headphone amp. I haven’t had much use for headphones, even though there have been times I would have liked to have some audiophile-quality time in circumstances where I was unable to. (There was admittedly a day way back in my youth when I thought that the object of speaker placement was to put speakers on either side of you so as to simulate headphone sound.) Of all the audiophile attributes, I value soundstaging and imaging the most. I would go so far as to say that if a system is capable of exceeding its physical boundaries, I am likely to ignore other shortcomings. Headphones have their strengths and weaknesses. For me, their inability to throw a realistic stereo image comprises their principal failing. Sure, they may be capable of reproducing a soundstage, but it tends to be lumped up within the confines of your cranium, as opposed to being beside, above and around the plane of your speakers. On the other hand, headphones can reproduce music from 20hz-20khz with astonishing clarity at a price that may be a tenth of the cost of a full-size system. Without having to deal with real-world room interaction issues, the newfound resolution that can be squeezed out of well-known recordings is truly amazing. And then there are the benefits of portability and privacy.

HeadRoom amplifiers attempt to address two drawbacks associated with headphone listening. Most stock headphone jacks in other than dedicated headphone amps are an afterthought constructed from inexpensive parts. Not so with HeadRoom amps, which, along with other headphone amps, provide the wattage that headphones need to perform to their potential. HeadRoom amps have a unique compensation circuit that attempts to make the stereo image sound more natural. The system uses a channel cross-feed and delay system that more closely approximates what your ears hear from a source other than headphones. HeadRoom’s websitewww.headphone.com provides a detailed explanation. However, don’t expect this circuit to create a speaker-like soundstage. Yet what it accomplishes is nonetheless subtle, and as audiophiles know, it’s the subtleties that count. Once you know what to listen for, the difference is easy to hear. The soundstage appears to expand, creating a halo effect beyond one’s head. Listener fatigue, that almost subliminal need for the session to end, seems to diminish. Maybe the HeadRoom circuit allows the brain to process the information more easily. Whatever’s going on, I found that I wanted to keep on listening.

Bear in mind that this review compares the TAH to standard headphone listening. I have not heard any of the other HeadRoom amps – which can go up to $1500 – so I don’t know how it sounds compared to the higher-priced and presumably better-performing units. But I do know that this amp is a steal at $159. There are very few components that could have such a profound impact on your listening habits as this one. My only gripes are not about the TAH’s sound, but in its construction. Its plastic housing seems relatively flimsy, and its fit and finish is not on a par even with el cheapo consumer electronics. Flimsiness is one of the differences separating this unit from its more expensive siblings in progressively heavier and sturdier metal housings. This unit is not intended as a reference amp. It is meant to be as light and as easily transportable as possible and succeeds in this respect, being roughly the size and weight of a cassette in a case. Considering its entry-level price, I really shouldn’t complain. If weight or portability aren’t as much of an issue for you, and you prefer tactile solidity, by all means spring for a more expensive unit.

I put the TAH through its paces with a variety of gear and media. I started with the TAH in my reference system. I employed my old Straightwire interconnects into a Radio Shack Y plug through my pre’s tape outputs, using the TAH to control the volume. This was a quick and easy addition, since the Quad pre does not come with a headphone jack. It sounded good right out of the box. I don’t remember it needing any burn-in time. The TAH takes 2 AA batteries, which the manual claims are good for an estimated 15 hours of use, but my unit seemed to go for weeks without needing fresh batteries. (I use Rayovac rechargeable alkalines. I think I got ten batteries plus a changer for under $20 – among the best $20 I’ve ever spent.) The unit also has an optional wall-wart AC power supply, which is actually pretty beefy as these items go. I did not hear a difference between it and battery power, but admittedly the majority of my listening was via battery.

Eventually I did most of my critical listening with the well-regarded Sennheiser HD 580 headphones. I had never listened to them before, and they lived up to their reputation. On the TAH, I could easily hear how handily the 580s beat up on my Grado SR60s in terms of resolution, midrange purity and bass control. No surprise, considering that the Grados sell for around $70 and that the 580s go for a minimum of $200. And, as a source of contention with my brother the aspiring audio engineer, I could hear how badly even the Grados beat up on the ubiquitous "studio-reference" Sony MDR-7506. It’s pretty easy to detect the Sony’s lack of midrange definition and bloated bass. The TAH simply made the differences more dramatic. (I always love the opportunity to take a pot shot at the schlock that studio types rely on just because "it’s what everyone uses.") In my search for kicks, I found two headphones that sounded truly horrible through the TAH: a pair of el cheapo Panasonic portables, and the stock ear buds that came with my Rio500. Imagine how boom-box speakers might sound if hooked up to one of the full-power, balanced Krells. That pretty much characterizes the screeching, straining sound I heard. In other words, kinda fun, but don’t try it at home. My guess is that this is a graphic example of just how much more power is flowing from this amp than from your standard port-a-player jack.

The best analogy to describe the sound of the Total Airhead combined with a good pair of headphones is this: Imagine that a genie offers to grant your wish for a $20,000 audiophile-approved stereo system, but there’s a catch. You could never sit in the sweet spot. You would experience the system’s superior resolution, smoothness, tonal purity, dynamics and bass, but the speakers wouldn’t seem to disappear and you wouldn’t get to "see" where each instrument’s location. Would you take it? After spending time with the TotalAirHead, I would. Paradoxically, while your hi-fi rig allows you to escape the confines of your listening room to travel to a smoky jazz club, it at the same time confines you to your listening room. The TAH’s portability and great sound allowed me to enjoy music in situations where hi-fi sound cannot go. For example, on my Connecticut-to-NYC commute, I had previously listened to MP3s on my Rio mostly to pass the time. With the TAH, I could actually concentrate on those precious musical details that we audiophiles prize.

