Headfonia Tips: Keep Your Amps At Low Gain

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With all of the amps that I have reviewed, I don’t think there is any exception to the rule that the amp will produce a cleaner sound at low gain. The background is always blacker, instruments more distinct, less congested sound, and a bigger soundstage — all the result of using the amp at low gain.

When you’re on the low gain level, you may have to use your volume control at the high range, around 3 or 4 O’clock as opposed to a more “normal” range at 10 or 11 O’clock. Fear not as this is actually a bonus, as the potentiometer is known to perform better at close or near maximum, so you get an even cleaner sound.

With high gain, you get the opposite of the qualities I described above, but I can see why some people prefer high gain. Often the sound is more forward on high gain and bass punch tend to be punchier. Don’t ask me why that is, just something I picked up from doing reviews. It’s a more fun sound, at the expense of the clean technicalities.

Of course with some headphones I have no choice but to go with high gain, but when I have a choice, I set it at low gain.

 

Headfonia Tips: Keep Your Amps At Low Gain
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  • Jeff Kong

    is this going to be a series? =D
    enjoying these non-review articles from you guys

    • L.

      That’s the plan yes

    • L.

      That’s the plan yes

    • Yes I plan to make this into a series. 🙂

  • phillip sim

    I never realize it until I tried, and apparently I felt that the immediate effect is a wider soundstage and better separation. Don’t know if it’s a placebo but definitely enjoyable!

    • Good to hear that Phillip. 

  • What about DACs? For example: Burson DA-160 DAC has Hi and Lo settings for outputs, but I guess the higher input actually lowers the output impedance via the RCAs, that should be better than the Lo setting with higher impedance for most cases, right? Thanks for the help!

    • All the DACs I know have a fixed output level. I am not aware that the DA-160 comes with two output levels. 

  • don’t most mfgs state what the gain switch is for? isn’t this common sense?

    • Brian, 
      Mostly they just tell you that the high gain switch is for high impedance headphones. Unless I’m not reading the manuals clearly. 

      • Yep. GoVibe Peak claims could support up to 600 ohm can but I use a DT880 (250 ohm) which really confuse me which gain to aim for.

  • Yes! Exactly mine observations. I used to have Corda Prehead and now I have Violectric V200 and both amps are more linear at low gain but with the high gain have better bass slam and more highs.

    • Good to hear we’re on the same page, Julian. 

  • I don’t think I’ve ever tried using Low Gain, so I will do a comparison between the two tonight and see what I prefer the most.  Great tip, Mike! 

    • Glad you find the tip useful, Chris. 

      Maybe it’s subtle, but for me it’s very hard to use high gain unless I absolutely have to.

      • Just to update, I did do a comparison and I’m sold!  I can hear those ‘subtle’ differences between the two, and now I am a low gain user.  I won’t use high gain any longer unless it is necessary.  Thank you very much, Mike!

  • Mutnat

    I keep my C421/OPA2227 on low, even though I didn’t notice much
    difference when I briefly experimented (after approx volume matching). 
    On my iBasso D-Zero I used previously, I found the high-gain setting had
    more punch and energy (again after approx volume matching).  Both with
    Senn HD25-1 II’s.

    • Yes the sound is usually more punchy on high gain. 

  • My Audioengine D1 doesn’t have low/high gain, ha. It’s nice to know though, seeing as I might get a Matrix M-Stage or an Asgard later on.

    • The M-Stage has a four step gain if I remember correctly. The Asgard has no gain setting.

  • antonius wijaya

    Very Good tip mike. Same impression with me. I also always keep all my amps in low gain if possible

  • I have a Denon D2000 and a FiiO e17 here. In the high gain sound is far more aggressive. High gain sounds better to me.

  • christopherpuchta

    Interesting tip…i always remembered it the other way around – to use the gain as high as possible, so you don’t have to put the volume knob beyond 50%. Not sure where i picked this up 🙂
    Will have to try your suggestions with my RSA amp!

  • For the JDSLabs CMOY, what value do you suggest Mike?

    • Well the Cmoy doesn’t come with a gain switch and so I’m using it at whatever gain setting it’s build for.

      • What setup would you recommend for a cmoy paired with an audio-technica ath-m50?  I read in your review that you felt that the stock build was better suited for the m50s, but when I emailed John Seaber, he recommended going with a gain of 3 vs 6.

        • Hi Kev,
          I’ve never tried a lower gain JDSLabs Cmoy.. basically I only use the standard build, whatever that means on the gain setting. If you want to experiment, you can ask for gain 3. Lower gain should give you a much cleaner sound.

