People are using their headphones more and more nowadays instead of loudspeakers and massive audio entertainment systems. As such, headphone amplifiers have flooded the market, but are they what they are cracked up to be? Let’s see.
Headphone amps do provide superior listening quality when used in conjunction with high-end headphones, the same way a power amplifier improves the quality of loudspeakers, especially when considering headphone impedance levels. Additionally, headphone amps have superior DAC’s which your typical mobile device or PC won’t have, improving sound quality.
In order to understand if a headphone amplifier provides good sound quality, we will briefly compare it to that of a powered amplifier and then go into detail about what a headphone amplifier is, why you would need one, and the various types you get.
What Is An Amplifier?
Let’s briefly discuss an amplifier to better understand how it affects an audio signal to determine if it is actually necessary and improve audio quality. Then we can logically deduce if the same principles can be applied to a headphone amplifier and headphones.
An amplifier is an electronic device that increases a signal’s power (for our purposes, an audio signal) and drives that signal from a line-level signal through to your loudspeakers.
In simple terms, an audio-powered amplifier enables you to play music loud or louder than its original source would let you.
What are the benefits of using an amplifier
By using an amplifier, your loudspeakers will be able to play louder and sound better. One thing to note is that an amplifier will not make your poor quality speakers sound good, though.
An amplifier because it amplifies an audio signal gives your speakers “room to breath” and increases your speakers’ headroom. Take, for instance, if you have speakers that are 300 watts, the drivers in those speakers are designed to perform well with a specific amount of current (unless those speakers are very efficient).
If the amplifier is too weak, then turning the speakers up in volume will create distortion, unwanted noise, and external interference due to excessive current, which the amplifier is trying to push through to the speakers.
For this purpose, amplifiers are crucial in improving sound.
Furthermore, we can deduce at this point with relative certainty that because an amplifier will improve sound quality, a headphone amplifier, if based on the same principles as a powered amplifier, will also enhance audio quality.
What Is A Headphone Amp?
Now that we understand what an amplifier is (it powers your loudspeakers), we can understand that a headphone amplifier is in principle the same as a powered amplifier, except that it will drive your headphones more efficiently.
More specifically, a headphone amp is a relatively low-powered amplifier that raises the low voltage audio signal from a source such as a smartphone, computer, tablet, or any other mobile device to a sufficient level to power speakers located inside of your headphones.
Why would you need a headphone amplifier?
There are a few scenarios where you would need to use a headphone amplifier. This does not even relate to the amplifier improving the quality of the sound (we will discuss the improvement of audio quality a headphone amplifier can provide a little later on in this article).
Your gear does not support a headphone jack
You would be surprised, but you may have equipment that does not have a 3.5mm headphone jack, and as such, you would need to purchase a headphone amplifier and connect it to your audio equipment so you can utilize your headphones.
This is very true, especially as you move up into high-end separate audio components.
Your current gear can not drive your high impedance headphones
There are many types of headphones on the market that require a lot of power to be able to play them loud enough.
These headphones usually have a higher impedance above 100ohms. Many headphone amps that are built into smartphones, computers, other mobile devices, and other audio components just don’t have a powerful enough internal amplifier to support high-end headphones.
This scenario directly affects the quality of audio with regards to headphones as we can compare it to a weak amplifier trying to drive high-quality speakers.
If you have a high-end pair of headphones, you will need a headphone amplifier designed with high impedance in mind to drive your headphones properly.
You want to use headphones in another room
In some scenarios, your home audio entertainment system might be in a specific room such as your living room or den, and you may want to listen to audio in your bedroom or office. The correct type of headphone amplifier will let you achieve this.
Improving the audio performance of your headphones
This is where we get to the crux of the matter.
As we now can see from the comparison to a powered amplifier and loudspeakers and relative situations where you would most likely need a headphone amplifier, they improve comparable sitational quality but also improve headphone audio quality.
- With an amplifier explicitly designed for headphones with high-quality components, the upgrade in sound can be substantial.
Some types of headphone amps will also improve the digital signal with their built-in DAC (digital to analog converter).
Types Of Headphone Amplifiers
Now that we understand that headphone amplifiers do improve the audio quality of your headphones, there are a few types, and we will go over them here.
Analog only headphone amplifiers
Analog-only headphone amps will typically have only one or two analog inputs (as the name suggests).
This means you can plug a low-level audio signal (typically RCA) or your phone into it. These types of amps are designed for home use mainly and therefore run on AC power.
Computer audio-only headphone amplifiers
Many individuals love to listen to audio from their computers through headphones, but the built-in amplifier is not the greatest quality.
The right type of headphone amplifier will allow you to connect through a USB cable from the computer to the amp. With these types of headphone amps, you will also benefit from the amplifier’s built-in DAC, which will be far superior to the ones found inside your computer.
There are two types of computer-only headphone amplifiers. The one type is similar in style to a USB type flash drive, and you would plug this “dongle” straight into the USB port of your computer and your headphones into it.
Check out this USB headphone amplifier on Amazon here
The other type is more of a component device where you would plug the USB cable from your computer into the headphone amplifier.
Check out this computer headphone amplifier on Amazon here
These headphone amplifiers will support volume controls, perhaps EQ knobs, and typically other forms of inputs and sport other audio output ports as well.
Check out this great video on choosing a headphone amp.
Multiple audio input headphone amplifiers
These types of headphone amplifiers will support both analog and digital inputs.
Depending on the model and the headphone amplifier’s quality, it may sport multiple analog and digital inputs and outputs, including a 3.5mm headphone jack for your headphones.
Some amps even have the capability of allowing you to network stream. This allows you to pull audio files from your network without being physically attached to your computer, and it also has the capability of allowing you to stream from your smartphone.
Check out this multiple audio input headphone amplifier on Amazon here
- As we can see when compared in principle with that of a powered amplifier and loudspeakers, a headphone amplifier offers the same audio quality in relation to headphones and the speakers that lay within them.
Furthermore, due to today’s digital world, many more individuals rely on headphones as their primary audio output source and obtain their audio from multiple sources (smartphones, tablets, computers, and more).
Hence, the requirement for good quality audio coming from headphones is a must-have feature, and as such, headphones amplifiers not only offer better audio quality for headphones, they are also built with an array of additional features that make your listening experience through your headphones a more pleasant one.