|All In Your Head
by John Crossett
Its fairly common for companies in any business to take a successful product and attempt to improve upon it. The audio field, however, is especially littered with Mk II and Reference models. In almost all cases, new models, whether they be successes or failures, come at ever-escalating cost to the consumer. Its just one of the inevitabilities, like death and taxes.
Or at least it was.
HeadRoom has taken its tiny, portable, successful headphone amplifier, the Total BitHead, and revamped it. OK, so what? No big deal, right? Wrong. For, you see, not only has HeadRoom worked out the "improved" portion of the equation, but theyve done so while lowering the price at the same time.
Just in case you missed that last part Ill write it again. HeadRoom has improved the product and lowered its price all in one fell swoop. Now thats what I call newsworthy!
Just how does one go about improving something that is no bigger than a deck of playing cards and already worked very well in the first place? Well, to begin with, you dont change the appearance one iota. The new Total BitHead looks exactly like its sibling. You also leave alone the internal DAC for use with a computer, and the connections -- mini jack and mini USB -- alone as well. And finally, you make darn sure that the crossfeed circuit is still a part of the new Total BitHead.
Instead, you concentrate your attention on the very few things that the older model didnt do quite as well as your other products. First, you use a new volume control, one that doesnt making scratching noises while being turned. The new Total BitHead is dead quiet in this regard. Second, you add a gain switch under the rubberized battery cover. This allows the user to adjust the gain to compensate for hard-to-drive headphones that need more oomph to sound their best. My new AKG K601s need that extra punch. Third, you use a better chipset to improve the sonic quality of the unit, which will not go unappreciated by any listener. And finally, you accomplish all this while lowering the price by $50, to $199 USD.
Yeah, Id say HeadRoom got the improved aspect down cold.
About the only thing that HeadRoom could have changed in the new Total BitHead and didnt was the loud turn-on pop noted in the initial SoundStage! review. That, unfortunately, is still very much in evidence. What isnt so evident is the low-level hiss when using low-to-medium-impedance headphones. This is now a non-issue thanks to the new gain switch.
I used the 2006 Total BitHead with a G4 40GB Apple iPod via an Audio Line Out Bling Bling Silver cable. But I also tried it with my Compaq desktop computer and Compaq laptop using the supplied USB cable, and with my portable Sony CD player using the supplied mini-jack-to-mini-jack cable. For headphones, I ran the gamut from 120-ohm AKG K601s to 32-ohm AKG K81DJs and AKG K26Ps, to 70-ohm Sennheiser HD280Pro's, to 26-ohm Shure E3c's. I wanted to hear how the Total BitHead would handle such headphone diversity.
Old vs. new
Now that Ive outlined the physical improvements, how about the sonic ones? Does the 2006 Total BitHead outshine its older sibling in the sound department? Well, it sure enough does, and heres how.
The first thing I noticed with the new Total BitHead was a clearer sonic picture; more detail seemed to be coming through. There was more of a sense of the music as a piece of whole cloth, rather than a well-patched-together quilt. This improvement was most apparent when I had the Total BitHead connected to my iPod. While I transfer my classical music using Apple Lossless Codec for the best sound, most of the other music I routinely listen to -- the jazz, blues, folk, rock and world -- are ripped at ACC/320, because Ive found that most popular music isnt recorded with high enough quality that the slight loss of sonic detail will be all that noticeable. Yet, via the new Total BitHead, my non-classical music sounded almost as good as the CD source I ripped it from. That was impressive.
The second thing I noticed was that with the new gain switch, I could now listen to whichever set of headphones tickled my fancy at any given moment with no noise as part of the equation. I wasnt forced to keep the good cans up on the shelf because of a lack of output. This, too, is a big deal. No normal set of cans is off limits, and when you factor in that new quieter volume control, all you hear is the music.
Third, listening to music or movies via either my desktop computer or my laptop, or CDs via the portable Sony player, was all the more enjoyable thanks to the improved chipset in the Total BitHead. The sense of reality has been ratcheted up a notch or two with the new model, and this was true no matter which headphones I used. From the deep bass through the high treble, it all sounded better from the new Total BitHead than from its older sibling. Music in particular was closer to becoming as enjoyable played through the new Total BitHead as it is played back via my big stereo rig. Not too shabby for a $200 headphone amp.
The final tally
Some companies certainly do understand that attempting to improve an already successful product should mean that improvement prevails. And not just at a higher cost! Heck, had HeadRoom held the price of the Total BitHead at $249, I would still be calling the new Total BitHead a steal, but its improvements just leave me scratching my head. With its new-and-improved innards, the 2006 Total BitHead brings the goal of terrific portable sound closer to all of us, while at the same time making it even easier for us to afford. Now thats what I call a true audiophile win-win situation, and a Reviewers' Choice.
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