GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published August 1, 2004

 

HeadRoom Total BitHead Headphone Amplifier


GOODSOUND! GREAT BUY

Not only do headphone systems take up less room than speaker systems, but they can offer great bang for your performance buck. When I lived in Brooklyn and space was at a premium, I put together a decent headphone system for my hi-fi. At the heart of that system was a HeadRoom Little amplifier ($259 USD), which included the HeadRoom processor. I spent many hours with my Little amp and some great headphones: the AKG 501s, and Grado’s SR60s and RS-2s. But since leaving Brooklyn, I haven’t spent so much time with headphones.

The HeadRoom processor is one important thing (in addition to the company’s wittily written ads, website, and manuals) that sets HeadRoom amps apart from the competition. The processor is a crossfeed filter that compensates for the unnaturalness of headphone listening. If you listen, for example, to a Beatles or old jazz record, you’ll notice that the engineer has hard-panned the instruments so you’ll get bass and trumpet on the right, drums and piano on the left. This can make these recordings nearly unlistenable on headphones. The HeadRoom processor sends some of the signal from each side to the opposite side to compensate for this -- instead of having completely different sounds coming at you from each side, your ear-brain is tricked into hearing a single aural image.

HeadRoom’s Total BitHead ($269), which also includes the processor, arrived at my house at a fortuitous time: I’d just come down with chickenpox and was too sick to get out of bed. With the arrival of the BitHead, I was able to enjoy some high-quality sound without leaving my bed or lifting my head from my pillow. While I wouldn’t recommend getting chickenpox, if you can get a week to relax in bed with the Total BitHead, your laptop, and portable music player, go for it.

Features and setup

The Total BitHead measures a little over 4" long, just less than 3" wide, and 1" thick, and is best described as a rectangular prism with its corners cut off. At the rear of the unit, each of these cut-off corners has an input: on one side is a mini-USB input, and on the right is a 1/8" input to accept a line-level connection. On the BitHead’s front, each cut-off corner has a 1/8" connector with which you can connect your headphones. There are two headphone outputs -- you can share the BitHead with the one you love, or set it up with two different sets of headphones.

The BitHead’s front also contains the rest of the controls. From the left are the headphone jack, the power switch, a green LED to tell you whether or not the BitHead is powered up, the volume control, a red LED that acts as a clipping and low-battery indicator, an On/Off switch for the HeadRoom headphone processor, and, finally, the second headphone jack. The BitHead’s top is a hard rubber cover that can be removed to reveal the bay that holds the four AAA batteries. On the bottom of the amplifier are three indents in which you can place rubber feet (included) or Velcro (also included; discussed below).

The BitHead comes with a short USB cable to connect it to your computer, but if you’re using the amp with a desktop computer, you’ll likely need a longer cable. The BitHead can run on the power supplied by the USB cable, so you won’t need batteries for your computer listening, but if you want more power or don’t want to drain power from your computer, you can turn on the BitHead’s power switch and it will run off its batteries. Plug the mini-USB end into the BitHead, the other end into your computer, and your computer should automatically download the driver from the BitHead. In this configuration you'll be using the BitHead's internal 16-bit digital-to-analog converter, which is bypassed when the line-level input is used. I had no software or hardware glitches while using the BitHead: When I plugged it in, it was ready to play; when I unplugged it, my computer reverted to its internal soundcard.

The Total BitHead also comes with a 9" mini-to-mini cable for connecting the amp to a portable device -- a portable CD player, MiniDisc player, or iPod. If you want to connect your BitHead to a full-size component, you’ll need to buy a mini-to-RCA cable; understandably, one is not included.

The headphone geeks at HeadRoom have gone the extra mile to make sure the Total BitHead is ready to use with laptops and portable digital music devices, such as the Nomad Zen and Apple iPod. Included in the package is an assortment of Velcro circles in four different colors: white, two shades of gray, and black. If you place one set of pads on the bottom of your Total BitHead in the three indents, you can then place corresponding Velcro pads on the back of your laptop screen and the back of your Zen or iPod. I’ve done this with my laptop, and it’s very convenient -- I can move around with my computer without having to worry about remembering to pick up the amp as well. When you put the Velcro on your portable device, you then have the device and amp connected back to back. This allows the hard-rubber door of the battery bay to act as a stand for your combo. While this works well at holding the two devices together, it adds considerable bulk to your player; you might want to think about whether the improved sound is worth the extra bulk. If, like me, you find the tradeoff worthwhile, HeadRoom makes a couple of cases -- the GigaBag and Bigger GigaBag -- that fit the player-amp combo nicely. I wasn’t sent one, but my familiarity with the overall quality of HeadRoom products makes me think that buying one should be a no-brainer for those buying a Total BitHead for portable use.

