Aside from that, these portable and desktop headphones amps don’t have the features that a professional music studio requires in terms of routing and disseminating signals, and even monitoring sub-mixes. We will be looking at the most useful and effective studio headphone amplifiers.
Some marketers are savage and sell single-channel headphones that can cost more than the down payment for a house.
It is tempting to get carried away with how ridiculous that is, especially when you don’t have much information online about headphone amplifiers. This would only make this post more nonsense.
This article will explain why you don’t need to spend a lot, what you really want, and then give solid recommendations to help you get serious work done when recording and tracking music.
Three functions are available for headphone amplifiers:
- One set of great mixing headphones to power
- For a band, to distribute the signals to 4-8 sets of headphones
- This allows band members to create their own mixes
That’s it. Talk of fairies and unicorns enhancing audio through the magic of analog tubes, and all other nonsense should not be considered. The headphones you are using can be better than any amp.
There aren’t $20,000 headphones. That is why it’s amazing that amps are so expensive, and that some people still buy them. I am not exaggerating.
Before we get into the best current options, let’s look at what you need in order to make an informed purchase decision.
You should be aware that anyone who tells you that you need an amp similar to this one is a scammer.
https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.517.2_en.html#goog_1306454460 “C’mon, bro. Don’t you want your music to sound good? It’s literally only $17,000 new…”
The Orpheus may sound great depending on your level of gullibility. Let’s not forget about the legit amplifiers in the professional audio industry. They can be desktop single-channels or rackmounted multichannels.
What is a Headphone Amp?
Understanding how headphones work is key to understanding what a headphone amplifier does. Earphones can be described as tiny speakers. Headphones are larger than the supra-aural (on your ears) ones.
The larger the speakers, the more power they need to produce the same sound quality at a similar volume, especially at high volumes.
Although volume and size are not the only thing that matters, they do serve to illustrate the point. Headphone amplifiers supply enough voltage to power headphones . Even in professional studios, there are many headphones that don’t require it.
We still purchase multi-channel amps to route and distribute back tracks to many headphones at once. A single amp will not be able to power eight cans simultaneously.
People don’t realize that each speaker and every headphone require an amplifier. We’ve made the resistance of amps low enough so that smaller amps will now be able to drive your average set of headphones.
These amps are small enough to be built into our portable MP3 players, computer sound cards, and smart phones. They are almost invisible to us.
This means that an iPhone with a $10 set of earbuds may sound better than one with $300 studio headphones.
It’s not about getting more volume. It’s about getting better quality at a given volume.
We now have to answer the main question.
Why do I need the best studio headphone amplifier for my headphones?
Let’s take a look at the three goals mentioned above.
AS A MUSIC MIXER
For anyone who listens to headphones for pleasure, this is true. The headphones will no longer be the weakest link in the signal chain when you buy the best studio headphones.
It’s the amplifier that is trying to drive the new sensitive woofers nine times out of 10. The iPhone can’t produce enough power. It would drain the battery very quickly if it could.
This is why many portable and standalone headphone amplifiers include USB Digital to Analog Converters. Your DAC will be the weakest link in your chain. You don’t have to worry about this if you use a mixing board, top-audio interface with good DAC’s.
Professional headphones are still using older circuitry that has a high impedance. This is causing problems. The little amps used today must drop tons of voltage in order to power big-boy headphones. They don’t do this well.
This will be covered in greater detail later.
If the headphones don’t sound loud enough, or they distort at the peak volume, you will know that you’re not getting enough power. This is a sign that your amp is not powerful enough. To get the best audio quality from the headphones you already have, you will need a larger amp.
AS A STUDIO ENGINEER
Bring six musicians into the studio, and give them each a pair of headphones. The headphones are not very powerful and they don’t have a lot of sound. There are six of them sharing the same juice. Recording studios purchase multi-channel headphone amplifiers.
While we’re at it, let me add this. Before you buy a 4-channel headphone amplifier, think about this. A five-piece band can be accommodated by six channels.
