No, not a guitar or bass amp, but an amplifier for your headphones. Some people develop a serious obsession to achieve the best sound they can. And to do that, they invest, sometimes heavily, in quality headphones.
In the process, you may well have wondered, do you need an amp? That is, will the sound be better if your headphones are given a boost by a dedicated headphone amp?
When Would You Need A Headphone Amp?
You will only need to hook up an amp for your headphones in certain situations. That is, if the electrical output coming through the headphone jack is lower than what your headphones need.
Bluetooth headphones, to use as an example, won’t ever need an amp. They are designed to deliver the power internally to the drivers. But some wired headphones might.
Let’s Do A Quick Test
Assuming you are using wired headphones, plug them into your music system, but be careful with your hearing while undertaking this test; if the sound gets so loud that it is uncomfortable, then it is TOO loud.
- Can you get what you consider a decent volume?
- Is the volume on full, or is there a bit more room left?
If you can sit down and answer yes to both questions, then I would say you don’t need to have an amp. Attaching an amp is not going to do much to the quality of the sound or the volume you want with the headphones you have.
As I said, the job of the amp is to increase the source’s output power to a level that you want. If you don’t need more volume, then lacking the power to drive them isn’t the problem. They are working fine.
That, I suspect, is going to be the case with a lot of headphones. But we are talking about basic, consumer-quality phones, but not the real high-end stuff.
What Are You Using
These days when people say headphones, they can be over or around-ear headphones, earbuds, or in-ear headphones. Therefore, the type of headphones you are using needs to be considered. Look at your audio system. It is made up of several constituent parts. But serious music lovers and listeners often use headphones to get the full effect. The headphones are a vital part.
We have all seen the tiny earbuds and smaller headphones that come with our MP3 players and smartphones. And we have all probably seen the larger versions similar to what is used in professional sound studios. Those we get with our MP3 players and smartphones are basic and, in most cases, do the job. But these are lower-level consumer products.
Some of these are headphones that benefit from a headphone amp. But as they can still be used at moderate to low levels, we don’t notice. And why should we?
Will a Headphone Amp Make a Difference?
That is what we’re discussing, but let me just make a point. An amp cannot boost the quality of the headphones you are using to a higher level than the headphones can produce. So, please don’t forget that. You can hook up an expensive amp, but if the headphones are not up to it, you will not get any significant improvement in sound quality.
A quality headphone amp is specially designed to provide sufficient power to the phones.
What Is a Headphone Amp?
As I mentioned earlier, it is a device that will give electrical power to your headphones. It doesn’t allow you to adjust the tone or other sound controls. It just delivers power.
We already have them, probably without knowing. In their tiniest form, they will be in your smartphone, car radio, and your TV. They can be small because it takes hardly any power to make them work to an adequate level.
The Third Element
We have talked briefly about volume and now how size can play a part. But there is a third thing to worry about, and that is a word that scares some people. Impedance.
All older headphones are high impedance. And many of the high-level music industry headphones are still designed and built that way to this day. There is a reason for this. It allows them to use more coils in the phones, which gives greater sound quality and a more precise sound.
Modern Consumer Headphones
Today’s modern designs are designed to work with devices that are low impedance. Therefore, they demand less power, resulting in the batteries in the devices lasting longer.
They are built to deliver as little power as possible. But, that is still enough to run the consumer headphones we are using today. However, they do not provide enough voltage to drive studio or high-end headphones.
What Types Of Headphone Amps Are There?
There are essentially three types of amps for headphones.
Designed to be small and compact and fit in your pocket. They take the audio from your MP3 or smartphone and send it to the headphones using a battery. The battery has to be recharged. They will only work with one pair of phones at a time.
These are no-compromise amplifiers designed for audiophiles, usually with medium to hefty pricetags. The quality they deliver is superb, but you will need an expensive pair of headphones to really get value out of them.
Desktop and Rackmount Studio Headphone Amps/Splitters
These can either be quite compact and sit on your desk. They will power up to four sets of phones at a time. Additionally, they will have a volume control on the front for easy use. Or, they can be rackmount, as are the headphone amps in recording studios. Usually, they are 19 inches wide and designed to be placed in a rack with the rest of the studio processing equipment.
