Are you fond of using headphones for listening to any form of audio, may it be from your computer or your smartphone? You may also want to add an amplifier to you new great headphones for gaming to improve your gaming experience.
Headphones are great when it comes to playing music or games because it just gives a much more immersive experience than, say, listening to audio through a discrete speaker system.
You might be enjoying your headphones now, but you might not have it work to its full potential because of various factors.
Unbeknownst to many, your computer and your smartphone have a DAC and a headphone amplifier of some sorts. The former converts digital data and converts it to analog signals while the latter provides an ample boost to your headphones so that you can actually hear the sound that comes from the digital file.
Now, headphone amplifiers might be a foreign subject for many, but for audiophiles, a headphone amplifier is crucial.
In this article, I will talk about headphone amplifiers: what they do, who are they for, etc. I will also post some recommendations on some of the best headphone amplifiers out there, should you wish to get one for yourself.
Before anything else, what is a headphone amplifier?
What is a Headphone Amplifier?
A headphone amplifier is just what its name implies: it amplifies the analog signal that comes from the Digital-to-Analog Converter so that you can hear them using your own pair of cans.
Now, that is just the basic function of a headphone amplifier, but there are still a lot of things that it can do.
As previously mentioned, your computer and your smartphone already have a built-in headphone amplifier of sorts, but it is not that powerful. You will need an external Headphone amplifier to truly bring out the best of the headphones you’re using.
Headphone amplifiers, aside from their basic functionality, have two main functions that make them a must-have for audiophiles.
First is that it improves the quality of the audio output. Without getting too technical, it improves the sound quality by allowing you to enhance the analog signal from your DAC and a standalone headphone amp also allows you to increase the overall volume because of that.
Second, it has more power than an onboard headphone amp. A discrete headphone amplifier will have more power (more voltage). Therefore, it can drive those power-hungry headphones that have high-impedance.
High-impedance headphones may work on an onboard solution, for example, but it might not have the necessary power to help it reach its full potential. In other words, if you’re using a high-impedance headphone on a smartphone, for example, the volume might be low or the headphones might not even work properly.
There are two important factors to look at before you’re going to buy a headphone amplifier (or if you even need one): Headphone sensitivity/efficiency and Impedance.
Headphone sensitivity (or sometimes referred to as “Efficiency” in some spec sheets), is a measure of how loud the peripheral can be given an amount of power. Usually, you will see the sensitivity to be measured in decibels (like 95 dB). The higher the decibel rating, the more efficient the headphones will be.
As a general rule of thumb, if the sensitivity of the headphones is greater than 98 decibels, then it means that it is audible enough even when used with an onboard headphone amplifier. But, if sensitivity is below 95 decibels, then you will definitely need an external headphone amp.
Another factor that you should consider is the headphones’ impedance. The Impedance is a term that is hard to explain thoroughly. It is denoted by Ohms. Basically, all you have to be aware of is how high or how low the impedance is.
Low-impedance headphones (<80 Ohms) should work fine without a headphone amp. Generally, most headphones have an impedance rating between 32-38 Ohms. Anything above 80 Ohms is considered a headphone with “high-impedance”.
If your particular set of cans have a high-impedance rating, then you will definitely need a standalone headphone amp to ensure that it gets enough juice to power it up completely.
Now, I just want to quash a misconception with regards to headphone amplifiers. Most people think that the main job of the headphone amp is to increase the volume level of your headphone to stellar proportions.
Although there is a grain of truth in that (it does increase the overall volume), but headphone amps not only amplify the volume of the audio, it also improves the sound; making it cleaner and more pleasing to the ears.
There are also two types of headphone amps: Portable and Desktop. The former is an amp that you can readily bring with you because of its smaller form factor and the latter is best used on a PC.
There are also two kinds of amps: the solid-state and the tube amps. For the purposes of this article, I will just recommend the former kind of headphone amps because they are much more affordable than the tube amps and I believe that most people would opt for a much cheaper solution.
With all of those being said, there are still some important terminologies you need to know about these things.
