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Budget headphone amp vs Budget stereo amp

post #1 of 53
Thread Starter 
I am still not entirely convinced that a dedicated headphone amp is all that much better than a good integrated amp for driving headphones. I have now owned probably 6 or 7 amps, and they all seem to differ to the speaker amp in one way or another, but I am not convinced amplifiers at this level are really worth the money if you have a decent integrated amp with a headphone socket.... I am talking NAD & Rotel (the latter is what I have), as I have listened to headphones on both and I didnt feel that any headphone amp that I have owned sounds dramatically better than one of these amps. Also, I listened to an A400 and again, not much in it.

I can honestly say that its pushing it for there to be a 10% improvement for most amps. Their performances, while tonally different, are all much of a muchness.

Please dont give me all this crap about sources, because 1. I have no intention of buying anything else, and 2. Why buy a source just so you can hear an amp make an improvement? Apart from anything else, even with a better source, I dont believe it will make such an improvement.

So, what am I saying? Basically that I think, if you have a decent NAD or Rotel amp, or something of that ilk, and a budget source component and headphones, then I think you are wasting your money. If however, you have a higher end setup, with a top quality source and cans, then although the difference probably still isnt huge, it might be worth it.

However, IMO for budget stuff, probably a waste of money, unless you dont have a spare stereo amp to use.

Anyway, I doubt anyone here will be interested, but nevertheless, here it is, this is my opinion. Anyone else agree?
post #2 of 53
I'd guess that a low-end integrated amp with a good source (like a decent NAD or Rotel CD player) would sound better than a dedicated headphone amp with a soundcard.
post #3 of 53
Thread Starter 

Written for another forum, but my opinions and advice in depth

As you guys all know, I have had my fair share of headphone amplifiers (and headphones), and there is one thing that repeatedly seems to come back to haunt me.

It is my opinion that if you own an amplifier like mine (which has a built in headphone socket), and a similarly specced source component to what I use, I think that cheap headphone amps are a waste of money, and even the more expensive ones, which will undoubtedly be better than the headphone socket of a Rotel amp, are probably well down the road of diminishing returns anyway.

OK, for some people, a headphone amp is essential, since their kit may not include a headphone socket (amp), or it might, but may well be underpowered (CD player), and for those people, a headphone amp, for headphone listening, will be essential.

However, if like me, you have an amplifier with a pretty good headphone output, with certain headphones there is virtually no point whatsoever in a headphone amp. However, with others there may be more of a need.

This is what I have found:-

1. Lower impedance headphones tend to seem to take more advantage of headphone amps than higher impedance ones. The reason for this is to do with the output impedance of the headphone jack. The output impedance on a typical headphone amp will be close to 0 ohms. When you plug in a set of headphones, the impedance of the headphones contributes to the overall impedance in the "chain". So, for example, its clear to see that 0+32 ohm's = 32 ohms is probably a good thing for most headphones. However, take an integrated amp, which due to the resistor based design, has an output impedance of 220 ohms at the jack, this will more severely affect the sound. However, if you plug 250 or 300 (or even 600) ohm headphones into the jack, although they are still affected, it seems to affect them far less. Without being an expert in electronics, this has universally seemed to be the case in my experience. For example, the headphones that sounded distinctly disadvantaged on my Rotel were the Sony MDR-CD3000, CD1700, AKG K240 and K271 Studio headphones. All of these headphones are 55 ohms or less. Pretty much all of the other headphones were at least 250 ohms, and there seemed to be much less difference between the integrated and a headphone amp in these cases.

2. Having said all that in point 1, it does not always follow that a low impedance headphone will sound bad out of an integrated. I firmly believe that some headphones were designed to be used in such a scenario. Whether that be by design or by the headphones sonic signature, some such headphones will sound better driven by an integrated amp regardless. Examples of headphones I believe were specifically designed for use with integrated amps are Beyerdynamics, the DT831, DT931, DT660 and DT860. All of these headphones are designed to be driven by the INDUSTRY STANDARD output impedance of 120 ohms, and not 0 ohms as most headphones seem to be.

3. Going back to a bit in point 2, the headphones tonality can often dictate whether it'll sound any good on an integrated amplifier or not. Again this may or may not be by design. I personally find that the best headphones to use on integrated amps are definitely on the brighter side of neutral, and not too bassy. This is because when you raise the resistance of the output jack, it tends to have the effect of "warming" the sound, and increasing the perceived power of the bass, and decreasing brightness. With all this in mind, I'd say you wont go far wrong if you choose a headphone that has a highish impedance and a bright sound with not too exagerrated bass as standard for use with an integrated amp. Although you should audition because as I say it doesnt always follow for a low imp. can to sound bad on an integrated, the DT660 and DT860 are good examples of this. Grado also tends to sound quite good in this context. However, I WOULD SERIOUSLY avoid the temptation to go with warm headphones with an integrated amp, as the result tends not to be too involving (read dull).

