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Limited or non existant pre amp functionality with full-size headphone amps. Why?

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

A full size headphone amp has pretty much everything it needs to function as a pre-amp in an audio system. It has one or more inputs, an output for headphones, a means to adjust volume and a line output. Most of these products seem to be under specified. They usually have only one input and no remote. What are you going to do if you want to listen to more than one source, keep plugging and unplugging? What if you want to use it as a pre-amp for your speaker audio too? One input does not cut it and a remote would be much appreciated.

 

Some of these so called full size headphone amps are very expensive. A well known and respected manufacturer recently introduced one at the high end of the price scale. It has a wall wart PSU, a "Alps analogue volume potentiometer",  1 RCA input and a mini USB input. It seems like such a waste when all it would take to make this a truly functional pre amp would be to add a couple of RCA inputs and a remote.

 

Can anyone help me understand why so many of these so called full-size amps seem to offer so little in terms of flexibility? Here are some ideas:

 

1. They want to sell you a pre amp AND a headphone amp.

 

2. They only cater for desktop users who only need one input.

 

3. It is cheaper that way.

 

4. Stereo audio is dead anyway so why bother?


Edited by Hooster - 11/30/13 at 4:11pm
post #2 of 10

First of all, I think there's an embarrassment of riches in this space compared to a decade ago - if you really want something with decent pre-amp functionality, there are quite a few good choices. But to attempt answer your question(s):

 

- From a sound quality perspective, less is more. The cheapest way to improve sound quality is remove items from the playback chain that are not essential. Remotes are controversial because it is hard to implement one cheaply without compromising sound quality. Input switches are in the playback chain, and the more input jacks, the more you need to divide your build budget on the quality of the inputs. Plus multiple live inputs could bleed into the signal path, so you need to spend money to prevent that.

- From a Quality/$ perspective, every $ saved on costs makes your amp more appealing, or can be spent on better components that are necessary

- For a reasonable number of people, a head-fi rig is not interchangeable with a full stereo pre-amp rig, either because of placement or because of the need for a phono pre-amp or any other number of requirements

- From a design perspective, pre-amps are not exactly the same as headphone amps, although they have a lot in common. It is hard to build a headphone amp that is the best pre-amp it could be and vice versa. Some are very good at both. But for the same price you could buy something that is a better dedicated amp or a dedicated pre-amp. Most combined units are just doing the best they can as a pre-amp without compromising it's primary function - being a headphone amplifier.

 

All of which are IMHO, of course.


Edited by sonance - 11/30/13 at 5:31pm
post #3 of 10
Thread Starter 

I appreciate your reply, sonance. There are a lot of gorgeous headphone amps out there. I guess my gripe is that most of these are no good to me because they only have one input and sometimes they don't even have a line output. It is frustrating, but you can't have everything, can you...

post #4 of 10
Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post
 

They usually have only one input and no remote. What are you going to do if you want to listen to more than one source, keep plugging and unplugging?

 

These days the trend is going to wards only one or two sources for 2ch audio, thanks to computers and media servers like the M1 Clic (of course, for multichannel, some might prefer a separate HD server or BluRay player from the gaming console). That means either the amp has a digital input as well (and of course its own DAC), or you have one DAC which takes digital input from several sources. In some cases, there's a good CDP on the analog input on the amp and a computer or other device on its USB or SPDIF input. The need for several sources is negated for example by a computer when it has both your music stored in lossless as well as access to internet radio (replacing the tuner). And despite the resurgence of vinyl, the newer hi-fi customers aren't all getting into it.

 

Besides it's not just the headphone amps that are trying to be minimalist - even speaker amps are following this trend of one or two inputs (one may be digital). Look at most of the T-amps and NuForce Icon. Even NAD's D3020 is minimalist in every sense of the term, unlike the previous amps that provided a full-spec preamp section and tape (loop) outputs.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post
 

What if you want to use it as a pre-amp for your speaker audio too? One input does not cut it and a remote would be much appreciated.

 

Some of these so called full size headphone amps are very expensive. A well known and respected manufacturer recently introduced one at the high end of the price scale. It has a wall wart PSU, a "Alps analogue volume potentiometer",  1 RCA input and a mini USB input. It seems like such a waste when all it would take to make this a truly functional pre amp would be to add a couple of RCA inputs and a remote.

 

Admittedly, to a lesser extent I can share your frustration on the lack of preamp functionality. However some amps aren't all that tiny but when you look at the board, at times size can be deceptive - adding more inputs and outputs on it would actually require the amp to be larger, or have a separate board for the RCA plugs, as old integrated amps used to. As for the price, well, every marketing and engineering team has a different take on what they think people need or want, so just don't buy those who got it wrong for you. My amp has one RCA input (waiting for my dedicated CDP or a DAC) and a USB input (which by the way sounds better on headphones than a lot of dedicated CDPs I tried) but the only thing I'm wishing it had was the preamp, which if I go for a DAC, will be a major requirement.

