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Designing an Opamp Headphone Amplifier

Designing an Opamp Headphone Amplifier

This article discusses several opamp-based headphone amplifier circuits, including suggestions for selecting opamps, input coupling and filtering, high current output stages and power supply options. There are no recommendations for specific opamp brands or models.
Entire books cover the subject of interpreting opamp specifications. Here are a few guidelines for choosing opamps when designing headphone amplifiers. Opamps inch closer to the “ideal” with every succeeding generation. Modern devices are internally compensated for stability, have slew rates going through the roof and noise and distortion numbers at threshold of measurement. There are even opamps that will run off a 1-volt supply. For portable devices, the power supply requirements should be the first consideration. The majority of modern opamps will run with as little as ±4V, but low voltages may degrade performance. Check the manufacturer’s VCC specs to confirm that low voltage operation is, in fact, recommended. The most common battery supply voltages are ±1.5V, ±3V, ±4.5V and ±9V. Single supplies are another possibility. Keep in mind also that the idling current for the entire amplifier must also be low – around 10mA or less for good battery life. For more information, see the section on battery power options below.

Opamp performance specifications are an unreliable indicator of sound quality. So long as the numbers are below audibility thresholds, specs that are magnitudes better than the averages will not necessarily translate into better sound. Regardless of type (bipolar or FET), modern opamps do very well on the test bench. Total harmonic distortion figures are so low (typically less than 0.1%) that datasheets have stopped listing them. Look for noise specifications, listed as “noise density” in units of nV/Ö(Hz), of 25 or less, slew rates of 5uV/sec or more and “wide” unity gain-bandwidths of 3 MHz and higher.

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