This is part 2 in a series on various studio equipment, what it does, and how to choose!
- How to Choose Studio Headphones (Coming Soon!)
- How to Choose a Headphone Amp (You are here)
- How to Choose a Microphone
- How to Choose a MIDI Keyboard
- How to Choose a Turntable (Coming Soon)
- What are Studio Monitors?
- What does an Audio Interface Do?
- What does an Audio Mixer do?
- What is a Soundcard?
- What is a USB DAC?
Make sure to pin this Infographic if it helped you, and/or you think it would help someone else!
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 guide
- How to choose a headphone amp
- Portable vs. Desktop
- Power Considerations
- Output Impedance of the Amp
- Sensitivity & Impedance
- Some Amp recommendations
- Final Word
So without further ado, let’s get started!
One of the things that discourages me most in my research is finding out that I have to do…
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, earbuds, 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.
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?
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-V150s.
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 202s are a similar price, but they are solid. They don’t need one.
The Audio Technica ATH-M50x is an entry-to-mid-level pair, and they don’t need an amp either.
The same goes for the Sennheiser HD 280.
Keep in mind: An audio interface, while not a headphone amp per se, does function as sort of an all-around Amp/DAC for your studio monitors, microphone, headphones, etc.
Just don’t purchase one specifically as a headphone amp.
We’ll get into what a DAC is in a bit if you aren’t aware!
Portable vs. Desktop
The first question you should ask yourself is this:
Do my headphones need an amp?
The simplified answer:
If the Impedance is High and/or The Sensitivity is low, you will probably need an amp.
- Learn more about Impedance: What is Headphone Impedance?
There’s no concrete answer for “high”, but I would say anything over 100 Ohms probably needs something.
Even a headphone under 100 Ohms may need it depending on the situation.
The K701 and K702 are both great examples of headphones that have a low Sensitivity (around 91db/mW, not to be confused with the 105db/V that you often see listed), and need quite a bit of power to reach their peak.
The thing to keep in mind is that most pairings will sound just fine. Don’t get too fancy about it.
“If you wanna be fancy, hold your pinky out like this.”
As far as Sensitivity, anything around 97dB and lower generally needs more power from the Amp to reach optimal loudness (around 110dB is the standard).
- More on Sensitivity: What is Sensitivity in Headphones?
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.
The third question is:
Do I need a DAC? (Digital to Analog Converter)
Put simply, a DAC converts the 1’s and 0’s from your computer (the digital realm) into the analog sound that you hear and vice versa.
In the recording, you scream obscenities (analog) into the microphone, and your computer makes sense out of it digitally for you to edit and EQ later.
There’s also an internal DAC in your phone, mobile device, and pretty much anything that outputs sound.
Your PC has an internal Soundcard that functions in the same way.
In this case, a Soundcard is just another way of saying DAC.
All that said, only invest in a DAC if your Soundcard or existing DAC is poop. You’ll know because the sound will either:
- Not be loud enough.
- Sound like poop.
- Make lots of unnecessary noise/crackling, etc.
my laptop’s internal Soundcard does not output at a listenable level.
For me to achieve the volume that I’m looking for, some sort of DAC is required.
(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 the main concern.
The internal Soundscard does a sub-par job of converting signal and amplifying that signal to a listenable level (Discussed above).
In recent years, however, I would say it’s definitely gotten better.
I used to have an old Lenovo T510 and I would never plug my headphones right into the 3.5mm jack.
It sounded awful. My newer X1 Extreme sounds, well, extremely good.
For folks with newer technology, an Amp/DAC may not even be needed!
For me and my T510, an Amp/DAC was mandatory for the following:
- Loud enough volume
- A quality digital-to-analog conversion
if I were to plug my headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the side of that 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.
A good way to know is just to try it out!
If you’re not satisfied with the internal DAC on your various sources (PC/Laptop/Phone/Tablet), then a good separate Amp/DAC will definitely improve everything across the board.
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 the thousands.
Today we’re going to focus on some entry to mid-grade ones, however.
