Best Desktop Headphone Amp (2021 Edition)

Your cans are good. These amps will make them better.

You wouldn’t expect headphones to want any special equipment to work. You plug them in, turn your device on, and music comes by way of. If you don’t just want to tune in to your music, but what? What if you truly want to hear it? You’ll need something to enhance the level of signal that actually reaches your ears: a good headphone amp. These little devices will drive the signal from your music increase and player both its detail and volume. You don’t have to spend big to get one particular; whatever you’re looking for, we are able to help,. That is the good news. As well as complete your system, check out our list of the Best High-End Headphones and Best DACs.

Check Our Top Headphone Amp Picks

Headphone Amps Comparing Table

AMPSRatingPRICEDAC*RHI**WPC***DIMENSIONSWEIGHT
#Schiit Audio Magni 4.5$99No1-600Ω3 / 16Ω5" x 3.5" x 1.25"1lb
#2.FiiO BTR5 4.5 $120Yes16-150Ω0.8 / 32Ω2.8" x 1.2" x 1.1"1.6oz
#3.Rupert Neve Designs RNHP4.7$499No16-600Ω0.23 / 16Ω6.5" x 4.6" x 1.9"3lbs
# 4.Monoprice Monolith Fluid Platinum4.6$640No3-300Ω1.78 / 33Ω 8.8" x 8.5" x 2.0"3.2lbs
#5.microZOTL MZ34.7$3,700No12-600Ω0.5 / 14Ω10" x 8.5" x 4.75"6.9lbs
#6.FiiO Q54.2$300Yes16-300Ω0.16 / 32Ω4.9” x 2.5” x 0.6”6.8oz
#7. JDS Labs The Element II4.9 $399YesUp to 600Ω1.1 / 32Ω5.8” x 5.8” x 6.1”1.13lbs
#8. Feliks Elise MkII4.4$1,480No32-600Ω0.2 / 32Ω12” x 8” x 6.7”10.14lbs
#1.Klipsch RP-8000F 4.0 $2,490No16-600Ω1 / 32Ω11.7" x 7.9" x 2.36"10.25lbs
#10. Major Arche4.5$320No16-600Ω4 / 16Ω8.3" x 9.1" x 2.2"3.4lbs
#11. Fall THX AAA 789 4.7$2,100Yes12-600Ω1.2 / 32Ω12.4” x 8.3” x 2.6”9.7lbs

*DAC = Digital-to-Analogue Converter

**RHI = Recommended Headphone Impedance

***WPC = Watts For each Channel

****Subject to Location

1. Best Overall Headphone Amp – Schiit Audio Magni

Price: $99

Class: Desktop / Solid-State

DAC: No

Recommended Headphone Impedance: 1-600O

What We Like: The amp for everyone.

What We Don’t: Large wall wart, you will need a separate DAC.

It is likely you think we’re insane. Exactly what are we doing, putting a $99 amp at the top of an inventory filled with four-figure monsters? But no earphone amp has impressed us more in the past year compared to Magni. For beginners, it will be the one thing that kicks your songs up a notch, and gets you addicted to this hobby. For hardcore audiophiles, it’s practically a throwaway purchase – one that could keep you coming back again and again. The two main variations to choose from, the Magni 3 and Magni Heresy, both of which cost the same and have different internal circuits. We prefer the 3 , which has a bit sweeter sound.

No matter what type of headphones you own, be they $5,000 monsters or $10 earbuds, you will need the Magni. It is dead-simple to operate, supplies incredibly smooth sound, appears fantastic, and will power pretty much everything. Our only criticisms are definitely the large, wall wart power source and the fact that you’ll need to have a separate DAC (see our Buying Advice below for more on this). If you want something a little bit more powerful, the company makes lots of other amps, but this is by far our top pick. If you want customization options, included DACs, or multiple connections, look additional above the list.

