What to look for when buying a headphone amplifier?
- 21 Nov, 2018
Table of content
- What is a headphone amp?
- What you need to know about DACs
- Types of headphone amps
- Solid state
- Headphones amps VS. Stereo Amps
- Headphone amplifiers
- Stereo amplifiers
- When do you need a headphone amp? - And when not to use an amp?
- I need an amp - how do I find one to match for my headphones? Headphone connections
- Headphone type I use
- Portable amp or desktop amp?
- To wrap it up
In our everyday life, headphones have graduated to a ubiquitous item.
Are you used to plugging your headphones directly into your electronic device like a computer or phone? Chances are that you do not get the best possible performance. To overcome such a nasty experience, you need a headphone amplifier. A quality headphone amp will release a new life into the music you are listening regardless of the headphones you are using to get the soundtrack.
In that view, do you know what a headphone amp is? How it operates? The types in the market? And more importantly, how to find a suitable headphone amp? These are usually the most pressing questions regarding headphone amps. For that reason, the discussion will cover more about headphone amps, so ride along.
What is a headphone amp?
Before we delve on what a headphone amp is, let me assume that you have heard the word amp previously. If that is not the case, you can now know it. An amp is an abbreviation for the word amplifier. And, as its name suggests, an amplifier amplifies or raises an audio source power to a more significant proportion. For instance, an amp can increase the audio power of huge massive speakers.
From that analogy, it is safe to state that a headphone amplifier is a smaller version or miniature amplifier made for increasing the power of the headphones’ tiny speakers that are found inside. A headphone amp uses a significant amount of power to make the music generated clearer.
There is usually a headphone amp in every headphone jack which powers the headphones. Most of the amps found in such devices as smartphones, iPhone, and car stereos are tiny. It implies that it is essential to get a dedicated headphone amp if you plan to make nice headphones investments. An efficient headphone amp can essentially punch up the sound and make the headphones become super gadgets.
What you need to know about DACs
Most of the headphones that are currently in the market usually have an electronic device known as the DAC. A DAC (digital-to-analog converter) converts digital audio information into low voltage audio signal that a headphone amp can efficiently utilize.
Due to the already existing analog low-voltage signals, many analog components such as tape turntable deck do not require a DAC. However, to hear sound well through the headphones, most digital audio gadgets like smartphones, PCs, tablets or iPods require to have both a headphone amp and DAC.
A headphone amp is essentially an intermediary device between a DAC and the headphones as it is not possible in most instances to connect a DAC directly to the headphones.
Using a USB mounted on a computer is perhaps the most common method of DAC connection. SPDiF connections- Coaxial and Optical outputs digital feeds- found on various CD/DVD players and some audio gadgets can also be used to connect to a DAC.
Through sundry interconnect adapters and cables, current smartphones can easily be connected to an outboard DACs/ amps. To get the best sound quality from a low bitrate MP3 digital music files, the device will help rip off the uncompressed formats that lack dynamics and details.
For this reason, since there is a conversion of signals, it is good to learn more about what an analog signal involves to be able to comprehend how DAC functions work.
An analog signal is an instantaneous varying voltage that usually represents the ongoing varying sound wave. To better understand it, consider a microphone convert sounds to analog electrical signals that are synonymous with the sounds while speakers will turn the analog electrical signals into sounds that are close to the original.
In the past an analog signal used to be stored in an LP record but now it is sampled and measured and stored in audio device memory or hard drive. Usually, it is stored in such devices as a digital audio signal as a series of numbers if 1s and 0s. CDs can also store digital audio data as 16-bit/44kHz files in various compression or encoding formats.
After storage, a DAC is a device that will make the conversion of digital numbers back into analog electrical signals possible so that it can be sent to the headphone amp and later on to the headphones.
Types of headphone amps
There are different kinds of models to choose depending on the inner circuitry. While that may seem intimidating, it is not the way you may tend to think; it all involves the type of sound that is produced. Therefore, the kinds of headphone amplifier technologies available are
- tube amps
- solid state amps
- hybrid systems
They are those glowing glass cylinder that uses a minimum of one light-bulb-like vacuum tube to process various audio signals. The Feliks Elise like those found on the Woo Audio WA7 or the Bravo Audio V2 is a perfect example of tube technology applicability. It is easier to simply put a tube amp as a giant glass tube that has a boxy power supply unit at the back.
Some people argue that tubes will give you a better sound tone from its gleaming versatile tubes in comparison to other alternatives. The bad thing is that any system that has tubes will be temperamental and addictive.
A solid state amp involves a solid-state electronics such as diodes and transistors involved in digital circuitry and processing. These feature a less warm, more accurate sound and is less expensive than the tube-based. The good thing with a solid state amp is that it is capable of reducing background noise.
Theoretically, the hybrid merges the two above technologies to offer a balance of both kinds. A hybrid amp employs a certain degree of both the vacuum tubes and solid-state technology at different amplification stages. If a user applies this kind effectively, then the beneficial effects will be evident.
Headphones amps VS. Stereo Amps
Before delving into the amps technical aspects, the simple difference between those amps is that stereo amps power speakers while headphone amps power headphones.