You will have to work hard at splitting signals because you bought only four channels. You need to think ahead. There’s a good chance that you will eventually need five or six if you only have four.
One of the best features in these multi-channel amps, is the “More Me” option. We used to have to route sub-mixes to the amps, and keep track of them all. The drummer will ask for more snare.
The bass player will be more appealing to the guitarist. It’s exhausting to juggle all this. However, the More Me feature allows band members to tweak each other’s mixes without having to affect the others.
This is great because it allows us to delegate one of our jobs to the band members, who can do what they want and not have to pass it on. These amps are responsible for…
Impedance, Current, and Voltage
This is mostly related to powering one pair of high-quality headphones, but anyone should be aware of it, even if they are just searching for a multichannel amp.
We mentioned that woofer volume and size are not the only reasons why we need the best studio headphones amplifier. For example, insufficient power can limit your headphones’ ability to produce sufficient volume at the bass frequencies.
They may be capable of producing volume in the high and mid regions but they could start distorting as they are unable to achieve the fine resolution required with low power.
It is a matter of quality at all volumes, and not just in high volumes.
If you are interested, this article is by the Northwest Audio & Video Guy. Let me give you the “good enough” summary.
Resistance and therefore impedance are measured in Ohms (O). It can be compared to a water hose. The smaller the opening of the waterhose’s nozzle, the higher the impedance. To keep pumping out a given volume of water (current), you will need to provide more water pressure (voltage).
Because most consumer headphones have a 4-32 O. range, this is why tiny amps are possible to provide sufficient power. This is very low, and the current stays high even with a small output power. Professional mixing headphones may have impedance ratings up to 300 O or 600 O.
This means that you will need to apply more voltage to move electrons through wires.
This article will help you get technical but not provide the math conversions. An MP3 player portable might be capable of providing 15 mW power to earbuds with 15 O impedance. This means that you can easily crank the volume up to 110 dB.
You can do the same thing with studio headphones with 300 O resistance and only 0.7 mW power. This is the problem that amps solve.
CAN I OVERPOWER MY HEADPHONES AND DAMAGE THEM?
The short answer to your question is not. This does not apply to normal listening with headphones.
You’re either crazy or have already damaged your hearing if you exceed 100 dB, especially 110 dB, for more than one song. This is a safe level for all headphones.
You could damage your headphones if you accidentally push the volume knob to 11. Most headphone amplifiers won’t allow you to get loud enough. For a football stadium, don’t plug headphones into an amp.
This is also true for headphones that have an impedance mismatch between the amp’s output and the headphones. For best quality, the rule of thumb is the 10-to-1 ratio. This means that the headphones should have approximately ten times the impedance as the amp’s output jack. While you won’t cause any damage, it will affect the frequency response.
We can now look at hardware, after all the talky-talk has ended!
The Best Studio Headphone Amplifiers
There are many options, but not all of them are available. Some are difficult to find due to low production runs or discontinued products. Any older or rare options will send you on a 6-month goose-chase waiting for one to come on the used market. All of these are immediately available at trusted retailers.
Note: Every image and text link takes you to Amazon.com, where you can read additional reviews and find technical details listings and make your purchase.
If you are a mixer looking for the best quality in a single channel and you enjoy listening to it for pleasure, the options below will be of great help. Scroll down to see multi-channel options if you are a studio engineer responsible for recording and tracking.
Mixers can do double duty, especially when they are in the live area. To avoid having to reach up and adjust volume, or route through additional monitor controllers, I would prefer a single channel mixer instead of a multichannel.
Single-Channel Desktop Amps
These amps are ideal for music mixers or anyone who enjoys listening to music. If you have a recorder interface with headphones jacks, you may wonder if an amp is necessary.
It all depends on the quality of your interface. You’re likely to be fine as a hobbyist. If you have the money to purchase special mixing headphones, you will likely benefit from the quality gains that a dedicated amp offers.