Which brings me to an issue regarding media: MP3s. Sure, my computer’s hard drive is loaded with time-shifted copies of music that I have previously purchased (ahem), but I never regarded them as anything approaching hi-fi, especially when listening via my Rio player or my laptop’s speakers. I mentioned something to that effect to Tyl Hertzens of HeadRoom, and he replied that I shouldn’t jump to such hasty conclusions. He told me that MP3 decoding is a completely different process than WAV (CD-ROM) or Redbook (CD music) decoding, which results in a more "organic" sound. He went on to say that MP3s with sampling rates in the 300+ kbps range can sound better than CD. Tyl is onto something. I am not about to say that MP3s played back through a hi-fi rig compares with CD, but I agree that MP3’s strengths and weaknesses mesh well with headphone playback. For example, with the high resolution capabilities of the TAH and Sennheiser or Grado, I heard further into many recordings than I could with my home rig. I perceived the decay of plucked notes on an acoustic guitar and the startling snap of snare drum shots, and could even distinguish among the drums used. And there was no harshness whatsoever. (I typically listen at a sampling rate of 128 kbps, which is a pretty good comprise between compression and not). In terms of its smoothness, it made me think I was listening to quality tube gear. That is a tough feat to pull off: "smooth detail." Furthermore, I was starting to eat my words regarding soundstaging. MP3 is a reflection of CD in the sense that some recordings are imbued with much more ambiance and dimensionality than others. On some MP3s, I could actually hear beyond the soundstage and into the ambiance of the recording venue, which, as I said, is my hi-fi Holy Grail. Admittedly, the soundstage was still not in the shape or position that I prefer, and yet I was amazed that I was getting that kind of sound from an MP3. Other hi-fi attributes were also present on MP3 via the HeadRoom: dynamic punch when called for, and a tight bass perhaps in the 30-hz range from a particular synth-based recording. I have no basis to compare what TAH is doing for MP3s relative to other headphone amps, but I can tell you that MP3s lost much of their magic without the amp. I never thought I would use "MP3" and "magic" in the same sentence…

Much of that smoothness must be attributable to the nature of MP3, because CDs played back on the TAH sounded much more "digital." This fidelity to the source material is a tough trick to pull off. It seems to me that the TAH is relatively neutral and balanced, but with a tad of smoothness thrown in, meaning that harsh CDs still sounded harsh yet somewhat smoothed. I mean smoothness in a good way: that which comes from a top-notch solid-state amp, detailed yet inoffensive. Or was it perhaps the smoothness that comes from a top-notch tube amp, warm-sounding with high-resolution? I guess the answers depend on one’s perspective.

As for resolution, there was enough to compare the sound of non-hi-fi and hi-fi sources. For example, when playing MP3s, My Rio500 seemed to have better overall sound quality than my laptop. Regardless of what the marketers over at Dell or Microsoft will tell you, computers are just not built to be stereo systems. Forgetting even the intermittent clicks, chirps and pauses coming from my computer when I was trying to listen to MP3s, the Rio seemed to be a smidgen less flat and grainy. CD playback was easier to distinguish. Along with the same intermittent clicks, chirps and pauses, came a thin, harsh sound which pretty much sounded like all that we hate about digital. Ditching my "convergence" stereo for my faceless, nameless Panasonic portable, I was able to eliminate all of the intermittent distractions, and the sound became more listenable. Of course, plugging into the Quad rig resulted in the best reproduction.

Again on my quest for kicks, I came across another interesting application: video games. We all know that no matter what computer speaker manufacturers claim, there ain’t more than one or two computer speakers that can compete with the lowliest of home speakers. So, even after dropping a month of burger-flipping money, gamers will never realize what their games are capable of. We know about the headphone multiple in terms of the cost of a headphone bringing a greater sonic return compared to the same priced home speakers. Now add the TAH to a pair of Grado SR60s. You will shudder at the force of a grenade blast or the crack of a .50-cal. sniper rifle from Novasoft’s Delta Force 2. Hedonistic fun…


I guess what really impressed me is the impact that the TAH had in so many different listening situations. It brought true hi-fi sound to my long commutes and made working on the computer that much more enjoyable (bearable?). It even made the time fly as I hit the treadmill. In fact, knowing I would have a good half an hour to listen made exercising that much easier to get into. But more important than the different uses I found for the TAH was the overall change in attitude brought about by its reliably good sound quality: During this review I was in the process of moving from the Connecticut/NY area to Los Angeles and was subjected to weeks of audiophile withdrawal resulting from a lack of a home-based stereo system. So my review could not come at a better time. I was forced to listen to music in contexts different from those I was used to, and my listening habits will forever be changed because of the experience. My overall tastes in equipment and living have not been changed by the TAH. I still live for sitting in my sweet spot and letting my Quad/Magnepan system dissolve into the space in front of me. But I now appreciate the TAH for what does for those other times in my life. So how do I feel about the TAH? I love music, and anything that increases my ability to listen to music will be of value to me. How much value? A lot more than the $159 this thing costs. The TotalAirHead is a TotalNoBrainer. Get one and see how much more often you too can enjoy your music.

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