You would not anticipate headphones to require any additional equipment to function. You connect them, turn on your device, and the music plays. But what if you want to do more than listen to your music? What if you truly desire to listen to it? A headphone amplifier is required to increase the signal strength that reaches your ears. These small devices will drive the signal from your music player and amplify its volume and clarity. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to acquire one; we can assist you with your search. Check out our list of the best high-end headphones and DACs to complete your system.
Our Top Picks
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Do You Need A Headphone Amp?
A headphone amplifier is a great way to improve a setup, but they are not always necessary. You must know and comprehend a few things to make a more informed decision based on your circumstances.
Impedance and sensitivity are factors to consider when determining if an amplifier is required. Impedance indicates the amount of power your headphones or IEMs require. The sensitivity of headphones means how loud they can get in decibels per millivolt of power.
A pair of headphones with a low impedance and high sensitivity may not be the most powerful. This indicates that they do not require an amplifier but could benefit from the additional power.
In most cases, headphones with an impedance more significant than 32 ohms could benefit from an amplifier, but you won’t need one until you use headphones with an impedance between 60 and 80 ohms.
If you don’t need to increase the volume to 70-100%, you don’t need an amplifier, as amps are designed to increase power or volume. A phone or computer’s internal amplifier will distort the sound at higher volumes. An amplifier will not improve the sound if you have a cheap pair of earbuds or headphones, such as the pair that came with your phone.
Audiophile headphones with a price tag above $200 to $300 typically require an amplifier. Lower-priced headphones can be significantly improved with an amplifier, but most can function perfectly well with a computer or phone audio.
Not everyone will require an amplifier or even see a benefit from having one, depending on your circumstances. It is recommended that you investigate the impedance and sensitivity of your headphones, and if you wish they were louder, you will need an amplifier.
Are Headphone Amps Valuable?
If you have become more interested in audio and have attempted to improve your audio setup, you may have researched amplifiers. Headphone amplifiers are a fantastic way to enhance sound quality. Often, amplifiers are required for high-quality audio setups.
Generally, amps will not alter the sound signature of your device, but the additional power will bring out previously muffled sounds. Depending on the rest of your setup, amps may not provide a quality improvement in certain situations.
Let’s determine if investing in an amplifier would be a wise decision for your audio system.
Best Headphone Amps You Can Buy 2022
Spend a lot of money on a pair of high-end headphones. A dedicated headphone amplifier will make them sound much better than if you plugged them into a computer, phone, or, depending on the quality of its built-in headphone amp, a hi-fi component. An external headphone amp is designed to sit between your source/amplifier and headphones and can serve as the foundation for a compact and effective desktop hi-fi system.
We have compiled the top budget, mid-range, and high-end headphone amplifiers.
1. Best Overall Headphone Amp: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
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The newest Dragonfly from Audioquest is not inexpensive, but it is an excellent performer. The award-winning Cobalt offers greater clarity and sonic precision than the already talented Red. Due to its superior transparency, the Cobalt reveals flaws in the source and recordings that other family members do not, so you may have to watch lower-quality recordings. But if you give it a good signal, it can compete with Chord’s mighty Mojo, which is something few headphone amplifiers can say.
It has the same 2.1v headphone output, bit-perfect digital volume control, and MQA renderer as the multiple-award-winning DragonFly Red. In addition, numerous upgrades, such as a more advanced DAC chip that produces a more transparent, more natural sound and a new microprocessor that boosts processing speed by 33%. Plus, enhanced power supply filtering (increasing immunity to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise), a 10% smaller enclosure, and a DragonTail USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adaptor for use with the growing number of electronic devices with USB-C connectivity.
