What is a headphone Amplifiers, and why would you need one?

What is a headphone Amplifiers, and why would you need one?

A device which can play music, a pair of headphones and a favorite playlist defines best listening experience for so many people. But for some others, a headphone amplifier needs to be in the equation to make the listening experience, the best.

And really, a headphone amplifier plays a huge role in increasing the overall music quality.

But, how do you know if you really need a headphone amplifier?

Don’t worry too much, in this article, I will tell you whether you need to increase the quality of your listening experience.

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This article will cover everything that you need to know about the headphone amplifiers. We will begin from understanding what Amplifiers are and then we will move on to why we need them.

We will also understand why we don’t need them sometimes. Then we will see what various technologies you can come across when you go out in the market to buy it.

And then we will end the article by defining the factor that is the most important factor you should consider when you finally decide to buy the product.

So, let’s not waste our time any more and get down and read.

What is a Headphone Amplifier?

what is Headphone Amplifier

Image Credit : innerfidelity

But before we begin, we need to know what exactly amplifiers are. Amplifiers are devices that works to increase the low voltage audio signal that comes from any device that is giving you output.

So, amplifiers basically increases the intensity of output that any device is giving us. In this case, that device is a headphone.

The output that is coming out of headphones, in this case, is music, so headphones amplifiers will work to increase the low voltage signal we are getting from the headphones, thus increasing the audio quality and improving the listening experience.

Generally, amplifiers are used in concert to make the equipment’s louder, they power the big speakers.

Likewise, a headphone amplifier does the exact same job of a speaker amplifier, only on a very small level.

The size of headphone amplifiers look like this: the smallest one is the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.5, of the size of a flash drive and the largest one is as large as a PC DVD-ROM drive, that’s it.

Why do you need a Headphone Amplifier?

Why would you need to amplify the sound coming from your headphones anyway? People think that headphones are very stress-free to drive, and why wouldn’t anyone think that?

After all, their size makes them a perfect case for this misunderstanding. However, like I pointed out, the point that headphones are easier to drive is not true in all the cases.

Yes, they have small little speakers that do not require much power or maintenance on your part, but this is only the half truth.

More often than not, it depends on the playback device that you are using, whichever it is, a tablet, a PC, your smartphone or an MP3 player.

If you are using a smartphone, tablet or an MP3 player then they cannot and will not provide your device with enough power, you cannot drive high-end headphones using them.

This will lead us to answer our question here, why do you need Headphone Amplifier? If your audio playback device is a smartphone, tablet or an MP3 player, you need a Headphone Amplifier.

And if they are not getting enough power then they will lack in some aspect of their functioning. For example, the bass might lack that punch for which you bought these headphones.

So, if they are quieter and you know this is not normal, then this is a coy way of your headphones telling you to grace them with a partner, with an amplifier.

Check out the impedance rating of your headphones, you will get an idea about the power that your headphones need to perform better.

Like if your headphones are low impedance headphones, then they do not need a headphone amplifier.

But if the impedance is higher and if you are still not getting that punch, then you should start seeking for a suitable amplifier.

By the way, what is impedance in headphones?

Let’s talk Science, okay? Headphone impedance, like any other impedance is measured in ohms and basically means the resistance that an electric signal might offer. Let’s not go deep into this, I don’t want to lose my visitors.

So, for those who did not study Science, the higher the impedance number of a headphone, the more resistance a speaker will offer to the electrical signal. Amazing! Not.

Impedance can be as high as 600 ohms and as low as 8 ohms. However, there is another category called insanely high, the impedance in this case is about 2000 ohms.

So, if you have a headphone that has high impedance value, then you ought to buy an amplifier, as soon as possible.

Now, headphones that come with impedance value of 600 ohms, like DT880 or HD800, were not meant to be used with smartphones, but with powerful audio playback systems.

But it is wrong to think that all the high-end headphones come with high impedance values. That is not true.

With the number of people who listen to music on smartphones increasing, the headphones designers and manufacturers are adapting as well.

HiFiMAN HE400S has an impedance value of 22 ohms and Philips X2/27 Fidelio has an impedance value of 30 ohms.

If you own a pair of earphones instead, then you need not worry, they come with low impedance values and work smoothly with any playback device.

So, a rule of thumb says that if the impedance value of your headphones is lower than 32 ohms, then you don’t need any Headphone Amplifier.

When shouldn’t you use a Headphone Amplifier?

Nice question. There are some cases where whether you use the amplifier or not, the difference won’t be significant, in such cases it is suggested not to use an amplifier.

What are those cases, though? Read on!

  • If your headphones come with active noise-cancellation feature, that is a built-in amplifier, you don’t need an amplifier then,
  • If your headphones are highly sensitive, you are suggested not to use them, because then the desired volume levels would be achieved automatically.

