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What is a headphone amp

post #1 of 7
Thread Starter 

1. If you buy a $30 headphone and plug it into a good headphone amp, does it make a good quality sound as if it was a $60 headphone?
2. Does this only increase the sound and bass or does it improve the sound quality?
3.Should every one use an amp if they want quality sound

post #2 of 7
First off, realize that even if you're plugging into the headphone jack on your iPhone, you are listening to music through an amplifier. The amp...well, it amplifies the signal, but more accurately it adds power to the signal, which is what you need to actually drive speakers, turning electrical power into audible power. So to answer the questions:

1. Probably not. A good amp will improve sound quality, but it won't reverse the effects of a crappy driver. The best way to get $60 performance out of $30 headphones is to...buy the $60 headphones.

2. It does improve sound quality. Again, probably not the $30 to $60 jump you're looking for, but it does. A standalone amp means that you have parts dedicated to delivering power to your drivers, and they have better isolation from electrically noisy sources (digital circuits tend to generate a lot of this). It also improves your sound quality by using the range of your headphones effeectively. Amplifiers have limits, and when you approach these limits, the signals can start to get distorted. A standalone amplifier is going to have a larger range, so it can drive headphones with less distortion at your desired listening level.

3. Again, you are probably already using an amplifier. It's just integrated into the device you're using. So the real question to ask is: "When should I use a dedicated amplifier to improve my sound quality?" The answer is when the headphones are limited by the one, and that generally doesn't happen until you've spent a fair amount on a good pair of headphones.
post #3 of 7
Quote:
Originally Posted by silvercats View Post
 

1. If you buy a $30 headphone and plug it into a good headphone amp, does it make a good quality sound as if it was a $60 headphone?

 

I don't think a $60 headphone is that much better, but tendency is the emphasis on the design at either price point is efficiency, given the more mass-market appeal that has to assume most buyers at this price range won't want to use an amp, even at home. Now, even if for example you increase that to, say, $200 and $400, it depends on what particular headphone we're talking about. Let's use the SR225 and HD600 for example. The SR225 while ti might scale well when amped already sounds great out of a $60 CMOY amplifier, or a dedicated hi-fi player with a good amp circuit, but even if you hook it up to a $1,000 amplifier alone will not be able to deal with the trident-shaped soundstage of the Prestige series.* The HD600 by contrast would probably have a mainstream player/device running an integrated chip (both DAC and amp in one chip, kind of like, say, an APU which has both CPU and GPU) go all the way up to maximum volume to get it to a good listening volume, by which point it's heavily distorted. In this case, a $60 CMOY would help the HD600 a lot more, although from my experience they still tend to sound a bit too warm.

 

 

 

*Strong L-C-R image, but sort of recessed between L-C and C-R, a result of its very forward and aggressive presentation and the chassis/earpad design

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by silvercats View Post


2. Does this only increase the sound and bass or does it improve the sound quality?

 

It depends on what the headphone needs. Take for example the HD600's case above - an iPod at full volume will barely get it to a good listening level unless you're in a very quiet room, so that means you should be able to keep the windows closed without using artificial ventilation (fan or A/C), and at that point it's distorting badly. Ditto the K701. The HD600 needs a lot of voltage (and ergo wattage) to produce the power it needs (which is affected by efficiency and isolation) to play at a good volume (which varies from person to person, as some seem to have a deaf wish) at its 300ohm impedance (which affects, aside from the benefits, the output power). The K701 needs a good deal of current not simply because it has a lower 56ohm impedance, but that at lower impedance levels an amp needs to provide current for when the impedance shifts at some frequencies, requiring for example a lot more power to produce transient lower frequency notes that get the driver to a lower impedance.* In short, an amp with a huge power supply will not just supply more voltage to get to a good listening level, but also to provide current to help with transients, as well as control the driver better with a higher damping factor so it would take a lot more power before distorting. In some very powerful amps, the design is really more for providing more current, and barring the less efficient headphones, chances are some people mgith be using them at low gain with efficient dynamic drivers.

 

Now back to the original price point you stated. There, given that efficiency is the main concern, chances are the drivers are designed to be as light as possible, so giving them more power won't necessarily mean that you can make use of all that power. It might, for one, be efficient enough to blow your eardrums off even with just an iPad, however,if the drivers are too light and not so rigid, not even the damping factor might help to control it. So in all likelihood any increase in sound quality, especially from a cheaper amp, might just be because it isn't a perfectly neutral amp to begin with, adding to the audible bass not simply with increased current for driving the headphne better but may also be doping the frequency response.

 

*Rated/stated impedance is only nominal; impedance is not static as it can be affected by the frequencies being played. 

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by silvercats View Post

 

3.Should every one use an amp if they want quality sound

 

It depends on the headphone/IEM in question. I use a good amp with my HD600, but for my ASG-2, my smartphone (while not as good as, say, a Fiio X3 or X5) is good enough.

post #4 of 7

go all the way up to maximum volume to get it to a good listening volume, by which point it's heavily distorted.

 

The volume control on most equipment is designed to adjust and compensate for input volume level differences. The maximum gain of the circuit and the maximum level of the volume control are not designed to combine to give a distortion free output. You have to strike a balance between best quality output versus maximum volume control dial output.

post #5 of 7
Quote:

Originally Posted by Baxide View Post

 

 

The volume control on most equipment is designed to adjust and compensate for input volume level differences. The maximum gain of the circuit and the maximum level of the volume control are not designed to combine to give a distortion free output. You have to strike a balance between best quality output versus maximum volume control dial output.

 

I did not do that out of ignorance of how things worked or that I'm still doing it. Power went out a few years ago so I said "what the heck, let's try this...oh wait it sucks" since at 50% volume where there is no audible distortion there is barely anything audible to begin with (I can still my glass hit the table as I put it down, and that's over Metallica playing - older pre-loudness wars albums). Now I can use it as an example since I can describe how it went in practice as opposed to just how it might work in theory, especially if there's a question about whether an amp is needed or not, especially if specifically for the HD600. I knew it was going to suck, but I had to hear first if it was at least tolerable (it wasn't).


Edited by ProtegeManiac - 4/30/14 at 9:23am
post #6 of 7
Quote:
Originally Posted by ProtegeManiac View Post
 

 

I did not do that out of ignorance of how things worked or that I'm still doing it.

I did not intend to imply that you did. I made use of the opportunity to explain a few things to any potential headphone buyer who might not have been aware of this phenomena previously. 

post #7 of 7
Quote:
Originally Posted by Baxide View Post
 

I did not intend to imply that you did. I made use of the opportunity to explain a few things to any potential headphone buyer who might not have been aware of this phenomena previously. 

 

Alright ;)

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