Massdrop 101: What Is An Amp?

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Among life’s great questions—Why do we exist? What is the key to happiness? Where is the remote?—stands one that continues to vex music lovers and newcomers to the audiophile community: What is an amp?
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How It Works
Lots of us might have a basic idea of what an amp does, but exactly how it functions (and the many benefits it can provide) are larger questions worth considering. The word amp is derived from the latin word amplificare, which means “to expand” or “to enlarge.” The basic function of an amplifier is to increase the power of a signal by taking energy from a power supply and converting it to a larger amplitude—therefore boosting that signal.
When sound is recorded, an electrical signal is generated through a series of vibrations and fluctuations in air pressure. First, sound waves move a microphone diaphragm back and forth, and the microphone converts that movement into an electrical signal. Then, a recorder encodes that signal as a pattern in a certain format, like grooves in a record, magnetic impulses on a tape, or ones and zeroes on a hard drive. Once the medium is determined for playback, a device reinterprets the pattern and uses electricity to move (or “drive”) a speaker. The goal is to reproduce the vibrations and fluctuations in air pressure to most accurately represent the original sound.
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Pairing Your Device
What happens when that signal is not strong enough to drive the speaker on the other end? Simple: Your music won’t sound nearly as good. In fact, it might not sound like anything at all. Some headphones require so much oomph to be driven that they are basically unlistenable without proper power. That’s where an amplifier comes in.
Virtually every device that produces sound—your MP3 player, computer, TV, etc.—has a built-in amplifier. But often, manufacturers compromise on the size of the amp when trying to pack other features into their products. Most MP3 players are known for their portability, battery life, and relatively good sound quality, but they’re not so great when it comes to driving a hefty set of headphones. A stand-alone headphone amp has much more space dedicated to better circuitry and power supply. This provides more output power and better control of the drivers for more detail and clarity in your tunes.
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Tube or Solid State
Given that headphones range greatly in price and performance, it makes sense for there to be a lot of variation in headphone amplifiers, too. The two most common types of amps used today are tube amps and solid-state amps.
Tube amps, invented in the early 1900s, use one or more vacuum tubes to physically increase the amplitude of a signal. They’re generally more expensive than solid-state amps because the technology that goes into them is more costly. They require additional care because the tubes need to be replaced every so often. They’re also touchier and more sensitive, because they produce an analog signal, and the resulting sound—generally warm, sweet, and natural—is a favorite of music purists.
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A solid-state amp uses solid electronic parts like transistors and diodes to amplify a signal. Ubiquitously implemented in the 1950s, they’re typically cheaper than tube amps because the semi-conductor technology that goes into them is easier to mass produce. Since they use smaller, solid hardware components, these types of amps are easier to take on the go and aren’t as sensitive as their tube counterparts, making them a more accessible option for many people.
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What Now?
It’s important to note that choosing the right amp is also a subjective process—which is why the debate between solid-state and tube amplifiers still rages on today, more than 50 years after the invention of the transistor. The best way to find the right amp is to pick one up for yourself.
Any Questions?
Leave ‘em in the comment section below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a cool audio setup to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too!
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markinbham
2
Jan 27, 2021
Why linear vs non-linear amp?
MikeSattler
71
Jun 12, 2018
"They’re also touchier and more sensitive, because they produce an analog signal, and the resulting sound—generally warm, sweet, and natural—is a favorite of music purists."
This sentence doesn't really make sense, every amplifier produces an analog signal whether it's tube/solid state. Why would that make a tube amp touchier and more sensitive?
In my experience, tube amps are touchier and more sensitive because of RF interference with the tubes as well as the fact that most tubes need at least 100 hrs of burn-in to sound their best. Not to mention it takes 10-30 min for tubes to stabilize once you flip the power switch.
coolerking
159
Jun 5, 2018
There are two issue folks. 1/ Audio enjoyment is a subjective endeavor. Period. In this world we strive to obtain objective information, desperately. The only real objective information is empirical, meaning, what are other peoples experience with a given product. 2. Secondly, there is a lot of what I call digititus out there. We have, through huge marketing efforts in all consumer endeavors, been lead to believe if something is named digital, it is one of two things, period - on or off, high or low, works or does not work. This leads people to black and white thinking, and/or zero sum gain thinking. It amazes me. No signals or products are purely digital, period. I see people constantly labeling products and technologies as thus, where as in their respective field they would never do this. Can you imagine someone in criminology after 20+ years experience saying that all criminals are either evil or not, period, there is no in between. Or a teacher saying kids are either dumb or smart, period. Hardware is analog. It is exists in the physical world, and thus, it has many aspects to it. Just because it is difficult to articulate this does not make it true.