So, whether one considers a headphone amp should be dictated firstly by whether you have a jack to use already. If not, then obviously there is little choice. However, if one does have an amp with a headphone jack, I'd seriously question the need for one. I think the source is clearly the most important factor here, unless you have an output jack that sounds like total arse. If you have a jack to use, and you dont wish to spend too much cash, then consider a headphone suitable for use in such circumstances. I'd say the performance split was about 60% headphone, 30% source and 10% amp.

Naturally if you want every last drop of performance, and money is no object, then by all means go for an amp, as the best amps will undeniably make some difference, but folks, dont go buying a headphone amp if you already have a good quality jack and expect a huge improvement, because you simply wont get one. My advice to you would be to get down a shop, and audition a number of budget amps like the Creek, Rega, X-Can. If you feel they make a big difference, then be confident in your purchase. However, try not to kid yourself, see it objectively, and if you dont feel there is a big improvement, dont bother. I have found out the hard way, but I will be glad if this thread at least makes people consider carefully their purchase, before doing what I did and wasting good money.

Now, a few words about the Rega Ear vs my Rotel RA-01. The Rega seems to be *slightly* cleaner sounding, but really there is very little in it to all intents and purposes. The Rega is probably a tad more detailed, and definitely brighter. The Rega has a fairly leanish, but fast bass. The Rotel seems to have a lot more slam in the bass, and certainly is no less fun. Actually, a word on headphone bass. Tight bass in headphones IMO can make it sound a touch too clinical, and a bit of overhang gives a slightly more "speaker" like presentation, IMO. Also, the Rotel is a bit warmer, so although it gives slightly less detail, its ultimately a touch less fatiguing.

On that note, I feel like I do not enjoy my music any less using the Rotel amplifier than the Rega. I am not saying that the Rega (or indeed my old Corda HA-1, Perreaux SXH1, X-Can v3 etc) were bad amps, just that as a bang for buck hifi component, they rate as one of the worst VFM "upgrades" for me, which have only ever really sounded different rather than better.

HTHs someone.
post #4 of 53
All in all, I guess, I have to agree.

Greetings from Hannover!

Manfred / lini
post #5 of 53
Thread Starter 
Hi Lini,

How are you mate? I've actually sold the Rega Ear now, and am using my integrated amp. I am considering the possibility of acquiring / building a passive headphone amplifier that uses the spare speaker outputs of my integrated amp and provides a headphone socket. In theory, I should think this will sound as good as any similarly priced headphone amp, and maybe even better.

What I would like to know is, would such a device, such as the one shown in the schematic below, give a near 0-ohm impedance? If not, then there seems little point in building one. Either way, I dont think I'll be buying any more headphone amps, I personally think that they are appalling value for money. Its not just me either, there are some folks I know that have technically better systems than me (source, cans and amp) that think exactly what I do.

However, it seems very few people on headfi are really interested in alternative possibilities and just follow the herd as it were. I am extremely interested in this passive headphone amp idea though, as it seems like a very cost effective way of supplying plenty of clean power to headphones without being ripped off.

The idea came from this schematic:-

post #6 of 53
Hi Paul,

and thanks, I'm doing quite well - for the given circumstances that is. Actually, I'm fighting a cold which doesn't seem to be able to decide, whether it really wants to break out - but doesn't go away, either. And then, I'm rather stressed, because we're approaching the final production phase of our next home cinema special - which translates to > 300 % of the usual workload for Nico (a fellow editor) and me. Not quite the best condition to spend a lot of time with the new girlfriend, but... oh, well... *sigh*

Anyway, that device below is a simple 10:1 voltage devider - with the given resistor values, the amp "sees" a load impedance of ~ 21.xx Ohm, while it would be like 20 Ohm plus speaker output impedance of the amp for the phone. Might already be too much for low impedance phones, but I'd guess it should work for the DT531 without any problems.

Greetings from Hannover!

