We have the knowledge

Hi-Res Players & Headphone Amplifiers / DACs

Why choose a dedicated Hi-Res player over a smartphone?

Smartphone versus dedicated audio playerSmartphone versus dedicated audio player

Smartphones have quickly become an essential part of life and do so much us in helping us interact with the world. As many began with their roots in MP3-type players (think iPod Touch and its similarity with the first iPhone), they also do a fair job with music. If all you want is some music on the move, they do a decent enough job. If you’re a true music fan, however, ‘decent enough’ doesn’t really cut it. This is when you need a dedicated Hi-Res player.

Just as with separate hi-fi components, a Hi-Res player that’s dedicated to a single function performs the task to a higher standard. The reason for this is that the entire development and production cost is spent on the player’s music playback ability, rather than a myriad of other smart functionality. Pound for pound, this means that manufacturers can spec higher quality components, such as DACs, audio amps, digital filters and processors. Each of these will be chosen on their sonic abilities, too, rather than multi-functional flexibility.

Design, engineering and audio-specific components are all well and good, but what does this mean for the sound quality? Well, to paraphrase many a politician, it comes down to detail, detail and detail! Audio-specific engineering focuses on higher quality, quieter power supplies and shorter signal paths. This reduces the distortion, letting more of the music emerge. More music means a much more lifelike and three-dimensional sound. Higher quality components also usually have improved tolerances, giving a better-balanced sound when paired left and right, for example. Higher value ratings improve the frequency response, giving the potential for deeper, more sustained bass and a more natural top-end, with reduced harmonic distortion. It all adds up to a much more natural and engaging sound. Don’t just take our word for it, though. Why not bring your smartphone along to one of our stores and hear the difference between it and a dedicated Hi-Res player for yourself!

Why should I choose a Hi-Res player with a ‘balanced output’?

So, you’ve taken the plunge and decided to ditch your smartphone for music playback and switch to a dedicated Hi-Res music player instead. What’s a key feature worth seeking out? Although there are many, such as the quality of the DAC, processor and battery life, we’d suggest checking out if the player has a balanced output or not.

A balanced output appears as an unusually sized headphones socket (or two) and facilities the use of high-end, balanced headphones. More usually found in pro studios, balanced headphone connections greatly reduce distortion by more effectively shielding the signal path. Simply put, you get to hear more music and less background noise. Being able to use a wider range of pro-type headphones is just the being, however. Many players with balanced outputs take this balanced approach right the way to the heart of the player, giving the potential for an even cleaner and more detailed sound than by using the non-balanced output.

If you don’t currently have a set a balanced headphones (these can be identified by their use of a 2.5mm, 4.4mm or mini XLR plug) then don’t worry, all Hi-Res players that have balanced outputs also pair these with a regular 3.5mm non-balanced output, so you won’t ever be stuck without music.

Balanced outputBalanced output

My hi-fi already has a headphone socket. Why should I buy a dedicated headphone amp?

Headphone ampHeadphone amp

Although there’s a good chance your hi-fi, AV or computer may already have a headphone socket, did you know that not all headphone outputs are born equal? Most standard headphone sockets have the most basic power supply possible, with the result being both a lack of power and clarity. This is where a dedicated headphone amp shines.

Dedicated headphone amps feature their own, beefed up power supply. This makes it easier to drive less efficiency headphones, finally giving you the chance to hear their full dynamic potential. It’s not just less efficient headphone amps that benefit, either. By focusing solely on the headphone supply, higher quality components with wider tolerances help reduce distortion and reveal layers of music that you might otherwise have missed. 

In short, a dedicated headphone amp lets you listen louder and with less distortion. It maximises your headphone’s full dynamic potential, giving them the current they need to swiftly react to musical crescendos and the sudden ‘snap’ of a drum skin being hit. 

What is the difference between a headphone amp with and without a DAC?

In essence, a headphone amp is just like a regular hi-fi amp, only one that has less need for such high current demands. Headphone amps are also like regular amps in that the main process is often an analogue one (except with Class-D, digital amps). DACs are something that we used to associate with CD players or as a stand-alone device, but these days, DACs are standard in nearly all consumer electronics – from your TV to PC, set-top box to games console, the chances are there’s a DAC in their somewhere.

So what advantage is there to a headphone amp by having one built-in? Well, by its nature, a DAC is a Digital to Analogue Convertor. This means that the signal input is digital. Having a headphone amp with a digital input opens up a whole range of possibilities. It means that you can use the USB connection from your laptop or smartphone, for example. Even if your computer or device already has a built-in DAC with analogue output, the changes are that both will be fairly basic and not optimised for hi-fi audio.

If you’re using a headphone amp on the go, then one with a DAC built-in is pretty much essential, as this is often the only way of connecting a smartphone or laptop. At home, though, a headphone amp with built-in DAC can be pretty handy, too. If you connect to a PC or laptop via an asynchronous USB output, you’ll bypass the computer’s soundcard, giving superior timing and reduced jitter, for a smoother, less distorted sound. In some cases, optical and coaxial inputs mean that the headphone amp will even connect directly to your CD player and/or network streamer.

Headphone amp with DACHeadphone amp with DAC

More advice & knowledge

Why Pay More?Why Pay More?

Here are a few helpful guides explaining the ins and outs of paying just that little bit extra.

Expert AdviceExpert Advice

We pride ourselves on our expert knowledge. We believe it helps us give you the very best advice.

Jargon BusterJargon Buster

Help demystify home entertainment's often bewildering terms and phrases with our handy jargon buster.