May 25, 20163592 views

Massdrop 101: What Is An Amp?

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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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What Now?
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.
Any Questions?
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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yajue, evan.kahn, and 8 others
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"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."
This sentence doesn't really make sense, every amplifier produces an analog signal whether it's tube/solid state. Why would that make a tube amp touchier and more sensitive?
In my experience, tube amps are touchier and more sensitive because of RF interference with the tubes as well as the fact that most tubes need at least 100 hrs of burn-in to sound their best. Not to mention it takes 10-30 min for tubes to stabilize once you flip the power switch.
There are two issue folks. 1/ Audio enjoyment is a subjective endeavor. Period. In this world we strive to obtain objective information, desperately. The only real objective information is empirical, meaning, what are other peoples experience with a given product. 2. Secondly, there is a lot of what I call digititus out there. We have, through huge marketing efforts in all consumer endeavors, been lead to believe if something is named digital, it is one of two things, period - on or off, high or low, works or does not work. This leads people to black and white thinking, and/or zero sum gain thinking. It amazes me. No signals or products are purely digital, period. I see people constantly labeling products and technologies as thus, where as in their respective field they would never do this. Can you imagine someone in criminology after 20+ years experience saying that all criminals are either evil or not, period, there is no in between. Or a teacher saying kids are either dumb or smart, period. Hardware is analog. It is exists in the physical world, and thus, it has many aspects to it. Just because it is difficult to articulate this does not make it true.
So my advice is to try to see what people have to say about the sound of the product, in unfortunately qualitative language. With a degree in Electronic Engineering and going on 30+ years in many different facets of the hardware industry, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know. It is damn near impossible to explain to someone with no experience why a better "digital" cable makes a difference. Just as it is someone in banking to explain what money really is.
Read reviews and comments. Stay away from advice from folks who say things like "you cannot tell the difference between a MP3 signal with X resolution from one with Y." Come on, how the hell do they know? What they can offer is that they cannot hear the difference. If you like music then take the jump, and see for yourself.
Good Luck and Enjoy - the more people joining this hobby, the more we all benefit.
The balanced amp with the Massdrop logo on the top. A NEW PRODUCT ?
The market demands - today people are willing to drop BIG bucks based on other people's stories on what you should expect to hear and forming big expectations (buy first, audition, then buy again). The suppliers are just jumping onto the demand train to cash in. Hopefully this gets reinvested for some real innovation.
Stax, HD800, headamps, etc used to cost a 'fortune' back in 2006. Now they are "average priced" compared to the Other top of line. People seem very ready to drop 2 to 3 grand on a totl headphone, then another 2 grand on a portable DAC and amp.
There's a lot of variety out there and a lot of schnake oil.
To answer your question is nothing has changed other than the current flavor of the month. It's still just solid state, tubes, transistors, transformers, class a b ab d t, planars, dynamics, hybrids of the above. The wheel hasn't been reinvented yet. The playing field is just a lot bigger.
Here's some designs from the past that I'm waiting to see recycled as "breakthrough new technology". This is exciting times.
Tube + class d hybrid otl... wait it's already here
Akg340 - hybrid planar dynamic headphones
Black Diamond HA - transformer coupled solid state amp
Greetings,
This topic may have grown cold, but, just in case, I thought I'd see if I can get my curiousity satisfied from you guys/gals.
Can someone explain the, seemingly, never-ending proliferation of new instances of the, so-called, 'Headphone Amp' that we have been witness to over the last, I don't know, maybe 5 years?
Maybe it's just that I started noticing, but it seems like this is, as I suggest, a recent and noticeable phenomenon. Another thing about this is that it seems the vast majority of new examples are tube amps.
So, if someone with the benefit of having paid attention to these matters during recent history could corroborate and explain; or contradict and, well... that will be enough. Set me straight and I will go back to sleep ;-).
Thanks.
- s.west
I have just started getting into audiophile and I was wondering about if I need an amp or dac. I enjoy having full audio quality and I was wondering if I would get the best experience with one?
Max_Cohen
It really depends on your current headphones. Some very nice headphones and IEMs nowadays can be easily powered by a smartphone, and may not benefit from an amp. Here is a good articles about amps and headphones. It gets pretty technical in some parts but I've found it's a pretty good covering of what you should know! http://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/02/headphone-amp-impedance.html
XxMRGAMERZxX
Do you have an audiophile music library built up already?
Hello guys and gals I am looking for a good dac and amp combo for my new akg 7xxx. Any recommendations.? These are my first audiophile sets
XxMRGAMERZxX
Do you have an audiophile music library built up already?
