Sugg. Retail: $199 US
If you do a lot of commuting, and/or like to use your computer listen to music at work, the folks at HeadRoom have your number. I myself fall into this group, and while my commute might vary quite a bit job to job (the film business is not for those who prize consistency and predictability) I listen to music at work as often as I can. A couple of years ago I reviewed the Echo Indigo laptop sound card, a device which will fit just about any laptop and offers two 1/8″ mini outputs to drive headphones or powered speakers. Not only did I love having a proper analog volume control right on the card itself (rather than the clunky, often slow to respond volume control in Itunes or the operating system itself), the improvement in sound quality from the headphone output of my Apple Powerbook was dramatic. I bought the review sample and lived happily ever after.
That is until I received the review sample of the Total BitHead. The Headphone gurus at HeadRoom have gone one better on the Indigo. The Total BitHead does just what the Echo card does: it takes the digital audio output of your computer, converts it to analog, and provides enough amplification to drive difficult, high impedance headphones (like the big, high-end models from AKG and Sennheiser). It does all this away from the electrically noisy and generally inhospitable interior of a computer too, with circuitry designed by folks who make some of the best headphone amps on the planet. There are some very important differences between the BitHead and the Indigo, however, not the least of which is the HeadRoom unit’s even better sound (more on that below). Unlike the Indigo, the Total BitHead connects to your computer via a USB cable, making it compatible with any USB capable computer (which, these days anyway, is pretty much every computer) rather than just a laptop. As such, the BitHead is also portable, and, with its onboard batteries and 1/8″ line-in jack, a stellar companion to a portable music player.
Here’s how a typical day might go for a BitHead user: you hop the train/plane/bus/auto-rickshaw and fire up your iPod. Since you’re using some very sweet sounding but power hungry, audiophile-approved set of cans (for instance the Ultrasone Proline 650 - review in progress) you slap the BitHead onto the back of your iPod (via the included Velcro kit), connect the supplied mini to mini cable, connect your ‘phones, flip the switch, and all of a sudden highly involving, super-dynamic sound consumes the space where your brain should be (battery life from four AAA’s is estimated at around 30-35 hours). Arriving at work you stow the headphones away, flip the power switch back to off, plug it into your PC (at which point it will be powered off the USB bus of the computer), plug in your powered speakers/integrated amp/preamp/mixer/whatever and all of a sudden your computer sounds like it might actually be a piece of hi-fi gear rather than the IT department’s idea of a sadistic hoax.
Ergonomically speaking the BitHead is simple and highly functional. At the front corners are the two 1/8″ output jacks (both active, so you can share with a friend), with the analog input jack and USB connector at the rear corners. Between the jacks on the front are the power switch, volume pot, and Crossfeed switch. If you’re wondering exactly what Crossfeed is, HeadRoom’s truly excellent website has a detailed explanation (along with the best, and most candid, headphone buyers guide I’ve ever seen). The short version is this: the Crossfeed feature aims to make headphone listening more natural sounding by mixing some of the left channel signal into the right channel and vice versa, thereby helping to approximate how we hear without headphones. On a great deal of music it does indeed sound more natural, the sound becoming somewhat less “in your head”. With the switch you can easily decide for yourself and defeat the feature as needed (for instance when using the BitHead to drive powered speakers rather than headphones).
The only other control on the unit is the High/Low gain switch (a brand new feature on the BitHead), which is tucked under the rubber battery compartment lid. As you might expect flipping this switch will ratchet the overall gain up or down, depending on the sensitivity of the headphones you’re using. I found that with my particularly thirsty Sennheiser HD-650’s that I needed to be in high gain mode to get enough volume
when I wanted to listen loud (on very efficient headphones, like most “in-ear” phones, you’ll want to use the lower gain setting both to keep the noise floor as low as possible and keep the volume range at a useful level). Other new features on the latest BitHead are an improved volume pot and higher quality audio chips for better sound. They even lowered the price from US $249 to $199. Not too shabby for a high quality USB DAC and headphone amp in one tidy little package.
