As almost everybody has a mobile phone that can play music nowadays, people running around with headphones has become a part of every city’s daily buzz. Listening to music with headphones is the new daily obsession.
And as vinyl records have become massively popular again, people often ask; can I connect my headphones directly to my turntable?
You cannot connect headphones directly to your turntable. The output signal from a turntable isn’t strong enough to drive headphones properly. And there will be no volume control. The right way to connect headphones to a turntable is by using a headphone amplifier or a receiver with a headphone output.
There is however one caveat to this. And that is if you connect Bluetooth wireless headphones to a turntable that is equipped with a Bluetooth wireless output. That is a way to connect headphones directly to a turntable that will work. But turntables that support Bluetooth wireless are rare. There are only a few models available on today’s market.
In this article, we will look at 3 ways to connect headphones to a turntable that works.
The 3 ways to connect headphones to a turntable
The 3 ways to connect headphones to a turntable are:
- Using a headphone amplifier
- Using a receiver with a dedicated headphones output
- Using Bluetooth
1. Using a headphone amplifier
The first and most common way to connect headphones to a turntable is by using a dedicated headphone amplifier.
A headphone amp is a relatively low-powered amplifier that raises the low-voltage audio signal from a source device (be it a turntable, PC, or smartphone) to a sufficient level such that it can be converted (or transduced) into sound waves by the speakers inside your headphones. It works like the amps used to power full-sized speakers but operates at a lower scale.
If your turntable has a built-in phono preamp the headphone amplifier can be connected directly to the turntable as shown in the figure below.
If your turntable does not have a built-in phono preamp, you will have to include standalone phono preamp between the turntable and the headphone. As illustrated by the stippled line in the figure below.
Why do I need a headphone amplifier?
There are mainly two reasons why a headphone amplifier is needed.
Firstly, to boost the signal from the turntable (or phono preamp) so that it is strong enough to drive headphones.
A turntable doesn’t have a built-in headphone amplifier like your iPhone, iPad, laptop, or whatever. These devices don’t have great headphone amplifiers built in either, but they do at least have a miniature style headphone amplifier that can somewhat drive headphones. But this is unfortunately not the case for turntables.
And secondly, to provide volume adjustment for the music. A volume control. Turntables will generally not have a volume control, so the headphone amplifier is needed for volume adjustment.
Does a headphone amplifier improve sound quality?
Yes, a headphone amplifier definitely improves sound quality. And more and more so the better quality headphones you use.
As a headphone amplifier are capable of delivering higher voltage and higher current than a standard signal output from a turntable or other music playing devices, the sound quality will be better.
The extra voltage and current provided by a headphone amplifier will enable a more solid listening level, more detail and clarity, and most significantly, improved dynamic range and give a tighter deeper bass with much more dynamic control.
Good quality headphones paired with a good quality headphone amplifier have the potential to reproduce fantastic sounding music. This is why Audiophiles often are very passionate about their headphones. Good headphones just make music sound good!
And as a bonus, listening to music with headphones removes all the listening room acoustic issues as the sound will reach your ears without bouncing around in the room. Which often creates all kinds of unwanted reflections and standing waves. But with headphones, that will not be an issue at all.
So many music signal sources like mobile phones and laptops will sound better with headphones when a decent headphone amplifier is used to drive the headphones properly. Even tho these devices outputs are designed to drive headphones directly, a good headphone amplifier will do the job much better. Especially with high-quality headphones.
And, as we have learned by now, with a turntable there is really no other choice than using a headphone amplifier (or receiver) to drive wired headphones.
Types of headphone amplifier
Let us look at the four types of headphone amplifiers.
Stationary (desk) vs portable
Headphone amplifiers come as stationary and portable. Stationary usually connects to power and portable are battery driven, designed to listen to music when on the fly.
If you buy a portable headphone amplifier you can also use it with your mobile phone or iPod (anyone still uses these?) on your daily commute etc.
If you, however, are only going to use the headphones for listening to music at home, which will be the case if your plan is to use them solely to listen to vinyl records, you will probably get more bang for your bucks buying a stationary desk type headphone amplifier.
Solid state vs tube
Almost all headphone amplifiers on the market are solid state. Meaning that they use transistor technology for amplification.
