Among life’s great questions—Why do we exist? What is the key to happiness? Where is the remote?—stands one that continues to vex music lovers and newcomers to the audiophile community: What is an amp?
How It Works
Lots of us might have a basic idea of what an amp does, but exactly how it functions (and the many benefits it can provide) are larger questions worth considering. The word amp is derived from the latin word amplificare, which means “to expand” or “to enlarge.” The basic function of an amplifier is to increase the power of a signal by taking energy from a power supply and converting it to a larger amplitude—therefore boosting that signal.
When sound is recorded, an electrical signal is generated through a series of vibrations and fluctuations in air pressure. First, sound waves move a microphone diaphragm back and forth, and the microphone converts that movement into an electrical signal. Then, a recorder encodes that signal as a pattern in a certain format, like grooves in a record, magnetic impulses on a tape, or ones and zeroes on a hard drive. Once the medium is determined for playback, a device reinterprets the pattern and uses electricity to move (or “drive”) a speaker. The goal is to reproduce the vibrations and fluctuations in air pressure to most accurately represent the original sound.
Pairing Your Device
What happens when that signal is not strong enough to drive the speaker on the other end? Simple: Your music won’t sound nearly as good. In fact, it might not sound like anything at all. Some headphones require so much oomph to be driven that they are basically unlistenable without proper power. That’s where an amplifier comes in.
Virtually every device that produces sound—your MP3 player, computer, TV, etc.—has a built-in amplifier. But often, manufacturers compromise on the size of the amp when trying to pack other features into their products. Most MP3 players are known for their portability, battery life, and relatively good sound quality, but they’re not so great when it comes to driving a hefty set of headphones. A stand-alone headphone amp has much more space dedicated to better circuitry and power supply. This provides more output power and better control of the drivers for more detail and clarity in your tunes.
Tube or Solid State
Given that headphones range greatly in price and performance, it makes sense for there to be a lot of variation in headphone amplifiers, too. The two most common types of amps used today are tube amps and solid-state amps.
Tube amps, invented in the early 1900s, use one or more vacuum tubes to physically increase the amplitude of a signal. They’re generally more expensive than solid-state amps because the technology that goes into them is more costly. They require additional care because the tubes need to be replaced every so often. They’re also touchier and more sensitive, because they produce an analog signal, and the resulting sound—generally warm, sweet, and natural—is a favorite of music purists.
A solid-state amp uses solid electronic parts like transistors and diodes to amplify a signal. Ubiquitously implemented in the 1950s, they’re typically cheaper than tube amps because the semi-conductor technology that goes into them is easier to mass produce. Since they use smaller, solid hardware components, these types of amps are easier to take on the go and aren’t as sensitive as their tube counterparts, making them a more accessible option for many people.
It’s important to note that choosing the right amp is also a subjective process—which is why the debate between solid-state and tube amplifiers still rages on today, more than 50 years after the invention of the transistor. The best way to find the right amp is to pick one up for yourself.
Leave ‘em in the comment section below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a cool audio setup to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too!
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