Welcome to another product battle between a headphone amp and an audio interface!
Find out which product between the two you will end up needing the most when mixing and creating your music production.
We’ll give you the full coverage on both these products and help you narrow down your decision in improving your entire music production.
Let’s begin to find out!
- When choosing between the headphone amp or an audio interface (AI), it is best to buy the amp if you plan on linking different headphone outputs.
- You should buy an AI if you want to focus solely on streaming, making music, or recording a podcast.
Audio Interface and Headphone Amp: Brief Overview
Starting with a little background on the two products, we’ll keep it light and give you an overview and an in-depth description.
Keep your eyes peeled for even the small details because that will help you know which between the two you’ll need.
What Is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a music device with SEVERAL purposes, and it is used for recording and examining audio.
An audio interface has a digital-analog converter (DAC) for line-outs, an analog to digital converter, and mic preamps.
An audio interface has a built-in headphone amp that amplifies its output.
Podcasters and streamers mostly use AIs because it only has a few mic preamp input channels for recording audio.
Most audio interfaces have input channels for microphones and instruments in the form of XLR ports.
The interface absorbs power through a separate DJ jack or the USB connection with the computer running your DAW.
Benefits of an Audio Interface
What are the advantages that you can get from an audio interface? Here are a bunch that might see you off your feet.
If we are only talking about the lines within the music production, you can attain more control over your multiple headphones.
You are also better off getting an audio interface with multiple headphone outputs.
You can use many DAW features on the multiple channels of your audio interface, which beats the headphone amp because it only has one stereo output.
Enhanced Audio Quality
Consider an audio interface and an external audio card. It’s immensely specialized and formulated to provide high quality!
The audio playback produced by an audio interface is made with more fidelity and higher quality.
This proves that an audio interface is your partner in crime in deep mixing and mastering your music in your home or studio.
An audio interface can surely give you better audio quality!
Most audio interfaces have at least one stereo output for your headphones and studio monitors. You can even utilize those headphone outputs for another set of monitors.
However, if you decide to do that, you’ll need two mono cables added to a single stereo jack.
Audio interfaces are great at managing passive monitors, so you will never experience a power shortage around them.
It also eliminates the need for many cables that will bulk up surroundings because these connections are summed up in one USB connection.
Each audio interface has phantom power that can fire up your condenser microphones.
If you have no idea what latency is, it is when your audio signals become delayed by one or two seconds after being initially played.
In short, the sounds you hear from your monitors are not reflected in real time.
But don’t worry! An audio interface will combat this problem!
Audio interfaces allow you to change the buffer size of your system by setting it to 32 samples, which is the minimum value.
You will have a LATENCY-FREE signal!
High-Quality Preamps and Converters
An audio interface can also let you record audio, either electrical components or microphones, in high resolution.
Most units provide high-quality preamps, which can be useful in more challenging cases.
It will vary on the price range, but a single channel on an audio interface is 16 or even 32 input channels.
For some music producers, 32 input channels might already be too much, but at least two are enough to suffice the needs of most home studios and recording tasks.
You can add more if you’re going to record an entire band or whole drum kit together!
Moreover, converters that translate your analog signal to digital are usually great. You wouldn’t lose any audio signal or sound quality in the process!
Disadvantages of an Audio Interface
This may surprise you, but there is only one main disadvantage of an audio interface, and this is it:
Extra Piece of Gear
The main con of using an audio interface is that it adds an extra piece of gear to your entire setup.
If you are mixing and recording audio equipment on your laptop, you will need something to record it properly using external mic preamps.
Unless you have an audio interface with built-in microphone preamps, this would make you need extra gear.
If you’re also struggling with managing an extra piece of gear, you have to ensure that your audio interface is cooperating with your computer.
It might also be better for you to use built-in audio if you don’t have plans on recording sound quality through microphones or multiple line inputs.
What Is a Headphone Amp?
A headphone amp intensifies the audio signal for high impedance headphones to create audio signals with the best sound quality.
Headphone amps take analog signals from an audio playback source such as audio interfaces, phones, CD players, computers, etc.
Headphone amps enhance these sources, so the signals are loud enough to drive headphones.
It operates WITHOUT adding any noise, but unlike an audio interface, headphone amps do not link directly to your computer via data connections like Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB.
A headphone amp functions with analog audio output.
It pumps up the power from line-level signals to match the headphone impedance and creates an audio signal with enough power to fire up these heavy headphones.
What Is a Headphone Amp Best Used For?
Most of these heavy-duty headphones usually have impedances that run in third digits.
This means that if you use headphones without a dedicated headphone amp, you won’t achieve any fullness, volume, and clarity.
The most common usage for headphone amps is for hi-fi listening instead of studio use.
Noise-canceling headphones, computers, laptops, and smartphones come with their dedicated headphone amps,
But, they are not as powerful as external headphone amplifiers and cannot make more power to match high impedance headphones.
Pros/Benefits of Headphone Amps
Headphone amps also offer lots of advantages for you, so go over these thoroughly and compare them to the pros of audio interfaces.
