How to choose a headphone amplifier!

Updated: November 2020

How to choose a headphone amplifier

An introduction to headphone amplifiers

If you are new to the audiophile hobby you have probably seen a number of pictures where people show off their fancy stacks of equipment hooked up to their headphones. You have also probably read numerous threads on Head-fi proclaiming that a new headphone amplifier has taken the authors sound to a whole new level. 

Those who have been around for a while are no doubt be aware of the debate that has raged for years about how necessary this piece of equipment is. It’s a controversial subject as to whether some amps offer benefits over others and especially about what a buyer is trying to achieve when buying a new amplifier.

Whatever side of the fence you fall on I would like to take some time to talk to you about Amps. About what their purpose is and how to choose one that will be appropriate for use with your headphones and hifi equipment.  

Do I need a headphone amplifier?

Well here is something most people don’t know, it’s very likely you already have one!

Any Ipod, smartphone or portable music player has an amplifier built in. When people talk about buying headphone amplifiers they are actually referring to an external device that can bypass your devices internal amp section and hopefully improve the performance.

The way you determine whether you will need an external stand alone unit is the reality to whether or not you will see an improvement in sound quality over that standard inbuilt amp. 

Essentially you want to provide your headphones or earphones with sufficient power so as not to sound distorted or muddy.  This necessity is usually determined by looking at the headphones impedance. Additionally if your internal amp section is known for adding coloration then you might want to replace it with something more transparent.

headphone impedance explained

Headphone impedance figures are usually provided on the packaging or in the user manual for your headphones.  There should also be a corresponding figure for an amplifier as well and both these figures are listed in a value of ohm’s ( Ω).  For a number of reasons the best way to find a pairing based on impedance is to pair a headphone that has at least 10 times the Ω value of the amplifier being used.  For example a 300ohm headphone would pair well with a 30ohm Amplifier.

Is headphone sensitivity important?

The second important factor is that of the sensitivity this is one of the easiest ways to determine if your headphones or earphones will benefit from amping.  Sensitivity ratings are commonly shown as DB (Decibels) levels per1mw (Milliwat) of power supplied.   Typically anything over 100DB at 1mw will be driven sufficiently to ample volume without the need for an external amplifier.  Some headphones however will need additional power to reach this 100DB figure and may require more MW to be passed through.

Other benefits of headphone amplifiers

Sure there is.   Some amps come with various different connectors that may be of particular use to oneself.  Another benefit many people like is the fact that an amplifier can often provide a physical volume control that will allow you to make very precise adjustments to volume.  S

Similarly some amplifiers offer features that allow you to physically alter the sound.  One feature I am very fond of on some of my amplifiers is the built in bass boost.  This can be especially helpful when using say a fairly neutral set of headphones listening to rock, instead of changing my headphones to listen to something like rap or electronic I can just flick the bass boost on to feel a bit more in the low end.

What headphone amplifier should I buy?

Well provided you have the necessity then it really comes down to personal preference but always choose the headphones first and then the amplifier.  The headphones will make the biggest difference in listening experience the amplifier should be thought of as an icing on a cake. 

You can spend thousands on a desktop setup or go for something like the Objective 2 (02), which is a great place to start.  You could go portable as well and find something that meets your requirements for on the go listening or in a transportable rig.  Do your research and listen to what others say but when possible always try and audition the gear yourself in person.

Are DAC’s and DAP’s an alternative?

In recent years there has been a monumental shift toward audiophiles using integrated DAC and Amplifier units. Previously, they purchased just an external amplifier and each additional component as required. If you feel that your DAC might be lacking then you can save some money and space by buying an all in one integrated solution. We have a list of the best DAC’s for high res audio on this site to help you should you wish to go down this route.

Another option that has grown in popularity is the DAP (Digital Audio Player). These are an all in one solution that are basically an iPods on steroids. These player support a wide range of high resolution file types as well as having higher than standard internal components than you would find on a smartphone. Again we have a list of the best high resolution audio players to help you make a purchase.


Buying a new amplifier for your headphones can be a bit of a daunting task. There are a lot of options on the market some are good but far often than not others are bad. The other frustrating thing is to try and find an amplifier that fits you budget. That is not easy. You definitely want the best bang for your buck so we created this list of the best headphone amps to make your life a little easier.





Audiophile On
Audiophile On is a website dedicated to high-end audio products. With over 15 years as a reviewer, all articles are hand-written by one person to allow the comparison of products. Headphones, earphones, speakers, amplifiers, or DAC's we cover here.

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