We have all been there.
You upgrade your microphone closet, your plug-in collection, your monitors, your mood lighting...
And then it hits you.
It is time to stop purchasing glamorous studio gear that looks lit on your Instagram page. It is now time to invest in a piece of equipment that will influence performance instead.
If the artist can hear themselves, they can provide a better performance.
Imagine how great it would be if:
- You could provide the artists you work with a higher quality headphone mix?
- You could provide a crystal-clear signal to the headphones free from distortion?
- The artist could control their own headphone mix?
If you found yourself nodding along with the questions, it is time you invested in an independent headphone amplifier system.
- 1 Do I Need a Headphone Amp? What Do They Actually Do?
- 2 So, I Just Need to Find A Headphone Amplifier?
- 3 Okay… Can You Help Me With Jargon?
- 4 Desktop Headphone Amplifiers
- 5 Rack Mounted Headphone Amplifiers
- 6 Headphone Distribution Systems
- 7 The Wrap Up
Do I Need a Headphone Amp? What Do They Actually Do?
The amount of juice a pair of headphone needs to be powered differs from model to model. Underpowered headphones will provide quiet playback and often sound unflattering.
Overpowered headphones will distort, which could damage them – and your hearing!
A dedicated headphone amplifier allows you to power ANY pair of headphones. This means you can drive the drummer’s headphones to an amplitude like that of a pneumatic drill without distortion.
Through connecting a pair of outputs from your audio interface (separate to your main outputs) to the input of a headphone amplifier, you can send a tailored headphone mix to the artist, without detriment to the mix you are working on in your control room.
So not only will the artist receive a headphone mix that is loud enough for them, but you can also tailor the mix to get the best performance out of your client.
So, I Just Need to Find A Headphone Amplifier?
Well, not quite. Just as a car is not just a car, a headphone amp is not just a headphone amp. Your needs will dictate the type of smplifier you require.
The two biggest players in making your decision should be how much you’re willing to spend and what it is you need a headphone amplifier for.
You should also be aware that studio headphone amplifiers can be split into three main categories. Here’s how each category breaks down and who it might be best suited for:
- If you need to power more headphones and need portability but have a tight budget, a desktop headphone amplifier is a great choice.
- If you desire more channels, more inputs to send individual headphone mixes, and have a little more money to spend, the rack mounted headphone amplifier is an excellent choice.
- If you don’t have a strict budget and want your clients to have complete control over their headphone mixes (if they so choose), the headphone distribution system is the only choice.
Okay… Can You Help Me With Jargon?
Sure! There are many terms you will encounter when searching for different headphone amplifiers, so let us begin by explaining some of the more technical terminologies.
We could write an entire article on impedance and what it means, but all in all, you just need a quick “oh, that’s what it means!”.
Do you remember much from physics class?
Resistance is measured in ohms. Ohms are a measurement of impedance, which relates to the resistance of electrical flow through a speaker.
When it comes to impedance and ‘impedance matching’ headphones with headphone amplifiers, take note of the power output of the headphone amplifier and the impedance of your headphones.
The higher the headphone impedance, the more power the headphone amplifier will need to output. Due to the quality of headphone amps on the market today, you should struggle to find impedance issues when connecting professional grade headphones to professional grade headphone amplifiers.
Total Harmonic Distortion
THD is an acronym of Total Harmonic Distortion and refers to nonlinearities within an audio device. These nonlinearities result in the output of an audio device being different from that of the input signal.
Devices with a lower THD will output the input source much more accurately than devices with a higher THD.
Signal to Noise Ratio
SNR is an acronym of Signal to Noise Ratio and refers to the relationship between the audio signal and noise floor. All electrical analog devices will have a noise floor.
To test the noise floor of an audio device, try connecting a pair of headphones to the headphone output of your audio interface. Without playing back any audio, turn the headphone output volume to maximum. You should be able to hear hiss or noise.
If you were to repeat this same experiment with a commercial mix playing (we do not recommend you do this with the volume maxed out!) the dB difference between the noise and the mix is the signal to noise ratio.
