Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Digital source: M350WVM Pentium 4 Windows XP Gateway laptop with DVD/ROM drive
Analog Source: HeadRoom BitHead
Cables: supplied USB link; 1/8" to 1/4" headphone pigtail converter from Sennheiser HD-650s
Headphones: audio-technica ATH-W1000; Sennheiser HD-650
Review component retail: $269 [$199 for standard BitHead]
Have tunes, will travel. Passport. Tickets. Bicycle. Skateboards. Moccacchino with legs and whipped cream or ordinary chewing gum. Laptop, iPod, Rio, Zen, iRiver or any other imaginable MP3 device or audio-on-the-go disc spinner, tape player or airwave unit. Headphones, naturally. And CDs imported as sound files or loaded into a CD/ROM or DVD drive if you're not doing radio, cassettes or mini discs. All set? If you're a sound hound, HeadRoom does you one better. These ohgays or Obsessed Headphone Geeks At Your Service -- honest, that's what the included business card sez -- will point at one vital little gizmo you're still missing out on: The Total BitHead outfitted with a generous 2-year warranty. This miniature 6V battery or 5V DC/USB-powered headphone amplifier with 16-bit onboard D/A converter features a 1/8" line input plus standard USB port for connection to a laptop or portable audio playback device. USB connection powers the bitty head without batteries and bypasses pre-installed computer sound cards for presumably better sonics. In Windows, it automatically recognizes and configures the Total BitHead as the new default sound device. The computer volume should then be set to max to provide unattenuated output whose level will be regulated by the BitHead's thumb wheel. HeadRoom's trademark Audio Image Processor is included but can be bypassed with a switch.
|1 - headpone output #1
2 - power switch
3 - power LED
4 - volume
5 - clip/low battery indicator
6 - HeadRoom processor switch
7 - headphone output #2
|8 - audio in
9 - USB in
Connected to a portable player via the player's 1/8" audio-out or headphone socket and the included mini-to-mini pigtail, the 4 AAA batteries hidden behind the rubber top flap are said to provide enough juice for 40+ playback hours depending on the load your fancied headphones present to the BitHead. When battery voltage begins to fall below that of the input signal, a red clipping indicator begins to blink during louder passages. Once this blinking occurs not just during peaks, the batteries need to be replaced. Provided glue-stick feet of the permanent bumper or removable Velcro type fit into three round recesses on the BitHead's bottom to allow it to bond with your playback device of choice not just in musical but also mechanical lockstep.
At 2.75" x 1" x 4.5" WxHxD, we're talking rather puny and at 2.5oz fully loaded with batteries, also lightweight. With 11.2dB of max voltage gain into a 300-ohm load, actual performance promises to drive serious headphones, with an input impedance of 20Kohm and an output impedance of 1.7ohm. THD+N is claimed to be 0.15%. In fact, two headphones can be driven at once via two separate outputs. If of different makes, their respective playback volumes will naturally differ so gentlemen will give the more inefficient cans to their not-yet-deaf lady friends.
That's it. Easy as pie, friendly, unobtrusive, clever, hip - you name it, the Total BitHead is it. Inquiring minds of course wanna know what kind of sound it delivers into the wax-lined cul de sacs of our ear canals. So let's piggy-back this li'l marvel of miniaturization on my wife's laptop, a Pentium 4 Windows XP machine with DVD/ROM drive.
But first, I stuck the USB plug into an empty slot of my own Gateway 2.8GHz Pentium 4 computer that doubles as 6moons' headquarters. Gents first, ya know? The USB protocol instantly recognized the addition of new hardware and upon insertion of a CD into my DVD drive, prompted me to select Windows Media Player, RealPlayer or Musicmatch Jukebox as my audio interface program. I tried all three in sequence and lo and behold - sound in all cases. At fully cranked volume on the Total BitHead and with the virtual sliders of all the software interfaces fully open, playback levels via my audio-technicas were adequate. Still, I was surprised that these 100dB/40-ohm cans wouldn't go louder. My Sennheiser HD-650 -- expectedly now since they're a less efficient load -- did not get it up sufficiently to be considered acceptable at all. Since my main sound card was supposedly bypassed, I didn't think that my computer's main audio output even if attenuated should matter. I checked just to be sure: Programs to Accessories to Entertainment to Volume. My main outputs were sitting at half mast. Duhblin in Poxland! Upon hoisting my sound flag to full glory, I was in business, HD-650s and low-output classical tracks included.
Hey, just because I publish on the Internet doesn't mean I'm as hip as your 10-year old when it comes to the 'deeper' layers of my own computer. Phew. Where's my chocolate cigar? Seriously, this is plug'n'play stuff - better computer sound for dummies. If you work on your 'puter while you listen and haven't turned off sound effects when you hit certain keys in certain programs, you'll hear those interspersed with your audio. Turn 'em off if that bugs you by going to your Control Panel, then to Sound & Audio Devices, then click on the Sounds tab.
