3,437-word post, approx. 10 min. read
- 10/16/20. Article posted.
- 1/30/21. Article/link cleanup.
Greetings comrade and Welcome aboard.. Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music .. all over again, so..
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I’ve always loved listening to vinyl.
I also use it when I want to kick back and listen to some Coltrane. You gotta love the charm of spinning vinyl in a relaxed environment. There is really nothing quite like it.
There’s a sense of nostalgia that accompanies a good song or album that can really get your emotions flowing.
I love listening to artists like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra for that very reason. They remind me of visiting my grandparents in Smithtown, NY during Christmas and other miscellaneous occasions. My Mom and Dad and I would make the trip up I-95 from Raleigh, NC at least 2 or 3 times every year, and it’s something I always used to look forward to; as a youngster growing up, and also as I got older.
My grandparents have since passed on, but I still think of them often, and cherish those great memories. The sights, smells, and sounds of visiting New York as a non-native are some of my life’s greatest privileges. To me, it’s the simple things that are ultimately the most important.
If you’re from up north, you kind of tend to take it for granted. As the old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
I remember being so fascinated by the skyline as a boy, and to this day I still am. During one trip, in particular, my cousin came back down south with my parents and me to visit for a few weeks – after staying with us at my grandparents’ house on Long Island.
Being from New Jersey, he had seen it all so many times that it wasn’t really an experience for him anymore (and he told me as much). For me, gazing out at the windows at those mammoth skyscrapers lining the beautiful blue-skied backdrop was mesmerizing, to say the least.
I always looked forward to seeing the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, as well as the Twin Towers when they were still standing. It was almost an event, something akin to attending a baseball game and seeing your favorite players perform live. I would always take pictures and soak it all in while my dad tried not to lose his mind in New York traffic (it’s absolute hell, I’ve driven in it).
Music is amazing in its ability to really take you back to a specific time and place. Listening to vinyl through headphones does that for me nowadays, but what’s even better is the headphone amp that I use for the task.
Even with that said, many of my regular readers and subscribers know by now my growing disdain for Amps and DACS. There are way too many on the market, and while it’s fun to review and compare them, most people don’t have that luxury.
They’re simply looking for something that meets a specific set of criteria.
In this article, we’ll go over some great Amps that will knock your socks off when it comes to sitting down and listening to vinyl through headphones. These same amps and dacs also happen to make companions for a plethora of other uses as well.
Let’s first briefly touch on some considerations that must be made beforehand!
- Determine if you need a phono preamp. This takes the low-level analog signal and boosts it to line level, not unlike what 48v phantom power does for a condenser microphone. Some turntables (mine for instance) have built-in phono preamps. Because of this, I don’t have to worry about purchasing something separate.
- If your turntable does not, you will need one. I would recommend something like the Zen Phono from iFi.
So instead of just having a turntable and Amp in your chain, you’ll have turntable > phono preamp, then phono preamp > your amp.
The Zen Phono is a perfect way to bridge that gap between your audio equipment and would make a great pair with some of these options. Speaking of, let’s dive in!
Creative’s SoundBlasterX G6
You may be wondering why an Amp/DAC geared towards gamers occupies the top spot on this list. Well, in short…
Because I said so!! 😂
Haha, just kidding. There is actually a reason. For a while, our #2 option was my go-to for pretty much everything: Gaming, Vinyl, Music, Film, etc.
That is until the G6 came along.
#2 is like the woman you could have sworn was the one. Everything about her was right. You genuinely desired to be with her. She was beautiful, intelligent, and you really had a deep connection with her. But for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. Perhaps you couldn’t see it with your natural eyes, but God saw it in the spiritual realm.
The G6 to me represents the one. It’s the complete package. If it were a girl, it would combine everything about a woman that I desire: an emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual connection. The G6 is everything and can do anything. When I say anything, I mean ANYTHING.
The reason is that it has both a line/optical input and a line/optical output. On the surface, the back panel looks incredibly simplistic. You’d never really think to yourself that it does much at first glance. There’s a USB jack on the right and the 2 jacks on the left, but check out this graphic I did:
It can connect to basically anything. Use your imagination!
The reason the G6 slightly edges out option #2 is not that it can necessarily do more, but that it’s a bit more convenient to use and does have some extra software features that really set it apart from your average product.
When the price meets convenience meets incredible sound meets all of that, well, you’ve got something special on your hands.
Once you’re done listening to vinyl for the day, simply press play to resume the music from wherever on your PC: Spotify, Tidal, etc. Related: Tidal vs. Spotify [Definitive Guide]
That’s right; you don’t even have to move a muscle. Your turntable connects to the back of the unit’s line in, but the DAC itself is connected through USB. With option #2 (that we’ll look at below), I have to tick a switch.
The same applies to listening to vinyl and gaming in your living room. Because the DAC is connected via USB to your PS4, and your turntable is connected through the line input, you don’t have to do anything. Just simply start playing a record through your turntable and sound will come through.
