"I Now Travel Without a Headamp" - My Personal Journey
Originally Posted by cameron991
Maybe my ears are bad, but I cannot discern a difference.
No, your ears are not bad - unless my ears are bad, too. I use IEMs mostly for travel, and my experience may differ sharply from many frequent flyer Head-Fi'ers. I no longer care to travel with an amp, and I save the amp for use at the destination. Even then, an amp does not make everything sound better.
Much of the time, the amp causes a subtle rather than fundamental difference with IEMs. Certain IEMs have characteristics such as a high impedance that may need an amp to perform, but a large number of IEMs do not change that dramatically with an amp. The change is enough for me to use it when practical, but not enough to prevent enjoyment of my music when an amp is not used.
Other times, an amp may be used to modify the sound through it's own unique coloration - such as adding to the midrange or bass. Taking advantage of synergy is another such application. Sometimes, a particular amp makes a particular IEM sound worse, sometimes a different combination makes for a spectacular sound.
As such, I am not in the "an amp makes everything sound better" camp. The existence of synergy argues that antagonism can also take place. Some of it can be predicted - e.g. an overly warm and boomy amp with my Atrio sounds terrible.
However, synergy or antagonism means that the components in combination have an overall effect of greater magnitude than that predicted from their individual effects. This necessitates a fairly involved process of trial and error IMHE as the extent of improvement has to justify the expense.
The practical end result of all this is that I choose IEMs for travel that sound good (enough) without an amp. In a noisy aircraft cabin, I find that no IEM has a combination of isolation and prolonged comfort to equal the listening experience in a controlled home environment, or at least without dangerously high volumes.
The sonic payoff from the amp, line out dock, player and the velcro/strap/pouch/thingamajig is hard to justify given not only in-cabin noise levels and lack of space, but given the hassle we go through just to get to a boarding gate.
Another solution I'm leaning towards is choosing a more euphonic non headamp-dependent source. iPods are great for amping, but multiple options have a more euphonic headphone out. I wish the Sony NWZ series had the same capacity as my iPod Classic. Not that I listen to several days of music non-stop, but I hate having to choose what songs or video to take with me on a trip.
Some TSA employees are distinct from the GED-holders with manners and personal hygiene who have chosen other careers. On rare occasions, I've had better luck explaining the benign nature of a gadget to a (insert age of young child or grandparent here), though I haven't had anything seized yet.
I've stopped using an amp on the plane, but do use it in the hotel room or at home. Detail, transients, decay, soundstage and transparency - characteristics that to me justify using an amp - get lost when your seat is just aft of a jet engine (if your assigned seat is aft of a tail-mounted engine I'd choose a parachute over a headamp). Even custom IEMs don't sound that much better amped in a noisy aircraft vs. straight out of an iPod. Better, but not enough to override the hassle factor.
For now I'm leaning towards waiting for a high-capacity, lossless-playing, compact, versatile source with great battery life and a great headphone out.
YMMV, but it is perfectly okay to modify the "always amp everything" doctrine.