Are you a DJ or studio mixing and mastering engineer who takes pride in your listening experience?
If you are, then we’re sure you already know the importance of having the right headphone amp.
Such jobs require you to get the best possible sound coming out of your headphones to deliver the best possible show to your audience and the right mix to your listeners.
If you’re experienced in such jobs, then it’s safe to assume you’ve already figured out the kind of headphone amp that is best for you. But if you aren’t, then choosing the right headphone amp may be quite confusing, as there are various headphone amplifiers in the market, each of which has different specifications and compatibility.
Not to worry, we’re here to help you choose a headphone amp, which is why we’ve put this article together!
Keep reading, as we’ll be giving you vital tips on how you can choose the right headphone amplifier to help your headphones sound better.
Headphone amp explained
If you’re fresh into the business of sound engineering of any form, you may not even know what a headphone amp is, let alone knowing how to choose the right one.
At some point or the other, you must have seen professional DJs coming into an arena with loads of equipment in hand, and you may have asked yourself what all those tools are for.
Well, you can bet that one of those electronic devices included in the DJ’s stack is a headphone amp. And they depend on it, so their headphones sound better.
What exactly is a headphone amp?
The word amplifier says it all.
A headphone amp helps to bring out the best sound quality from your low impedance headphones. To be more specific, a headphone amp helps boost the loudness of your headphones while maintaining little to no distortion.
Those low impedance headphones of yours may need a little bit of audio boost, and an amplifier can do that for you!
It is worthy of mentioning that there have been ongoing debates among industry professionals as to whether you may even need a set of headphone amplifiers or not. Another popular debate is whether some amps are beneficial to some low impedance headphones or a total waste of investment.
Whatever the case is, the fact remains that headphone amps can boost low volume levels and reveal some hidden sounds that impedance headphones cannot produce.
That said, let us look at the factors you need to consider before spending your money on a headphone amplifier.
Do you need an Amp?
One of the first considerations you have to make when choosing a headphone amp is whether you even need a headphone amplifier in the first place. For those who aren’t professional audio engineers, the truth is you may already have one.
You may not know this, but not all headphone amplifiers are external medium-sized boxes with audio jacks. Some are built into your mobile devices.
Yes, your phone, desktop, laptop, and iPods all have amplifiers in them, and that is why you are getting good audio from your headphones in the first place.
Just to be clear, when people speak of purchasing a headphone amp, they are talking about external amplifiers which can improve headphone performance.
Determining if you need a headphone amplifier or not is purely based on whether you will notice significant improvements in your impendence headphones vs. the built-in amplifier.
Ideally, you would like your impedance headphones to have the right amount of power. So it will sound loud enough with no distortion.
All you have to do to determine if your impendence headphones need an amp or not is to look at your headphone’s impedance (we will discuss impedance headphones later in the article).
Also, if your internal amplifier section adds coloration, it would be wise to go for something more transparent.
Now it’s time to choose a headphone amp, but how do you decide?
In a bid to get outstanding audio from your headphones, getting a good amplifier should be top on your list (that’s if you’re looking to get some professional work done and you’ve determined that you indeed need an amp).
The good thing about headphone amps is that they aren’t expensive (even though some brands may be more expensive than others). Nonetheless, a little out of your pockets should get you a good amp for your headphones.
Now how do you choose a headphone amp?
It’s simple. Just consider a few factors, and your decision will be easier to make. Some of the things you need to consider include good audio (that’s what the headphone amps are used for in the first place), portability, price, and so on.
Keep reading, as we’ll be looking at these considerations in detail. In the end, you’ll find it easier to choose the best headphone amplifier for you.
First consideration: Do you need a portable or desktop amplifier for your headphones?
Among the many things you have to consider when buying a headphone amplifier is whether you’ll be needing a portable version for your headphones or one that is permanently placed by your workstation.
As you must have already guessed, a portable headphone amplifier is small in size and can be easily moved from one place to another. They can be fit into a backpack and are usually lightweight.
This sort of headphone amplifier is ideal for those whose jobs constantly take them on the road. For example, a freelance DJ who gets gigs here and there will need to take their equipment to different locations (depending on the venue of the event or party).
A portable amplifier is ideal in this case, as it can fit into a bag and be carried around with ease. So if you have such a job, then a portable amplifier is the best choice for your headphones.
On the flip side, the larger amplifiers that cannot be moved from one place to the other will be the best choice for an audio professionals whose jobs require them to be at the same workplace. A studio engineer, for example, can opt for a dedicated headphone amplifier. This is because all the audio work is performed in one place. Therefore there is no need to move the amplifier from one location to another anytime there’s work to be done.
