Now we dive into the belly of the beast. In the previous post I showcased three sets of headphones that are at the top of the heap for price/performance. I believe whole-heartedly in the law of diminishing returns (that’s why after I got married, I quit doing abs — hey-yo!) and electronic gear is an excellent example of this in practice.
With loudspeakers (bookshelf speaker, tower speaker, etc) you connect it to a stereo receiver/amplifier. In this configuration, the quality of the loudspeaker is almost always the limiting factor in how it sounds. Even the cheap amps sound pretty good. It’s the speaker that is the “bottleneck” in performance.
That isn’t the case with headphones. You can get amazing headphones for $100 whose sound rivals speakers that costs thousands. You can buy headphones for $400 or $2000 dollars that rival the best speakers money can buy. But if you are connecting them directly to your computer headphone jack, you’re driving a Ferrari 20 miles-per-hour. You aren’t even getting close to your headphones potential. The digital file (MP3, AAC, anything in iTunes) must be converted to analog (speakers are analog, anything we hear is analog) and amplified, and the D/A converter and headphone amplifier in your computer probably costs about a nickel to manufacture. It is not a high priority item. And the consequence is sound that is thin and one-dimensional, as if the music is playing from a sheet of paper.
(One addendum: my Macbook Air headphone jack actually sounds pretty damn good. Again, not a snob. You listen with ears, not an up-turned nose).
To reach your headphones full potential you need a dedicated external headphone amplifier. For your computer, you need one that takes the digital audio signal (via a usb or optical cable) and converts it to analog, which it then amplifies.
I had read a lot about external headphone amplifiers and I had always been skeptical: How much better could my premium headphones sound? They were already way better than any other headphones I had owned. But I was curious and pulled the trigger on the AudioEngine D1 ($169). And when I used it for the first time, I couldn’t believe the difference. The bass was tight and powerful, the highs crystal clear, and the clarity of each note was amazing. It made the computer’s built-in amp sound like it was being played through a toilet roll tube. A good headphone amp is worth it. It’s better to have a set of $100 headphones and a headphone amp ($100 on up) than $300+ headphones without.
I don’t have experience with other headphone amplifiers, but I would highly recommend the AudioEngine D1. It’s very rugged and it also has RCA outputs so you can connect it to powered loudspeakers (say next your computer) or a stereo. The same benefit applies to those: you get a much cleaner, powerful, 3-dimensional soundstage. I’ve used it when I project movies outside, connecting the Apple TV via optical cable to the D1 and running its RCA output to an old, fifty buck Logitech iPod speaker with drivers that are maybe two-inches in diameter, and even with that, I can hear a remarkable difference in sound.
Steve Guttenberg (https://twitter.com/AudiophiliacMan) is a columnist for CNET, and a great resource. I read all of his articles. He’s reviewed tons of D to A headphone amps, both less expensive and more, to the AudioEngine D1.
If you have nice headphones that you use at home, get one.