If you want to get the best sound quality out of a pair of high-end headphones, you may need an external amplifier to drive them. Headphone amplifiers deliver power to the drivers, just as an amplifier does with a pair of passive speakers. In some cases you might find your headphones lacking volume or clarity depending on the source driving them; if that’s the case, you might want to look into a dedicated headphone amp.
What Do Headphone Amplifiers Do?
Headphone amps function very similarly to those that drive full-sized passive speakers, just with less power. They’re able to raise a low-voltage signal sent from a source such as a computer, mobile device, turntable, or otherwise, up to an optimal level that the headphone drivers (speakers) can reproduce.
Many headphone amps also contain built-in digital-to-audio converters (DAC), which help boost the audio signal coming from say, a PC laptop. Our computers/tablets/smartphones/etc. do have DACs themselves, hence this is why you can plug headphones straight into their 1/8″ jack; however, the quality of these varies from device to device, and a headphone amp provides reliable quality. With analog devices, like a turntable, you don’t need a DAC — the source already sends a low-voltage analog signal which the headphone amp can boost.
What to Look for in a Headphone Amp
The most important thing to look for in a headphone amp is its impedance range. This determines its compatibility with your given headphones that have an impedance rating of their own. Headphone impedance ranges anywhere from 8 to 600 ohms, with higher ratings requiring higher voltage to sufficiently drive. Compare your headphone impedance to the range provided by the amplifier; as long as it falls within the amp’s range, it’ll power your headphones.
A common impedance rating is 32 ohms, and these headphones work well with consumer devices like laptops and smartphones. As impedance increases, so does the likelihood you’ll need a headphone amplifier to get the best quality out of your cans. A general rule of thumb is that higher impedance headphones reproduce sound with greater fidelity, making them more suitable for audiophile and critical listening purposes.
You might also consider whether you’d like a portable headphone amp or a desktop one; you’ll have to verify that the I/O on the amp matches the signal source; if you’re using it with a digital consumer device, double check that the amp has built-in DAC; and you might even take aesthetics into account, especially if you plan to have an amp live on your desk at home. All of these can factor into your decision on which is the best headphone amplifier for you.
The 8 Best Headphone Amplifiers for Any Budget
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1. Best Overall: Schiit Audio Magni
The Magni by Schiit Audio offers impressive amplification at an amazing value. For intents and purposes, it’s a no-frills headphone amp with RCA inputs and no built-in DAC. However, it’s beautifully designed and has enough juice to power pretty much any headphone with ease, clarity, and the utmost noise-free sound quality.
2. Chord Mojo 2
Chord Electronics’s Mojo 2 is an advanced DAC/headphone amp system. It includes five digital inputs: coaxial, dual-data coax, optical, micro USB, and USB-C. It has two 3.5 mm headphone outputs supported by the world’s first lossless DSP, which functions as a digital tone control that doesn’t degrade the sound quality. The Mojo 2 drives headphones with up to an 800-ohm impedance.
3. Sony TA-ZH1ES
This Sony desktop amp is among the best in its class. If you want to get the absolute most out of your headphones, premium amplifiers like these will certainly work to that end. It offers extensive analog and digital I/O for a variety of sound sources, and a host of proprietary Sony technology that lends itself to an immersive and reimagined listening experience. Be warned, though, it comes at a price!
4. Best Budget Headphone Amplifiers: iFi Zen DAC V2
The award-winning Zen DAC by iFi Audio has a built-in 16-core chip which processes digital audio received through its USB input. Its Power Match switch lets you increase or decrease the drive depending on the headphones used. Aesthetically, it’s a sleek and stylish unit that’s small enough to be portable and elegant enough to live on a desktop.
5. Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum
The Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum is a hybrid tube/solid-state headphone amplifier. Its array of analog I/O ensures compatibility with most sources. And while it’s not cheap, its sound reproduction is among the most rich and detailed of any amp in a similar price range.
6. AudioQuest DragonFly Red
The AudioQuest DragonFly is probably the most unique headphone amp on the list. Weighing in at roughly the same size as a flash drive, and connecting to digital devices the exact same way, this pocket-sized DAC headphone amp is an innovative device. If you’re after portability that matches the nature of mobile devices and laptops, then this amp is perfect.
7. Best High End: Chord Hugo 2
Chord Electronics’s most powerful DAC and headphone amp is the Hugo 2. It’s designed for both desktop and portable use via a rechargeable battery. The Hugo 2 offers four digital inputs and four analog outputs, including 2x RCA as well as 3.5mm and 1/4″ headphone outs.
8. SPL Phonitor X Headphone Amp/Preamp + DAC
SPL’s Phonitor X is a highly versatile system functioning as a headphone amplifier as well as a preamplifier which can be used to drive power amps or active speakers. Naturally it hosts a variety of analog sources, but the DAC lets you monitor straight from digital sources as well. The Phonitor has more than enough power to drive all headphones with superior sound quality.