Another good example of a professional who can do with a desktop amplifier is a club DJ. All the equipment can be set up in the club and be used on club nights. If that’s the DJ’s permanent place of work, then there’ll be no need to move the desktop amplifier around. It can be placed there permanently.
Now that you understand the instances where a portable amp and desktop amplifier can be used, you can decide based on your regular type of job. If your job requires you to move your equipment from one location to another, a portable amp is for you. But if you have a permanent workplace, then a desktop amp will do just fine.
It is worth mentioning that a portable amp (besides being easily moved around) has other advantages.
One of which is Bluetooth usability, as you can connect most models to your Android or iPhone devices. It is also important to mention that portable amplifiers are dependent on batteries, which means they will need to be charged every time the power is low. They also have fewer features than a desktop amplifier (as you would expect because of their very small size).
As for desktop amps, they do not need batteries to be powered. All you have to do is plug it into an AC outlet for power. Their size also allows them to possess more features and functionality than portable amps. This makes them the ideal choice for professional use.
One more thing that we have to point out is the price differences between the two. Various manufacturers will indeed price their amps differently, but don’t assume that a portable amp will have a lower price than a desktop amp just because it’s smaller.
That’s far from the truth, as portable amps cost as much as $300, while desktop amps cost lower at $120. At this stage of your decision-making, it would be wise to figure out what you’ll be using your amp for.
Is it for stationary or mobile use?
You can consider the price after answering this question.
Second consideration: What type of sound quality are you looking for?
The main purpose of having a headphone amplifier is to improve the sound quality of your headphones.
If the amp cannot do that, then why bother getting one in the first place?
Of course, not all headphone amps are built the same, but rest assured that almost any headphone amp will give you a noticeable boost in your sound, regardless of the manufacturer.
Amps consist of several components, and they all determine just how good the audio will be.
So how do you know when an amp has improved the sound quality of your headphones?
Try to use it to listen to music.
Yes, all you have to do to know if one amp sounds better than the other (at least according to the type of sound you are looking for) is the quality of sound in your ears—nothing more, nothing less.
By merely listening to music, you can tell in an instant just how much the amp has improved the audio quality coming out of your headphones. However, if you do not notice any improvement in the audio quality after listening for a few minutes, do not buy the amp.
You can try out another one to see if it meets up with the kind of sound quality you want. You’ll find what you’re looking for after testing a few amps. While at this, keep it at the back of your mind that the sound quality you want is sometimes different from the sound quality you need.
Here is what I mean.
A professional mixing engineer or DJ cannot afford to have poor audio quality, which will mess up their shows or final mix. A professional of this nature will need the best sound quality to hear all the audio dynamics and do a good job.
However, those who are not professionals may not need the best sound quality, as they are probably just listening for personal entertainment. If you fall into this category, then almost any amp will be good enough for you.
Third consideration: Do you need a DAC in your headphone amp?
When listening to any form of digital audio (music from iTunes, for instance), the music must first be converted into an analog sound. If this conversion does not take place, then you won’t be able to hear the music.
For digital sounds to be played out as analog, you will need a DAC to do the job. In case you didn’t know, a DAC is a Digital-to-Analog Converter, and they are present in every smartphone and laptop that plays audio sounds.
Outside of your smartphones and laptops, every other headphone amplifier has to work alongside a DAC, except when listening to music already in analog format (like vinyl, for example).
When you’re in the market for a headphone amplifier, you can continue to use the built-in DAC in your smart device (just connect it directly to your amplifier with an RCA cable), then place a dedicated DAC box in-between the amp and the source to get the best audio quality.
On the other hand, you can go for the most convenient option: purchasing an amplifier that already has a DAC built-in. You can connect this directly to your device with a USB cable.
Most purists will frown at this, as they would prefer to have a separate DAC, regardless of how inconvenient the extra load may be. However, times have changed, and technology has allowed us to have more functionality out of smaller single-unit devices.
Why wouldn’t anyone appreciate the convenience that comes with having a headphone with a built-in DAC/amplifier?
That’s like making the best use of your devices, as you have a pair of headphones that includes all you need to produce great sound quality and still offers you portability.
Fourth consideration: Bluetooth or cable?
It is common for smaller headphone amps to come with Bluetooth compatibility.
This should come as good news to those in for entertainment and not due to their profession. That aside, headphone amps with Bluetooth compatibility are more convenient, as they do not involve long wires that can get in the way.
