Headphone amplifiers are among the most misunderstood products in audio. They are not magical and to the average person they are no more useful than a paperweight. But some wired headphones actually need a special amplifier to reach their full potential, leading to an incredible improvement in sound quality. If your fancy new headphones sound a bit underwhelming, a headphone amplifier may be the solution you̵
What is a headphone amplifier?
Believe it or not, you are already very familiar with amplifiers. An amplifier is just a tool that sends an electrical signal to a speaker and causes the speaker to vibrate. When you increase the volume on your phone or laptop, you are sending more electricity from the amp to the speaker, causing the speaker to vibrate more and produce a louder sound.
Modern devices use low power amplifiers that don’t eat a ton of electricity or burn out batteries. To make these low-power amplifiers usable, most headphones and speakers have a “low impedance” meaning that they offer very little resistance to electrical current and usually reach usable volumes without much current.
But some headphones and speakers, especially recording studios or performance-quality equipment, have “high impedance.” These devices (rated 25 ohms or higher) usually require a high voltage audio source to achieve useful volume levels – that’s where good headphone amplifiers come into play. Headphone amplifiers use more power and output a thicker audio signal than the amplifiers built into most phones and laptops, so you can enjoy your nice headphones on modest equipment.
These rules are of course not difficult and fast. Some high impedance headphones are sensitive and require very little wattage (which is different from voltage) to achieve high volume. And while high-quality headphones can achieve a desired volume from a low-power source, the limited voltage can lead to sound distortion, hiss or lack of bass.
All in all, headphone amplifiers can improve the quality of your music by improving the performance of your headphones. Most amplifiers are ‘transparent’ and have no discernible effect on your audio signal, although some companies sell amplifiers that intentionally alter a signal to add an analog ‘warmth’ similar to the sound of tape or vinyl (usually by certain frequencies or saturation with an old-fashioned vacuum tube).
Headphone amplifiers are not DACs
Many portable headphone amplifiers double as DACs or “digital-to-analog converters,” but DACs and amplifiers are two completely different things. As the name implies, a DAC takes a digital signal and turns it into an analog electrical signal for your amplifier and headphones. All digital audio sources have a built-in DAC, so what’s the point of buying a new one?
Early digital audio equipment, especially CD players and desktop computers, did not always have the best built-in DACs. Improper shielding was a common problem leading to static electrical interference, and the low sampling rates of consumer-grade DACs could even distort the highs of cymbals or hi-hats.
But these problems don’t exist anymore – even the cheapest electronics have “transparent” DACs that don’t affect audio quality. And while audiophiles claim that built-in DACs are not suitable for lossless FLAC or WAV files, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to tell the difference between a modern file encoded at 320 kbps and its lossless equivalent.
Still, DACs aren’t useless, and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy a headphone amp just because it has a built-in DAC. Headphone amplifiers with built-in DACs plug into the USB port on your phone or computer, allowing you to bypass the device’s built-in headphone jack – a common source of distortion or hiss. Some DACs even have preset EQ settings and wireless connectivity, which can help you shape your sound or get a more reliable Bluetooth connection while playing music on an old computer or phone.
Do I need a headphone amplifier?
For most people, headphone amplifiers are nothing more than an expensive volume knob with no noticeable effect on audio quality. But headphone amplifiers are often a necessity if you have expensive headphones, and they can overcome some of the common problems that arise when using the built-in headphone amplifier on your computer or phone.
Here are six reasons to buy a headphone amplifier:
- Your headphones don’t get loud enough, lack the expected amount of bass, the sound is distorted and hissing, or sounds worse than the much cheaper headphones on your phone or computer. (This is usually a sign that your headphones have a “high impedance” and impedance of 25 ohms or more).
- Your phone or computer has an abnormally quiet or crappy-sounding headphone jack compared to other devices in your home.
- The audio jack on your phone or computer is broken and you have to bypass it with a USB DAC.
- You want to add analog “color” or “warmth” to your music (very few amps do this, but they do exist).
- You work in a studio environment and need multiple headphone inputs with independent volume controls.
- The volume controls on your computer are bad, or you prefer to adjust the volume with a knob.
You do not need a headphone amplifier if your headphones function as expected or if you are using wireless headphones. Headphone amplifiers are also no substitute for full-size speaker amplifiers, although they can help with Bluetooth speakers that are too quiet in Aux mode.
Which headphone amplifier should I buy?
Best desktop option
FiiO K5 Pro AK4493EQ | 768K / 32-bit and native DSD 512 decoding Deskstop DAC and amplifier for home and computer (6.35 mm (1/4 in.) Headphone out / RCA line out)
The FiiO K5 Pro is stylish, practical and versatile. It can be connected to any audio source via the USB input, line input, coaxial or optical connections. It also features a 1/4-inch headphone jack, stereo line-out jacks for speakers, a large volume knob and hard switches to adjust the gain or switch between different audio sources (which is useful if you have the same headphones and speakers. for your computer, record player, radio, etc.).
FiiO E10K USB DAC and headphone amplifier (black)
The small and simple FiiO E10K sits on your desktop and connects to your computer via USB cable. It features a handy 3.5mm headphone jack and a large volume rocker. It also has a line out on the rear panel and a coaxial out for desktop speakers.
Best portable option
Inexpensive and ultra-portable
FiiO A1 Silver portable headphone amplifier A1
The incredibly compact FiiO A1 is the cheapest way to use your studio-quality headphones with a phone or laptop. It connects to your audio source with a 3.5mm headphone cable and features four optional EQ settings.
For Studio environments
Behringer Microamp HA400 ultra-compact 4-channel stereo headphone amplifier, silver
Behringer’s Microamp HA400 is a cheap and easy solution for musicians or podcasters who need multiple headphone inputs in their studio. It features four independently controllable headphone amplifiers and a 1/4-inch audio input that can be connected to your existing audio interface. This amplifier does not have a built-in DAC and cannot connect to computers via USB.
For an analog sound