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Old 02-28-2009, 05:07 PM
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WalkGood WalkGood is offline
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Default Pico Portable Amp Review

Disclaimer: As I have stated before in other reviews, I am not an audiophile or in this business, just an enthused listener who enjoys comparing notes.

February 28, 2009
by Ramón GL

I first decided to buy a portable amp late in 2007, but didn’t move on one till early 08.’ My reasons were to drive higher ohm phones and add a new dimension to the sound quality of my portable music while on the go. By using the word “dimension,” I mean to offer additional feeling, sensation and influence the dynamics of my tunes. Oh sure, the additional vibrant punch or thump to the overall spectacle of sound listening was a seductive element as well.

IMO it’s impossible to find the perfect gadget, including a headphone amp. So I went with the assumption that all amps change the sound signature to some degree. So, if you are going to invest in one it’s probably best to look for one that colors the sound in the least degree and this way you’ll be in for a satisfying experience with your selection. Keep in mind that there are a few variables that you have to pay attention to regarding “quality,” which will definitely change the end resulting sound. The quality of: music recording, your rip, source and the headphones selected, don’t forget the 100% gold IC, lol. Only joking about the IC, I think we’ve discussed that enough here in abi, a clothes hanger works as well. For example, if your cans are rubbish, you should first purchase a decent set of cans, rather than spending your hard earned money on something to amplify the rubbish even louder. I also think that it’s obvious that a headphone amp can not reinsert what was not all ready there to begin with. So if your current set up isn’t satisfying, don’t expect miracles.

Purchasing Criteria : In order of importance - Sound quality, performance, build quality and size were the top 4 most important factors for me. Of the 4, size may sound like an odd selection criteria, but I wanted something tiny (pocket-size) in order to use while skateboarding, scootering, biking or other general active passions. Once I determined my criteria, I moved on to researching it and I found it fun and fairly easy. It consisted mainly of reading reviews, looking over amp specs on various sites, emails and conversations with some of the amp builders and discussing with peers on irc. I did get lucky in the end and enjoyed testing 3 top amps live at canjam, but I’ll refrain from mentioning the others here, so let’s dive in.

The day the package arrived I felt like a kid pulling out of his first deep “Tube Ride.” To the non watermen among us it’s hard to describe the feeling inside a big glass cylinder of water big enough to stand in or die in, the adrenaline rush pumping through your body is out of this world! As a sheet of warm glassy water envelops you, time seems to stands still or moves in slow motion and you can see even the most insignificant detail around you with such awesome clarity that it’s impossible to imagine or describe. Then when you come spitting out her mouth, back into real time, you realize that you were only gone for a few short seconds, totally euphoric! Ok, back to reality, I quickly opened the well designed packaging to see the small sexy glossy black amp, "Woohoo!" Then like a man possessed and without delay I unpacked the charger to give her life …

  • Volume control with built-in power switch
  • Up to 8V output voltage
  • Up to 250mA output current
  • Low noise, 4-layer board design
  • 2-way gain switch
  • Dual-cell li-ion battery (+/- 4.2V)
  • Smart charger & power controller board
  • Upsampling 24/96 USB DAC (optional)
  • Accepts 16-bit, 44.1/48khz USB input
  • Upsamples to 24-bit, 96khz and reduces jitter with AD 1896 asynchronous sample rate converter
  • Wolfson’s WM8740 top-level DAC converts from digital to analog
  • Analog output stage uses novel MOSFET op-amps
  • Each digital chip has it’s own low-noise voltage regulator
  • 4-layer board design carefully designed for low-noise and best digital & analog performance

Additional pictures on abi click here.

Included: At the time of purchase, the included items were the amp, DC adapter/charger, Mini-B USB cable (either 3ft or 6ft), custom leather bag, stick-on feet and user manual. From what I’ve recently read, the mini-B USB is now available in lengths of 1’, 3’, or 6’ for $5.00 each. IIRC there were a few color options as well and there wasn’t an additional charge either, but I’ll let Justin correct me if I’m wrong. Either way, now colors are an additional charge as well; "Premium" colors are gold, gray, bronze, light blue, blue, green, orange, and red. These colors are available in limited quantities only and are an additional $20.00. The standard colors are black & silver, so I chose black.

Build Quality: From the black anodized hex key (allen wrench) drive bolts in her front glossy black finished panel and wrapped by an equally glossy metal case to her sexy tail, her overall look is sexy! The Pico measures a tiny 2 x 2.74 x 0.86" (51 x 70 x 22mm). Overall she’s very well-built, sturdy and very small. The only fault I find with her beyond being a fingerprint magnet is that she scratches very easily.

Front Panel, viewed left to right:
  • Gain switch: 2 positions, up for high gain and down for low gain. On low gain she takes all the iem’s I’ve thrown at her to a new level and while in high gain without difficulty she can power my Sennheiser HD 650s to enjoyable levels.
  • Phones in: The stereo mini panel mount jack is 3.5mm to plug your phones into.
  • Input: Houses a similar mini 3.5mm panel mount jack for your ic cable to your analog source.
  • Potentiometer:Turns her on/off and controls the volume and without phones on, you hear a click confirmation that she’s been powered up and the red power led indicator lights up. While testing on “low gain” with my ue11’s you only hear a slight audible click during power up and on shut down an audible power off. In contras while in “high gain” with hd650s the power on is absolutely dead silent, not even a whisper, but the power off sound is the same. Neither power on or off sounds are significant so I really do not see an issue, just an observation I noted. Once powered on you can turn the volume all the way to full and back in either gain setting and she’s dead silence.
  • LED: Above and to the right of the input is a red LED, power indicator, that turns on during use. Above the pot and slightly to the left is the charger LED, which lights red during charging and turns off when fully charged.

