Periodic Audio Nickel Headphone Amplifier Review
Don’t be fooled by its diminutive dimensions – this minimalist portable amp punches above its weight, says Kevin Goh…
Nickel Headphone Amplifier
AUD $259 RRP
If sassy website copy is anything to go by, this is a winner. “Using Your Phone’s Built-In Amp is Like Bringing A Thumbtack to a Gun Fight. So We Built a Thermonuclear Missile For You. You’re Welcome.” It’s pithy, funny and makes the point perfectly – smartphones were never designed to be high-quality audio sources. They often have weedy analogue output stages, and generate lots of electrical noise inside – making for something that’s never going to give good sound.
Periodic Audio of California has designed a portable amplifier that it describes as “a pocket-sized power plant for your ears”; called the Ni (Nickel), it currently costs $259 AUD, complete with a mini-plug interconnect cable and USB to mini-USB charging lead. The unit is staid looking but impressively compact, with a textured exterior that allows for easy gripping. Its polycarbonate chassis feels more than adequate to survive the rigours of a rough-and-tumble lifestyle. Being slightly larger than two triple-AAA batteries, it weighs in at a featherlight 20g; it’s so tiny that it simply melts away into the background of daily existence.
The Nickel sports 3.5mm input and output jacks and has a power LED indicator to tell you when it’s on. With zero buttons or switches, it’s an unorthodox design; the unit instead powers itself up whenever a connection is made with both its input and output jacks. Upon detection, the LED indicator lights up, turning from red to orange to green. Once it turns green, the unit is completely on. Disconnect both jacks, and the unit turns itself off through the same process, but in reverse. This makes it a breeze to use.
To me, this button-free design does feel slightly counterintuitive, and I’m not best impressed by the quality of its 3.5mm socketry, either. All connected up you get an approximate battery life of 8 hours per charge, which takes only half an hour. When the LED is green the battery is in peak condition, when orange the unit is half full and when it’s red then it is close to empty. Usefully, you can listen and charge it at the same time.
I tried the Nickel with my Google Pixel 2XL laptop, and used a DD Hifi TC35B Dongle to connect the transport, plus my computer’s onboard soundcard and a pair of Kinera Nannas – a high impedance, low sensitivity, electrostatic hybrid earphone. The manufacturer claims 250mW into a typical 32-ohm load, which is sufficient to add some useful boost to the analogue outputs of most smartphones or PC soundcards.
The Nickel certainly offered enough punch to make the Nannas sing, driving them up to deafening volumes. It also removed some of the bass bloat of the source; on Peggy Gou’s Itegahane, the Chicago-styled basslines sounded more reserved and more precise. It displayed excellent control over the low-end without contravening on the Nanna’s signature sound.
Its pristine midband proved clean and free from any unwanted tonal artefacts. Carole King’s saccharine vocals were further enhanced on So Far Away, and the upper registers featured similar improvements. With Iamamiwhoami’s Vistas, Jonna Lee’s porous vocal production was given an almost ethereal quality, with things sounding more nuanced, allowing smaller details to push through to the forefront of the mix.
My Kinera earphones are famous for depth and width that spans beyond the ears, emulating the dimensional capabilities of full-sized headphones. Paired with the Nickel, I heard a marked improvement in spatiality. With Dry the River’s Shaker Hymns, the harmonious interplay between multiple vocals from both left and right channels sounded more disparate, with better-separated imaging. However, the confluence of the entire mix remained coherent, without sounding disjointed. The only obvious downside was some audible hiss, which slightly detracted from an otherwise pleasing listening experience.
Overall then, the Periodic Audio Nickel ticks the right boxes and satisfies most of its intended goals, but some background hiss and socketry quality issues prevent it from getting top marks. All the same, this likeable little product is a sign of promising things to come from this young bespoke brand.
For more information, visit Periodic Audio.
Raised in Southeast Asia’s largest portable-audio market, Kevin’s interest in high-end audio has grown alongside it as the industry flourishes. His pursuit of “perfect sound” began in the heydays of Jaben in Singapore at the age of just 10 years old. Kevin believes that we live in a golden age of readily accessible, quality audio. While pursuing a dual degree programme at the University of Queensland, he’s also a keen vinyl-records collector.