Headphone Amp? It's Uncanny!

László

Too Many Notes
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I've got two superb sets of headphones good enough to use in mixing/mastering, one planar, and one with traditional diaphragms. There are also several other sets here that are perfectly fine for tracking when musicians come in to lay down parts.

In the 32 years I've been in the studio biz, I've never used a dedicated, reference headphone amp at the mix position. Didn't know I needed one!

At my old studio with its separate recording booth, I had a headphone distribution amp with satellite units for the musicians, so they could control their own volume levels. It worked well, but didn't sound appreciably different from the outputs that came on my gear. Maybe it was a little louder.

However, after I got my planar headphones, I became interested in trying one of the 'reference quality' headphone amps after reading a few review articles suggesting that you need one to get the most out of them. However, my attention was drawn by other shiny objects (like...oh...that DGT).

Fast-forward:

This morning I installed a reference headphone amp. I figured the difference would be subtle. I'm all for incremental improvements, so it was worth a shot.

Well, it isn't subtle.

Before trying it, I plugged my headphones into the UA Apollo's headphone jacks to get a baseline reference. Everything sounded pretty good. exactly what I'd gotten used to.

Next I tried the traditional set with the headphone amp. The headphones were transformed. I had no idea how good they were! I already liked them and have mixed national ads (both music and audio post) with them during remote mix sessions with clients. These were not cheap headphones.

The same thing happened with the planar headphones, maybe even more so. It literally brought them to life. Didn't know how good the planars were, either!

I'm hearing more powerful dynamics, more 3D realism, more accurate/tighter/less woolly bass, better left-right separation, no phase incoherence (didn't even realize how much I had previously!), clearer and more open highs and midrange. In other words, everything I listen for sounds better and more lifelike.

To be able to use headphones that sound like expensive studio monitors that are properly set up in an acoustically treated room? It is ear-opening. It's uncanny (you see what I did there)!

Another surprise was that the headphone "mix room" plugins from Waves, Dear VR and Plugin Alliance went from 'decent secondary reference approximations' to 'holy sh!t this...sounds...like...a ...ROOM'!

As I said, this isn't a matter of incremental improvement. It makes a big difference if you have high quality headphones. Those of you who are audiophiles or studio rats like me who've got one of these already know the score, and I'm preaching to the choir.

When I left the studio, I said to my wife, "It's like hearing my headphones for the first time."
 
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Wow. Although I'm not really surprised. And it's great that there was a similar improvement with the mix room plugins.
And more new toys to go with your DGT! Don't need pics but details on the cans & amp would be nice.

Earlier this year I got a UA Apollo rackmount unit like yours and was surprised with how much better my middle grade Audio-Technica m50 headphones sounded with the built in UA headphone amps compared to both the previous interface and Fractal FM9. So it's not surprising that with top of the line cans that a dedicated amp would be that much better. An obvious analogy would be top end mics benefitting from good dedicated mic preamps.

And this is not to take anything away from the UA Apollo, it's an amazing unit for doing what it does in one box and I'll bet that you still run your headphone amp and mic pres thru your Apollo instead of dedicated ADC/DAC units.

Absolutely everything in the signal chain, especially the analog part, can make a difference. And when you have really good stuff, just one weaker link really stands out but you might not know that till it's upgraded.
 
That is awesome! I have always heard good things about using a headphone (pre)amp, but have never explored. Which one did you get?
The SPL Phonitor One. It's actually an amp (headphones need power, not just preamp signal). They also make a very expensive one that will control monitors, if you want to drop some serious coin. It's supposed to have super-high quality power supply rails (120V), and be the ne plus ultra.

But this one's already quite a step up, and I have a great monitor controller already. So I'm happy as a clam.

Wow. Although I'm not really surprised. And it's great that there was a similar improvement with the mix room plugins.
And more new toys to go with your DGT! Don't need pics but details on the cans & amp would be nice.

Earlier this year I got a UA Apollo rackmount unit like yours and was surprised with how much better my middle grade Audio-Technica m50 headphones sounded with the built in UA headphone amps compared to both the previous interface and Fractal FM9. So it's not surprising that with top of the line cans that a dedicated amp would be that much better. An obvious analogy would be top end mics benefitting from good dedicated mic preamps.

And this is not to take anything away from the UA Apollo, it's an amazing unit for doing what it does in one box and I'll bet that you still run your headphone amp and mic pres thru your Apollo instead of dedicated ADC/DAC units.

Absolutely everything in the signal chain, especially the analog part, can make a difference. And when you have really good stuff, just one weaker link really stands out but you might not know that till it's upgraded.
For the amp, the SPL Phonitor One, as per above.

