Hippo Cricri Portable Amplifier Review
The amplifier in review is a mid range model from Hippo. Hippo is the house brand of the awesome earphones store Jaben.
What the cricri is sold as is a portable headphone amplifier. By looking around I can see that there are a lot of people who are currently looking to jump into the world of higher end audio and what better way to do that is to get a portable rig. So what most people want is a pair of closed headphones or IEMs, a portable player and a portable amplifier. The problem here is what determines a portable amplifier? Now I currently own three portable headphone amps and none of them are similar in size, weight and most importantly portability, yet they are all marketed and sold as a portable device.
So how does an amp become portable? Well this will differ from one person to the next but to me it needs to fulfill certain needs. The first one is the most important and is the size of it. It needs to be small and fit into your pocket. It is even more ideal if it is smaller than the portable player you are using which in my case is no bigger than an iPhone or Cowon J3 and all the way down to the small iPod Nano third generation. Then next factor is weight. It is near impossible to carry round amp however small that is going to be hard work. The last one of these is battery life and how it is charged.
So how portable is the cricri. Well in my opinion it is surely as portable as it gets and by far the most portable amp I have ever come across. Why is this? Simply due to its accordance with the fact that is so beautifully small. The measurements are 6 centimeters in length, 3 centimeters in width and a centimeters depth. The cricri’s tiny body is swamped by my ever so small iPod Nano and it is hidden behind it. It is also pretty darn light to, not like a feather, but still light. Even though it has metal exterior it manages to be light due to the combination of size. Out of all the amps I have owned to this date, this is the only one that I would describe as completely portable and that caused me to almost instantly fall in love before I had even witnessed its performance.
Now I am now going to mention a quick problem that this amp does have. I originally decided that I would pair it with my iPhone 4. Now I when using amps before with it I have always got the radio interference and it has never caused me any problems. However when I paired the cricri with the iPhone 4, something really quite nasty happened. First I got the interference which was slightly worse than what I have got before put I knew that it would likely go shortly. However what happened almost instantly next is that the amp cut out and turned its self of. At first I thought that I had a faulty amp but I can no conclude that the amp cannot function and be switched on with in a certain perimeter of my iPhone 4. I cannot however say how other phones will affect it but is probably quite likely to be the same, which is a real shame.
Now another factor that moves directly on from portability is the build quality of the device. It does not take a genius to work out that with the best portability it will all not matter if they cannot take any hits. A good example is if some one stuffed a great amp into a matchbox. It would be super portable but I do not want to quote how long it will last for. Now the cricri is build completely made out of metal apart from the various switches that this has which are made of plastic. Everything is flawlessly done and the housing is all held together from four screws that are located in the four corners of the amp and are screwed what seems to be fairly tight. However one thing that I have noticed is that the metal must be fairly thin. I say this because when I tap the metal housing ever so lightly I get a clicking noise. But other that, these are pretty well built and I feel ever so comfortable knowing that it is loose in my pocket.
So on to the design of this amplifier and I just so happen to find it to be the perfect match for my iPod Nano. They come in silver and black and have a very effective brushed metal finish, which looks really lush. I have the silver one and it compliments my silver iPod just perfectly. All of the writing on the housing is done in a dark grey coating and it simply labels what all the features do. There is nothing hard to understand.
Now you do get two accessories with the amp. These are a USB charging cable, which is great as it simply plugs into your computer and straight to the amp. A little red LED light turns on and then goes out when you have full charge. It is simple enough. You also get a mini (3.5mm) to mini cable so that you connect the amp instantly to a device with out having to have already purchased a after market cable. If you are using an iPod though I will recommend buying a line out dock to go with it. If not then this cable will be fine. Both jacks on it are terminated with gold plated plugs and one is right angled and the other is a straight ‘I’ plug. From end to end it is 16 centimeters long.
Now on to the main and most important part of the review, the PERFORMANCE!
