Are Headphone Amps Worth It?


If you have been getting more invested in audio and trying to improve your audio setup, you may have looked into amps.

Headphone amps can be a great way to improve sound quality. For high-fidelity audio setups, amps are often required.

Amps usually won’t change the sound signature of your device but the extra power will bring out sounds that were lacking before. Although in certain situations, amps may not provide an improvement in quality depending on the rest of your setup.

Let’s find out out an amp could improve your audio setup and if it is a good investment for you.

Do Amps Improve Sound Quality?

Headphone amps are a device that amplifies the sound from a DAC, either external or integrated into your system. An amp can improve the sound of your headphones.

Amps will deliver more power so your audio device can get louder. If you find that you are using the majority of the sound volume scale on your device then an amp will fix this issue.

Headphone amplifiers won’t improve the clarity or accuracy of your headphones but they will give the power needed to your headphones to deliver sound closer to the experience that they were designed to give.

The power could allow sounds that were more muffled or recessed on your headphones to be more present so you can help your headphones reach their full potential.

Another way amps will improve the sound is that at higher volumes, amps that are in a tablet, phone, computer, and a number of other devices will distort the audio.

An external headphone amp will most likely not have this issue and will give you enough power.

Amps will not improve the sound of a cheap pair of headphones and won’t have a very large impact on headphones that need more power.

Some headphones need this additional power and without an amp, the sound quality won’t be great. With an amp those they will sound far better than without one so you can hear all the aspects of the sound at a good volume.

Different amps provide more or less power to your headphones depending on how good they are.

The amps themselves shouldn’t change the sound signature of your headphones but give them the power to have a correct sound signature.

Lows or highs that were possibly not present not will be heard to the full extent that they were designed to be heard.

In general, a headphone amp will improve the quality of your audio device.

Do You Need A Headphone Amp?

A headphone amp is a great way to improve a setup but in some situations, amps are not needed.

There are a few things that you need to know and understand so you can make a more informed decision based on your situation.

Two things that you need to know to tell if you will need an amp are impedance and sensitivity.

Impedance tells us how much power your headphones or IEMs need. Sensitivity is related and tells us how loud your headphones can get in decibels per millivolt of power.

Headphones with a low impedance and high sensitivity are efficient and may not be super powerful. This means that they don’t need an amp but could potentially benefit from the additional power.

Usually, headphones with an impedance higher than 32 ohms could have improved audio from an amp but you won’t need one until you start using headphones with 60 to 80 ohms – but this isn’t always the case.

If you find that you don’t need to turn your volume up to 70-100% then you don’t need an amp as amps main purpose are to give you more power or volume. At higher volumes, an amp built into a phone or computer will start to distort the audio.

If you have a cheap pair of earbuds or headphones like their pair of earbuds that came with your phone then an amp won’t help you see any improvement.

High fidelity headphones for audiophiles in higher price ranges above $200 to $300 will usually need an amp.

There are headphones at lower prices that can be greatly improved with an amp but most can run off the computer or even phone audio perfectly fine.

Not everyone will need an amp or even see any benefit from having an amp so it is all based on your situation.

It is recommended that you research the impedance and sensitivity of your headphones and if you find that you wish your headphones were louder then an amp is needed.

What Does A Headphone Amp Do?

The job of an amp is to take a low power audio signal from a DAC, and ultimately an audio source, and then increase the power of that signal to a level that is strong enough that your headphones can turn that information into sound waves.

After the amp increases the volume of that information, headphones will then be connected to it.

A dedicated amp will give you more volume and more power to your headphones. Depending on how good an amp is it can give more or less power. Also, worse amps will give more distorted sound at higher volumes.

Amps have three main parts. An input, the amplifier components themselves, and the output. There are two types of amplification using either transistors or tubes.

  • Solid State or Transistor Amps: This style of amps, as the name suggests, uses transistors to amplify the information. There are multiple negatively and positively charged silicon transistors manipulated to properly boost the sound.
  • Tube Amps: Tube amps instead of using transistors use vacuum tubes. They function similarly to lightbulbs as these tubes will burn electrons from a filament and these electrons will be used to amplify the sound.

Overall amps increase the volume of the information from your audio source which may be an external DAC or from your PC.

Both methods of how amps function in different ways and can provide a slightly different experience.

Recommended Headphone Amps

There are a variety of amps at different price points and for different situations. Headphone amplifiers can cost upwards of $500 and less than $100. There are also amps for portable solutions.

