Headphone amplifiers are something of a niche market, and with good reason. For one, most headphones that require additional amplification are meant for use with powerful Hi-Fi systems, not low-power sources like mp3 players. For another, they're an extra bit of bulk to carry around, somewhat defeating the purpose of a portable media player being, well, portable. And yet, examples like the SoundMAGIC A10 remind us just why we shouldn't be so quick to write off headphone amps as unnecessary - in the right circumstances they make a tangible difference to your listening experience.
To look at it you would probably guess that the SoundMAGIC A10 is pitched somewhere between rival FiiO's E5 and E7 amplifiers, erring towards the side of the smaller of those physically, but matching the price of the larger, at £65. At a glance that does seem quite expensive - in fact it is quite expensive - but we've seen enough pricey audio equipment to know that you almost always get what you pay for, and the A10 definitely makes an effort to justify its cost.
The physical design is attractively understated. The 50 x 12 x 70mm frame sits well in the palm of the hand, has rounded corners and edges, making it very comfortable to hold. The matt slightly rubberised finish feels as great as it looks, and we were rather taken by the fancy golden-yellow artwork and the metal band that bisects the front of the A10, with the SoundMAGIC name emblazoned upon it.
The placement of the 3.5mm input and output jacks on the top of the A10 is the best possible, as it means when placed in a pocket cables don't get in the way. Less to our tastes is the use of an analogue volume dial on the top right corner. Frequently we found output of the A10 unintentionally changing as it moved about in our pocket - that can be solved by placing it in its supplied faux-leather carrying case, but really we'd rather see buttons. Speaking of which, the A10 lacks one for toggling its power; rather, the device turns itself on and off automatically depending on whether the 3.5mm headphone jack is in use.