Although being able to play audio clean and loud through a pair of headphones is desirable, you increase the noise floor at an equal rate to the 'good audio.' It is therefore desirable to seek audio equipment with low signal to noise ratios for the highest quality headphone monitoring.
Desktop Headphone Amplifiers
The desktop headphone amplifier is small, cheap and limited in functionality. A desktop headphone amplifier will split the input signal to the number of channels on the device, with a volume knob on each channel allowing the connected user to turn the headphones up or down to their tastes.
Desktop headphone amplifiers are typically limited to no more than 4 channels and provide a single mix, making them ideal for the home user who desires higher quality headphone amplification and small project studios that do not require more elaborate headphone mixes.
Recommended Desktop Headphone Amps…
So, you have decided that a desktop headphone amplifier will suffice? You know you don't need anything too big, or with too many outputs but are still unsure a headphone amplifier is right for you? Let's explore three different models on the market today that we would recommend.
The Behringer AMP800 is 4 channel stereo headphone amplifier. The Behringer also has 2 balanced stereo main inputs. The inputs each have an independent level and balance control. This allows two different headphone mixes to be routed across the 4 outputs.
We love the ability to connect two different outputs from our Digital Audio Workstation to the two balanced stereo inputs. This allows two individualized mixes to be sent to the unit, which is useful when working with multiple musicians.
We're also fond of the parallel link feature of the unit, allowing multiple AMP800's to be chained together. This makes the ADMP800 an ideal headphone amplifier for future proofing, expanding with your studio needs.
The Bottom Line: The AMP800 is an ideal desktop headphone amplifier solution if you are on an incredibly tight budget and need a headphone amplifier, quickly.
The Presonus HP4 is a 4-channel headphone amp. The HP4 has an individual volume knob for each channel, as well as monitor level knob to control the output of the HP4.
The output of the HP4 can be useful for connecting to a pair of loudspeakers for artists who prefer recording without headphones. The monitor mute button allows connected loudspeakers to be toggled on and off as desired with a simple switch.
Having a monitor output on the rear of the unit allows you to daisy-chain units together if you need expansion.
However, our favorite feature of the Presonus HP4 is how loud you can drive the headphones without noise or distortion. 115dB of Dynamic Range with a THD (Total Harmonic Distortion), and noise rating of <0.05% means you can pump the click to inexcusable levels to the drummer, without the signal being different from the original input material.
The Bottom Line: The HP4 is an ideal desktop headphone amplifier solution for those requiring high-quality headphone monitoring, without paying high premiums.
Rupert Neve is to professional audio what The Beatles are to pop music. The greatest of all time. If Rupert's name is attached to a device, you know you're looking at incredible quality and reliability.
As stated by Rupert Neve Designs "The RNHP was made to accomplish one simple purpose: making any headphones sound their best."
The RNHP has been designed with a staggeringly low output impedance (they claim it to be near-zero!) allowing you to compare different pairs of headphones without worrying about impedance differences.
The RNHP can receive three individual inputs; A, B and C, selectable via switches on the front panel. The input signal is outputted to the unit's singular headphone output. Input A is a balanced connection, capable of receiving both TRS and XLR cables.
Designed for receiving balanced signals, Input A is ideal for connecting the output of your audio interface too. Input B is a pair of unbalanced RCA inputs; left and right. The RCA inputs are suitable for connecting turntables and CD players. Input C is a 3.5mm stereo input. This input connection is designed for connecting mobile devices such as portable music players, laptop computers, and mobile phones.
For us, the design of the RNHP in the desktop headphone amplifier market is unrivaled. Listening to your favorite reference tracks through the RNHP will soon reveal the quality. Completely neutral, (not that neutral is a negative!) The RNHP amplifies the audio without noise, distortion or artifacts from frequency response.
The build quality of the unit is superb, and it looks great too!
The Bottom Line: If you need the best desktop headphone amplifier solution, where money is not an option, and you don't need multiple headphone mixes, nothing comes close to the RNHP. The extra connectivity of RCA and 3.5mm jack allow personal devices to be connected for an unparalleled listening experience, making the RNHP ideal for the home studio and audiophile.