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2. Best Portable Headphone Amp – FiiO BTR5

Price: $120

Category: Portable / Solid-State

DAC: No

Recommended Headset Impedance: 16-150O

What We Like: Tiny design with a great range of features and clean sound.

Whatever We Don’t: Occasional lag problems.

FiiO are very difficult to compete with if you’re looking for a great portable headphone amp. Their BTR range has set the standard for some time, and the newest product, the BTR5, is a giant. It offers clean, balanced seem and a lightweight housing (less than two ounces) that make it significantly more portable than similar types like its bigger brother, the FiiO Q5. It has an excellent range of features, which include Bluetooth 5., full iphone app control, and one-feel pairing with your smartphone. If you’re looking to boost the sound of your audio on the go, there is simply no better option, each and every feature we want in a mobile amp is available here, and.

While the BTR5 has an outstanding DAC chip, the ES9218, it does sometimes suffer from delay in Bluetooth mode. The time between pushing play over a song and hearing music is often up to two seconds. It happens often sufficient to be frustration, even though this does not occur all the time. The Q5, and other wired headphone amps, do not have this problem. If you want to spend even less, you should look at other models from the line, like the BTR1K and BTR3, It’s worth noting that. Those have fewer functions, but sound nearly as efficient at a significantly lower price.

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3. Best Solid-State Headphone Amp – Rupert Neve Designs RNHP

Price: $499

Class: Desktop / Solid-State

DAC: No

Suggested Headphone Impedance: 16-600O

What We Like: Amazing, life-changing sound.

What We Don’t: Looks like some thing you’d see installed in a university physics lab.

The Rupert Neve Designs RNHP surprised the hell out of us. We couldn’t feel how good it produced our headphones sound, with audio quality that was both balanced and engaging. It really sensed like it brought the best out of whatever we plugged into it. The sound was leaking with power, putting true weight behind the music. Nonetheless, that’s hardly surprising. Rupert Neve is a famed fashionable of mixing consoles for recording studios. This is his company’s first headphone amp, and they’ve have knocked it out of the park when it comes to sound quality. And the bang-for-the-buck ratio is just big here – this noises better than much-more costly solid-state amps, like the Sony TA-ZH1ES.

The RNHP is about as simple an amp as you can get, however. It doesn’t even have a gain move. It’s also really unattractive. It’s not exactly straightforward on the eyes, though the manufacturing look may make the amp robust. Elements like extremely-bright input lamps don’t help matters very much, either. If you’re looking for an amp in this price range that does, try the Burson Mp3 Play, below, it also has no DAC -. It is actually a one box solution, even though Play doesn’t sound very as good as the RNHP. And you don’t imagination unattractive looks, give the RNHP a go, if quality of sound is what you’reafter and even though.

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4. Best Tube Headphone Amp – Monoprice Monolith Fluid Platinum

Price: $640

Category: Desktop / Hose

DAC: No

Recommended Headset Impedance: 3-300O

What We Like: Forgiving amp with great bass.

Whatever We Don’t: Undefined and woolly highs.

It’s not the match we would have expected. Ultra-square manufacturer Monoprice teaming up with earphone impresario Alex Cavalli? Okay, guys. But the result, the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum, not only has an amazing label but terrific sound. The twin tubes deliver striped bass that really makes an impact, along with the amp is surprisingly forgiving, bringing out the best – even in cheaper headphones. In terms of tubing amps, the Liquid Platinum ticks all the boxes: comfortable sound, easily-swappable tubes, and modern characteristics like balanced outputs.

If we have one criticism, it is that in our opinion, the highs could be a little far better. It’s at the expense of the highs, which often seem a touch brittle, even though mids and lows are warm and gooeydelicious and warm. If underappreciated sub-$1,000 product, and a lock just for this list for the foreseeable, nevertheless, this amp remains an outstanding. Be warned: there’s no DAC, so you’ll should supply your own.

