Advice for newbies re: headphones and amping...
May 1, 2015 at 2:00 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 1


1000+ Head-Fier
Nov 29, 2013
The "Why in the Hell Do I Need a dedicated Headphone Amp for my Headphones" Thread...
Just wanted to post quickly for someone who may just be getting into the world of headfi, and wondering why a headphone amplifier may be recommended. I'm sure this has been covered elsewhere, and of course these are my opinions, but nonetheless, I just wanted to post some thoughts that others may find useful...
How do I know if I am getting the best sound out of my headphones?
- Depending on which headphones you're listening with, you can generally read impression posts here on headfi, or around the internet... others who own the headphone generally can give you a good idea of what gear works well with them. The majority of "higher end" headphones that I've owned have sounded better with a specific headphone amp. I would say that in general, it's a good idea to read around and weigh your options.
- Do you find that your sonic impression of the headphones differs quite a lot from others impressions? Do you find the bass to be very light or lacking, where others have said it sounds satisfying? Do you find the midrange tends to be tough to hear, and guitar sounds like it's buried beneath something else in the mix? These are dead give-aways that an amp would improve the situation. I've read a few times where someone will post an opinion about a certain model of headphones that contradicts the popular opinion by quite a long way - it's probably safe to say that the gear this person is using is prohibiting the natural sound signature of the headphone.
- Volume is not the tell-tale sign that you need an amplifier, at all. This is a big myth that is perpetuated by people who have never tried scaling their gear up to match the performance of their headphone. "Why would I get an amp when the headphones are already plenty loud??" Allow me to explain:
I have found that headphone amplifiers that just didn't "gel" with some of my headphones had plenty of volume, but the music sounded bland and dull. The music will not sound what I term "high-fidelity" - it sounds like a big, bland mix, where nothing pops out. The bass bleeds into the mids, which may be recessed and muddy, and the highs will either be rolled off and unsatisfying, or completely bright sounding and brittle.
To give specific examples as what headphones will sound like without a proper amp:
The HD-650's - These will sound like the world's most boring headphones without a proper amp. The bass will be lacking, the midrange will be completely muddy and distorted, and the highs will lack detail. You will wonder what all the fuss is about these headphones... you will damn yourself for falling for the trap of buying these headphones, despite their praise. You will take them off and never wear them for months, wondering how you could be so foolish as to buy them. Hahah, ok so that is what happened to me. They will be DULL and unexciting.
The AKG K702's - Wow, so these headphones do have a very wide soundstage, but GOD DAMN is that treble harsh. In fact, I can't focus on anything but how brittle and harsh the high's sound without a proper amp. My god these headphones sound downright ear-piercingly terrible without an amp to bring out the midrange and a bit of bass. (In all honesty, they don't have the biggest bass out of any headphones, but SOMETHING has to balance out the response of these headphones...)
The HE-500's - Ok so these actually sound much, much better than the HD-650's without using a proper amp, but it's so very difficult for me to wear these and not notice the lack of detail. What happened to my soundstage... there is no width or depth. Everything is right beside my ears, literally... I can at least hear some bass with these without a proper amp, but overall, very dull and lacking detail. The mids sound a bit better than HD-650's that aren't properly amp'd, but still, dull.
The LCD-3's - The world's best headphones?????!? Are you kidding me??? Soundstage is non-existent. Details are non-existent. This is a warm, gooey mess. Way too much bass, and everything is blending into the mids and making them sound muddled. Ok, so they do have a fabulous grip on dynamics, transients, and bass, even if it sounds bloated without a proper amp. They are also majorly lacking power without a proper amp... it's downright disturbing how sad these sound without a powerful amp. DULL, as per everything above. My god, don't buy these unless you can afford to invest in a powerful amp.
Ok, sure... so what am I going to hear with a proper amp?
This is hard to answer, as everyone enjoys music for different reasons, but here are some specific examples that I can describe for you, from my experience.
- Overall presentation improves in balance. The bass, mids, and highs will all sound "easier to hear". This can come across as more details, more impact in the bass, like a general dullness or haze has been lifted from the music. This transparency can come across in different levels as well... from just a general improvement, to the point where individual instruments sound more and more real, or life-like, to the point where the music can be heard in layers instead of just sounding generally good, to the point where the layers are then also divided into height and width. The instruments will sound more realistic, the vocals will envelope and form an atmospheric sound you never noticed before, nuances will start popping out here and there and everywhere in general. You will wonder how you never heard everything the way you're hearing it - they are the same headphones after all.
- From this point, what I've found is that individual amps will emphasize different parts of the sonic presentation... some amps will come across as "slower" - introducing a decay to the individual notes, that leaves a lasting, fulfilling impression (these go together insanely well with the HD-650's). Other amps will offer a more transparent approach, where the notes take on an intensity, and subside quickly... you're left to marvel at the speed and grip the headphones have in presenting your music (my god, the LCD-3's!). Still others will push a bit of oomph into the lower end, will retaining an elegance that balances out simply being powerful... they allow you to admire the atmosphere and soundstage (HE-500's, and AKG's have never sounded better with these).
- Price does NOT equal experience. Please do not fall into the trap of believing that the more you spend, the more you'll enjoy your music. While good quality gear does cost a fair amount of money, there is absolutely no reason you can't enjoy cheaper gear that just gels with your headphones. Talk with other headfi'ers, and see what seemed to work well for them. There are many famous amp-headphone pairings, and there are also opportunities to discover what works well for you.
In summary, please enjoy the music and please feel free to explore the opportunity to allow your headphones to really sing. I've bought and sold headphones in the past, not knowing that my gear simply didn't work with them... the headphones are technically capable of amazing experiences, sometimes it just takes the right gear to get there. As an aside, I recommend browsing the impression forums in the headphone thread related to whatever headphones you're interested in driving, and try auditioning lots of gear. 

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