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What does an Amplifier do for Headphones?

by Bethann E. Danley

Why Amplify?

Even the most talented musician on earth or your all-time favorite number will not be able to make you relax (or make you dance, depending on what your intention was in the first place) if you can’t hear them properly. Your perfect headphones, which you bought only after intense research and personally trying on each brand and model, somehow are not living up to your expectations. You are unable to make them reproduce the same quality of sound that they did at the store or at the expo.

Unless your headphones are broken, the actual problem may lie with your computer or mp3 player/smartphone from which you are playing the music.


How does it work?

  • The music being played on your computer or your mobile device has to pass through a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) and an Amplifier.
  • A DAC converts digital audio information into an analog audio signal.
  • This analog signal is then sent to the amplifier, which in turn sends it to the miniature speakers (drivers) of your headphones. And that is how you hear the music.

Now most music players, every smartphone/tablet, most computers already come with an inbuilt headphone amplifier. The problem is that these may not be good enough. Considering the size and space limitations of a mobile device, these in-built amplifiers have to compromise on power. The outcome is that your headphones will under-perform.

A stand-alone headphone amplifier can make your high-end headphones perform to their full potential as it (the amplifier) can supply much better power to your headphones. It also allows for better sound control.

The Top Things to Know About an Amplifier

Often times the function of an amplifier is confused with generating so much power that your headphones can reproduce the loudest sound. This is not what it is for. An amplifier is not supposed to make you deaf or annoy people around you. An amplifier should help your headphones reproduce crisp and clear but controlled sounds. It should eliminate the distortions even at the peaks.


Efficiency and Impedance

Now, to choose the perfect amp for your headphones, you should check the efficiency (sensitivity) and the impedance of your headphones. The efficiency indicates how loud your headphones can get when amplified. Headphones with 95dB or less efficiency will most likely need an amp. As for impedance, a general rule states that the impedance of your headphone should be 10 times the output impedance of the amp.

What to buy it?

You may buy an amp and a DAC separately, or you may choose a combo unit which houses both. The combo will work best with your computer. But if you intend to use your headphones only on your mobile device, you don’t need a DAC or a DAC – Amp combo. Only an amp should be enough.

Types of Amplifiers

A lot of different brands and models are available to choose from in the market. Each of Types of Amplifiersthese will have different form factors, different features, and different ports. Some of the general types are listed below.

  • Desktop Amps: A desktop amplifier will do the trick for you if your setup does not require a DAC. Alternatively, you may decide to buy the amp and the DAC separately and pair them up yourself.
  • Portable Amps: A portable amp usually does not come with a built-in DAC. But as discussed above, it may not even be required. A portable amp will work just fine with high-impedance headphones used with a portable music player/smartphone. Some of these amps are also battery-powered for increased portability.
  • DAC – Amplifier combos: These work well with headphones as well as speakers.
    Some headphone amps come with built-in DAC’s. They connect to the laptop / desktop / tablet via a USB or optical port.


Final Word

Whether you buy an amp or a combo will depend on which devices you intend to use them with. A decent research should narrow down your choices. But remember this, an amplifier should give you cleaner, better sound that you can enjoy. It should not blast your eardrums away. Enjoy your music responsibly, in a healthy manner and be considerate towards people around you.

Now, go boogie…or relax, whatever!

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