To use a Bluetooth headphone amp, all you have to do is connect the headphones to the amp with the cable, then plug in the amplifier to a power source device (your phone, for instance) via Bluetooth. By doing so, you can have your phone and Bluetooth amp in your bag while your headphones are glued to your ears. We’re sure you’d find this setup convenient, but if you are extremely keen on having the level of fidelity that physical wires offer, you should skip the Bluetooth option.
As we have already mentioned, Bluetooth amps are usually small and portable, so go for it if you prefer the convenience. But keep in mind that Bluetooth amps offer less fidelity than wired amps.
The good news is, you can use your headphone amp with wireless headphones. All you have to do is connect the headphones to the amp using a dedicated cable, which bypasses their internal amp. Provided there is a 3.5mm input, and then your connection will be hassle-free. This allows you to use your cordless headphones while you’re on the move, then connect them to your desktop amp when you want to amplify the audio sound.
Fifth consideration: How much are you willing to spend on headphone amps?
Your considerations will not be complete if you haven’t yet decided how much you are willing to spend on a headphone amplifier.
Price is always a factor when making any purchase, as most consumers want to get the very best value for their money.
With that in mind, let’s not forget that different amps attract different costs, as some manufacturers have more pedigree than the others; hence their headphones will come at a higher price.
This is not to say that the high-end options are the best, as that is far from the truth.
As far as amps go, as long as they are built with the same specifications and components, they will produce the same power, regardless of the brand name.
You’d be shocked to hear that you can get a good headphone amplifier for as low as $65. Although this may not be a popular brand, would you care if it sounds great?
Another thing you have to consider with regards to price is the power output of the headphone amp. Those that deliver more power would most likely be more expensive than those that deliver less. And that too still depends on the popularity of the manufacturer.
All in all, before you pay for a headphone amp, be sure of the kind of performance you want from it. If you’re looking for higher power, then you should step up your budget. But it wouldn’t be wise to pay, say, $200 for an amp that has the same specifications and output as an amp that costs $100. As long as their specs are the same, they will produce the same power output, regardless of the price.
We need to be real though, some of us love brand names attached to buying things.
So if you’re such a person, then feel free to roll out $1,000 to $10,000 for your brand-name amplifier. Of course, pricier amplifiers usually have extra features like an extra headphone jack. And for those using more than one headphone, an extra headphone jack is surely useful.
Sixth consideration: Matching your headphone amplifier with your headphone
You may be unaware of this, but almost all headphone amplifiers will power almost any headphone. You could hook up the priciest amplifier in the market to a small pair of earbuds, and it will function perfectly (unless, of course, you decide to turn up the volume to ridiculously high levels).
If you don’t agree, then there’s something you can do to make sure the amplifier you are buying is good enough for your headphones. Simply look at your headphone’s impedance level (which is usually placed in the specification sheet). Impedance represents the amount of electrical resistance each headphone possesses, and it is measured in ohms.
After checking the impedance, take a look at the amp specs to confirm if the two match. Most amps in the market will offer headphone impedance levels of about 16-6-600Ω. As long as the spec sheet of your headphone shows an impedance level within this range, you are good to go.
If you decide to be extremely technical, then there are other means by which you can determine if your amplifier is producing the required amount of power for your headphones. Ideally, when a headphone is connected to an amplifier, the variances in electronic signal may lead to unnoticeable audio glitches. One of such glitches is a calm hum in the background, which is usually faint behind the music or audio being played.
This hum can be avoided when you apply “the rule of eights.” This entails dividing your headphone impedance by 8, and the result will give you a satisfactory output impedance of your amp. For instance, if your headphone impedance is at 32 ohms, and you use the rule of eight, it means the perfect amp for you will be one that has an impedance of 4 ohms.
This is overkill as far as checking headphone/amp compatibility is concerned, as your headphone amp will work great with your headphone either way.
Seventh consideration: Balanced or unbalanced connections
If you don’t plan to spend heavy bucks on a headphone amp, one vital decision you will have to make will revolve around choosing between a headphone with balanced or unbalanced connections.
Balanced and unbalanced connections refer to the headphone wire and its compatibility with the amplifier. An unbalanced headphone wire has a split end, which comprises the signal wire and the ground wire. This implies that a regular 3.5mm or 6.3mm connection will most likely be unbalanced.
On the other hand, balanced cables ends are split into 3: two signal wires and one ground wire. The major difference between a balanced and an unbalanced connection is that the former reduces audio distortions while the latter is slightly prone to distortion.
This is not to say that having an unbalanced connection is a crisis, far from it. Just make sure you buy an amplifier with a balanced connection if ultimate hum-free audio performance is what you’re looking for.
Eighth consideration: Tube or solid-state?