Rack Mounted Headphone Amplifiers
Rack mounted gear and studios go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Not only will it make your studio look more like a studio, but the added functionality makes rack-mounted headphone amplifiers an excellent choice for studios.
Rack mounted studio headphone amplifiers tend to have more inputs than their desktop cousins. This allows different headphone mixes to be sent to the various channels of the headphone amplifier. Rack mounted headphone amplifiers also tend to have more channels. This makes them an excellent choice for studios that need versatility and more channels.
Recommended Rack Mounted Headphone Amps…
So, you have decided that a desktop headphone amplifier doesn't have enough for you? Are you looking for something with a bunch of outputs? Maybe a little more functionality?
Let's explore three different models on the market today.
The Behringer Powerplay HA6000 is a six-channel stereo headphone amplifier, with six additional auxiliary inputs. The auxiliary inputs allow for other signals to be mixed in with the primary input signal.
We believe the HA6000 offers an awful lot of bang for buck. The unit has a two-band EQ section - bass and treble, as well a balanced main thru output, allowing you to connect multiple units if you require more headphone outputs.
The two band EQ allows some tonal control. This can be very useful for a bass player wanting more of themselves as they can achieve their desired results by turning the bass knob up.
We think the auxiliary inputs are the most exciting feature of this multi channel headphone amp. The auxiliary inputs allow you to fix the 'more me' scenario without ruining a perfectly good headphone mix, simply by sending 'more them' to that particular auxiliary input.
However, the HA6000 does have flaws. The frequency response of the unit varies -/+ 3dB, which means the audio that is outputted will sound different.
The Bottom Line: As with the Behringer desktop headphone amplifier, the HA6000 is an ideal rack mounted headphone amplifier solution if you are on a tight budget and need a multi-input and output headphone amplifier, quickly.
The Tascam MH-8 is an eight-channel headphone amplifier. The unit has two balanced stereo inputs, which allows for two separate headphone mixes to be outputted from any of the eight headphone outputs. Each output has some switch configurations on the front, allowing the user to choose which input they wish to hear.
The rear of the unit has direct inputs, too. These have the same function as the auxiliary inputs utilized by the Behringer HA6000 discussed above. Direct inputs can be dialed in on the front; providing the direct input is connected to the same input number as the desired headphone output, and each output channel also has a mono button.
The Tascam MH-8 has a great total harmonic distortion rating of 0.05%, allowing you to drive the headphones hard, with minimal coloration from the unit. However, the signal-to-noise ratio is only 85dB, which is not quite as high as you would expect from a rack-mounted headphone amplifier. This means the MH-8 is an excellent unit for monitoring loud, but less so at more conservative volumes.
We really like the connectivity of the MH-8, with two stereo inputs. Input 1 can be connected via XLR or TRS cables, whereas Input 2 can be connected via XLR or RCA cables. The range of input connectors allows a broader range of connectivity dependent upon your needs.
We also really like the foldback outputs. With two pairs of foldback outputs, the MH-8 can be connected to loudspeakers for artists that need speakers as opposed to headphones. The foldback outputs also allow you to connect multiple MH-8s when necessary.
The Bottom Line: The most significant feature of the MH-8 is the number of headphone outputs the unit has. With 8 channels of headphone outputs, the MH-8 is a desirable option for those requiring multiple headphone outputs without spending a load of extra cash.
The Presonus HP60 is a six-channel headphone mixing system that Presonus claims will last you a lifetime due to the high-grade components within the unit.
Although at first glance it may not seem too different from the previously explored units, the HP60 offers a lot more for the same 19" 1U rack footprint. Alike the Headamp6 and HA6000, the HP60 has a stereo out connection, allowing you to connect multiple units if necessary.
The HP60 also has 'external in' connections for each channel. These operate identically to the auxiliary function of the Headamp6 and HA6000.
The added features of the HP60 are what we love so much, though. As well flexed out as the HA6000 and Headamp6 are, the HP60 offers an additional input source. This allows two independent headphone mixes to be outputted by the headphone amplifier. Each channel has an A/B mix knob, allowing the user to choose between Input A (headphone mix 1), Input B (headphone mix 2) or a blend between the two.
