Ever plug in your headphones and just wish that the sound was a little bit louder? You can hear the audio, but it’s not exactly where you want it to be.
You can’t pick up on those little details, and you’ve gone through every volume setting you can think of. If this sounds familiar, it’s because your laptop or desktop PC doesn’t have a high quality output.
That’s why headphone amplifiers exist. We’ll get into what they are in just a moment, but suffice to say, most modern laptops and PCs don’t have enough voltage or quality to output louder, higher quality sound to your headphones.
It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a PC: this just isn’t a highly sought-after option, so let’s take a look at what a headphone amplifier is and how it helps you.
What is a Headphone Amplifier?
A headphone amplifier is a small device that actually exists in most electronics, however they’re usually very underpowered, which is why some people seek out an external headphone amplifier (especially for podcast production).
Headphone amplifiers bring in additional voltage that your standard 3.5mm headphone jack in your laptop, phone, or PC simply can’t. From there, they can allow you to have higher volumes (at your own discretion of course), and make sound even deeper and richer than you’ve previously known.
An external headphone amplifier is used in podcasting for a variety of reasons, but most notably, it’s to measure quality during recording. These are also extremely helpful in the post-production phase to ensure clarity and solid audio levels throughout your content.
As the name implies, a headphone amplifier will amplify the output that travels from an audio source to your headphones. Most electronic devices with 3.5mm input jacks nowadays have small amplifiers built into them, but they’re nowhere near as effective as external amplifiers that can draw out more power.
Types of Headphone Amplifiers
You basically have three types of headphone amplifiers that you can use. Each has their own pros and cons, but at the end of the day, the choice is yours. Let’s go over them.
Tube amplifiers actually use tubes to amplify sound; it’s not some hyper technical name that means something crazy and in-depth. Tube amplifiers sound a lot different than solid state amplifiers, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other—they just sound wildly different.
Tube amps are considered to be a higher-end product because they’ve survived through audio technical revolutions, and are still preferred in some audio engineering and audio productions environments.
Solid State Amplifiers
Imagine that a solid state amp is the second coming of the tube amp. They use different technologies, but to similar effect. Solid state amps are much cheaper than tube amplifiers, however the sound may not be as rich or deep as a tube amp.
If you’ve used both in the past, you’ll be able to tell the difference, but both are a monumental upgrade from using simple 3.5mm headphone jacks in your laptop to listen to music and hear audio.
Solid state amplifiers don’t have complex tubes, so instead they use transistors to transform the currents into audible sounds. It sounds complicated (because it is), but it just means that there’s no moving tube, so it’s a bit easier to produce.
All these names are pretty on-the-nose, aren’t they? A hybrid amp is a mix between a tube amplifier and a solid state amplifier, giving you a blend of both sounds. Their prices vary since they aren’t as in-demand as either solid state amps or tube amps on their own, but they’re available and made by plenty of companies.
Reasons to Use Headphone Amplifier for Podcasting
Using amplifiers can help you in a wide variety of tasks for podcasting, from recording to the post-production stage.
- DAC: Digital-to-analog machines are powerful and help you take digital audio and transform it into analog audio. Analog audio is superior because, much like in the debate in WAV vs. MP3, you get unlimited bandwidth. MP3 has restrictions, so WAV is best, but playing WAV through digital outputs just doesn’t sound as crisp as it does with analog.
- More Volume: Simply put, you can hear everything louder. Amplifiers allow you to set the sound higher, which can be great during editing as we’ll talk about in a minute, but it can also just help you stay immersed in the audio while you look for inconsistencies. This also helps you understand which audio levels are drastically different from another without having to hop into your audio editing app just yet.
- Better Editing: During editing, you can pick up on background noise without missing a beat. You might hear a production assistant cough in the background, fingers tapping on a desk in the background of a microphone you thought was inactive, and plenty of other audio inconsistencies. If it’s loud enough for you to hear it, it could be distracting to your viewers. You’re not going to pick up on the small sounds with standard PC audio.
- Quality Feedback During Recording: When you podcast, you should have your headphones set to output your microphone sound. That way, you can monitor if there are any inconsistencies in your audio levels, and you can hear exactly how you’ll sound in the final production (save for a few audio tweaks here and there in post). It also allows you to monitor guests as they talk. It would be catastrophic to record an entire podcast only to realize that you couldn’t hear an entire guest’s audio.
How to Use Headphone Amplifier
This is going to amplify existing audio, so the setup is actually fairly simple. The most common setup that you’ll see is with a DAC, but it works for just about any standard amplifier as well. Let’s get started.
- Turn Your Mix Down: Before you plug in your amplifier for the first time, make sure your mix dials are at default. Turn them down if they’re in randomized positions so you don’t accidentally jump at a loud or low sound in your headphones on the first go. As a side note, you should also keep your headphones off of your ears until everything is connected and ready to go.
- Set Your Amp Down: Find a comfortable space where your amp can run into the PC or laptop, and still be accessible for you to mix and master the audio that’s coming through without bending over backwards. Because most modern headphone amplifiers are small and easy to manage, you shouldn’t need a ton of desk space unless you go for something extra beefy. Set it off to the side so that when your headphone wire runs through it, it won’t drag across your production setup or get in the way.
- Plug in Your 3.5mm Jack: This is when you plug in the 3.5mm jack that goes into your PC or laptop. The other end will go into your headphone amplifier. This basically pulls the signal from your PC or laptop as you would with a pair of headphones. The amplifier is when the magic happens.
- Plug in Your Headphones: Using whatever input you have available, plug in your headphones. With studio headphones that use a quarter-inch analog input, be sure you click it in all the way if you’re not used to it. Put the headphones on; it’s time to mess with the knobs and adjust some levels.
- Power Your Headphone Amplifier: Turn the amplifier on and begin toying with the dials. Make sure your audio is playing from the source so you can test it out. When your microphones are plugged into your PC, the sound should travel straight through your podcasting software into the headphones. If you notice the four (or sometimes even more) ports on your amplifier, this is so everyone that uses a headphone and microphone can hear themselves and monitor audio feedback while they’re interviewed.
Bear in mind that different amplifiers will have their own interfaces and software that need to go on your PC or laptop prior to using them. There’s bound to be some fiddling around required before you can get the results that you want.
Consult your headphone amp manual and any information inside the software before you set it up. It could save you an hour’s worth of headaches and time scrolling unhelpful internet forums if you get stuck during setup.
It Makes All the Difference
Headphone amplifiers make a world of difference for podcasting, especially when you’re trying to listen for live feedback during recording. You can also hear more through playback in post production and snag those little inconsistencies in the audio. If you want to get into any audio engineering for your podcasts, you need a headphone amplifier.