Best Portable Amp: FiiO Q5s

If you are looking for the best sound experience in a portable situation to upgrade phone or laptop audio the FiiO Q5s is the best option for $250 to $350.

This portable headphone amp delivers excellent audio which is much better compared to the audio on a laptop and especially a phone. Not only is the audio way better but this amp is also Bluetooth capable which means you don’t need to plug in a wire from your device to this amp.

There are a variety of inputs and outputs which allow you to use this as a desktop amp if you wanted to but for that situation, there are better options.

Included with the amp is also a DAC which improves the clarity of the sound but also improves it.

The device comes with a variety of accessories, has minor RGB accent lights for indicators, has 9 to 25 hours of battery, supports Hi-Res Audio, and overall is a great way to make your phone sound amazing.

Best Portable Amp on a Budget

If you still want to use your premium headphones on the go but are on a budget, at around $30 the FiiO A1 is probably one of if not the best option.

Unlike the Q5s, the A1 is not wireless but only has support for one input and output. This is still sufficient for the majority of people. Compared to the Q5s the A1 is also about half the height. The audio is a step up compared to onboard audio on a laptop and especially a phone.

The A1 supports different EQ mods, holds buttons to change volume, and has around 9 hours of battery life. There is also a removable clip on the back of the A1 to further help with portability. This is a great way to improve your audio setup on the go especially if you want to use a premium pair of headphones.

Best Value

Whether you are building an audio setup or just trying to run more powerful headphones the Schiit Magni 3+ and Schiit Magni Heresy are some of the amps to get if you want to get the most out of your money.

The two sound slightly different with the Magni 3+ having slightly more impactful lows. They process sound a little bit differently but deliver the same amount of power, have the same inputs, outputs, and overall shape.

The main difference that you will notice between the two is that the Magni 3+ has a silver casing and the Heresy has a black case with minor red accents.

For about $100 to $120 these deliver great performance. You won’t find anything that out performances these significantly until you start to spend twice as much.

Best Amp Under $200

At a higher price point, Schiit still has the best amp for the price with the Magnius for just under $200.

The Magnius provides plenty of power for most headphones and delivers performance that beats most of the competition at the price and even competes with amps at higher price points.

The sound stage that it delivers is perfect with no distortion and great precision. It allows a lot of separation and provides a balanced, clean sound.

Best Amp Under $500

The Monoprice Monolith THX AAA Amp and DAC combo delivers the best performance out of any amplifier under $500.

It delivers a lot of power which is also very clean. For the vast majority of headphones, this amp delivers phenomenal performance. It has plenty of outputs and on top of the great performance has a number of features.

The THX AAA has a small screen on the front and on this screen, you can change EQs and edit the dynamic range.

Changning the EQ isn’t as in-depth as something like the Peace software but it is nice that you can do it on the device itself. Editing the dynamic range allows you to compress the highest and lowest part of the range.

Another thing you can do is enable a DIRAC setting to feel more immersed in the music you are listening to as if you are in the middle of the music rather than watching people perform it. The sound stage will be wider but on the downside, you will probably hear less bass and there is a slight boost in the treble.

Overall this is a great amp with a number of features that you can use or not. Regardless if the amp had these features or not the performance is one of the best in the price range.

Conclusion

Headphone amps can improve the performance of your headphones so you can get the most out of your headphones. They take a low-power input from your audio source and then will increase the power of that for your headphones.

Amps can improve the sound quality of your headphones or IEMs and even are necessary for them to run properly. An amp will allow you to be able to hear parts of the music more clearly because before they may have been recessed.

Depending on your situation an amplifier is worth it unless you are using a cheaper pair of earbuds or headphones. They are especially worth it and a great investment if you have high-fidelity headphones.

Most people won’t notice a substantial difference and an amp won’t be worth it for them unless their headphones need the extra power.

If you are creating a setup with high-quality headphones and you are getting a headphone amplifier then you should also consider a DAC to further improve your sound.

There is a wide spectrum of options for different price points and situations. On one side there are large, expensive amps that support very power-hungry headphones and on the other side there are compact

To a future of better audio.

Giacomo Coltorti

Giacomo has been a tech enthusiast throughout his life. He has built over 10 computers and has grown his interest in the different peripherals needed to use a computer. He wants to share his knowledge and experiences with all these subjects to help others enter these hobbies.

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