Aside from headphone amplifiers and DACs, there is another device that you can add to your setup if you wish to further enhance the sound of your headphones or if you wish to upgrade to speakers. This device is called the headphone preamplifier.
It is not as essential as the other two components but it can still be beneficial to users who have a more advanced setup such as users who have bookshelf speakers or studio monitors. However, depending on your needs, they may not be what you are looking for. Preamps can even cause problems if you are not using them for the appropriate use-case scenarios. Overall, preamps can be quite confusing so we’ll be tackling the most commonly asked questions in this article.
What is a Heaphone Preamp?
The term preamplifier can often be seen in different audio fields. You may hear this in enthusiast setups such as HiFi setups, and a more professional context such as in music production. That is why some people tend to get confused about what a preamplifier is.
A preamplifier is a device that is used to select between multiple inputs and provide a signal to the power amp. This is traditionally used in HiFi speaker setups or analog setups. To visualize this, take a look at a guitar amplifier. A guitar amplifier has various knobs that affect the sound that comes out of it. It also has an input jack for the source. This is the preamplifier section. The power amplifier section is what amplifies the sound coming from the preamplifier section and passes them to the speakers.
Unlike power amplifiers, preamplifiers themselves cannot provide enough power to speakers unless they are active speakers (speakers that do not require power amplifiers). For this reason, preamplifiers are not usually used in headphone setups by themselves unless there is another device such as a headphone amplifier and DAC.
Another reason why a preamplifier isn’t widely found in desktop headphone setups is that these setups are usually digital. These setups mostly involve a digital device such as a personal computer as the source. This means that there are no other sources that need to be managed by the preamplifier. And, a headphone amplifier or DAC/Amp stack is already sufficient for most people.
Headphone Amp vs. Preamp – Differences?
Traditionally, the amplifier section for speaker setups is separated by the preamplifier and the power amplifier. To put it simply, the preamplifier houses the volume control and is responsible for source selection. It can also influence the sound to some degree (which will be further talked about in a dedicated section). The power amplifier, on the other hand, is responsible for giving power and thus driving the speakers.
Some headphone amplifiers combine the two and are called integrated headphone amplifiers.
An example of this is the Schiit Magni 3. Units that already combine a preamplifier and power amplifier for headphones can help your stack setup be more compact as you’d only need 2 units (amplifier and DAC).
As mentioned earlier, headphone preamplifiers may affect the sound of your setup. Tube preamplifiers can give the warm coloration to your solid-state headphone amplifier if you prefer this kind of sound. It still depends on the synergy of your gear. Also, pairing a headphone preamplifier with a headphone amplifier may cause some issues as you have to match their volume levels.
Will a Preamp Improve the sound of My Setup
There is a lot of debate on this topic. For speaker setups, Most users prefer to just use a DAC and power amplifier (or in our case, a DAC and a power amplifier) for their setup especially if it is a digital setup. However, some find that adding a preamplifier affects the sound that they hear. These users believe that reducing the amount of gear in your setup helps to create a cleaner signal path for the sound since it passes through fewer devices.
This makes sense since the other components are not meant to affect the sound of your setup. The DAC only processes the sound and converts the signal while the power amplifier amplifies this signal. This means that the preamplifier is the one component left that can influence the sound of the setup which is exactly what happens in the guitar amplifier example. Of course, this all depends on the quality of the preamp, but a good preamp can affect the sound of the system similar to how headphone amplifiers influence the sound of headphones.
Going back to our topic, headphone setups are less complex. Just like in the speaker setup, most users tend to just use a headphone amplifier and a DAC to power their headphones. The sound can be influenced by a preamplifier but the results would vary depending on the quality of the preamplifier. Unlike headphone amplifiers, the change in the sound isn’t guaranteed so it will all depend on how users want to experiment with their headphone setup.
Here’s a good video that addresses this same question:
Do I need a Headphone Preamp in My Headphone Setup?
As mentioned earlier, headphone setups are not as complex as speaker setups which means that headphone preamplifiers are not a requirement. If you have an entry-level setup that consists of a headphone and a DAC/Amp or DAC and amp stack, then there is little to no reason to purchase a preamplifier.
Preamplifiers are primarily for source selection and speaker setups. Unless you have an analog setup or an analog and digital hybrid setup, there is little to no reason to get a preamplifier.
If you are after the sound benefits of a preamplifier, then you should know that it isn’t always worth it. Pairing a solid-state amplifier with a tube preamplifier and vice versa has its benefits. However, depending on the model, the results won’t guarantee an increase in sound quality. Changing the amplifier and DAC might even result in a more noticeable difference in the sound.
