You wouldn't expect headphones to need any special equipment to work. They are just about as simple as audio equipment gets. You plug them in, turn your device on, and music comes through. But what if you don’t just want to listen to your music? What if you truly want to hear it? You’ll need something to increase the level of signal that reaches your ears: a good headphone amp. These little devices will drive the signal from your music player and increase both its volume and detail. The good news is that you don’t have to spend big to get one; whatever you're looking for, we can help.
 

How We Choose:

The world of headphone amps can get incredibly deep and technical, incredibly fast. We weren't just looking for the latest garage-built, Russian-tube-driven audiophile wonder that would delight the eggheads and alienate everyone else. We wanted models that were not only simple to use, but which acknowledged that there were people out there who might not know the difference between a NOS 12ATC7 tube and a 6NT3 one. We looked at sound quality, ease of use, value for money, and more, as well as doing extensive testing. We should say that many products on this list are relatively expensive, but that’s just the nature of the beast. And as you’ll see, we’ve included options for any budget, all of which will dramatically improve your sound. We have not included electrostatics on our main list - and we explain why below.
 

Our Headphone Amp Picks:

1. Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S ($1,235)

MZ2-S

Weight: 8.94lbs
Dimensions: 9.5” x 4.75” x 7.8”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 1 / 4Ω
What We Like: Glorious sound, excellent looks, huge value-for-money - and it just underwent a price drop!
What We Don’t: Not for everyone.

Picking the best headphone amp of this year is a very tough job. But after listening to dozens, we think this is the one that nails the Venn diagram of great sound, affordability, and good looks. Others may be more expensive - see the two ridiculous options further down - but none will give you as much pleasure. And it's hugely affordable, giving it (in our opinion) the best value-for-money on this list.

When Linear Tube Audio sent us an updated version of their already-well-reviewed MicroZOTL 2.0, we were very excited. As our review shows, it lived up to the hype. In a major way. It had its flaws, namely a power button that is somewhat annoying to use, but Linear Tube Audio have since fixed that, and so now it’s virtually untouchable. The external power supply keeps the noise low, and the simple setup and four tubes keep things interesting. The sound is as rich, deep, and dark as a boeuf bourguinon, with a spacing and stereo field that you absolutely have to hear. At this price, it’s a toy for those with deep pockets only, especially since you’ll have to shell out for a separate DAC. But no amp more than this one has driven home the idea that sound can be glorious. You gotta hear it.
See the Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S 
 

2. Woo Audio WA7 ($999)

Woo Audio WA7Weight: 8.1lbs
Dimensions: 5.1” x 4.8” x 4.8”
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 1 / 32Ω
What We Like: Incredible looks, equally incredible sound.
What We Don’t: Very little.

If we based this roundup purely on looks alone, the second generation Woo Audio WA7 would win hands down. It’s gorgeous. With its glass housing and glowing tubes, it’s hardly surprising that this model is nicknamed ‘Fireflies’. It packs a powerhouse of features, too, including a full DAC and very helpful USB input. The innards are based around a Class A system, which is known for minimising distortion and noise, a fact that is helped along by an external power supply. You can tube roll, too, switching out the stock tubes for something more funky. And the sound? Well, what do you think? It’s big, deep, and powerful, lifting the sound and beefing it up nicely. 

We do need to say that we still prefer the MZ2-S, but only barely - there’s a very strong case to be made for the WA7 at No.1, and it’s only the fact that we dig the MZ2-S’ sound signature more that keeps it on the second row - the WA7’s stock tubes didn’t blow our minds. But if you want an amp/DAC combo with phenomenal tube sound, then this is the one to go for. It’s stupendous.
See the Woo Audio WA7
 

3. Schiit Mjolnir 2 ($849)

Schiit Mjolnir 2Weight: 13lbs
Dimensions: 16" x 8.75" x 2.25”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 8 / 32Ω
What We Like: Raw power, highly customisable.
What We Don’t: Utilitarian looks.

We love Schiit. Not just because they make some of the most incredible products in the entire audio world, but because they have such a fantastic brand. All of their products are named after Norse mythology, and although we could have picked the even more powerful Ragnarok, we felt like the Mjolnir was better suited to headphones. It’s also not the only piece of Schiit on this list, either, as you’ll see if you look further down.

