Author Topic: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)  (Read 2410 times)

mgriffin

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Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« on: January 05, 2014, 09:59:38 AM »
The headphone topic has been a popular one, and many times while reading it I've wanted to create a related topic to discuss headphone amplifiers.

I think in many cases, the audiophile community tells prospective enthusiasts that they have to spend huge amounts of money, or don't even bother. This probably leads many people to distrust the advice they receive. Well, in the case of headphone amplifiers, I hope people won't ignore the advice that headphone listening can be significantly enhanced with the use of a dedicated headphone amplifier, as well as the use of a decent DAC (digital audio converter) if you're listening to music output from a computer.

We can get into the discussion of some higher-end headphone amps, but for now I want to discuss the "entry level" headphone amplifiers, the kind that might be purchased by someone who is not completely convinced they will change the way a given set of headphones sound.

Lately, there are some good, high-output headphone amps for not too much money. My latest is the Aune T1, which is a USB DAC as well as an amp, and is really amazing quality for under $200.



Schiit (see http://www.schiit.com ) makes some cheaper models which won't quite stack up to their Lyr or Mjolnir, but at least output sufficient power that even a high impedance headphone will perform pretty well. The new Magni model us just $99!



Also if you have any DIY abilities, you can build one of your own. I have a kit for an O2 (Objective2) headphone amp which has been sitting on my shelf... haven't found the time to build it yet. You can buy them pre-built for not much more than the price of the kit (see http://www.jdslabs.com/products/35/objective2-headphone-amplifier/ ) and the sound quality is supposed to be especially good for the money.

Kit version:



Assembled:



I'm certain some people will look down on the suggestion that headphone amps under $200 could be adequate, but my purpose is not to suggest these are all the amplifier a headphone listener would ever want. This is just to show a few ways it's possible to try outboard headphone amplification for $100-$200, and gain a noticeable improvement in sound quality. I think people are much more likely to try something if they can do it cheaply, with less risk. Personally, I think it's unlikely a serious headphone listener would try one of these amps and fail to agree the difference was a great improvement over using the headphone output of their computer or iPod or stereo receiver. Once the listener is convinced, maybe they will want to step up to a mid-level or high-level amplifier. There are certainly many of those to choose from.

In my own listening experience, you can get excellent sound quality from an amp in the $500-600 range, and unless you're using very exotic headphones indeed, you might not need (or notice improvement from) a headphone amp more expensive than that. I have yet to hear a headphone amp over $1000 that convinced me it was better, though there are plenty of high-end amps I've never heard. I do understand that many people listening to planar or electrostatic headphones especially emphasize the importance of the amplifier, even more than with normal high-impedence headphones.
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petekelly

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2014, 10:20:38 AM »
Good topic Mike.
I use this wee beastie - small but actually rather good :
http://www.necosoundlab.com/portable_V3/
(I actually use the older V2 model, with the upgrade to the AD8610 op amps)

That Aune looks boss too Mike, I've used an Aune minidac for years - good sound and rock solid reliability.

Beware audiophiles telling you what you should be hearing. It's such a partisan area and one not necessarily founded on purely technical levels either...

mgriffin

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2014, 10:37:47 AM »
Thanks, Pete. I hadn't see the Neco V2/V3 before, so that's interesting.

I don't object to people saying that they find value in much higher-priced components, but I really have a problem with people trying to shut down or disparage discussion of cheaper options. Everyone's budget is different, and to my mind the most important segment in audiophile component recommendations is at the entry level. Audiophile die-hards with huge budgets don't need any convincing... but people who are curious about higher quality sound need good advice about things they can try that will help them without too much cost or risk.

Of course then, once the listener is educated and hooked, they might drift up toward the more costly options.
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Ekstasis

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2014, 11:56:32 AM »
yes headphone amp...is often a very very underrated part of the chain... people do not like to spend money on it..but it is really useless to spend money on headphones if you do not have the amp to support it.

