Choosing the equipment for your audio setup can be a minefield. There is an endless list of input and output devices, mixers, interfaces, speakers, and converters. You may find yourself wondering if any of these gadgets can do double duty. For example, can an audio interface be used as a headphone amp?
You can use an audio interface as a headphone amp in some situations. Most audio interfaces have an internal headphone amp, but you will not get the same quality as you would from a dedicated device. To get the best sound quality in a professional recording session, you need both tools.
Audiophiles and professional sound engineers can benefit from both of these tools. Whether you need both an audio interface and a headphone amp depends on your ultimate goal. Read on to learn more about both of these devices and when you need them.
Is an Audio Interface a Headphone Amp?
Audio interfaces and headphone amps are two entirely different tools. Because audio interfaces come with a built-in headphone amp, you can use them as a headphone amp. However, you will not have the same quality as you would get from a separate amp.
If you’re just trying to boost your headphone sound quality up from the built-in headphone amp in a smartphone or other listening device, an audio interface will work.
However, if you’re an audiophile seeking clear, perfect sound, you’ll want a separate headphone amp.
Here are more in-depth information on the differences between the two units:
What Is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is usually a necessity for all your recording and music production needs. At the most basic level, the interface takes information from your input devices and converts it into something usable for an output device.
For example, if you’re recording from a digital instrument like a MIDI keyboard, you would plug the keyboard into your interface before you record. The audio interface would take that digital information and use it to play the music via whatever output it’s plugged into.
Interfaces take in sound waves, such as audio from someone singing or playing an instrument into a microphone, and use an analog to digital converter to change those physical sound waves into a digital sound file that you can mix and manipulate.
Audio interfaces perform a lot of functions. You can think of them as translators that convert sound waves into digital files and back.
In the simplest terms: sound goes in, the interface makes it into a format that the computer can understand.
This way, you can edit the sound and apply all sorts of effects. After that, the interface converts the digital audio again and spits it back out in a way humans can hear.
Also Read: Do Audio Interfaces Affect Sound Quality?
Because of that, interfaces contain a lot of pieces, including headphone amps. With the exception of top-of-the-line, break-the-bank options, audio interface components will not be as high-quality as the same devices would be on their own.
When Do You Need an Audio Interface?
The primary uses for an audio interface are recording and music production. Whether you’re recording and producing music professionally or just for fun, an audio interface is a crucial part of the setup.
When you’re choosing an audio interface, the quality of the mic preamps is more important than the quality of the headphone amps. Output is important, but when you’re recording, you want the best possible input first.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, sold on Amazon, is an excellent introductory audio interface that is extremely popular and very well regarded. It is loaded with professional-grade features on an amateur budget.
What Is a Headphone Amp?
Headphone amps, unlike audio interfaces, have one purpose: boost an audio signal so that it’s loud enough to play through your headphones. That’s it!
Built-in headphone amps are common in a host of devices. Anything with a headphone jack typically has a built-in headphone amp. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. So, cell phones, iPods, CD players, and laptops all typically have headphone amps built into the device itself.
You can also get a separate headphone amp. Dedicated devices are typically higher quality than a built-in one, but they can also be pricey. It’s a good idea to look at when you need one before investing.
When Do You Need a Headphone Amp?
Since audio interfaces already have a headphone amp built-in, the reason you would want a separate one is to boost your output quality. Usually, this is so whoever is recording can hear a playback track in real-time.
For professional recording, you definitely want a separate headphone amp to ensure you’re capturing the highest quality recording from all of your inputs.
Outside of a recording setting, you might want a headphone amp if you have audiophile-quality headphones to be able to experience the best possible audio your headphones can achieve.
Related article: 14 Best Headphone Amps Under $200 (Buyer’s Guide)
You can’t actually record or produce music with a headphone amp the way you do with an audio interface. The point of a headphone amp is for the listening quality. Fancy headphones deserve a boost if you’re listening to music via a device with a built-in amp.
If you are in a budget recording setting, check out the Behringer HA400 (link to Amazon). It has four output channels, so if you’re in a band, you can all hear the same playback as your record.
When Do You Need Both an Audio Interface and a Headphone Amp?
The primary reason you would need both an audio interface and a separate headphone amp would be during a professional recording session.
Whether you’re recording a rock album, an audiobook, or a podcast, using two dedicated devices lets you get the best possible audio quality. That is especially true if you use less efficient headphones requiring more power to reach sufficient volume levels and really shine.
However, many audio interfaces in-built headphone amp will be good enough in many situations, especially for home recording.
Something to be aware of is that many audio interfaces start to implement a little bit of noise if the volume level goes beyond 65-70%.
Are you going to record something where multiple people need headphones at the same time, like a podcast for example? In that case, a headphone amp like the Behringer HA400 or the Mackie HM-4 is perfect!
It gives you the option to connect 4 pairs of headphones into your audio interface and set the volume for each pair individually.
Take a look at this video to get an idea of how it works:
Almost all music recording and producing has a digital component these days. Even when you’re singing or playing acoustic instruments, the sound files we listen to on our devices or streaming services are all digital information.
A good audio interface is critical to a successful modern recording experience, and a good headphone amp is necessary if you want to hear the playback correctly.
Related article: Can You Use a Mixer with an Audio Interface?
If you’re just starting to build your equipment collection, a decent audio interface is a must. A headphone amp is great, but it might not be the first thing you should get, depending on your headphones and what you are going to record.
In a pinch, you can use an audio interface as a headphone amp. However, for the best audio quality, you should use a separate headphone amp when you’re recording or producing music.
Audio interfaces combine multiple sound engineering devices, so with the exception of the most expensive, professional gear, they don’t have state-of-the-art headphone amps built-in.
On the other hand, if you aren’t recording but want audiophile-level sound, a headphone amp is the device you need. It won’t help you record music, but it will give your headphones a boost.