Despite being an audio lover since young, I have steered clear of using portable headphone amplifiers for my audio devices. My listening principle has always been to stay faithful to the original source. And my preference is always a neutral audio experience: responsive bass, detailed mids, clear balanced treble.
That principle wavered when I began to test more demanding headphones that my portable audio devices are unable to drive. So I decided it is high time I get myself a basic portable amp in case I needed a boost.
Like any audio products, there are so many portable amps in the market, it’s hard to begin. Eventually, my main criterion is to get one that doesn’t break the bank. After all, when it comes to audio products, the sky’s the limit, so there is just no point pursuing for the “best”.
And like headphones, each portable amp has different audio characteristics, and you might even have to “pair” the amp and headphones for optimal effect. For instance, if your headphones is already bass heavy and you play with an amp with bass emphasis, you are going to get a bloated sound. On top of that, you might need to choose an appropriate audio cable to connect between the portable amp and the audio device, which does make a difference in the audio balance.
After going through all my options, I finally came to decide to purchase the TOPPING NX3 analog amplifier. While it is nowhere as popular as Fiio or OPPO, research shows that TOPPING is a reliable China brand with positive feedback on earlier releases like the NX1 (analog) and NX2 (digital). In fact, when I bought the NX3, it was yet to launch worldwide and a Singapore distributor has carried stocks.
Being a gadget geek with an adventurous spirit, I decided to buy the new NX3 and be the first to review this product. And to make my review more effective, I managed to ask the distributor if he could lend me the NX1 for a few days so that I can make a comparison between the 2. This way, existing NX1 owners will have a better feel of what NX3 has to offer, and it also gives me a better perspective of the quality of NX3 against many other portable amplifiers in the market.
The seller also brought a few audio cables for me to try. While I know cables do make a difference, I was amazed at what big difference it makes when I tested them. I eventually bought the SMSL W5 short stereo cable.
The Purpose of a Portable Headphones Amplifier
Before you wonder what you have been missing out, let me assure you that there is absolutely no need to always listen to your favourite music via a portable amp, especially when you are using “normal” consumer-grade headphones that play easily on consumer audio devices like smartphones.
You may need a portable amp when the following occurs:
– you maxed out the device volume yet the sound is still not loud enough
– your headphones spec have low sensitivity that may require more powerful amplifier to deliver optimal audio signal response.
– the source device does not have a good audio processor (like laptops), in which case you need to look for a portal digital-to-analog converter (DAC) amplifier as opposed to analog amplifier. Do read the fine print on whether your source device supports digital output. For instance, the Sony NWZ-A15 only works with Sony-brand DAC amplifiers like PHA-1A.
The TOPPING NX1 Review
Most audiophile critics from head-fi.org have similar conclusion about the NX1: flat, neutral, faithful output. This characteristic is extremely important for me because I needed an amp that is not biased so that I can review accurately.
My personal assessment confirms this. When playing audio from the Sony NWZ-A15, I find no difference between using the NX1 and without NX1 when playing with normal efficient earphones. When using a demanding headphones like Fischer Audio FA-011, the NX1 helps to drive the sound output to make the headphones sound like it should. The treble has a more open response, I can hear reverbs clearly, the overall sound is brighter.
The TOPPING NX3 Review
When I listened to the FA-011 using the NX1, I hear the open bright treble with more reverb presence. Comparatively, the NX3 offers slightly warmer response with more body on the bass. The NX1 brings out the clarity of the FA-011 while the NX3 improves on the warmth and lower frequencies.
As mentioned above, using a portable amp with headphones that has lower sensitivity will deliver the full potential of the headphones. When plugging in the Philips Fidelio X2 to the Sony NWZ-A15 without the portable amp, the audio lacks drive and aggression. With NX3, I hear more power and kick. In contrast, I hear no difference with Fischer Audio Omega earphones.
Switching to FA-011, the NX3 adds a little warmth to the lower frequency compared to NX1.
One plus point on the NX3 is the bass gain feature, which I can turn on to give additional feel to my music tracks. I won’t use it unless I want to have some listening fun, and even when I turn it on, there is no excessive distortion or muddiness.
The NX3 battery life is as stated: around 25 hours. That is a far cry from NX1 with 100 hours. However, the NX3 drives slightly louder volume compared to NX1.
A portable amplifier is useful to deliver power from the audio source to the headphones. The TOPPING NX1 was a popular and inexpensive amp that provides a neutral amplification to listeners like myself for unbiased reviews. The NX3 offers enhancements to the bass response, and so on the whole it sounds warmer to the keen-eared. With the bass gain switch, the NX3 will be an ideal choice for bass lovers.
If I were to choose again, I would get the NX1 because it is more compact, longer battery life, and cheaper.
You can get the TOPPING NX1 (S$75), NX3 (S$120) or other popular amps from Little Mart, an independent Singapore distributor. https://littlemart.wordpress.com/portable-amplifiers/
TOPPING NX3 official product website: http://www.tpdz.net/en/products/nx3/index.htm