Manfred / lini
post #7 of 53

Thanks for the frank comments. I really think that you are right and honest in your assessment of headphone amps and integrated amps for can use. With Beyer DT 880s, by big old Luxman L430 integrated amp absolutely blows away my upgraded Creek OBH-11, and even my old $5.00 yard sale Sansui 441 receiver has more 'music' to it, albeit with a little bit of a noise floor. Surprisingly, my least favorite was the highly-regarded Marantz 1060, very constrained and nasal to me, very quiet and detailed, though. I just bought a Fisher 500C in original shape - now that is nice, just a little bit more expansive sounding than the big Lux, but not by much and not as much as I expected. Lux has more punch, and is just a little cleaner. Fisher has 'mystique' of tubes, glowing and almost 'alive'. Still don't know if I'm being honest with myself here, or succumbing to pretensions. Not sure what the Fisher would do if restored, but Lux still sounds great to me, and I am no stranger to discerning sound quality.

I've not heard any real 'high end' (really expensive) headamps, but how much better can these Beyers really sound? I'm sure that I could improve my situation, but probably at great cost. My experience so far confirms yours.

post #8 of 53
A Fisher 500C in good condition will crush most other stereo amps, let alone most other headphone amps. It's almost not a fair comparison.

I have to say that I've been disappointed by most budget stereo amps, not just in driving headphones but also in driving speakers. There are some gems out there, but not many that I'd pay full retail for. The recent advent of digital speaker amps has changed the game, though. They're the only decent budget option as far as I'm concerned. Trouble is, none of them can drive headphones properly off the speaker outputs, even with an adapter. Digital amps with headphone jacks all have a separate op-amp based headphone amp just for the headphone jack. In my mind, a homebrew PIMETA is still the best value in headphone amps.
post #9 of 53
Thread Starter 
I've gotta say I agree with you Wodgy when you say there are a fair few disappointing budget amplifiers out there. For starters, the NAD 320BEE is quite a poor amp IMO, one of the few amps that manages to combine a bright sound with being boring, and the bass is weak. The headphone out on it is decent for what it is though. I used to own a Cambridge Audio A500 which at the time was their flagship amp and that had weak bass, rolled off treble and was very boring to listen to. I have been very happy with the Rotel though, this amp for me has destroyed other new amps, with its lively and dynamic sound, plenty of detail, and really quite nice mids, and although its a bit bright, it does it without sounding harsh. If it has an achilles heal its the lowish power rating of 40 wpc @ 8 ohm (tested by HFC as 60 wpc @ 8 ohm though), but that seems to matter little. I pair it with sensitive floorstanding Rega speakers and it sounds as good as some far more costly rigs to my ears. The bonus is, it has a pretty good headphone output. There are some older gems out there too, like Rotels own RA-971 Mk2 and the Pioneer A400, some of the earlier Naim Nait's and Densen Beat's.
post #10 of 53
I generally agree with that a good budget integrated amp may be a more cost effective and equally musical alternative to a budget headphone amp.
I think the sound of the Grado RS-2's driven by an NAD receiver that I have sounds better than, say Grado SR-80's (which I also have), driven by any headphone amp that I have tried. Therefore, I think it is more cost effective to put your money into good headphones and a good source before focusing on the headphone amp.
However, I would add that I have found the headphone jacks on most cd players and tape decks (that I have heard) to sound significantly inferior to the NAD and if I didn't need to drive speakers, a headphone amp might be $ensible.
I have had a lot of fun this past summer playing around with a $35 Cmoy fed by $30 Sangean stereo radio. Great sound for little money.
post #11 of 53
You do think though, that if there is no need to drive any speakers and no readily availible integrated, a budget amp is worthwhile? I tend to be rather skeptical of amplifiers because I haven't had the chance to audition one yet, which is why I don't have one. However if there are improvements to be had, I'm always open to the possibility...

post #12 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by jesse_w
You do think though, that if there is no need to drive any speakers and no readily availible integrated, a budget amp is worthwhile?
Yeah of course a budget amp is worthwhile in those situations, all I was really trying to say is those with the facility in an existing amp should at least try it out, and not assume that a headphone amp will neccesarily be any better, the mileage will vary from person to person.
post #13 of 53
^ Seconded!

Yes, jesse, if you don't have an integrated or pre amp or receiver with a good headphone out, a budget headphone amp is indeed highly recommended. I'd suggest to go for the PortaCordaII, if you want a versatile model that does well both at home and underway.

Greetings from Hannover!

Manfred / lini
post #14 of 53
i like this thread
post #15 of 53

Hi Fi Amp v Dedicated Headphone Amp

I also agree a good conventianal amplifier is an excellent means of amplification in most instances. My NAD770 sounds superb with my DT880's through the headphone socket. BUT not with my AD900's however if I connect them via my DIY "Rod Elliott" passive headphone adaptor to the speaker outputs they sound superb. I can only assume this is due to impedance compatibility,as if I then connect the high impedance DT880's to this adaptor box the sound is distinctly inferior. Excellent thread. Chippy
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