But as many stereophiles are big fans of vacuum tube amplifiers due to their smooth and warm sound, there are a few manufacturers out there that also make headphone amplifiers with vacuum tube amplification.
Vacuum tube headphone amplifiers look really cool (as the tubes glow in the dark) and sound great, but as they are usually costly and the tubes wear out and must be replaced at certain time intervals, this is probably nothing to consider if you are not really geeky about the quality and character of the sound. It is really down to nuances. And for most people, a vacuum tube type headphone amplifier is not the first choice.
DAC or no DAC
Headphones amplifiers come with and without built-in DACs.
DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. As the music stored on your iPhone or laptop is digitized, it has to be converted to an analog music signal. This conversion is normally done by the DAC built-into the iPhone or laptop or whatever. But some headphone amplifiers have a built-in DAC as well. Usually, these DACs are of higher quality than the ones built into the music playing devices. Giving the option for better quality sound.
But, as the music coming from our turntables has never ever been digitized (which is super cool) it is not necessary to buy a headphone amplifier with a built-in DAC to use with the turntable.
We need no DAC at all!
Yes. You can even buy headphone amplifiers with built-in phono preamps. But those are very rare. Most people use the phono preamp built into their turntable or a standalone phono preamp.
How to connect a headphone amplifier to a turntable
There are two ways to connect a turntable to a headphone amplifier.
If your turntable has a built-in phono preamp (LINE output) you connect the LINE output on the turntable to the input on the headphone amplifier. Then you connect the headphones to the headphone amplifier.
If your turntable does not have a built-in phono preamp (PHONO output only), you must include a standalone phono preamp in the setup.
In this case, connect the PHONO output on the turntable to the PHONO input on the phono preamp. Then connect the LINE output on the phono preamp to the input on the headphone amplifier. Then you connect the headphones to the headphone amplifier.
It is very easy to set this up.
2. Using a receiver with a dedicated headphone output
If you have a stereo receiver with a dedicated headphone output, you can simply connect the headphones to the receiver and use the receiver’s built-in amplifier and volume control to drive the headphones.
You might, however, need a 3.5mm to 6.3mm converter as most headphones come with a 3.5mm connector that fits most portable music playing devices. But some stereo receivers favor the 6.3mm connector.
As was the case for me when I first tried to connect my Bowers & Wilkins headphones to my Denon receiver. It did not fit! The headphone jack is 3.5mm and the receiver headphone output is 6.3mm.
3. Using Bluetooth
The third option to connect headphones to a turntable is by using Bluetooth wireless.
As part of the vinyl family, you should however never ever do this as a big part of the magic with vinyl records are that they reproduce music in a fully analog fashion. And with Bluetooth, the music will get digitized, and are no longer analog. It this is a big no no in the vinyl world. 🙂 🙂
That said, to connect a turntable to headphones using Bluetooth wireless you will need a Bluetooth turntable or a Bluetooth transmitter. And of course, Bluetooth wireless headphones. The figure below illustrates how this can be done.
You can read more about Bluetooth wireless turntables and how to connect them in this article.
As turntables don’t have the built-in circuitry (amplification) to drive headphones directly, the right way to connect headphones to a turntable is by using a dedicated headphone amplifier or a stereo receiver with a dedicated headphone output.
Do you need a DAC with a headphone amplifier? No, not usually as most music playing devices (iPhone, iPad, laptop, PC, etc.) have a built-in DAC. And with the turntable as the music source, you will not need DAC as the music is analog from the source. Some headphone amplifiers come with a built-in quality DACs to improve the quality of the sound, but it is optional, not needed.
Does my turntable need a preamp? If the turntable doesn’t have a phono preamp built in you will need a preamp. It can be a standalone unit. But also built into the stereo receiver. Or even built into powered speakers. So there are many different ways to include a phono preamp in a stereo setup.
What is the advantage of high impedance headphones? They are usually built to produce higher quality sound. But they will also need a higher quality headphone amplifier to work properly. They are not easily driven and will not sound good if connected directly to an iPhone or other music playing devices with only a tiny built-in headphone amplifier.
Can you use a turntable without an amplifier? No, the signal from a turntable must be amplified somewhere in the stereo chain. The amplifier can be a standalone amplifier/receiver or built into the speakers.