My main sets of cans are Audeze LCD-X, planar cans that I'm seeing in more and more mastering suites/mix rooms, and Beyer DT1770s for when I need to use closed back cans (not to be confused with the DT-770s, why do manufacturers use cryptic names?).

You hit the nail squarely on the head with the top mics/top mic preamps analogy.

Yup, I run my headphone amp and mic pres through the Apollo. I like the converters! And you're so right about analog circuitry making a difference. IMHO UA is very good at analog circuits.

I also run the Apollo's main outputs into a high end analog preamp/controller for the monitors that I bought back in 1994; it's a beautiful piece of gear called a Focusrite Red 4 (not the 'Red 4-pre', which is a computer interface, yet another confusing name), made when Rupert Neve was designing and building Focusrite products in the UK (he was a part owner).

It was made to take the output from a big studio's console to add multiple sources that could be selected, for example, a CD player, analog mastering deck, turntable preamp, video machine, etc.

It has inputs for 7 sources in addition to the Apollo. It sounds quite good. While I don't use all of its inputs at the moment, I've needed them in the past. A nice thing to have. I had a Red 7 mic preamp/compressor that was part of the same series. It sounded amazing and I don't know what I was thinking when I sold it.

"You probably had the hots for an amp or guitar, you idiot."

"Yeah. I don't have whatever I sold it to get any more, either." [shrug]

There's a shot of one of the series on this page: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/Red7--focusrite-red-7/reviews
 
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A bit off topic, but are there any multiple mic (2-4 mics) pre-amps <$1000 that you have worked with and liked? Not expecting you to go out and research anything, just wondering if in your experience, you have come across anything that is descent and can handle 2-4 mics at that price point with acceptable results (keep in mind, your standards are a lot higher than mine, and appropriately so). I currently have a Avalon Vt737 sp that is really nice, but my friend who is letting me use it will want it back at some point, and I certainly can not afford multiple units like this @$3500 each nor do I have that kind of rack space.
 
A bit off topic, but are there any multiple mic (2-4 mics) pre-amps <$1000 that you have worked with and liked? Not expecting you to go out and research anything, just wondering if in your experience, you have come across anything that is descent and can handle 2-4 mics at that price point with acceptable results (keep in mind, your standards are a lot higher than mine, and appropriately so). I currently have a Avalon Vt737 sp that is really nice, but my friend who is letting me use it will want it back at some point, and I certainly can not afford multiple units like this @$3500 each nor do I have that kind of rack space.
Here are the 2-4 mic interfaces I have experience with:

The old Apogee mini unit, no longer made; and the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, because my son uses one when he travels (he uses a rack mount Apollo in the studio).

I like the UA Apollo Twin a lot. I think it's based on the same design as the Apollo, just fewer features.

I've heard projects done with the Focusrite stuff, and thought they sounded very good, but have no personal experience recording via one.
 
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Here are the 2-4 mic interfaces I have experience with:

The old Apogee mini unit, no longer made; and the Universal Audio Twin, because my son uses one when he travels (he uses a rack mount Apollo in the studio).

I like the UA Twin a lot.

I've heard projects done with the Focusrite stuff, and thought they sounded very good, but have no personal experience recording via one.
Wow, that Twin looks really nice for the money. I wish they had a similarly spec'd unit in a similar price range. Seems the first rack mount unit with 2 Unison pre amps starts at $2k. Thanks for the feedback!!
 
So... Headphones amps doesn't color the sound or mix?
Some might, but this one doesn't.

As far as I'm concerned, this headphone amp 'un-colors' the sound - all the built-in headphone amps I've ever used veil the sound. I wasn't even aware of the extent they do so.

My headphones now sound like the highly accurate studio monitors that are properly set up in my acoustically treated studio. They didn't before.

Like I said, un-CAN-ny. ;)
 
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Great to hear and welcome to the wonderful world of dedicated headphone amps…another deep dark hole to fall headfirst into…lol.
Dont ask how I know….:cool:

I did look at the Phonitor in The Guitar Center but nothing hands on and tbh I really don’t need anything quite that good or another new one right now but I know it was an ear opener for you.
Its a new world!
 
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Great to hear and welcome to the wonderful world of dedicated headphone amps…another deep dark hole to fall headfirst into…lol.
Dont ask how I know….:cool:

I did look at the Phonitor in The Guitar Center but nothing hands on and tbh I really don’t need anything quite that good or another new one right now but I know it was an ear opener for you.
Its a new world!
Which ones have you tried and what are your favs in headphone amps?
 