They Do Different Things
They operate in different ways. Portable headphone amps can be put in your pocket and carried with you. They are for what we might call “listening for pleasure.” The Audiophile systems are connected up to what is usually an expensive stereo system made up of separate high-end audio components.
The Desktop amp is for a small studio, possibly at home. Using some higher-quality headphones and knowing what you are doing, you will be able to perform some basic mixing. The Rackmount amps are for recording, mixing, and mastering in a professional studio.
Something to Consider
Before buying an amp, you should consider how much will your headphones benefit from using an amp? Will it improve what is known as the “performance ceiling”?
So, Where Are We?
The question remains, do you need an amp? Well, if it isn’t quite clear, then let me clarify by asking three questions.
Question 1 – Have you got a regular set of headphones or earbuds?
Those for your phone or MP3 player, normally supplied with the device. If so, then it is most likely you will not need an amp. These phones or buds have been built to accommodate the device. Any power they need to give you a decent sound will have been designed into the product.
Question 2 – Have You Bought a Set of Consumer Headphones?
By consumer, I mean fairly standard phones, not high-end or what might be considered “audiophile-grade.” If so, my guess is that you probably won’t end an amp for those either. Most low to mid-range headphones are built to operate perfectly well on low-impedance. They don’t need extra power to drive them and so should be quite adequate.
However, there is a space where the best of the consumer headphones meet the high-end and top-quality phones. It is here that you need to consider the benefits.
Question 3 – Have You Bought a Set of Studio Quality or High-End Headphones?
If you have, then it is likely you have either bought them to work in a recording studio or, as is more likely, you are someone who wants the best sound they can get. You are one of the people who demand high-quality, high-fidelity sound reproduction – you are an audiophile.
There is a straightforward reason why professional sound people need an amp. And they look for amplifiers specially designed for headphones.
The amp needs to be able to deliver the necessary power to deal with professional headphones’ high impedance. This is to ensure there will not be any distortion or any impact on the frequency response. The reproduction through the phones has got to be perfect for their needs to do their job.
You just want the very best sound you can get, and probably spent a lot of money on the headphones. So, you will need to know they are working at their fullest potential. In that case, if they are high-impedance headphones, you will almost certainly need an amp.
Let’s Sum Up
It should be quite obvious now that there aren’t that many headphones that will need an amp. This is because not many of them require the extra power the amp will provide. It is only when you start getting into the world of the professional or the audiophile that an amp will be required.
However, it is noticeable that even some of the “high-end” cans are being designed so they can work with phones and iPads. In other words, low-power devices, although, they would obviously sound even better if run through their own dedicated high-quality headphone amplifier.
Options for Headphone Amps
First, if you want an amp for your MP3 or another device, there is the Hi-Fi Headphone Amplifier Portable Headphone Amp.
For some interesting comparisons between a selection of the best headphone amps currently available, don’t miss our reviews of the Best Desktop Headphone Amplifiers, the Best Portable DAC/Amp Combo, and the Best Desktop DAC/Amp for some fantastic sound-enhancing options.
Or, if you have a small home studio, check out the BEHRINGER HA400 Ultra-Compact 4-Channel Stereo Headphone Amplifier. And for a professional studio, there is the Mackie HM Series, 8-Channel Headphone Amplifier Rackmount.
Looking for Some Great Headphones?
Then we can also help with that. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Best JBL Wireless Headphones, the Best Studio Headphones For Home Recording, the Best Bluetooth Headphones Under $100, and the Most Comfortable Headphones you can buy in 2023.
You may also enjoy our detailed reviews of the Best Headphones for Mixing and Mastering, the Best Headphones with Volume Control, Best Headphones with Microphone, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best Wireless Headphones for TV that are currently on the market.
Do You Need An Amp? – Final Thoughts
If you need to go down the headphone amp route, then a word of caution. You will find these amps with lots of pretty designs, flashing lights, and marketing promises. But then you have to sell your car to pay for it.
Don’t. There are plenty of very good headphone amps out there at every level. And none of them require you to sell anything to buy them. The three I highlighted above, as well as a number of the ones we have included in our in-depth comparisons, also listed above, are just some examples.
Until next time, happy listening.