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5. Best High-End Headphone Amp – Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ3

Price: $3,700

Category: Desktop / Tube

DAC: No

Advised Headphone Impedance: 12-600O

What We Like: Extremely pure and detailed audio, built-in speaker amplifier.

What We Should Don’t: Unsatisfying remote.

The Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ3 offers some of the finest, cleanest sound of any earphone amp we’ve ever heard. It presents music in breathtaking detail, to a degree we don’t think we have heard from anything else for this list, though it’s not overly neutral or well balanced, as you might get from something like the Sony TA-ZH1ES. The MZ3 kicks it up a notch, even though the previous MZ2 was already one of our favorite amps. The construction and housing are outstanding, and the amp even provides enough power to function as a dedicated preamp for hypersensitive bookshelf speakers. Were it not for the fact that this headphone amp costs virtually $4,000, we might seriously consider placing it in the top spot on this listing.

Despite the great sound, the MZ3 isn’t exactly best. An amp at this value should come with more than just a reprogrammed Apple remote, which we found far too bare-bones for this sort of high-end product. And as good as the overall style of the MZ3 is, we all do have to say that the front screen is searingly bright to look at, making it difficult to navigate (even if you can turn down the brightness utilizing the Apple remote). The price will likely put this amplifier unattainable for most people. But if you’re trying to find a high-end amplifier, in our opinion, this is truly the best you can get. It’s a landmark amplifier, and we can’t see any models knocking it off this list in the near future.

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6. FiiO Q5

Price: $300

Category: Portable / Solid Express

DAC: Yes

Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-300O

What We Like: Superb quality of sound, amp module swapping.

What We Don’t: Too expensive for the potential audience.

FiiO make some truly outstanding amps and DACs, and the Q5 is their latest culmination of everything they know. It’s amobile and slim, silver slab that looks and sounds amazing, and is fully Bluetooth-capable. Slide it in the bank, connect to your headphones, and you’re good to go.

The really tidy trick it has are the amp modules. If you would like change up the sound – a process which not only is useful, but is intuitive and fun, you can swap these out. Add that to an excellent range of accessories, and a build quality that feels suitably top quality. At $350, it’s expensive for a portable amp. Specially when you compare it to the $129 Bluewave GET. We stress it’s a little overpriced for which you get, even though we love the Q5, and think FiiO have made one hell of an amp. FiiO Recently launched an update to this amp, the Q5S, which brings dual DACs and a little better sound, among a number of other features. Honestly? Unless you are desperate for those, we think it is possible to stick with the original, which is $50 cheaper than the Q5S. The new update doesn’t offer you enough to justify an update.

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7. JDS Labs The Element II

Selling price: $399

Category: Desktop computer / Solid-Status

DAC: Yes

Recommended Headset Impedance: Up to 600O

What We Should Like: Added preamps, better DAC.

What We Don’t: The initial may still be the best choice for a few people.

The Element II from Missouri’s JDS Labs can be a marked improvement from the authentic. It takes everything we cherished – the great sound quality and intuitive design – and adds to it. The most asked for feature from buyers from the original was a preamp portion, and that’s been extra here. If you have them, this means that you can now use The Element II to control the volume of run speakers. There’s also an improved DAC, which clarifies and tightens the already excellent sound quality.

The original amp was at number 13 on this list, and the 5 spots The Element II jumps is a reflection of just how much work has gone involved with it. If you are not in need of added preamps, then it’s possible to save the money and just buy the first Component, it’s worth noting it does cost $50 more than the original, and. We don’t think it surpasses models like the Rupert Neve RNHP in terms of sound quality. Even so, The Element II is an absolute gem of an amplifier and definitely earns its devote the top ten.

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8. Feliks Elise MkII

Price: $1,480 (Subject to Location)

Category: Personal computer / Tube

DAC: No

Recommended Headphone Impedance: 32-600O

What We Like: One of the best tube amps readily available.

What We Don’t: Very heavy – and definitely not for everybody.

