A few weeks ago, while continuing to clean out my house, I came across a brand-new, unopened package of an AmPlug Vox Lead headphone amplifier. It looks like a miniature version of a classic Vox amp head from the Beatles days, with a 1/4-inch plug that you can connect to your guitar. I am not sure how I got it, probably as a birthday or Christmas present. I never used it, and it was sitting in that drawer for probably five or so years. Since it is brand-new, I decided to just sell it on Craigslist.
About that same time, I was at a local electronics/radio swap meet and came across two headphone amps for a couple of bucks apiece. I snagged them up, more out of curiosity than necessity.
This got me to thinking about my personal love and history of guitar headphone amps. Back when I first started playing electric bass in the mid 1980s, I was also becoming fascinated with electronics, specifically with music circuits such as special effects. The internet was still in its infancy, so learning about music electronics was limited to books in the library and special editions of magazines like Popular Electronics putting out yearly supplements such as 99 Easy Electronic Projects, which may have one or two music-related circuits such as a transistor preamp or a rudimentary fuzz box.
Dear old Radio Shack was a great source for parts, and actually had a few do-it-yourself electronics kits that were geared to musicians. One was a drum machine, and another was a reverb unit. I remember the IC chip for the reverb unit was sold separately and cost about $40.00 at that time. I did save up a bunch of money at that time and built one, but the results were lackluster. Radio Shack ended up selling a pre-made one soon after, designed for audiophiles to connect through the stereo.
One Radio Shack kit that was popular was a headphone amp. It didn’t require a lot of parts, it was monophonic (not stereo), and cost about $30.00 for all parts. The IC chip was a common one known as LM386. These are still readily available through various electronics surplus shops on the internet, and a schematic for a headphone amp using the LM386 can easily be found online. I have probably built a dozen of these amps for myself and friends throughout the years.
As time has gone on, electronics costs have dropped considerably. So much that it is a lot cheaper to buy a headphone amp from an online source than it is to locate all of the parts and build it yourself. Last year, Fender introduced the Mustang Micro Headphone Amp, which has way too many bells and whistles for me. It charges up instead of using batteries, has Bluetooth compatibility, includes a dozen amp setting and 13 effects choices, and can be plugged into a computer for recording or additional tone shaping. It goes for about $120.00 on Sweetwater. Personally, I am fine with a basic headphone amp to practice with and not disturb the neighbors, and use the saved cash for other things. See what Landon Bailey has to say about it.
I will take a look at three of the headphone amps that I have on-hand, the two that I got at the swap meet and one that I got about a year or so back when I was talking about bluegrass bass guitar.
First up is the eStudio E-15 Danelectro Honeytone Headphone Amp. This was built to look like the earlier-produced N-10 Mini Amp. While the N-10 had a small speaker and was a small tabletop affair, the E-15 is even smaller, has a similar speaker grille but no speaker, and clips to your belt. It has the normal 1/4-inch guitar input jack and 1/8-inch stereo out headphone jack, along with a useful 1/4-inch out jack for plugging either into a bigger amp to use as a pre-amp or directly into a mixer/recording device. It operates either on a 9-volt battery or connects to a wall-wart transformer. There is a LED power indicator and three push-button switches for power, echo, and distortion. On the side are the volume and distortion level controls. The one I have is seafoam green, and I am aware that there were a few other colors. It has that typical Danelectro flavor to it. The distortion is pretty basic and ratty sounding, and the echo is nothing spectacular. This is a decent headphone amp that if you can pick up used for under $10.00, grab it.
The other headphone amp that I got at the swap meet is a Pocket Rock-it Stereo Sound Processor STD model from CB Labs Inc. About the size of a cigarette pack, I was really impressed with this one. On the back is a 1/4-inch plug that rotates so it can plug into just about any guitar jack at any angle. It has 1/8-inch jacks for headphones as well as an auxiliary jack for plugging in a CD or MP3 player. It uses a 9-volt battery but no power adaptor jack. Controls include the LED indicator, on/off slide switch, a three-way slide switch for clean/distortion/PRX (not sure what it stands for, but it is a shredding distortion sound), and volume and tone filter sliders. What impressed me the most on this one is the distortion sound. Through headphones, this is a killer sound, not ratty at all. Somehow the company created a circuit that makes it sound like a well-driven 100-watt amplifier through the headphones! I am seeing these go for anywhere from $15.00 to $65.00 used online. The one that I have is black, and I have seen some in a gray-metal look and different design. I highly recommend this one if only for the distortion sound, and if you can wire up some sort of adaptor from the headphone output to a line-in to a mixer or recorder for recording purposes, you will not be disappointed.
Finally, there is the Lisheng LH-380 Guitar Headphone Amplifier. I mentioned this one a while back on my blog regarding using a small headphone amp while learning bluegrass bass guitar (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/02/03/bluegrass-bass-part-2/). This one has the belt clip, LED indicator, 1/4-inch input jack, 1/8-inch headphone jack, volume and tone controls, and an off/on/distortion switch. The distortion is passable, but not controllable. This one has a small speaker built in, so you can actually use it as a mini amp, but don’t expect cranking volume. It seems to poorly distort the speaker at half-volume, and in the Distortion mode, it is cringe-worthy. I got this one for about $20.00 off of eBay I believe, and that is about how much it is worth, maybe a few bucks more.
Headphone amps were a lot more valued before the days of software that allowed you to plug into your laptop computer. Building them taught me a lot about electronics, but the field moved way too fast for me to keep up. Perhaps in a future blog I may talk about other special effects pedals that I built for my guitar and bass.
Chew on it and comment.