My setup with the TH-X00, and enough amplifying options
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musikaladin
lol, quite a contrast with the simplicity of the pictures above (a single planar + small tube amp + plant and headphone rest vs what audiophiles get after some time in their quest)
My personal preferences lean towards "amp it" but I also have these amps around for phones that require them so I can't say that mantra is right for everyone. My opinion on amps:
Required: High Impedance (250+) Low Sensitivity (<100) Very Low Impedance (<16) and High Sensitivity (>103) ...dedicated Hi-Fi DAP works too Double Magnet/Older Generation Planars Electrostatic Designs (duh)
Maybe: "I could use a bit more headroom" Noisy source Source impedance mismatch with can impedance (22 ohm output vs 8 ohm nominal impedance) Curious and have spare cash Current gen/single magnet planars "I want bass boost/tone controls" Certain headphones require more power than their specs would indicate.. e. g. AKG K7 series let your ears guide you more than the interwebs on these exceptions.
Not needed: Included earbuds/pods/etcs from phones and portable devices YOU ARE HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU HAVE
ElectronicVices
Basically if you don't know or don't care what's out there and you're content with what you have, then C'est la vie. In the beginning we strive for the impossible, then we get close to what really should makes us happy, that's a difficult path. We're almost there but quite often many of us have a component that can't live up to the rest of our system, to those that realize that, life become hell. From that point we play leapfrog for eternity!
I hope that amp is a Massdrop X something and I also hope it is cheap (less than $70) because I just got into the audiophile community with the HE-350
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I would put an amp purchase as a higher priority than a DAC purchase. The O2 is a good way to get your feet wet, I have one of the MD O2's (launch drop) and it's a pretty solid piece of gear. It doesn't compete in the same class as my Lyr or H10 but those are also several times the O2's price! (feel free to flame me O2 fan boys but the O2 is not gods gift to audio)
ElectronicVices
Agree, I juat don't rrally havr the space on my desk to stack two big boxes, lol and does anyone know if the dac and amp from a blue yeti would be better than the one from a motherboard. I can always wait for them to arrive and see if it is better.
Guys, the amp looks a lot like the Yulong A28...
Armaegis
Looks like the Yulong to me
I want that MD Amp! :)
Umm. Another Massdrop X SomethingAwesome?
#Amp4Life #EmptyWallet
Did you just tease another Massdrop X X amp? Ermurgerd!!! (Could just be a custom inscription, but you can't keep my hopes down man)
I see a lot of discussion in audiophile forums and even here on Massdrop about whether or not you need an amp to drive headphones with x impedance.
Need being the wrong word for what is really being asked aside; the answer is always, "YES!" shouted as loudly as you can without scaring someone. You certainly don't need it, but you certainly will benefit from it in terms of sound quality.
There are better and worse amplifiers and this article(is that what these are called?) touches on that a little but alludes more to a necessity to drive higher impedance cans. An ideal amplifier can drive an infinite slew rate and source infinite current to drive any load to the target voltage it's trying to output. It's not physically possible for an amp to do that but the closer you can get to that ideal, the closer you'll get to recreating the original signal (or a higher magnitude version of it at least). Higher output power means better signal reproduction and a more responsive amplifier not that it will blow up your low impedance cans. It certainly can do that too, but won't unless you're doing something wrong.
Can you drive 32Ω headphones with your iPhone? Yes, but they will always sound better being driven by an amplifier with a higher output power rating and that's just physics. The output amp on your phone is a trade-off between performance and battery life, just like everything else in the device. You can get a decent little amp for ~30USD that has ~2x the output power capacity of an iPhone (or most any other mobile phone) if you're on that kind of budget.
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I'm referring to the actual signal reproduction when I speak to sound quality. The headphones will not sound louder unless you are doing something wrong with your volume settings but the sound quality will still be better from a headphone amp for a given volume.
Here's my anecdotal evidence since it appeals more to some: I'm using the most sensitive circumaural cans I've ever come across on my portable rig (AKG K267 with 112-117dB sensitivity depending on who measured it), but I still don't like to listen without my FiiO e11k because it brings out so much more clarity and detail (and soundstage and headroom and...) than straight from any portable source I've used it with. Granted, I've not tried them with a really good DAP but most of those that are built for high quality audio will be built with a good output amp anyway so they must be viewed differently than a smartphone.
" And many (not so portable/sensitive) cans always sound better when amped."
Sounds like you're contradicting yourself with that last sentence. If the point you're making is that more power does not lead to better sound that is.