          • Sounds good, I just reread your cmoy review again and you stated that the standard version (gain 6) gave a more spacious and open sound compared to the low-Z configuration (gain 3).  Now I’m wondering if I would be sacrificing the open sound in exchange for a cleaner sound by going with gain 3 or vice versa.  I guess you prefer the stock build for its sound over the cleanliness of the sound gained by going with the low gain?

            • I think the problem with the Low Z is not in the gain, but something else. I didn’t really investigate it but there were some difference in capacitors used, the extra TLE virtual ground chip.
              So, personally, I’ve never heard how the low gain, standard configuration JDSLabs Cmoy sound. I’m just making that recommendation based on the fact that all amps I reviewed sound cleaner when at low gain.

        • I just tried the Epiphany O2 amp which comes with gain 1X and 2.5X with the M-50, and I can get really loud even with gain 1. You should be safe with 3.

  • Mike – I think this explains why I find the RS180 to sound better than many other listeners who have tried them.   It seems to be very sensitive to relative gain settings, and I ended up preferring the lower gain setting of the switch (“attenuator”), which seems to be parallel to your findings (since the RS180 has an internal amp).

    • L.

       It is better with the low gain setting indeed

  • L.

    I noticed always using low gain when listening to music but with movies and series I mostly switch to high gain. It bumps the mids and makes it easier to understand what they’re actually saying. Especially when using the C421 or E10.

  • Where is the love for moderate / mid gain? Life is not black and white. 🙁 

    • Do some amps have such a setting or is it just placing the dial in between the low and high gain setting?  I will mess around with this when I get home myself.

      • Some amps like RSA’s Mustang come with Lo-Med-High gain.

    • Cmon Brian, the point is lower is cleaner. 😉

  • i haven’t decided about gain settings yet, i am always changing it back and forth.

  • Always wondered what the pros’ preference was here. Thanks

  • I’ve always been using my Soloist at mid gain, but after reading this I decided to set it to low gain setting and turn the volume up. You know what? You were right! The sound is definitely cleaner, with a wider soundstage! Why haven’t I tried this before? At mid gain, the sound is more forward with punchier bass, but I think I prefer the low gain with most of music I listen to. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome!

  • Hi, im using shure se535 ltd.. What gain should i use as the track im listening are mostly vocal.. For eg : leona lewis, mariah carey, celine dion, susan boyle and etc… And the portable amp im using is the ibasso d2+ boa.

    • Jayden,
      Low gain should be enough for the 535 LTD.

  • Thank your for posting this wonderful article. I am using Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro with an amp which has two gain settings. Both setting can drive this can well but I did realize there are some differences in sound quality between these settings. Can’t really hit the nail until reading your article. Low gain definitely produce honest, clearer and less congested sound. High gain is punchier. No wonder when I test high gain with trance/dance music, it sound more fun but I blindly hate it when I listen to orchestra music (FLAC). Now I know. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome.

  • Fabio_Rocks

    I drive the Amperior with a Fiio ALpen set to gain +12 half volume. The snare hits amazingly good, I got an impact that I lost with low gain.The sound is more forward also. Mike is right, a lot more fun.

  • Qn

    Sry Mike for this beginner’s question but you are saying on your article : “Of course with some headphones I have no choice but to go with high gain” You mean with some headphones, you have to be on high gain? How does it sound if you are on low gain with those headphones?

    • No problem,
      Some headphones are harder to drive and if you don’t use the high gain you won’t be able to get enough volume.
      Cheers.

      • Qn

        Thanks Mike !

  • goldendarko

    I’ve been using my Burson Conductor with my Audeze LCD-2’s & Sennheiser HD-800’s on High Gain for quite a while, never even thought to try Low Gain for an extended period of time. After reading this article I gave it a try and indeed it did sound cleaner, much clearer background though it gave up a little in bass impact like you said, but that’s a fair tradeoff to me for most music.

  • Feng Xue

    Not sure if I would agree. On Fiio X5, I noticed a more rounded sound when it’s on high gain and lower volume. I found the highs to be a bit irritating if I leave it on low gain and high volume, and a bit fatiguing after a while. The problem is actually gone on high gain and lower volume.

    • L.

      That probably depends on your headphones. in general that is the rule though imo

    • kennijczyk

      The same here. At least when I listen to Beth Hart: Soul Shine. On low gain all I can here i sssss. Much cleaner highs on high gain and low volume (but far from perfect). Fiio X5 with Westone UM30pro.