Headphone Amplifier Buying Guide
Buying a Headphone Amplifier
Do you own a pair of headphones that you want to get the most out of? Are you considering tossing them aside for another, possibly more expensive pair? Before you go spending more money on yet another new pair of headphones, consider an alternate choice: a headphone amplifier. Headphone amplifiers use the same principle as a car amplifier (making your music cleaner and louder), and condenses it to pocket or desktop form for a personal listening experience. Headphone amps come in many different sizes, from the miniscule pocket sized amps for when you’re on the go to the full sized desktop amps for when you want to just kick back and get lost in some music in the comfort of your home.
Let’s start with some basic background information, all headphones require a headphone amplifier to function, and nearly every audio device includes a built-in amplifier (your smartphone, tablet and computer already have one). This will probably lead you to ask why you need to buy another amp to make my sound better. The answer is relatively simple; these built-in amps are small, weak and unable to power your headphones to their full potential like a standalone headphone amp*.
Knowing Your Needs
Now, when looking into buying a headphone amplifier, the most important thing to know is what you are going to be using it for. If you’re someone who likes listening to music when you’re out and about, travelling or just moving around the house, you’re probably going to want to pick up a portable headphone amp.
Portable Headphone Amplifiers
Portable headphone amps are just what you would expect; compact, lightweight and easy to carry around with you. Portable headphone amps are typically powered by an internal rechargeable battery or USB connection and have at least one 3.5mm or 1/4” input jack. Intended mostly for use with smartphones, MP3 players, tablets and other portable music players, these amps will also often come with integrated controls for volume, EQ settings for bass, treble, gain and balance and some can even remotely control songs from your device. Select portable amps can also keep your device charged during use so you never have to worry about running out of juice.
Desktop Headphone Amplifiers
On the other hand, if you love nothing more than coming home after a long day and relaxing in your favorite chair with your music, a desktop headphone amplifier is the way to go. Desktop amps can be much larger than their portable counterparts and are designed primarily for use with your PC, music server or laptop. Many desktop amplifiers come with a built-in Digital Analog Converter (DAC) which converts the digital signal coming from your device to an analog signal into your headphones to provide an even more clean, crisp sound (some portable headphones also have a built-in DAC, but it is primarily a desktop feature). Desktop amplifiers can also come with integrated full EQ settings and sound controls.
Other Important Information
Other things to take into consideration when looking for a headphone amp include the specs of your headphones themselves. The efficiency (sensitivity) of your headphones indicates how loudly they will play given a specific amount of power. This rating is typically stated as a certain decibel level (dB) reached with 1 milliwatt (mW) of power. The more efficient your headphones the higher the number, with anything over 100dB considered incredibly efficient. The output impedance of the amplifier is another key piece of information to be aware of; the overall sound quality improves the lower the amplifier’s impedance.
Headphone amps can also function as splitters with multiple headphone inputs which are great for listening parties. Headphone amplifiers can also come with 3.5mm or 1/4” input jacks to support even the highest quality of headphones. High end audiophile-grade headphone amplifiers come with optical inputs to provide the cleanest sound possible.