Better sound from your headphones

See what a headphone amplifier or a digital-to-analog converter can do for your music

By

David Brown

David Brown is a member of Crutchfield's Home A/V writing team. He studied writing and politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he grew up. He spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Masters degree in journalism and wrote an award-winning humor column. David relocated to Charlottesville, VA, in 2012. He enjoys listening to music, playing the guitar and piano, and hiking with his wife and children.

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If you’re connecting your headphones directly to a computer, you’re probably not getting the best performance from them. Here are some devices that can help your headphones sound their best.

Headphone amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters
Headphone amplifier

The headphone jacks on computers, smartphones, and even some receivers and amplifiers aren’t very powerful. Just as a high-powered receiver or amp can make your speakers sound better, a dedicated headphone amplifier can do the same for your headphones. When you drive your headphones with plenty of power, you’ll hear more details and dynamics in your music.

Headphones with a high-powered amplifier

When you pair a high-quality headphone amp with a great pair of headphones, you can get sound that’s on par with a high-end stereo system for a fraction of the cost.

Headphone amps usually connect to your music source with stereo RCA cables. If the source is a mobile device, you’ll need a cable with a stereo miniplug on one end and stereo RCA plugs on the other. If you’re connecting a computer, you’ll get better sound from a headphone amp that also has a built-in digital-to-analog converter (see below). This requires a digital connection with a USB cable.

Digital-to-analog converters

A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is found in every device capable of playing digital audio files, including computers. This tiny chip converts the signal output from MP3s, CDs, streaming music, and other digital sources for playback through your headphones or speakers.

The DACs found in computers aren’t very effective at delivering the best possible sound to your headphones. A separate outboard DAC can greatly improve the sound quality of digital music files. You may notice more detail, more dynamics, bass response that’s tighter and deeper, and a larger soundstage.

Headphone amp and digital-to-analog converter

DACs range from tiny devices that resemble USB memory sticks to large desktop or component-style models. Any of them can make a significant improvement over your computer’s stock soundcard. Plus, they usually have a high-powered headphone amplifier built in. A quality DAC with a good headphone amp can transform your computer’s digital playback capability for truly magnificent sound.

Connect a DAC to your computer with a USB cable

Use a USB cable to connect a digital-to-analog converter to your computer for better sound quality.