The specific headphones you choose for your audio system have the most significant impact on sound quality. A headphone amplifier is a useful device that ensures you get the best listening experience possible.
Do headphone amps improve sound quality?
If you’re listening to audio on a laptop, computer, tablet, or phone, a headphone amplifier can significantly improve sound quality. this improvement is due to the superior digital to analog processing that is built into the amplifier’s external dac.
Despite its prowess in this field, improving sound quality is not the primary goal of a headphone amplifier.
Improvements in this area are a by-product of the amp’s main interactions with the headphones. the main purpose of headphone amplifiers is to provide the ideal amount of power for the headphones to work.
- This improvement is due to the superior digital to analog processing that is built into the amplifier’s external dac.
how headphone amps improve sound quality
headphone amplifiers provide a host of benefits when it comes to audio reproduction.
As the name suggests, they focus primarily on amplifying the signal before it reaches the headphones, creating the perfect amount of power to maximize efficiency. As a result of this process, sound quality can be dramatically improved.
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improving sound quality is a possibly subjective matter, in the sense that what one listener considers “better” may be less desirable to another.
So when claiming that headphone amplifiers improve sound quality, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about two main factors: clarity and coloration.
When audio signals are sent from a sound source, such as a laptop or smartphone, the signal is presented digitally.
For the headphones to play the audio properly, it needs to be converted to an analog signal. The device responsible for this is known as a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter).
One of the ways a headphone amp can improve sound quality is through this conversion process.
Although most sound reproduction devices have built-in dacs, those found in external headphone amplifiers are often more sophisticated and effective for their role.
- The more capable the dac within a headphone amp is, the more improvements are made to the overall sound quality.
The coloration process occurs due to the main function of a headphone amplifier.
It is intended to provide the proper gain for the sound source to reproduce audio at an audible level, and should not inherently change the waveform in doing so. however, some headphone amps have a high output impedance, causing their frequency response to be applied to the waveform, adding color.
Whether or not coloration improves sound quality is a question that will evoke a different answer depending on listener preference.
check out this great video from ps audio on how to set up a headphone amp.
Every headphone amp, especially those with above average output impedance, will color the audio in a unique way. Like the preamps used for recording with microphones and instruments, these devices come in a wide variety of colors.
Alternatively, high-end headphone amps offering low output impedance are unlikely to color the sound.
It could be argued that these devices improve sound quality more than a high output impedance option because they work with minimal distortion and simply amplify the original signal without adding any color to the output.
Some listeners will prefer the slight coloration added by a high-impedance output headphone amp, while others will enjoy the cleaner, more natural sound of their low-impedance counterparts.
It could be argued that both are improvements to the original sound quality, so it’s a matter of personal preference in this case.
To summarize, here are the ways headphone amps improve sound quality:
- more efficient digital-to-analog conversion
- add unique coloration
- amplify the signal at the optimum gain level
- minimize the distortion & unwanted noise
- skip low quality dacs on playback devices
I have written an article called “are expensive headphones worth it?” you can read it here.
dacs & headphone sound quality
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most integral components within a headphone amp is the dac.
This device is performing the vital function of transforming digital data into analog waveforms, which makes it possible for audio to be played through headphones or speakers.
so what exactly is a dac and how can it improve sound quality?
dacs are not only included in headphone amplifiers, but are also present in all devices that can reproduce audio. we use them daily, but many people don’t even know they exist.
Before the sound enters an amplifier and subsequently a pair of headphones, it is presented as a series of 0’s and 1’s. This is a digital signal, and at this point it is inaudible. The DAC takes the audio as it enters the headphone amplifier and converts the 0’s and 1’s into an analog waveform that is audible to the human ear.
Most devices have their dacs built in, but they are not always built to a high standard.
That’s why using a good quality headphone amp with a specifically chosen dac is likely to improve sound quality. When you use the amplifier, the built-in converter in the laptop, phone or other device is bypassed.
The high-quality converter inside the headphone amp works faster and more efficiently, improving sound quality as a result.
- It should be noted that not all headphone amps contain dacs.
Most good quality options do this, but some will require you to purchase an external dac that plugs into your playback device separately from the amp.
standalone dacs often house simple controls and come in the form of a box that connects via usb. headphones can sometimes be plugged directly into a dac, but it’s advisable to use a headphone amp as well for best results.
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headphone impedance level and sound quality
One of the main attributes that affect a headphone amplifier’s ability to improve sound quality is its impedance level. Generally speaking, two types of impedance are likely to come to mind when talking about audio: output impedance and load impedance.
Load impedance describes the headphone impedance, while output impedance is relevant to headphone amplifiers.
Typically, headphone impedance is between 10 and 600 ohms. the most common impedance rating is 32, as it has become a standard number among manufacturers.
On the other hand, the impedance of a headphone amp is likely to be much lower, around 4 ohms, or in some cases 0 ohms. however, there are lower quality headphone amps that have a much higher output impedance, and this is usually reflected in the sound quality.
To ensure the highest possible sound quality, a process known as “impedance matching” must occur. this term describes how the output impedance and the load impedance interact with each other. In a nutshell, it’s how the power of the headphone amp and pair of headphones match up.
Sound quality is dramatically improved when these two impedance levels are complementary to each other. doesn’t mean the number must be the same, that would be too simple!
If a pair of headphones has a low impedance, which is less than 50 ohms, they are more compatible with portable devices than with headphone amplifiers. they will still experience some benefit from the interaction, but the improvement in sound quality is likely to be less noticeable.
- Headphones with high impedance levels benefit much more from being connected to an amplifier because they require significant amplification to function to their fullest capabilities.
If the headphone amps have a high impedance output and you connect a low impedance load, two undesirable results will occur.
First of all, distortion is likely to increase. in fact, when used intentionally, some would argue that a little bit of distortion can improve sound quality and tone. however, when created inadvertently, it is more likely to hamper overall quality.
This impedance mismatch between the headphone amp and the headphones can also lead to reduced power.
this is reflected in the frequency output changes in the headphones. interactions with the source are likely to be unpredictable and detrimental to the overall sound quality.
The following table shows the power impedance of certain headphone amplifiers:
does phantom power damage headphones?
phantom power is very unlikely to damage a pair of headphones. most interfaces have separate headphone outputs that are independent of the channels where phantom power is present.
can too much volume or gain damage the headphones?
It is a common misconception that high volumes will damage headphones. the internal speakers are designed to cope with the maximum volume they can produce. however, high volumes can damage your hearing, so it is not recommended.
I hope this clears up any questions you have about headphone amps, thanks for stopping by!