Our favorite feature of the HP60 is the talkback input. The studio is incomplete without adequate communication between the studio and the control room. The talkback function allows a microphone to be connected to the headphone amplifier. This enables the control room and studio to communicate with ease.
The Bottom Line: The quality of rack-mounted headphone amplifiers is exceptionally high, making it difficult to choose a standout favorite. However, the added functionality of the HP60 makes it our favorite of the rack-mounted headphone amplifiers. Having two separate headphone mixes to choose from within the unit is very useful. Multiple headphone mixes, coupled with the talkback functionality, puts the Presonus HP60 the top of our rack-mounted list.
Headphone Distribution Systems
Headphone distribution systems are the crème de la crème of studio headphone amplification.
This does not mean you should immediately rush out and buy one, though! Just as a Ferrari will get you to work just fine, it's probably not going to be as practical as your Toyota!
Desktop and rack-mounted headphone amplification systems both share a similar flaw. The headphone mix is wholly dependent on the engineer, and although you are no doubt fluent in understanding what an artist wants by now, a headphone distribution system takes the guesswork out of it all.
Headphone distribution systems send 16 channels of audio, per unit, to an independent mixer. Each mixer can be controlled by the artist. A pricey investment, but if you need your clients to control their own headphone mix, nothing comes close.
Recommended Headphone Distribution Systems…
So, you have decided to go all out on a distribution system. You’re sick of running headphone mixes for your clients. Maybe you just want your clients to have a more personalized mix that they can control themselves.
Let’s explore three different models on the market today.
The Behringer Powerplay P16 series consists of:
Let us begin with the P16-I. Audio signals connect to the P16-I via 16 TRS inputs at the rear of the unit, or via ADAT. The P16-I converts the 16 analog inputs to 24-bit digital audio, which is then outputted via Ethernet.
The Ethernet cable can be connected to a P16-D - the 16-channel digital ULTRANET distributor - if more than 16 channels of audio are required for distribution. If 16 channels suffice, the Ethernet cable can be connected directly to a P16-M. The P16-M is a fully functional, individualized monitor mixer.
Our favorite feature of the Powerplay P16 (other than the handsome price for what you get) is the ease-of-use of the P16-M. The P16-M allows the user to manipulate solo, mute, level, pan, limiting and apply a three-band EQ, with sweepable midrange, on a channel-by-channel basis. This allows the user to dial in a headphone monitor mix tailored to their own requirements, without relying on the engineer.
As this is a digital device, there is some latency, but at under a millisecond, it's hardly a concern. The P16 will also output audio at 48 kHz / 24 bit, which is higher than CD quality!
The Bottom Line: The P16 series is an ideal entry point for a studio looking to introduce a headphone distribution system. However, if you're at the stage of contemplating distribution systems, you are probably in a position to invest in higher quality.
The Hear Technologies Hear Back Pro Four Pack is a bundle consisting of four PRO Mixers, one Hub Frame, one Dante card, one Network Card, and four 50 ft CAT6 cables.
Unlike the previously explored Behringer system, the Hear Back Pro Hub does not have any TRS inputs. The rear of the Hear Back Pro Hub has a DA-88 Analog Cable input allowing you to connect multiple analog inputs - usually 8 XLR or TRS connectors, but this will have to be purchased separately.
It possible to connect audio signals to the Hear Back Pro via ADAT, though the expansion card functionality of the Hear Back Pro may be more useful. The Hear Back Pro has a THD rating of less than 0.004% and can be driven to a rather loud 117db!
Although the link in the above relates specifically to the Dante card bundle, it is possible to purchase AES, ADAT and Waves expansion cards, allowing you to utilize the audio connection that suits your needs. These units have selectable sampling rates ( previously investigated distribution systems were limited to 48 kHz) allowing the user to select from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz. The higher sampling rate options on this unit allows the digital experience to seem analog due to the sampling accuracy.