The FiiO E10K is a good example of a nice budget option. I’m really enjoying this amp right now actually with my Sennheiser HD600s!
Review & Comparison to K3
Don’t forget to like, comment, share, and subscribe to my growing channel! Any support is much appreciated
Generally speaking, the better your DAC is, the more accurate the sound will be. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sound itself 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.
- The definition of the sound.
- Takes care of the noise.
- Effectively interpolates gaps left in digital media.
A good example of a Standalone DAC that excels in all areas is the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100.
I found the A/D conversion absolutely pristine, to the point of extreme excitement like Arnold when he relates the Gym pump to climaxing. 😛
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 late, 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.
A great example of a portable Amp/DAC combo is the Audioquest Dragonfly Red.
This tiny Amp resembles a USB thumb drive and effectively bypasses your crappy internal Soundcard. Just plug it into a USB port and you’re done.
Note: I’m not recommending the DragonFly Red anymore, and if you’re interested in why just click that link.
These boys are pretty nifty as well, but are a little bulkier and are meant to be used in the studio only.
They sort of resemble audio interfaces actually. Well, some do. The one above looks like a mini turntable!
The difference is they have a lot fewer knobs and buttons overall, as they aren’t meant for plugging anything else into (i.e. your mic or studio monitors). What are Studio Monitors?
However, a lot of the newer Amps that have come out are also preamps, meaning they have RCA outputs and can hook up to separate speakers.
Pretty cool. Examples would be the iFi Zen, JDS ATOM, and FiiO K5 Pro.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Amps and DACS are standalone.
They need to be hooked up to each other before you can listen to music.
The setup would look something like this:
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.
An amp always needs a digital-to-analog converter so that your brain can make sense of the numbers.
It functions much like an audio interface.
- Related: What does an Audio Interface Do?
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).
Here’s an infographic I did explaining how to hook up an Objective 2 from JDS Labs (Standalone) to a DAC and then to your PC.
As an example, a headphone like the 300 Ohm HD600 requires 20mW of power to perform optimally.
The Schiit Magni 2 provides 260mW of power into 300 Ohms. You can see why it’s such a valuable piece of equipment.
It can effectively power nearly any headphone, and in reality, provides much more than is needed in most cases.
The newer Magni 3 provides 430mW into the same 300 Ohm load. Wow! That’s a bit of overkill, no?
The takeaway here is to simply make sure that the power output of the Amp in question is sufficient for the headphone’s Impedance.
You can do this by checking out the specifications of the amp, as most spec sheets will give a rundown of how much power each Ohm rating can receive. For the Magni 3, the list is as follows:
- Maximum Power, 16 ohms: 3W RMS per channel
- Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 2W RMS per channel
- Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 1.3W RMS per channel
- Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 430mW RMS per channel
- Maximum Power, 600 ohms: 230mW RMS per channel
So the Magni 3 actually provides even more power than the 2.
RMS Power vs. Peak Power
Another thing that newbies and veterans alike can easily miss is the distinction between Peak power vs. RMS (continuous power).
A lot of audio companies don’t specify this clearly enough in their spec sheets which not only confuses people, but it’s also incredibly deceiving and unethical in my opinion.
Just know that peak power isn’t power available all the time. Look for continuous power numbers.
If a company doesn’t specify these or displays peak power numbers but doesn’t specify that they are such, I would steer clear of that company.
Topping has been guilty of this and I’m becoming wary of even recommending their products now because of it.
Output Impedance of the Amp
Another way to determine if your amp will suffice for the headphones in question is to check the output impedance of the amp.
A good rule of thumb is to choose amps that have a number as close to zero as possible.
A simple formula is as follows:
- Take the Impedance of the Headphones. In this case, we’ll use the HD600, which is 300 Ohms.
- Divide 300/8 to get 37.5.
- Next, check the output impedance of the amp. We’ll use the Schiit Magni 3, which is less than 0.3 Ohms.
- To ensure that the amp in question will work, make sure that the output impedance never exceeds the Headphone Impedance. In our case, it doesn’t. 0.3 Ohms is astronomically less than 37.5. We’ve got a winner!