Rear Panel viewed left to right:
  • DC Adapter: Connects a 12V DC adapter to charge or to run the amp on wall jack. Personally I can not tell the difference from running her on wall power or off the battery, which is a good thing as I have read about amps that pickup sound glitches while running off a wall jack. The Pico is equipped with a dual-cell li-ion battery, which runs about 20 hours after a 3 hour charge. I have yet to run her down completely during a listening session, but it would be nice to have a longer battery life for long trips without the ability to recharge. If comparing to the battery life on my i7, she just can’t keep up with him.
  • USB Input: The Pico can be ordered with or without the USB DAC. I ordered mine with one and I’m glad that I did, as I use the DAC on my laptop almost as much as I use her on the go. So if you don’t have a decent sound card, this makes a great option to add. So far I have connected her to XP, XP Pro and Vista without any issues, my computers have automatically detected and installed her USB DAC without a hitch. On one occasion I did have to reboot, but that’s not really even worth mentioning. From what I have read she’s compatible with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux operating systems.

Listening Opinion (SQ):
Finally we get to the fun part and most likely the only reason that one would shell out their hard earned green backs for a portable amp. Also I would like to point out that the descriptions of “Treble, Midrange, Bass & Soundstage” below have to do more with the headphones or iem’s that you use VS what an amp can do. Regardless, a good portable headphone amp should transform weaker players into more powerful portables that deliver a richer, fuller sound quality at lower listening levels. Even though I still believe; if your headphones/canalphones are bad, you should first look to invest into a decent set of headphones, rather than spending money to amplify the bad headphones louder, thus "an amp is not a good fix for bad sound."

Treble: Comes across as open and clean from the upper midrange to the upper highs. She sounds silky yet sensitive, but at the same time with a good clarity revealing detail and crispness. For example with cymbals you can hear a crisp “ping” sound versus a “crash” when the drum stick hits the edge and comes across louder. Overall the treble sounds accurate and natural, not overbearing or aggressive.

Midrange: If you are a fan of mids like I am, the Pico is a must listen, as this is her main strength! She is elegant, warm and similar to the sound quality that tube amps reproduce. Sure, she’s not as great as the Woo Audio 6, but she can put out a richness that make the vocals and percussion instruments sound great and if you close your eyes for a moment, you might even think that your plugged into a tube amp, a delightful experience. So it’s enough to say that the mids are great!

Bass: Not the deepest bass on the market, read on, but we are talking about a small portable amp. She can deliver a more than adequate reproduction of bass with a robust impact, which sounds very good to my ears but possibly not for the hardcore bassheads. Although, a good quality sound enhancement like Mach3Bass can certainly take it lower for the hardcore bass junkie. To describe it in another way, she’s not close to the realistic depth that my Woo Audio 6 headphone amp delivers, but that’s an unfair comparison, for most the bass that she does produce is punchy enough for a portable amp and more than satisfactory.

Soundstage: In my opinion the wideness of soundstage is influenced too much by the music’s original recorded quality, mixing and by the headphones used (open/closed) versus canalphones which tend to shorten the width. So I’ll say that it’s very good with open cans, a bit less with closed & tight with iem’s, but difficult to define definitively as the instrument separation does add width to the music. So I’ll say that it’s more than acceptable with the various iem's & cans that I have used. That said, her overall clarity and instrument separation is excellent, she sounds natural and the sound is clean, undistorted and without a morsel of off pitch.

IMO HeadAmp did a very good job with build quality, overall sound reproduction without any noise, neutral, size and all in a full range of colors. On the down side, it’s a shame that she scratches easy, but this isn’t a deal breaker. For the price that one pays to enjoy this beauty, they really should throw in the extras, but in their defense, it seems that almost everything has gone up so much in price, one may not blame them and I really don’t know their cost structure. What more can I say, she’s a beautiful work of craftsmanship, with an unyielding sound presentation that reminds me of the warmth produced by a tube amp. What she does, she does well as the music does not sound colored, but comes across correct and natural, all this in a small sexy design. She might not be for everyone because of her price, but I think I’ll keep her, so yes I would recommend her.

  • Completely noiseless in high gain mode and extremely acceptable in low gain as well
  • Great solid build quality
  • Great sound quality with excellent precise detail and clarity along the continuum from high to low
  • Excellent midrange
  • Neutral, not colored but with a warm quality, similar to tubes
  • Portability & Size is great, pocket-sized and then some
  • 3 year warranty

  • Expensive, but not more than her competitors at the same level
  • Long wait time from order date
  • Finger print magnet
  • Scratches easily
  • You now have to pay for the Mini-B USB cable

MSRP: $349.00 or $499.00 with USB DAC plus shipping – Colors are +$20.00 and mixing them is an additional $20.00. For further info, see HeadAmp or Justin Wilson's headfi Pico post here.

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Last edited by WalkGood; 03-19-2010 at 01:54 PM.
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