Make sure that you buy something more expensive so that you don’t end up with a duplicate piece of gear.
SCHIIT MAGNI 3
The Schiit Magni 3 has a number of improvements over the previous models. It also features a discrete gain stage. This bad boy is the perfect choice for anyone looking to get into the amp market at an affordable price. I would not recommend anything less expensive or any other product in this price range.
The sleek, compact chassis and minimalistic front design are my favorite features. As with all serious headphone amplifiers, the headphone input is 1/4 inch. Stereo RCA jacks are available in almost all shopping centers and online.
You can now power your speakers from it using RCA outputs that have inline preamps. You will not hear any clicks or pops from the device when it is turned on. They also got rid of the custom jack that was used to connect to the power adapter.
This is an affordable option that won’t compromise on quality for those with limited budgets. Plug in your headphones, choose a volume, and you can rock and roll. If you’re serious and realistic, there are both desktop and portable options that can be cheaper. This is the baseline you should be using.
JDS LABS OBJECTIVE2+ DAC
DIY studio gear is a favorite of mine. These maniacs are as talented, if not more so than large corporations. They also find ways to lower prices than others. Do you remember the Northwest Audio & Video guy I linked above?
This JDS Labs Objective2+ DAC was his design and he open-sourced it. He made it four times as good as amps and gave it away for free if you are willing to hunt parts and solder it together without a chassis.
You can also do what most people do, and give the guy some bones in exchange for a pre-built model. It can take a standard AC adaptor, but it doesn’t come with one. So grab one while you’re at it and it will arrive with the amp. If you want, you can also put a 9-volt battery inside it to make it portable.
The power adaptor and stereo outputs are located on the front. It is designed for people who might drop it in a jacket pocket or backpack. This ensures that all knobs face up. It has a mini USB input on the back. This cable is included with the mini-USB-to-USB cable. You can use the input from your computer directly into the digital/analog converters. This is the second weakest link after an amp.
You can DIY DIY goodness without even having to do it yourself
This amp and DAC are solid headphones that will mix and sound great. This is the best option for professionals, before you move on to more expensive options. This one has fewer buttons, but it still offers the same quality.
GRACE DESIGNS M920
We are now in the big leagues. It’s no longer about amps. The Grace Design m920 is a complete monitoring system. It can handle a variety of input types including S/PDIF and AES.
The built-in DAC provides sample rate options as well as clocking to reduce jitter. The signal will be sent to the two front-facing headphone jacks or two additional sets of studio monitor outputs at the back. You can check the decibel monitor at the front. It displays 64 dB in the image above.
Cross-feed can be enabled in the outputs of the headphones to allow you to inject a little bit of each channel into another for more real-world monitoring. Another cool feature is that you can compare your mix with two reference monitors at once by pressing a button on this remote control. That’s awesome. You can also drop to mono, which is a classic trick for mixing.
Although you’ll have to pay a price for this level of audio quality and work flow, this is one of those “buying-for-life” situations. After this, you won’t need to upgrade. The same applies to the next option below.
Superior Monitoring & Amplification…
BENCHMARK DXDAC2 DAC2
Another full-featured monitoring control system is the Benchmark DX. All of the features listed above can be expected, but there are some differences in inputs or outputs. You can use this beauty with 5 digital inputs. There are two USB, two optical and two coaxial inputs (for televisions or consumer stereo systems). If you don’t require the DAC, there are RCA inputs available for analog.
Your clock allows you to reduce jitter, cross-feed, change inputs and outputs for reference, and even change polarity if there are phase issues from where you are sitting. The best thing about high-end amps are the fact that you can control them all with your remote. It’s easy to extend or lean forward without even having to bend your arm. It’s all the little things.
You’re buying for your life, just like the Grace m920. It’s worth it if you have the budget. One is all you’ll ever need.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON Buy for Life…
Multi-Channel Rackmount Amps
All of these rackmounted items will be obvious. This is the standard format for gear this size and type, as you probably know from this section. This is so that you can place it in the recording area instead of the control. The band can access it to adjust the volume and sub-mixes.
