When I was living in Boston in the mid-70’s, I ended up meeting and becoming friends with the audio dream team at Advent, the legendary speaker company. The ‘alchemists’ included the brilliant founder, Henry Kloss (KLH>AR>Advent>Cambridge SoundWorks>Tivoli Audio) Tom DeVesto (Advent>Cambridge SoundWorks>Tivoli Audio>Como Audio), Andy Pettit & Frank Reed (Advent>Boston Acoustics) and the wunderkind, Tom Holman (Advent>APT>THX), inventor of the legendary Holman preamp, fully commercialized by the APT Corporation.
A few years after I began hanging out at Advent, Tom headed to Marin County in 1982 to join Lucasfilm, creating THX, the audio certification platform that ensures that films sound their best in theaters. This was a critical element for the growth of multiplex cinemas in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Whether it was the next installment of ‘Star Wars’, ‘Terminator’ or a cruise on ‘Titanic’, the superior soundscape made it seem much more real.
The ‘must sound great’ mantra lives on in the THX Certified Helm Audio DB12 AAAMP mobile headphone amplifier ($199.99 list price)
The DB12 is a small unit measuring 2.8 x 0.9 x 0.5 inches (LxWxH) and weighing only 1.08 ounces. A 24-inch cable emerging from one end terminates in a 3.5mm TRRS (tip-ring-ring- sleeve) male plug, while a 2-inch cable at the other end terminates in a 3.5mm female audio jack. Both cables are custom-shielded silver with molded strain relief.
Essentially, the DB12 is a powered headphone amplifier cable. As such, it relies on a physical connection at both ends. That means the source device must have a headphone output, which many smartphones and other mobile devices no longer have. If a device doesn’t have such an output, you will need an adaptor for it. Since my Samsung Note 20 Ultra doesn’t have a headphone jack, I purchased a JSAUX adaptor for $19.95 on Amazon. It works perfectly, providing an onboard USB C port, allowing charging while headphones are being used.
The unit is well-designed, with volume and play-pause controls that are very responsive. The DB12 is powered by an internal battery that is rechargeable by using its USB type C connection.
For me, the magic of the DB12 lies in its bass boost, it’s very effective, adding whoomph without booming. The frequency response is specified from 20Hz to 20kHz (+0.01/-0.2 dB) with a 32-ohm load. The full-range gain is stated to be +12 dB with an independent bass boost of an additional +6 dB for frequencies between 60 and 100Hz.
My reference tracks for many years have both been from Jennifer Warnes’ masterpiece, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, considered by many audiophiles to be the best vocal album ever recorded. Both “First We Take Manhattan” and “Song Of Bernadette” were noticeably enhanced by the DB12 while listening on a very basic pair of AKG’s. I then tried the same tracks on my Ultimate Ears and was taken to a whole other place!
Costing nearly as much as a pair of premium headphones, the main question for me was “is the DB12 worth it?” The answer, unequivocally ‘YES’. If you haven’t tried it, you won’t miss it. But, once you plug it in, you won’t want to listen to music on the go without it.
- Small form-factor
- Simple to use
- Noticeable audio enhancement
- No user-controlled fine tuning of amplification
- Requires USB C headphone adaptor for high-end phones
- A sizeable but ultimately worthwhile investment