Audio Interface vs Headphone Amp: What’s Better For Listening?
by Alex. Last Updated On October 4th, 2022.
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If you are a casual user, just listening to some podcasts while commuting or working out, you won’t need to get into headphone amps and audio interfaces. That said, if you are curious about joining the path of the audiophile, it would save you a lot of money and effort if you understood the fundamental differences between these two types of devices.
So, what’s the big deal about headphone amps and audio interfaces? Do you really need them to listen to music?
Luckily, you don’t need an audio interface to enjoy some music or make a quick recording. Many audiophiles can have a high-quality listening setup with a decent headphone amp.
However, if you want to start producing music or delve deeper into the Hi-Fi realm, you need to have an audio interface as well. So in the upcoming sections, we’ll discuss more on this issue using topics such as
What is a Headphone Amp?
What is an Audio Interface?
What’s the Best Option for Listening to Music?
Common Questions Regarding Headphone Amps and Audio Interfaces
Table of Contents
What is a Headphone Amp?
A headphone amp, as the name suggests, amplifies the audio signal so that high-impedance headphones can reproduce the audio signals with the best sound quality.
Headphone amps take in the line-level signal (analog audio signal) from a DAC or soundcard and pump up the power (voltage, to be more precise) so that it can “match” the impedance of the headphones and supply an audio signal with enough power to drive these heavy headphones.
Most of these heavy-duty headphones usually have impedances that run in the third digits. (around 250Ω.) So when you use these headphones without a dedicated headphone amp, you won’t get that clarity, fullness, and volume.
Laptops, smartphones, computers, and noise-canceling headphones come with their own dedicated headphone amps. However, they are not as powerful as an external headphone amplifier and cannot produce more power to drive high impedance headphones.
So if you want to listen to Hi-Fi music with headphones that have more than 32Ω of impedance, you need a headphone amp to do the heavy lifting.
When Should You Use a Headphone Amp?
Without a dedicated headphone amp, your high-impedance headphones won’t be able to reach high volumes; hence, the headphone sound quality would be degraded. On top of that, they could run into distortion, noise, and interference.
In these cases, you might be better off using low-impedance headphones directly plugged into your DAC/Soundcard; hence, you need a separate headphone amp if you want to use high-impedance headphones with sufficient audio quality.
Apart from that, another reason why you would want to use a headphone amp is to connect multiple headphone outputs. Some dedicated headphone amps offer multiple headphone ports so you can plug in 2-4 headphones without any loss in the overall sound quality. However, these can be expensive since they need high-end electrical components to manage multiple audio signals while maintaining the same voltage/power levels.
These multi-headphone power amps are designed for studio use where the producers and band members can listen to the audio without compromising on sound quality. (Or even when they don’t want to use studio monitors.)
Headphone Amp Recommendations
If you’ve already come across our articles dedicated to headphone amps, you already know that there are tons of options catering to various budgets. You can find a cheap headphone amp for under $100 and premium ones that are under $1000.
So, without getting too much into the specifics too much, here’s a list of different headphone amplifiers that would suit a variety of situations.
AudioQuest DragonFly: This is a very compact DAC and headphone amplifier. It’s no bigger than a flash drive, and you can connect it to your laptops or smartphones using an OTG adapter. It’s not very expensive, so it’s a decent addition for budding audiophiles who want a more “mobile” headphone amp. Unfortunately, it only has one 3.5mm headphone port with no separate controls.
Schiit Magni Heresy: This headphone amp is a very affordable headphone amp that you can set up beside your workstation or studio. It has a solid-state design with Op-Amp circuits; hence, it is not the best in terms of sound quality, but it will be a big step up from the built-in DACs and soundcards found in smartphones and computers. Another downside is that the headphone amp has only one 3.5mm output channel with RCA inputs i.e., you need a separate DAC to go between the headphone amp and your computer.