 

As for the remote, well, if it's dedicated for headphone use and perhaps if used for speakers than chances are it's nearfield, you won't really need the remote. I actually prefer knobs because I can switch the volume quickly just by twisting, as opposed to pressing a button one by one or squeezing it hoping to get the volume right before my ear drums are blown. That's a key convenience for me when you pass several source material from a computer (internet radio, podcast, YouTube, my own music, etc) through that device and into headphones. AudioGD by the way has remote models so you might want to check those out.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post

 

1. They want to sell you a pre amp AND a headphone amp.

 

Two things to remember: some really don't want to cram too many functions into the same chassis (more complex PSU, noise, etc etc), while others envision the DAC more as the receiver (as in a multichannel system) - or the hub - of the system nowadays given that most sources are assumed to output a digital signal into it as I outlined above. Take Meier Audio's designs for example - the DAC has the preamp (I think it even has an analog input that can be sent through the fixed and variable outputs) while the amp has as its only added feature aside from a gain switch a simpler crossfeed (that way, you can try it with any other source you hook up to the amp - CDP, TT, etc). That a computer and a more dedicated a music server can both go through the same circuit on this and sound the same (with the exception of source material that the computer has a wider variety available to it).

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post

 

2. They only cater for desktop users who only need one input.

 

I personally would need one analog and one digital, and if I can only have one, I'd rather have digital. As much as I'm still planning to acquire a Cayin CDP in the future the reality is that needs of headphone systems tend to be very different. First off, the people who caused the boom in headphone audio in the past ten years tend to be younger - the "iPod generation" - who among many other reasons aren't used to getting up and swapping discs. Hence, a computer with all their audio in it plus internet radio and others has replaced the separate tuner and CDP. Second, even those who have are used to swapping out discs tend to have been frustrated in the past with the transport of their CDPs, and compare that to a touchscreen where you don't swap out discs, they can do the math and figure out where all this is going. Hence, the DAC as the hub (it might have its own headphone amp in it also that's good fro most headphones).

 

I've broken a number of transports before and it's just frustrating trying to get the parts outside the US. Belts would cost triple the price to ship here for example. Compare that to a touchscreen and having two options, plus a computer, in case one of them doesn't work. And when I upgrade my phone, I'll probably keep using my S3 as a music player. Regardless, these will all go into my amp's USB input, and if I really needed to hook it up to a speaker system, I'd probably use a DAC a preamp (again, the hub), or keep my headphone system out of the dedicated room for the speakers. This way I have my headphone system in the bedroom and a dedicated speaker system for when I'm doing nothing but listening. This doesn't mean that everyone else has exactly the same needs, but still, on the whole sources outputting digital (barring dedicated CD transports) are the trend nowadays, so multiple analog inputs (more than one or two) aren't likely to be popular in the future.

 

 

 

 

post #5 of 10
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ProtegeManiac View Post
 

 AudioGD by the way has remote models so you might want to check those out.

 

 

Thank you for your educated response.

 

I was in the market for a headphone amp/pre amp last year. After ripping my hair out in frustration and rejecting a whole heap of products, that were useless to me due to lack of flexibility, I came across Audio GD. They seem to be the only ones that cater to my needs properly. I now have a NFB-6. It is brilliantly flexible. It has a remote, plenty of inputs and outputs, provides excellent sound quality for headphones through it's balanced output and it's line output to my power amp for speaker hi-fi is excellent. Did I mention that the price is ridiculously low?

 

Is it perfect? No, it is very unforgiving and if you feed it with anything less than excellent source material you will hear all about it in a way that is not very pleasant. I find that a small price to pay, I just have to be careful what I feed it.

post #6 of 10
Thread Starter 

I would like to add, that knowing what I know now I would seriously consider a vintage integrated amplifier if I was on the market for a headphone amp. These can be purchased for a very reasonable price. You can have all the flexibility you want and it can also drive speakers just fine.


Edited by Hooster - 12/2/13 at 3:55pm
post #7 of 10
Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post
 

I would like to add, that knowing what I know now I would seriously consider a vintage integrated amplifier if I was on the market for a headphone amp. These can be purchased for a very reasonable price. You can have all the flexibility you want and it can also drive speakers just fine.

 

I'm still more for putting the preamp function on the DAC, that way I have every digital source going through the same decoding hardware. Also, everything has advantages and disadvantages, and if I was looking for an amp specifically for a headphone system, I'll just go for one designed for desktop use. I had a NAD304 before, and when I gave up on my room's acoustics, I used it briefly with my SR225. The sound was OK, but if I had to deliberately buy it for my headphone+speaker system (as opposed to just buying a headphone to add to the speaker system), it had its own disadvantages:

 

 

1) it was huge (took up the space for my printer) compared to a DAC-HPamp or a DAC and HPamp stacked

 

 

 

2) It'll cost a lot of money to ship if I'm buying an integrated amp online, compared to one of the more reasonably-sized desktop amps (local courier quoted me roughly the equivalent of US $70 when someone from out of the city offered to buy it from me, and that was roughly the price I was selling it for, and the international shipping I paid for my current headphone amp)

 

 

3) Given what I have now, the old set-up really looks huge - and this amp drives my headphones better

 

700

post #8 of 10
Thread Starter 

That is a very nice headphone amp and I am not surprised it drives your headphones better than that NAD.

post #9 of 10
Thread Starter 

I had something like this in mind.

 

post #10 of 10
Quote:
Originally Posted by Hooster View Post
 

I had something like this in mind.

 

 

That I'd buy for the heck of it, if I had spare cash :tongue_smile: Actually I was planning on keeping the NAD, but I had to sell it because I went to see CATS. TWICE. Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals specifically (not necessarily Broadway) are usually rarer than new Noh-style theater over here, given the primary state-owned university works with the Kyoto company, so every year we get students performing new-Noh (modern stories not around at the time of Yoshimitsu or thereabouts, including Philippine novels) trained by the Japanese.

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