Are you still undecided don’t whether you should buy an audio interface or a headphone amp first?
You’re in the perfect place!
This article explains everything you need to know about both audio devices, their pros and cons, and every other important difference!
We will also discuss which device will suit your needs best and which will give you more value for your money!
Ready? Let’s get started!
- An audio interface is an all-in-one device for recording microphones and live instruments, allowing you to process them on your computer.
- Audio interfaces are equipped with DAC and ADC chips, headphone amplifiers, microphone preamps, MIDI I/O, and more.
- Amplifiers, both guitar, and headphone amps, are only designed to turn up the volume of audio signals.
What Is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface converts analog audio signals from microphone preamps and instruments into digital audio signals so your computer can understand them.
It also allows you to edit and manipulate the audio signal on your computer. After editing the audio signal, it is converted to an analog audio signal so that your human ears can hear it.
Every audio interface includes an analog to digital converter, a digital to analog converter, a headphone amp, and mic preamps.
Depending on the model of your audio interface, you may get a single mic preamp or a few more mic preamps.
Using an audio interface greatly improves sound quality because you can process your audio, so having one is ESSENTIAL in music production.
Your audio interface has a mic, instrument, and line-level signal inputs.
So you get everything from the lowest signal level of the microphone to the mid-range instrument level and the line level input signal, which is the strongest signal.
Your studio monitors or headphones can also be fed via an audio interface that serves as an amplifier.
Do I Need an Audio Interface to Start Music Production?
Audio interfaces aren’t always needed in music production. If your work does not include having to record audio, you’ll be fine with no interface.
You won’t need to buy an audio interface right away if you’re just dealing with audio samples and using some virtual instruments.
However, don’t expect to be able to edit your music recording.
So if not having an audio interface is the only thing holding you back, you start making music today!
- Use multiple XLR condenser mics at the same time
- Multiple headphone outputs
- Individual control over more headphone outputs
- Analog to digital converter
- Multi-purpose device: provides preamps, direct monitoring, phantom power, etc.
- A built-in headphone amp might not be the best audio quality
- Some audio interface brands do not provide enough impedance power
What Is a Headphone Amp?
A headphone amp is used to turn up the volume of the audio you’re listening to.
Every audio output device is equipped with a built-in audio amplifier, and an audio interface is one of them.
However, you might want to purchase a dedicated headphone amp, and the built-in amp in your audio interface might not give you the best sound quality.
Headphone sound quality is greatly affected by the headphone amp you use.
Some systems require you to use a headphone amp because they are not strong enough to support the headphones, hence the need for these amps in certain systems.
- Better amplification components
- Better sound quality (compared to built-in headphone amps in audio interfaces)
- More Impedance power
- Easier to set up. Just plug and play!
- Not capable of recording audio
Are Audio Interface and Amp the Same Thing?
A headphone amp has only one function: to boost the audio signal of your audio recording.
Meanwhile, an audio interface is capable of the same thing and more. You will need an audio interface to record audio and instruments.
Audio interfaces are also vital if you want to listen to your audio using speaker outputs such as monitor speakers and powerful speakers. A headphone amp only has headphone outputs.
There is a built-in headphone amp in your audio interface, but some producers choose to buy a dedicated headphone amp to use instead.
Audio Interface vs Amp: Full Breakdown
Now that you’ve seen the most basic differences, let’s break them down further:
A Headphone amp is used solely for listening with headphones and driving enough power into them.
A headphone amplifier also boosts the audio signal while reducing distortion and other types of interference.
Most headphone amplifiers offer analog I/O through RCA or a headphone jack.
Meanwhile, an audio interface is used for recording audio from a mic (including XLR condenser microphones) and musical instruments to your computer.
An audio interface also allows you to edit your audio in your DAW.
Audio interfaces also have a feature called direct monitoring, which allows you to listen to the input signal of the interface with near-zero latency.
Aside from that, audio interfaces can provide outputs for line-level signals, power speakers, studio monitors, and even headphone outputs.
