Pros: Tremendous Sound from such a small device, Plenty of power for harder to drive headphones, High quality parts, Small foot print
Cons: Price, Only Battery Powered, Inputs and Outputs could be better separated, Wait time when ordering
Presentation and Packaging
I've been a long time admirer of Justin over at HeadAmp for quite sometime. I've loved his products in the past, but never have owned one. Well this was my chance to finally step into the world of high class sound from HeadAmp. I was very excited to open the box with my Pico Power nestled inside. The box was so small, but was a nice touch. The amp was well packed with foam inserts perfectly cut-out to insure safe delivery of a rather expensive portable amp. To my surprise, there wasn't much in the packaging. Many companies provide what I call "fluff". Sometimes those things are useful, but typically not needed and end up being thrown in a drawer and never seen again. The Pico Power was already slipped into its luxurious case that is made from soft, buttery leather. It has "Pico" embossed on one side, and the HeadAmp logo embossed on the other. Overall a very nice case, that fits like a glove and protects the amp very well. Other than the case, the package includes: A large card that shows the features, information about the batteries used, and his warranty policy for the amp, and a set of flat-head screw caps to replace the set already installed on the amp, in case they are damaged or break. That is it. No fluff, no coupons, nothing but pure basics.
Just a few notes about the process of purchasing a select few of Justin's amps (Pico Power included). Be prepared for a long wait. Justin's products are very well made, almost to the point of being custom made, so the wait will bother some. His products are very well respected, and are a fine example of small company that competes with the best there is to offer. I personally didn't have a problem waiting a few months for my amp to be ready to ship, but some people will find the wait time to be unbearable, so please take warning on that. Also note that the Pico Power is "In Stock" now (July 8, 2013) at Justin's website - www.headamp.com. The initial batch of Pico Power's were sold out in a matter of days. It seems as though Justin may continue to keep the Pico Power in stock so that wait time will not be an issue. If that is the case, no worries and I'm very jealous.
Build Quality and Form Factor
What is there to say? If you know anything about Justin's amps, it is that they are made with the highest quality materials and assembled by hand to insure top quality control. I would consider his company boutique and it is run like one. The full enclosure (including the battery cover) is made from precision machined aluminium and is anodized to look and feel sleek and smooth. The quality is truly top notch and I can't say that I have every felt something built better in regards to portable devices. The amp is offered in a variety of colors that include: Black, Silver, Grey, Red, Orange, Blue, and Purple. I choose the Black color options just because that is the way I roll, but I have seen the Purple variation and it is simply stunning. The volume pot is also well built, and very smooth. The knob could be a tad larger for bigger hands, but it is acceptable for a portable device. I can understand why Justin choose this size of knob so that it would not protrude much for risk of damage. The jacks (3.5 input, headphone output) are both secure and don't wiggle at all. I have experienced other headphone outs that wiggle a bit and don't securely grip the jack, but that is not the case with the Pico Power. The On switch and the selectable gain switch both have good resistance to them and don't feel cheap at all. They don't seem like the type of switches that will break after a year of use (I'm looking at you ALO). The LED light indicator is not too bright, nor too dim, it is just right. I've found that is shares very similar lumination to the Headstage Arrow 4G. Overall the quality of this amp is without a doubt the best I've ever had the privilege of owning. Has the same, high quality feeling as Justin's desktop amps, and that is saying a lot in the portable world.
When I first ordered the Pico Power, I was expecting this large enclosure similar to some of the RSA offerings or even as big as the Lisa 3. To my pleasant surprise the Pico Power has a very humble footprint measuring smaller in size than the FiiO E12. It is a tad thicker, but the dimensions are actually smaller. In the features, Justin states that the Pico Power might be the smallest 2x9V amp there is. It is no bigger than an iPod Classic, and is only 0.1" thicker than the actual 9V batteries. A very hard thing to pull off, but Justin has passed the test with flying colors.
The actual dimensions of the Pico Power are: 4 3/8" (L) x 2 1/4" (W) x 3/4" (H).
Size Comparisons (more to come) -
So the question at hand is how does it sound? How does your other gear sound? Because that is how the Pico Power will sound. The Pico Power is as neutral as it’s going to get.
