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Why are headphone amplifiers still so important to audiophiles?

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#1
The audiophile community has stopped parroting these myths like "FLAC sounds better than MP3 (320kb/s) and "expensive cables will improve audio quality" but for some reason we are still spreading the misinformation that one must buy a headphone amp otherwise your shiny new headphone will sound like crap.

There's no way to prove with measurements that amp will sound better than listening straight out of a decent laptop. The vast majority of the audiophile community nowadays listen to modern pop and hiphop music which are compressed to death. There's no reason to tell them to buy an aditional $100-200 amp when most laptops and PC's will drive the vast majority of headphones just fine. I have done blind A/B tests with $50, 100, 200, 500 and $1000 amps and I couldn't tell them apart from my $400 dollar Windows laptop and my Macbook Air.

The queston is, when will people in the audiophile community stop putting so much stock in amps when there's no scientific way to measure their usefulness outside of pure volume?
 
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#2
I think It really depends on the headphone you try. For example a very low resistance headphone, low sensitivity (and very clean) like dan clark aeon rt flow, really doens’t work on my macbook pro let alone my ipad pro. But I agree you really don’t need an expensive hpa. On this site you can find a lot very powerfull and clean, low priced top hpa’s. I really liked my Arcam rhead, not expensive and just made a step up by buying the rme adi2. More expensive but worth every penny due to the nice dac and a lot of functions. And super clean!
 
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#4
Sometimes it's only convenience. In my office I hooked up 3 PCs to an Aune X1. I can switch them as I need and control the volume for speakers and headphones...
 
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#5
I'm generally always in favour of using the smallest amount of equipment possible, so I double-checked what my easy-to-drive E-Mu Teaks sounded like straight out of the headphone jack compared to the Element II. The laptop could drive them ok, but they sounded way brighter and more fatiguing compared to the amp. So, not a useful blind test, but a very noticeably difference.

When I tried this previously with a Dragonfly Cobalt and a Hidizs S8 (with different headphones/IEMs) I had to really strain to convince myself there was a difference. So maybe it just depends more on specific combinations of equipment. Still, a good question to ask.
 

H-713

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#6
Lots of laptops have miserably crappy headphone amps. I can tell the difference between a "reference" headphone amplifier and the headphone amp in my Dell Latitude laptop (I can't remember them model number, it's a secondary use machine) in a blind test 10 times out of 10 with low impedance headphones. It's not noise- I suspect that it's a combination of distortion and high output impedance. I've owned several Macbooks, most of which had pretty noisy headphone outputs.

There is also certainly a way to measure their scientific usefulness besides additional power. Output impedance, distortion and noise all matter and can have a noticeable difference. Blind A/B tests (where the listeners actually know what to listen for) are also scientifically valid, though they aren't completely immune to confirmation bias if the listeners are convinced that everything sounds the same.

Some music is recorded better than others, but that's not a reason to dismiss the use of well-designed equipment. You may not be able to tell a difference in a blind test, but that doesn't mean other people can't. I don't advocate for expensive headphone amps (unless you want to play with tubes, which I totally understand).

There's also the desire to have an analog volume control (that is to say, a pot) and proper connectors. Creature comforts, sure, but I'd totally pay $100 for them.
 
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Beershaun

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#7
Read some of the headphone amp reviews on this site. A lot has to do with headphone impedance and sensitivity. Which vary widely.
 

preload

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#8
but for some reason we are still spreading the misinformation that one must buy a headphone amp otherwise your shiny new headphone will sound like crap.
The output impedance of the amp matters. High output impedance can result in a significant deviation in frequency response because the impedance of the headphone results in a voltage divider circuit.
In addition, output current capability also matters, particularly with low impedance headphones or headphones with low sensitivity. Otherwise you won't be able achieve reasonable listening levels without distortion. Distortion is definitely audible.

There's no way to prove with measurements that amp will sound better than listening straight out of a decent laptop.
Really? So if I use measurements to show that the laptop output will result in 20% THD when driving low z headphones, that's not proof enough for you?

The vast majority of the audiophile community nowadays listen to modern pop and hiphop music which are compressed to death.
That's mighty presumptuous of you. Perhaps you can share how you were able to determine the music preferences of this "audiophile community?" For starters, I know of 0 people who match your description.

There's no reason to tell them to buy an aditional $100-200 amp when most laptops and PC's will drive the vast majority of headphones just fine.
How did you come to this conclusion about "most laptops" and "vast majority of headphones?" Have you measured a representative sample?

I have done blind A/B tests with $50, 100, 200, 500 and $1000 amps and I couldn't tell them apart from my $400 dollar Windows laptop and my Macbook Air.
Without specifics of your methods and test equipment, this anecdotal report of yours doesn't carry a whole lot of weight.