Headphone amplifiers might not be known to a lot of people, but it is important that you know some of the terminologies being used when describing these components. Below are just some of the commonly used terminologies associated with a headphone amplifier.
- Impedance- A highly technical term to describe in detail, but the main thing you need to know is if your headphone is low-impedance or high-impedance. Low-impedance headphones (8-32 Ohms) can be powered by an onboard amp while the high-impedance headphones will require a dedicated and more powerful headphone amp to truly release its full potential. The impedance rating is denoted by Ohm/s.
- Sensitivity- Otherwise known as Sensitivity in other spec sheets, this refers to the headphone’s volume output given a certain amount of power. It is important to know this because it will help you decide which headphone amp you’re going to get.
- Source- In the context of headphone amps, the Source can either be two things: either the sound that is coming from your headphone or from the original audio file. Usually, it refers to the output audio (in this case, the headphone).
- Output Impedance- Refers to the impedance rating of the amplifier. For best results, the amp’s output impedance should be at least 1/8 of the impedance of your headphones. So if your headphone has an impedance of 32 Ohms, the optimal output impedance of the amp should be 4 Ohms (32/8).
- Damping Factor- The calculation in the “output impedance” section is actually the Damping Factor. Since we divided it by 8, the damping factor is 8. By definition, the damping factor is just the headphone impedance divided by the output impedance of the headphone amp.
- THD+N- This acronym stands for “Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise”. In layman’s terms, it refers to the total sound plus the noise that comes with the conversion (referring to the DAC).
Best Headphone Amplifiers 2017
Now that you know what a headphone amp does, I will now post my recommendations on the best ones you can find.
Do note that I will post both desktop and portable headphone amplifiers so that you can choose what’s best according to your preferences.
FIIO E18 Kunlun
Output impedance: <0.3 Ohms
Pros: Solid build quality, comes with a DAC, Works on a PC and smartphone
Cons: Only supports headphone impedance up to 150 Ohms, Slightly lower SnR than other amps
FIIO is a respected company when it comes to audiophile products. The FIIO E18 Kunlun is one of their best products because of its portability and its functionality.
The E18 is a DAC and AMP combo which means that you’re getting the best sound quality there is. The DAC converts the digital audio file analog signals and then the headphone amp will ensure to give you the best possible audio quality.
This DAC+AMP combo comes with a slew of features. For one, it has a gain and bass boost functionality that effectively increases the gain and the bass response of the AMP. The added gain toggle can help you power those high-impedance headphones.
One of the main reasons why the E18 is so popular is because of its versatility. You can use this is one of the best portable headphone amp if you’re on the go or you can use it as a DAC+AMP for computer use with the included USB cable. Best of all, there are no drivers; so it works right off the bat!
Although there is much to love about this product, it does have its shortcomings. Despite it having a headphone amplifier, the FIIO E18 Kunlun can only drive up to 150 Ohms headphones.
Also, the DAC+AMP combo is reportedly going to last up to 12 hours, but effectively, it only lasts up to 6 hours depending on the charge. And, the Signal-to-Noise Ratio is low at only 106 dB.
Despite these shortcomings, the FIIO E18 Kunlun has an impressive build quality plus it comes with DAC as well. All of this for the price of only $100. Seriously, if you want a DAC+AMP combo, the FIIO E18 Kunlun is definitely on top of the list!
Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS v2
Output Impedance: 0.5 Ohms
Pros: Highly portable, Big Volume Buttons for Easy Access
Cons: Too basic for some, Cannot be used without a Computer
If you want one of the simplest, no-frills headphone amplifiers on the market, then the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS V2 fits the bill.
This is another DAC+AMP combo and a lot of people love it because of its portability. In fact, this is so portable that it dons the size of a standard-sized MP3 player. For those of you who’re wondering what’s new with the v2 of this product, it is just the additional colors you can get.
The design of the DacMagic XS V2 is pretty simple. It has an MP3 player-sized body with two buttons on the front for the volume controls. On the top, you will find the micro USB port to connect it to your computer and at the bottom, you will find the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Out of the box, the DacMagic XS V2 only supports the 24-bit depth and 96KHz frequencies. But, if you connect this one to a Windows PC, download its drivers from the Cambridge Audio website and you will unlock its full potential at 24-bit/192KHz.
