From analog turntables to agenda streaming, the way we get our music has been adapted mightily over the years. As music has gone added mobile, headphones accept acquired into a circadian obsession. Today, there’s a excess of affordable, high-performance options available, able to adorn our lives with august music everywhere we go.
If you’re account this article, you apparently affliction a lot about your active headphones, and now you’re apprehensive if you can advance their achievement with a headphone amp. The abbreviate acknowledgment is: Yes. Depending on your headphones, there’s a acceptable adventitious a affection headphone amp — or a headphone amp/DAC (digital-to-analog converter) — can breathe new activity into your music. But what is a headphone amp? How does it work? Added to the point, how abundant does a appropriate one cost? We’re actuality to acknowledgment all those questions and more.
Your DAC is an acutely important stop on the acceptable alternation audiophile.
A headphone amp is a almost low-powered amplifier that raises the low-voltage audio arresting from a antecedent accessory (be it a turntable, PC, or smartphone) to a acceptable akin such that it can be adapted (or transduced) into complete after-effects by the speakers central your headphones. It works like the amps acclimated to ability full-sized speakers but operates at a lower scale.
Most avant-garde headphone amps additionally accommodate an cyberbanking basal alleged a DAC (digital-to-analog converter). A DAC’s job is to catechumen agenda audio advice into a low-voltage arresting that an amplifier can, well, amplify.
Analog apparatus like a turntable or band accouter don’t charge a DAC – they already put out analog low-voltage signals – but agenda audio accessories like PCs, smartphones, iPods, or tablets charge both a DAC and headphone amp in adjustment for you to apprehend complete through your headphones.
All those agenda accessories we aloof mentioned already accept a DAC and headphone amp congenital appropriate in – that’s why you can aloof bung your headphones in and apprehend sound. Why, then, would you charge a abstracted component?
Unfortunately, the affection of those congenital apparatus varies abundantly from accessory to device, and, therefore, so does the complete quality. A MacBook Pro has a appropriate DAC and headphone amp congenital in, so it sounds … decent, but abounding laptops, like the old Dell Inspiron N5110 for example, accept actual low-quality DACs and headphone amps, so they complete appealing bad. The aforementioned goes for phones: Some complete terrible, some are decent, and some – like the LG V30 or V35 – complete superb.
Frankly, if you don’t accept a good-quality brace of headphones (read: bigger than a brace of $30 earbuds), you won’t account from a headphone amp. But as the affection of headphones increases, so does the abeyant account of application a headphone amp.
Does anyone charge a headphone amp? That’s questionable. But ability you appetite one? If you dig abundant sound, the acknowledgment is a aural yes.
There are additionally assertive kinds of headphones that absolutely do charge a headphone amp to action properly: We alarm these high-impedance headphones. Impedance refers to the attrition of an electrical signal, and is abstinent in ohms – the college the impedance, the added attrition a brace of headphones or speakers will accord to an electrical signal.
As our audio sources accept gotten smaller, headphone designers accept adjusted.
For headphones, impedance can alter widely, from about 16 ohms on the low end to as aerial as about 600 ohms. (There are some headphones, like the crazily big-ticket Sennheiser HE1 Orpheus, with impedance far aloft that cardinal but they usually appear with a committed amp.) Generally, the college the impedance, the added addition ability is bare to drive the headphones, and the added acceptable a headphone amp would be beneficial. If you’re analytical about the impedance on a brace of headphones, you’ll acquisition it in the chiral or specs area online.
Classic headphones like the Sennheiser HD800 (300 ohms) and the Beyerdynamic DT880 (600 ohms) were originally advised for use in alert apartment and recording studios with able audio gear. Therefore, a headphone amplifier with added voltage than what’s accessible central the boilerplate smartphone is bare to get these headphones to comedy at adapted aggregate levels and accomplish properly. Avant-garde designs such as Audeze’s LCD-3 (110 ohms) and LCD-4 (200 ohms), which use collapsed alluring drivers instead of added acceptable activating drivers, additionally crave the ability of a committed amp for optimal performance.
Not all high-performance headphones are high-impedance, power-hungry monsters, though. As our audio sources accept gotten smaller, headphone designers accept adjusted. New technology makes high-performance headphones with low impedance possible, and these assignment able-bodied with low-power devices. Audeze’s EL-8 (30 ohms) and Sine (20 ohms) collapsed alluring headphones are abundant examples.
Audeze’s Sine headphones are amid the best high-performance, low impedance headphones we’ve anytime tested. Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
Most in-ear headphones — which artlessly advance abate drivers that crave lower voltage — additionally about assignment accomplished with carriageable devices.
While there are no adamantine or fast rules, if your headphones accept an impedance of, say, 50 ohms or higher, a headphone amplifier is apparently a acceptable abstraction – we would accede you to be in the charge camp. If your cans are beneath 32 ohms, they’ll assignment accomplished with about any customer audio device. With that said, you could still be in the appetite camp.
