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Do I need an amplifier for my headphones?

ReviewEdward KiledjianComment

Most of us listen to music while on the go through headphones and some type of portable music player (smartphone, music player, etc). In order to keep component costs low and extent battery life, most of these devices have very small built-in underpowered amplifiers. These small mediocre amps are acceptable when using the cheap $1 manufacturer provided headphones but the minute you step up to something a little more sophisticated, you

  • start losing clarify
  • degraded audio definition and detail
  • higher noise
  • poor channel separation

Just a couple of years ago, headphone amps where the exclusive domain of professionals and demanding audiophiles. They were big and expensive. Times have changed and customers can now find them in all shapes, sizes and price-points.

The first time you listen to your music collection through good headphones powered by a decent headphone amp, you will likely be blown away. If your source is high quality, you will likely hear notes and instruments you had never noticed before. Subtle nuances become clear and most people start to enjoy their collection that much more.


Headphone amplifiers comes in 3 categories: Portable, desktop and full size. Since this is a business blog and most of you will use their amp while on the move, I will stick to the portable type.

Portable amplifiers are designed to be small and have been optimized for use will mobile audio sources (such as iphones, ipads, laptops, android devices, etc). The smallest ones look like an ipod shuffle while larger ones are the size of a large breath mint canister.


Without becoming an audio expert, there are a some important technical characteristics you should consider.

Total Harmonic Distortion is overall sound distortion and you should look for a rating of 1% or less at full power (the lower the number the better of course).

Signal to Noise Ratio – this measures the amount of noise output from the amplifier compared to the original source. Measures in decibels, look for a large ratio. The larger the better.

Impedance will provide the output impedance of the headphone the amp will support. Make sure that the impedance of the headphone you use is supported by the amp you are considering to buy.


Like all electronics, you can spend a little or a lot. There is no use spending $300 on an amp if you are using $100 headphones. For most "regular use" headphones, you should be able to find a great amp for between $20-100.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will review some of the ones I have tested.