Unusually, it’s a hybrid, meaning you can switch between using solid-state circuitry and tubes, and even get into the dark arts of tube rolling (read: switching out different tubes) if you want to go there. The sound is magnificent, with bass like rolling thunder. You simply cannot go wrong with one of these, although as we’ve said, it’s far from the only product but we’d recommend from this company, which is absolutely revered by audiophiles. Anything you get from them will do the job.. As a bonus, the company provides some genuinely helpful guides on its website to getting started with all elements of amplifiers.
See the Schiit Mjolnir 2
 

4. Sony TA-ZH1ES ($2,211)

Sony TA-ZH1ES Weight: 9.7lbs
Dimensions: 12.4” x 8.3” x 2.6”
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 12-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 1.2 / 32Ω
What We Like: Crystal-clear sound, ease of operation, superb build quality.
What We Don’t: Expensive, sometimes hard to find.

We've just done a full review of this. Spoiler alert: it’s amazing. It’s a big, intimidating, black box with a staggering range of connections, including a dedicated one for a Sony Walkman. In the time we’ve spent with it, we’ve been blown away by just how good it is. It’s quite pricey, and although we link to Amazon here, it can sometimes be tricky to find on that site (you can find places to buy it here), but that’s not enough to keep it from the top five.

The real draw here is the sound. Sony combine some incredible amp circuitry with a stellar DAC to produce audio that has almost zero distortion, and which is absolutely clinical in its representation. While this won’t be fun for those who enjoy tube amps, it’s excellent if you like solid-state sound. The company’s DSEE tech upscale’s low resolution files, and the amplifier is fully DSD capable. Hearing a high resolution DSD album through this thing is an experience you just have to have. Is also, despite its hard-core nature, amazingly easy-to-use. This hybrid amplifier isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s definitely worth the scratch.
See the Sony TA-ZH1ES
 

5. Hafler HA75 ($1,000)

Hafler HA75Weight: 4lbs
Dimensions: 8" x 6.5" x 2"
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8-400Ω
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Unique features, twin headphone jacks.
What We Don’t: Requires work to get the best out of, not good for tube rolling.

Didn’t expect this one, did you? But trust us: the time we spent with this Canadian beast proved that it belonged on this list. It’s not exactly a looker, with a boxy black frame that recalls the Sony model above, but if you can get past that, you’ll find an amplifier that will blow your mind.

This is probably the only amp we’ve seen that allows you to dial in the exact amount of tube sound you want (using the Feedback knob) and then customise it further by controlling the stereo spread (the Focus knob). You can also switch between different Vox modes, which lets you emphasise different parts of the frequency spectrum. In practice, this setup means that you have to tweak the amp’s settings for each song you listen to, which is something that won’t appeal to those who want a plug-and-play system. But if you stick with it, the rewards are unbelievable, with some truly inspiring sound. This is an unusual amplifier that we think deserves much wider acclaim, and which definitely deserves a spot on this list. And by the way, if you want a slightly cheaper model, the company offer the HA15, a smaller version that comes without the Feedback control - and as of May 2017, there's a DAC-equipped version on the way, for around $300 more. We'll update after testing.
See the Hafler HA75
 

6. Bryston BHA-1 ($1,995)

Bryston BHA-1Weight: 13.25lbs
Dimensions: 17” x 12.25” x 2.75”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 0.5 / 32Ω
What We Like: Classic amplifier with an addictive, analytical sound.
What We Don’t: Looks are dull as ditchwater.

Call us crazy, but we think looks and aesthetics are as much a part of the amp experience as the sound quality. It’s why we’ve talked up amps like the Elise and MZ2-S, which are as fun to look at as they are to listen to. And while the BHA-1 is a classic with plenty to recommend it, looks ain’t one of those things. It’s a dull, grey and/or black block. Really, that’s all there is to it.

But it’s still on this list. Why? The sound quality. Bryston know what they’re doing, even if they have no fashion sense, and the quality put out by the Bryston is clean, analytical, and balanced, without being dull. If you prefer your audio clean but not colored, you’ll have plenty to love here. You get huge functionality, too, with multiple sets of balanced and single-ended outputs (both mono and stereo) and some refined volume and channel balance control. The BHA-1 is a classic - although for the record, we hope the BHA-2 is more of a looker.
See the Bryston BHA-1
 

7. Feliks Elise ($849)

Feliks EliseWeight: 10.14lbs
Dimensions: 12” x 8” x 6.7”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 32-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 0.2 / 32Ω
What We Like: One of the best tube amps available.
What We Don’t: Very heavy - and definitely not for everyone.