And the Sound?
HeadRoom knows a thing or two about headphone amps, not to mention headphones, and although the BitHead resides at the bottom of their product line its sound will not disappoint anyone but a hardcore headphone geek accustomed to very high-end outboard amps. When I first heard the Echo Indigo with my laptop I was very impressed with the improvement over the Powerbook’s anemic, shrill and nasty sounding headphone output. The Echo had just enough power to drive my Sennheiser HD 650’s to decent levels and presented a far smoother, much more robust and dynamic musical picture (I also use it to drive powered speakers at work, usually the Swans TA 200A or, more recently, the Audioengine 5).
The Total BitHead betters the Indigo in every significant way. The HeadRoom unit is smoother and more refined through the mids and treble with a more luscious, fuller, more harmonically rich and tonally nuanced midrange presentation. Subjectively a little on the warm side (though not distractingly so), it made the Echo sound a little thin, threadbare and plasticky by comparison. It may not be the last word in neutrality and openness, but it never erred enough to get in the way On CD quality source material (rather than MP3s) the BitHead really came alive with colour and warmth, sounding simply delicious on Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me through the big Sennheisers. Any component that can make me listen to Norah for any length of time must be doing something right, since, despite her lovely voice and the stellar sound, I’m generally bored witless by her music. The fact that her tracks are used as demo material at industry shows with terrifying ubiquity doesn’t help either.
The BitHead also managed to sound more spacious and three dimensional than the Echo, whether I was using the Crossfeed feature or not. Comparisons to the computer’s output were truly lopsided affairs, the BitHead just obliterating my Mac’s flat, grey and sizzly sounding headphone output. With the gain switch in the high position there was power to burn, the BitHead lighting up the 650’s with big, fast transients, phenomenal bottom end control and authority and awesome dynamics. The sound with the Ultrasone Proline 650’s, which I received for review after I’d had the BitHead for awhile, was also excellent. The Ultrasones are fast, aggressive, in-your-face headphones that just beg to be fed the loudest tracks on your iPod. With more power than they knew what to do with from the BitHead, they were even more themselves, and even more fun to listen to with bands like Danko Jones or Weezer. While in terms of bass prowess and drive the Indigo didn’t fall apart, by comparison it sounded a little strained and lacked the BitHead’s effortlessness.
Using the BitHead with my iPod Mini yielded similarly impressive results with the Sennheisers, the Ipod’s internal amp not being up to the task of driving such “difficult” headphones. Since I was now relying on the Ipod’s D to A converter, however, and feeding the BitHead an analog input, all I could really hope for were the benefits of the extra amplification. With headphones that require more juice, the BitHead will supply the power to truly bring them to life, supplying transient and dynamic performance, not to mention sheer output volume, that most portable players just can’t muster. With much more efficient headphones, however, like the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro’s I recently reviewed, the BitHead has less to offer. These ultra sensitive ‘phones just don’t need any more power, and this being the case, adding an amplification stage to the chain won’t really pay any sonic dividends (aside from the Crossfeed feature). Find a way to get a USB digital output from your iPod into the BitHead and then you’d be on to something (some, alas very few, drive-based portables do feature digital outputs).
Once you add up the great sound, the ability to drive pretty much any headphone, the portability and the eminently affordable price, the BitHead is just a little too good to turn down. If you don’t need the USB connectivity you can opt for the $149 Total Airhead, which is just the amplifier minus all the digital stuff, and save even more money. If you spend enough time with a portable and/or an office system, your ears will thank for one of these. If you’ve never heard great headphones properly driven by a great headphone amp, you might be shocked just how good your computer or iPod can sound. With a 30 day trial period and a 2 year warranty the Total BitHead is a safe and satisfying way to blow two hundred bucks.