Have you ever really listened to your favorite music? Most of you either answered yes or know where I’m going and are rolling your eyes. To those of you in the latter group, I know you’ve been here before so I’ll make my intro nice and short. If you do not have a good set of headphones or speakers, a good audio source AND an amplifier, you’ve never truly heard your music the way it was intended. I know this sounds pretentious, but I’m a believer. Will I find audio bliss in the HeadRoom Total BitHead?
Most of us do not have large component systems for listening to music at home, but those that do will often tell you that a solid amplifier is as vital to a good listening experience as an engine is to a car. You can lose fidelity, drive and quite a few audiophile specific adjectives by using poor equipment.
Well that’s all well and good with a big home system but what about when we’re on the road? When your main (or only) audio source is a portable media player such as an iPod or media phone, you’re almost certainly going to use a set of headphones or earbuds to listen as opposed to speakers. This is where the HeadRoom Total BitHead comes in.
6″ stereo cable
6″ mini USB cable
Mounting dots (both Velcro and rubber)
The Total BitHead is a portable headphone amplifier with a secret weapon. It will make your headphones perform at their best, and let me tell you that their best might be quite a bit better than you’ve ever heard them. By taking a signal from your media player and boosting, smoothing, caressing and otherwise buttering it up, it allows up to two people to simultaneously listen at the higher volumes and better quality than may have ever heard from your existing gear.
Small electronics like the iPod have to make pretty serious trade offs in order to do their voodoo. We could have an iPod that played essentially forever if it only played very low bitrate music at line levels and didn’t have a screen. By the time that we add high quality music into the picture alone with wifi, full color screens, video and 3d gaming, there are many demands for precious battery power. One of the fastest ways to conserve battery power is to cut down on audio amplification from the device. This saves battery power at the cost of volume and clarity.
Of course it’s not all about raw power. While I’m not fully convinced about some of the audiophile voodoo out there, I can certainly speak to component quality as a serious driver of sound quality. The TotalBitHead used to be the more advanced (read expensive) of the BitHead line, the other just being called the BitHead which was of the same design but used admittedly lower quality components in it’s construction. Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between the two and the price of the Total has come down below the price of the original BitHead.
This is not a gadget that is designed to be easily taken to bits, photographed and put back together so I’ll just hit you with a very short round of dry technical specifications:
Frequency Response: 20–20k, ±1
THD at 1V output: <.01
Input Impedance at 1kHz (ohms): 18k
Enough of that. I did say it would be short, didn’t I? What does it do to the sound? Well, allow me to describe my test rig and I’ll tell you!
For my testing, I’m using an iPhone with the iPod application, a set of Beyerdynamic DT-880 headphones and the TotalBitHead. The iPhone plugs into the line input on the back of the TotalBitHead and the headphones plug into one of two headphone jacks on the front of the TotalBitHead
I set the output volume on the iPod application to be about 80% – 90% of max and control the volume via the thumb wheel on the TotalBitHead.
One of the things that folks don’t always realize is that more power doesn’t just mean louder. Certainly, a higher powered amplifier allows you to crank up the volume, but it also greatly enhances sound quality for lower volume listening.
For my testing I compared sound quality and texture at similar volumes between the iPhone and the iPhone with the TotalBitHead attached as described above. In every instance, with every song played, the sound was more full, highs less shrill, lows more present with the TotalBitHead. When listening to Jazz, subtle sounds like valves operating on a saxophone or keys returning home on a piano during quiet passages suddenly appeared. Rock music was a surprise as well. No matter how energetic and loud the guitar gets, the bass and drums never fade into the background. Techno music, which is not well suited to headphones like my DT-880’s, came to life with each layer added in to the mix not getting overwhelmed by the others.
While you will get far more volume out of this amplifier than with a weak output source like an iPod or other PMP, this is still a 6 volt portable unit. If you ask for more than it’s able to give you, the audio will begin to clip. Clipping sounds awful and happens when the amplifier just can’t get enough power to output the volume levels you want. Luckily you never have to put up with that with the TotalBitHead. It has a red light (see the picture) that will light up and warn you that the audio is clipping. If you see that light, turn it down! While the vast majority of users will find the TotalBitHead more than adequate, if you have very high impedance full headphones, you might find that the volume levels aren’t as high as you’d like.
One of the defining features of the TotalBitHead is the crossfeed switch. For those of you that don’t understand crossfeed, it’s actually a pretty simple concept. When we listen to loudspeakers or real life for that matter, our right ear can hear some of the left channel and the left ear can hear the right. When listening to headphones, ONLY the left ear hears the left channel and likewise with the right. By flipping the crossfeed switch, a little of the left audio channel is fed into the right ear and vice versa. Some recordings, especially from the 60’s and 70’s pan 100% of a given instrument or voice to one channel only. This is an interesting gimmick but it can wear you out (really!) to listen to it for any length of time. I find that I listen with it on about 80% of the time. The manufacturer has a very serious, in depth description of the headphone dilemma and the crossfeed solution on their Web site here.
Have you noticed that the front of the TotalBitHead has not one but TWO headphone outputs? When you’re reacquainting yourself with your music, you might just be tempted to share it with a friend and the dual outputs make it very easy to do so.
You will be able to get some pretty serious listening time out of the 4 AAA batteries that power the TotalBitHead. With my canal phones, I can get almost 40 hours out of it, while with my larger headphones, I am seeing around 20 hours of use.
It’s not just high end headphones that benefit from a headphone amplifier such as this one. On the contrary my quite mediocre Sony MDR-V6 headphones also showed significant improvement when paired with the TotalBitHead.
The Secret Weapon
I suppose some of you might have thought that the fantastic crossfeed might have been the secret weapon I mentioned at the beginning of my review. No? Well some of you might have thought it was the dual outputs. In reality, the secret weapon is much, much more impressive.
The TotalBitHead has a mini USB port, can be plugged into your computer and functions as a VERY high quality external sound card! We all have built in sound, of course, but the vast majority of internal sound cards are noisy and have poor amplification. Have you ever moved your mouse and heard a high pitched noise come out of your speakers? That’s the type of noise I’m talking about and you can completely avoid it by using an external sound card like the TotalBitHead.
When using the TotalBitHead as a sound card (a DAC or Digital to Analog Converter in computer sound parlance), you don’t need to flip the on switch and the batteries will be bypassed in favor of the 5.5 volt power from the computer. This does not provide the maximum amount of power that the amplifier is capable of, but you can always opt to switch to battery power should you decide to.
I have tested the Total BitHead as a DAC in both OS X on my Macbook Pro and under Windows XP and in every instance, it was recognized without the need for any drivers to be installed, and none are included.
When switching from my Macbook Pro’s internal audio to the TotalBitHead, the difference in noise is astonishing. I’ve used many external USB DAC’s and this is as good as the $400 version I use for my nature recording projects. I’m very impressed. For those of you that already have a high quality DAC or just don’t feel you’d need one, Headroom makes an amplifier with the same specs as the TotalBitHead but without the onboard USB audio called the Total Airhead and it’s slightly cheaper.
The TotalBitHead is an affordable way to greatly increase your enjoyment from your music collection and I’m going to be keeping this one.