DACs, what are they?

digital to analog convertor

Image Credit: pocketmagic

External Digital-to-Analogue converters, until now, were reserved for audiophiles and music studios. They come inbuilt in every digital playback device like smartphones, PCs, Digital Audio players, etc.

But what are they and why are we discussing them here?

Basically, a DAC converts the digital data into analogue signals.

But since the devices come with an inbuilt DAC, why does one need an external one?

The thing is, not all these converters are built equally. External converters take its decoding job more seriously than the internal ones and thus deliver greater precision.

Now, to this mix add a Headphone Amplifier, and you are in for a blast.

Lucky us, our Headphone Amplifiers come with a built-in DACs too, but if you still wish to go for an external one, you are welcome to do that.

Difference between Amplifier Technologies

Yes, difference because there are three of them—Solid-state amps, Tube amps and hybrid amps. You will have to choose which one you want, according to the sound quality that you enjoy.

Tube Amps

The technology used in the Tube Amps is first of its kind. It uses vacuum tubes to process the signals coming from a playback device.

Some of the best-known tube amps are Woo Audio WA7, Bravo Audio V2 and Feliks Elise Mkll.

This technology has its own downsides but tube amps still give richer and better output then their solid-state counter-parts. I will leave you to decide that.

Solid-State Amps

what is solid state amps

Image Credit: reverb

With the modern times becoming more common, these amps have become common too. They are favoured and thus popular among the masses because they are cheaper, smaller and comparatively more reliable.

Although, modern tube amps are portable as well, but when we talk about the ease of portability, then solid state would take the medal.

Like the JDS Labs, the Element is a good example of this amp, it can be carried in pockets.

Hybrid Amps

best Hybrid Amps

As the name suggests, hybrid amps are combination of both the above mentioned amps. Generally, hybrids rely on tube amps to paint the music colourful and increase its warmth and the electronic part of the amp gives the power that is needed to boost your listening experience.

A very good example of hybrid amp is Schiit Mjolnir 2. 

Headphone Amplifier Matching

We know what are amplifiers, we know why we need and don’t need amplifiers, we even know about the different kinds of amplifiers, but there is still an important thing missing to keep this equation from being complete.

Which amplifier should you pair your headphones with?

In the preceding paragraphs, at many points I asked you to seek an amplifier for your headphones. So, in this paragraph and the one that follows it and the one that follows it, I will tell you exactly how to do that seeking.

You will find many guides on the internet telling which one amplifier is a match made in heaven (given, heaven deals with headphones), but this one topic will boil it all down in simple words.

There are a few factors that you need to consider before buying an amplifier, we will only discuss the most important one, because the most important one is, generally, the most important one.

Now, the most important factor that you should be on the lookout for is, impedance matching. Hello there, I am back again!

Not just headphones, but amplifiers too, come with an impedance rating.

To talk science once again, impedance is actually the combination of resistance, inductance and to the current generated in the circuit of your headphones.

To make the performance super amazing, match the impedance of the headphone to that of your amplifier.

And if you think that all you need to do is make sure that the impedance of the headphone and amplifier is the same then you are in for another science lesson.

To make sure that the two impedances are compatible, there is a rule that you need to apply, and it is called the rule of eighths. Cute, I know.

So, all you need to do is, divide the impedance of your headphones by 8, if you like me aren’t good at math, then I suggest you too, like me, use a calculator. Use a scientific one to make it more interesting.

So, now that you have divided the number by 8, then you need to make sure that this number is approximately equal to the impedance of your amplifier.



Headphone ImpedanceRule of eighthsMaximum Amp Impedance
32 ohms1/84 ohms

Now, what if you ignore this rule?

Now, if you end up ignoring this rule like I ignore humans then the probability is, one of the three things will happen to you:

  • The frequency response and sound quality can get altered, since the impedance of amp is greater than the 1/8th of impedance of headphones. Why would you do that, by the way?
  • Second, the probability of electrical damping (yay, more science!) will increase drastically and this would affect the overall sound quality of your headphones. Once again, why would you do that to yourself?
  • The third effect would be that you will realize snakes are talking to you because unwanted sounds, like hissing sound will increase their volume. Again, why would you do that to yourself?

See, there are three reasons to go with the 1/8th rule, why deteriorate your listening experience yourself?

Especially, when by following this one rule, you could improve your experience so much.

So, now I really, really hope you know what amplifiers are, what they become when headphones and amplifiers come together.

You know when to use a headphone amplifier and you know when to absolutely ignore them, You also know about the digital-to-analogue converters and if I daresay, you are a cool person now.

You became a good science student because you were patient when I was rambling about the types of Headphone Amplifiers and patiently waited for me to move onto the next topic.

Then very patiently, you let me make you understand why you have to follow the 1/8th rule.

So, that brings me to the end. The end!