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Digital Audio 101: Using Headphone Amps & DACs for Computers & Laptops

Thanks to digital audio, attaining amazing audio sound quality has never been easier.  For a fraction of the cost of old-school analog systems, you can put together a killer computer-based audio system.

First off, Do I Need a Headphone Amp & DAC?

If you're just starting out, investing in a decent pair of headphones is the best way to get the most improvement out of your computer. Plan on spending around $50-$150.  It's important to use headphones that do not require too much power to be driven properly, otherwise they will be under-powered from the relatively weak headphone output of computers and particularly laptops.  However, today there are many highly quality headphones that can be driven efficiently from the headphone jack of a computer or laptop.  Some laptops sound better than others depending on the sound card's quality and the computer's overall value.  

But once you've acquired decent headphones, and you want to know what else is out there, it's time to consider an amp/DAC combo.  The next step in creating a high-quality computer audio system is to use a digital USB-compatible headphone amp & DAC (digital to analog converter). These can be in one unit or two separate components.

Benefits of a Headphone Amp & DAC

Dedicated headphone amps & DACs can solve the following problems commonly found with computer audio: 

  • A large amount of radio frequency [RF] and electro-magnetic interference is generated internally from power supplies and hard-drive circuitry.  A headphone amp/DAC isolates the audio circuitry in it's own box, providing valuable shielding.
  • typically relatively low quality components are dedicated to audio reproduction in computers, while a dedicated amp/DAC will have much higher quality parts, depending on the units price.
  • there is low power voltage swing capacity available in PCs and laptops, while in dedicated headphone amps/DACs the power is designed strictly for one specific purpose.

Digital audio over USB connection can offer great sound quality because the music data is sent in "packets" and is then re-assembled at the receiving end, which is the external DAC device. This means that jitter from USB transmission is eliminated as the data received is re-clocked within the noise-controlled environment of the outboard DAC (or 'combo' headphone amp/DAC). 

Read More:  Why Do I Need a Headphone Amp?   and What is a DAC?

The Mobile Audiophile-  Using Amps & DACs On The Go

Ah, so you're a mobile audiophile eh?  Lucky for you that today you can have a mobile audio system on par with $30,000+ listening rooms right in your laptop bags!  A DAC becomes a critical piece in your audio chain at this point ,and we recommend an amp/DAC combination thanks to their compact size.  Many little units today offer an impressive array of features, have rechargeable, AA, or AAA batteries, and sometimes in shockingly small packages.  Most are capable of driving most headphones under 300 ohms.  All of these units have USB connectivity, the most popular and commonly available method for connecting a DAC to your computer.

Many headphone choices are available to you at this point, as nearly all these amps will drive most headphones with ease.  Many mobile audiophiles will recommend a high-end in-ear model; impressive universal fit models are available.  For the ultimate in audio reproduction, blissful isolation, and supernal comfort, a custom molded in-ear headphone is a very popular choice.  Several custom brands are available, with JH Audio leading the pack as the premiere custom provider.

Home Use & High-End Digital Music

Most headphone listeners will prefer an over-ear style for most home-based applications; since they provide great sound quality, lots of comfort and ease of use, with many choices at varying price points.  Choosing an open or closed model will depend on your need to block outside noise.

The good news is that extremely high-quality music reproduction on a computer is within easy reach. Headphone amplifiers and DACs can be purchased separately or are commonly found as an all-in-one.  An important consideration for high-fidelity digital listeners is bit rate transmission, with many DACs offering up to 24k/192.  Most amps and DACs offer multiple inputs simultaneously connected and easy switching between sources and from headphones to speakers. Occasionally you will have a computer that offers digital output via optical connection, this can be arguable slightly superior to USB, so you may want to consider an optical connection.  Balanced drive is also a popular way to obtain extremely high quality audio, and a computer can be an excellent source for balanced transmission.


Ivy Burford
Ivy Burford

Author



2 Comments

Ivy
Ivy

May 19, 2014

Thanks for the comments, Harry. You are correct in saying that headphone specifications in general are inconsistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. Over time we hope to include more and more consistent baseline measurements and information. Our graph comparison tool can be found here: http://www.headphone.com/pages/build-a-graph
Again, thanks for the feedback, we appreciate it.

Harry Kluger
Harry Kluger

May 15, 2014

The technical information included with each headphone description is useful, but inconsistent. If you could provide the same technical information with each headphone, your headphone comparison tool would be much more useful. Which reminds me: where is the heaphone comparison tool in the revamped site?

Thanks

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