We are big fans of the simplicity of the Hear Back Pro Mixer. 16 knobs, neatly arranged, allowing the user to dial in level, pan, and auxiliary input. The simplicity is also the downfall of the unit, however. It's almost too simple. Although it is great to have the user dial in volume and pan, it would have been excellent if the unit had minimal equalization, too!
Our favorite features of the Hear Technologies Hear Back Pro are the switchable sampling rates and the expansion cards. Although this is a digital system, being able to monitor audio at up to 192 kHz at less than 0.25ms latency is incredible. You will struggle to find a more analog sounding digital system! The expansion card functionality is also a fantastic way of ensuring a broad user base can use the system.
The Bottom Line: The Hear Back Pro is an ideal distribution system for professional studios with the money to spend on high-quality headphone monitoring that can be controlled by their clients. A particularly useful system for studios working with a wide range of digital output connectors that may need distributing to headphones. The limited mixer may be a drawback, though.
The Aviom Mix320-A Personal Mixing System is a bundle made up of an AN-16/i v.2 Input Module as the front end of the system, a D400 A-Net Distributor to supply A-Net digital data and DC power to the mixers, and six A320 Personal Mixers for the performers.
The Aviom's functionality is very similar to the Powerplay P16. Each channel features a TRS balanced input, and thru jack allowing you to connect direct outs, aux sends, or insert points on your mixing console or recording interface with ease. Analog audio is converted to 48kHz, 24bit A-Net digital data for distribution to the Personal Mixers.
The Aviom boasts very impressive technical specs, with a very flat frequency response deviating less than 0.5dB from 4 Hz (16 Hz below the human hearing range) to 22 kHz (2 kHz above the human hearing range).
The Aviom also has a THD rating of less than 0.003% ensuring your output is as close to the input as possible, with minute nonlinearities. The Aviom also has a signal to noise ratio of 90dB.
The Aviom 320 Personal Mixer is equally as functional as the Behringer P16-M but more compact, similar to the Hear Back Pro. The compact build of the Aviom 320 Personal Mixer makes it a much more intuitive controller, which will enable your artists to dial in a headphone mix with much less of a learning curve.
Our favorite feature of the Aviom Mix320-A Personal Mixing System is the ability to save and recall mix presets Personal Mixer. This allows performers to save their perfect headphone mix and recall on a later recording session date.
The Bottom Line: The Aviom Mix320 Personal Mixing System is our favorite headphone distribution system, and if you have the money to purchase one, it’s worth taking a look at. Although the system may not have as expansive a sampling rate selection as the Hear Back system, 48 kHz / 24 bit is extremely high quality. Coupled with the extremely low THD rating, the Aviom is a crystal-clear headphone distribution system. The winning blow, however, is the mixer. It's almost too easy to dial a headphone mix in, which makes it perfect for a system built around musicians controlling their own mixes.
The Wrap Up
The only way you are going to be able to decide which headphone amplifier option is suitable for you, is to evaluate your needs and your client’s needs, too.
For the hobbyist and project studio owner, desktop headphone amplifiers are ideal. The Rupert Neve RNHP stood head and shoulders above the competition due to the sheer design quality, as well as the ability to connect multiple playback sources to the headphone amplifier. This connectivity allows the hobbyist and project studio owner to connect their preferred music playback system (such as a turntable) to allow the headphone amplifier to be used for enjoyable listening, as well as during recording sessions via the TRS inputs.
Rack mounted headphone amplifiers are the perfect solution for studios larger than your average project studio that require more headphone outputs. The build quality, multiple headphone mixes and talkback functionality made the Presonus HP60 our standout winner for rack-mounted headphone amplifiers. An incredible rack-mounted solution for working recording studios.
Headphone Distribution Systems are a little different. The features and tech specs seem much closer than the other categories of headphone amplifier solutions on paper. However, with headphone distribution systems relying on the artist to control their own headphone mix, ease of use of the mixer has to be the number one priority when evaluating the different models. This is why the Aviom Mix320 is our standout winner in this category.
Whether you need a desktop, rack mount or distribution-based headphone amplifier system, only you can say. Review your needs, review your client’s needs, re-read our thoughts and soon you’ll be reaping the rewards of improved headphone monitoring.