Trials and comparisons

I usually watch DVDs in my home theater, but sometimes it’s more convenient to just pop them into my laptop. The main problem with this approach is that the sound isn’t very good. When I use my favorite portable headphones, the Sennheiser PX100s ($49.95), the soundstage is congested, the imaging is flat, I hear all kinds of internal noises (e.g., when a DVD or the hard drive spins), and the headphones don’t play very loud. I could live with all this, but was eager to hear how the Total BitHead would improve my experience of watching movies on my laptop.

I began by watching "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road," from Bruce Springsteen’s Live in Barcelona DVD. The Total BitHead made several improvements: the crowd’s cheering became recognizable as people’s voices and not white noise -- during "Born to Run," I could actually hear some of the crowd singing along, which I couldn’t hear before. The bass was much more authoritative, the soundstage was wider, and the imaging was greatly improved. I then tried Spider-Man, scenes 18 and 27: "Battle Over Time Square" and "A Final Battle." Again the BitHead did not disappoint as it widened the soundstage and improved three-dimensional imaging. With the BitHead in place, I was not only able to follow the Green Goblin’s glider back and forth across the screen; I could also tell when it was coming toward me and when it was going away. In "A Final Battle," the shattered glass sounded much more crisp than without the amp in place. If you use your laptop for lots of movie watching, the Total BitHead might be a necessity.

I was even more pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t only DVDs that sounded much better through the Total BitHead -- streaming audio also sounded better than it ever has to me. I listen to a number of BBC radio shows over the Internet, and while I enjoy the music, the sound straight from my computer is pretty bad: congested, lifeless, one-dimensional, and cut off at the frequency extremes. I had chalked this up to the limitations of streaming audio, but the BitHead showed me that the problem was in my computer. When I listened to BBC 1’s The Blue Room through the BitHead, all of my concerns disappeared: the sound was full, the bass was deep, and everything was lively. I liken the change to that of listening to a song on an old mono AM transistor radio, then hearing it on a good stereo FM tuner in a respectable system. I’ve been listening to more and more of the BBC since the BitHead arrived, and I couldn’t be happier. (If you’re looking for some shows to listen to while surfing the Web and reading the SoundStage! Network sites, I suggest BBC 1’s The Blue Room and BBC 3’s Late Junction and Mixing It.) With both music and movies, the BitHead’s performance as an external computer sound device was excellent.

Having heard how well the HeadRoom improved my computer’s sound, I was hopeful that it would also improve the sound of my portable music player, a Nomad Zen, though I didn’t think it would be so easy -- for a portable, the Zen sounds very good. Sure enough, the Total BitHead’s improvement of the Zen’s sound was much more subtle than the improvement in my computer’s sound, but subtle changes can make big changes in perception. My Nomad Zen is full of 192kbps MP3 files that sound just fine when I’m out walking the dog or having a late-night listening session in bed. When I added the BitHead, I noticed a few subtle but important changes in the sound: the soundstage opened up, the decay and ambience of sounds became much more lifelike, and the bass was deeper and tighter. On the Beatles’ "Wait," from Rubber Soul [CD, Capital C4-90453], the tambourine sounded much more lifelike, especially in the decay of the sounds. "Isis," from Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue [CD, Columbia C2K 87047], had a much wider soundstage, and imaging was slightly improved -- I could hear each distinct guitar string being strummed, instead of the single overall sound I’d heard without the BitHead. The bass on Jobim’s "Waters of March," from Cassandra Wilson’s Belly of the Sun [CD, Blue Note 35072], was much tighter and deeper with the BitHead than without. I could listen to the Zen unamped and be very happy, but now that I’ve heard the improvements wrought by the Total BitHead, I no longer want to do that.

I didn’t find the HeadRoom processor useful with the DVDs I watched, or with most of the music I listened to, but it did come in handy with hard-panned stereo recordings. In general, I thought the processor seemed to dull the sound somewhat, though not much -- I really had to pay attention to hear the difference. On tracks such as the Beatles’ "Wait," however, the processor had a greatly beneficial affect. The circuit made the recording much more pleasant to listen to, doing away with the distraction that comes from hard-panned stereo played through headphones.

Conclusion

I’ve had more fun with HeadRoom’s Total BitHead than with any other component I’ve reviewed. This little amp, more than any medication, made my bout with chickenpox pass by more easily. It isn’t a product for everyone, however. If you don’t use a computer for music or watching movies, you could stick with HeadRoom’s Total AirHead ($199) and save some money. If you don’t need a portable amplifier, you could get the Little for about the same money. The Little also has a built-in upgrade path that’s great for the budget-conscious audiophile. If you like your portable system to be as small as possible, then you might want to stick with headphones efficient enough to be easily driven by a portable music device. But if you use your computer for media consumption or want to get the most out of your portable CD player, Zen, or iPod, then you should audition the HeadRoom Total BitHead. It totally rocks.

...Eric Hetherington

Price of equipment reviewed


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