Can you educate a newbie about headphone amps?

Liam K August 30, 2013
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I recently purchased a pair of Sennheiser HD 598 headphones, and though I’m very impressed with them I’ve read that they will perform even better when used in combination with a headphone amp. Being an absolute newbie at this I was hoping you could tell me what kinds of headphone amps there are and which ones are recommended.

Thanks!

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  1. Liam K
    September 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks for the answers guys.

    Volume is not an issue here. I'm just trying to get as much audio quality as possible.

    I'm using the headphones mainly for my HP Elitebook 8560w which of course only has a 3.5 mm jack and for an electric piano (Kurzweil - Mark-Pro ONEiS).

    I've read that using a DAC retains more audio quality than when you just plug your headphones into a laptop 3.5 mm jack.

    Now I don't know how big the difference would be and I certainly don't fancy wasting money if it's not gonna be worth it so I'm gonna keep using the headphone this way until I figure out whether it is worth it.

    For now, I'd like to know what you would do if you were in my situation. Buy a cheapish amp or just leave it the way it is?

    • Dalsan M
      September 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm

      There is no straight-forward answer here. If you are trying to get every bit of sound quality from 20Hz-20,000hz, then I would suggest getting a decent amp. This is important for creating and editing music, but is just a desire if one were to just listen to music. If most of the need for your headphones are through your laptop, I would instead suggest a decent external soundcard instead. No matter what kind of amp you get, the sound will only be as good as the source can output. Integrated sound is like integrated video graphics; it can only offer so much before the quality clips and suffers. Something like the Creative X-FI HD USB Sound Card, reviewed here: http://www.hardocp.com/article/2011/09/20/creative_xfi_hd_usb_sound_card_review/#.UiO7R0TXov0, could be a great solution for the best quality output for your laptop. I don't think that you would truly need an amp for the electric piano, but the sound may be a little better (not as big of a difference as an external soundcard would be for your laptop).

      The biggest point to look at in your situation is what exactly you are using the headphones for? Would the benefits of an amp, however slight it may be for untrained ears, actually benefit you; would the extra cost be warranted for the extra sound quality in the lower and upper frequency range? Personally, if I don't have a real use for it, I wouldn't spend my money on it. If the benefit proves to be more useful and would be used often, then it could be worth the extra cost.

  2. Tim Brookes
    August 31, 2013 at 2:50 am

    Ok, so headphone amps are generally required on headphones that need more to drive them than your average portable device can manage. There's a lot that goes into deciding whether an amp is worth it, often it comes down to the impedance of the headphones. More often than not, it comes down to the preference of the listener above all.

    Headphone amps are designed to do more than just boost the volume. Many swear by them for improving sound quality and generally providing more "body". There's a lot more to it than I can do justice to, so you might want to immerse yourself in this Wikipedia article which explains much of the theory behind when to buy an amp: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Headphone_amplifier

    Going back to your specific set up, I found the following thread in which someone was also wondering whether the 598s needed an amp. Opinion is largely in favour of using them as-is, with a few posters saying they improve the body of the sound and (of course) provide more volume if that's what you're after. One poster in particular said that his FiiO (a nice cheap manufacturer of DACs and amps) destroyed sound quality, and that they sound a lot better (but quieter, of course) straight-up.

    Take a look: http://www.head-fi.org/t/573599/sennheiser-hd-598-amp-necessary

    It also comes down to price. You're looking at an additional couple of hundred dollars for a cheap amp, and any lower than that is surely going to be an inferior product. If you're spending upwards of $500 on headphones, a $200 headphone amp does make sense. However you have to question whether the expenditure is worth it for cheaper cans.

    Hope this helps!

  3. Dalsan M
    August 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    I haven't used a headphone amp since the mid 90's, but in general, Jan is right. It is like car stereo equipment; if you have expensive high performance speakers running off of the vehicle's stock factory radio, the sound quality will suffer because of the signal being under-powered. The same applies here since you have high performance headphone speakers that may be underpowered by the device you are using. If the sound is fine and loud enough, then I wouldn't worry about getting a headphone amp. The cost and use of extra power and batteries are more of a hassle than it really is worth. If you are an audiophile that just wants the best quality sound, more power to you. More information and products can be found here: http://www.headphone.com/headphone-amps/amplifiers.php

  4. Jan F
    August 30, 2013 at 6:07 am

    I'm positive there are people here who can explain you way better than I do but basically what the amplifier does is take a (usually too) low input and offers a higher output.

    You would use it for example
    - if your source (computer, notebook, ...) is set maximum volume but the sound in your headphones is still too low
    - if you want to raise the volume but doing so on your source creates too much sound artifacts or distortion

    But don't think of it like you "buy an amplifier and everything is better". If you buy the wrong one both of the above can happen too. If your actual sources (computer, notebook, ...) output is crap the amplifier won't make things better either.

    If you like the sound you are getting and the volume is sufficient I don't think you should bother getting an amp.