What Happens if You Use High Impedance Headphones Without an Amp?
The topic of using headphones with an amp isn’t new, but most people weren’t too aware that such an option existed in the first place. Casual listeners, as opposed to studio engineers who rely on critical listening for their bread and butter, would normally switch from one pair of headphones to the next thinking that their model didn’t particularly age well.
However, as technology progressed, so did the arsenal of features headphones were supplied with, so it’s more than safe to say that today we have an eclectic array of models to choose from. Today we’re going to talk about high-impedance headphones in particular, what they are, and why would you consider using them with or without an amplifier device, so let’s get straight to it.
Impedance and its effect on Headphones
In simplest words, impedance represents the innate ability of an electrical device to resist a portion of the electrical current that is constantly driving it. However, impedance and the actual description of ‘resistance’ aren’t the same.
More scientifically speaking, the formula of impedance is the root of the squared resistance in addition to the square of inductive resistance subtracted by capacitive resistance. Since this is something mainly electric engineers are interested in, we could safely define impedance as the constricting force of the electrical current.
Practically speaking, the level of impedance influences how much power is needed to drive any headphone set, and how much power they ultimately use from their main powering source. That’s why we should draw a clear line between high impedance headphones and low impedance headphones.
High Impedance Headphones
Due to the fact that the resistance of high impedance cans is fairly big, they aren’t as reactive and sensitive as low impedance headphones. This means that a large chunk of the electric current will, in this case, be diverted to something as simple as powering them up, as opposed to influencing some of the other properties, such as overall volume, for example.
In addition to being much quieter than low impedance cans, high impedance phones are renowned for minimal (if any) distortion, which is the reason why most audiophiles don’t even think about using the latter.
Low Impedance Headphones
Everything we said about high impedance headphones applies to low impedance in a completely opposite sense. They can tolerate much higher levels of volume, but they also introduce harmonic distortion at almost all stages.
What Happens if you use High Impedance Headphones without an Amp?
Essentially, nothing bad will happen per se. You will be able to normally enjoy your music, as you already did up to this point. However, you probably noticed that your set of cans is whisper-quiet in comparison to gaming headsets or studio headphones.
There are means to increase the volume of your headphones without it being via an amplifier, such as using various EQ programs, booster apps, or using devices that are compatible with DACs and such. However, amplifiers are the best way to go for several reasons:
Eliminating Distortion and Clipping
Small bits of distortion are present in any audio recording, regardless of how well-produced, performed, and recorded it is. The factors that influence the clarity (and fidelity) of any recording are mainly gear-oriented, such as the quality of the instruments, recording devices, and ultimately the final mixing stage.
If we follow the presumption that most, if not all audio recordings are at least somewhat faulty, it’s only obvious that we’ll have to put up with some forms of distortion. Using an amp will negate the distortion that’s coming directly from the headphones via the influx of electrical power beyond its normal rate.
Availability of Better Cables
So far, we’ve mainly talked about the features that reside within the buds of high impedance headphones. The bulk of the work relies on the drivers, the coils, and the tips if any are present. However, the cables of most headphones, which represent the connection between your listening device and the headphone buds/cups are not exemplary in most cases.
Most casual listeners and fans of music aren’t aware of the fact that the length and properties of any cable play quite an important role as far as sonic performance is concerned.
As a general rule of thumb, longer cables require a bit more power and tend to eat away some of the signal’s strength. Couple this with the initially huge power requirements of high impedance headphones and you’ll understand why cans that belong in this category appear as weak in comparison to their low impedance counterparts.
To plug any set of headphones into an amp you’ll need a different cable, which can be perceived as a drawback money-wise. You’ll need to take a trip and spend a few dollars on something you didn’t need up to this point. However, these cables can’t normally be used with headphones and most listening devices (phones, laptops, and such).
Ultimately, using an amp with special instrument cables will substantially increase the clarity of the playback without compromising its power levels.
Simple headphone amplifiers are equipped with a straightforward volume knob that simply alters the decibel level of any audio playback. However, certain models are supplied with versatile customization features, such as Burson’s Conductor Reference (as the high-end option) or iFi’s CAN (low-budget option).
In that regard, better-quality headphone amplifiers aren’t just meant to give you a boost in terms of raw strength, but they also afford you the means to change some aspects of your headphone’s performance on the fly.
Massive boost to the overall volume
Finally, the most obvious benefit to using high impedance headphones with an amp is a radical increase in loudness. Even the cheapest entry-level headphone amplifiers can ramp up the master volume levels sky high while boutique models are capable of recreating live gig atmospheres with a click of a button.
Some amplifiers even feature built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converters) features, which are capable of making some of the trendiest, most overproduced records sound vintage and old-school.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.