An Introduction to DACs and Headphone amps

Why should I invest in a headphone amp?

Much like the amplifier in your hi-fi, a headphone amp allows you to control the volume of the signal coming from a source into your headphones, but it does far more than just allowing things to go louder. In the same way your main amplifier has a huge effect on the overall sound that comes out of your speakers, a headphone amp can make the music you hear in your headphones sound vastly different, too. Some amps will sound warm and enveloping, whilst others might make things extremely clear and detailed, highlighting finite details that might otherwise get hidden.

Those elements come down to personal taste, but generally speaking, all but the most basic of wired headphones will see an improvement in sound. Certain high-impedance headphones actually require a headphone amp, due to the extra power required to move the drivers. While these headphones are quite rare these days, it’s always a good idea to check the impedance of any headphones you have your eye on – any headphones between 250 – 600 ohms are likely to need an amp to drive them.

What’s a DAC?

DAC stands for Digital-to-Analogue Converter. Sound in digital sources like a computer or a CD player is first created in binary code; a series of computations made up of 1s and 0s. In order for these digital computations to be turned into sound we can hear (that’s the ‘analogue’ part), this is where a DAC comes in. A DAC is able to read the 1s & 0s and turn them into waveforms that your ears will recognise as your favourite music.

Most digital audio sources will have an onboard DAC; your laptop has one in order to play sound from the in-built speakers, your CD player has one that converts the code from CDs into sound that feeds into your amp or speakers. In many cases, the DACs used are not focused on quality, but instead focused on being as cost-efficient as possible, resulting in a performance that’s less than thrilling, leaving music sounding dull and unclear.

By employing a dedicated, purpose-built DAC that’s designed to translate digital signals in finite detail, you’ll hear a vast improvement in sound, making your digital music sound as true to the original recordings as possible. If you consume your music in Hi-Res formats, whether on a drive or by streaming, a high-performance DAC is a key element in getting the best from those formats. If you listen to your music on the go, there are some slick and compact DAC options for you too. These small-yet-mighty converters override the DAC built-in to your smartphone and give an audiophile boost to your mobile music listening.

These days, it’s very common to find DACs and headphones amps bundled together in the same casework making them a great fit in modern hi-fi systems, but their often compact size means they can be easily sat next to a laptop or desktop computer too, giving a boost to all audio that plays out of these sources.

If you’re investing in a pair of premium headphones, it’s important to factor in an amp to ensure you get the maximum performance and–most importantly–enjoyment out of your investment for years to come.

Get in touch with your local Richer Sounds store to discuss your requirements and to try before you buy in our demo rooms.