Tube headphone amplifiers and headphone amps are well-loved by enthusiasts due to the unique sound that they provide. And when paired with the right pair of headphones, you can get a listening experience that cannot be replicated by solid-state equipment. But if you are an IEM user, you might be wondering if tube amps can have a similar effect on them.
IEMs are generally not recommended to be paired with tube amps. You run the risk of damaging the drivers if fed with too much power. However, certain IEMs with specific power requirements or IEMs that utilize unconventional driver technology can benefit from tube amps/headphone amps.
In this article, we will be dwelling more into tube headphone amplifiers as well as the IEMs that can be paired with them. We will also give you our experience with pairing a tube amp with our personal IEMs.
The Appeal of Tube Amps
As mentioned earlier, tube headphone amps offer different sounds to modern solid-state amps. This is because tube amps use the same vacuum tube technology that you see in vintage gears.
In a nutshell, these vacuum tubes add distortion to the sound. This causes the warm sound that is associated with tube amps. The resulting sound is not as accurate as solid-state amps. However, it usually results in a relaxed and engaging listening experience.
Adding a tube amp to bright or harsh sounding headphones usually helps tame any peaks. And in some cases, a tube amp can help expand the soundstage of certain headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD650/HD6XX.
Additionally, you can further tweak the sound of tube amps by switching the tubes with different models. The results will depend on the model of the tube amp as well as the model of the tubes.
Why IEMs are Generally Not Used with Headphone Amps
Most IEMs are generally using Balance Armature drivers or Dynamic drivers. These drivers are typically designed to be as efficient as possible. This means that they do not need too much power in order to achieve the desired sound.
This is especially true with professional IEMs and CIEMs. These are designed to be paired with stage equipment such as a wireless receiver. And these stage equipment typically do not have the same driving power as dedicated headphone amplifiers.
Of course, there are exceptions, which we will be talking about later. But overall, we do not recommend purchasing a tube amp, thinking that you will be able to use it with your future IEM purchases.
IEMs that can be used With Tube Headphone Amps
Due to how small IEM drivers are, IEMs inherently have a different sound from full-size headphones. However, manufacturers have experimented with different drivers in order to get close to the sound of full-sized headphones.
Brands such as Tin-HiFi and Audeze have produced planar magnetic driver IEMs. And while most planar magnetic driver headphones do not pair well with tube amps, these IEMs can potentially work well with tube amps.
Also, newer dynamic driver IEMs such as the KBear Believe can also greatly benefit from tube headphone amplifiers. As we noted in our full review, its full potential is only unlocked when paired with a fairly powerful source. There are other examples, but the point is that there are many IEMs with different driver technologies that can benefit from a more powerful source such as a tube amp.
Our setup: Fiio M11 (DAP used as DAC), Xduuo MT-604 (Hybrid Tube Amp), Foster/Fitear TE100 (IEM), KBear Believe (IEM)
Of course, we also wanted to try this for ourselves in order to give you some first-hand experience. We tried pairing the single DD KBear Believe and the hybrid driver Fostex TE100 with the Xduuo MT-604. Do take note that MT-604 is a hybrid tube amp meaning, it has a solid-state circuit to help keep the fidelity of the higher frequencies.
The Fostex TE100 is not particularly hard to drive. However, it is usually run at a higher volume with our Fiio M11, and I thought it would be a good candidate.
When paired with our tube amp, the TE100 comes to life. Feeding it with more power enabled it to perform better. However, we found that the warm effect of the tube amp was not as apparent as when we paired the MT-604 with our Sennheiser HD660S.
The Kbear Believe also has a similar effect. But compared to the TE100, the warm effect of the tube amp was easily felt.
But with that said, not all of our IEMs worked well with our tube amp. We found that our tube amp had too much volume for our more efficient IEMs, such as the Fitear Room.
To answer the initial question, you can certainly use IEMs with the tube amps. However, just like with full-sized headphones, not all IEMs will work well with tube amps. And in some cases, even power-hungry IEMs will still not sound good with tube amps.
If you already own a tube amp, then we encourage experimentation with different IEMs. Just be careful not to feed too much power into your IEMs.
But if you are planning on buying a tube amp specifically for your IEMs, then we do not recommend doing so unless you try them out first in a local shop or at a local audiophile meet.
Aubrey has been a longtime fan of music. She plays arcade music games such as Pump It Up and Dance Dance Revolution. She also loves different genres such as KPOP. Ever since she discovered IEMs and Headphones, her love and appreciation for music have been taken to the next level. And as a writer, she wishes to share her audiophile journey with you.
Favorite IEM: Moondrop SSP, KBear Believe, Noble Katana