Two months ago I purchased the Headroom Total BitHead with the intention of both enjoying the sonic benefits it would provide me and to review right here. It is a device I have been dying to play with for years. That being said, unless you found this post by Googling the gadget, chances are you have no idea what this $149 device is or does.
The Headroom Total BitHead is a portable headphone amplifier and digital audio converter. It plugs into your portable music device using a headphone jack or into your computer via USB to provide you with a superior audio experience.
When plugged into a computer it uses the USB port for power, otherwise it runs on three AAA batteries. It’s important not to use rechargeable batteries or cheap batteries. That is covered in the Clipping section.
So you ask yourself, “Why would I need or want one of these?”
- You have some fancy, high-impedance headphones that can’t quite get to the level of loudness or fullness you’d like and expect after spending hundreds.
- Your portable music player’s audio output is weak and you want more oomph.
- You listen to audio through your computer but hear interference from things like the hard drive or motherboard and need something to rid you of this annoyance.
This audio gadget resolves these issues. The high quality Burr-Brown digital audio converter (DAC) bypasses the noisy sound card in your computer. Onboard sound cards (like those found in cheap computers and laptops) are the most prolific offenders. Meanwhile, the (also Burr-Brown) amplifier boosts output signal; helpful for bigger headphones like my Sennheiser HD600s which simply can’t run off an iPhone with much gusto.
For those of you who want a quick answer on whether they should buy the Total BitHead. Yes, it is worth purchasing, especially if you have any of the three problems listed above. In some cases, however, it is a waste of money. To learn if it meets all its claims of magically better audio, my pet peeves on its design, when it is a waste of money and why it’s worth every penny, I suggest you keep reading.
Before I go into my thoughts and analysis, let’s get a gist of what HeadRoom says their Total BitHead can do.
- Significantly improves listening experience with good headphones & your computer
- Delivers tight bass control/impact and smoother, more articulate high frequencies
- Improves headphone imaging with our famous HeadRoom crossfeed circuit
- Low/High gain switch optimizes amplifier gain for headphones of different efficiencies
- Runs 25+ hours on four AAA batteries (not included)
Let’s go one by one.
- Yes. Absolutely. If you have high impedance headphones or a noisy sound card, the Total BitHead provides a night and day difference, no hyperbole.
- Yes. There is definitely a noticeable improvement in bass response on a wide range of headphones. Bass is something that requires a lot of power, partly because we love to play (good) bass really loud and partly because of the nature of low frequencies just being a bitch to play loudly. That is one reason why cheap rusty cars always play that annoying boomy bass while a high end subwoofer sounds silky smooth playing the same tracks.
- Maybe. The crossfeed is a great little feature for audio that was produced with speaker playback in mind. In a stereo speaker setting your left ear still hears what is coming out of the right speaker. In headphones this isn’t true, especially in noise isolating headphones. The crossfeed essentially takes a little of the right channel and puts it in the left, a little of the left channel into the right. Simple and in my experience, especially helpful for acoustic music. Many times I couldn’t hear a difference whether crossfeed was on or off, likely because more producers are mixing their music with iPhones, and thus headphones, in mind and do a version of crossfeed in the studio.
- Yes. This saved this review. In Low Gain mode my Sennheiser HD600 headphones weren’t any louder than when plugged directly into my iPhone. With the switch moved to High Gain they get louder than I can handle sound richer and brilliant.
- Probably. I put in three Energizer e² AAA lithium batteries and have yet to drain them. I’ve had this guy for two months, though I must admit most of my listening has been while connected to my iMac (more on that later).
Already it seems like a solid buy, especially for the price of $150. When the Total BitHead first came out, it sold for around $260 and was considered a great buy by the likes of Stereophile Magazine and others. At a $90 discount this even more so the truth.
Total BitHead Design
The amplifier build is pretty solid. A hard plastic shell, two medium quality on/off toggles (power and crossfeed) and a decent plastic rolling disc volume knob. Going around the Total BitHead you’ll find two headphone jacks (great for sharing music with a friend) on either opposing corner. On the back you find a stereo line-in jack on the left and the USB jack on the right. The bottom of the amplifier has three spots for either the included velcro tabs or rubber feet. Topping it off is a rubber door to the batteries and gain adjustment.
A Short Explanation of Clipping
Everything is pretty self-explanatory through the photos with the exception of the clipping LED. Clipping occurs in two situations; either when your amplifier is trying to put out more power than it has coming in (most common) or when the power going into the amplifier is greater than it can handle. This is dangerous to both the amplifier and what they are amplifying and why investing in a high quality amplifier is so important when you have nice speakers or headphones.
More speakers are blown from being underpowered than being overpowered but most people don’t realize what is going on here to prevent it. Clipping also makes things sound horrible.
If the clipping light is flickering it means you need to turn down the volume or replace the batteries. Don’t let it play long like this or disaster can ensue. Cheap and rechargeable batteries do not have enough power for the Total BitHead. Invest in good batteries or else.
My History with DACs and Headphone Amplifiers
When I had a Dell laptop back in the day, my motherboard sound card was so noisy that I had to buy a TurtleBeach USB sound card now called the Audio Micro Advantage II. USB connections are digital and as a result do not suffer the RFI/EMI problems analog connections have. Taking the sound processing out of the computer solved the noise problem didn’t do much to amplify the now clean audio.
