This has been an interesting year for HELM Audio. Following the release of their fantastic true wireless headphones, they announced some interesting products, earning them a couple of CES awards, and also supported those fighting the impact of COVID-19 a number of different ways. Among the previously announced products is the DB12 AAAMP, an in-line amp that is meant to give a lot of power in a small package. Not only does this have a lot of exciting implications, but this is also their first step in the world of premium products. With so much on the line, is the DB12 AAAMP worth investing in or are you better off with a traditional amplifier or nothing at all?
Just looking at the DB12 AAAMP’s packing shows this is a premium product. It clearly communicates what it does, the perks of having it, all in a box that is rather unassuming. On the back, there is a lot of surprisingly direct information. This includes the same basic information found on the website, along with clearly indicating what it comes with and the cable length (it’s a bit over a foot long). Inside there is a nice insert that says HELM Audio with the control box in direct view. Under that is a false bottom and then the additional accessories, which does not include lightning or USB-C to 3.5 adapters, though they make one in the form of the HELM Bolt, plus a rather nice case. If you’re curious about the case, it’s a leather bag that stays closed unless you pinch both ends or insert a finger in the middle. Needless to say, it feels like a far more premium product.
As for the device itself, it manages to look unassuming and premium at the same time. The cord parts are just black rubber, with sturdy metal ends. Around the middle is a controller box that is brushed metal that is cool to the touch. The top has three basic buttons, each with an easy to understand icon on it, with HELM Audio and THX branded on the back. On one side there is a power toggle, complete with a light indicating when it is on and when bass boost is activated, with the other side having a USB-C port for charging and a light to indicate when it’s charging. It feels strong and resilient and after taking it on the go for a bit, it held up to a good amount of normal wear/tear. However, none of this matters if the product itself is useless.
Right off the bat, it’s clear the DB12 AAAMP actually delivers a lot more power to whatever you have connected. Depending on the headphone or device connected, I could use them in extremely low settings. In some cases, I could go down to two-volume clicks on my iPhone and it was clear as day. However, the appeal isn’t powering basic headphones without much output from the device, as much as getting the most out of more demanding headphones or specific devices.
For instance, I got very little value out of this with my Meze and FiiO headphones, but they made a substantial difference with my HyperX Cloud Orbit S. With my iPhone I was able to get enough power to really block out the world, with the clarity to hear all the details in the background. Another unusual advantage occurred when I used it in my car. My stock speakers, which are as cheap as they come, were able to achieve a quality I had not heard since I used my M11 Pro in there. With bass boost activated, not only were low tones audible on the outside, a feat my car could not perform without the DB12 AAAMP, it added a lot of clarity and power, something you’d generally expect to pay a good deal in installs and parts to achieve.
Since this is a gaming news and review website, one of the biggest advantages is how easy it is to integrate into gaming set up. Using the aforementioned Cloud Orbit S headphones with my DualShock 4, yielded a much better sound experience than them connected directly. This says a lot since those headphones were our choice for best gaming headset last year and essentially the same as the widely praised Audeze Mobius.
The best way to describe the change is going from a flat sound to a more powerful one. Low tones are powerful, with mids and highs coming in crisp and clear. Even with the headphones and controller at max power, it simply could not achieve the same level of sound clarity and oomph the DB12 AAAMP offered. In fact, just standing around and turning it on and off had a radical impact on sound staging. It goes from a solid and immersive experience to feel the world around you and all the things that come with it.
Beyond making things louder in a wide variety of settings, the DB12 AAAMP boasts THX AAA technology. This basically equates to less distortion and better sound output on a variety of situations. As a result, even if you can achieve similar levels of power under certain conditions, you’ll take a hit in clarity that you’ll have a harder time finding here.
Not only does this make it a great choice for audio, but the device was also updated since marketing photos. In most photos, the device is shown as a TRS connection but the final product is TRRS, which might sound pointless, but it means the device supports voice. So whether you get a call or want to talk to someone on PlayStation 4, PC, or Xbox One, you can do so without removing the device. It also didn’t seem to a negative impact on quality, so well worth it if you want to get better sound without having to buy, set up and connect to a box.
HELM Audio DB12 AAAMP Review – Verdict
How much value you get out of the DB12 AAAMP depends on which devices you’re using. When I was using it with my Meze and FiiO M11 Pro, it basically gave me more volume at a lower number. It was when I was using lackluster devices or more demanding headphones that provided the best results. Given this device is basically meant to make the most out of your phone on the go, it achieves the desired result. The ability to use it to maximize game quality is an added bonus, especially if you have something like the Cloud Orbit S or Mobius and need a little more power. With so much versatility and functionality, it might not appeal to everyone but it does exactly what it promises and you’ll likely be satisfied if you want to boost your current set up.
[Editor’s Note: HELM Audio DB12 AAAMP was provided to us for review purposes.]