The Best Headphone AMPs in 2021
Some high-end headphones won’t reach their full potential without a headphone amp. And even if they don’t need it, they can get a noticeably better sound with one. Finding the best headphone amp for your needs can be a long and complex process.
It all depends on which headphones you have, where you listen to music, which audio devices you own, etc. But today, we are showing the best headphone amps for the majority of users. They all come with great features and they all can be used with a variety of headphones with great results. Below the list of the best picks you can find a headphone buying guide where you can learn more about amps and DACs.
But, before that, let’s talk about best headphone amps. We have portable headphone amps, headphone aps that come with DACs, gaming headphone amps, and more. Let’s begin.
Best Headphone AMPs
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
The Best Portable Headphone AMP
- Dimensions :1.2 x 1.9 x 5.7cm
- Sampling Rate: up to Up to 24-bit/96kHz
- I/O: 3.5mm Headphone Jack, USB A Port
- USB-C Adapter Included
If you want the best portable headphone amp on the market, this is the one to get. This a DAC (digital to analog converter) that plays the role of both a headphone amp and a DAC. It’s a whole package and it’s the top of the Dragonfly line. The small body hides excellent hardware that comes with superb performance.
Just hook this to a USB port and you can unleash the full potential of any pair of headphones. The device has a top of the line ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip which brings clear sound with power supply filtering removing any noise caused by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other signals.
The performance is amazing. You get sampling rates from 44.1KHz to 88.2KHz, to 96KHz along with stupendously clear audio output. This tiny device delivers sounds as clear as a mountain spring. Despite its otherworldly clear output, the DragonFly Cobalt has excellent dynamic range and perfect timing. The only downside is that you have to use an adaptor if you want to use the DragonFly Cobalt with a smartphone or other devices that don’t have full-size USB ports.
- Perfect Sound Clarity
- Excellent Performance
- Small Package
- Superb Dynamic Range
- Adaptor Required For Smartphones
Sound BlasterX G6
The Best Gaming Headphone AMP
- Dimensions: 111 x 70 x 24 mm
- Sampling Rate: Up to 32-bit/384KHz
- I/O: 3.5mm Headphone Jack; 3.5mm Microphone Jack; Line/Optical In and Out; Micro USB
- Optical Cable and Micro USB Cable Included
If you own multiple gaming consoles and listen to music mostly on your PC, you should seriously think about getting the Sound BlasterX G6. This is a headphone AMP and DAC that works with all major consoles (PlayStation, Xbox One, Switch) and can also be used on PCs.
First of all, the Sound BlasterX G6 delivers amazing sound. Next, it supports 5.1 and 7.1 virtual surround sound, which works rather well. The SBX mode isn’t as good as the real deal but the difference between stereo and virtual surround is easily noticeable. You can hook up any pair of headphones and, unless they are a dirt-cheap model, you will hear the difference.
The device is very easy to use. Just hook it up to the audio source, hook up your headphones and let it do its magic. Another good think about it is that you can use any pair of headphones with all your gaming consoles and your PC. This amp doesn’t only enhance music, it also improves sounds in video games.
Ambient noises, which can be distracting, are lowered while sounds like footsteps and voices are a bit amplified. The amplifier can boost all audio coming to the headphones, allowing incredibly high loudness while playing games.
- Works With Every Major Console
- Virtual Surround Is Great When Playing Games
- Noticeably Improves Audio Quality
- Very Easy To Use
- A Bit Pricey
- Limited Input Selection
The Best Headphone AMP Under $100
- Dimensions: 49.1 ×80 ×21mm
- Sampling Rate: Up to 24-bit/96KHz
- I/O: 3.5mm Headphone Jack; Coaxial Out, Line Out, Micro USB
The E10K from FiiO is a simple to use headphone amp and DAC that packs a lot of punch inside its small package. The device can be used with any pair of headphones and is great for newbie audiophiles because it’s very easy to use. Just hook it up to a source, connect your cans, decide whether you want the bass boost or not and set the volume level. There’s also a gain switch for power-hungry headphones, and it works great.
The amp sounds really great, especially considering its affordable price. The sound is very clean and natural and the bass boost adds a subtle influx of lower frequencies that doesn’t drown the music. It only adds a nice lower frequency dynamic to it. Overall, this is a great little headphone amp that is portable and that delivers excellent sound for the price.