Important note: I mention this again a few paragraphs down, but it’s worth it to re-iterate. Always, always make sure your turntable is set to line and not phono, or you won’t hear jack sh** and wonder if you’re going crazy. For use with your receiver and speakers, you’ll obviously set it to “phono.”
You could theoretically just listen to music all day and not even move, only slightly extending your arm to switch the record out. Yay couch potatoes! 😂
For your turntable, you will need an adapter like this one, and a 3.5mm interconnect, but most turntables come with the adapter and everyone should have an interconnect lying around. For instance, my Audio Technica AT LP60 came with an adapter and it’s super simple to connect to various components in a home theater or home studio environment.
On the software side, you can download Creative’s “SoundBlaster Connect”, a fantastic app for tweaking the sound to your liking along with a bevy of other cool features.
The other important distinction between the G6 and our #2 option is convenience. If I wanted to move the other DAC from my studio to the living room, I’d have to un-plug a power cable/brick, a USB cable, and potentially RCA cables from the back of the unit. This takes up valuable time that I could be using to listen to music. In short, it’s a pain to move the other DAC around.
With the G6, I have 2 micro USB cables: one in the living room connected to my PS4, and one on my desk. Moving the unit takes less than 30 seconds.
What’s also great about the SoundBlasterX G6 is its Scout Mode feature, which not only works incredibly well for gaming and film, but also for vinyl listening.
Using my AKG K702’s with John Coltrane’s Love Supreme was a blast using Scout Mode. The sound opens up even more, with better separation and detail. It’s a match made in heaven! This is great for the subtle drum hits and sounds that accompany a great jazz piece. There’s really nothing like it.
If you’re interested in the full review of the G6, I don’t blame you. I go into a lot more detail about it here:
By now you may be wondering about option 2.
The FiiO K5 Pro
I’ve talked ad-nausea about this combo Amp/DAC and everything it can do, but just in case you’re new, here’s a laundry list for you:
- Hook it up to studio monitors/speakers and use it as a preamp. What are Studio Monitors?
- Use it as a dedicated Amp/DAC on your desktop for music or gaming.
- Output it to a separate Amp via its RCA Analog Outs.
- Hook it up to your PS4 via its optical input.
- Hook it up to anything in your home theater via its Coaxial input.
- Use it in conjunction with pretty much any DAC via its RCA inputs. Just make sure the DAC in question has RCA Analog Outputs. Nearly all of them do.
- Finally, and most important for you, use it with your turntable via its RCA Analog Inputs.
Like the G6, the possibilities are also pretty endless.
Check out this helpful image that I grabbed from one of my YouTube videos!
The process is rather simple. For a turntable like the AT LP60 that I have, just plug the RCA Red and White from the unit into the INPUTS on the K5 Pro. Now switch the input selector knob on the front left to the middle (#2 – L) and you’re set. It’s really that simple. No separate DAC needed. Everything is right there, and the Amp/DAC itself has a boatload of power. More than you would ever need in reality (1.5W @ 32 Ohm).
Important note: Again, always, always make sure to set the switch on the back to line! Also keep in mind that you will need a phono preamp, whether that be standalone or built-in to the turntable. In my case, the LP60 I own has one built-in so I don’t have to worry about it. There are Amplifiers out there that have built-in phono preamps, but they are very rare.
L refers to LINE obviously. What’s cool about the K5 Pro is that I can easily switch back to listening through Spotify or Tidal with the flick of a switch back down to #1 – U (U for USB).
Related: Tidal vs. Spotify
What you’ll love about listening with this setup is that there’s a touch of warmth with the K5 Pro. At 1.2 Output Impedance, it’s not quite as neutral as something like a JDS Objective 2, ATOM, Topping NX4, or Schiit Magni. What is Output Impedance?
But it’s also not completely warm and gooey like a tube amp.
It strikes a nice balance between the 2 and sounds marvelous. Out of all the options, I will go over today, the K5 Pro is most certainly the easiest to get set up and playing music through your turntable. Unlike the G6, it doesn’t need an adapter. Simply plug the RCA red and whites into the back of the K5 Pro’s inputs.
If you’re wanting something a bit more neutral, Objective 2 or ATOM are still my go-to options.
JDS ATOM or Objective 2
Pricing: Check JDS Labs!
6/7/21 Note: The Objective 2 has now been discontinued.
Objective 2 has long since been a mainstay and staple of the beginner audiophile diet. Part of this complete breakfast!
In fact, even as you become more advanced in your snobbery, the O2 should still occupy a space in your studio. It’s basically the amp that started the infatuation with Amps, which has now turned into a bizarre and unhealthy obsession with each passing day.
At roughly 0.5 Ohm output impedance, this bad boy is going to sound absolutely pristine with music and will render your vinyl records exactly as they were recorded.
The beauty of a more neutral setup with Amps like Objective 2 and ATOM, is that they will provide plenty of clean power and gain for even the most demanding of tasks.
Getting vinyl to sound loud enough through an Amp is of the utmost importance, which is exactly why I’m recommending the amps in this article; they all have a ton of power and you’ll have no issues getting music really cranking.