The Feliks Elise MkII is a beast, and one we merely got to hear recently. The Elise MKII – a company favorite among audiophiles, particularly those who love swapping out tubes – is a monstrously heavy amplifier, with a huge, traditional design and a bombastic sound. Oh, does this baby sound special, though its weight and difficult exterior may make it a very little too much for beginners, or for all those not willing to fuss with tubes. Huge, powerful bass, crisp highs, and glowing, gooey mids: the Elise has them all. We also really like the soundstage, which is as wide as the horizon.

Feliks make some spectacular amps, as well as in truth, we could have placed plenty of their models about this list. But we think the Elise MkII offers the greatest value for money. Try the Focal Elear, which plays really well with the giant tubes straddling this amp, if you need a classic headphone pairing. A wonderful – but somehow nonetheless underrated – amp classic. It may not be among the most reachable amplifiers on this list, or give you the plug and play joy of the RNHP, but it’s truly exquisite.

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9. Major Arche

Price: $2,490

Category: Desktop / Solid-State

DAC: No

Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600O

What We Should Like: Unusual feature established matched with crystal-clear sound.

What We Don’t: Those without Focal’s headphones may miss out on some functionality.

Focal Make some of the best headphones on the planet, so it’s shocking that it’s taken this long to do a earphone amp. Fortunately, the Arche is a good one. It’s a very high-end amplifier that ranks as an excellent replacement for the Woo Audio WA11 Topaz and Linear Tube Music microZOTL MZ3, especially as it can do a few things those amps can’t. It has specific amp presets for various Focal earphones like the Utopia and Elear, and it comes with an integrated headset stand, which is super helpful. We also appreciate the digital display on the front of the amp, which is simple to navigate.

Should you don’t own any Focal headphones, however, we can not recommend you buy this amp. Ultimately, the high value won’t be worth it if you can’t make use of half of the presets, although the sound is extremely good. This amp is vital, but those who prefer headphones from other manufacturers may want to guide clear, if you do own some of those headphones. In a way, this isn’t a negative: it’s evidently a deliberate choice by Focal, rather than a shortcoming. But it really does restrict the Arche’s audience, and most people will take advantage of an amp that casts a wider net-think the Woo Audio WA11 or the Linear Tubing Audio microZOTL MZ3. And by the way, if you already personal a pair of high-end Focal cans, the company offers $1,000 off the Arche until the end of the year.

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10. Fall THX AAA 789

Selling price: $320

Category: Desktop computer / Solid-State

DAC: No

Recommended Headset Impedance: 16-600O

What We Like: Probably the most clear sound of any headphone amp. Ever.

What We Don’t: Quite boring design, somewhat unforgiving sound.

Headphone amp collaborations are the best. The AAA 789 is the result of a integrating between audio standards business THX and the consumer website Drop. Like the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum, it’s an unusual connection that has generated something exquisite. In this case, an amplifier that has one objective, and one goal only: visibility. The AAA 789 versions to showcase your audio exactly how it was recorded, with zero colouration. It totally achieves this, thanks to its linear bipolar circuitry. With regards to neutrality and clarity, we’d assess it to the far more high-priced Benchmark HPA4. You’d opt for this amplifier if you worth the recording and clarity top quality of your music above all else.

Unfortunately, that aspect is one thing of a double-edged sword. While the AAA 789 is unquestionably transparent, this approach implies it is absolutely brutal when playing poorly recorded music, or low quality files. We aren’t fans of the design. Compare it to the in the same way priced Burson PLAY; both of them are minimalist, but the Engage in manages to be both striking and innovative. In our opinion, the AAA 789 is just dreary. It’s an excellent amplifier, nonetheless, if slightly utilitarian.

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11. Sony TA-ZH1ES

Price: $2,100

Category: Desktop / Solid-State

DAC: Yes

Recommended Headphone Impedance: 12-600O

What We Like: Crystal-clear sound, ease of operation, superb build quality.