- Easy To Use
- Excellent Sound
- Bass Boost Works Great
- Soundstage Could’ve Been Wider
The Best Headphone Amp Under $500
- Dimensions: 82 x 60 x 22mm
- Sampling Rate: Up to 32-bit/768KHz
- I/O: 2 x 3.5mm Headphone Out; Coaxial In, Optical In, Micro USB
If you want a headphone amp that performs as well as models with four-digit price, get the Chord Mojo. Yes, it’s expensive but its performance is stellar. The detail in songs is extravagant, with clear sound and immense dynamic range. \While the device can process dynamic music and turns it into thumping hymns, it’s still precise enough to convey and deliver minuscule details in subtle songs. It’s really an all-around headphone amp that delivers incredible sound.
Aside from terrific performance, this tiny device has rock-solid build quality despite its humble size. Everything is so tightly assembled that the device feels like a solid bar of steel when you hold it. Its portable and it features a rechargeable battery since it cannot be powered by a connected device. For about 10 hours of charging you get 8 hours of playtime.
The Chord Mojo is simple to use. You’ll only need a couple of days to get used to it’s a bit complex control scheme that combines the three available buttons but after you learn their combinations, it’s smooth sailing. Overall, this is an excellent headphone amp. It’s portable, has enough ports, and delivers terrific sound.
- Terrific Performance
- Rock Solid Build Quality
- Nice Selection Of Ports
- 2 Headphone Outputs
- Battery Takes Long To Charge
- Controls Can Be Confusing At First
The Best Bluetooth Headphone Amp
- Dimensions: 72 x 32 x 11.1mm
- Sampling Rate: Up To 32-bit/384kHz
- I/O: 3.5mm Headphone Jack, 2.5mm Headphone Jack, USB-C
FiiO BTR5 is an interesting piece of technology. This is a Bluetooth receiver with a built-in amp and DAC to use with wired headphones. In other words, this is an excellent solution for audiophiles who want to use their wired headphones without a USB-C dongle and without a wired connection to their smartphone. The design is fantastic. The metal body is sandwiched between two glass layers and the result is one of the prettiest headphone amps on the market.
The BTR5 supports an impressive amount of Bluetooth audio codecs including AAC and aptX low latency/aptX HD/LDAC. The device includes two audio outputs: a 2.5mm balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced. It also uses a USB-C port for charging but also for connecting to a PC via USB, allowing you to use the BTR5 as a USB DAC for your PC.
The sound signature is natural and quite neutral when the BTR5 is connected via Bluetooth. There’s lots of detail, the sound is highly dynamic, and the amp is powerful enough for most earphones. Wired mode functions very similarly, with added depth for the mid-low sounds. The battery lasts 9 hours, which is pretty solid for a Bluetooth amp and it requires about one and a half hours to completely charge.
- Excellent Sound Quality Over Bluetooth
- Support For A Ton Of Bluetooth Audio Codecs
- Solid, 9-Hour Battery Life
- Can Also Be Used As A USB DAC
- Sleek Design
- Display Could’ve Been Larger
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp
Portable Headphone Amp With Original Design
- Dimensions: 102 x 70 x 14mm
- Sampling Rate: Up To 32-bit/384kHz
- I/O: 3.5mm Headphone Jack, 4.4mm Headphone Jack, USB-C, Male USB-A
Designed to look like a hipflask, the hip-dac from iFi is an excellent portable headphone DAC with a powerful, 400mW headphone amp. It can be used with a smartphone or a PC via the included male USB-A port. By using the male USB-A port, the iFi Hip-dac can be connected to an iPhone via the lighting-to-USB cable, which is great news for iPhone owners. While the iFi Hip-dac comes with a USB-C connection, we were sad to see it can only be used for charging the device.
The front of the device features the volume knob, a gain switch button, and a bass boost button. The bass boost is noticeable but not overblown or too intensive so it’s a nice addition for users who like to spice their beats with extra bass. As for the battery life, you can get anywhere from eight to twelve hours of playback, depending on the headphones you use and volume level. Pretty solid for a portable headphone amp.
Once connected, you can hook up headphones either via the 3.5mm jack or the balanced 4.4mm jack for audiophile cans. The sound is balanced, on the warmer side, and pleasantly dynamic. Audio quality is spotless, making the iFi Hip-dac a great pairing for most headphones sans the most expensive models on the market.
The thing is, the iFi Hip-dac isn’t as portable as some other amps that can be used with smartphones. Also, it’s quite expensive when compared to similar models. Nevertheless, it offers superb sound quality, has excellent battery life, and sleek design. If you’re looking for an attractive headphone amp and do not care about portability the iFi Hip-dac might be right up your alley.
