Last week's roundup of pricey headphones reiterated that with personal items that you interact with often, paying for quality can mean the difference between keeping a thing, using it and loving it, or watching it fall into disrepair and ultimately throwing it away.
Headphones and speakers carry so much responsibility in the reproduction of sound that this rule applies to them every time. You get what you pay for. But in the smaller electrical world of amplifiers and music sources, the influence of this rule is lessened.
That doesn't mean that you should pair your new $400 headphones with a Walkman from the '80s, but it does mean you probably don't need to spend $400 on the amplifier.
Some of you may be wondering, "Why would I need an amplifier for headphones?"
The quick answer to that is if you're plugging your headphones into your phone, you are already listening through a headphone amplifier. You're also converting your digital music to analog (real electrical waves instead of pulses or 1s and 0s) using a digital-to-analog converter, or a DAC.
The question of whether your music and gaming audio can sound better if you use a bigger or better amplifier and DAC has a simple answer. The answer is yes, yes it can.
When you send music to headphones, the magnets inside them (both "earth" magnets and electromagnets) push the tiny speakers outward at fast rates, in time with the music. Pushing anything in this world usually means you're pushing against an opposite force, so there's resistance in the equation.
That amount of resistance characterizes how easy it is for an amplifier to make those headphones sound their best. The harder the push required, the beefier the amplifier needed. Most of the headphones I mentioned last week sound downright dull when plugged directly into an iPhone.
In fact, my own pair of Master & Dynamic headphones were met with a lukewarm reaction from a fellow exhibitor at Chicago's recent audio show AXPONA, until I urged him to try them with an amplifier between his phone and the 'cans. He went from "meh" to full grin in a split second once he connected his company's amp to the headphones.
Massdrop has been a wonderful resource for just the level of headphone amp (some of which also contain excellent DACs) that a nice set of headphones deserves. Drops come and go, but you can learn a lot from the descriptions and discussions around desk-based audio devices in their Audiophile Community section.
One company that is building desktop audio devices the right way is JDS Labs. Their offerings range from the legendary O2 headphone amp ($129) to the current, very cool Element line of products, which features an award-winning headphone amplifier (the $349 Element), a desktop amp for speakers (EL AMP for $279) and a matching DAC (EL DAC for $249). I've heard all of their products and give them my full approval for quality.
Another favorite little gem in this arena is the tiny Audioquest DragonFly. For under a hundred bucks, this thumb-drive-sized gadget will upgrade your computer's sound card with a better DAC and amplifier — at least for headphones.