A while back, something a little different arrived on my doorstep. It’s called the HELM Audio DB12 AAAMP Mobile Headphone Amplifier ($199), and it’s an in-line analog amp built around THX’s acclaimed AAA (Achromatic Audio Amplifier) technology.
The “Achromatic” in Achromatic Audio Amplifier means “without color.” That speaks to the amp circuit’s promised lack of distortion or noise, which THX says provides a “realistic, fatigue-free” listening experience. Most who have listened to it, including this writer, agree.
THX AAA has won many fans since it was introduced in 2016, which is probably why more and more manufacturers are putting it in their products. If you want to know more about the why and how of AAA, then check out this technical explanation.
The Fiio M11 Pro DAP we reviewed earlier this year had a AAA amp in it, and I still marvel at its transparency along with its ability to drive power-hungry headphones.
Drop, a crowdsourcing website that caters to many enthusiast communities, including headphone aficionados, has two very popular THX AAA headphone amps. They also have a highly sought-after wireless headphone with a AAA amp built-in.
The Smallest THX AAA Amp
Most THX AAA headphone amps, like the ones from DROP and others from S.M.S.L and Monoprice, are made to sit on a desktop. Monoprice and Fiio do have “portable” THX AAA amps, but they’re still about the size of a small digital audio player.
On the other hand, the HELM DB12 AAAMP is a relatively small device (about the size of a pack of gum). It’s something you can easily slip into your pants pocket.
Besides being compact, another virtue is its build quality. The DB12 AAAMP has a solid metal body and large buttons that are tightly fit into their sockets. The permanently attached 3.5mm input and output cables are sturdy with adequate strain relief.
There were a couple of things that bugged me. One was the power switch. To me, it was a little too slippery and required a bit too much force to move it between the on and off positions. But like the rest of the DB12 amp, it was sturdy and tightly set inside the unit.
I also wish there was an auto-off feature, something that turned the amp off after ten minutes or so if you forget to shut it down. I frequently forgot and ended up draining the battery a few times.
Being a portable amp, the AAAMP has a rechargeable battery to power it up while on the go. It lasts 6 hours on a charge and recharges relatively quick (a couple of hours) thanks to USB-C.
As far as accessories go, there isn’t much but a nice sized carrying pouch with a snap closure. There isn’t much more I would expect to get with a device like this. I guess a hard case would be a bonus, so you don’t have to worry about crushing it in your bag.
DB12 AAAMP Sound Test
HELM says the AAAMP gives signals coming from your source device a clean +12db gain boost. If desired, you can also get an additional +6db boost on the low end by moving the power switch past “on” to the “bass boost” position.
To test how these impressive specs sounded in real life, I hooked the DB12 to my LG V60 smartphone with the ESS quad DAC. I figured since the HELM amp didn’t have a DAC of its own, it would feed it some quality Hi-Res tunes from the LG’s Digital to Analog converter.
I plugged the male 3.5mm end into the phone’s headphone jack, and then I plugged my Focal Elear headphones into the 3.5mm female side. The AAAMP controls most mobile devices like a set of earphones with volume/playback controls, and I was able to start playback and change the volume on the V60 with the large buttons on top.
I played both hi-res files and streams from TIDAL, and just like when I first heard the Fiio M11 Pro, I was amazed at how clear and clean the sound was.
However, the HELM amp added a certain “muscle” to the sound that the Fiio player didn’t, and I liked that. The +12db gain boost made many of my over-ear headphones sing, including my Mr. Speakers (now Dan Clark Audio) Aeon Flow Closed, which are not the easiest headphones to open up.
Listening to the AAAMP compared to direct out of the V60 was like having a veil lifted off the music. On Shelby Lynne’s “Breakfast In Bed,” I felt like I was looking into the song through a clear pane of glass. Her vocal had a texture I didn’t hear when I listened directly from the phone.
The clarity and transparency of this little amp were off the charts. I couldn’t think of any other amp this small and this quiet.
Another thing I wanted to check out was the Bass Boost. Pushing the on/off switch to the right engaged it, and it added some oomph to the low end. I liked using it with the AFC closed, since it was a neutral headphone that could use some extra flavor.
However, I wasn’t a huge fan overall because I felt it affected the midrange somewhat. It seemed like the clean vocals I loved before were fuzzier, for lack of a better term. To me, it’s a cool add-on, but it’s not something I would use regularly.
The Wrap Up
The HELM Audio DB12 AAAMP is a unique product that will make any audiophile on the go very happy. If you travel a lot and want a potent amp that will bring the best out of your cans without weighing you down, then this is the product you need.
Buy Here [AMAZON; $199.99]
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.