Headphone Amplifiers: How to Enhance Your Listening Experience
What are headphone amplifiers and why should you use one?
Many audiophiles interested in enhancing their personal listening experience know to start with the basics: high-quality headphones. But there are also many headphone accessories available that can take your sound quality to the next level. How do you know which one is worth the investment?
Solutions like headphone amplifiers are popular with audiophiles because they improve the sound quality of even the cheapest headphones and transform the listening experience from high-end headphone brands. Here’s what you need to know:
What are headphone amplifiers?
A high-end headphone amplifier is designed to deliver improved balance and sound quality. This creates a less distorted sound that is cleaner and more precise, leading to a high-quality audio experience. Headphone amplifiers are popular tools for audiophiles interested in maximizing their listening experience.
When do you need a headphone amplifier?
Headphones and their components don’t necessarily require a headphone amp, but they can totally transform your listening experience. This is especially true with high impedance headphones, which is arguably a case where you will want to use a headphone amplifier.
Generally speaking, a headphone amplifier will always improve the sound quality of your headphones, regardless of your headphone’s quality. That being said, the better your headphones are, the most improvement you will get from a headphone amp because headphones also have "drivers" in them.
Your "source" (turntable, CD Player, etc.) have low voltage signals that an amplifier boosts so they can be properly turned into the sound waves picked up by (in this case) your headphones. The sound quality issue can also be addressed with a built-in DAC portion — a common feature for high-quality headphone amps.
Headphone amplifier features
The features for headphone amplifiers vary by brand and model, providing you with a wide range of options for your personal listening experience. You can find headphone amplifiers with a variety of capabilities and price points — the one you choose will ultimately depend on compatibility with your music source, desired use case, and your own personal preference.
Here are some features you should consider:
A DAC takes digital signals and converts them to analog signals. Digital signals are usually compressed and are missing part of the information that is present in an analog signal.
Most devices, like our phones and computers, have DACs in them (they have to in order to have a signal that can be picked up and amplified to hear), but they are often very low quality. A good quality DAC will help fill in some of the missing digital information and convert to an analog signal that you need to actually hear the music. This produces a more nuanced sound.
Top brands like Sennheiser, Focal, McIntosh, dCS, and Astell & Kern all offer headphone amplifiers with built-in DACS.
Pre-set impedance ranges
When selecting a headphone amplifier you want to be sure that it is compatible with the impedance range of your headphones. Pre-set impedance ranges take the guesswork out of creating the best output within that range.
For example, the dCS Bartók Streaming DAC has a custom design headphone amplifier that works well with both high and low impedance headphones, and the McIntosh MHA150 Headphone Amplifier has been adapted to produce three headphone impedance ranges of 8-40, 40-150 and 150-600 ohms for compatibility with a wide range of headphones.
USB inputs easily connect the headphone amplifier to commonly found digital sources with USB inputs. This feature can be found in many high-quality headphone amplifiers, including the Sennheiser HDV 820, McIntosh MHA150, dCS Bartók Streaming DAC, McIntosh MHA50 Portable Amplifier, and Pro-Ject Head Box S2 Digital Headphone Amplifier.
Options like the McIntosh MHA50 and Astell & Kern products also have the advantage of being portable so they can work on the go, but desktop-sized headphone amps are also available.
Some headphone amplifiers can output enough power to drive small bookshelf speakers for in-home audio. The McIntosh MHA150, for example, is powerful and versatile enough to drive a pair of quality desktop or small bookshelf speakers via its 50 watt stereo speaker outputs.