- This bundle allows you to connect your Dragonfly to any amplifier
- DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound
- Plays All Music Files: MP3 to MQA and Hi-Res
- Compatible with iOS Mobile Devices (requires Apple Lightning-to-USB adaptor) and Android Mobile Devices (requires USB adaptor)
- Dimensions: 57mm (l) x 19mm (w) x 12mm (h)
- Impressive resolution and clarity
- As convenient as ever
- Smartphone compatible
- Less forgiving than the Red
2. Runner-Up: Chord Electronics Mojo 2
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The appropriately named Mojo 2 is the long-awaited, re-engineered successor to the 2015-released original, which exploded onto the scene as a true game-changer in the then-nascent world of portable DACs/headphone amps. And while those familiar with Chord’s most affordable product will see from the images accompanying this review that the aesthetic hasn’t precisely been overhauled for the sequel, significant advancements have been made elsewhere to ensure that it maintains its position as the pinnacle of portable DACs.
While the Mojo 2 can confidently boost the performance of a hi-fi system from a performance standpoint, those seeking a system boost may prefer a dedicated system alternative with more suitable connections, such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M. (below). But for those seeking a predominantly portable or desktop DAC in this price range (and unable to triple their budget to Chord Hugo 2 territory), we believe the decision to purchase the Mojo 2 or not is much simpler. What about current Mojo owners? Chord has left us with no other option but to recommend the upgrade.
- 1x Micro USB 768kHz/32-bit Capable Input
- 1x 3.5mm Jack Coaxial 768kHz/32-bit Capable Input
- 1x Optical TOSLINK 96kHz/24-bit Capable Input
- 1x 1amp Micro USB Charging Port Input
- 2x 3.5mm Headphone Jacks Output
- Benchmark transparency
- Lively, musical, open sound
- Several customisation options
- Convoluted color display
3.Super-affordable Headphone Amps: iFi Zen DAC V2
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The idiom “if it ain’t broke…” is not lost on us. However, we recognize that it is not necessarily a bad idea to make your products better in a competitive industry such as hi-fi. This is what iFi has done with its budget home DAC and headphone amp offering, replacing the original Zen DAC with a “V2” version.
The sequel employs the new-generation processing chip found in the higher-priced Neo iDSD and iDSD Diablo DAC/headphone amps, which offers twice the clock speed and four times the memory of the chip found in the original. In addition to supporting PCM (up to 384kHz) and DSD (up to DSD256) files, the Zen DAC V2 is also an MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) decoder, unlike the original Zen DAC, which was merely a renderer. In other words, it incorporates full MQA decoding, handling the entire ‘unfolding’ process that music encoded with the technology requires to be reproduced in its most accurate form. The news should please Tidal HiFi subscribers who devour the service’s MQA-encoded high-resolution Masters.
iFi has also modified the circuitry, incorporating a new crystal clock designed to improve timing and further reduce jitter.
- 32-bit/384kHz, MQA, DXD and DSD 256 compatible
- Burr Brown DAC
- 1 x USB-B input
- Variable or fixed RCA output
- Balanced and unbalanced headphone amp
- Unbalanced headphone output level: 280mW into 32 ohms
- Balanced headphone output level: 380mW into 50 ohms
- Clearer and more insightful than predecessor
- Expressive dynamics
- Good output selection
- No mains adapter included
4. Excellent kit: Chord Hugo 2 Transportable DAC Headphone Amplifier
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Hugo 2 is an odd creature. It is almost pocketable but a bit too large to fit in a pocket. This is the intended size, as it has an internal battery. Therefore, it is not ideal for listening on the go. It is also not always the most accessible device, primarily due to its sometimes-confusing system of colored lights.
Oh, and it’s also expensive.
So why is it included on this list, you may ask? Two words for you: audio fidelity. How Hugo 2 converts and delivers your digital audio files is difficult to fault. And not just dazzlingly high-resolution files but also lower-quality ones – regardless of what you feed it, Hugo 2 delivers a detailed, dynamic, and robust performance.
There are numerous inputs, as well as aptX Bluetooth, available for use. If you can get past its odd appearance, you will be rewarded with an intricately detailed performance, dynamic, and punchy performance. No wonder it won the What Hi-Fi? Award! Honors for their efforts
- Sleek new aircraft-grade aluminum casework
- New levels of technical performance
- Four digital inputs
- User-selectable filtering option
- Crossfeed feature
- Battery life improved
- Lower distortion, better output stage
- Well made and specified
- Exotic multi-coloured control system
- Prodigiously detailed sound
- Confusing colours
- Not very portable
5. Generously featured: Cambridge Audio DacMagic Headphone Amplifier
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At this price, the DacMagic 200M is a bit of a no-brainer if you’re looking for a DAC that combines various valuable features in a visually appealing and sonically adept package.