All audio interfaces provide built-in headphone amps to use for your headphone outputs.
In this category, the audio interface wins as it is a multi-functional audio device without which a professional music producer can not work.
WINNER: Audio Interface
Most audio interfaces’ built-in headphone amps can let you hear your audio through the headphone output fine.
And with a decent audio interface, you won’t even notice the difference in the quality of sound.
However, some cheap audio interfaces have low-quality electrical components and cannot provide enough impedance to power high-impedance headphones.
Many audio interfaces of this quality provide either a distorted audio signal or something so low that you can barely hear through your studio headphones.
You will need a dedicated headphone amp for better sound quality in rare cases like these.
Additionally, headphone amps are less prone to latency than audio interfaces are.
The external headphone amplifier wins this round. But only by a small margin.
Sound signals are immediately amplified when you use headphone amps. A headphone amp will NEVER give you latency if connected through a wire.
When you use wireless amps, the farther you are from the amp, the more latency you will experience.
On the other hand, an audio interface is also more prone to latency than a headphone amp. But don’t worry. There is a way to bring the latency down using your computer.
All you have to do is reduce your buffer size, increase the sample rate, and ensure your setup is not too heavy on your computer.
Doing this will ensure that your computer still has enough power to keep the latency at a minimum.
In this round which has less latency, the wired amp wins.
Headphone amps are usually priced from $49 to $199, while modern audio interfaces can range from $49 to $399, depending on the brand and model.
Headphone amps are cheaper, but audio interfaces provide more value in the long run.
As a professional music producer, you will NEED to purchase an audio interface sooner or later in your career.
On the other hand, you won’t need a headphone amp immediately, even if it provides the best quality of sound to your high-impedance headphones.
Good audio interfaces also have more functions, so they are a more worthy (and vital) investment than headphone amps.
Headphone amps win this round if we’re looking at the prices, but good quality audio interfaces win if we look at the value.
An audio interface is designed to work with a desktop computer or a laptop; it can never work alone.
An audio interface is also usually bigger than a headphone amp, as they are not designed to be carried to different places frequently.
Meanwhile, a headphone amp can easily be taken everywhere and is super easy to set up. Just plug and play!
Additionally, headphone amps come in travel-friendly, compact sizes that are specifically defined for on-the-go amplification, unlike interfaces that are all big and bulky.
In this round, the amp wins.
Audio Interface vs. Guitar Amp
An amplifier’s sole job is to amplify or boost weak sound signals and play them through your headphones, speakers, and other audio outputs.
And since both audio devices are amps, guitar amps and headphone amps work similarly.
If a headphone amp amplifies the audio signal from your computer to your studio headphones, a guitar amp picks up the sound waves created by your guitar strumming.
Then that signal is amplified or boosted by your guitar amp and played through its built-in speakers.
And just like headphone amps, guitar amps can not be used for recording music and processing audio on your computer.
A guitar amp is also priced lower than an audio interface.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Do you still have questions about the audio interface and headphone amp? We’ve got you!
Can an Audio Interface Be Used as an Amp?
Every audio interface has a built-in headphone amp so you can use it as a headphone amp!
Although, the sound quality might be slightly lower than a separate headphone amp. But don’t worry, it isn’t usually noticeable!
Plus, most audio interfaces have two headphone outputs, allowing you and another person to listen to your work!
Do I Need a Headphone Amp if I Have an Audio Interface?
Like we just said, every audio interface can also function as a headphone amp since it has its headphone amp inside.
And sure, a separate amp will sound better than what’s inside your audio interface, but the two are generally of similar quality.
So unless your audio interface can not provide enough gain for your high impedance headphones, getting external headphone amplifiers is a good idea.
Do Audio Interfaces Have Good DACs?
Just like headphone amps, DACs are also built into every audio interface available in the market.
DACs are essential to every audio interface since it is what allows digital output to be played through your audio output devices.
