Purchasing a headphone amplifier is probably the first step you’re taking toward amazing audio. A quick, enjoyable, and inexpensive approach to improve your sound is with headphone amplifiers. However, how can you pick the best one? In this post, we’ve outlined the essential procedures for selecting a headphone amplifier, covering everything from sound quality and portability to built-in DACs and wireless audio. Visit our post on the best headphone amps to see our favorite recommendations.
1. Portable vs. Desktop Headphone Amps
When selecting a headphone amplifier, you must first decide whether you want a portable one or one that sits on your desk. The differences are immediately noticeable. Portable amplifiers are typically more compact and made to fit next to your phone in a pocket or backpack. Additionally, they are more likely to be connected to Bluetooth. They depend on battery life, have fewer capabilities than their larger desktop siblings, which are more suited for sound quality, and are more limited in their functionality.
You’ll learn from your investigation that smaller, portable amplifiers don’t always cost less than desktop models. For instance, the $350 FiiO Q5 (full review here) is a totally portable amp that fits comfortably next to your phone in your pocket, provided you’re a man because it’s obvious that clothes designers don’t believe women need pockets. Compare it to the $119 Schiit Audio Magni 3+ (full review here), which is intended to be placed close to a laptop and requires a wall outlet. The Magni 3 is one of the best amps we’ve ever used, while the Q5 is also an excellent amp. So, for the time being, don’t stress about expense. Simply select the amp type that fits your needs the best.
2. Sound Quality
Any headphone amplifier’s main objective is to improve your headphones’ audio quality. It is to swap out the subpar amplifier circuitry in your phone, tablet, or laptop with a set of components that perform better. Additionally, practically any headphone amplifier will offer your audio quality an immediate and audible boost. The quality of amps available nowadays, even the cheap ones, is really high. There should be a noticeable difference right away.
The sound quality boost will depend on a variety of factors, which we go into great depth about in the sections below. However, your ears are one of the finest ways to determine whether or not your amp is directly enhancing your sound. It’s time to return your purchase if, after a few hours of listening, you can’t tell the difference between the audio you were originally listening to and the same audio played via your headphone amplifier. Nothing less than a discernible improvement in sound quality should be acceptable.
3. Headphone Amps With Included DACs
Any digital audio that you are listening to, such as music from a streaming service, needs to be transformed into true analogue sound. You won’t hear it if that doesn’t take place. You require a DAC to complete this (Digital-to-Analog Converter). Since they are included in all smartphones, computers, and other devices that play music or noises, there is a good chance that you already have one.
Any headphone amplifier needs a DAC to work together. There is no avoiding that, unless you are listening to music that is already in the analogue domain, like vinyl. You have a few alternatives when selecting a headphone amp to make this work in your advantage. All you need to do to keep using the DAC technology in your phone, laptop, or tablet is to connect it straight to your amp using a 3.5mm-to-RCA connector (like this one). If you place a high priority on sound quality, you can place a dedicated DAC box between your amp and your source. Or, if you prefer the most practical choice, you may purchase a headphone amp that already has a DAC built in. This
This will be scoffed at by audio purists who prefer to use separate boxes for each component. Screw the audio purists, we say. A headphone amp/DAC combo is wonderful because it makes your life easier and gives you great sound. We now believe that the $300 AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is the best combination available (full review here). A tiny USB stick that contains a full DAC and amp is a wonderful little device that produces sound of exceptional quality. Your life will simply be better as a result.
4. Bluetooth and Wireless Audio
Full Bluetooth capabilities are typically included with headphone amplifiers, which is something we strongly support. It’s a useful feature that can be really helpful if you don’t want extensive wires to tangle up your equipment. To use this, first pair your headphones with the amplifier via a cable, and then pair the amplifier with a source device (like your phone) using Bluetooth. By doing so, you may have your phone in your bag playing your preferred Spotify playlist and your headphones connected to a covert headphone amplifier, such as the Bluewave GET (see the entire review here), that is clipped to your jacket. In addition to having greater sound quality than a pair of cordless headphones, this arrangement also enables you to
The fidelity of Bluetooth connections hasn’t yet reached that of real wires, but technological advancements have minimised the quality loss to the tiniest of details. Buy an amp that can receive aptX or aptX HD, preferably one with Bluetooth 5.0, if you want to reduce this even more (more on what these are here).
