06 Chord Mojo aLate in 2003 I was invited to lunch with some guys from Sony who wanted to show me the world’s first ever one-gigabyte memory stick. It was a breathtaking achievement for the time – imagine all that memory in one little stick. The price was also breathtaking: $2090. When memory cost as much as that it was little wonder people were compressing the depth, the vitality, the spaciousness and the life out of music to store it digitally. These were the days when many MP3 players stored only 20 to 30 minutes of music that had 90 per cent of the original data removed.

These days you can justifiably feel ripped off if you pay a dollar a gig, and you can buy a high-definition portable that will store all your CDs, at full CD sound quality, for less than $400. And it will be wafer thin, smaller than your phone and weigh practically nothing.

So why are you still turning your nose up at digital portables? Maybe because even with great headphones they just don’t sound as good as your system at home? If so I’m about to give you a road-to-Damascus moment. Your problem is not digital storage, it’s amplification. Most digital portables are designed to run earbuds and great headphones are just like great speakers – the more power they get the better they perform and the sweeter they sound.

06 Oppo HA-2But even state-of-the-art digital amplification demands size and weight, dirty words when you’re designing portable music players. If you build enough amplification into a portable to drive fussy headphones you wind up with a device thicker than a phone and substantially heavier. And it will rip through the battery a lot faster. But it will get such headphones working to their full potential.

Here’s another ah-ha moment. Headphone amplifiers. These are usually about the size of a phone but, depending on their power, heavier and thicker. They go between the player and the headphones and bump up power substantially. You get cleaner, sharper and fuller sound because your headphones are working properly at last. You were in a four-cylinder buzz box, now you’re in a 454 cubic-inch V8 that tows boats up hills without changing gear.

If you’re on a 12-hour flight with a cabin bag and room to spread out, hook in your headphone amp and enjoy the music; you’ll maybe even wind up enjoying the flight. If you’re taking a stroll and don’t need the weight you can leave it at home and go back to Plan A.

But listen to them carefully; there are wild variations in performance. Some of the cheaper offerings do little more than increase the volume, good ones transform the sound from a portable, a laptop or a phone from tin can to concert hall.

Sony PHA1A

Sony PHA1A

The best I’ve listened to are from English company Chord (www.chordelectronics.co.uk). The Hugo (around $3000) combines a digital to analogue converter and amplifier and is stunning while even the entry level Mojo (around $900) brings an immediate (and in the case of my laptop, quite startling) sound quality improvement. But you’ll likely need to buy a cable or two because what’s supplied with these products is sparse. Further down the food chain Oppo’s HA2 (www.oppodigital.com.au) at $500 is entirely acceptable and comes with a good range of cables.

If you’re looking for digital portables with excellent amplification built in Astell & Kern (www.astellnkern.com.au) makes a terrific range going from around $600 for the Junior to around $6000 for the AK380. I’m also fond of Sony’s $1600 ZX2 (www.sony.com.au).

All of these do justice to 96-kiloHertz/24-bit recordings available from high definition music websites like Tidal, HD Tracks and Linn Records.

Published October 2016

 

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