Newbie Question: Speaker into headphone amp?
Nov 30, 2008 at 6:29 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 4


100+ Head-Fier
Oct 29, 2008
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Nov 30, 2008 at 6:46 AM Post #2 of 4


MOT: Double Helix Cables
Nov 24, 2008
Simply put, some headphones like the Sennheiser HD650 are just very power hungry and have large drivers that are not easily driven by a weak headphone jack like the one in the iPod. The sound is weak and flat without an amp. The headphone amp just powers the headphones with authority and gives them the control and precision they are capable of. Visualize an old VW van trying to climb a mountain pass, compared to a Corvette. The VW van is simply limited by its weak engine, no matter how hard you push it, it cannot go above a certain speed, it is physically restricted. Whereas, the Corvette has near limitless power and performs the way you want it. A good headphone amp removes that restriction by not limiting the headphones and giving them headroom...the sound is more dynamic since the system is not straining.

The Zero DAC is a headphone amp. It's not the best in the world, but most people like it well. It just happens to have a USB DAC built into it, etc.

Try some tubes, the 336SE from Darkvoice is said to mate nicely to the HD650, or something more expensive, if you're looking for more. But already with a Zero DAC your HD650s are going to be driven pretty well...much better than an iPod. If you open it up, it has a nice little circuit board containing a headphone amp section.
Nov 30, 2008 at 7:23 AM Post #3 of 4

Uncle Erik

Uncle Exotic
Mar 18, 2006

Originally Posted by nauxolo /img/forum/go_quote.gif
So, what exactly is the benefit of a headphone amp? If I connect my speakers into the jack of my future headphone amp, will it be weird/distort my speakers? would it benefit my speakers or just do nothing?

Everything depends on your amp and speakers. Some speakers are very difficult to drive, like the old Apogee ribbons. They've been known to melt lesser power amps. The ribbons I built used to make a cheapie 20W amp (I was poor) get pretty damn hot after 30 minutes at moderate listening levels. On the other hand, the ESS AMT-1 speakers I'm running now are 98dB efficient - I run them from a 3W amp without trouble.

Other speakers are highly efficient, like Lowthers and Klipsch horns. Some of those will go over 110dB of efficiency. I think some of the field coil speakers (e.g. Fertin and Supravox) might be even more efficient than that. If you have highly efficient speakers you can run them from a powerful headphone amp.

Those are the extremes. Today, I got my parents a pair of PSB Alpha B1 speakers for Christmas. Those need about 60W of power to drive. My ProAc 2.5 clones need about 50W-100W to run well. I drive them with a 45W amp which does fine.

Headphones have much smaller drivers and voicecoils than speakers. They need a lot less power to drive, which is why headphone amps aren't designed to drive speakers. There are some exceptions. For example, the AKG K-1000 headphones were designed to be run from a speaker amp and need lots of power. Also, there are a few headphone amps that are designed to drive efficient speakers. But generally, headphone and power amps are not interchangeable.

There is danger is using an underpowered amp to drive speakers. When an amp tries to drive something that's too hard to push, it "clips." Tube amps clip differently from solid state, but either can produce a surge that can damage a voicecoil. You're almost always better off overpowering headphones and speakers. Even if an amp can put out 100W, it almost never does. It will only put out 100W at peak, meaning that the source is delivering 100% and you have the volume turned all the way up. Most of the time, that 100W amp will only be putting out 20W or 30W, so if you're using that 100W amp with speakers rated for 50W, they'll be fine.

Amps are more about control than power. It's like the difference between picking up a 50lbs. bag with one hand and picking it up with two hands. You can probably lift it with one hand, but you'll have a lot more control if you use two. Likewise, a good amp will have better control over the transducer in the speakers or headphones. You can absolutely hear the difference.

For a broad overview of amps, you have tube, solid state and hybrid amps. Hybrid amps have a combination of tube and solid state in the amplification circuit. Each has its advantages. If you're looking for a more solid lower end a solid state amp is usually the best choice. Solid state is better at producing low end power. Tubes will give you a smoother, analog sound with better mids and highs. Hybrids can sometimes give the best of both, but they vary a lot. There are exceptions, and tubes can hit hard down low, but if you're looking for a first amp, try solid state.

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