At last, a cheap as chips portable headphone amp that’s got more power than a medium-sized ant. That’s to be commended, writes Ash Kramer.
WELCOME TO THE easiest product review I’ve ever done. As I stated in my review of Cambridge Audio’s little DACMagic XS USB DAC and headphone amp (review here), “Reviewers like easy reviews” and there’s never been anything as simple as this.
NuForce’s Mobile Music Pump (MMP) is claimed to be “a portable headphone amplifier designed to make your music truly come alive… wherever you go”. Okay, that’s a pretty simple goal, and the MMP is a pretty simple product. There’s no DAC functionality, no volume control and no fancy fittings. All this little rechargeable plastic box does is take a signal from a portable device (or a computer, for that matter) via a 3.5mm input and it boosts the living heck out of it from two 3.5mm outputs on the other side.
The NuForce site is entirely correct when it states that “the majority of hand-held audio playback devices simply aren’t capable of adequately powering many of today’s quality headphones”. Frankly, most of the output stages in smartphones, tablets and MP3 players are shitbox at best, delivering less power than a medium sized ant; the only decent one I’ve ever encountered was on a Sony Experia smartphone that had delusions of being a Walkman.
If you own an easy to drive set of headphones like NAD’s VISO HP50 (reviewed here), or a set of earphones or in-ear-monitors, then you’ll likely be able to get decent levels and reasonable dynamics out of them from a smartphone. Even then, you won’t be hearing them at their best. A set of ‘phones that need a bit of grunt will be a pale shadow when driven by a smartphone. Sony recognised this with the rather amazing (and slightly mental) PHA-1 portable headphone amp (reviewed here), but that’s a pricey and unwieldy gadget aimed at slightly mental people.
I’ve had mixed results with inexpensive little portable headamps in the past. There was one that made good ‘phones sound worse and another that produced a vague improvement, but the MMP doesn’t play those games. This box made a big impression.
Being slightly jaded, I decided to test it with my Sennheiser HD650 headphones. They aren’t impossible to drive but they’re not an easy load even for the opamp based headphone stages in most full sized stereo components, sounding flat and uninspired. So imagine what they sound like on the end of an iPhone…it’s not at all pretty. You could argue that only a fool would try to drive high-end ‘phones from a phone, but why the hell can’t I have my cake and eat it too?
To remind myself just how badly the iPhone copes with the 650’s, I played a few tracks from AWOLNation’s Megalithic Symphony, which is a bass heavy, thumpingly powerful and dynamic album. Holy yawnfest Batman, it takes 100 percent of the available volume to get anything going and even then, it’s flatter than the Hauraki Plains. In effect, I’d rather listen to the sultry sounds of the summer cicadas having sex. Plug the MMP in and the effect is startling, because suddenly the 650’s are on song; the bass goes crazy, the dynamics shift into high gear and there’s enough volume that it’s an enjoyable experience. The sound is altogether clearer and more effortless, and it actually sounds as if there’s some headroom available.
The MMP offers high-gain and low-gain settings via a side-mounted slider, and the 650’s most definitely need all the gain they can get, but MMP delivers. Sure, the ‘phones don’t sound as good as when they’re driven by my Perreaux SXH2 headamp or the rather special NuForce HA-200 currently in the review lab, but both of those options need a much longer extension cable than I can buy or lug around.
So the MMP can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you might well expect a big difference with the 650’s. So how about with the NAD VISO HP50’s in the loop? The NAD’s sound pretty damn fine through the iPhone because they’re designed to be relatively easy to drive. But they sound much better through the MMP, it’s as simple as that. Deeper, more aggressive bass and better dynamics.
Somewhere in the middle would be Sennheiser’s Momentum headphones (reviewed here), which are harder to drive than the NAD’s but nowhere near as bad as the 650’s. The MMP improves the sound in exactly the same way – the bass in particular is notably better. The MMP also sounds far better than the 3.5mm output on my MacBook Pro, and it’ll charge from the Mac’s USB port while playing, which is another feather in its cap. Battery life is claimed to be eight hours and while I couldn’t quite match that, I was driving the MMP hard with the 650’s for much of my time with it. A full charge happens in 70 minutes.
So the sound quality is exactly as described, but it’s not all peaches and cream. The MMP is another gadget that you need to drag around, along with its short 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable, and you’ll need a USB charger and a USB to Micro USB cable (supplied) if you want to charge it at work. The cable has these chubby jacks on the end and they don’t fit into the jack on my iPhone 5S when my Spigen Tough Armor case is in place (note to NuForce, modern phone cases are slick and slim with small holes – get with the programme).
Also, while the MMP is perfect for desk or couch-bound listening, how do you actually use this thing while walking around? Sony’s PHA-1 comes with some rubber straps and a dedicated attachment system to link to a phone or MP3 player, but that just gives you a very fat and heavy device. The MMP has a little metal loop but the easiest way would be to purloin some rubber bands and just connect it to the back of your smartphone, assuming you don’t mind looking silly and having an obscured touchscreen.
Still, those who really value their portable sound quality will make a plan and will live with these limitations because believe me, it’s tough to go back to the mostly-okay sound coming from your good ‘phones when you know they can sound so much better. I’ll probably grab one for those long weekends away when all I’ve got to listen to is an iPhone or iPod and a good set of headphones. NuForce’s MMP really is a mobile music pump, and if that’s what you want, you know where to get one. For less than a hundred bucks, you can’t go wrong. ASHLEY KRAMER