The headphone itself is the most important part of a personal audio system that can deliver astonishingly realistic audio to your ears.
The headphone amp is second on the list.
So if you're deciding whether to spend for a top-shelf headphone or a headphone amp first - the headphone is the most important part of the equation by far!
Our recommendation is to distribute your spending so that your headphones come first, followed by a headphone amp and then a high-resolution music player.
OK. Whew. Now that's out of the way, when deciding to acquire a good headphone amp, it's key to consider how much a pair of headphones can potentially benefit from an amp - their "performance ceiling," in other words.
If you have some headphones and spent more than $150-$200 on them, you may want to consider an amp. A headphone amp like an entry level Fiio Amp will help you get your money’s worth from your cans and is an affordable gateway to the benefits of headphone amplification. If looking to move up a notch in musical performance, see our full line of headphone amps to find the best one for your needs.
Of course, an audio system is only as good as its weakest link. If you have well-recorded music and great audiophile headphones, but are relying on the power-limited headphone amp inside your smartphone, laptop or tablet to make the headphones sing, you likely won't be driving your headphones to their full sound quality potential.
Adding an amp between the player and your audiophile headphones can provide a significant, audible improvement in clarity, detail and dynamics.
You may know about a headphone "impedance rating". Impedance is the combined resistance and reactivity the headphones present to the amp as an electrical load.
High-impedance cans will usually need more voltage to get up to a solid listening level, so they can benefit from a headphone amp especially with portable players that have limited voltage available from their internal batteries. But very low-impedance cans lower the damping factor between the amp and headphones and actually require more current. So while low-impedance headphones may be plenty loud enough from a portable device, sound quality may be significantly improved using a headphone amp in this instance as well.
The size and dimensions of your headphone may provide some basic clues as to whether an amp is warranted. Most earbud and in ear headphones are typically very efficient and less likely to really benefit strongly from an amp. However, many larger over ear headphones will become clearer and better sounding with an amp. A few select audiophile models may even require a headphone amp to reach listenable volume levels and sonic performance, especially if connected to portable devices.
If you are listening to your music on a computer, laptop or tablet, a headphone amp with an internal digital to analog converters (DAC) can significantly improve your listening by employing the better D-to-A processing power available in outboard DACs.
With a portable device, use a “line output” when available to connect to a headphone amp. (You'll find an older iPod/iPhone line out adapter here. ) If no line-out is available, use the headphone jack to send the signal over to the headphone amp.
WHEN NOT TO USE AN AMP!
Most in ear headphones, or earphones, are typically highly efficient so they work well with smartphones or other portable devices without requiring an amp.
You do not need a headphone amp when using noise-cancelling headphones, as they essentially already have a built-in headphone amp inside. It prevents an external headphone amp from adding any significant audio benefit.
Learn A Bit More About HeadRoom's Top Amps & DACs.
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