Even if you’re using the default frequency, it is actually pretty good still. It provides a clean sound without any distortions and the bass response is actually quite good as well. The highs and the mids are prominent and nothing is overpowering at all.
Remember that this product has a built-in DAC. It is powered by the ESS9023 24-bit DAC which offers an impressive sound quality in its miniature stature.
Now, even though the product is highly portable, what surprises a lot of people is that it doesn’t come with a battery pack. Therefore, you can only use this if you plug it into your computer.
And lastly, the DacMagic XS V2 doesn’t offer other ports and you’re only stuck with the 3.5mm jack to power your headphones. Fortunately, this DAC+AMP is able to power headphones with impedances of up to 330 Ohms.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS V2 might be simple, but it is one of the best DAC+AMPs on the market that doesn’t have a heavy asking price.
Creative Sound Blaster E3
Output Impedance: 0.5
Pros: Highly versatile, Impressive Audio quality, Solid Build, Bluetooth
Cons: Non-removable battery
Creative Labs is actually one of the first companies that have created amazing audio products. From sound cards to DACs to headphone amps, they’ve pretty much covered them all.
The Creative Sound Blaster E3 is one that caters not only to gamers but also for audio enthusiasts as well. In fact, the E3 is arguably one of the best DAC+AMP combos under the $100 price point.
You see, the main benefit of getting the E3 is that it is highly versatile. It has a very small form factor which allows you to bring the DAC+AMP combo with you anytime, anywhere. It comes with a non-removable battery that can last up to 17 hours of audio and 8 hours if you’re using the Bluetooth functionality. Plus, it also has a handy clip at the back so that you can just put it on your pants or your bag.
There are two headphone jacks on the front with one of them being a combo jack for a headphone/microphone combo. The good thing is that the headphone jacks have enough power to support even the most power-hungry, high-impedance headphones (up to 600 Ohms). There are also volume and forward/backward buttons on the side for easy access.
If you want to record audio or you want to have a microphone, the Creative Sound Blaster E3 can do that thanks to its built-in mic. It can also be further enhanced when you plug it in the computer via its USB cable.
Once you plug it in your computer, download its drivers which will include the SBX Pro Audio suite so that you can tweak the DAC+AMP even further. The software provides a lot of added functionality like the CrystalVoice that puts effects for your microphone, an equalizer, the Scout Mode for games, and so much more.
I also love the fact that Creative is kind enough to include a lot of cables: from a 3.5mm headphone-to-headphone jack, a Micro USB cable, and even a USB-OTG cable so that you can use it on your smartphone if you so desire.
This DAC and headphone amplifier combo is nearly perfect, but it does have its own downsides. For one, the Bluetooth functionality, although a welcome feature, can drain the battery of the device quicker than you think. Most people report having only 6 hours of use from a full charge when you turn on the Bluetooth.
On top of that, the battery is not removable which means that you will have no means of replacing the battery if it dies. In other words, if the battery dies, you can only use it when you plug it into your computer.
Still, the Creative Sound Blaster E3 is definitely one of the most versatile DAC and headphone amplifiers on the market. And get this, this DAC+AMP combo costs only $100! That’s a pretty good deal if you ask me!
Output Impedance: Not specified
Pros: Supports Headphones and Speaker systems, Simple yet durable, Pretty good audio performance
Cons: Slightly expensive, requires external Power (adapter)
The previous ones I’ve recommended are all portable headphone amps, but if you want a desktop solution that provides a lot more oomph, then the Audioengine N22 is a good choice.
What is great about desktop amplifiers is that it comes with multiple input options. The Audioengine N22 has a headphone amplifier on the front and it has multiple RCA inputs at the back so that you can connect it to a discrete speaker system.
There is a USB port on the device but this is actually for charging your smartphone or other USB-powered devices and is not the one you should use when you’re connecting it to your computer.
Instead, the company includes a 3.5mm headphone-to-PC jack that you can use to connect your PC to the amplifier.
