Many music lovers have an audiophile speaker system at home with components and amplifiers that produce hi-fi sounds, but what about when you want music through a pair of headphones? Do you need a headphone amplifier?

Over-ear headphones and earbuds don’t always provide the high-end sound quality that you are looking for, even from a nice system playing high-quality recordings. Luckily, a headphone amplifier can easily bring life to headphones by improving the sound quality. 


What is a Headphone Amplifier?

A headphone amplifier is a tool that connects to your music player, whether you’re using a computer, iPhone or Android device, and increases the volume levels and the hi-res amplification heard through a pair of headphones during playback.  The amplifiers effectively push the audio signal to the speakers via vibrations that are converted into sound waves.   


Headphone amps that are designed to be portable often double as a digital-to-analog converter or a DAC. These audio converters are found in all digital audio sources, but built-in DAC combos don’t always provide high-quality amplification. If you are playing music from a computer, which is a common practice in many homes, then a small USB DAC converter may be all you need for better sound quality. In addition, if the audio jack on your player is broken, a USB DAC, like Pro-Ject’s DAC Box E Mobile allows you to bypass the malfunctioning component with ease.


What is the Purpose of a Headphone Amp?

When you have a headphone amp, the purpose of it is to improve the sound, add volume control options, and more. You can play both mono and stereo records when using a multi-channel headphone amplifier, and if your volume knob is broken, there will be one on the amplifier that you purchase. The central location of the volume knob on the Head Box DS2B is ideal for a computer setup where you’ll be using headphones.


More Volume

Volume has to do with two aspects of playback. The first one is the sensitivity of the headphones. Headphones that have a higher sensitivity rating tend to have a louder volume. At the same time, headphones with high sensitivity will also pick up things like sounds on the amplifier, electrical noises, and other sounds without a high-quality amplifier. 


The second aspect that affects the sound of your music is impedance. When looking at headsets, impedance is measured in ohms, which are rated using a large range from 16 to 600. The lower the rating is, the louder the music will sound.  Most of today’s headphones are released with a low impedance rating because a higher rating means that more power is needed. When things take more power to function, a traditional power supply is typically not enough. 


Better Sound

When looking to get a better quality of sound, make sure that you consider what is decreasing your sound quality. The lower the impedance on your headphone is the more distortion you will hear. 


You will get more volume, but is added distortion in your music really worth getting a pair of low-cost headphones that don’t require an amp? Of course not – you need to find a good balance that works for your ears, especially if you listen to low frequencies often that amplify the distortion. Low impedance headphones will not have adequate impulse response and dampening, which can also create muddy mids and bass that degrades the quality of your music.


What Type of Headphone Amplifier Should I Purchase?

You need to purchase the headphone amp that fits your listening style. For example, you wouldn’t want a desktop amp for your headphones if you were going for a jog, instead, you’d want a more portable amp adapter for your smartphone. Here’s a breakdown of each amp type so that you know which unit to purchase for your headphones.

  • Portable headphone amp: These are small enough to fit inside your pocket yet enhance the sound output coming out of your smartphone or MP3 player’s 3.5mm jack.  There are two jacks on these; one sends a two-end wire to your audio device and the other plugs into your headphones. Since these are separate from your headphones and audio device, they will need to be charged from time to time. 
  • Desktop amp: Unlike portable units, desktop amps sometimes have multiple inputs for headphones and sometimes accommodate studio monitors. These are in no way portable and are designed to sit atop a desk or shelf. Sometimes, these have a large volume rocker for nuanced control.
  • Rackmount: If you have studio signal processing gear, then a rackmount system is best. This is a headphone amp that is easily daisy-chained with your other equipment, like preamps. You can even connect them to other racked headphone amplifier systems for more inputs, though most will have up to six jacks already. These are designed to accommodate 19-inch wide racks.


Features to Consider in a DAC or Headphone Amplifier

Before making a purchase, here are a few criteria to consider that will help you decide on your best potential device:


The Form Factor

 This will decide the type of headphone amp you’re purchasing. Are you looking for a portable unit, one that’ll fit on a desk, or one that will fit in amongst a racked system with additional devices like preamplifiers? If you’re not going to be using your system on the go and you don’t have additional audio equipment, then in most cases, a desktop headphone amplifier will do the job. 


The Audio Technology

Headphone amps use digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to convert a digital signal to an analog one. At the device level, your music is arranged using pulse code modulation (PCM) to make analog music digital. 


The DACs use a variety of technologies, including direct stream digital (DSD) and super audio CD (SACD), to convert data so that it becomes high-fidelity audio. While DACs are present in devices like your smartphone and your laptop, it’s critical to have a higher quality DAC in place to capture all the nuance of your music.


The Output Type

This is a major consideration because the output type will directly affect sound quality. For example, with RCA or coaxial connectors, which have a single, unbalanced pin, you may lose signal quality if your cabling is on the longer side. Alternatively, a balanced three-pin XLR cable allows you to transfer the sound signal over a longer distance without degradation. The type of output cabling is exterior to your headphone cabling and leads directly to the sound system. 


Do I Need an Amp for Headphones with a Built-In Amplifier?

No, you do not needs a headphone amp if it is already built into the earphones.  Whether you are listening to music through a Bluetooth connection or a headphone jack, headphones that already have an amplifier built into the model will prevent an external amp from making changes to the headphone output, which simply makes them a volume knob that costs a lot of money. 


In-ear monitors that are used by live performers often don’t need additional amplification because they are already designed to amplify a specific part of the sound being produced. Headphone amplifiers are designed to be used with over-ear studio headphones. 


Headphone Amps Deliver Hi-Fi Sounds 

If you are using aptX technology over Bluetooth headphones or earpods that connect to your iPhone wirelessly, having an amplifier can really take your music up a notch. Some say that there is no noticeable audio difference between a recording at 44.1kHz and 96kHz, but with the right headphone amplifier, your music can have an exceptional sound, regardless of the sample rate.

However, for vinyl hi-fi listeners, it’s important to consider that if you take amplifying your turntable seriously, you should take amplifying your headphones seriously as well. If you’ve optimized your turntable setup for tonearm resonance and alignment, taking this additional step can bring your closer to your favorite music on every spin.

There is an ultimate audio setup for every type of listener, just make sure that your mobile audio system has the same quality sound as your home system.