Audio interfaces provide multi-functionality, but headphone amps promise exquisite sound quality. Headphone amps cater better internal components such as:
- Less distortion and noise
- Quality knobs
- Greater sample rate than commercial hardware
- More depth
With a dedicated headphone amp, it is undoubtedly more reliable and more capable of providing a consistent experience, thanks to its build quality.
Multiple Headphone Outputs
Several headphone amp units have multiple outputs as default, making dedicated headphone amps the ideal way to extend your headphone output on your audio interface.
Multiple headphone outputs are much more beneficial than you think, especially for studio sessions with many clients and performers.
Most professional headphones have an impedance of 250, while the typical consumer headphones have an impedance of 32.
Most audio players can fire up low-impedance headphones easily, while a pair of headphones with an impedance of 250 will demand amplification.
Most audio interfaces provide a built-in headphone amp, but a dedicated one is far more powerful.
Headphone amps can empower headphones with 250 impedance or even higher.
Although, this information does not mean that audio interfaces are not capable of creating sound quality on high impedance headphones.
You can connect headphone amps to ANY hardware with analog audio output and to any virtual audio player.
These audio players can be your cassette players, laptops, phones, iPods, turntables, and DVD players.
Although you’re going to use them for a studio, you could use them to hear sampler modules, keyboards, synths, and many more with only line output channels of your headphone.
Cons/Disadvantages of a Headphone Amp
It’s time to get real and find out what makes headphone amps unappealing to some and why you should not get them as well.
Accessory For Expensive Products
A headphone amp becomes necessary for products that already cost you a lot of money.
For example, when you buy multiple headphones from $40-$100, the gradual need for a headphone amplifier will increase.
Headphone amplifiers have a higher impedance than speakers, which also demands higher voltage.
This might not be ideal for beginners who want to make it in the music industry while staying on budget.
An amplifier with a low power output can’t properly power up high impedance headphones.
If you force it, you will encounter audio dropouts, odd frequency responses, and distorted signals even if you have a decent pair of headphones.
Different Types of Headphone Amps
Of course, when you need a headphone amp, you must also determine which type to get. Yes, there are three types of headphone amps, and we are going to dive into them here:
Solid State Amps
During these modern times, the most common headphones amps are solid-state amps. These amps are the most popular and used by people.
It is a cheap headphone amplifier that is both portable and reliable. This type of headphone amp will allow you to move around easily.
This type of headphone amp uses both advanced amplifier technologies.
Hybrid amps depend on tubes that give sound more warmth and color. This way, the electronic devices provide the power needed to fire them sufficiently.
A tube headphone amp is one of the first technologies in amplifiers that utilize a vacuum tube to process each audio signal from an audio player.
Some tube amps provide better and RICHER sounds than solid-state amps. We suggest you get this type if you want a high-quality listening setup.
Newer Headphone Amp with DAC
As we continue to evolve, there are headphone amps found with built-in DACs developing in the market.
These innovations can be an effortless way of listening to high-quality music from your laptop or phone.
Other than that, there are several advantages to these innovations too!
It mainly brings a lot of conveniences, especially if you want to connect an audio interface and a headphone amp.
Headphone Amps vs Audio Interfaces: Similarities and Differences
Now, we shall dive into how similar these two products are and how fairly different they are. This is a better way to determine which products will serve a better use for your music career.
There is not much common between these two products, but here they are:
- Most audio interfaces function as headphone amps.
- Audio interfaces have built-in headphone amps.
- A good headphone amp and audio interface have more than one headphone output.
- Audio interfaces will either have one or two headphone outputs, while the headphone amps have four output channels.
- They have a similar set of components connecting your speaker to your computer, called a digital to analog converter.
They have more differences which can help you decide which of these two products is the right one for you.
- An audio interface operates as a soundcard, while a headset amplifier cannot.
- An audio interface provides multi-functionality. It allows you to link instruments and monitor speaker outputs to your computer.
- A headphone amplifier needs an audio line out to connect to any device.
- Audio interfaces offer better drivers to optimize your CPU, while a headphone amplifier does not participate in CPU optimization.
- The former is only compatible with electrical components with data connections, while the latter is compatible with audio output or a headphone jack.
- Headphones do not have built-in amplifiers, unlike the audio interface’s headphone output, which is an alternative output.
Is Audio Interface Same as Headphone Amp?
If you are a music producer, you need an audio interface. The only time that you’ll need a headphone amp is when:
- You’ll use it for multiple headphones.
- Or use it for headphones with more impedance than your audio interface can manage.
Both an audio interface and a headphone amp have different functions, but their settings and your situation also matter!
Here are some factors that you should check to know how to use either one of the products:
When you use an audio interface, it bypasses its internal converter with a sufficient DAC.
Even if you have excellent amplification parts in a headphone amp, having a low-quality DAC on your computer’s motherboard can affect the hardware’s quality.
Your audio input is not usually the problem. Sometimes it could be your mic preamps, volume control, and speakers.
An audio interface is needed if you plan on listening to your studio headphones. It offers at least one stereo output for more headphone outputs.