5. How Much Do Headphone Amps Cost
You can certainly spend as little as $66 on a top-notch headphone amplifier. The Bravo Audio V2, one of the top affordable headphone amplifiers we’ve ever evaluated, is currently available for that price. One of the few product categories where you may find some very good items at reasonable prices is headphones amps. This implies that you should list the things you want before even thinking about price. Your top focus should be making sure the headphone amp suits your demands.
Of course, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars on a headphone amp if you wanted to go in a different route. You do indeed get what you pay for, it is also true. It was a revelatory experience for us to spend some time in our testing room with the incredible LTA microZOTL MZ3. If that wasn’t the case, we would have been shocked at $3,700. The main fact is that you can buy a headphone amplifier for pretty much any amount of money you want.
6. Matching Headphone Amps With Headphones
For a brief moment of clickbait, allow me to reveal a dark secret that audiophiles would prefer you not to know. Any headphone amp should be able to power any pair of headphones without any issues. If you don’t crank up the volume to absurd levels, even the biggest, most expensive amp in the world will sound great via a pair of tiny earphones. You may be confident that they will almost probably power your current headphones without any issues while deciding which headphone amp to buy and how to choose one.
If you’re still unsure, there’s a simple way to secure this if you want. Check the impedance of your headphones. You can discover the electrical resistance of the headphones, which is measured in ohms (), on the spec sheet. the specifications of the headphone amplifier you have selected, next. The majority should list an acceptable range of headphone impedances that looks something like this: 16-600. You’re good to go as long as your headphones’ impedance is between those two values. Our list of the top headphone amplifiers for this year conveniently includes a specs table that shows the impedance range for each amplifier.
7. Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connections
Things can rapidly become tricky as you dive deep into headphone amplifiers. One choice you must make when considering a little financial investment is whether to use balanced or unbalanced connections. However, what are these and why are they crucial
In reality, when we discuss balanced and unbalanced connections, we’re discussing headphone cables and an amp’s capacity to support them. Any normal 3.5mm or 6.3mm connection will almost likely be unbalanced since unbalanced headphones have two wires (a ground wire and a signal wire). On the other hand, balanced cables have three wires (two signal wires, one ground). The connectors are more frequently larger, such big XLR connections. The key distinction is that balanced connectors reduce audio distortion; if your headphone amp supports them, as you can see on the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum (see the entire review here), the price will almost definitely reflect this.
8. Tube vs. Solid State
Another decision you’ll need to make is whether to choose a solid state amp or a tube amp. This is a crucial decision because it will influence the final sound you receive. The most popular solid state amplifiers transmit sound through discrete internal circuitry. However, tube amplifiers transmit this sound through glass vacuum tubes, which not only have the advantage of offering a varied sound quality but also look incredibly attractive and can be replaced with different tubes if you want to alter the sound in any way.
Because of the presence or lack of enormous blazing glass tubes, it is rather simple to determine if an amplifier is solid state or tube. While tube amps raise the mids and the bass for additional warmth, solid state amplifiers tend to sound more balanced and clean. These are not rigid guidelines, and other apps will include different qualities, but they do allow you to base your amp choice on the style of music you enjoy. You might not want to use a tube amp if you prefer classical music, for instance.
9. Gain Switches
Gain switches are available on a number of headphone amplifiers, so before you spend your money on one, it’s important to understand what gain is. Gain is the degree to which an amplifier can boost a signal. It differs from volume and is more akin to the foundation upon which volume is built. The volume will be quite loud even at low levels if the gain is high. Low gain translates to very soft. The best comparison we’ve seen says that volume is the throttle and gain is a little like the gears in an automobile, like first and second.
Altering the gain setting between high and low can improve the sound. It’s advantageous to have the choice to reduce gain if your in-ear headphones are particularly sensitive because it will provide clearer audio. Additionally, if at all possible, you should always strive to start from a lower gain point. If you plan to purchase a headphone amp, selecting one with a gain knob can be advantageous if you own several pairs of headphones or prefer fine-tuning the nuances of your sound. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be concerned about it.