headphone amps?
May 13, 2007 6:19 PM   Subscribe

A friend recently gave me a pair of used Sennheiser HD - 600 headphones. Plugged directly into the back of my computer they sound very meh. So I'm guessing they need an amp. What are some of the best at the best price that will work with my computer?
posted by vronsky to Technology (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Two things may be at play here.

either this or you're not used to hearing things coming from a really badass set of headphones from a (guessing) not so awesome soundcard, pumping out 128k mp3's?

Without any more information, i'd say your money is better spent on a better soundcard. Those cans you got have very sensitive speakers, and they'll reproduce funky line noise made from a not-so-great soundcard.

Then again, they may just be shot.
posted by onedarkride at 6:36 PM on May 13, 2007

a really badass set of headphones

Yeah, they are very nice. But, c'mon, claiming they go down to 12 hz is just one of those "if it sounds too good to be true" things. Too bad they had to futz with the bass instead of being real down there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:58 PM on May 13, 2007

I have this amp. I like it.
posted by funkbrain at 7:20 PM on May 13, 2007

I have a pair of HD650's and I can clearly hear down to 8 Hz, 12 easily, and 15 is very clear. It doesn't really get loud until 20ish though. I believe the 650's are just slightly upgraded 600's using the same driver(s).

They can certainly sound very meh. An amp is absolutely not necessary. All you need is a decent sound card. Also, tweak your Equalizer in whatever program you use to play music. I found that reducing the 100-250 Hz region a bit helped liven up the sound.

Or you could bypass the sound card and get an amp with a built in DAC, that is what I have and it is absolutely fantastic. For recommendations headfi is the place.
posted by parallax7d at 7:28 PM on May 13, 2007

You can hear 8hz? I can count at 8hz...
posted by aubilenon at 7:32 PM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, at very low levels actually. 3 Hz if I turn up the volume a bit. The HD 650's are amazing coupled to an amplifier.
posted by parallax7d at 7:40 PM on May 13, 2007

parallax, I believe you mean KHz. 1Hz = 1/sec...

From the CDC: "The frequency range for human hearing lies between 20 Hz and approximately 20,000 Hz. The sensitivity of the human ear drops off sharply below about 500 Hz and above 4,000 Hz."
posted by toomuchpete at 8:05 PM on May 13, 2007

Human hearing can go to 0, I'm sure most people could hear 3 Hz if they had a way of generating the waveform with enough amplitude/intensity to be noticeable. 20 Hz is often quoted as the lowest a human can hear, It's just a myth. It is true that music doesn't contain much useful data below 20 Hz, so perhaps that's why.
posted by parallax7d at 8:12 PM on May 13, 2007

<skeptic>An amplifier increases the amplitude of a signal. That's all.

If your input is of poor quality, another device in the signal path won't help you one bit. In that case, you need to replace whatever is generating the low-quality signal (presumably, your sound card).

If the input is a high-quality signal (i.e., you have a good sound card), and it can drive your headphones to reasonable volumes, you don't need an amp, despite what the audiophiles will tell you.</skeptic>

In summary: yeah, you probably need a better sound card.
posted by smably at 8:13 PM on May 13, 2007

The Headroom Cosmic swings both ways, home or on the go...and is designed to be the absolute pinnacle of portable amplifiers.
posted by Exchequer at 8:48 PM on May 13, 2007

Your HD600s definitely need good amplification. I have no experience with the 600s personally, but I do own a pair of HD590s, which as I understand are lower impedance than the 600s, and even these require a good amount of juice to sound their best. Mine sound "okay" direct from a sound card or my iPod, but then again so does my pair of Sennheiser PX100s, which are about one-quarter the price.
posted by neckro23 at 10:28 PM on May 13, 2007

Are you at all electronically handy? I built a nice little LM386 headphone amp, actually adapted for my brother's guitar for travelling, but the circuit was for music. I can try and dig up a link or schematic if you're interested.

The project was cheap and simple enough to assemble on perfboard. It sounded really good, actually.
posted by 6550 at 10:31 PM on May 13, 2007

Try an M-Audio Transit. I got one for my stereo, and it sounds a hell of a lot better than the straight soundcard.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:07 PM on May 13, 2007

...but I do own a pair of HD590s, which as I understand are lower impedance than the 600s, and even these require a good amount of juice to sound their best.

Seconding this. I have a pair of HD570s, which I love, but which are underdriven by any common audio equipment other than a real amplifier.

I've been thinking about getting one of these HeadRoom headphone amps for a couple years, though I've not gotten around to it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:41 AM on May 14, 2007

I have long experience with these. They are absolutely delightful headphones; assuming they're working, they're some of the nicest you'll find anywhere in the price range.

First, to the people whinging about 12Hz.... nothing much below 30 matters on headphones anyway. Bass below that point is stuff you feel, not hear. It's the stuff that rumbles the floor and rattles the blinds, which is very rarely part of most music. (pipe organs are an exception.) Even rap doesn't usually go down that far. They probably DO put out 12Hz, but it doesn't matter, because you can't hear it with your ears anyway.

I believe that's the source of a lot of hearing damage...people want that full-body sense of being pounded by the bass, but to get anything like that from headphones, you have to crank it to the point of liquefying your ears.

Ok.... to get good sound out of Senns, you first absolutely must have a good source. Nearly all computer sources suck. You can get good ones, but you have to really look. Standard Windows audio forces a resample of everything to 48khz, and most soundcards do this very poorly, butchering the sound.