This headphone amplifier has a rather simple design. It is meant to be put in the upright position thanks to the included stand. This will ensure that the device will have ample airflow.
On the front, you will see an LED indicator, a volume knob, and a lone headphone jack (which powers headphones of up to 300 Ohms). At the back, you will see two audio input jacks, the power input (for the adapter), a USB slot for charging, and up to four speaker connections.
In terms of audio performance, the Audioengine N22 excels. It provides a boomy bass, crisp highs, and pronounced mids. It also has 410mV input sensitivity which means that it can provide a lot of volume when you need it.
What’s also great about this is that you can plug in your headphone and your speaker system at the same time and both of them can work at the same time as well. No more input selectors or anything.
Audioengine is also kind enough to include a slew of accessories like a power supply adapter, a 3.5mm audio cable, speaker wires, an amplifier bag, a power supply bag, just to name a few.
Despite this having a slightly expensive price tag at $200, the Audioengine N22 has been highly praised because of its audio performance, clarity, and all of the included accessories.
If you want to try out one of the better sounding desktop headphone amplifiers on the market, then definitely choose the Audioengine N22.
Schiit Magni 2
Type: Small Desktop Amplifier
Output Impedance: <0.02 Ohms
Pros: Inexpensive, Can drive high-impedance headphones, Clear sound
Cons: Requires a Wall Wart
Schiit is another prominent name in the world of headphone amplifiers and they have made quite a number of really good ones.
Although they have a lot of expensive headphone amplifiers on their product list, people actually like their cheaper headphone amplifier: the Magni 2.
The Schiit Magni 2 (not the Uber version) is a simple, durable, and no-fuss headphone amplifier that does its job pretty well.
It sports a simple design with a reinforced plastic chassis that is painted in Steel paint and it has an Aluminum-covered volume knob on the front. Now, despite their choice of material, a lot of people who have purchased this product never had any problems with its durability.
Now, this is not to be mistaken with the Magni 2 Uber. The Uber edition has a more durable build, a much-improved Gain Stage, a hefty power supply, and some Preamp outputs. But again, if you will only use your headphone and some speakers, then the Magni 2 does the job (and it will be much cheaper for you at the Uber edition costs $50 more).
Anyway, the company states that you can drive any high-impedance headphone you can on the market. To do this, there is a gain stage toggle that you can flip at any time. Whenever you have a 300+ Ohm headphone, just toggle the switch to “Hi” and it will power it without any hitch.
At the back, you will see the power adapter port, the Gain switch, and the left and right RCA jacks if you want to hook up some speakers.
On the front, you will see the volume knob which effectively increases the overall sound output. The company recommends to set your computer’s audio levels to its maximum and then just configure it with the volume knob on the Magni 2.
The Magni 2 has an impressive output impedance of less than 0.02 Ohms which means that it can drive either low-impedance headphone or those power-hungry ones without problems in the sound quality.
The only thing that really bothers a lot of people is its wall wart. The wall wart is kind of big and can be a hassle to plug with other electronics on a power strip, for example.
Other than that, if you want an inexpensive desktop headphone amp from a highly reputable company, then the Schiit Magni 2 is definitely a great choice.
Headphone Amplifier Tips
Headphone amps might be a foreign subject to the layman, but if you decided to get one, you might not be using it properly.
Here are some tips to ensure that you will get the most out of your headphone amp:
- Follow the 1/8 Impedance is a very important spec both for your headphones and the amp. Make sure to look at the impedance rating of your headphones first before purchasing an amp for it. Take your headphone’s impedance rating and just simply divide it by 8 and then get an amp that has that or lower output impedance. Remember, the lower the output impedance of the amp, the better.
- Use the Gain Switch only when needed. There is a reason why some headphone amplifiers have a Gain switch to boost its gain rather than having it turned on all the time. You see, if you’re not wearing a high-impedance headphone and you toggle the gain switch to its high preset, it will introduce unwanted distortions. If you’re using low-impedance headphones, just turn off the gain switch. Only use it if you’re driving headphones with impedances of 300 Ohms and above.
