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Headphone amplifier is in many cases the right choice for listeners looking for better sound quality. Music is available more easily and more than ever before, albeit fragmented into different audio formats. Gone are the days when you had to dig deep into the depths of the internet to find a high-quality MP3 song. Now it's enough to log into one of the popular music streaming services. In addition to the service they like, consumers can listen to their favorite artist's songs in the quality they want. There are several different qualities (codecs) to choose from. Such are, for example, Spotify's OGG/Vorbis 320kbps, TidalMQA or FLAC, which preserves Qobuz's original sound quality and sometimes even surpasses CD quality. The only thing to worry about: What kind of headphones you want to listen to the songs you love.

High-end wired headphones can significantly enrich your listening experience, but there are ways you can take your chosen pair of headphones - and your listening experience - a step further. This is where the headphone amplifier enters the scene.

Since you are reading this text, I guess you are interested in the topic. It may also be that you already listen to a lot of music with headphones. At the same time, wondering if you could get more out of high-quality headphones. In many cases, the answer is clear. Depending on the headphone, it is very possible that a high-quality headphone amplifier - or headphone amplifier & DAC (digital to analog converter) - can give your music new life. But what is a headphone amplifier? How does it work? And above all, how much does a decent amp cost? In this article, we answer all these questions and a few more.

What is a headphone amplifier?

Topping L30 headphone amplifier

A headphone amplifier is a relatively low-power amplifier that raises the low-voltage sound signal coming from the device used as a sound source (DAC, record player, computer, or smartphone) to a high enough level so that it can be converted into sound waves for the speakers in the headphones. The headphone amplifier works in the same way as the amplifiers used to power full-size speakers, but works at a lower power.

What is a DAC?

Topping E30 DAC

Read the detailed article: What is a DAC?

DAC is short for Digital to Analog Converter, or the more familiar DA converter. The device is used to convert the digital signal into analog, i.e. into a form understood by the speakers. You may not have realized it, but chances are you already use a DA converter every day. This is due to the simple fact that virtually all devices that transmit digital audio use a DAC circuit.

Analog devices such as turntables do not need a DAC. The low-voltage signal they produce is already in analog form. To play music or speech through headphones, all digital audio devices (computers, smartphones or tablets) need both a DAC and a headphone amplifier. Many devices have it already built-in.

Why do I need a headphone amplifier?

Most devices contain a DAC and a headphone amplifier, why do you still need a new device? Typically, in the manufacture of devices, the aim is to reach as large a user base as possible, in which case the device is made multi-purpose. Since the device is not designed specifically for listening to music, compromises are made in the selection of components and this directly affects the sound. Another problem is the lack of interference suppression, which is a problem especially with PCs. It is also possible that the impedance of your headphones is so high that the PC's internal sound card cannot play them at sufficient volume. However, the end result is the same: The sound played through the headphones does not sound high-quality. The same applies to phones: One sounds terrible, another better, the third again excellent.

In short: If you don't have good quality headphones, you won't benefit from a headphone amplifier. As the quality of headphones improves, so does the benefit from using a headphone amplifier.
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The truth in a nutshell

Anyone need a headphone amp? Could you benefit from a quality headphone amplifier? If you want to enjoy your music as the artist created it, the answer is clear: Yes.

Impedance

There are certain types of headphones that require a headphone amplifier to work properly: These are called high-impedance headphones. Impedance refers to the resistance of an electrical signal and is measured in ohms. The higher the impedance, the more resistance the headphones or speakers give to the electrical signal. Without a headphone amplifier, the headphones either sound inferior, or alternatively the volume has to be adjusted to the maximum. In both cases, the music is not reproduced in high quality.

Headphone impedance can vary greatly, from around 16 ohms to around 600 ohms. Generally, the higher the impedance, the more amplification power is needed to use headphones and the more likely a headphone amplifier will be useful. If you are curious about the impedance of a hi-fi headphone, you can typically find the information in the user manual or technical information online.

