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How to choose a Headphone Amp!

Hi friend and welcome!

How to choose a headphone amp is such a great question, and it comes up often. Many times we don’t really think about when or why we need one. We just sort of choose based on reviews, or what’s popular. Today I want to really dissect the process from start to finish, and hopefully give you some insight on different scenarios in which you may or may not need one!

So grab a snack, sit back and relax because..

You’ve come to the right place!!

What I will bring you in this article

  1. Introduction
  2. How to choose a headphone amp
  3. Portable vs. Desktop
  4. Impedance: Does it matter?
  5. Some Amp recommendations
  6. Final Word

So without further ado, lets get started!

Introduction

In your research for the best studio headphones for mixing, the best headphone under $500, etc. you probably came across an unexpected caveat: Needs proper amplification. Oh no! One of the things that discourages me most in my research is finding out that I have to do .. MORE RESEARCH! Lol.

Luckily for you, proper amplification doesn’t need to be such a chore. There are some really affordable, versatile, and quality options out there that consistently come up in reviews. Today I will attempt to concisely lay out some of my favorite options, inform you on when and how you should choose, as well as enlighten you on some of the most logical pairings.

How to Choose a headphone amp

It goes without saying that most of the low end models, ear buds, and generally sub-par offerings don’t need an amp at all. They are just meant to boost certain frequencies and provide a good listening experience for a low price. Sadly, most of the time they completely fail.

sony mdr v150

sony mdr v150

Have you ever purchased a $20 pair of headphones from CVS pharmacy and been utterly disappointed when you finally got home and put them on? Me too. It’s an unfortunate fact of life. These consumer grade cans are the worst of the worst. On the flip side, you may have been satisfied as well. I remember my very first Sony MDR V150’s. They were, and still are a pretty decent set, but the headband is famous for snapping under pressure. Sort of like Henry Hill in Goodfellas 😀

When you get into some of the decent entry level models,  you still won’t need an amp. The Sennheiser HD 202’s are a $20 set, but they are solid. They don’t need one. The Audio Technica ATH M50’s are an entry to mid-level pair, and they don’t need an amp either. Same goes with the Sennheiser HD 280’s.

Keep in mind: An audio interface, while not a headphone amp per se, does function as sort of an all around phantom power amplifier for your studio monitors, microphone, headphones, etc. Just don’t purchase one specifically as a headphone amp.

Portable vs. Desktop

The first question you should ask yourself is:

  • Do my headphones need an amp? The simplified answer: If you spent more than $100, or the impedance of your headphones is above 100 Ohm, I would say yes. Every case is different however.

The second question is:

  • Do I need a portable amp or a desktop amp?

Obviously, if you spend a lot of time in an isolated studio or home environment, a desktop amp is essential.

What’s nice is that you could instead purchase a portable amp and it functions in the same way. You can leave it on your desk as you’re listening, or take it on the go.

Portable USB Headphone Amp/DAC combo

Fiio E10k

Fiio E10k, a great portable option

(Digital to analog converter)

What’s great about these is that they provide your headphones with a built in digital to analog converter + amp. The problem with computers is that the manufacturers rarely make audio a main concern. The result? An internal sound card that does a sub-par job of converting signal, and amplifying that signal to a listenable level.

For instance, if I were to plug my headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the side of my laptop, I would be in for a world of pain like Smokey from The Big Lebowski (mark it 8 dude). Well, not so much a world of pain as a really bad listening experience. Noise, latency, interference, and low volume levels can run rampant here.

Luckily, the Amp/DAC combo takes care of all that. You’re provided with an exceptional sound card (DAC) and amp at a reasonable price (in most cases). Be aware that some headphone amps can reach into the thousands. Today we’re going to focus on some entry to mid grade ones however.

Generally speaking, the better your DAC is, the more accurate the sound will be. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sound will be better, but the representation of that sound will be. If the source of your music is bad, then your sound will still be bad. But, if you’re playing music from a good source, a good DAC will improve upon all of the qualities of your music. A good DAC:

  • Takes care of the clarity of the sound
  • Definition of the sound
  • Takes care of noise
  • Effectively interpolates gaps left in digital media

If you plan to use it on the go, a lot of the portable models can also run off of battery power in addition to being plug and play USB!