There was some years ago I did spend time on the head fi forum, it is a big ocean.. off stuff there..and subjective euphorias . After my ressearch when I was there last time I did go with a GoVibe V7 amp it made a huge improvement on my headphones.

I know use the Antelope Eclipse and also Dangerous audio source and still the Go Vibe V7.
However I am really interested in the GoVibe Porta Tube+ Dac  (or regular version)
To have as a portable amp when I am not at home or at work.





Would love to hear how they compare with the amps that Mike is talking about, I am not sure cause I am not updated...

I I am also interested in the SPL Phonitor 2amp, while I think i Have good sound in my Antelope Eclipse headphone amp I would like to try the Phonitor 2 to get a new reference, maybe it will make big difference, you never know with amps..they can really work like magic.. and make them sound like totally new headphones

I still need to see how the reivews are for the Phonitor two, what the sonic improvements are, or if it just new functions, in that case I prefer the first Phonitor version cause it looks a lot more sexy (and will probably drop in price more soon)


APK

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2014, 01:14:28 PM »
And what output are you feeding into these headphone amps?
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Ekstasis

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #5 on: January 05, 2014, 01:35:51 PM »
And what output are you feeding into these headphone amps?

I do not have a good portable music player now... the sound chip in my galaxy note is a crap Yamaha chip, but I aim to buy a new phone in the next 3 months perhaps, I am waiting for the new LG or Samsung phone S5 or LG 3. I hope they will have better chip.   I have also been thinking about Sansa Clip+ , it is very cheap and very small and is supposed to sound good.

Seren

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2014, 02:04:46 AM »
I was advised by a friend to get one of the beresford headphone amps when I was thinking of getting one - but I know I take the risk of being accused of being Mr Beresford himself by posting this.... ;)

mgriffin

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2014, 08:56:40 AM »
One thing a few people have mentioned in passing, but which hasn't been stated explicitly, is that some studio devices, such as mixing boards especially, but also some DA converters, often have very good headphone preamps built in.

My first experience with a good, strong headphone amp, which really "woke up" my high impedance Sennheiser HD580s, was a Yamaha mixer. A big part of the benefit of a headphone amp is simply the output of more power than a usual, cheap built-in headphone jack. That gets you most of the way toward the benefit of a stand-alone headphone amplifier. Generally the circuits in the headphone jack in a computer or iPod, for example, is just a few pennies worth of electronics.

 
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Julio Di Benedetto

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #8 on: January 06, 2014, 12:30:55 PM »
One thing a few people have mentioned in passing, but which hasn't been stated explicitly, is that some studio devices, such as mixing boards especially, but also some DA converters, often have very good headphone preamps built in.



Both my mixer the speck x sum and Metric Halo uln2 daw interface have very good headphone amps.....the detail that comes through both theses units are stellar.  Better than a dedicated headphone amp, probably not but they get the job done.




hdibrell

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #9 on: January 06, 2014, 02:29:41 PM »
This is a really interesting topic. I am one of those Mike mentioned who knew absolutely nothing about this subject before reading this. I have always noticed how much better headphones sounded through a good mixer's headphone jack. I listen mostly through the headphone jack on my ProTools Mbox tower. Is something like this any good at all? Granted, I do need to buy a much better pair of headphones than I am now using.
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mgriffin

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #10 on: January 07, 2014, 09:50:54 AM »
Like I said, the biggest advantage of using a separate headphone amplifier is the hotter, louder signal. If you have a device with a good built-in headphone amp, so much the better.

To me, though, the test is not whether the headphone amp is "loud enough" -- just the ability to drive your headphones to the volume you want to listen to. If you're listening to an iPod with the volume turned all the way up to the max, it'll be pretty loud with most headphones... but it's still a cheap, 3-cent circuit, and you're straining it to the limit of its capabilities to create that volume.

A more powerful, more capable circuit will create the same volume with less strain and greater fidelity. My Yamaha mixer (and for that matter, my little old Mackie 1202) create good, loud volume through the headphone jack,  but still don't sound as good as one of my stand-alone headphone amps. With the Aune T1 for example, there's a lot more "punch" and generally a more vivid, lively and involving sound.