Even if many headphone amps are not able to power up speakers, most stereo amps are inbuilt with headphone amps. The reason is that it helps to prevent the pair of speakers from exploding the ear of the listener as it will dial down the power once a headphone jack is inserted.
When you connect a headphone amplifier to a smartphone or music player, it enhances the music sound headphones conveys to be louder and more precise. Just as the audio amplifiers are built to drive sound to the loudspeakers, these audiophiles are designed to drive sound the headphones mini-speakers. Therefore, to have awesome sound clarity when listening to music through the headphone, you will have to connect an amp to the phone or music player.
Most people are much knowledgeable about stereo amplifiers. These amps fetch audio signals from devices with audio files like USB dive, DVDs, and CDs to create clear, loud sound. With the assistance of a power source, the small signal that is produced will be enhanced when it passes through an amplifier.
You will find stereo amplifiers in a wide range of electronic devices from headphones to home theaters from auditoriums to discotheques. This power amplifier enhances low power audio to large high audios that any stereo speaker or loudspeaker can process.
When do you need a headphone amp? - And when not to use an amp?
It was earlier mentioned that some digital devices are inbuilt with a headphone and DAC. For that reason, you will just need to plug in your headphone and hear the sound you desire. Then, why would you require to have separate gadget from the one that is provided?
The reason is simple. While most gadgets have these components in them, the quality usually varies the same as the sound quality. For instance, a MacBook Pro may have a decent sound since it has a good quality DAC and headphone amp, but the same cannot be attributed to other kinds of laptops like the Dell Inspiron N5110 which produces pretty bad sounds since they entail low-quality headphone amps and DAC. The same analogy goes for phones: some sound superb while others sound terrible.
When making a crucial decision on whether to purchase a headphone amp or top-shelf headphone first, the headphone is a vital part of the audio system you ought to consider keenly. The reason is that if you lack good quality headphones, even the headphone amp will not be beneficial.
After acquiring a quality headphone, you can later spend on a great quality headphone amp, and you will be astonished with the high-resolution, pure clarity music that will come out.
When not to use an amp!
Most earphones or in-ear headphones work well with portable devices and smartphones without the need for an amp since they are highly efficient. Likewise, other headphones like the noise-canceling headphones do not require a headphone amp as they have an inbuilt headphone amp. If, however, you choose to add an external amp to such devices, it will not be significantly beneficial as the built-in amp will override.
I need an amp - how do I find one to match for my headphones?
To make the best decision when it comes to headphone amp purchase, you need to ask yourself the following:
Headphone type I use
If you intend to use an amp, it is wise to figure out the type of headphones you are using. Is it an open, semi-open or closed headphone?
Closed headphones are the most common, and some refer to it as the closed-back. The closed ones usually have bigger ear cups to isolate you to a certain degree from the external noise. However, the Open headphones do not isolate an individual from the surrounding as they have a perforated or mesh-like ear cup. A semi-closed headphone features the aspects of both closed and open headphones; partially closed cup with a mesh back. The requirement for the power of open headphones is high compared to the closed one, and therefore each will require a different kind of headphone amp.
When you examine the headphones, you will find out that there are three kinds of connections: Bluetooth, USB-C, and Mini-jack. Until the emergence of alternative headphone connections, the mini-jack was the only available connection.
The 3.5mm mini-jack plug is a common connection that entails a 3-pin plug connection: the sleeve, ring, and tip.
Interestingly, the new USB-C seems to be slowly facing out the jack plug. The main difference between the mini-jack and USB-C is that whereas the mini-jack relays analog signals, the USB-C is a digital connection that can transmit a wide range of data.
Bluetooth connections usually send data between devices using radio waves. The nice thing is that Bluetooth provides very good sound quality as well as freedom of movement.
Therefore, as a headphone user, check the compatibility of the headphone connections when selecting the kind of amp to use.
Portable amp or desktop amp?
When purchasing a headphone amp, it is good to figure out whether you want a desktop amp for your gaming console or PC or just some kind of portability out of your headphone amp.
Portable headphones amps are designed for mobile music devices like the iPhone and laptops. These are compact smaller in size amps that can fit in a small pouch or a jacket pocket.
Desktop headphone amps are bigger in size compared to headphone amps. The amps are designed for personal computers, music servers, and laptops and are mounted in a stationary place. It is crucial to consider the applicability of the amps since portable amps have better performance than desktop ones.
To wrap it up
Understanding which type of headphone amp to purchase is a tall order.
If you need to enhance the quality of the music you are listening through a headphone, you need a quality amp. From the discussion above, it is clear that a nice headphone amp can really raise the power of the headphone’s tiny speakers. But in most cases, several digital audio devices are unable to function and give you soothing sound with a headphone amp alone as a DAC will be necessary.
When you go in the marketplace seeking for a headphone amplifier, ensure to find out its technology type; whether a tube, solid state or hybrid.
In conclusion, the two crucial questions you should ask yourself when looking for a headphone amplifier to buy are:
- When should I use the amp and when not?
- How do I find an amp that matches my headphones?