This is a beast - and one we only got to hear recently. The Elise - a firm favorite among audiophiles, especially those who love swapping out tubes - is a monstrously heavy amplifier, with a big, traditional design and a bombastic sound. Its weight and awkward exterior may make it a little too much for beginners, or for those not willing to fuss with tubes, but oh, does this baby sound special. Huge, powerful bass, crisp highs, and those glowing, gooey mids: the Elise has them all, and we think the amp offers some of the best tube sound out there. We also adore the soundstage, which is as wide as the horizon.

Feliks make some spectacular amps, and in truth, we could have put plenty of their models on this list, but we think this offers the best value for money. If you want a classic headphone pairing, try the Focal Elear, which plays really well with the giant tubes straddling this amp. A fantastic (but somehow, still underrated) amp classic.
See the Feliks Elise
 

8. Audeze Deckard ($699)

Audeze Deckard

Weight: 4.3lbs
Dimensions: 16 x 8.75 x 2.25”
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 4 / 20Ω
What We Like: Great looks, killer DAC, versatility.
What We Don’t: Not a lot!

Audeze make some very stylish headphones, but what you might not know is that they dabble in amplifiers too. The Deckard (if you don’t catch the reference, then let us Google that for you) is a slab of sleek brushed metal that combines a huge number of features. Not only can you use it as a regular amp, but you can also use it as a preamp, with a nifty switch on the front to help you do just that. 

Sound is solid, helped along by fantastic built-in DAC. It doesn’t have the warmth of tubes, but that doesn’t stop it being dead-on accurate, able to give any audio a major facelift. You should use it with Audeze cans for best results, obviously - like the El-8 Titanium model (full review here) -  but there are plenty others to choose from that will work just as well. There’s a reason why this has become a favored amp among audiophiles, and although we don’t think it’s a top five contender just yet, its presence on this list is very well-deserved.
See the Audeze Deckard
 

9. Arcam rHead ($599)

Arcam rHeadWeight: 1.57lbs
Dimensions: 7.6” x 5.3” x 1.7”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 1.1 / 32Ω
What We Like: Tiny, great sound, simple functionality.
What We Don’t: Probably a bit expensive for what you get.

Our love for tube sound here at TMS is well documented, but we’re partial to a little bit of solid state now and then as well. And if you want a simple, easy-to-use desktop solid-state amp, then this new entry on our list is a winner. The Arcam rHead is about as straightforward as it comes. Despite not having USB inputs, switching between XLR and RCA is easy, and outside of a volume control, there are almost no other controls on the unit. It’s as simple to use as you get.

The sound is fantastic – articulate, clear, preserving the dynamics without overexciting them. In fact, we’re going to go on record and say that this might be one of the best solid state amps we’ve heard. It’s got a very natural sound, and some complex power circuitry which means that distortion and noise levels are kept to a minimum. We think that it works best when paired with a good DAC, but even if you have a basic one, you’ll still get some great audio quality out of this one. We can’t wait to see what Arcam do next. We just wish we could make sense of that name…
See the Arcam rHead
 

10. Schiit Jotunheim ($399)

Schiit JotuneheimWeight: 6lbs
Dimensions: 9” x 6” x 2”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 5 / 32Ω
What We Like: Probably the best mid-range amp Schiit make.
What We Don’t: Almost nothing.

Yeah, we know. You probably thought we’d go for the Magni 2, huh? That, and the Modi 2, have become the go-to combo for audiophiles over the past few years. But the thing is, we’ve always had a soft spot for the Jot, and we think it’s a superior model. Don’t @ us.

