A headphone amplifier and an audio interface are fundamentally different pieces of audio equipment, but they also share certain function-related similarities. This is why you might wonder whether you actually need both devices for your home studio. Do you still need to get a dedicated headphone amp if you already have an audio interface?
You don’t need a headphone amp if you have an audio interface. Generally, an interface is fine by itself as most models come with at least one headphone jack and volume control for it. But if your interface has low ohms and doesn’t provide enough gain, then getting a headamp is a good idea.
This article will discuss how headphone amps work, whether they are necessary devices to connect to your audio interface, and how and when having both pieces of equipment would benefit you. So read on if you are having trouble deciding whether to get a headamp or not.
What Does a Headphone Amp Do, and Is It Essential?
A headphone amp is a control device that makes an audio signal loud enough for you to listen to and enjoy your headphones.
It takes a line-level signal from an audio interface or DAC (digital-to-analog converter), amplifies it, then feeds it to a headphone output. However, a headphone is not essential if you already have an audio interface.
Whether or not you need to get one may depend on a few factors.
Headamps come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Their price points also span a wide range, from less than $20 to a few hundred dollars.
The more expensive ones expectedly boast circuits and electrical components that are better-designed and capable of powering quieter and less sensitive headphones, which are also called high-impedance headphones.
Why a Headphone Amp Is Not Essential for an Audio Interface
As a rule, every device with a headphone jack also has a built-in headphone amp, and audio interfaces have at least one headphone jack. That means interfaces can do without a separate or a dedicated headamp.
The DAC and headamp are typically found in the same chip in laptops or mobile phones, but in most audio interfaces, the headamp will be in a dedicated opamp chip. These opamp chips vary in terms of cost and capacity.
It’s also worth noting that most audio interfaces today come with good headphone output and can drive sufficiently loud sound. Also, most headphones or earphones are highly efficient by themselves and can work well with audio devices without needing an amplifier.
A headphone amp also won’t be necessary when using a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which already have a built-in headphone amp inside. It prevents an external headphone amp from adding any significant audio benefit.
When Do You Need a Headphone Amplifier?
Using a dedicated headphone amplifier becomes necessary if the headphone output of your interface does not drive sufficient sound pressure level or SPL.
You can connect a headphone amp to a line-out signal instead of your headphone output for best results, preventing double amping.
Another reason why you may want to use a separate headamp is to achieve better audio quality. If your interface gives you a noisy headphone output or has distortion noise headphone output when you turn up the volume, getting an external headphone amp can help.
However, in this instance, you should check the source of the distortion or the noise and make sure it’s not inherent in your audio interface. If getting a headphone amp doesn’t solve the problem and the sound you’re getting is still not good enough, you might want a better audio interface.
You can also benefit from a dedicated headamp, especially high-quality ones if you use high-impedance headphones. Of course, you can just change headphones.
For more information, check out whether you need a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) with an amp.
Benefits of Using a Headphone Amp With Your Interface
Suppose you are a true-blue audiophile or a musician and want a well-equipped home studio or high-quality listening setup. In that case, you will surely benefit from getting a headphone amp. This is especially true if budget is not an issue and you can afford to splurge on non-basic audio equipment.
A headphone amp, after all, is not considered a priority if you are just starting and only have enough for a bare-bones setup. Instead, it is one of those devices you buy to upgrade your system.
For one, adding a headphone amp can provide an audibly significant improvement in the clarity, dynamics, and detail of the sound you are listening to.
Moreover, having a high-powered external headamp connecting to your audio interface will surely drive power-hungry headphones. Upgrading to a high-end external headphone amp also helps if your headphones can out-resolve the signal that the built-in headphone amp in your audio interface provides.
Using a headphone amp also allows the distribution of amplified and extremely high-quality audio signals from your audio interface to multiple headphone listeners in your home studio. It improves the audio output of headphones that are either high-impedance or low-impedance.
Headphones and Impedance
Every headphone has an impedance rating, which is expressed in ohms.
Impedance refers to the resistance your headphones present to the electric current that is transmitted by the amplifier, which can range from 8 to 600 ohms, depending on the quality and model of your headphone.
An impedance of 20 to 40 ohms is considered decent enough for casual listeners, while audiophiles prefer an impedance of at least 64 ohms. High-impedance headphones usually need more voltage to present you with sound at a solid listening level.
So to get this additional voltage, they need a headphone amp.
On the other hand, a very low impedance level lowers the damping factor between your headphones and your interface, requiring more current. As such, even if low-impedance headphones are already loud enough, using a headphone amp may still significantly improve their sound quality.
Can You Do Without an Interface if You Have a Headphone Amp?
What if the question were reversed? Can you use a headphone amp without an audio interface?
You can use a headphone amp instead of an audio interface if you love listening to music instead of making it. The former would be more ideal in a listening setup that is centered around top-quality headphones.
Also, if you just need a box to drive amplified sound to your headphones and nothing else, it wouldn’t make sense to spend on an interface. An interface, after all, generally costs more. Instead, spend your money on a good-quality headphone amp or a good DAC/amp combo equipment.
However, suppose you make your own music and are just starting to set up a studio at home. In that case, you should prioritize the equipment that allows you to create music with it. In this situation, go for an audio interface instead of an external headphone amp.
With an interface, you can connect microphones, speakers, headphones, and a bunch of other audio devices needed for recording.
A headphone amp and an audio interface are different.
But an interface has its own built-in headamp, so it encompasses the primary function of an external headphone amplifier. As such, you don’t really need to buy a separate headphone amp if you already have an interface.
However, there are certain instances when using a separate dedicated headphone amp together with your interface makes more sense. This includes instances when you have high-impedance headphones or if the built-in headphone amp in your interface doesn’t deliver good enough sound quality.