Headphones have become a daily necessity in our lives — whether we are in a virtual meeting or are listening to our favorite songs, we often find ourselves reaching for our beloved headphones. Every so often we may be in the market for a new pair of high-quality headphones, and we may even pay a substantial price for a pair that will give us rich, full sound. But perhaps the sound quality does not rest entirely on the quality of the headphones. If you are a headphone junkie, you might want to consider buying a headphone amp. Headphone amps, while underrated, can really enhance your listening experience — it is worth knowing what they do!
What is a Headphone Amp?
A headphone amp is a power-efficient amplifier that powers your headphones. It works like a normal amplifier and boosts the power, current, and voltage of an electrical signal. Instead of your headphones being connected to the audio source, the amp is connected to the source, and your headphones are connected to the amp. The difference between it and a regular amplifier is that it uses significantly less power to function and is made to power headphones exclusively. There are many different headphone amps on the market, and prices for high-quality ones can range from $200 to $2,000. Before you make such an investment, it is important to know exactly what a headphone amp does, and whether or not you really need one.
What Does a Headphone Amp Do?
If you own expensive headphones, a headphone amp can do wonders for you. Using an amp can significantly improve your audio’s clarity and dynamics depending on the type of headphones you have.
Headphone amps are important for something called “impedance rating,” which is the combined resistance and reactivity that travels through your headphones as an electric load. Think of the electricity flowing through your headphones as water flowing through a garden hose. The volume of water flowing through it is like an electric current. If you have a nozzle the same size as the hose, then the water can flow out easily. If the nozzle is more narrow than the hose, however, then the water will flow more slowly. This will cause the water to flow out very slowly. The amount of impedance depends on how big the nozzle is: a small nozzle restricts flow, causing high impedance and a large nozzle facilitates flow, causing low impedance. Impedance is measured in ohms — the more resistance there is, the more ohms a pair of headphones has.
Most headphones have an impedance of 16-32 ohms. High-quality headphones, on the other hand, can have an impedance anywhere from 200 to 600 ohms. Smaller headphones typically have an impedance of 35 ohms, so it does not take a ton of power to get good-quality sound out of them. But bigger, higher-quality headphones need a boost to function to their maximum capacity. For anything above 100 ohms, you should use an amplifier to get the most out of your headphones.
There is another component to the flow of electricity in headphones: voltage. Voltage is analogous to the water pressure in a hose. If the hose has a small opening (high impedance), then it takes more pressure (voltage) to push it out of the hose. High-impedance headphones can benefit from an amp because they need more voltage to get up to a strong listening level.
Most headphone amps include an electronic component called a DAC (digital-to-analog converter). A DAC’s converts digital audio information into a low-voltage signal that an amplifier can do its job. Many digital audio devices like PCs and smartphones have a DAC, but depending on the device, it might not be as powerful as that of a headphone amp. If your device has a weak DAC, using a headphone amp is a wise idea.
Do I Need a Headphone Amp?
Every pair of headphones is different, and some pairs will benefit more from an amp than others. Most earbuds and in-ear headphones are less likely to benefit much from an amp since they are efficient enough on their own. Many larger over-ear headphones, however, will develop a richer and clearer sound with the help of an amp since they will benefit more from that boost. If you listen to music on a computer, laptop, or tablet often, using an amp with an internal DAC can significantly improve the sound quality by improving the D-to-A processing power.
Headphone Amps Can Make or Break your Listening Experience
If you use simple in-ear headphones, you can probably live without a headphone amp. But if you regularly use big, high-end headphones but are not using a headphone amp, you could be missing out on the rich, full, high-quality sound that was promised by your expensive set of headphones. To get the most out of your listening experience, you should consider utilizing an amp. If you edit videos or audio often, an amp may be a necessity for you. There are so many options on the market as well, so do your research and find one that suits your needs and budget and hear the difference — it will be worth it!
Written by Michele Wilson