- Loud doesn’t necessarily mean Better. Most people who’ve bought their first headphone amplifier think that louder is better, but that is just not true. You see, despite having an “amplifier” in its moniker, a headphone amp does more than amplifying the volume; it generally makes the overall sound clearer and much better. So, if you’re using a headphone amp, crank the volume slowly until you achieve a volume that makes your audio clear and free of distortions.
- Listen to high-quality audio files. The headphone amplifier, like the DAC, can only improve the audio output so much. If the source file is a lossy MP3 file with low bitrates, then the audio that you will hear will still sound like crap. Always opt for lossless formats like FLAC or WAV. If you do want to use MP3s to save on Hard disk space, then opt for bitrates of 256 or 320kbps.
- Use Software when it has one. Most of the headphone amps do not come with a software, but if you happen to buy one which has a companion software (like the Creative Sound Blaster), always make use of them. Not only will you unlock its full potential but you can also improve its many aspects as well.
Do I need a headphone amp? If so, what are the things I need to know before I buy?
Most people do not know if they really need a headphone amplifier or not. Well, there are many reasons to buy a headphone amp but two main reasons can make or break your decision to get one: a.) Are you using high-impedance headphones? And b.) Do you want to improve the quality of your audio?
If the answer to the above questions is YES, then you definitely need one. Headphone amplifiers not only improve the audio quality of your headphones or speakers, but it also ensures that you can drive those high-impedance headphones without any problems.
Plus, headphone amplifiers have a gain and bass boost to further increase the volume and the punchiness of the sound you’re hearing from your audio output source.
With that being said, if you’re now convinced in getting one for yourself, here some things you need to know and consider before you buy:
- What is your budget? Onboard DACs and headphone jacks from your motherboard or smartphone is sufficient enough and they have evolved through the years. If you do decide to get a dedicated amp for reasons I’ve mentioned above, you must first know how much you’re willing to spend. Although there are a lot of headphone amps that cost a lot of money, the ones I’ve recommended above are inexpensive, but I find them to be the most bang for the buck.
- Headphone Impedance? As mentioned earlier, your headphone’s impedance rating is so important. Before you buy a headphone amplifier, always make sure to follow the 1/8 rule first so that you will have a better picture on what amp you should get.
- Some people want a simple headphone amplifier, but if you want more, then definitely look at its features. Some features that you may want to consider are the bass boost/ gain toggle switch, more inputs, Bluetooth, just to name a few.
- Portable or Desktop? There are two types of headphone amps. If you want a headphone amp that you can use on your smartphone or on the go, then opt for a portable one. If you want something that can be used solely for computer use, then the desktop amp is preferred.
- Build Quality. You want a headphone that can last you a couple of years. Fortunately for you, the ones I’ve recommended above are pretty durable and should last you for quite a while.
- How is it powered? Another thing you might consider is how the headphone amp is powered? For most headphone amps, they can just be powered via USB power. But for more powerful amps, you will need a wall wart or a power adapter. This is just a matter of convenience, so choose the one that suits your preference.
- By extras, I mean its accessories. Headphone amplifiers are things that most people might not spend money on. So, if you’re going to buy one, make sure that the ones you will get have the necessary cables that you need so that you will not have to pay extra money to get extra cables.
People prefer using headphones for a more immersive experience. Whether you’re listening to your favorite song on Spotify or playing a first-person shooting game like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, nothing beats the experience a pair of cans can give you.
If you’re using a high-impedance headphone and you’re not enjoying the sound output because the volume might be too low, then there is a high probability that the amp you plug your cans into does not give it enough juice to function properly.
This is where a headphone amplifier comes in. These amps can drive high-impedance headphones and they also offer a lot of features that can improve the quality and the volume of the sound that you hear; may it be from your computer or your smartphone.
Headphone amplifiers might be a foreign product for some, but audiophiles really use them because of how amazing it performs; especially in making the most out of the audio they’re listening to.
I hope that this guide has made things clearer for you. If you’re looking to improve your listening experience using your headphones, definitely get a headphone amplifier.