The long and the short of the sonic verdict once you close your eyes to shut out the vapid picture show Windows' Media Player puts on? From modestly to massively better depending on your internal sound card and which 'phones you use. Even in the scenario with the smaller differences -- W1000s and my wife's sound card rather than my own and older one
-- going outboard to the Total BitHead improved the noise floor and thus dynamics and overall clarity. Going to the Sennheisers even on the laptop was not a subtle difference and on my own tower case made the difference between not-fit-for-consumption and truly enjoyable.
Especially on superior software like favorite albums of the m.a. recordings catalogue or Renaud Garcia-Fons' new Entremundo [Enja 9464-2, thanks Marja & Henk!] became a rather enlightening crash course in how "computer-generated" audio isn't automatically something serious audiophiles need to avoid on principle. The tube-driven headphone socket of the Eastern Electric MiniMax has more color saturation and density and sounded subjectively bigger and fuller but that's what you'd expect. Compared to the Jolida JD-100's headphone output, I actually preferred the BitHead by a small margin, particularly for its better evenness of front-to-back coverage of musical events occurring simultaneously on the soundstage and crisper percussive attacks on both strings and various drum heads.
These qualities were especially noteworthy on this particular album which lives on rhythmic acuity, extreme complexity of counterpoints and virtuoso chops by every musician involved. In fact, I was in no hurry to return to my usual headphone stack of electronics. Critically speaking, the most challenging dynamic peaks especially in the bass register were a little compressed by comparison to Big Geek downstairs. But that was a small price to pay for the sheer convenience of sitting outside under a blue sky and overlooking the Sangre de Cristo mountain range while tanking a few rays and exploring my latest musical care package from Holland. If cymbals were a skoch more splashy and not quite as extended, I could have obsessed less. I had way more than enough headroom to goose the volume when trumpet, sax and Henri Tournier's flute entered the rockin' title track and noted in appreciation that nothing collapsed or withered.
Comparing my initial visual reaction to the small size and plastic casing of the Total BitHead to the amount of musical pleasure I derived from being leashed to a friggin' laptop was rather out of proportion. In fact, so demure was the actual physical package once out of the shipping box that I had put it away on a shelf to await its proper slot in my review calender. I then had completely forgotten about it until Ivy Scull, HeadRoom's capable sales manager, recently sent me a very courteous e-mail. Did I need any further information or assistance? I could clearly translate this as tactful poke in the ribs. Where's the goddamn review? Not one to shirk commitments, I decided then and there to turn this into a can-noli weekend. Boy am I glad I overcame whatever subconscious resistance I may have harbored to get with this computer-audio thang or write BitHead off for lack of visual glamor.
For the fanatic headphone listener, HeadRoom naturally already offers a scarily deep and wide lineup of bona fide amps. Today's introduction isn't intended to smoke those pricier offering. Rather, it's a cost-effective upgrade for folks who currently stick their aural slurpy straws directly into the questionable juices of their mobile playback devices. Filtering these diluted and dirty juices through the BitHead's DAC and noise-optimized environment via the no-jitter USB interface is a big step in the right direction of vitamin-enhanced musical nutrition you can snack on while on the go. Once Ivette needed her laptop again, I USB'd the Total BitHead back into my computer and am listening to it right now.
|Truth be told, unless you're committed to assembling a truly dedicated headphone rig, making use of your existing computer by adding this little and affordable gizmo is a far more sane, universally recommendable solution that plenty of more folks can get behind without grasping for bizarre justifications. The boyz and gals at HeadRoom not only had a good idea here but executed it with panache as well. For non-USB hookups, all you'll need is a quad of batteries and off you go. (Good rechargeable ones will work but not produce quite the same output voltage as standard alkaline jobs.) After having listened to this thing for 5 hours nonstop without any onset of fatigue, that's my very benign cue. Go do give this mini a try. Where it errs, it does by omission so you'll never notice unless you had something dearer to compare against. Compared computer-direct, BitHead clearly wins unless you perhaps already had your sound card tricked out. The volume control is a bit noisy i.e you might hear it while chanigng settings but that's normal for this type device. Over the standard BitHead, the Total upgrades to Burr-Brown OPA4743 op-amps and adds two blue Panasonic ECHU(X) Series polyphenoline sulphide film output caps.
Audiophile experience and circuit miniaturization chops have wrought a fun device which, unlike most of the Sharper Image stuff, will actually get used as intended and comes in black or clear. While I'm personally not a great fan of HeadRoom's cross-feed circuit, you can engage it or not as you see fit. I'd say this project concept turned into Mission Accomplished rather than Impossible and without punishing us with the ever self-conscious Tom Cruise. Groovy, baby!