The queston is, when will people in the audiophile community stop putting so much stock in amps when there's no scientific way to measure their usefulness outside of pure volume?
I'm not so sure that the 1/8" output jack of laptops and motherboard sound cards are as state of the art as you think they are.
 
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solderdude

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#9
for some reason we are still spreading the misinformation that one must buy a headphone amp otherwise your shiny new headphone will sound like crap.
That is not the consensus at ASR.

There's no way to prove with measurements that amp will sound better than listening straight out of a decent laptop
Yes, very much so.
maximum output voltage, output resistance, distortion, frequency range, S/N ratio, current limits combined with headphone impedance, voltage efficiency, and required minimal SPL (in the lows which is not Phon) tell us that while a lot of headphones play nice at sensible levels (so do phones) there is a clear limit.

I have done blind A/B tests with $50, 100, 200, 500 and $1000 amps and I couldn't tell them apart from my $400 dollar Windows laptop and my Macbook Air.
You forgot to tell which headphone you used for this AB and what listening levels were used.
This is crucial information.
I am quite certain you did not use HE6, HE560, K1000, DT880/600 and listened at impressive levels but more likely some low impedance and efficient headphones.
 
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#10
It's a combination of a lot of things, convenience(just having a physical way to change volume and switch between inputs and outputs matters a lot to me), power, output impedance, distortion. My particular phone and laptop sound generally fine other than barely having enough juice even for IEMs, I doubt most people would complain. My PC sounded worse.

But if someone thinks that DAC/amps in general consumer devices are a solved problem, I invite them to come over and listen to any headphones through the 3.5mm output of my monitor with audio coming via the displayport connection. It doesn't just sound "slightly" worse, it sounds completely wrong. I had to use it for a while and while it was technically working(sound comes out and you can tell words apart) it basically sounded like a cheap portable radio. I have no idea how they managed to screw this up so hard, and it's a somewhat expensive "gaming" monitor.
 

devopsprodude

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#13
People also need to remember that as soon as you need a DAC, you need an amp (whether it's integrated with the DAC or separate). And there are very few great integrated units.
 

Robin L

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#14
Wait, so we should all just plug our headphones directly into our laptop and be in audio bliss? Why does this site spend so much energy reviewing and measuring headphone amps then?
I'm close to complete audio bliss plugging my AKG K371 'phones into almost anything. However, my Drop 6XX headphones need eq and more power. So a proper headphone amp is necessary to realize the full potential of the 6XX's, which sound a little better than the K371s. Mind you, the difference isn't all that great. But being cursed as an audiophile means one is constantly chasing after diminishing returns.
 

weasels

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#15
People also need to remember that as soon as you need a DAC, you need an amp (whether it's integrated with the DAC or separate). And there are very few great integrated units.
I'd like to see measurements that compare laptop DAC vs. a budget DAC like a Topping D10, then a laptop headphone amp vs. a budget amp like a Schiit magni.

My guess is that there is a bigger difference in performance between the amps than the DACs.
 
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#18
It's a matter of matching. High impedance = voltage needed, low impedance = current, efficiency (how many dB / mW) matters too. There are hard to drive phones with low impedance too (looking at you, K 701...).

Output impedance matters too, some multi-driver BA can acquire strange colorations even with slightly higher output impedance, an otherwise easy to drive HD 599 becomes a boombox connected to the headphone out of some integrated amplifiers.

If it comes to tubes or other intentionally sounded stuff it's rather a matter of taste. If you like it, it's good for you.

What I don't get is the concept of "scalability". If my headphone plays well with a € 100 amp why should I bother? I suppose, the placebo effect is an important factor sometimes.
 
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#19
I think in general people give an outsized importance to amps and DACs.

Harder to drive headphones do need specs from the source that you may not find on smartphones or laptops, but for easy to drive headphones the quality of most sources is 'good enough'.

I think on this website we fetishize engineering quality to a level well beyond the point where it really matters practically speaking. But that's fine, its a hobby and it doesn't have to be entirely utilitarian in that regard.
 
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#20
I have an X570 AORUS ELITE motherboard, and I have to admit, the headphone out sounds pretty good with headphones, and line-out pretty good with my amp and speakers. After a brief test using TH-900 and comparing to a Bifrost Multibit/Bottlehead Mainline, I'm hard pressed to tell the difference. Certainly not with low volume background music.

Anyone else have a higher end MB and are using the built in headphone out? Anyone done any serious comparisons between a good MB headphone out and decent Head-Fi type external equipment? Maybe even measurements? I always head about how much better external DACs and Amps are, but I'm starting to wonder if the MB manufacturers have caught up enough.

Note, I'm not talking about laptops here; I'm talking about a decent motherboard that the manufacture put a little effort into the audio.
 
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