The Streaming Revolution, Headphones and Hardware Part Three: Headphones and Amps

Today we come to the final part of our streaming hardware examination, at what is perhaps a most timely date. Streaming has been exceptionally popular and with social distancing at the fore, more people are jumping in to hangout with friends, do that Twitch Stream they’ve always thought of, or just have a nicer Zoom experience for webinars.

Nonetheless the conclusion of our streaming hardware series is about the exact thing we spend so much time covering here on InnerFidelity: Headphones and amps.

Now, the important thing to recognize is that absolute sound quality, a bit of a nebulous moving target at best, is not necessarily the goal here. Rather, we are looking for a few specific traits, which include clarity and comfort without fatigue, reliability, size and cost, and isolation.

Depending on your setup, many of these will be largely headphone-related factors, and this is because often a streaming setup will have an integrated interface for microphone and headphones, with separate DAC/Amp setups a rarity. However, in general, I believe you should first select a headphone and then select an interface that will appropriately match those headphones.

In the case of streaming setups, the greatest degree of flexibility is in having a separate recording interface and playback interface. This comes with the greatest degree of complexity but also potentially the best sound quality. Often these are as simple as setting one device as the recording device and another as the playback device, and especially in OBS which has huge flexibility, this should be a cinch.

Beyerdynamic 770.

Now, to select a headphone. Clarity is something we’ve explored previously on InnerFidelity, but the important part is that a clean, distortion and resonance-free upper midrange is critical. I tend to agree with an early piece posted here on the so-called Harmon curve, that media-oriented headphones can tolerate an even greater boost to this 3kHz region than typical music-listening headphones. Generally excessive bass bloat or sibilant treble is to be avoided. In contrast to a music headphone, flatter bass and a somewhat forward midrange can actually be a plus, since the types of media typically streamed – video games and movies – will tend to be mixed just a little darker and less compressed than many genres of music. This means a headphone with some mid-emphasis may actually sound more neutral and cleaner as a result.

Comfort is a major factor, and this includes finding a ‘comfortable frequency response.’ This will differ with everyone and their individual HRTF and preferences, but I would say a good rule of thumb is to look for headphones that broadly neutral to somewhat warm with music, and to avoid any headphones that are slightly bright or particularly dark. I would rather have a headphone that is slightly too dark or warm than a headphone that is too bright when streaming, as after long sessions the initial ‘wow’ factor of extra detail quickly becomes fatiguing.

Physical comfort too, is not as obvious as it may seem. While many mainstream brands of gaming or streaming gear will tout big puffy earpads and thick headbands as the ultimate in comfort, I tend towards the ergo-minimalist concept. Suspension headbands with minimal surface area, light and small earcups and relatively firm clamp to keep things in place and avoid head hotspots as much as possible. This will come down to personal preference, but I find that the more minimalist, lighter gear will not only leave me less sore when it eventually begins to wear, but will also tend to look visually less intrusive.

Dan Clark Ether 2.

Then there is the size and cost element. Cost is an obvious one, where a balance between reasonable streaming equipment – which is not merely headphone and electronics but microphone, computer, headphone, webcam, etc. – must be managed. Size is less obvious perhaps, but you don’t want Goliath headphones dominating your head while you stream, it would, for example, look a bit odd to wear a JPS Labs Abyss while streaming. Minimizing visual clutter means that a more minimalist headphone will tend to be a more streaming-friendly headphone in my opinion.

Finally reliability and isolation may at first seem obvious, but would lead me to almost preclude the use of valve amps, which may get noisy as a tube fails or requires replacement. Noise is at odds with the broadcasting nature of Streaming. Reliability is also something important to look at in headphones – solid parts vs. more flimsy bits, longer-lasting metal and solid joints versus cheaper ones, but also whether or not the headband and earpads are replaceable. A $10 or $15 set of replacement parts can go a long way towards keeping long-term costs down as opposed to buying a totally new headset at the slightest sign of failure.

Isolation means we’re going to be looking at largely closed or semi-open back, though there are some ‘open’ back headphones which don’t leak a lot of sound. This is an important consideration because it determines how much sound your microphone will pick up – too much headphone bleed and you’ll get echo, or worse, feedback – that screechy sound you hear at middle school talent show PA’s, which happens when a playback system and microphone are passing signal in a loop.

So what kinds of headphones are we looking at? At the high-end we have things like the Dan Clark Aeon 2 Closed or Audeze GX, but moving down into more attainable price-points I quite like the Beyerdynamic DT150 or 770, Sennheiser HD500 series, or even the HD280 from Sennheiser. While these headphones may not be exciting in the way some others are, most of them are solid and reliable, hitting many of the points I mentioned above. As for amplifiers, there is a glut of good choices with plenty of power for these kinds of headphones, ranging from companies like SMSL to JDS Labs to Grace Designs products and others from Drop, formerly Massdrop. Generally, a solid state amp with good power is going to do well here. I would look for solid state amps from reputable companies that have switchable gain and at least a couple hundred milliwatts of power. Streaming deals with often uncompressed or minimally compressed audio and having some extra bandwidth can come in handy.

That concludes our examination into streaming hardware. If there’s one big take away it’s that taking care in your component selection is critical, and to not be afraid of separates. They may seem scary, but essentially you’re setting up two systems that work similarly but ‘backwards’ if you will. A Microphone to ADC and interface, and DAC amp and headphone setup. If you do some reading and listening, it should hopefully demystify what at first may seem like an avalanche of choices. Take the time to construct a good audio setup however, and not only will your audience appreciate it, but it should save you money, time and prevent upgrade fever. A reliable and good-sounding setup nowadays will remain a reliable and good-sounding setup for years, despite the pace of advancement in digital technology. Hopefully this series has been enlightening for the streaming novice. Stay healthy and good luck with any content creation journey’s you’re about to embark on!