Another important choice you’d have to make when selecting the right amplifier for your headphones is choosing between a tube or a solid-state amp. This decision is so vital because it affects the nature of the sound you’ll get at the end.
The solid-state amps are the more popular choice, and this type of amp depends on discrete internal circuitry to transmit audio. On the other hand, tube amps deliver audio via glass vacuum tubes, producing a difficult audio quality.
Besides looking much better than solid-state amplifiers, tube amps can also be replaced with other tubes. This should be an ideal feature for those who like to have a customized setup.
The big question hanging now is how to know if an amplifier is a solid-state or tube?
The answer is simple. In addition to the presence or absence of the glass tubes, a solid-state amp sounds much cleaner and neutral than tube amps, while tube amps are known to improve the mids and bass, which produces a much better warmth.
It would be fair to mention that these rules aren’t always constant, as they can change according to the type and characteristics of the amplifier you buy. That said, be sure to purchase your solid-state or tube amp based on the kind of music you mostly listen to.
For example, if you listen to classical music, tube amps will be a bad idea.
This is because tube amps need a decent amount of time to warm up before producing their best sound, sometimes as much as 20 minutes. We’re sure you want to hear those live-sounding violins and organs as soon as you hit play. The sound will indeed be awesome after this time has elapsed, but it’ll be great for those who want to listen to a two-hour album, but not for those who want to get in the groove right away.
A solid-state amp doesn’t keep you waiting, as it delivers all the dynamics immediately after the music is turned on. Even though it doesn’t look as good as a tube amp, it is ideal for those who want to listen to more urban types of music such as hip hop, R&B, Pop, Disco, Reggae, and Afrobeats.
Ninth consideration: What about the gain switches?
Many headphone amps are packed with gain switches, so you must understand what a gain switch is before placing your order. A gain is an amount by which an amplifier increases its signal. This is very easy to confuse with loudness, although they aren’t the same thing.
A high gain simply implies that the loudness of the audio being produced by the amp will be increased, even when the volume knob is at a low level. On the other hand, a low gain implies that the volume will be soft. Moving between high and low gains will change the quality of the sound being produced, and depending on what you’re listening to, it could make it sound better or worse.
The option of having gain switches is great if your headphones are sensitive, especially if they are buds that go into your ear. The gain switches can make the sound more subtle if your headphone clarity is overly on the high side.
This will not only make the audio clearer, but it will also go easy on your ears, as sharp sounds played at a loud volume can affect your hearing over the years. We advise that you always begin playing your audio from the low gain, just so you can spare yourself of the sharp, stabbing sound that hits the ear when you press play.
However, if you have several pairs of headphones, buying an amplifier with a gain knob can be very beneficial. A headphone amp with a gain knob is also good for you if you’re the type that likes to tweak the dynamics of your sound.
For those that don’t have multiple headphones or aren’t interested in messing around with the audio dynamics, then an amp without a gain knob will do just fine. Just plug, play, and keep your volume moderate (especially if you use high-sensitivity headphones).
How do I know if my amp is powerful enough for headphones?
When buying headphone amps, many newbies will be confused about which amplifiers are powerful enough to produce the best sound from their headphones. This concern is more common among those who have spent a lot of money buying expensive headphones (which they believe are more powerful and need strong amps to bring out their best sounds).
When we consider power exclusively, then you need to keep four specifications in mind. These include the following:
- Headphone impedance in ohm
- Your headphone sensitivity (dB/mW)
- The amplifier output voltage against your headphone impedance level (V or mW)
- The amplifier output impedance in ohm
To ensure that the amplifier you want to buy is powerful enough to produce the best sound from your headphones, make sure you do the following.
1. Calculate the impedance
We have already discussed the rule of eights, which entails dividing your headphone impedance by 8. So all you have to do is ensure your amplifier output impedance is lower than your headphone impedance after it has been divided by 8. Low impedance messes up your sound, so you’d want to avoid it. High impedance headsets are your best choice.
2. Check the amount of power you need to reach the volume you expect
While the rule of eights offers a mathematical approach to determining if the amplifier you plan to buy is good enough for your headphones, turning up the headphone volume could be yet another way to tell their compatibility. This test requires that you turn up the volume and observe how much power the headphones are drawing out of the amp.
If the sound begins to distort when the volume starts reaching high levels, then the amp may not be the best for your specific type of headphones. However, sound levels above 110dB are too loud for the human ear to withstand, while volumes as high as 115dB can be considered excessive.
What exactly is low impedance?
We have mentioned headphone impedance several times in this article, and we did promise that we would discuss it in detail later on. So, let’s do justice to that once and for all.