As of January 2016, the portable DAC craze seems to really be taking off. Maybe I had been out of the loop a few years back, but all sorts of brands continue to pop up, and now more than ever before it’s extremely affordable to invest in one.


Desktop Amp/DAC

Schiit Magni and Modi

Magni/Modi Combo!

These boys are pretty nifty as well, but are a little bulkier and sit on your desk. They sort of resemble audio interfaces actually. The difference is they have a lot less knobs and buttons overall, as they aren’t meant for plugging anything else into (i.e. your mic).

Another big difference between this and a portable combo is that the DAC and Amp are both stand alone. So to hook them up, the set up would look something like:

Computer/laptop —> DAC —> Amp —> Headphone.

This is a relatively simple way of illustrating it. Amps such as the Magni paired with the Modi DAC sort of “stack” on top of each-other, as seen above.

They also need a digital to analog converter so that your brain can make sense out of the numbers. It functions much like an audio interface. The sound is a jumbled mess until it is converted to a signal that we can process. This signal is meant to be of a much higher quality than your standard built in DAC that comes with your laptop or CPU (as previously discussed).

Does impedance matter?

For the most part, yes. Impedance is a great indicator of whether or not your headphone needs an amp. A lot of entry level closed back models have relatively low impedance ratings, and don’t need one, but can benefit from one. The Audio Technica ATH M50x is a good example. What is headphone impedance?

In general, the higher the impedance, the more likely you will need an amp to raise the volume to a listenable level.

  1. less than 100 Ohm: An Amp is not mandatory, but depending on the headphone, could improve the sound a little.
  2. greater than 100 Ohm: An Amp is highly recommended, if not outright mandatory for optimal listening.

What is impedance anyway?

To put it simply, there’s a lot of math involved when you really get down to it. And since I suck at math, we won’t talk about it. Lol. Here’s a video if you’re really interested. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😛

Seriously though, impedance is the combined resistance and reactivity the headphones present to the amplifier as an electrical load.

  • High impedance cans: Need more voltage to reach an acceptable listening level. They often benefit from an amp.
  • Low impedance cans: They may require more current to lower the damping factor between the amp and headphones. Will be driven loud enough from your portable players. The quality of the sound may be dramatically improved with an amp. Just be aware though that pairing a very low impedance can or earbud with an amp is more susceptible to blow out in certain instances.

One exception is the AKG K701. This is a classic example of a low impedance set that is somewhat deceptive. At 62 Ohms you may think you don’t need an amp. But in my research I have found that the 701 actually won’t sound good without one, and is particularly picky about which amp you choose to boot!

Tube amp vs. Solid State

Some headphones like the H800 will sound better with tube amplification. Check out this article: Tube amp vs. Solid State for more information!


Some Amp recommendations

Rather than giving you a whole slew of different amps, I’m going to name off a few popular audiophile headphones and then give sort of a “great option” for each. Keep in mind that this is highly subjective, but we’re also dealing with entry level, as well as mid-fi gear. These are Amps/DACS that I’ve come across time and again as solid options. You won’t really need a high priced amp unless you have a high priced can on your hands!

Sennheiser HD 600/650

Sennheiser HD 600

Sennheiser HD 600

  • Impedance: 300 Ohm
  • Used for: mixing/reference/casual
  • Amp picky: No
  • Great option: Magni/Modi combo

Sennheiser HD 600 Review

Sennheiser HD 600 vs. 650

Sennheiser HD 598

Should you buy the Sennheiser HD 598?