Let’s take a look at the setup for these 2. It’s a tad more involved than the K5 Pro, but don’t fret.
Because they’re both just amps, they will need some sort of DAC to connect to. With the K5 Pro, that isn’t the case at it’s a combo all in one Amp/DAC.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) is, check this article I did. It will really help you out a lot in making sense of it all. Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?
With just amps like the O2 and ATOM, the process is a bit more involved because you need inputs for both the connection from the DAC, as well as the connection from the turntable.
We’ll use FiiO’s E10K combo Amp/DAC as an example, using its line-out feature. The E10K has long since been a top recommendation from me and continues to be to this day because of its excellent versatility.
Just use a 3.5mm interconnect from the back of the E10K (line out), and plug it into the line in on the ATOM or Objective 2. In your PC’s sound settings, you’ll simply use E10K as your listening device.
Now that some sort of DAC is paired to the Amp, you can connect the turntable via RCA into the inputs on the Objective 2 or ATOM, both of which will be freed up.
It’s important to note that any DAC with a line out or RCA outs will work, as long as the Amp in question also has a line input. Realistically, most Amps will only have one set of RCA inputs and perhaps a line input.
The ATOM and Objective 2 both happen to have line inputs, which is in part what makes them so versatile for many different types of scenarios and applications.
In the above image, the DAC Magic 100 from Cambridge Audio is being used as the DAC into Objective 2 via the green RCA to 3.5mm on the right. You may be wondering why the 3.5mm line-in is on the front of Objective 2. Don’t ask lol. Sometimes JDS Labs can be weird. We love them anyway.
The neat thing about it is that you can customize the O2 with RCA Inputs on the back instead if it’s more convenient for you.
Let’s say the DAC in question only has RCA outputs. That’s completely fine. You would just use an RCA to mini (3.5mm) from the DAC into the ATOM or Objective 2, and have the RCA from your turntable run into the RCA inputs on the back of either amp you decide on.
See all the possibilities?!
Something like a Topping E30 DAC would also work; it’s got a set of RCA outs as well.
Speaking of the E30, check out my good friends over at Apos Audio; they’ve got some amazing products (including the E30) and setups (called ensembles), that they specially curate to provide the best listening experience for you!
The important thing to remember is to always make sure whatever amp you have has an input that can realistically be used in conjunction with your turntable.
Most turntables nowadays have that in the form of RCA plugs, and there’s a reason for that. They’re extremely versatile and can be theoretically be used with almost anything.
With that, let’s take a look at one final option.
iFi Zen CAN
Pricing: Check Amazon!
If you’re a regular reader or subscriber, you may have seen my iFi Zen Amp/DAC vs. Zen CAN Signature 6XX comparison.
I won’t get into specifics here, but the Zen CAN Signature 6XX and regular Zen CAN are 2 separate products. One is tailored specifically for use with the 6XX (hence its midnight blue/black color scheme), and the other bears the original dark grey/silver combo that originally appeared in the first-gen Zen Amp/DAC Combo.
While I wouldn’t fork over the money for what is essentially a button (6XX signature is overpriced in my opinion), I do think the more sensibly priced regular Zen CAN would be a fantastic investment for vinyl lovers.
It’s because like the ATOM and Objective 2, the Zen CAN is also very versatile and sounds clean like Windex. It has RCA inputs, a line input, and a balanced 4.4mm input.
For our purposes, we’ll again be utilizing its RCA inputs.
Right now I’m using the E10K’s line out into the Zen CAN’s 3.5mm input, and I have my turntable’s RCA jacks into the back of the Zen CAN’s inputs.
You can also use something like a Topping E30 DAC into the Zen CAN, which I’m using right now. Oh, the joys of working on this article at separate times. XD
Just Use RCA to 3.5mm from the E30 into the CAN, then use the RCA plugs from your turntable into the back of the Zen CAN.
Now you’re ready for la musica!
So, what would I recommend to start?
It’s tough, but between the G6 and K5 Pro, I think the G6 edges it. You’ve got a bit more convenience at your fingertips, some extra onboard features, as well as SoundBlaster Connect. It doesn’t get much better than that.
If you’re looking for a slightly warmer tone and don’t really care about all that other stuff, I get it. I would suggest the FiiO K5 Pro and don’t think twice. It’s a unit that will prove far more valuable down the road than you could ever imagine.
If you wanna be all “audiophile” about it, you could purchase a separate DAC like the E30, DAC Magic 100, or E10K (which also happens to be an amp + dac), and pair that with any of the amps mentioned above (Zen CAN, ATOM, or Objective 2). Remember: Don’t get too caught up in what kind of DAC is best. I’ve demoed close to 40 at the time of this writing, and most of the differences between amps and dacs are very subtle.
Right now I’m really digging the Zen CAN as the Amp with my own records.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion on the Best Headphone Amp For Listening To Vinyl, and are better equipped to make a purchasing decision!
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Which of these options sounds best to YOU? I would love to hear your thoughts. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,
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