What We Don’t: Pricey, sometimes hard to find.

The TA-ZH1ES is a big, daunting, black box with a astonishing range of connections, including a dedicated one for a Sony Walkman. In the time we’ve invested with it, we’ve been mesmerised by just how good it is. It’s quite pricey, and although we link to Amazon here, it can sometimes be tough to find on that web site, but that’s not enough to hold it from the top area in this category.

The real draw here is the seem. Sony combine some extraordinary amp circuitry with a stellar DAC to produce audio that has almost zero distortion, and which is absolutely clinical in its representation. If you like solid-state sound, while this won’t be fun for those who enjoy tubing amps, it’s excellent. The company’s DSEE tech upscales low resolution files, and also the amplifier is fully DSD capable. Hearing a high solution DSD album through it is an experience you just have to have. Is also, despite its difficult-core nature, extremely easy-to-use. This hybrid amplifier isn’t going to be for everyone – and we think it’s a touch too expensive, especially compared to the insane value of something like the Schiit – but it’s definitely worth its place here.

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Headset Amps Buying Advice

Why Do I Need a Headset Amp?

Here’s the thing. All headphones need them. They’re speakers – just modest ones that go on your go – because they are speakers, they require amplification in order to get the sound to a level you can actually listen to.

And instead just plug directly into your iPhone/Laptop or computer/Mac/iPad/whatever, is because these devices actually contain their own small amps, the reason that most containers aren’t actually used with external amps.

The reason you’d opt for an external one is because these pre-existing ones are a little bit under-powered, with stock components that aren’t truly doing your music justice.

You’ll get a much better results when you hand the amplification obligations over to something purpose-built for it, though they’ll get the job done.

Most of these take the form of a box, designed to fit between your music source as well as your headphones. You simply plug your headphones in, then connect the amp into your computer or music player or turntable or whatever (maybe inserting a DAC along the way, which happens to be something we’ll talk about below).

In this way, the signal receives pushed through the amp well before it reaches your ears, and the result, in theory at least, iswarmer and better, better sound. It’s not just the sound is louder; i

s the fact that sound will be better at high volume levels, with minimal distortion. (Important note: That’s the general thought), though we don’t really recommend you listen to music at super high volume levels on your headphones, since this can really mess up your ability to hear.

The components inside a headphone amp – which usually consist of some combination of tubes, valves and other analogue elements – help reinforce, or amplify, the transmission to the miniature speakers on either side of your head.

This strengthening colors the sound and emphasizes certain frequencies, which is why sound pushed through a headphone amp comes out sounding a hell of considerably better than it was before.

In case you have a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which have and require their own internal amps, (As a general rule, you won’t need one of these. Beyond that, we can’t advise buying one enough.)

The more high-priced the pair of headphones, the more likely you are to need one of these. This is for two reasons.

First, costly headphones with excellent sound quality have a way of exposing the deficiencies of the audio resource (for example, that compressed MP3 on your iPhone) and second, it is in reality better for the headphones.

If you don’t actually have containers to go with it, right, and also, since we’re talking about headphones, you’re definitely going to need some – no point buying a excellent amp? Try these high-end models.

Do More Expensive Amps Mean Better Noise?

Generally? Yes. The more funds you pay, the more likely you are to purchase an amplifier with a set of factors that treats your audio well. However: this may not be a hard and fast rule.

While we want you to have the best possible sound, we caution you against using price as a benchmark for picking your amplifier.

Illustration: one of the best amps on this collection, the Burson Audio Perform, is almost a fifth of the price of something like the Sony TA-ZH1ES. In writing, the Sony is the greater amp…but paper ain’t your ears, and we know which amp we’d save from the burning building.

 

While pricey amps do tend to have much better sound, they are unlikely to become portable, and can be very heavy.

They might also have fragile elements, like tubes, that have a relatively high failure rate.

