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What to look for in a headphone amp

SPL Phonitor 2

So, you’ve just bought your new, killer pair of headphones, and they sound great. But are you getting the best sound quality from them?

If you are using your laptop to power your headphones, it’s likely that you can achieve even better sound quality by investing in a good headphone amp.

There are several reasons why dedicated headphone amps offer better sound quality than driving your headphones from the sound card on your computer. First and foremost, if your headphones are quality items it may be that your sound card is simply underpowered to drive the speakers in your headphones.

In addition, the sound card of your computer is nestled in among the circuitry of your computer, and this is a very noisy environment. Siting your amplifier right next to powerful electronics is likely to lead to a lot of electrical noise. Good headphones, and a discerning listener, will be able to hear this noise.

A good solution is to invest in a dedicated headphone amplifier. These devices are typically small, stand-alone boxes that take the output of your soundcard, amplify it, and then feed it to your headphones. They offer better sound quality, and more power, than a typical computer soundcard.

These headphone amps aim to provide the best quality sound for headphones. Professional musicians and producers always use headphone amps such as these, as they allow them to really hear the music they are making, but their utility extends way beyond this. If you are editing video, or simply an audiophile who wants to hear your music at the best possible quality, a headphone amp is a necessity.

In addition, getting a headphone amp typically adds a great deal of flexibility to your home audio set up. The headphone amps we are reviewing today come with extensive options to adjust the output passed to your headphones, ensuring that you always have crystal clear tones.

When talking about headphone amps, things get really technical really quick. If you already know the difference between a NOS 12ATC7 tube and a 6NT3 one, you probably also already know what makes a great headphone amp. For the rest of us, having a few pointers can help.

Of course, no one amp can be right for everyone, and there is nothing like hearing an amp for yourself. A few things to look for in any headphone amp, though, are:

  • A lot of people talk a lot about power, as though it was a measure of how good an amp is. This is simply a lie. Remember that these amps are designed to power headphones, so 1 watt per channel is more than adequate, and in any case way above what your laptop produces!
  • This depends, obviously, on how much space you have in your studio, but if you are already hemmed in by audio equipment, consider getting a headphone amp that is compact.
  • Inputs and outputs. It might sound obvious, but make sure the amp you are looking at has the correct type of inputs, and enough of them, to accommodate all the gear you want to plug in!

Ultimately, there is no substitute for hearing these amps yourself. Everybody has different preferences when it comes to how they want their amp to sound, and a good first step is to find a good stereo store, take your headphones down, and have a listen to what they have to offer.

Photograph by SPL

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