So my advice is to try to see what people have to say about the sound of the product, in unfortunately qualitative language. With a degree in Electronic Engineering and going on 30+ years in many different facets of the hardware industry, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know. It is damn near impossible to explain to someone with no experience why a better "digital" cable makes a difference. Just as it is someone in banking to explain what money really is.
Read reviews and comments. Stay away from advice from folks who say things like "you cannot tell the difference between a MP3 signal with X resolution from one with Y." Come on, how the hell do they know? What they can offer is that they cannot hear the difference. If you like music then take the jump, and see for yourself.
Good Luck and Enjoy - the more people joining this hobby, the more we all benefit.
tinamou62
81
Nov 25, 2018
I love this comment. I think too often we forget the point of the hobby - it's not to get the absolute purest, least distorted, perfect signal. It's just to enjoy the music. And that is so subjective.
living fossil
60
Jun 2, 2018
The balanced amp with the Massdrop logo on the top. A NEW PRODUCT ?
IvanDaTerrible
0
Apr 26, 2021
Since it says massdrop and that is the old name, now Drop that would imply older unit.
wohengvanow
63
Jul 4, 2016
The market demands - today people are willing to drop BIG bucks based on other people's stories on what you should expect to hear and forming big expectations (buy first, audition, then buy again). The suppliers are just jumping onto the demand train to cash in. Hopefully this gets reinvested for some real innovation.
Stax, HD800, headamps, etc used to cost a 'fortune' back in 2006. Now they are "average priced" compared to the Other top of line. People seem very ready to drop 2 to 3 grand on a totl headphone, then another 2 grand on a portable DAC and amp.
There's a lot of variety out there and a lot of schnake oil.
To answer your question is nothing has changed other than the current flavor of the month. It's still just solid state, tubes, transistors, transformers, class a b ab d t, planars, dynamics, hybrids of the above. The wheel hasn't been reinvented yet. The playing field is just a lot bigger.
Here's some designs from the past that I'm waiting to see recycled as "breakthrough new technology". This is exciting times.
Tube + class d hybrid otl... wait it's already here
Akg340 - hybrid planar dynamic headphones
Black Diamond HA - transformer coupled solid state amp
swest
22
Jul 3, 2016
Greetings,
This topic may have grown cold, but, just in case, I thought I'd see if I can get my curiousity satisfied from you guys/gals.
Can someone explain the, seemingly, never-ending proliferation of new instances of the, so-called, 'Headphone Amp' that we have been witness to over the last, I don't know, maybe 5 years?
Maybe it's just that I started noticing, but it seems like this is, as I suggest, a recent and noticeable phenomenon. Another thing about this is that it seems the vast majority of new examples are tube amps.
So, if someone with the benefit of having paid attention to these matters during recent history could corroborate and explain; or contradict and, well... that will be enough. Set me straight and I will go back to sleep ;-).
Thanks.
- s.west
Max_Cohen
12
Jun 17, 2016
I have just started getting into audiophile and I was wondering about if I need an amp or dac. I enjoy having full audio quality and I was wondering if I would get the best experience with one?
It really depends on your current headphones. Some very nice headphones and IEMs nowadays can be easily powered by a smartphone, and may not benefit from an amp. Here is a good articles about amps and headphones. It gets pretty technical in some parts but I've found it's a pretty good covering of what you should know! http://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/02/headphone-amp-impedance.html
Heefty
1375
May 31, 2016
Do you have an audiophile music library built up already?
XxMRGAMERZxX
13
May 28, 2016
Hello guys and gals I am looking for a good dac and amp combo for my new akg 7xxx. Any recommendations.? These are my first audiophile sets
Heefty
1375
May 31, 2016
Do you have an audiophile music library built up already?
IvanDaTerrible
0
Apr 26, 2021
If your looking for Bluetooth Which is nice bonus Es-100 mk2 has a grood dac and can be used balanced 2.5mm or Se 3.5mm under $100 it’s actually a really good amp dac combo despite the inexpensive price similarly priced and just as good Fiio BTR-5 another with good dacs under 200 USD these are best in class performance wise. Good luck have fun
musikaladin
58
May 28, 2016
My setup with the TH-X00, and enough amplifying options
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oliwek
7
May 29, 2016
lol, quite a contrast with the simplicity of the pictures above (a single planar + small tube amp + plant and headphone rest vs what audiophiles get after some time in their quest)
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