Monolith THX AAA: If you want something that’s a bit more versatile and has better audio quality, the Monolith THX AAA would be worth considering. It has XLR and RCA inputs and a pass-through RCA stereo pair. Meanwhile, the output ports include an RCA, 3.5mm, and 1/4″ stereo ports. There are control knobs for the gain and volume. All things considered, this is a well-balanced headphone amp decent for audiophiles and even studio work. The only downside is the lack of multiple headphone outputs.
PreSonus HP4: If you’re hoping to make music, the PreSonus HP4 is a decent headphone amp that comes highly recommended. It is an inexpensive amp that offers four output channels, each with its own volume control knob. The sound quality is definitely a step up from regular splitters, and you can also connect a pass-through for studio monitors via RCA.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is used for recording audio and monitoring it. Therefore, an audio interface includes a digital to analog converter (DAC) for the line-outs, an analog to digital converter (ADC), and mic preamps. Also, the audio interface’s headphone output comes out amplified thanks to a built-in headphone amp.
The Audio interface has input channels for microphones and instruments in the form of XLR ports with headphone/monitor outputs in the form of 1/4″ TRS and RCA. In addition, the interface draws power either through a separate DC jack or the USB connection with the computer running your DAW.
Most audio interfaces (especially entry-level ones) include only a couple of mic preamps inputs for recording audio, and these devices/packages will suffice for streamers and podcasters. However, if you are a serious music producer (preferably with lots of instruments), you will have to get a professional interface with multiple inputs.
A studio interface is essential for studios because it includes several features such as mic preamps, a feature called direct monitoring, and phantom power (48V for condenser microphones), to name a few.
Also, in regards to the headphone amp side of things, audio interfaces provide their own built-in headphone amps, which are quite decent for producers and artists.
When Should You Use an Audio Interface?
As mentioned above, an audio interface is necessary for anybody looking to make music or record a podcast. Most professional audio equipment (such as studio monitors, microphones, instrument outputs, etc.) cannot “interface” directly with your DAW or PC. You need a device that converts every audio signal into a line-level signal (and vice versa).
That said, you can use an audio interface as a headphone amplifier because they have a built-in headphone amp that can provide substantial power to drive high-impedance headphones. However, unlike dedicated headphone amps, the amplifier in an audio interface is not built with a higher quality standard.
Most interfaces work best when they are coupled with a compatible DAW; hence, it is one of the primary decision factors to consider. (Apart from audio equipment such as microphones, passive speakers, etc.)
However, if you are a beginner, you can make do with cheap audio interfaces and get more expensive gear as you progress. An audio interface is a very versatile device that you or somebody you know will put to good use.
Here are some widely-recognized audio interfaces that would suit a beginner.
PreSonus 2 AUDIOBOX USB 96: Presonus devices are affordable, reliable, and built for musicians. The USB 96 is a budget-friendly audio interface that connects via USB 2.0 and has 2 XLR inputs with dedicated controls (gain, mixer, and headphone volume). Additionally, it has MIDI I/O along with 1/4″ ports for speaker outputs and headphones.
Mackie Onyx Producer 2X2: This is another well-built audio interface that doesn’t cost a fortune to replace. Like most audio interfaces, it has two microphone preamps (XLR), a headphone output, and line-level outs via RCA. It is another decent alternative that would be ideal for an aspiring musician.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2: The Focusrite Scarlett might be a bit more premium than other budget interfaces, but it is very much worth the investment. The device is more compact and feels more premium than usual audio interfaces. It uses a USB Type-C interface and two microphone preamps (via XLR) with a 1/4″ headphone output.
What’s Better for Listening to Music?
Since we understand the fundamental differences between a headphone amp and an audio interface, it’s time to answer the important question: which is better for listening to music?
If you desire high-quality audio over anything else, the headphone amp is going to be the better option; no doubt about it. Everything from the electrical components to the housing and the build quality of a headphone amp is designed to provide the best listening experience for a headphone user.
What’s more is that an external headphone amplifier can distribute the audio signal into multiple headphones, each with volume control and an on/off switch. You will be able to power multiple power-hungry headphones and distribute the same audio signal to each pair of headphones, utilizing only one dedicated headphone amp’s input.