It is sufficiently equipped to fit into any stereo or desktop system. A multitude of digital inputs accommodate a variety of sources, and aptX Bluetooth is also included. Add balanced and unbalanced outputs, a headphone output, and support for high-resolution audio, and virtually all bases are covered.
It has the distinctive ‘Cambridge’ sound, characterized by a whole, smooth tone and an open, expressive, and authoritative delivery. Ignore this multi talented player at your peril.
- ✓ AMAZING SOUND CONVERSION. DacMagic 200M performs the digital-to-analogue conversion perfectly every time, letting all kinds of digital audio systems sound better than ever when it reaches your ears.
- ✓ ARTIST APPROVED AUDIO. DacMagic 200M is Cambridge Audio’s first product to support MQA. MQA is an award-winning British technology that delivers studio-quality sound in a file small enough to stream.
- ✓ POWERFUL PROCESSING. Inside is a pair of extremely high-quality ESS Sabre DAC converters. They handle digital audio files up to 32bit/768kHz or DSD512, handling digital music of any kind stored on CDs, smartphones, computers – or anywhere else.
- ✓ EASY CONNECTING. Digital optical, digital coaxial and USB inputs mean CD players, games consoles, laptops or any other digital equipment can be easily hooked up. Bluetooth aptX also lets you wirelessly deliver files from your smartphone or tablet.
- ✓ TECH SPECS – Dual ESS ES9028Q2M DACs, Frequency Response 10Hz to 50kHz (±1dB), Max Power Consumption 12W, Signal to Noise Ratio >115dB (A-Weighted), Digital Filter: Selectable (Fast – Slow – Short Delay), Dimensions 2.0″ x 8.6″ x 7.6”, WEIGHT 2.6lbs.
- Smooth, clean, insightful sound
- Generous connectivity
- Native MQA support
- No remote control
- Tough competition
6. Great option: AudioQuest - DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
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This award-winning amplifier is slightly more expensive than the soundKey, but you can hear where your money is going: the sound is more dynamic and has more body. In conjunction with the excellent low-level dynamics, the additional level of detail results in a more natural, nuanced, and expressive sound. Similar to the DragonFly Cobalt, the Red’s logo illuminates various hues to indicate the file format being processed. It is an excellent addition to an already outstanding device.
Downsides? Its highest level of support for high-resolution music is 24-bit/96kHz. And the red glossy finish is somewhat vulnerable to chipping.
However, the Red is an incredibly portable and compact device that can be carried anywhere for an instant musical boost. If you can tolerate the DragonFly Red’s slightly crisp finish (and we can), you can consider it a near-perfect computer music upgrade.
- 32-Bit SABRE DAC
- 2.1v Output Drives Almost Any Headphones
- Works With Apple and Android devices when paired with a simple adapter
- Plays everything from MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution files
- This versatile DAC improves everything – detail transparency immediacy richness tone
- Connector type: USB Type A
- Sophisticated, solid, subtle sound
- As convenient as ever
- Smartphone compatible
- Red finish seems easily chipped
7. A super-small DAC/headphone amp: iFi GO blu
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This portable DAC/headphone amp features a Bluetooth 5.1 connection to your source device (but not to your headphones, which must still be wired into the unit), eliminating one potentially cumbersome and tangled wire from the equation of phone, DAC, and headphones.