Headphone impedance is simply the ability of a pair of headphones to resist the electric power being transmitted by an amplifier. The standard for measuring impedance is the ohm, which usually ranges from 8 to 600 ohm. But this largely depends on the particular headphone model you are using.
Low impedance specifically is when the headphone or amp has low resistance to the electric power passing through it. You can find the specific impedance details on the package or user manual of the headphone you are about to purchase. Impedance information is also included on the package or manual of an amp, which also has ohms as the standard measure.
One of the best means by which you can determine a perfect pair between amp and headphone is to pair a headphone with a minimum of 8X the ohm of the amplifier you plan to buy. A good example is this a 300-ohm headphone will be perfect with a 37.8-ohm amp.
Paying close attention to low impedance is an important step to take when choosing the right amp for you.
What is high impedance?
High impedance is the opposite of low impedance. With high impedance, the headphone or amp has a high resistance to electric power passing through it. When a headset has a high impedance, the sound will distort less and be clearer. Both high and low impedance is measured in ohms.
How important is headphone sensitivity?
Headphone sensitivity plays a vital role in determining whether your headphones will perform at their best when used with an amplifier. The standard for measuring sensitivity is DB (Decibels) per 1mw (Milliwatts) of supplied power.
Typically, sounds as high as 100DB at 1mw can be sufficiently driven without an external amplifier. However, volumes as high as 110db to 115db are too high to be used without an amp. Some headphones require extra power to keep up with 100db, and headphones like these will need more Milliwatts.
Other reasons why you need a headphone amp?
As we mentioned earlier, an amplifier can boost the sound of a headphone to make it sound louder and clearer. However, that’s not all an amplifier can do for your headphones.
Let’s take a look at the other benefits of using a headphone amp.
1. Physical volume control
An extra advantage associated with using a headphone amp is that many models are built with a volume control knob, which allows you to make specific adjustments to the sound levels in your music player.
2. Sound alteration
Another advantage of using a headphone amp is that some of them come with bass boost features. This allows you to tune the hard-hitting depth of your bass to your exact specifications when using your music player.
This is very useful for those who use neutral headphones, as they can tune the bass across several genres of music like rock, hip hop, and pop.
Which headphone amplifier should you buy?
With all the purchasing factors considered, the main question remains: which headphone amplifier should you buy?
Unfortunately, there is no universal answer to this question, as it all boils down to your personal preferences. However, there is a tip you can use to make the right decision though, and that is always to buy the headphones before you buy the amp.
Most amplifiers built with the same specs will most likely sound the same, so it doesn’t even matter what brand you go for or how expensive they are. Amps should be considered complementary, as the quality of headphones you buy is more important.
You may not even need to buy an external amp in some cases, especially when playing audio from your smartphone. Small devices like iPods, laptops and Android phones all have built-in amplifiers, and they are designed to sound great. Our explanation of low and high impedance will be useful when choosing.
Can you use DACs and DAPs as alternatives?
Nowadays, the combination of an integrated DAC and amplifier has grown in popularity. So if you think your DAC lacks power in some areas, then your best bet is to buy an all-in-one amp (with a built-in DAC). This will not only be convenient for you, but it will also cost you less.
Next, let’s examine some common questions you may have regarding headphone amps.
Do amps matter for headphones?
It depends on the device you are connecting your headphones to. If you are playing audio from your smartphone or laptop, then you may not need an amp.
Why are tube amps so expensive?
Tube amps are quite pricey because they use pre and power tubes as their main source of amplification. You can get a tube for about $50.
Are amplifiers worth it?
Well, if you are looking for a boost in your low-sounding headphones, then yes, amplifiers are worth it.
Are more expensive amps better?
Not necessarily. An amp may be more expensive than another, but they won’t sound better if they are built with the same specs and have the same impedance.
Does the amplifier affect sound quality?
An amplifier can boost audio signals linearly. This means they do not necessarily worsen or improve audio quality.
There you have it guys, that’s how you choose the right amplifier for your headphones to produce enough power for better sound. You will have a better listening experience with the right amp, so choose wisely.
To recap, here’s what you need to consider before you make your purchase:
- Portable or desktop?
- The sound quality you’re looking for
- The need for a DAC for better sound
- Bluetooth or wired?
- Balanced or unbalanced connections
- Gain switches
- Headphone impedance vs. amplifier impedance
All these taken into consideration will help you buy the best headphone amp for your pair of headphones. Also, remember that high-end amps are not necessarily the best. They may have a brand name attached, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better quality or power.
Hopefully, this article has provided enough information that will help you buy the best headphone amp. Good luck!