The PreSonus HTML4 is included at the beginning of this section because PreSonus does not make poor gear, and it needs one recommendation. This is the best option if you have a limited budget but still need to get headphones that will boost the sound quality for a quartet.
You can always save a little more and get something with 6 channels, but this piece does the job.
This game is not about improving quality. This is a very simple setup. With TRS cables, you can only input one source to the back. This signal can be output to monitors you can mute as well. It’s about transmitting the signal to four headphones with separate volume controls. You can also switch to mono and mix in the monitors.
Don’t get me wrong. They aren’t great relative to other units on the list, but they are far superior to those on the list. You get four amps that are twice as powerful as single-channel units that cost twice as much. PreSonus doesn’t play around.
Because they move so many units, they can offer deeper price breaks than other companies. If you are in a “Give us something now” situation, this is what you want.
Below are multi-channel options that include six channels plus additional bells and whistles.
This one is for you if your budget is tight
Disclaimer: I have not used the Rane, but it was on my shortlist when I was looking for an amp. It’s trustworthiness is still impressive to me. You can add jumpers to this beast if you are comfortable taking off the top. Rane will allow you to do this and provide instructions.
My favorite thing about this system is the fact that there are six outputs on the front. However, each channel also has an output on the back. This can be used to power up to 12 sets of headphones or output to monitors. Each pair of headphones will have one volume control, even if they are 12 in number. It’s quite sweet.
It also has the More Me function, which is the best part. This is why each headphones has their own inputs. Each musician can adjust the volume of the headphones to match their voice or instruments. This is extremely useful and time-saving.
This is why I didn’t purchase the Rane. PreSonus HP60 offers all the same features as the Rane but is a little cheaper. I feel more at home with PreSonus. This is no knock on Rane. Although it may produce higher quality audio, for recording and tracking purposes that was not as important as having a lot of channels I trusted.
It has the More me features I mentioned above, so that musicians can rest easy knowing that I am not constantly tuning their volume for them. There is also an Talkback function.
This allows you to run a mic cable from the control room into your live room, and then a foot pedal into the HP60. If you want to talk to the band, you can use their microphones to communicate with them. Then you can hit your foot pedal to comfortably speak from wherever you are. They will hear you through the headphones.
You can mutes, drop to mono, switch between input sources (to compare mixtures), or blend them. You could also route a click track over the backing track, or any other clever setups. It all comes down to what gives the best performance (and doesn’t drive you crazy)!
Tip: To expand your reach, you can daisy-chain two HP60’s or one of the HP4’s.
You can trust our reliable and affordable service…
The HeadAmp6 is a must-see. Let me summarize it so I don’t get too long. While the HeadAmp6 has all the same features as other multi-channel headphone amplifiers, it also adds one additional feature. You can also adjust each channel individually with Talkback, More Me submixing, Jumping up to 12 outputs, and many other features.
Imagine the situation where the bassist needs more volume to hear himself clearly (it’s not mixed!). More volume isn’t helping. He or she can walk over to the amp to adjust their inputs to increase bass or to amplify some treble. Each channel also has volume meters on the front.
The balance knobs are also something I like. You may not all want the same volume on the master volume. This allows you to adjust the volume of your mic or instrument while also removing or adding more.
It’s also relatively affordable. You won’t be blown away by the hidden features of your headphones. You can be more comfortable and take it out of your way in the live recording studio.
These are the best studio headphone amplifiers
A dedicated headphone amplifier will be made with higher quality electronic components. It will also provide more power for high-impedance studio headsets. This directly results in better audio reproduction at all volumes, not just loud ones.
Multi-channel amplifiers can drive multiple sets of headphones simultaneously, including eight or more, while also providing sub-mixing capabilities. Professionals who need to use either type of studio headphone amplifier should be aware of and concerned about it.