These distribution channels will be noise-free and deliver audio at the same volume; no more fussing about with headphone splitters.
When Should You Consider Both an Audio Interface and Headphone Amp?
Most audio interfaces would offer the best of both worlds since they have a built-in headphone amp and mic preamps for recording music. Undoubtedly they are a crucial component of any high-quality listening setup. That said, there are certain situations where you would need to supplement your system with a dedicated headphone amp.
You need a headphone amp when the built-in headphone amplifiers in your audio interface or DAC is not capable of driving high-impedance headphones. Most audiophiles and artists couple their audio interface/DAC directly to a dedicated headphone amp (where they route the line-outs of the interface) before plugging it into the studio headphones.
Also, if they need to distribute more headphone outputs, they would use the same configuration to provide a clean and powerful audio signal to multiple outputs.
Both devices have their merits, but if you just want to enjoy music and don’t plan on starting a home studio (at least, not right now), you will do more fine with a decent headphone amp.
Common Questions Regarding Headphones Amps and Audio Interfaces
What are the Major Differences Between an Audio Interface and a headphone amp?
A headphone amp is designed for the sole purpose of driving headphones. Both solid-state and tube amps include high-end components which are designed to amplify the audio signal while minimizing noise and other forms of distortion. Most Headphone amps have analog I/O using either RCA or a headphone jack.
An audio interface device is used for connecting your microphones and instruments to your DAW. Apart from that, they provide lineouts for pass-through studio monitors and amplified output for headphones. Although audio interfaces include headphone amplifiers, most of them cannot compare to the likes of a premium dedicated headphone amp.
Do I need a Separate DAC when Using Either of these Devices?
Unfortunately, a headphone amplifier does not come with its own DAC. It only deals with the analog domain since it amplifies or distributes the line-level output from a computer or interface. Therefore, if you want to bypass the soundcard on your smartphone or laptop, I recommend using an external DAC.
Audio interfaces include their own DAC since they plug in directly to the DAW via USB. You don’t have to use a separate DAC when plugging in an audio interface to your workstation.
Do I need to Buy Professional Headphones for Audio Interfaces/Headphone Amps?
As always, the better your headphones are, the clearer and more accurate the sound will reach your ears. If you hope to set up a home studio, you should think about investing in a pair of decent studio headphones and learn about what frequency response is good for headphones.
Studio headphones have a very neutral frequency response; hence, you will get clean organic sound from the headphone amp. (Free from trumped-up bass.) Couple that with a decent audio interface, microphone, and DAW, and you’ve got yourself a barebones home studio.
However, for budding audiophiles (who want to feel the music), I always recommend getting a pair of budget-friendly audiophile headphones. These are great wired headphones to listen to music because they have a (somewhat) altered frequency response and overall design, which makes you feel the music.
So long story short: you need good headphones to go along with a headphone amp or audio interface.
Can I use Earbuds or Loudspeakers on a Headphone Amp?
Headphone amps are designed for headphones; hence, the power output is not enough to drive loudspeakers. On top of that, it could damage the headphone amp because the speakers will draw a lot of current from the headphone amplifier. I highly recommend that you don’t plug in your speakers via the 3.5mm, 1/4″ or XLR outputs.
That said, some high-end headphone amps offer a pass-through channel via RCA. You can use these outputs to send line-level signals to your loudspeakers. However, they need to run through an amplifier beforehand.
For earbuds and headphones with low impedance, you don’t need to use a headphone amp. Even if you did, there wouldn’t be any considerable differences except noise and possible damage to the earbuds. (provided you pump up the gain in the amplifier and blow the drivers.)
Despite audio interfaces providing built-in headphone amps, they are not as good as external amps and not as versatile. So if you want to enjoy Hi-Fi music on your high-impedance headphones or share high-quality headphone outputs with your friends or clients, you need to have the best headphone amplifier.