Classic headphones, such as the famous Beyerdynamic DT990 (600 ohms), were originally designed for use in recording studios with powerful sound reproduction equipment. In order to get such headphones to play at the desired volume and reproduce the music cleanly, a headphone amplifier with significantly more voltage than a standard smartphone is needed.

Many modern headphone models use planar magnetic elements instead of traditional dynamic elements. To achieve optimal performance, the headphones require a separate amplifier power. An example of such headphones is popularHifiman Sundara.

However, not all high-performance headphones are monsters that require the highest performance and high power, but as the sound sources get smaller, the headphone designers have adapted. The new technology enables low-impedance high-performance headphones that work well even with low-power devices. Most IEM earphones use elements that require a lower voltage, so they also work well with portable devices.

There are no clear rules about when a headphone amplifier is needed. However, it can be assumed that, for example, headphones with an impedance of > 50 ohms will benefit from a headphone amplifier.

Sound quality and headphone amplifier

Mentioned in the speeches of music professionals signal path, or signal chain refers to all components that come into contact with the audio signal. In consumer cases, the chain probably includes a digital audio source, a DAC, a headphone amplifier, headphones, and finally a listener. The better the quality of the signal path, the better the sound quality.

When a quality amplifier is combined with good headphones, great things happen.
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Unknown listener

You have come to the article to learn more about headphone amplifiers. We will also talk about another topic organically related to the matter, i.e. DAC. The DAC is also a critical component between the listener and the audio source, as the device converts the audio data from digital information - a simple code of 1s and 0s - into electrical current. The higher the quality of this conversion, the better the sound.

High-quality amplification improves sound quality almost without exception. The amount of improvement depends on the starting level and the components used. When a high-quality amplifier is combined with a good pair of headphones and a competent DAC, it can give life and color to the sound as desired. It can make the sound clearer and more balanced, or on the other hand warmer, fuller and softer. A good headphone amplifier can also affect the sound in other ways, such as by isolating the current flowing inside the device and limiting interference sounds that can mess up the end result.

The best amplifiers and DAC solutions create a cleaner, clearer and less distorted signal. The better the signal reaches the headphones, the better the listening experience.

What kind of headphone amplifier-DAC should you buy?

You may have decided to buy your own amplifier or amplifier-DAC combination. That means it's time to break out the piggy bank? Not necessarily. There are several ways to improve the sound quality and the best thing is that there are devices in several different price ranges. Here are some thoughts.

Mobile music

Fiio m11 plus 2 headphone amplifier and DAC combination

There are plenty of high-quality mobile headphone amplifiers and DACs. At the highest level are, for example, separate portable instruments, such as Fiio M11 products like M11 is practically a music player running on top of the full Android operating system. It can practically drive any pair of headphones and offers versatile connections, as well as high-resolution digital audio support at up to 24-bit/96kHz. A more affordable solution is, for example, a lossless one that works over Bluetooth Fiio BTR5 or BTR3k, where the difference is mainly in power. It is a good solution when you want to use the phone without a connected headphone cable. As a wired alternative, few devices provide as much power as Xduoo XD05 Plus. The device can be connected to the phone's USB connection and can supply 1000mW per 32 ohm load.

Headphone amplifier for desktop - Computer audio

A desk-top headphone amplifier is a very versatile device. Several headphone amplifiers have a preamplifier output, so it can also be used with active speakers, such as Genelecs. The physical dimensions of the desktop-sized device enable more versatile connections. The devices often have balanced and unbalanced headphone output, which again increase the available power reserves.

On the desktop, it is possible to use either a separate headphone amplifier and DAC, or one combined device to handle both needs. In some cases, more devices mean versatility – even two different amplifiers from the same DAC. Alternatively, you can connect a network player to the DAC, so you can listen to music without opening the computer. Often the deciding factor in this decision is available space or budget. One device is usually the most compact and cost-effective solution.

A good one-device solution is, for example Topping DX3 Pro. As separate devicesTopping E50 and Topping L50 are another excellent example. Both can still be combined Arylic S50 Pro+ network player, so the package is almost complete. Or should I get new headphones for that new headphone amplifier?