It’s fully customisable: Schiit let you add a balanced DAC or phono preamp at the point of order (as of now, the company’s products are only available direct). It’s got tons of power, and an addictive, thundering sound we just couldn’t get enough of when we heard it. If that wasn’t enough, almost all the components are made in the USA, and it comes with an unusually long five year warranty. Our addiction to the Jot not something we expected – we knew that all of the company’s products had their fans, but we didn’t expect our love for the Magni 2 to be toppled. But in midrange terms, this is our pick. And yes, we know that Schiit fans are probably already pounding on the keyboard in our comments section, excoriating us for not picking their favourite. What can we say? We like this one.
See the Schiit Jotunheim
 

11. JDS Labs The Element ($349)

JDS Labs The ElementWeight: 1.13bs
Dimensions: 5.8" x 5.8" x 1.6"
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 1.1 / 32Ω
What We Like: Small size, big power.
What We Don’t: Sound could be a tiny bit better?

JDS Labs impressed with their Objective model, and this is a major upgrade. It packs an amp and a DAC into a well-designed housing, with the big volume knob on top that recalls professional audio interfaces that recording musicians use, like the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 or the Apogee Duet. 

It’s got a big, in-your-face, punchy sound, delivering not only volume but a fantastic clarity - we said as much in our full review. That being said, we don’t think it’s the best sounding amp on this list, as models above it deliver slightly more character. It’s far from bad, though, and if you’re looking for a basic desktop amp/DAC combo (particularly if you listen through in-ear monitors, for which it is uniquely suited) then this might be the one to go for. Although it’s not the most fully featured of the models on this list, it still manages to impress by delivering great sound and a decent price, and for its functionality which includes USB connectivity. Oh, and it has a nifty feature which eliminates the little thump you get when you turn an amp off and on. Which is nice.
See JDS Labs The Element


12. iFi Audio micro-iCAN SE ($299)

iFi micro-ICAN SEWeight: 7.7oz
Dimensions: 6.5” x 2.5” x 1”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 4 / 16Ω
What We Like: Tiny size, eye-catching design, terrific and customisable sound.
What We Don’t: Not stackable with companion products. Confusing layout.

No getting away from it: this is a weird one. Not only does it have a slightly bizarre name, it’s got a shape that, depending on whether you like it or not, is either highly distinctive or downright bizarre. We’ve got one on our shelf as we write this (full review coming soon) and while it’s got its quirks – like not being able to stack with its identically shaped DAC cousin, and a slightly confusing layout – it won us over with its epic sound.

The iCAN SE (it stands for Special Edition) is a powerful Class A tube amp, and although you’re not going to be rolling this one any time soon, it rewards you with some epic sound that is rich and deep. It also has a couple of nifty features to super-sized things, including very competent bass boost module, and a 3D sound spreader. iFi probably need to do a little bit of work on perfecting their layout – the gain switches, for example, are located on the underside, and are somewhat confusing to use. But it doesn’t stop this being a terrific-sounding amp, and one which we’ve come to appreciate.
See the iFi Audio micro-iCAN SE
 

13. AudioQuest Dragonfly Red ($199)

AudioQuest - DragonFly RedWeight: 2oz
Dimensions: 2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5”
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Tiny size, great sound.
What We Don’t: Not super-powerful.

Another great amp: The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red. The original Dragonfly, from 2012, was a great little number, and the Red improves on it in every way. This is the kind of amp you go for if you want a simple way to improve your sound; it’s never going to beat the feature sets or customisability of other models, but putting it into your signal chain will show an immediate and immense improvement in your audio

The design is virtually unchanged, but there are two major differences: the price, which clocks in at a still-very-reasonable $200, and the sound quality. For a tiny little USB amp, the Red is just epic. The audio is amazingly clean, with a level of detail that you'd expect from amps with a couple more zeroes whacked onto their pricetags. Like the D3 below, this is for computer listening, but it's still a dope amp - one which has become a firm favorite among headphone fans.
See the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red


14. FiiO A5 ($130)

FiiO A5

Weight: 6oz
Dimensions: 4.9" x 2.6" x 0.5"
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-300Ω
Watts Per Channel: 0.8W/32Ω
What We Like: Portability, powerful bass.
What We Don’t: A little fiddly.

FiiO continue to impress. This little beauty, which we reviewed in full here, replaces their E17K Alpen model on this list. It's a cell phone sized amp that is dead simple to use, and despite some slightly fiddly methods for actually connecting it to a DAC and a player, it's beautifully designed. They’ve even included a couple of elastic bands (branded with the company name, of course) to anchor it to your smartphone. Portable amps aren’t exactly convenient, but they definitely make a major difference the audio quality.