Also, take note that introducing another device to your signal chain can have its downsides. Aside from the fact that you need additional power, space, and wires, you might also be introducing noise to your sound. And if you do get noise, then you either need to change something in your signal chain or purchase a device to eliminate the noise such as the iFi purifier.
When you think about it in that context, then adding a preamplifier adds more problems without giving benefits. If you wish to achieve a different kind of sound such as the coloration of tube amplifiers, it might better to change your amplifier instead of adding a preamplifier.
When Should I Use a Preamp?
As stated earlier, preamps are best used with speaker setups or analog setups such as vinyl setups. However, there are scenarios where a preamplifier would be useful in a digital setup. An example of this would be using a source that is not a personal computer.
When dealing with 1 or more portable digital sources such as smartphones and DAPs, a preamplifier would be useful in managing those different sources. This is a good alternative if your DAP or smartphone is not capable of physically connecting to your power amplifier or desktop headphone amplifier.
Another use case is when using both analog and digital sources. If you mainly use a digital source such as a DAP but occasionally use a vinyl setup, then a preamp would make switching between these two systems seamless Take note that this does not only apply to preamps but also to headphone amplifiers that can act as preamps.
Can I use a Headphone Preamp Without an Amplifier
If we are strictly talking about a headphone preamp and not a headphone amp that can function as a preamp, then the answer is no. By simply inspecting a preamp such as the Schiit Freya, then you’d know that there are no inputs for any kind of headphone connection such as a 3.5mm or 6.5mm jack. This is because preamplifiers are meant to be used with power amplifiers or headphone amplifiers.
And to add to this point, a headphone preamplifier cannot power speakers unless the speakers are active in which they no longer require an amplifier. For passive speakers, a preamplifier must be paired with a power amplifier.
If your goal is to be able to have 1 device that can serve both as a headphone amplifier and as a preamplifier, then it is better to get a headphone amplifier with a preamplifier section. Several models have this feature. Preamplifiers, on the other hand, do not have a headphone amplifier section.
Can I use a Headphone Amplifier as a Preamp for My Speaker Setup?
Some headphone amplifiers or DAC/Amps such as the Schiit Magni 3 contains a preamplifier section. This means that this can be paired with a power-amplifier for your speaker setup. With this kind of setup, you no longer need to purchase a separate preamplifier unless you specifically want a device that provides a specific kind of sound such as a tube preamplifier. Again, you may also repurpose a tube headphone amplifier and use it as a preamplifier as long as it supports this feature.
The concept that you should remember is that some headphone amplifiers can act as a headphone preamp. Preamps, on the other hand, cannot act as a headphone amplifier.
Tube Preamplifier vs. Solid-State Preamplifier -Differences?
Just like in headphone amplifiers, preamplifiers also have a tube and solid-state version. Most of the differences between those 2 models apply. Solid-state preamplifiers most offer a more transparent and accurate sound while a tube preamplifier creates a more vintage, warmer, and mostly inaccurate representation of the sound.
Choosing which one is best for you depends on the type of setup that you have and the type of sound that you wish to achieve with that setup. For users who have a digital setup, a solid-state preamplifier may be a better fit as this setup will sound more transparent and accurate.
Vinyl or other analog-based setups may benefit more with a tube preamplifier. Analog setups, in general, give off that vintage sound. Adding a tube preamplifier to this setup further makes the sound
Of course, you can use whatever preamplifier type you like with your setup if you wish to achieve a different kind of sound. You can also try experimenting with how a tube preamplifier can affect a tube headphone amplifier and other things to enhance the sound of your headphone setup.
Another perk that tube preamplifiers and vacuum tube-based audio devices, in general, is the fact that you can customize their sound. The ability to change tubes isn’t only for maintenance purposes. Changing the type of tube can affect the sound. Depending on the tubes used, the sound can have minor or drastic changes.
Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, are more straightforward since they do not have any changeable components. The downside of this is that you may end up experimenting with tubes and not find a sound that you are happy with unlike solid-state preamps where you can be perfectly happy with its fixed sound. You should consider this if you are interested in further shaping the sound of your setup.
What you need to consider, however, is that tube preamplifiers are known to be more fragile when compared to solid-state preamplifiers, Tubes are an older technology that was used back in the 1960s which makes them outdated by today’s standards. Tubes are known to break now and then so maintenance can be a bit more challenging when compared to the more advanced solid-state preamplifiers.
Tubes are also required to be turned on for a specific amount of time before using for them to get hot. Tubes do not produce the desired results unless they have been turned on for a specific amount of time. This also means that tube preamps should not be turned off unless you are done using your system as turning the preamp off cools down the tubes which then need to be heated up again when need to be used.
These drawbacks should be considered when choosing between a tube and a solid-state preamplifier.
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s