Most frequently referenced in able audio circles, the arresting aisle — or arresting alternation — refers to any and all apparatus that accomplish acquaintance with your audio signal. In our case, that acceptable includes a agenda source, DAC, amplifier, a brace of headphones, and finally, your ears. The college the signal-path affection is, the college the complete affection will be. Admitting you can’t alter the aftermost stop on the account (yet), the blow are all in play.
When akin up with acceptable headphones, affection addition can do some actual air-conditioned things.
You may accept landed actuality to apprentice about headphone amplification, but we’d be behindhand if we didn’t point out that the DAC is an acutely important stop on the acceptable alternation audiophile. The DAC is a analytical aperture amid you and your complete because it changes the complete abstracts from agenda advice — simple cipher consisting of 1s and 0s — into electrical current. The bigger that transference point, the bigger the sound.
Quality addition can additionally advance complete affection for about any brace of headphones from about the $100 amount point up; basically, any archetypal congenital for complete affection over colorways and beautiful designs. Back akin up with a acceptable brace of headphones (and a acceptable DAC), affection addition can do some actual air-conditioned things. It can accommodate added or beneath blush to the complete as desired. It can accomplish the complete clearer and added balanced, or on the added end, warmer, richer, and smoother. A acceptable amplifier can additionally affect the complete in added ways, including isolating the accepted active central the accessory to complete crosstalk (interference amid stereo channels), which can addled up the end product.
The best amplifiers and DAC solutions actualize a purer, clearer, and beneath adulterated signal. The bigger the arresting that alcove your headphones, the bigger your sonic acquaintance will be.
OK, so you’ve absitively to pony up and buy yourself a committed amplifier or amplifier/DAC combo. That agency it’s time to banknote out that Apple stock, right? Not necessarily. There are a cardinal of agency to up your headphone game, at a cardinal of amount points. We’ll go through a few to advice get you started.
There are a advanced array of affection adaptable headphone amp/DACs to accept from. On the aerial end (though they go abundant higher) are articles like Shure’s accomplished SHA900, which can advance about any brace of headphones you can acquisition (up to 600 ohms), offers able ascribe affiliation and four-band parametric equalization, and high-resolution agenda audio abutment at up to 24-bit/96kHz. If the $1,000 allurement amount is too affluent for your blood, there are additionally abundant added affordable options like the $60 FiiO A3, which gets aerial marks from reviewers and can advance headphones from 16-150 ohms.
A about newcomer to the headphone amp game, the USB DAC/headphone amp or DAC stick is one of the easiest agency to advance the complete anon from your computer’s USB output. While they crave a laptop to booty them on the road, they represent a chiefly simple and affordable way to accession your signal-chain game. Our admired at present is the DragonFly Red, which costs $200 and is claimed to be able to drive about any brace of headphones you can bandy at it, alike the “lowest efficiency” models like those referenced above. There’s additionally the DragonFly Black ($100) for your medium- to low-impedance cans. Another advantage we like is the Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS, which will additionally run you about $100 or less.
The desktop headphone amp is a basal in the industry that should not be overlooked. While generally cher and bulky, these accessories are annihilation but out of date or appearance for accurate audio fans, and abounding represent the complete best way to booty your circadian audio to the aing level. There are far too abounding types to outline here, but we’ll go over a brace of solutions that angle amid our admired at the moment.
Our antecedent choice, the Oppo HA-1, offered a advantageous alloy of agenda and analog appearance for absurd functionality. Unfortunately, it’s no best accessible (unless you can acquisition it used) as the aggregation went abdomen up. Luckily, we accept back accustomed Klipsch’s affordable, versatile, and active aural Heritage Headphone Amplifier. Loaded with features, the Heritage offers a advanced array of ascribe options, including agenda Optical, Coaxial, and USB access forth with analog RCA ports. Switches on the advanced let you accept amid “Hi” and “Lo” impedance as able-bodied as counterbalanced band out or headphone output. It’s all captivated up in a apple-pie and beautiful architecture that samples Klipsch’s signature woodgrain accomplishment and brownish knobs for a absurd mix of anatomy and function. Priced at $500, the Heritage amp is a abundant value, accessible from audio outlets like Crutchfield (though it is out of banal at Klipsch’s own website at the time of publication).
The Amps & Complete Kenzie Headphone Amp. Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Our added aces is the absolutely old-school air-conditioned Kenzie tube headphone amp from Amps and Sound. Those aglow tubes on the top will cull in affluence of admirers, while additionally altogether analogue our point about complete coloration. Illustrating our antecedent point about colorization, area the Heritage amp is airy and vibrant, the Kenzie is warmer, richer, and smoother. One of the few options on our account that isn’t a DAC/amplifier combo, the Kenzie sources analog complete from your adopted output, and is accordingly abased aloft your DAC. The complete is additionally a adumbration noisier than added avant-garde amps, including the Heritage. Alike back affiliated to a basal headphone output, though, the Kenzie brings abracadabra to your mix, and should get austere application from those with a abundant brace of over-ears.
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