Which ones have you tried and what are your favs in headphone amps?
Great question that stretches my poor brain for actual model numbers but…
Various units from the Drop site ( usually a Drop collaboration with a big name).
Various SMSL units
iFi Audio.
Current amp is a Matrix Audio.

Now majority of these were/are hifi orientated but can be used in a studio too.
Units like the Phonitor and Ralph Neves are more aimed directly at the studio than home use but can and are suitable for dual purpose.
 
Great question that stretches my poor brain for actual model numbers but…
Various units from the Drop site ( usually a Drop collaboration with a big name).
Various SMSL units
iFi Audio.
Current amp is a Matrix Audio.

Now majority of these were/are hifi orientated but can be used in a studio too.
Units like the Phonitor and Ralph Neves are more aimed directly at the studio than home use but can and are suitable for dual purpose.
Understood! I looked at the Phonitor and it is $555 at Sweetwater which I did not think was all that unreasonable ($799 most other places in a very limited search). They also had a Neve headphone amp for $549 and I sure would love to listen to those two side by side to make a comparison!! Thanks for the info!!!
 
Excellent!

I’ve thought of getting a headphone amp for my home studio. Probably wouldn’t be up to the quality of what you’re using, but it would be an improvement over coming straight out of my interface. Plus, my interface doesn’t always have enough output to push the cabs hard enough - for example, buddy of mine that sometimes brings his electronic kit over, and he has a hard time hearing the track over the thwumping on his pads.
 
Which ones have you tried and what are your favs in headphone amps?

The only one I've ever tried is the Phonitor One.

SPL is a German company that's known for extremely high end analog mastering equipment.

I have to live with a piece of gear for a while to know what it can or can't do. I've only scratched the surface with this thing in one day and evening.

Understood! I looked at the Phonitor and it is $555 at Sweetwater which I did not think was all that unreasonable ($799 most other places in a very limited search). They also had a Neve headphone amp for $549 and I sure would love to listen to those two side by side to make a comparison!! Thanks for the info!!!

There are several variations of the Phonitor One, such as the Phonitor One D that's $799; that's why you saw several prices.

The analog version I have is $555 at all vendors. Sweetwater's deal is the same as everyone else's. They all sell at list price.

The choice of SPL model depends on whether you need on-board D/A conversion and other features. With the Apollo on hand as my D/A, and the Red 4 controlling my monitors, I only need the simple analog version that I feed from two of the eight output channels on the Apollo. I have those outputs set up in the Apollo software as cues mirroring the mix outputs.

I'd guess the Neve headphone amp is just as good. They don't make junk. It's apparently designed to be more portable, which is not a bad thing.
 
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Excellent!

I’ve thought of getting a headphone amp for my home studio. Probably wouldn’t be up to the quality of what you’re using, but it would be an improvement over coming straight out of my interface. Plus, my interface doesn’t always have enough output to push the cabs hard enough - for example, buddy of mine that sometimes brings his electronic kit over, and he has a hard time hearing the track over the thwumping on his pads.
Turns out, headphones can perform to their potential with one of these amps. I had no idea what that potential was. It was very exciting to find out!

All headphone outputs on any piece of gear are little amplifiers. What I didn't realize was how compromised they are!

As I said in my initial post, this is my first experience with a dedicated headphone amp. It reminds me of getting my first Neumann mic in 1991. I had no idea what I'd been missing.
 
this is my first experience with a dedicated headphone amp. It reminds me of getting my first Neumann mic in 1991. I had no idea what I'd been missing.
Love those Holy Sh!t moments. My first was with a pair of 1970's version of planar headphones: Koss ESP 6 electrostatics. They didn't need a dedicated headphone amp since they drew power, a lot, directly from the amplifier speaker terminals. There was just so much more detail in the music.

Wow, that Twin looks really nice for the money.
If you have Thunderbolt on your DAW computer you might consider getting what Laszlo and I have, an early Apollo rackmount unit. They were originally Firewire but run Thunderbolt with add-in cards which brings them up to date so that they're supported with the latest UA software (the only feature that's supported on the most recent Apollo x6/8 but not older units is Dolby Atmos processing). The major advantages over the Twin are 8 analog ins/outs, 4 mic preamps, dual headphone amps, cue feeds & Hi-Z inputs and coax SPDIF in & out. The SPDIF works perfectly re-amping thru the Fractal FM9, actually better than re-amping the FM9 thru USB directly to/from the computer. I got mine earlier this year off the Verb for $1k, mint with TB3 card installed and TB cable included.
 
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