What Is A Headphone Amp? Do You Need One?

What Is A Headphone Amp and If You Need One: A Comprehensive Guide

So, you want a headphone amp but aren’t sure what it is or what it does? Well, you’ve come to the right place. A headphone amp is an amplifier specifically designed to power headphones rather than loudspeakers. What this means is that the amp is designed to handle a high input impedance load and often uses a stepped gain design to minimize the effect of volume control settings on the amplifier’s output.

For all the talk of how much music players have evolved, headphones have changed far less. Sure, they’re lighter, better fitting, and often more comfortable than ever — but the most common way to listen to music is still through tiny speakers that deliver sound directly to your ears. Of course, there are headphones that sound better than others, and portable players have improved in quality, too — but a third device, the headphone amp, can give both a boost. While they’re not for everyone (or every audio setup), headphone amps can make a difference in your listening experience — just as long as you’re willing to take the time to find the right one.

Headphone Amps and What They Do

In a lot of ways, headphones and loudspeakers are simple devices. Headphones work by converting an electrical signal into acoustic energy; loudspeakers do the reverse. But both have different requirements: Headphone drivers, for example, need to be able to reproduce high-frequency audio accurately; speakers need to reach frequen­cies below roughly 250 Hz or so without distorting. And when it comes to amplifiers, these two types of devices are completely different beasts — at least if you’re talking about stereo amplifiers.

How Headphone Amps Work

Most headphone amps are based on a single-ended circuit, which means that the entire positive portion of the input signal passes through the amplifier. The output can then be connected to closed-back headphones, or you can use it to drive something like a pair of loudspeakers. Of course, there are some exceptions: Some varieties include inputs for both headphones and loudspeakers; others offer inputs for both positive and negative signals.

Why You Need A Headphone Amp

Now, you may be thinking, “well, I have a good stereo system at home, and my portable music player has a great headphone jack — why would I need a headphone amp?” Some people will never need one — but others will benefit tremendously from the addition of a decent headphone amp.

Consider this: The most common way to drive headphones is through an integrated circuit that acts like a preamp/amp combination (or, in some cases, just an amp).

What headphones to use with an amp

Most headphone amps will work with any pair of headphones — be they studio-quality headphones or the more basic, budget models that you find at most electronics stores. It’s a good idea to try to match the amp’s gain settings to your headphones: The higher the gain, the better the sound quality. And that goes for both speakers and headphones.

Headphone vs. Speaker Amps

But what about integrated amplifiers? For the most part, these can double as a headphone amp — but an integrated amp can be difficult to use for mixing or for any other creative activity.

DIY Headphone Amps

So you have a pair of great headphones, and you want to drive them with an even better amp. That’s very cool — but it’s not that easy. If you mind doing some minor modifications to your stereo amplifier, you could use a headphone amp without much fuss — but that’s not always an option. And, as anyone who has built their own stereo amplifier knows, tweaking the gain can have a huge impact on the sound quality. Then again, there are a few DIY headphone amps available on the market now — and more are coming soon.

How to Choose a Headphone Amp

At this point, you’ve probably decided that a headphone amp is right for you. But there are still a number of factors to consider: How much do you want to spend? What type of headphones will you be using? Are you going to be using it in your home or on the road? And how much room do you have for it?

More than anything else, however, your decision will come down to an issue of personal preference — and that’s exactly how it should be.

What about DACs?

Some portable music players include a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) — an electronic device that converts digital signals to analog. Some people prefer to use the headphone jack as a DAC rather than an amp. If you’re using a good pair of closed-back headphones, this isn’t a bad idea — but it has its limitations as well. For one thing, you’re still relying on your iPod or another portable music player for amplification and sound processing.

How to Choose a DAC

Choosing a DAC is no different from choosing a headphone amp — and it’s also largely a matter of personal preference. But it’s important to keep in mind that the sound quality of the DAC will be tied to your portable music player. A high-quality amp will only sound as good as the source material — so if you have an amazing pair of headphones, you may not need an expensive DAC.

Need some recommendations? See our post on the best portable headphone amplifiers.

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