It can be tough to pair In Ear Monitors with a good amp. Their high sensitivity can be both a blessing and a burden. On the plus side, they tend to sound pretty good when driven directly from your choice of digital player. iPods, iPads, and even cell phones can handle many a IEM with ease.
Even when I found my android phone adding unwanted distortion to my full size cans, a pair of Jerry Harvey’s JH5s played the music through clear as a bell. But with great power comes great responsibility. And for these babies to reach their truest potential a very delicate amp is required to make them shine. Many top-tier dedicated headphone amps make full size cans sound brilliant, but when it come to letting out a little bit of juice sometimes amps with digital (or even analog) volume control will suffer unbalance between the left and right channels. I have experienced an amp that clearly only played the left channel at low to (even) mid audible levels with sensitive IEM headphones. This can obviously have a severely negative effect on the soundstage, even at regular listening levels.
Sometimes line noise and imperfections in design will show themselves through IEMs that would otherwise be undetectable. Even the easy-to-drive Grado SR80s missed a horrible buzzing through only the left channel of one of my DAC/Amp combos. The noise made my IEMs unlistenable. Additionally, the stepped attenuator on the unit jumped from low to high so drastically at IEM levels that I really only received music at off, medium, high and eardrum bursting levels. Enter Ray Samuel’s portable Shadow amp.
While this amp is not exclusive to IEMs (it can drive modest levels with full size headphones) it does give your little babies all the right stuff at the right levels. On top of being a good IEM pairing, this unit is small. Really small. Aside from some members of the entry-level Fiios product line, very few amps come close to the footprint the Shadow takes up on your desk.
Solid, very solid. If the Shadow had treads on it, I would swear it was a tank. There is some weight to the unit when you pick it up, but nothing that you couldn’t carry around in your pocket. The casing for the unit I received was black, but Ray offers other colors for an additional fee. It comes with a standard small headphone jack for both the output located in the front and the input in the back of the unit. It also features a USB rechargeable battery that can be filled from any laptop port. The sturdy, tiny on-off switch surprised me when it light up red upon activation. I actually like this subtle piece of design “polish”. Attention to details even within simple functionality never cease to entertain me. Next to the USB port on the back resides a single LED light that lets you know when the unit is charging, and when it is full.
The volume control is digital. The stick is sturdy and gradually raises and lowers the volume to the appropriate level. I would like to see a bit more accelerated decline in volume when compared to raising the volume, but this is really just a matter of preference. Ray mentions on his website that there are no capacitors in the signal path, attributing some of the coloration of lesser designs to the use of (even expensive) capacitors. Don’t be fooled by the micro USB port on the back, this unit is amp-only and does not contain a on-board DAC. This tiny real estate is completely dedicated to a single task, one that it accomplishes with precision and grace.
The first thing I noticed is that The Shadow fully delivered on it promise of centered, balanced sound even at low levels. IEMs can be a tricky thing. Customs can offer great isolation with little outside leakage while still offering top-tier sound, not something every full-side audiophile headphone can claim. On the downside, sometimes the soundstage can suffer in unusual ways. From my experience, IEMs tend to sound like the music is generated from two points at 45 degree angles directly in front of my head, just imagine sound sources that originate from the same direction that your ears face. This sensation most likely is an effect from music being blown directly down (and inside) the ear canal. This effect lessens over longer listening sessions, and is most noticeable when directly compared with other headphones. The nature of over-the-ear full-size headphones just lends itself to better soundstage, as the sound physically surrounds the ear more. This is one area where pairing an IEM with an amp like this will noticeably help improve the sound. It helps widen and deepen the soundstage, giving a more 3 dimensional feel to the music and reducing the effect of sound being generated from two easily identifiable points. A simple example of this that I noticed was the placement of tom toms in the drum set soundscape. Drum fills that pan from left to right (if that was the staging they were mixed with) do so with a smoother and wider presentation. With my IEM the drums sounds also seemed to swing out farther in front of me (in their progression from left to right) with the Shadow than any other amp I have. I love this effect as it gives me a small glimpse of the actual sound staging that you would experience sitting behind a drum kit during a performance.
In addition to realistic sound-staging this amp delivered jet-black backgrounds and excellent instrument separation. The Shadow showcased a great synergy with my IEMs that I haven’t really heard with any other amp. To be honest, sometimes I’m afraid to plug in the sensitive IEM headphones to my gear, as it has a tendency to reveal imperfections that higher impedance headphones can gloss over. This is not the case with the Shadow/IEM combo, it’s like they were meant for each other, and will live happily ever after in sweet sonic bliss.
If you are passionate about IEMs or are looking for one of the most portable dedicated headphone amps on the market, I highly suggest you give Ray Samuel’s Shadow a listen. I would not recommend it to drive a pair of LCD-3s, however it was able to cleanly push a pair of Sennheiser 650s to more than adequate levels. For what it was designed to do the Shadow is simply one of the best amplifiers I have heard to date.