Portable Audio-listening Heaven, Part 2: The Simpl A1 Headphone Amplifier for iPod

by C.K. Sample III Jan 12, 2005

Last week, in Portable Audio Heaven, Part 1, I reviewed Shure’s E3c Sound Isolating Earphones, which can be used both with your iPod, iPod mini, and your brand new iPod Shuffle. As I noted last week, the Shure E3c earphones will get you one step closer to portable audio listening nirvana, but there’s more that can be done.

The Shure E3c will ensure that your iPod’s sound is clear at low and normal volume levels, but due to the iPod’s limitations the sound may not remain clear at higher volumes. The audiophiles among you will notice that the iPod’s internal amplifier can sometimes muddy things up when the music is cranked. How can you un-muddy it? With an external amplifier. Enter the Simpl A1.

The Simpl A1 Headphone Amplifier for iPod (Website; MSRP $149.99)

The Simpl A1 Headphone Amplifier for iPod looks like a little white plastic rocketpack for your iPod. It perfectly hugs the back of your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation iPod using its “podGrip” technology. It won’t hook on to your iPod mini, but since it works via a simple audio-in and audio out, you can still use it with your iPod mini (or iPod Shuffle), but you’ll need to develop some special apparatus to hold it in place. The white plastic design is well-matched to the iPod, but consider that there isn’t an iPod case (yet) to accommodate the Simpl A1. For you iPod-case fanatics, this means your iPod will be bare-naked iPod with the Simpl A1 strapped on; however, consider that you can still protect your iPod from slight scratches with an HP tattoo for your iPod. As a bonus, the Simpl A1 nicely covers up the unsightly gap that the HP tattoo leaves unprotected on the back of your ‘Pod.

The Simpl A1 comes with a long USB to USB-mini cable for charging via your computer as well as a stereo mini to mini audio cable, about 2” in length, to plug the headphone port on your iPod into the audio in of the Simpl A1. This is where things get a little tricky. The Simpl A1 is rated at 0.5W of output power and 110dB signal/noise with a 10hz-22kHz frequency response, and it’s interface is a simple on and off button. This means it is either turned off or loud. Very loud. Turn your volume all the way down before turning this bad-boy on. There are warnings all over the place, even on the inside of the Simpl A1, but I just want to underscore this point again: Do not put your headphones on, crank the volume on your iPod, and hit the on switch on this device. I also advise that once you find the appropriate level for listening by slowly turning up the volume, make sure you switch the HOLD button into place so that you don’t accidentally turn up the volume dramatically.

If you ignore these words of caution, as I’m sure some people will, you will blow out your eardrums / severely damage your hearing / give yourself a quick ringing shock as some deep self-preservation instinct moves you to knock your headphones from your ears. As a test, I left Apple’s standard earbuds sitting on the counter, with the volume on the iPod cranked all the way and hit the on-switch of the Simpl A1. The result? The earbuds started dancing on the countertop, crackling as if they would blow at any moment, and the music could be heard from clear across the room. This is no mild-mannered amplifier. It does what it does extremely well.

That being said, it is a great product. If you like to rock out to Radiohead or Beethoven at loud volumes and you want to hear every multilayered note clearly without any muddied effect, the Simpl A1 amplifier is for you. While testing it, I spent many hours head-banging to Guns N’ Roses and Metallica at loud volumes, just as I did in high school, but in my own private sound-bubble of clear audio bliss.

Also, in case you still don’t believe me about how loud and effective this amplifier is, I conducted another little test. I took my electric guitar, which I have been playing since I was 11. I plugged it into the Simpl A1 using Griffin’s Garageband Guitar Cable and plugged the audio out into my Tivoli iPal, which I had turned down to a very moderate listening level. I hit the on button on the Simpl A1, strummed a rock-chord on the guitar, and presto! Instant guitar amp. Very loud and clear, with just the right amount of distortion when I cranked up the volume. Just as with the Shure E3c earphones, the Simpl A1 can work with any audio device with a stereo-mini plug. Often during testing, I would switch from using the Simpl A1 with headphones to using it with my Tivoli iPal. In all cases, the results were the same: Louder listening levels with preserved clarity and without sound artifacts or muddied sound quality.

The battery life on the Simpl A1 would seem to be very close to the advertised 16 hours (although I must admit, I lost track of time with all the rocking out I was doing). Also, there is no petering out of the signal. When the Simpl A1 loses the charge to amp at the levels you expect, it drops dead. The green light stays on, but all sound stops. Simply turn it off to pass the audio through using the iPod’s integrated volume control, and pull out its USB cord to recharge it (which takes about 2 hours).

One more thing, since the iPod remains at a low-volume setting, relying on the Simpl A1 for amplification, the iPod’s battery-life lasts slightly longer than it normally would, which is good news for all you metal-heads wanting to crank as much ear-ringing head-banging as possible into each rocking-out session. If you really want to know how to crank long-life out of your iPod’s charge, check out next week’s third and final installment of Portable Audio Heaven, in which I will reveal the secret to having an always-charged, ever-playing iPod!


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