Ok, *why* do I need a headphone amp for HD650?

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by alfbaxter, Aug 10, 2010.
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  1. AlfBaxter
    Hi all, long-time reader, first post. I'm using an Auzen Prelude with HD650 connected direct to the line out (LAME or FLAC files, bit-matched playback, ASIO, fb2k). I'm sure pretty much everyone around here thinks I need a headphone amp to get the best out of them. I don't have money to burn and so am considering a Matrix M-Stage, which seems to get good reviews and is relatively inexpensive.
    I'm not looking for amp recommendations - my question is: why do I need one at all? I have a very discerning ear, and my HD650 don't sound 'veiled' at all. On the whole, they sound bright and detailed. They do *occasionally* (i.e. with certain recordings) sound slightly unrefined to my ear at the top end, and a little muddy in the lows, but that's being very picky, and it could just be clipping in the recordings themselves. They also go so loud that I never turn the volume above 50-60%.
    I see that on paper, the M-Stage op-amps aren't as good as the front L/R op-amps in the Prelude. I know amplification isn't all about op-amps, but what is it that my Prelude isn't doing that a decent head amp will do? If somebody has an answer that doesn't involve subjective claims about sound quality that would be very much appreciated. I'm not convinced an amp will make any difference at all beyond placebo, and am looking for an objective explanation of *why* such headphones sound so much better with an amp.
    Thanks in advance.
  2. FallenAngel Contributor
    HD650 require quite a bit of voltage gain.
    What a lot of people don't understand is that there is ALWAYS an amp.  There must be one if you can have any music playing at all, there has to be something to to amplify line level signal from the DAC to headphone level.  Your sound card certainly has this, whether it's up to par compared to a standalone headphone amp, that's another story.  Also, sound cards don't always have amps designed for headphones, as they are usually driving power speakers, so they're asked to drive 10,000 Ohm powered speaker amps instead of 300 Ohm headphones which require quite different specs. 
  3. JxK
    Haven't heard the hd650 myself (obvious caveat here), but based upon the impressions of people I trust, the short answer is: You don't. A sansa clip will drive the HD650 just as well as the best $2000 solid state amp, though naturally it won't get as loud. The HD650 is no akg k701, and is apparently much easier to drive than most posters here would lead you to believe.
    If you get a chance to go to a meet, you could try the amps yourself. If you don't hear a difference (and I don't think you will), just smile and be happy for your wallet.
  4. FallenAngel Contributor
    Disregard answer above, either trolling or ignorance.
  5. Hybrys

    I lol'd.  Reserve judgment until you try it yourself.
  6. stevenswall
    My Cowon S9 drove a 600ohm Beyerdynamic to a satisfactory listening level. I think there is a small niche of headphones that need amplifiers... that said, I think one would benefit more if their original source is weak or terrible sounding, aka: an iPod.
    ^Please don't call names, as that typically proves to be at least as effective as an actual troll.
  7. JxK
    The biggest problem with high-impedence, low sensitivty phones like the HD600 and HD650 is usually not noise or channel balance at low levels but just getting them loud enough without pushing the amp's performance limits too far (resulting in clipping or distortion). If you're willing to put up (or enjoy) low volume listening, an amp shouldn't be needed.
    Expensive headamps edge on over into into the realm of snake oil as price increases. In most circumstances, a home receiver or home CD deck (with headphone jack) or computer sound card will provide solid amplification even with the HD600s or HD650s. Honestly speaking, if you can ABX (at low volume) the clip from an expensive SS amp I'll be surprised. Or at normal volume a decent sound card and an expensive SS amp.
    Of course, the hardcore audiophile - that person who swears by the $500 cryo oxygen free faerie dust cable and $20,000 CD player - won't agree. But for those of us living in reality, headphone amps are usually, in most cases, unnecessary.
    gunkie2k likes this.
  8. Hybrys