Because the DAC provides a very important function, most audio interfaces have DACs with the highest quality audio equipment.
So yes, most audio interfaces do have good DACs.
Can I Play an Electric Guitar Without an Amp?
Although its electrical components prevent it from being played like you would an acoustic guitar, here are a few things you can connect it to aside from an amp:
- Professional headphones
- Multi-effects pedal
Can I use Earbuds or Loudspeakers on a Headphone Amp?
For loudspeakers, no.
Headphone amps are designed for powering headphones, so they might not have enough power to provide loudspeakers.
Not only that but using a headphone amp with loudspeakers might damage it. The speakers will use a lot of the headphone amplifier’s electricity, which can be harmful.
For earbuds, you don’t need a headphone amp.
Earbuds usually have a low impedance, so you wouldn’t notice the difference in sound even if you use them with a headphone amp.
Are Studio Headphones Better Than Regular Headphones?
As always, higher quality equipment means better, clearer, and more accurate sound regarding music technology.
Investing in good-quality studio headphones will greatly improve the quality of your work.
But don’t just stop at getting good professional headphones. You should also work on discovering the ideal frequency response for your headphones.
You want to aim for the most neutral frequency response for the most accurate sound.
Does the Audio Interface Affect the Sound Quality of Amp Sims?
Yes, but it’s barely noticeable. You might not even be able to spot it.
Regardless of your audio interface, your sound quality should be fine as long as your signal is not peaking at the input.
Use an Audio Interface If…
You want a multi-purpose device that can aid you in recording audio and producing music, and you don’t mind a setup that’s a little more complicated.
An audio interface is also a great choice if you want the benefits of both an audio interface and a headphone amp.
Since it already has its headphone amplifier inside, it’s like getting multiple audio devices instead of just one!
An audio interface is also equipped with various components, including DAC and ADC chips, headphone amplifiers, microphone preamps, MIDI I/O, and more.
It’s also easier to select an amp simulator because almost everything sounds good. We recommend BIAS amp, Guitar Rig, and Amplitube for good amp sims.
How to Choose the Best Audio Interface
Here are a few factors to look out for:
- Compatibility with your existing devices. Will it work with your existing DAW? What about passive speakers and other audio equipment like microphones, etc.?
- The number of outputs. Most beginner-level audio interfaces come with at least two headphone outputs, but is that enough for you?
- Power supply. Audio interfaces source power from a separate DC jack or a USB connection to your computer, where you run your DAW. Which setup would be more convenient for you?
- Price point. Don’t be afraid to start with a budget audio interface! You can start small and later upgrade to a premium one as you go.
Use a Headphone Amp If…
You won’t be doing any voice or live instrument recording in your studio, or your existing audio interface can not power your high-impedance headphones.
Headphone amps are also for you if you are unwilling to compromise on a high-quality listening setup to power your powerful multiple headphones.
Or, if you need multiple headphone outputs, extend the headphone output number of your audio interface or computer.
Headphone amplifiers are also a great choice if you want the ease of use and portability.
A headphone amplifier is a plug-and-play device and is small enough to be taken everywhere!
How to Choose the Best Headphone Amplifier
Did you decide to get a headphone amplifier instead of an audio interface? Here’s how to pick the best headphone amplifier!
- Size. If being a handy and compact device is why you chose a headphone amplifier over an audio interface, go for the smallest and most portable headphone amplifier model.
- Connection. You also want to ensure your headphone amplifiers will work with your existing audio devices. Don’t forget to check both the output and input ports!
- Headphone output count. If you’re getting headphones amps to extend your number of output channels, you might as well get one with several headphone outs.
And that’s all!
We hope you learned the important differences between audio interface and amp in this article and that you were able to finally decide on which device to get for your home studio.
If you still haven’t decided on which device to purchase, we recommend getting an audio interface.
If you already have an existing interface that can’t power your headphones or have no plans to record music, choosing an amp over an interface isn’t wise.
Good luck with your music production!