Sennheiser HD 598

  • Impedance: 50 Ohm
  • Used for: mixing/reference/casual
  • Amp picky: No
  • Great option: Fiio E10K

Should you buy the Sennheiser HD 598? A definitive answer

Beyerdynamic DT880

  • Impedance: 250 Ohm
  • Used for: mixing/reference/casual
  • Amp picky: No
  • Great option: JDS Labs 02

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro, 250 Ohm Review

Beyerdynamic T1

  • Impedance: 600 Ohm
  • Used for: critical listening/reference
  • Amp picky: Yes
  • Great option: Schiit Valhalla

Beyerdynamic T90 vs. T1

AKG K701 & K702

  • Impedance: 62 Ohm
  • Used for: mixing/reference
  • Amp picky: Yes
  • Great option: Vioelectric V200

AKG K701 vs. AKG K702

Final Word

Choosing a headphone amp isn’t really that complicated of a process. Don’t be overwhelmed by the countless Amps/DACS out there. Really the Schiit and Fiio brands will more than suffice for the majority of your higher impedance headphone models. The difficulty comes when you’re purchasing $1600 headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800. A set like that is more than amp finicky. It has the potential to sound completely different from amp to amp! A scary thought indeed. Luckily a lot of these entry to mid level audiophile headphones do well with a lot of the same gear.

In a nutshell:

  1. The Schiit Magni/Modi combo
  2. Schiit Vali
  3. Schiit Valhalla
  4. Schiit Asgard
  5. JDS Labs 02
  6. Fiio E10K

All of these should be on your radar if you’re looking to buy a headphone amp in the near future!


Well that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you have a better idea on how to choose a headphone amp, and came away with some valuable information. Speaking of,

Did I provide enough information? Let me know!

If you have any other questions, or felt that I left something out, leave a comment below or Contact me! I very much look forward to speaking with you.

All the best and God bless,

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[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

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8 Comments

  1. Nice reviews on this website!
    I see that you have used both HD201 and HD202 from Sennheiser. I have HD201, and planning on buying HD202 model, as it is definitely better by many’s opinions.
    But.. As I am almost always listening music from my mid-level Asus laptop or Nexus 5 phone, would buying a headphone amp (or building one) would make a difference, as HD202 are only 32ohm?
    Also, my laptop’s 3.5mm output is total crap with lots of noise and not that clear sound, would there be a difference with using some kind of DAC instead of on-board sound output?

    • Hey Alex!

      That’s a tough one. I wouldn’t buy an amp for the 202’s, but because your laptops 3.5mm jack is crap, I may consider it. Do you plan on upgrading to a better headphone in the future? If so, the FiiO E10K would be a great place to start as far as a great starter combo amp/DAC. It works well with a lot of different headphones, and because you’re starting out in the entry level range, you have a lot of wiggle room as far as upgrading and still keeping the E10K around.
      Hope that helps! If you have any other questions let me know!
      Blessings,
      -Stu

  2. Would the Magni 2 Uber be a good amp for the Audio Technica ATH-R70X? my DAC will be my sound card (Creative X-FI Titanium HD) and I will also use the amp to plug in my Razer Mako speakers.

    • Yeah the Magni will do just fine with the R70x. You may also look into the Valhalla 2, since it is capable of more than double the power output into high impedances (>300 Ohms). The Valhalla was made for higher impedance cans, and the R70x comes in at 470 ohms. At the end of the day, you can’t really go wrong with a Schiit amp, so I wouldn’t stress too hard about it. The Magni 2 is a really good amp.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions..

      Blessings
      -Stu

  3. I know you can’t go off of power alone but what so you think about 39mW at 600ohm powering an HD600? 64mW @ 60ohm and 101 @ 30. Talking about the Audient iD14 if you were curious.

    • I think that’s an excellent choice. I may just have to pick that baby up; I’ve heard a lot of good things about it! It has a ton of features and would more than suffice to power the 600’s.

  4. I am using HD 598 for classical music together with Modi 2 DAC and Little dot 1+ which has Mullard M8161 tubes. Will I get significantly better outcome in term of details, sound stage if I use Schiit Asgard 2 or Valhalla 2 as amp (Considering the fact that LD 1+ is not a pure class A amp where as other 2 does)? If so which one of the two will be better (for classical music)?

    • I may actually go with the Magni + Modi, which is a knock out combo..

      Let me know what you think..

      Blessings,
      -Stu

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