    I've ABXed Cowon S9 vs Clip+ vs Zero DAC/Amp.  And, yes, they do make a difference.  Even with my SRH440s.
  9. JxK
    Did you volume match to +/- 0.5 dB?
  10. FallenAngel Contributor
    Thanks for clarifying.
    As I mentioned, the HD650 require quite a bit of voltage swing for moderate volume level listening.  Something around 10V to push the lower end (bass) to high volume level is required without clipping.  Most portable media players run off 3.7V power supplies and depending on implementation, will clip WAY before what the HD650 requires.
    Distortion is another large factor.  Most amps built into a media player will measure decent THD at very low output levels and drastically get worse when pushed.
    Price vs "performance" is a largely debatable subject and certainly "audiophile" or "high-end" gear tends to be very expensive while realistically having marginal improvements over "mid-fi" gear.
    As for "usually, in most cases, unnecessary", I really disagree.  I'll leave this as my opinion without getting into graphs showing frequency response vs impedance vs voltage.  I would recommend though, as you suggested, going to a meet and trying things for yourself.
  11. stevenswall
    ^Question: I will assume that the Zero DAC won out in the end, but between the Clip+ and the S9 (I hope you used the equalizers) Which did you prefer, and could you briefly describe the difference?
  12. JxK

    To each his own, I suppose. Though I will freely admit that I prefer low volume listening (much less than most people), so that personal preference may very well cloud my opinions compared to other listeners.
    Like FallenAngel said, if you get a chance to make it to a meet, that would be the best way to find out.
  13. brendon

    I am very surprised with that statement especially since you have not personally heard the HD650s. I have tried them with the Sansa clip, Apple Ipod -> Line out -> Cmoy amp/Fiio E3/Fiio E1/Ibasso P3+, Amp3 Pro 2, Creative Sounblaster Audigy 4, Hifiman EF2A, Bravo tube amp, BlackBerry 8330, Hotaudio Mark IV, uDac etc and NONE I repeat NONE could properly drive the HD650s.
    The bass was flabby/uncontrolled and though the sound was nice it was far from befitting a $400 headphone.
    All that changed with a budget Audio-GD Compass. The Compass has enough gain and power to do some justice to the HD650. The bass is much more controlled now and resolution is also improved. Its not a small blink and you miss it difference but almost like a night and day difference.
    All my friends who hated my HD650s before now quite like them.
    I dont know how a much more expensive amp will sound because I dont plan on getting one but IMO a decent amplifier is definitely recommended. I would suggest the OP to try the Maverick Mstage. If you dont like it you wont make much of a loss as I am sure someone will snap it up pretty quick from the market section.
  14. JxK
    ^The differences in what we hear can most likely be attributed to volume preferences. Keep in mind that an amp has only one purpose: to get headphones loud enough without distortion, clipping, and other unwanted problems.
    So if you're like me and listen to music very quietly, then even a weak amplifier like what is inside the clip should be more than sufficient. But I'll freely admit that nearly everyone else I know prefers to listen to headphones louder than I do. And if that's the case, you might need that amp.
  15. Phelonious Ponk
    Yes, the big high-impedance Senns need some current, some headroom, but more than enough can be provided by a pretty inexpensive, properly-powered op amp, and it is possible that one of those is on your sound card. Not terribly likely, but possible. Find out for yourself. Put on a recording with some serious dynamic swings. "Sex Kills" from Joni Mitchell's "Travelogue" album, or Bruno Walters' Columbia recording of Beethoven's 5th always works for me. Monk's "Brilliant Corners" has some great dynamic cuts, too. YMMV (your music may vary, but modern pop/rock recording are generally not dynamic). Crank it up to a listening volume that, in the soft parts, is a bit louder than your norm. Listen for when the peaks peak. Does the bass boom and lose control or does it stay crisp and tight? Does percussion attack jump out or does it lose its leading edge? Do kettle/bass drums sound like very distinct, dynamic strikes, or are they softened? Do cymbals get harsh or swishy, or do they ring and shimmer?
    If what you hear is the good stuff described above, whatever is amplifying your Senns has enough juice for the job. Period. 
    Don't drink the high-end kool aide. Buy only with a liberal return policy. Have a comprehensive set of test tracks ready. Listen. Blind whenever possible. Make every component earn its keep on your terms, in your system, to your ears, or send it back. And always understand that when it comes to audio, high price, even apparent high quality is an unreliable indicator of high fidelity. Do this and you will get great pleasure from music and save the thousands of dollars many of us spent to learn the lesson.
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