One of the most subjective things in the world is music. Not only in choice of music but in how people prefer the actual audio itself. One thing is for certain: more people are enjoying their music while on the go. Unfortunately, some headphones, while comfortable, may not offer the best sound. That’s where portable headphone amplifiers come in.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Our HELM DB12 AAAMP review looks at a portable, THX-certified, mobile headphone amplifier that not only boosts your audio levels but improves music quality if you have the right source material. Read on for our full review!
The HELM DB12 AAAMP we reviewed has the following features and specifications:
|Amplifier||THX’s AAA Amplifier – THX Certified|
|Gain||+12 dB (full range)|
|Independent bass boost||+6dB on 60-100 Hz frequencies|
|Frequency response||+0.01/-0.2 dB 20Hz – 20kHz with 32 ohm load|
|Output power||• 109 mW at 16 ohms with <0.1% THD (watts per channel)|
• 111 mw at 32 ohms with <0.1% THD (watts per channel)
|Output impedance||< 0.4 ohms|
|Crosstalk||-91 dB, 10K ohms: 0.0028184%|
|Noise (A-wt)||10 uV, potentiometer at nil|
|SNR||114 dB, 3000 ohms, <1% THD|
|Harmonic distortion||• THD: -102dB, 16 ohms, 10 mW: 0.0008%|
• THD: -102dB, 32ohms, 5 mW: 0.0008%
• THD: -109dB, 10 Kohms, 0.0496 mW: 0.00035%
|Intermodulation distortion||• THD: -70dB, SMPTR 70 Hz + 70 kHz, 16 ohms: 0.03%|
• THD: -80dB, SMPTR 70 Hz + 70 kHz, 32 ohms: 0.01%
• THD: -80dB, SMPTR 70 Hz + 70 kHz,10K ohms: 0.01%
|Cable||Custom Shielded Silver Cable with Molded Strain Relief|
|Input||Stereo TRRS 3.5mm male connector|
|Output||Stereo TRRS 3.5mm female connector|
|Power supply||Internal USB rechargeable battery|
|Battery life||6+ hours in use|
|Charge time||2.5 hour fast charge|
|Dimensions||2.75 x 0.86 x 0.47″ (70 x 22 x 12mm) with 24″ cable to device and 2″ cable to headphones|
|Weight||1.08 oz (30.55g)|
What’s in the box
- HELM DB12 AAAMP
- USB-C cable
- Soft Carrying Bag
- Quickstart guide
The DB12 AAAMP by HELM Audio has a pretty basic design. The main unit is a roughly 2.75 x 0.86 x 0.47″ aluminum box. It has three inline control buttons on the top (-, multi-function, and +). One edge has a switch for off, on, and bass+. The other edge has a USB Type-C port for charging. On the bottom is the HELM Audio logo as well as the THX logo. While on the smallish side, it is a bit bulky feeling.
One end of the main unit has a 2″ cable ending in a female 3.5mm audio connector. The other has a 24″ cable ending in a male 3.5mm audio connector. The cable is nicely braided but stiffer than you’d expect. This is because it has “molded strain relief,” presumably to help keep the cable inside from kinking up. While it’s nice to have such a long cable on one end, and understandably so you have the inline controls handy, it does add quite a bit of length to your headphones or earbuds.
HELM has also included a soft carrying pouch, albeit a bit large. With a faux leather finish and nice stitching across the top, it opens easily be squeezing the edges together. There is more than ample room for the amplifier, charging cable, and manual within the pouch. As for branding, the HELM Audio logo is stamped into the front of the pouch.
Ease of Use
The HELM DB12 AAAMP is simple to use. Charge it up, plug one end into the 3.5mm jack on your smartphone, laptop, computer, or another device, then plug your headphones into the other end. Flick the switch to ON to get 12dB of volume gain. Move the switch to the Bass+ position to get an extra 6dB of bass boost.
Pressing the – button on the top lowers the volume while pressing the + button increases the volume. Pressing the middle button once plays/pauses the current track, a double tap goes to the next track, and a triple tap goes to the previous track. This was a bit hit and miss as on one smartphone the triple tap didn’t work, but worked fine on two other smartphones. When used with two different laptops, the inline controls didn’t work at all, but the manual does warn that they may not.
When plugged into the HELM DB12 AAAMP with it switched on, you’ll easily notice the 12dB increase in volume. Turn it to Bass+ mode and the extra 6dB of bass boost is equally noticeable. If you’re an average music listener, the easiest way to explain this is that with this portable amp, your volume at 25% on your smartphone might be equal to maximum volume without the amp in place (or turned off).
The DB12 AAAMP shines a bit with it’s THX-certified output more if you listen to original recordings, either through FLAC files or subscribe to streaming services like TIDAL that offer master recordings. With a regular pair of headphones or earbuds, your audio may sound decent enough, but with the THX-certified sound of this portable amp, you can definitely hear more of how the artist intended from their music.
It didn’t seem to matter which wired headphones I tested this with, from my favourite earbuds — the Creative Aurvana Trio — to the Razer BlackShark V2 and everything in between. In each case, the headphones benefited from a volume boost (whether it was needed or not), as well as a bass boost. When listening to TIDAL Master tracks and toggling the amplifier on and off, the difference in balance and audio quality was also apparent across the board.
With a stated battery life of around 6 hours, you’re definitely not going to get through an entire day or a long trip on a single charge. During testing, we were able to get close to 6 hours with the bass boost on. Charging does take about 2 1/2 hours if charged via USB-C and a fast charging adapter. My typical usage during testing consisted of about 3 1/2 to 4 hours of use in the morning, charging over lunch, then 3 1/2 to 4 hours of use in the afternoon before charging it overnight. In that scenario, I never ran out of battery life while using it. Still, it’d be nice if the unit came with at least 8 hours of battery life for those longer trips or air travel depending on where you are going.
When low on battery, the LED beside the charging port will turn red. When charging, it turns green and when fully charged the light will turn blue.
With an MSRP of US$179.99, the HELM DB12 AAAMP isn’t exactly cheap. While it does amplify your existing headphones, there are headphones coming on the market that do offer up THX sound for around that price or slightly more. Still, if you have that favourite set of headphones you don’t want to get rid of, the DB12 AAAMP will boost your sound output and quality.
While most people won’t notice too much of a difference besides the sound output increase, the difference is there if you’re subscribed to services like TIDAL that offer up master recordings. If your current headphones lack in the output department or if you are an audiophile, this portable amp definitely offers up some listening value. If your current headphones are loud enough and you don’t listen to master recordings, you likely won’t find the value with this device.
The HELM DB12 AAAMP is a portable amp that is versatile and adds extra THX-certified sound to your existing headphones if you’re an audiophile or need the volume boost.
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HELM DB12 AAAMPUS$179.99
- Easy to use
- Increases sound levels on a wide range of headphones without distortion
- Can improve sound quality when listening to original/master recordings
- Solid construction
- Includes carrying pouch
- No software required
- Bit bulky
- Cord can be super long when taking headphones into account
- Needs longer battery life
- Inline controls only work on smartphones
- Works best with original/master tracks