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APK

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #11 on: January 07, 2014, 10:38:15 AM »
I was watching a video on one of the portable amps designed for use with mobile devices, the guy said on an Apple, rather than feeding the headphone Out into it, you can get a connector that uses the proprietary apple socket to feed the amp and that this bypasses the not so good amp in the Apple so you start with a cleaner signal.

Also interesting is the crossfeed option on more expensive units (Phonitor) which feeds some of the left and right signal into each other to create a more speaker-like emulation. I'm guessing this is a major part of speaker emulation software you can get to make your headphone listening more like your monitor listening.
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mgriffin

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #12 on: January 07, 2014, 11:48:22 AM »
Audiophiles who use their iPods for portable playback use one of these:

http://store.apple.com/us/product/MD821ZM/A/lightning-to-usb-camera-adapter?fnode=3a



As you say, it allows you to sidestep the crappy built-in headphone preamp, and output a digital signal via USB to an outboard DAC/amp.
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LNerell

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #13 on: January 07, 2014, 06:38:30 PM »
I was watching a video on one of the portable amps designed for use with mobile devices, the guy said on an Apple, rather than feeding the headphone Out into it, you can get a connector that uses the proprietary apple socket to feed the amp and that this bypasses the not so good amp in the Apple so you start with a cleaner signal.


That's what I do. If I want to listen to some music at night while falling asleep I plug my old ipod classic into one of those base chargers and take the out of that into this:


Not a dedicated headphone amp but an old B & O Beomaster 6000 stereo. Sounds pretty well for low level listening and looks cool too.  8)
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Seren

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #14 on: September 12, 2014, 12:50:02 AM »
Finally got a Beresford Bushmaster DAC/headphone amp via ebay



and Profigold Medical grade optical Toslink cable



On first play with my Grado headphones I could tell there was a difference, and like the first time I upgraded cables I recongised I would need to take some time to get used to the difference.

Via the hi-fi though - stunning difference straight away - even Glenys, who is not really into 'Hi-fi', could hear it. The sounds are clearer without being clinical - I can hear subtle variations in what had previously been 'simple' sounds, such as a voice or acoustic guitar. The rasp of a cello was more tangible.

I played The Martian Chronicles and could hear details that previously i could only hear on the headphones.

I was bouncing around to all sorts of tracks and am really looking forward to doing some proper listening......

Ekstasis

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #15 on: September 12, 2014, 03:11:15 AM »
what is the price for it ?

I am in the process of buying a new budget headphone amp/dac.

My result of my reserach did lead to JDS o2/odac combo.
epiphany-acoustics have the exact same internal design with a different aesthetic
for EU users.


Ekstasis

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #17 on: September 12, 2014, 01:14:41 PM »
on ebay - 92 inc P+P.

Cable 21.60 :
http://www.tvcables.co.uk/cgi-bin/tvcables/profigold-oxya5601.html


Nice Price...Wonder how it compare with the JDS... which seem to get more praise on head fi.

Seren

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #18 on: September 14, 2014, 11:38:44 AM »
I've no idea how it compares - but it has made a huge difference to my music listening and I am trying to work out how to connect my roland VS2480 to it to listen to my recording as I do it.....

jdh

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Re: Headphone amplifiers (and DACs for headphone listening)
« Reply #19 on: September 21, 2014, 06:18:20 PM »
In the below $200 mark for portable use,I would look to the JDS C5.Neutral,digital volume control,fast shipping and service.Fiio make some interesting budget amplifiers,warmer sounding,less expensive but not for me.For the ultimate portable use,look at the Headamp Pico Slim.I have both the C5 and Pico,wonderful with my Ipods.Forget about listening through any device using the headphone out-Ipods,stereos or consoles.Using an amp will help greatly to drive headphones of all types.Now,I recently heard the AK 240,at $2500 expensive but worth it.Without a doubt,the best device I have ever heard.