Bluetooth puts the cat among the pigeons when discussing DACs to improve the sound quality of your music due to the undeniable fact that its transmission has yet to catch up to wireless and wired listening for truly high-fidelity sound. However, if portability and convenience are of the utmost importance, the iFi Go Blu is currently unrivaled. It improves the sound quality of your phone with minimal effort, additional weight, or financial strain. It can fit in the tiny watch pocket of your jeans, away from your actual phone, and if you’re working in a coffee shop, it will look and sound great next to your flat white. Strongly suggested
- Advanced Bluetooth module with QCC5100
- Hi-res DAC stage with ultra-low jitter and customized digital filter
- Twin-mono signal paths and Direct Drive technology
- Precision rotary volume control with auto-gain
- Supported codecs include: aptX, aptX HD, aptX LL, aptX Adaptive, LDAC, HWA/LHDC, AAC, SBC
- Detailed, expansive presentation
- Wired or wireless connectivity
- Balanced and unbalanced inputs
- No notification for bitrate
How to select the best headphone amps for you
So what characteristics should you seek in a headphone amplifier? Analog inputs are the most prevalent and allow you to connect any source with analog outputs (which is most of them). Most headphone amps feature digital-to-analog converters (DACs) that feed digital inputs for broader compatibility – ideal if you listen to music stored on a computer. This means many headphone amplifiers are also DACs (and can be referred to as such), although DACs without headphone sockets are available.
Size and portability are also important factors to consider. Some headphone amplifiers listed below will fit in a jeans pocket and can be paired with a phone using the appropriate cables and connectors. More extensive models, whether battery- or mains-powered, require that you make space on your desk or in your audio rack. Decide whether you will use your headphones while traveling or only at home.
Headphone amplifiers won’t improve the clarity or accuracy of your headphones but they will give the power needed to your headphones to deliver sound closer to the experience that they were designed to give.
The majority of 80 Ohm headphones need a headphone amp and any that don’t need one will show a noticeable benefit from an amp. 32 Ohm headphones generally need less power from an amp, either dedicated or built into the device, compared to 80 ohm headphones which will require more power.
You will need to get an amp first because audio devices can’t directly plug into a DAC. Also, premium headphones need more power, so an amp is needed to even use them properly. A DAC can come when the wallet is willing to buy them.
You can technically use 250-ohm headphones without an amplifier; however, the audio that is produced will be sub-par to what they are designed for, outputting a meager volume (if any volume at all), having distortion in low frequencies, and being muddy.
With amps, the sound, as opposed to notes, is the first thing to go. A great amp strips away the artifice of sound reproduction and lets more of the music shine through. Vacuum tube amplifiers measure and sound differently, some say better, some say worse than solid-state amps, but again they both play the same notes.
Most headphone amplifiers provide power between 10 mW and 2 W depending on the specific headphone being used and the design of the amplifier.
At 80 Ohm, the headphones have more bass and less prominent treble. At higher volumes, 80 Ohm will produce even more bass. The 250 Ohm version has a similar bass response but has more high-end to even the sound out more. It also has a bit more mid-bass and sub-bass roll-off.
Which one affects the sound more? Most modern delta sigma DACs sound very similar to each other, and do not overly color the sound. External amps can affect the sound significantly, or not. In general, the best improvement in sound quality occurs when you upgrade your headphones > amp > dac >> cables.
Headphone amps can improve the performance of your headphones so you can get the most out of your headphones. They take a low-power input from your audio source and then will increase the power of that for your headphones.
Headphone amps can enhance the performance of your headphones, allowing you to get the most out of them. They receive low-power input from your audio source and amplify it for your headphones.
Amplifiers can improve the sound quality of your headphones or IEMs and are required for their proper operation. Amplification will enable you to hear parts of the music that were previously silenced more clearly.
Unless you are using inexpensive earbuds or headphones, investing in an amplification device may be worthwhile. If you have high-fidelity headphones, they are precious and a wise investment.
Most people will not notice a significant difference, and an amplifier will not be worthwhile unless their headphones require additional power.
If you are assembling a setup with high-quality headphones and a headphone amplifier, you should also consider purchasing a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to enhance the sound further.
There is a vast array of options for various price points and circumstances. On the one hand, there are large, costly amplifiers that support extremely power-hungry headphones; on the other, there are compact amplifiers.
To a future with superior audio.