Secondly, when you’re looking to buy, paying out more means you might be purchasing features you don’t will need.

If you aren’t interested in something such as a bass boost functionality, and an amplifier includes it, then it may be worth your while looking elsewhere for any more simplified model.

Headphone Amp Types: Tubes vs. Solid State vs. Hybrid

This refers to the inner circuitry of your respective chosen model. It is not as intimidating as you might feel, although it’s actually a good big decision that you need to make. It’s all about the kind of audio you want.

Tubes

Or vacuum tubes, or valves (since they are variously called) are those shining glass cylinders you see about the Bravo Audio V2 or even the Woo Audio WA7. They form part of the audio circuitry by letting electrons burn off in a vacuum chamber.

A perfect example of this kind of amp: the Feliks Elise. It’s a big, ballsy amplifier that demands you fully immerse yourself in the intricacies of tubes, being aware of what strength and driver tubes do, why some tubes job while others won’t, and how distinct tubes affect the sound. It’s a demanding but gratifying amp, and we adored it.

If this sounds obvious – the giant glass pipes in or on top of it, a tube amp may be identified by – and sorry. There’s usually a giant, boxy power supply at the back of the unit, way too…

Tubes can be a huge amount of exciting, and can give you a by no means-ending project that can leave you with a whole rack of versatile, gleaming tubes (trace: a little polystyrene works well for keeping them – just stick them in pin-side down! )

However, there are a few caveats before you get involved. Firstly, any system with tubes is going to give your sound a rich, warm, analogue flavor that we guarantee you can find completely addictive.

We know. We have been there. Secondly, any system with tubes will probably be temperamental. Tubes break, quick-circuit, or just usually don’t perform as presented.

They will inevitably need to be changed. This isn’t too frequent, but it’s a foible that you need to be aware of.

So that you can alter the sound, thirdly, any system with tubes need to allow you to perform the arcane process of ‘tube rolling’, or quite literally replacing the tubes with different ones.

It is possible to spend hours, and a lot of funds, doing this. Mostly because that would include us explaining the difference in between Russian and Chinese pipes, and getting into the intricacies in the nomenclature, and neither you neither we have time for that, we not going to go into the whole process of choosing and finding different tubes. 

 

Solid-State

These models don’t use tubes. Instead, they use more traditional circuitry to do the job. While they don’t have the character and warmness of tubes, they are renowned for being reliable, and for transferring sound that is detailed, razor-sharp and accurate. Perfect case in point: the FiiO BTR5, a pocket-sized amp that is fully solid-state.

Hybrid Systems

These use both of the above forms of innards, relying on tubes to deliver the color and electronics to supply the power. We can’t really advise you as to which of those three to pick, as it all comes down to personal choice.

We used to have one of these on our list in the Schiit Mjolnir 2 – not a conventional hybrid, as it lets you put in solid-express circuits in place of the pipes, but it’s a good illustration nonetheless, and worth it if you want to experiment.

We’ve replaced it with the Magni 3, which is a better amp overall.

One further stage. We were kidding about the jargon here. Get anywhere into this particular product category, and you will be overwhelmed with it. Take for example the different classes of amplifiers.

Class A? AB? D? G&H? Monoblock? Push-pull? Whuh? Fortunately, this is something you almost certainly don’t need to be too conscious of, at least when you’re in the beginning stages. 

Wattage and Impedance Explained

Whoo boy. OK. They actually do require a little bit of explanation, though these aren’t too difficult to understand. The short variation: wattage is the amount of strength an amplifier puts out, and impedance is the level of electrical resistance to that energy. If an amp puts out 1 watts at 32 ohms, that means that a pair of headphones with an impedance of 32 ohms (O) will be consuming one watt of energy. The good news: impedance and wattage tend to be less important for headphones compared to what they are for, say, whole-sized speakers. Most amps will have a range of appropriate headphone impedance, and as long as your particular headphones fit inside this range, you’re golden. That’s all there is on it.