Once you have a good DAC, you also ideally want an amplifier. The Senns are high-impedance cans, meaning that a normal headphone out doesn't have enough juice to drive them to their full potential. They'll still sound good on almost any decent source, but they don't really sit up and SING until they have an amp.

You can solve these problems either together or separately. One easy solution is the Total Bithead from Headroom. It's on sale right now for $149, which is a good price... normally these are $200. I've bought several things from these folks, and they're very good to deal with. I really like them.

The Total Bithead combines a decent DAC and a nice little headphone amp all in one. It can run off USB power, or you can put batteries in for more output juice. (this is better). I think the sound is still a bit mangulated by Wndows, but it seems to be mangulated a lot less than other solutions. I wasn't able to drive my Bithead in ASIO or Kernel Streaming mode. (I'll get into that later.) This will solve 90% of your problem in one unit... buy, plug in, aim your music program at the Bithead, done.

If you want to spend more time and effort, you can get better sound still. You can still pick up the Bithead, as it's a nice little headphone amp for cheap, but you can definitely get better DACs.

One of my favorite methods is to use the Chaintech AV-710, a $25 soundcard, and use it to drive an external receiver in lossless mode. If you use Kernel Streaming or ASIO, you bypass all the Windows mangulation and send a perfect bitstream down the S/PDIF to the receiver, which will have a much better DAC than most soundcards. Combine this solution with the the analog amp section of the Bithead (as most receivers have an anemic headphone out as well), and you'll be in hog heaven. The only players I know that support kernel streaming and/or ASIO are Foobar2000 and Winamp; you can add plugins to both.

If you don't have a receiver available (you can get decent Onkyo 504s for about $250), the Creative X-Fi is another possibility. By default it does the usual 48Khz resample. It does a better job than most, but you can also set it to Audio Creation mode and drive it directly at 44.1Khz. If you already have a receiver, I'd do the 710, but if you don't, the X-Fi would sound pretty good for less money than 710+receiver. If you get up into the Platinum model, it has a 5.25" bay with a plug on the front for headphones, which is handy. I had trouble using ASIO with my X-Fi, but kernel streaming worked fine; they're both the same in terms of music playback.

You can also approach it from a completely different angle, and pick up a Squeezebox 3 from Slim Devices. These are music players that run from a piece of server software installed somewhere in your network. These things sound absolutely delicious; their headphone out is awesome. It's all liquid and floaty and just incredible. Still needs an amp... but the combo of a Squeezebox, Bithead, and HD600 is the best music I've ever heard. Interestingly, the Squeezeboxes don't even use terribly expensive parts... just solid, well-respected Burr-Browns... but they do such a nice job on engineering that they sound just unbelievably amazing. They do NOT function as computer soundcards; they only play music from their (free) server software. But they sound incredible.

Squeezeboxes are about $300, but they'll bat toe-to-toe with $1K to $1500 CD players in terms of sound quality. They're audiophile grade, but priced more like computer equipment.

You can also use the Squeezebox as a digital transport and then drive the headphones with a receiver, but if you're gonna do that, you'd probably prefer the Chaintech soundcard instead... same sound, a tenth the cost. :)

Okay, recapping, your options are, in order of price:

1. Total Bithead: $150. Problem mostly solved.
2. 710 + Bithead: $180 or so. Requires existing receiver. Sounds better.
3. X-Fi + Bithead: $230 or so. Probably won't sound quite as good as #2, but if you don't have a receiver, is much cheaper. This is also much better if you're a gamer; the 710 drivers suck. They're fine for music playback, but rotten for almost anything else.
4. 710 + Bithead + Onkyo 504: $425; large setup, sounds excellent.
5. Squeezebox + Bithead: $450. Plus setup time getting the server software running -- usually not too bad. Will sound toe-tinglingly impressive, and is much smaller, but will not function as a computer soundcard.

Note that in all these cases after #1, you're using just the analog amp section of the Bithead, and bypassing its DAC. Normally, you could save fifty bucks by buying the analog-only Total Airhead, but with the sale, they're the same price. Might as well grab the Bithead... you can use it for a good portable sound source for a laptop or something.

If you want to get really ritzy, you can get into much more expensive headphone amps, but most blind testing suggests that people have a hard time telling the difference between amplifiers as long as they're not driven past their limits. From what I've read, the Total Bithead will probably be 95-98% as good as anything under $1k, but I have not done personal listening tests to be certain.
posted by Malor at 4:18 AM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

They are some of the best cans available and should sound great with or without a headphone amp. If they don't sound right they may be shot or your soundcard may be bad. Try them in your stereo, mp3 player whatever to see whether it is them. The main difference upon adding a headphone amp should be better bass performance.
posted by caddis at 4:59 AM on May 14, 2007

I love my total bithead. Definitely nthing that suggestion.
posted by kdar at 7:04 AM on May 14, 2007

The 12 hz comment refers to the fact that bitsy headphones aren't going to do that under normal circumstances. Sennheiser admits to adding bass boosting circuitry down there, and as we know, you can't select any frequency band using filters, electrical or otherwise, without goofing up the phase, and other sound attributes. 'Course mp3s discard the phase altogether. If phase matters anywhere, its going to be localization, which headphones have a shot at.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:20 PM on May 14, 2007

Bass below that point is stuff you feel, not hear. It's the stuff that rumbles the floor and rattles the blinds, which is very rarely part of most music.

Apparently you haven't heard of hip-hop.
posted by j-urb at 3:19 PM on May 14, 2007

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