- Pretty Good Battery Life
- Can Be Easily Connected To An iPhone
- Excellent Sound Quality
- Original Design
- Less Portable Than Other Similar Amps
- USB-C Port Is Used Only For Charging
How To Choose A Headphone Amp
Now, let’s talk about how to pick a headphone amp that’s right for you. There are numerous amps out there and, in some cases, you might not need one. We will talk about the most important points regarding headphones amps below but first, let’s explain what a headphone amp is.
Headphone AMPs and DACs Explained
A headphone amp is, plainly speaking, a signal amplifier. It takes a low-voltage signal coming from an emitting device – a Hi-Fi system, PC, smartphone, MP3 player – and amplifies it to a level that allows the signal to be played as sound waves in your headphones. In other words, it amplifies audio signals until their voltage is high enough to be played on your headphones.
A DAC is a digital to analog converter. It’s a relatively new device. Back in the day, they weren’t needed because all devices capable of playing audio were analog. But today, when most of the devices we’re playing music on are digital – such as PCs and Macs, gaming consoles, smartphones, MP3 players, etc. – a DAC is needed in order to convert the digital signal into an analog one so it can be either played on headphones or sent to the amplifier for it to amplify it.
Now, DACs found in most digital devices are of poor quality. Some devices, such as the LG V line of smartphones, have excellent built-in DACs but most devices have average DACs good enough just to convert the signal and not to enhance it in any way. That’s why you’re seeing standalone DACs. Those are of high quality, used to filter and enhance digital signals while converting them to analog form.
There are headphone amps, there are DACs and there are devices that combine the two. Those can both turn digital signals into analog ones and amplify them, all in the same body.
Do You Really Need A Headphone Amp?
If you own a pair of budget headphones or a budget gaming headset, you probably don’t need a headphone amp. In fact, most digital devices already have a DAC and a headphone amp and they do a solid job of amplifying audio signals. For instance, a pair of headphones under $50 probably don’t need an amp because they don’t have anything to gain from using a separate amp.
But if you own a pair of high-end Hi-Fi headphones, you might need one. And we are talking about proper high-end headphones here. For instance, even a pair of great-sounding headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD 599, don’t need a headphone amp. You can get one and they might sound just a tad bit better but they don’t really need one.
High impedance headphones, on the other hand, do need an amp to function properly. Impedance is measured in ohms and it presents resistance to the electrical signal. Higher impedance means higher resistance, which means a higher gain signal is needed in order to punch through the high impedance. And most everyday devices we use to listen to music don’t have high gain signals. That’s why high impedance headphones need a separate headphone amp to work. Without one, the incoming signal will be very quiet because it can’t go through a high impedance.
For instance, the aforementioned Sennheiser HD 599 don’t need an amp because they have an impedance of 50 ohms. Even some high-end headphones have a low impedance of just 18 ohms. That’s low enough for headphones to sound pretty loud even when hooked to an average smartphone.
But headphones with an impedance of 70-80 ohms and greater, need an amp. These are studio and Hi-Fi models that were designed to work with powerful studio equipment that delivers high gain signals. They can have impedance up to 600 ohms and cannot be used with most digital audio outputs without a dedicated amp.
So, to summarize. In most cases, you don’t need a separate amp. Even solid Hi-Fi headphones can work without one. But if you own a pair of high impedance headphones, you’ll need one. Further, high-end Hi-Fi and studio headphones can sound noticeably better with an amp.
What You Can Gain With A Headphone Amp
As we already said, the most important thing you can gain is a higher volume of headphones. If they don’t sound loud enough you can make them louder by getting an amp. But, more importantly, a quality pair of headphones will get improved sound quality.
A deeper and more nuanced bass, for instance. Cleaner highs that aren’t sharp even when the volume is all the way up. Wider dynamic range. In other words, a greater level of details in songs that together, make for a more pleasant listen that’s much more nuanced than it would be without an amp.
What Kind Of Amp Do You Need?
If you’re listening to your music on the go, get a portable headphone amp. These come with a built-in DAC and are perfect for music lovers who listen to their tunes over a smartphone, portable music player, or a laptop.
If you’re mostly enjoying music in your house, get a regular headphone amp. Just make sure it has all of the ports you need to connect your sound sources and your headphones. And remember that even relatively affordable headphone amps – those with a price up to $100-150 – can greatly enhance sound.
The final choice is up to you but we would recommend a portable amp if you listen to your music mostly via your PC and smartphone and if you mostly use headphones. If you own a pair of high—end speakers you can get a desktop amp, hook all devices to it, and use it for both speakers and headphones.
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