We’ve got a full explainer here, if you need more details. But if you don’t would like to wade through it, you merely really need to know the following. The content pertains to headphones too), even though (And by the way, the explainer looks at speakers.

Headphones and Amp Matching Explained

All you need to do is look up the impedance of your headphones, which will be readily accessible on the spec sheet that accompanies them, or on the manufacturer website as mentioned. Then, glance at the recommended headphone impedance stat for your chosen amp. We have actually listed these to the models above, where they’re given. You’ll be fine, provided that your headphone impedance slips in the given range. It’s true that some manufacturers never give this range. But to be honest, any of these amps will quite comfortably drive some headphones in the 16-300 ohm range, and the majority of contemporary headphones – with the exception of $10 earbuds – will play nice with most headset amps.

In fact, we’re gonna go a little further. You will find those who advocate matching amps and headphones based on sensitivity, and exactly how much gain you need to give the headphones to get them to a suitable volume. We say: it isn’t worth it. Should you need it to go louder, you are probably going to damage your hearing a little anyway, all the amps on this list will be able to travel almost any decent pair of earbuds to a suitable volume, and. It’s far more tricky to suit amps and speakers than it is to fit headsets and amps, so our take is to simply find one of each that you like, and see what they do together. Trust us, practically nothing is going to explode. And if you undoubtedly just want a quick way to go with amps to headphones, without worrying about the details, an individual built a truly fantastic resource to do just that.

DACs Explained

In short, a Digital-to-Analog Converter. Indeed, you need one. Before audio goes from your computer or smart phone to your ears, it has to be converted from digital versions and zeros to true audio you can hear, such as sound waves in the oxygen. To do this, you need a DAC. Most players will already have this built in, which is why you can tune in to music out of your computer loudspeakers, but the quality isn’t very good. We highly recommend offloading the task to an external DAC.

Quite a few of the models in this particular list will have one mounted already, so you shouldn’t ought to worry. Even if you do have to pick up a separate one, you can get some very good ones for few outlay. Here’s a full roundup of the best DACs on the market at the moment.

Portable vs. Desktop Earphone Amps

Deciding whether to help make your headphone amp portable, or whether to stick to a pc version, is actually surprisingly complicated. Each has their own cons and pros, and it’s worth taking a minute to take into account what you want from a headphone amp.

The biggest advantage to portable earphone amps, like the $300 FiiO Q5 (full review here), is that they are transportable – obviously. You can bring them with you, and use them to increase your phone, or your DAP. They are usually lightweight – the Q5, above, is under 7oz. The downsides, however, need thinking about. You don’t see a significant decline in power – we’ve never had an issue powering even demanding headphones together with the Q5. But what you do see is a reduction in the volume of inputs and outputs, and possibly mp3 formats as well. And of course, you’ll need to worry about battery life. A portable amp is definitely worth considering when you have a pair of in-hearing monitors (IEMs).

A desktop headphone amp, like the $640 Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum, sacrifices portability for functionality. You get a wealth of inputs, increased power, and a much more robust frame. You’ll also almost never see portable tube amps, which means desktop amps are the ones you need to go for if you appreciate swapping out tubes. There are some exceptions, like the Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse, which is one of the few portable hose amps available. But you’ll pay dearly for the privilege – the Eclipse expenses a staggering $1,800. Ironically, portable headphone amps almost always include a DAC, whilst desktop amps sometimes don’t. Either way, you’ll need to think about what you want from an amp before making a call on pc or portable.

Headphone Amps vs. Stereo system Amps

The difference between these is relatively simple. Headphone amps power headphones, and stereo amps power speakers. Truly, that’s kind of all there exists to it. Except: not very. While most headphone amps won’t be able to power speakers independently – they simply don’t have the output wattage that these even bigger beasts require – there are various stereo amps that have headphone amps included. If you have an amplifier that creates tons of power, it’s no hardship to simply insert a headphone tell and jack the interior switching circuitry to call down the power a little bit, all things considered. So, you know, you don’t end up exploding a pair of speaker systems that are right next to someone’s ears.