I will start by saying what features the amp has. First of all I will simply say that it has a on and off button that clicks very nice. It also lights up a blue LED light when on. It has an input and an output which both only allow mini (3.5mm) jacks. For the volume we have a scroll wheel, which is fairly sensitive, and only turning it a small notch is needed to get an increase in how loud it goes. Now as for actual features go that are not the normal standard things, both my other amps have one each. My cMoy BB has a bass boost switch and my Objective 2 has a gain button. Well…. This has both! Next to the volume control you have two little flick switches labeled gain and bass. The gain switch simply ups the output of the amp so it will drive earphones with higher impedance easier but is of course a handy feature. The bass boost just adds a nice but of warmth to the earphones and just a bit more quantity and body to the mid-bass. Now with my cMoy when you turned the bass boost on you would get uncontrollable increase in the mid-bass which as extremely muddy and boomy which led to me never using it. With this is, if I ever feel in certain songs that I want a bit of something extra, and then I flick the switch and boom, lovely. I am very happy with the performance of both those little switches, the bass one works perfectly and is subtle and not over the top and the gain switch is a necessity really.
So how can this little tiny machine drive some real big headphones such as say the Sennheiser HD580 with its whopping 300 ohms of impedance. So I connect my cricri up to my iMac and then plug my HD580s into the cricri. All connected nicely. The iMac’s volume is one 90% (started at 70% but was to quiet); I set the volume to zero and the gain on low and press play. Turn the volume to full and that is not enough so back to zero and flick the gain switch to the high gain switch and go to about 90% of the cricri’s volume and their we have it. It is driving the headphones at good comfortable volume but also it sounds good However you can tell from the sound that it is lacking efficiency. So an amp so small can drive a true beast of a headphone, but just about. I will though have to go to say that 300 ohms is probably reaching its limit (in fact it is past these limit) and with anything more these will start to struggle as it is noticeable that it is less efficient than both the Objective 2 and cMoy that are much bigger amps as they are a good volume with the iMac at 60% were as you have to take this up to 90% to get the same volume sound. I will be honest these are made for IEMs and not big boys like the HD580.
So how do they drive smaller headphones or IEMs for example? Well my current favorite IEMs are the Sony MDR-EX1000 and straight out of the box I noticed that they needed a little extra juice from my Cowon J3. This was strange as their sensitivity and impedance was the same as many other IEMs that needed much less power. As for there sound it was flawless in most aspects to me apart from I felt that it lacked a bit of energy in the mids, which was a shame. Well when I hook them up with the cricri the word that comes to mind is perfection and also synergy. This amp is like a handful of energy and takes the Sony to an all-new level of sound.
Now I am going to talk about the signature of this amp. As you should expect using this amp does lead to an increase in sound quality but it does change aspects of sound you already get with an earphone. What it does do most noticeably is put the mids forward. They feel so much lusher, airy and like they are full to the brim of energy. It is also noticeable how much more transparent they are so much more detailed. The transparency of this amp is probably one of the best parts of this amp and it gets close to rivaling the Objective 2 with some IEMs and completely out performs the cMoy, which is not a shabby accolade at all. Now the treble also takes a boost in respect and it becomes much more lively and there is a sparkle increase. For this reason I would probably describe this as a bright amp. Now the bass is probably the worst off and it loses impact and sub-bass is most of the time not as powerful. The bass just feels a bit subdued with the amp until you stick the bass switch on anyhow.
Now this amp is obviously designed to be, lugged around in people’s pockets, driving IEMs and simple on ear headphones and clearly not used on a desktop with so beast of a headphone. What it does well is drive IEMs and what it does well it does awesome. Combine the fact of how awesome it sounds with its portability and the price tag of £70 and too me that equals a winner. It is just a shame it an not be used with phones as a lot of people now connect smart phones with there amps and use them as a source. I have fallen in love with this amp because of its size and what it turns my EX1000 and I will now not use it without the amp.
Edited by Swimsonny - 6/23/12 at 7:09am