Using a Headphone Amp: Worth It?

media, personal comments edit

I listen to a lot of music at work and thought it’d be nice to have a decent setup for that. I’m not what you’d refer to as an “audiophile” so much, but I have an opinion and I know what I think sounds good vs. what I think doesn’t sound good.

Listening to low-bandwidth streaming audio off my phone with $10 Bluetooth headphones is not good.

Decent headphones with my iPod Classic playing lossless directly is pretty good.

My first step was getting some decent headphones. Not being, as I said, an audiophile, I went with some good-bang-for-the-buck Sony MDR7506 over the ear headphones.

Sony MDR7506 Headphones

That was a definite improvement, but then I started looking at amps.

Headphone amps are expensive. Wow. In my opinion, most times it’s unjustifiably expensive like when you see the $1000 HDMI cable that you know won’t outperform the $6 version.

Anyway, I started looking at these things and realized… I need to take it a little slower. I’m not interested in dropping $100 on something I don’t know is going to make a difference. But I could dip my toe in the pool for, say, under $50 and see what the fuss is about, and if I really do like it maybe step up at some later time.

I picked up a DIY 6J1 tube preamp kit for $15 off both as a step toward this and as a fun little project. I like putting stuff together and I figured, why not? To be clear, I know this isn’t a super high-quality deal, but it’s at the right price point and will at least tell me if I like it.

Anyway, this particular preamp is said to “make the sound more warm.” It doesn’t help the volume, it’s more like it just changes the sound coming in. Sooo….

I also got a Behringer HA400 amplifier. That’s the thing that will help with the volume.

Behringer HA400 amplifier

All put together, here’s the whole setup:

My headphone amp setup

My audio source (phone, iPod, whatever) runs into the 6J1 preamp, then into the HA400 amp, then to the headphones.

It sounds pretty darn good.

I’ve done some totally non-scientific testing:

  • Plug headphones directly to audio source (bypass the amp setup)
  • Headphones to HA400 to audio source
  • Headphones to HA400 to preamp to audio source (the whole amp setup)

I listened to a few different songs, somewhat arbitrarily chosen yet representative of the sort of thing I listen to more often than not:

I listened to others throughout the day, these are just ones I started with and tried A/B testing with.


  • I definitely notice a difference in the sound between when the 6J1 preamp is in place vs. when it’s not. I guess that’s the “warmth” of the sound. It sounds to me like it’s a bit of bass boost and maybe a bit in the mid area as well. I wonder if you could accomplish the same thing with a decent graphic equalizer.
  • If you have the preamp, you definitely need the amp. Running through the preamp without the amp reduces the volume/power enough that you have to max out the volume on the source and the preamp to get back to a standard listening level.
  • The tubes that came with the DIY kit were crappy and introduced a lot of buzz so I had to replace them. I got some $1 replacements, none of this “tested audio matched pair” crap. Maybe those would be even better, but the replacements cost me a total of $2 and removed the buzz. There’s still a weird spot where there’s a very light buzz when the preamp is turned to exactly 50% power. I dunno. Fine. Turn it up a little and it goes away.
  • The amplifier by itself really doesn’t do anything but add volume. It doesn’t process the sound in any way. I didn’t expect it to, but, you know, to be clear, just having an amplifier doesn’t really do anything. It’s the preamp that changes the sound.

I think I’d like to try one of these more expensive all-in-one units where the preamp and amp are all in the same box, but I’ll admit I’d go in a bit biased. I paid about $40 for my setup and it sounds good enough for me. I can’t imagine the difference in sound would be enough to justify $100 or more.