Headphones, like all speakers, need an amp to work. A good amp will be able to take a input signal and increase the output voltage by a multiplier, modulate the input and output signals so the output volume is under control, while avoiding distortion, or feedback.
Headphone output impedance is also key. This should be ten times the output impedance of the driving amp.
Built in amps: are they good enough?
Most phones, tablets, and laptops have amps built in at the headphone jack. But space constraints mean there is less room available for more complex circuitry. Built in amps are often geared to boost audio signals within a much smaller dynamic range. They have a lower input impedance and higher output impedance than standalone amps, which means there is less of a damping effect on audio with wide dynamic ranges.
This damping effect is why good standalone headphone amp can reduce distortion over a much greater volume range, not just the average volume set by the built in audio player on your device. What this means is that louder music, or music with a greater dynamic range, won’t crackle or rattle at its high decibel peaks. Audiophiles can hear as much detail in quiet sections of a song as in its powerful climaxes. Headphone output impedance is also key. This should be ten times the output impedance of the driving amp for the best, most controlled sound.
A word of warning
Standalone amps can be too good at their job, creating clear, distortion free sounds at volume levels that can damage your hearing. However high the sound quality may be, a safe upper limit for everyday listening is somewhere between 75-85 dB. Any louder than that can reduce your ability to hear high and low frequency ranges, which defeats the point of having an excellent amp and headphone setup for clear, quality sound.
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