Do Headphone Amps Improve Sound Quality? (Here’s The Truth)

The sound quality you get as a musician from your audio system comes from the headphones they use. The headphone amp improves the attention one gives to the music when listening in the best possible way. 

Do headphone amps improve sound quality?

When attending a music session on a laptop, computer, tablet, or phone, we often ask how to improve headset sound quality. And the best possible way to enhance headset sound quality is by using amps. This enhancement in headphone sound quality is due to digital-to-analog processing, a built-in feature of the headphone amp’s outboard DAC.

Though the amps can boost the sound quality, improving headphone sound quality is not the fundamental goal of a headphone amp.

There is an enhancement in the sound quality, a by-product of the amp’s ability to amplify the signals going toward headphones. But you may ask here the question – What do headphone amps do? The amp’s primary purpose is to supply the ideal amount of power for the headphones to produce sound. 

  • This enhancement is due to the improved digital-to-analog processing built within the amp’s outboard DAC.
Do Headphone Amps Improve Sound Quality

How Headphone Amps Improve Sound Quality

Headphone amps come with plenty of privileges when it comes to their primary function of audio playback.

Guessing from the name, the amp’s primary function is to work as a headphone booster when the sound signals reach headphones, forming the desired power to maximize energy. As explained, the technique that is applied improves headphone sound quality dramatically. 

One listener might demand the resulting improvement in the sound quality of the headphones because of the usage of amps. In contrast, the improvement in sound quality might be less desirable to other listeners.

As it is stated clearly that headphone amps improve sound quality, it is desirable to consider the two aspects: clarity and coloration. 

We want to point out that the signal is transmitted digitally when the audio signal is generated from a sound source, such as a computer or smartphone.

To play the audio in headphones, the signals must be converted to analog signals. The device performing this function is a DAC (digital-to-analog converter). 

The headphone amps can improve the sound quality by utilizing this conversion process.

Most headphones have inbuilt DACs, though the DACs in external headphone amps are more profound and helpful in improving the sound quality.

  • The efficiency of the DAC within a headphone amp decides the overall sound quality finally produced through a headphone. 

The procedure of coloration takes place because of the basic functionality of a headphone amp.

It improves the wavelength intensity of the source of the sound, which results in audio playing at a higher level. It doesn’t change the characteristic waveform of the sound when doing the amplification. When buying headphone amps, a significant factor to note is that some amps have high output impedance, which causes their frequency response to be applied to the waveform, thus adding color. 

The output of the sound quality due to coloration depends upon the person’s listening experience.

Look at this great video from PS Audio on setting up a headphone amp.

As a characteristic, a headphone amp with higher-than-average output impedance will amplify the audio differently. Similar to preamps connected with microphones and instruments, there are various choices for amps that could be used with headphones. 

Alternatively, high-end headphone amps with low output impedance are unlikely to color the sound.

It could be argued that these devices improve sound quality more than a high output impedance option because they operate with minimal distortion and amplify the original signal without adding color to the output. 

Depending on a budget of the listener, there is a difference between high gain vs. low gain headphone amp. The more expensive headphone amps will likely provide low output impedance and wouldn’t color the sound. On the other hand, the listener might enjoy the high impedance output and addition of color to the sound by low-budget headphone amps.

Whether to add color to the sound with budget amps or keep the sound without it depends on the personal listening experience of the person.

To summarize, here are the ways headphone amps improve sound quality:

  • More effective digital-to-analog conversion
  • Add unique coloration
  • Amplify the signal to a higher sound level
  • Minimize distortion & unwanted noise
  • Bypass low-quality DACs in playback devices

I have written an article called “Are expensive headphones worth it” You can read it here.

DACs & Headphone Sound Quality 

The same fundamental component in a headphone amp is the DAC.

The DAC converts the digital data into analog waveforms, essential for audio to be played back by headphones or speakers. 

So what exactly is a DAC, and how can it improve sound quality?

DACs are present in all devices that can play the audio, not only in headphone amps. Most people lack knowledge about DACs and are unaware that they exist. 

The digital signals are in the form of 0s and 1s, and this digital signal is what that is given by electronic devices like Computers and Smartphones and enters the headphone amp. The digital signal, as in its present form, is not audible to humans. The audio, when it passes through the headphone wire, enters the DAC first when it enters the headphone amp, and converts the digital signals presented in the form of 0s and 1s to the analog waveform audible to the human ear. 

The DACs built-in majority of the devices are not to the highest standard. That is the main reason to use headphone amps with specially-chosen DAC as it improves sound quality.

  • To mention a quick fact, not all head amps contain DACs.

Most high-end headphone amps have built-in DACs, while some might not have it and require connecting an external DAC to a playback device separated from the amp.

Standalone DACs usually have simple controls and have the shape of a USB-connectable box. The headphones could be connected to DAC directly to convert digital signals into analog signals, but to enhance the sound quality; it is advisable to connect a headphone amp.

My favorite studio headphones are the incredible DT770 by Beyerdynamic (pictured below)

Take a closer look at them here on Amazon

Do Headphone Amps Improve Sound Quality

Impedance Level And Headphone Sound Quality

The fundamental factor that affects a headphone amp’s capability to improve sound quality is its impedance level. Talking, two types of impedance exist when discussing audio: output impedance and load impedance. 

Load impedance is related to the impedance of the headphones, though output impedance is related to headphone amps.

Headphone impedance typically falls in the range of 10-600 ohms. The maximum frequent impedance rating is 32, and this number has become quite a trend-setting amongst manufacturers. 

On the other hand, a headphone amp’s impedance is likely to be significantly lower, at roughly 4 ohms or, in rare situations, 0 ohms. There are, however, lower-quality headphone amps with substantially higher output impedance, which is frequently reflected in the sound quality.

To produce the highest possible sound quality, the “impedance matching” process must be taking place to match the load impedance of headphones with the output impedance of headphone amps

Sound quality is significantly improved when the numbers on impedance levels are interrelated to one another. That doesn’t mean that the numbers have to be the same! 

When headphones have impedance levels below 50 ohms, they are better suited to be connected to portable devices rather than a headphone amp. Though the amps might improve the sound quality in such a situation, the change is less noticeable.

  • Headphones with high impedance levels benefit much more from being connected to an amp because they require significant amplification to perform at full potential.

Two unpleasant outcomes will occur if you connect a low impedance load to a headphone amp with a high impedance output.

First, it will lead to an increase in distortion. Certainly, many people will connect the two intentionally and argue that it will improve sound quality and tone. However, when the two are connected unintentionally, it will produce a disturbance in sound quality.  

This mismatch can also result in power reduction.

The table below displays the power impedance of certain headphone amps:

Amp Make & ModelOutput Impedance (Ohms)
Chord Mojo0.075
JDS Labs Atom0.1
Fiio A30.2
Feliks Elise50
Bottlehead Crack120

Related Questions

Does phantom power harm headphones?

Phantom power is quite rare to destroy a pair of headphones. Most interfaces include separate headphone outputs independent of the channels that provide phantom power.

Can too much volume damage headphones?

The headphone speakers are made to handle the maximum output level of sound it can produce and are unlikely to damage the headphones. However, high volume levels are not advisable as they might damage your ears.

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