Why does the number 0 even matter?
Simply put, a number close to zero ensures that the amp will always deliver the same (or roughly the same) output into any load.
This ensures that the amp is a consistent performer with a variety of headphones.
- More on this: What is Headphone Impedance?
Sensitivity & Impedance
Do these things even matter? Of course!
Impedance is a great indicator of how much your headphone will resist an electrical load from the amp.
When you have a headphone with a high impedance, it’s basically saying, “I don’t WANNA play loud enough!” Lol.
So what do we do? Cower away in the corner and hide?
Nah homie. We slap those headphones in the face and make them receive power.
Just make sure your amp has enough! Most Amps & DACS will have these numbers on the back of the box.
“It’s just a box.”
Sensitivity matters because it’s an indicator of the current ultimately making the diaphragm inside the driver move, resulting in sound.
But Sensitivity is also critical because it indicates how much power will be required from the amp to drive any given headphone to adequate listening levels (discussed previously).
So the lower the Sensitivity of the headphone, the more power it will require from the Amp to reach loudness.
The HD600s at 97dB need 20mW to perform at their peak.
A headphone with 105dB needs much less; about 2.5mW. Pretty big difference!
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.
In general, the higher the impedance, the more likely you will need an amp to raise the volume to a listenable level. Why? Because it needs more power.
- less than 100 Ohm: An Amp is not mandatory, but depending on the headphone, could improve the sound a little or a lot.
- greater than 100 Ohm: An Amp is highly recommended, if not outright mandatory for optimal listening.
Remember: Sensitivity (how efficient the headphone is) is also hugely important, perhaps even more so than Impedance.
If your headphone has an Impedance greater than 100 but the Sensitivity number is also fairly high (above 97) you can probably get away with either
- An amp/dac that provides less power.
- No amp/dac at all.
The best way to determine what’s what is to just try your headphone out with your phone.
If you can get to a comfortably loud volume and still have some headroom left over, that’s really the ideal scenario that all audiophiles strive towards. What is an Audiophile?
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’m no Mathematician, 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 simply the combined resistance and reactivity the headphones present to the amplifier as an electrical load.
Need more power to reach an acceptable listening level. They often benefit from an amp.
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 a blowout in certain instances.
In other words, you won’t even have to turn the dial past 9 or 10 o’clock in most cases.
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 600/650/6XX/58X
- Impedance: 300 Ohm
- Used for: mixing/reference/casual
- Amp required: Yes.
- Amp picky: No
- Great options: FiiO K5 Pro, JDS ATOM.
Helpful Article on How to Choose:
- Impedance: 62 Ohm
- Used for: mixing/reference
- Amp required: Yes.
- Amp picky: No
- Great option: Vioelectric V200, Little Dot MKIII.
- Comprehensive Shootout: AKG K612 vs. K712 vs. K702 vs. K701 vs. Q701
Helpful article on How to Choose:
Choosing a headphone amp isn’t really that complicated of a process.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the countless Amps & DACS out there.
iFi, JDS Labs, and FiiO brands will more than suffice for the majority of headphones that you’ll be in the market for.
The difficulty comes when you’re purchasing expensive 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-level to mid-level audiophile headphones do well with a lot of the same gear.
With that, I would say that the differences from amp to amp aren’t as astronomically large as some people like to claim.
There are subtle differences, sure.
But Choosing an Amp/DAC should never be a stressful process.
Find out the Impedance and Sensitivity of your cans, look at the power output on the Amp, and then just go for it.
One amp isn’t going to make your music sound that much better than another. The differences are just too subtle.
Trust me, I’ve demoed over 60 at the time of this writing.
Most companies use really good DAC chips so it’s not really a big deal.
I would say that for most people, the FiiO K5 Pro is going to do extraordinarily well due to its versatility and value.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you have a better idea of how to choose a headphone amp and came away with some valuable information. Speaking of,
Did I provide enough information? Did this help? 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,
Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!