After spending $40 for the TurtleBeach USB sound card I still needed an amplifier to power my HD600s. So in 2002 I did my research and settled on a Class A tube headphone amplifier known as the Stello HP100 Preamplifier/Headphone Amplifier for $1,200.
In 2002 I didn’t have $1,200 to blow on a headphone amplifier. I was a senior in high school with a CD and DVD purchasing addiction. Instead I found a Chinese clone known as the Sonic Adventure Reality+ for $370.
My total for miraculously better sound was $410. For $150 you will get a setup that is about 90% the same quality (better DAC in the Total BitHead) for a 73% discount. Not too shabby! Oh yeah and the Total BitHead is portable. Comparatively, it’s a steal.
I really like the Headroom Total BitHead. It’s a great buy at $150 if you have nice headphones that need more power or if your audio source has a noisy floor as many laptops experience. Read on for gripes and thoughts on the audio quality improvements.
My Totally Subjective Gripes
The Total BitHead isn’t all rainbows and glitter. I do have a few gripes I feel I must share.
- Build quality could be improved. The plastic should really be changed out for metal or at least slimmed down. There is a lot of extra space in this thing that isn’t used. I wager a clever engineer and designer could cut this thing in half.
- The rubber battery door is just silly. First of all I’d like the door to be on the bottom of the amp, secondly the rubber makes it about 1/8″ thicker and is difficult to take off and put back on. I get why it is on top (if velcro’d to your audio player, you can still change out batteries easier) but it isn’t a good enough excuse.
- I would like to see gold-plated jacks all the way around. I know they aren’t necessarily that much better but for $150 you expect these sorts of niceties.
- The plastic volume control and switches get the job done but feel cheap.
- It needs four feet not three. Three means the entire enclosure rocks sideways when you make adjustments on the amp. Come on, one more rubber foot fixes this. Easy peasy. Meanwhile this rocking makes it feel chintzy.
The Important Stuff, How Does It Sound?
The sound quality is great. The noise floor is incredibly low and the digital audio converter seems to do the job just splendidly. I don’t hear much of a difference between the digital USB input and the analog input most of the time, except that if you have a poorly encoded MP3, man will it stick out! Apple computers and high-end sound cards these days have pretty darn good audio outputs with almost no floor noise or interference.
If you are using really efficient headphones, like most in-ear headphones, the amplifier in the Total BitHead won’t make a big difference for you. Audio might be fuller and more reliably dynamic but it isn’t night and day.
Cheap earbuds and any headphone under $50 probably won’t benefit from this amp. Buy better headphones first. You wouldn’t put 93 octane gas in a Daihatsu Charade!
With my Klipsch Image X10i and Image One headphones, I couldn’t tell a difference. These headphones are already so sensitive and slightly colored that the amplifier wasn’t going to make them any louder or richer.
My Koss PortaPro and Sennheiser PX100 sounded better without the amplification. These particular headphones turn amplification into boomy bass too easily.
However, with my Sennheiser HD600 headphones and sets of HD595s and Grado SR225s, the difference really was night and day. Bigger, fuller, richer sound. An awesome feeling of transparency which enhanced even more by the crossfeed. The Grados got loud enough on the low gain setting while the Sennheisers used as much of the high gain mode that the Total BitHead could put out.
If you have noise-canceling headphones like Bose QuiteComfort or, gag, Beats by Dre, you will not benefit enough using this amplifier to justify the purchase. Most noise-canceling headphones have built-in amplifiers made especially for their drivers.
Conclusion and Tips
Buy this DAC/amplifier if you meet the three issues mentioned in the beginning of this review. If you don’t have those issues, invest in better headphones first, then get this portable amp. Dollar for dollar, there isn’t a portable DAC/Amp on the market that competes with the Total BitHead.
If you are using the headphone jack as an audio source, keep the source at around 75% volume. I found this prevented clipping on the input side. If connected through USB, tell your computer to output at full volume.
Before I go I want to give you a quick tip. If you are using this with an iPhone, skip the headphone jack on it and use a line-out dock adapter instead. This will bypass the mediocre iPod/iPhone amplifier by using the line output of the iDevice.
I use this the adapter on the right. It’s only a few dollars and totally worth it. They come in various lengths for your convenience and have top notch build quality. On the iPad, you can use the Camera Kit to connect the Total BitHead by USB. This is even better because it puts all the digital audio decoding in the hands of the Total BitHead instead of the iPad.
Since I do not travel with my expensive, full-sized headphones, my Total BitHead sits at my desk 90% of the time connected to the previously mentioned Sonic Adventure Reality+. I use the Total BitHead as my iMac’s digital audio converter and the Reality as my headphone amplifier. The result is absolutely magical.
I invite any questions on this or other headphone amplifiers in the comments below.
- Weight: 1 lb (.5 kg)
- Dimensions: 3″ x 4.5″ x .75″
- DAC: yes
- Frequency Response: 20–20k, ±1
- THD at 1V output: <.01
- Input Impedance at 1kHz (ohms): 18k
- Amplifier Group: The Mobile Line
- Portable: yes
- Warranty: 2 Years