Even a cheap headphone amp won’t allow you to use its outputs to power up speakers.
Do not go for cheap audio interfaces!
Instead, go for the ones that are affordable and have many features that you need. Many audio interfaces have many features for recording and playback.
A decent audio interface has an ASIO driver that helps your computer that assists by creating a route from your computer’s CPU to your DAC.
Frequently Asked Questions
The battle does not end here.
We’ve curated some big questions that could add more information to know the right choice for you.
What Is Headphone Impedance?
An impedance is considered a technical measurement that is also known as the resistance and reactivity contained in the driver unit of studio headphones.
It usually ranges from 8-600 ohms. The most common range for consumer headphones is 32-ohm impedance.
If the impedance is high, it will demand more power to run. You’ll need an external headphone amplifier to intensify the power to the required levels.
Why Are Some Headphones High or Low Impedance?
Low impedance headphones need high current sources. Generally, high impedance sources give high voltage but low current.
A balanced impedance from your dedicated headphone amplifier or studio headphones would be good for portable power requirements, but not for a clear analog audio signal or audio quality.
Headphones with very low impedance give poor quality as they are not capable of creating sound as accurately.
Can an Audio Interface Replace a Dedicated Headphone Amp?
You won’t need a dedicated headphone amp if your audio interface has enough gain, power, and impedance to MATCH your volume control, studio monitors, and headphone output.
A headphone amp and an audio interface are different tools. Even though you can use the latter as a headphone amp, you won’t get the same quality.
An interface becomes sufficient when it has the right amount of volume control and at least one headphone jack or more headphone outputs.
Do I Need a Headphone Amp if I Have an Audio Interface?
A headphone amp is not necessary if you already have the interface.
You’ll only need it if you want to use more than one set of headphones from one output.
Every device with a headphone port also contains a built-in amp, and audio interfaces have at least one headphone port.
That means interfaces can function sufficiently WITHOUT a separate or dedicated headphone amp’s input.
However, if you want to achieve an exquisite quality on your audio, that’s when a headphone amp can be handy.
Which Sounds Better, Audio Interfaces or Headphone Amps?
The quality you can receive from an audio interface could be better than a headphone amp because of the thorough process it goes through on your studio monitors or computers.
If your main goal is to only record sound, then the former can give you excellent output.
Any advancement from headphone amplifiers could be nullified if you have poor DACs and don’t have audio interfaces.
Which One Should You Buy?
The truth is, even if you already have your preference in mind, you must consider some factors before buying either one of the products.
You must consider the impedance of your existing headphones, microphone preamps, audio equipment, and many more.
When you have a preference, you must double-check each one’s ability to power up the levels that your equipment or interface needs.
You also have to check the features included in each product to know what matches your mixing style.
When to Buy an Audio Interface?
Like we’ve said, you should only buy an audio interface if you are aspiring to stream, make music, or record a podcast.
There could be professional audio equipment that will not be able to cooperate directly with your PC/computer or DAW.
If you are a dedicated music producer, studio interfaces are highly essential because they contain a feature called direct monitoring and phantom power.
With audio interfaces, you will still need a device to translate every audio signal into a line-level signal and vice versa.
You can utilize an audio interface as a headphone amplifier because it can offer EXCEPTIONAL power to drive high-impedance headphones.
Although, unlike a dedicated headphone amp, the built-in amplifier in an audio interface is not made with higher-quality standards.
When to Buy a Headphone Amplifier?
If you don’t have a dedicated headphone amp, your high impedance headphones will not be able to reach high volumes and will decrease the sound quality of the headphones.
Your sound can also run into distortion, interference, and noise.
In times like this, you would be better off using low-impedance headphone amps directly linked to your DAC or soundcard.
Why? Because you will need a separate headphone amp if you want to utilize high-impedance to achieve great headphone sound quality.
It would be best if you also bought these when you plan to link multiple headphone outputs.
Some headphone amps have multiple output ports; that way, you can connect 2-4 headphones without any defect in the overall sound quality.
When to Buy Both?
There will be situations where you’ll need both of these products, whether you’re a musician or a mixing engineer that needs a high-powered headphone amplifier.
You can get an external headphone amp and connect it to your interface using XLR or 1/4″ connectors.
On the other hand, if your headphones can configure the signal in your audio interface’s built-in headphone amp, it’s best to upgrade to a high-end version.
You can use a headphone amp for dispersing audio signals to several people in your studio.
If you must deliver extremely high-quality headphone signals to several people, we suggest buying a dedicated headphone amp and having a pair of line outs on your audio interface for each person.
You’ve learned about both products’ in-depth overview, similarities, and differences in this article.
In conclusion, even though an audio interface has its headphone amp, there will be situations when a dedicated headphone amp is a better option.
If you plan on building an excellent listening setup, you’ll need a DAC/amp combination that can provide a high performance that is more affordable than an interface.
However, buying an audio interface is your solution if you want an ALL-IN-ONE box for music production.
On another note, these two products complement one another! You can use them both for the perfect quality you desire.