The first question that I like to start off with is: What sets the Pico Power apart from its competitors? Well, there isn't one answer to that question, but for the sake of my review... I would say it would have to be the Pico Power's unmatchable way of presenting music. This amp is truly wire with gain. Similar to many of Justin's other amps, the Pico Power is simply the most neutral presentation I have heard from any portable amp (I've heard quite a few - and have owned a fair amount). The first time I turned on my Pico Power, it was plugged into my iPod Touch 4G + CLAS and wow was the sound magical. I was getting no coloration what so ever. Off first impressions, I couldn’t characterize the Pico Power because it didn’t have any characteristics. Whatever your gear sounds like, is exactly what you are going to hear. The Pico Power builds on what is there, and makes it that much more refined. The bass has more control. The notes have more weight and the treble is very detailed. Using my Tralucent 1plus2 IEMs, the sound was just specatuclar. I was using my 1plus2’s with my AK120 alone, but after hearing the Pico coupled it is hard to go back. Every aspect of the 1plus2’s that I enjoyed so much was enhanced and taken up a notch. One thing I should mention is that the Pico Power is very revealing. Because of its nautral ability to represent music with supreme neutrality, it can sound incredible or like glass shattering depending on your source. You can’t expect this amp to mask or somehow make the sound quality better if you don’t feed it quality. But if you do, the sound is truly among the top in the portable amplifier world.
The sound was simply better than some desktop amps I've heard. At the time, I had a modest setup at my work desk which included a Matrix M-Stage, coupled with my Asus Xonar Essence STX sound card running as the DAC. This setup brought me great sound quality while on the cheap, and was sufficient enough to power my Mrspeakers Mad Dog headphones. When I replaced my M-Stage with the Pico, to my surprise the sound was actually better. The definition and body of the songs sounded more full and the low end was something else. One of the greatest sound features of the Pico Power is the way it renders bass. It doesn't emphasize any part of the spectrum, but improves on the existing sound with more weight and body. The bass reached low, and has great punch with the Mad Dogs. The vocal were liquid smooth with no sign of harshness or sibilance. The treble was very refined and well extended. The amp simply represents your source and headphones the way they were meant to sound. If I could compare the tonality and sound signature of the Pico Power it would be very similar to the GS-1 desktop amp. They sound very similar, but the difference is you can travel and be on-the-go with this! Never did I expect such a small package like the Pico Power to match desktop quality sound, but I'm glad I gave it a shot because this amp truly is remarkable.
The Pico Power's price tag is quite high, so I decided to give the little guy something that matched it in regards to prestige. Recently I had the opportunity to compare two different setups using the Pico Power as the common denominator. For my first setup up the components consisted of: IPC 7G 160GB (Rockboxed) + Whiplash Audio Custom Twag v2 LOD + VentureCraft Go-Dap DD Socket 1 "Limited Edition" 12V (w/ opamp MUSES02) + BTG Audio SPC Micro Mini to Min + Tralucent 1plus2 (w/ Uber Cable). My second setup consisted of: AK120 (Stock 1.0 FW) + ForzaAudioWorks Claire ICS Mini to Mini + Tralucent 1plus2 (w/ Uber Cable). What an adventure. I still consider myself a young gun to the more experienced folks in this community, as well as a hardcore headphone enthusiast but these two portable setups simply stunned me. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Never in my wildess dreams did I think a portable setup could match the likes of some of my desktop setups. Well, they did. They still have a few notches to go to match my main setup, but the ability to be portable/transportable (i.e battery powered, durable, and small) this amp really did impress. Each setup had a different flavor, but my preferred portable setup for on-the-go is a slightly warm neutral presentation that is never harsh are sharp in the treble, while maintaining good extension and smooth treble. Overall I preferred the AK120 + Pico Power, but the VentureCraft setup actually did better with my full-sized cans. I would assume it has to do with the fact that the AK120 doesn't have a true line out, but that is just speculation.
Overall you are getting one heck of an amp, not limiting to just portable amps, if you are considering the Pico Power. It has tons of power to drive headphones such as the Beyerdynamic T1, LCD-2, HE-500, or HD800. It can perform very well against moderately price desktop amps such as the M-Stage, D100, HA-160, just to name a few I've heard and can attest to. It has a small foot print considering its power output and perfectly stacks with DAPs such as the iPod Classic, Touch, and AK120. If you are looking for a portable amp that has a neutral presentation, and doesn't color your music than the Pico Power might be for you. It takes what you hear and improves upon it in all departments. Simply an amazing product that I'm happy I took the dive on. Is it worth the price? For me it was, but for some that believe value is #1 priority might think this amp is a bit too expensive. Let me tell you, that you won’t want to try another portable amp. It meets all expectations for me, and has very few flaws (I’m being highly nitpicky here). If you can get past its battery-only configuration, the somewhat cluttered in’s and out’s, and the cost then everything else will not disappoint.