Headphone Amplifier Buyer’s Guide (Includes Headphone Amp Suggestions) | CANADA HiFi Magazine

Headphone Amplifier Buyer’s Guide (Includes Headphone Amp Suggestions)

When I use the term “headphone amplifier” in front of people I usually get a blank stare or a reaction like I’ve just spoken Martian. If you’d react in such a way, read on – hopefully this will be the cure you need. But even if you are familiar with what a headphone amplifier is, surely you will learn something new from reading this guide.

To start, it’s important to realize that if you are a headphone or earphone user, with a portable music device such as an iPhone, or perhaps with a PC/laptop, you are already using a headphone amplifier. Every music device that you plug your headphones into incorporates an amplification circuit to power your headphones or earphones. Since such amplification is typically integrated within the source device itself, most users don’t give these amplifiers a second thought. However for those seeking higher performance from their headphones, the upgrade path will invariably lead to the utilization of a dedicated headphone amplifier.

A dedicated headphone amplifier or “headphone amp” is essentially a low output power amplifier that has been designed specifically to optimize headphone performance. A headphone amp is typically connected to the output of a music component via an analogue or in some cases digital connection. The function of a headphone amp is to amplify the input signal originating from the music component - by increasing its power and then outputting it to connected headphones by way of an output jack – typically a headphone or XLR jack.

Headphones and earphones need very little power to operate in comparison to loudspeakers. Typically, power demands of headphones are measured in milliwatts (mW), which is a thousandth of a watt. Even low efficiency high-end headphones, which are substantially more power demanding than their high-efficiency counterparts, will require less than a single-watt to operate optimally. So the question arises, if power demands are so low then why is a separate headphone amplifier required? Well, this is often due to the fact that mobile music players, laptops and even many stereo receivers have integrated headphone amplifier circuits that are not much more than an afterthought and impacted by cost-cutting engineering. More often, poor sound quality is the greater compromise than a lack of output power. Mobile devices have more issues with output power since efficiency (low power consumption) is of a much higher priority so as to extend the device’s operating time. Such integrated headphone amplifiers may perform tolerably with the free set of earphones that were included with the device but will be unable to drive mid to high performance headphones satisfactorily. Using the built-in amplifier with higher quality headphones will result in reduced dynamics, lack of transparency, higher noise, poor channel separation and a lack of volume. Even though the integrated headphone amplification circuit in an AV receiver may have greater power capability, its design will most likely not maximize sound quality from mid-to-hi performance headphones. To get the best audio performance from headphones, it will require the use of an amplifier designed and engineered specifically to optimize headphone performance – enter the headphone amp.

Headphone amps were at one time almost exclusively the domain of professional recording and mastering studios but with the growth in the headphone market and the number of mid to high performance headphone models, the consumer headphone amplifier has now become an established audio product category. There is a plethora of headphone amps available today, which utilize different designs and offer various features to satisfy the needs and desires of both quality conscious consumers seeking a higher level of performance and die-hard audiophiles.

Making a decision on a headphone amp is not a simple endeavour, given the number of products out there with varied features, performance specifications and prices. Four key aspects that need to be considered and decided on are: category & type, features, performance specifications and price. Let’s consider each of these a little closer.

Category & Type

Headphone amps fall into three basic categories – portable, desktop and full-size.

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