There is practically nothing wrong with listening to headphones this way. And if you find your self switching between headphones and speakers, it can be a very easy option. But for our money, we think that dedicated headphone amplifiers have better sound. The amp circuitry isn’t tacked on as being an afterthought, which is the case with so many stereo amps these days. If you can afford to buy two independent amps, definitely do so. One trick that headphone amps do have is that they are often capable of act as preamps, sending the audio signal to a energy amplifier without boosting it further. Doing this, you get the advantage of their inside circuitry, while using the power amp to provide the grunt to your speakers.

3.5mm versus. 6.3mm Connections

Quite obviously, you need to connect your headphones to your amp. To achieve this, you will commonly encounter a few different types of ports. They all function the same way, with very subtle differences. 3.5mm is considered the most common. Any widely available earphone – think Monster, Apple and Beats Skullcandy – will have this, a tiny connect that connects to most cell phones. Headphone amps, and high-end headphones, tend to love 6.3mm connections, the jacks of which are bigger, longer and chunkier. The increased surface area of the 6.3mm jack allows for slightly finer relationships, corrodes less easily, and is also much harder to bend,. This is the reason for this, in theory.

You are able to readily buy adapters that switch between the two, for no more than a few bucks in your local electronics store, as well as the differences between them are so small that you can consider them functionally identical.

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connections

Given that you’re going to need to plug things together with your amplifier, it’s really worth knowing the difference between unbalanced and balanced connections, although this is more a subject about cables than everything else.

A cable that is unbalanced is one that has two wire connections inside its sheath: a ground wire, and a transmission wire. The signal cable does the audio handling, sending the sound coupled to the next piece of equipment in the indicate chain (your headphones, as an example) while the ground wire act as a bodyguard, protecting it from any weird electronic interference. Your 6.3mm jack cable? Your RCA? Most standard headphone cables? Unbalanced.

Balanced cables, on the other hand, have two signal wires together with the ground wire. While they do function the same way as unbalanced cables, in that the tasks of each type of wire never change, they are built to work alongside the converters that they will be connected to at each end. These converters – and we are trying not to get overly technical here – rely on information in the signal wire connections to cancel out distortion. In theory, then, balanced cabling mean your audio may have less distortion in it. XLR cables – the ones with the chunky, circular male/female connectors – and several 6.3mm cables are thought balanced. Plenty of amps on our list, including the Manley Audio Absolute, include these connections.

So on balance – ha ha – you’d prefer to go for well-balanced over unbalanced cables. Right? Well, perhaps. Firstly, balanced cables, along with the equipment they connect to, will always be far more expensive then unbalanced ones. Secondly, the difference in between the two is extremely subtle, truly only becoming audibly noticeable when cables stretch above long distances. Do not be too stressed-out if you can’t manage balanced connections, though in the end, this is a decision you make depending on your budget and your listening setup.

Electrostatic Amps Explained

Electrostatic headphones, if you don’t know, are a special (and usually very expensive) type of headphones that use force applied to an ultralight film to create the sound. The audio quality is predictably fantastic – but they need special amps to drive, and those amps are often heavyweight, audiophile-only gear which will mystify anybody not working in the audio world. Also, they cost the earth.

We imagined long and hard about if you should include models like the Sennheiser HE1/Orpheus, HiFiMAN Shangri-La and HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE here – we do previously. But they’re all electrostatics, and we think they belong on their own list, which can be coming soon, along with a selection of Stax / Sonoma Acoustics / Koss cans – you know, the good stuff. For the time being, we’re going to keep these to dedicated amps (rather than headphone/amp combos), and we’re going to keep them traditional amps; in other words, ones which power dynamic or planar headphones.