There seems to be a trend afoot—what used to be the advanced features of top-shelf products are now being incorporated into entry-level models. Examples include DAW interfaces with great preamps under software control; powered monitors with sophisticated EQ/tonal controls; and dynamics processors with parallel/blending options. Even comparably mundane tools and peripheral accessories are coming down in price, too, as their feature set, value and usefulness goes up.
Case in point is the QH4 headphone amplifier from Samson. At only $69 street, its price is competitive against many other low-cost headphone amps, yet it has a number of very attractive advantages.
The QH4 takes on a compact form factor that’s small enough to easily fit onto a crowded desktop and is ideal for use in mobile recording/backpack environments. A pair of quarter-inch balanced TRS inputs; four quarter-inch headphone outputs; four volume controls (as well as a master volume); mute and mono switches (great for checking phase); eighth-inch mini-plug input and output (perhaps for stringing along more QH4s) and a DC power input make the unit, at first glance, complete, if nothing special. Yet a closer inspection reveals sturdy metal jacks, an on/off switch and a not-too-bright power LED; these are little features I do not take for granted. But most importantly, under the hood, the QH4 employs four separate amplifiers, a design which offers better performance and more stability in use.
There’s ample power to all four sets of cans connected; even when all four channels are cranked, they don’t sap each other’s headroom or output level. A bunch of Y-cables and splitters on a single headphone output jack obviously can’t offer such performance, but then again, neither can a standard four-channel amp with only a single amplifier.
Of course, no two models of headphones share the same sensitivity, as impedance levels vary wildly from model to model. That’s why your headphone mix can change so much when another band member shares the same amp with you; the overall impedance has changed, affecting frequency response and levels. Not so with the QH4, as each individual amp feeds only one set of cans and faces only one impedance load.
Sonically, the QH4 goes plenty loud—and certainly louder than you ought to go with efficient headphones. Even with inefficient headphone models like AKG’s K240—which sound great regardless—you’ll find enough power to avoid clipping. You’ll likely find that an efficient model—like my beloved Audio-Technica ATH-M50X—doesn’t need much level at all before they jump to life; the master volume control is quite helpful in finding a compromised overall level that works with the four channel-pots to achieve ample volume for everybody.
Compared to my other headphone amps, I found that the QH4 went louder more cleanly than the budget models and kept up with hot levels from premium headphone amps found in my top-shelf gear from Antelope Audio, SPL and Apogee. The Q4 did not have the perfectly flat response as found in the premium models; it offers a bit more emphasis of very high frequencies and a little less deep bass. The Q4’s balance worked really well for my darker cans (e.g. Fostex models), but was too thin and crisp with brighter cans (e.g. Sony models). The only feature I missed was the ability to variably blend in a second input for “more me” requests.
All in all, the QH4 offers an excellent feature set coupled with above-par performance, and all at a price that leads the market in the “individual amp per each channel” category. Whether you’re in a band with a disparate bunch of different cans/buds to amplify, or a lone wolf who wants to keep four different types of personal monitors patched in for ready comparisons at mix time, I can recommend the QH4 to get the job done cleanly, loudly and consistently.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording and has been a long-time Studio Contributor. twitter.com/robtavaglione