The volume knob/power switch works well, the tiny switches for high and low gain and bass boost are easy-to-use, and the battery life is excellent. The sound is super solid. We particularly like the Bass, which is powerful without being overwhelming. This type of portable power isn’t going to be for everyone –if most of your listening is at your desk or on the couch, then you might want to look at another model - but this is still a winner.
See the FiiO A5
 

15. Bravo Audio V2 ($67)

Bravo Audio V2

Weight: 1lb
Dimensions: 3.1” x 3.1” x 1.7”
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 20-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Looks, killer tube sound, friendly price tag.
What We Don’t: Distortion.

We bloody love this model. It’s the little amp that could, a tiny powerhouse which is the perfect introduction for anybody looking to experience tube sound. The eye-catching design is paired with some genuinely good circuitry, including an excellent Chinese tube that really puts out some stellar audio. The sound is warm and lush, and it will be an immediate upgrade to any audio you put through it. 

We should say that there is a little bit of distortion involved, which is understandable for this price, and that its construction can make it a little temperamental. You shouldn’t be entirely surprised if you have to replace the tube after a while, or if the exposed circuitry gets a little bit of coffee on it. Then again, at this price, you’re not exactly going to be taking out a second mortgage. And if you’re just getting started with tubes, we can’t think of a better way to get going.
See the Bravo Audio V2


And For When You Win The Lottery:

We thought long and hard about whether to include models like the Sennheiser HE1/Orpheus, HiFiMAN Shangri-La and HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE here - we did previously. But they're all electrostatics, and we think they belong on their own list, which is coming soon, along with a collection of Stax / Sonoma Acoustics / Koss cans - you know, the good stuff.

For now, 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. And technically, these would probably claim the title of the best headphone amps on the planet right now. But for what they cost, we’re not sure most people would even consider them. Still, they are absolutely awesome, so in the interests of being comprehensive, let’s talk about them here. Don’t agree? Light up the comments. 


16. PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP ($4,399)

PrimaLuna DiaLogue HPWeight: 66.3lbs
Dimensions: 15” x 15.5” x 8.3”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: 11.4 / 32Ω
What We Like: Good god almighty.
What We Don’t: Technically just an integrated amp with a headphone amp whacked on. And it’s crazy expensive…

Holy moly. Six driver tubes. Eight power tubes. 11.4 watts per channel. All of it housed in the kind of construction that looks like it was meant to hold a rabid wolverine. The DiaLogue HP is technically a stereo amp with an added headphone amp, but we’re putting it on this list anyway, because we’ve heard what this thing can do, and it’s mind-blowing.

The audio is nothing short of incredible. Were it not so expensive, and overkill for most people, and ridiculously heavy, then this would be at the top of the regular list. All the same, it’s a monster, with soaring, textured sound quality that you just have to hear. It pairs particularly well with the $3,999 Focal Utopia (full review here) and comes with handy features, like the ability to listen to either triode or ultra-linear sound, as well as a bad tube indicator. Trust us: it’s a monster, and you owe it to yourself to hear it.
See the PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP


17. Wells Audio Headtrip ($7,000)

Wells Audio HeadtripWeight: 20lbs
Dimensions: 14” x 12.25” x 5”
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 4-2000Ω
Watts Per Channel: 25 / 32Ω
What We Like: Insane levels of power and quality.
What We Don’t: Insane price tag.

This is the kind of equipment you see in two places: audio shows, and your rich uncle’s place. And god help you if you go near it while holding a drink. At $7,000, it’s pushing the upper limit of what you could reasonably spend on a headphone amp outside of those electrostatic wonders, and what it offers in return is ungodly sound quality.

The big, intimidating, black box houses a dual-mono output riding a ton of Class A power, with full AC purifiers and even dedicated polarity controls. The build quality is second to none, and the sound it delivers has enough power to move the planets. Headtrip is right - this is by and far away one of the most powerful and astonishing amps we’ve ever heard. Try it with a really, really good pair of Beyerdynamics, like the top-of-the-line T1.
See the Wells Audio Headtrip
 

Specs Table:

Amps Price Weight Dimensions RHI* WPC** DAC***
Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S $1,235 8.94lbs 9.5” x 4.75” x 7.8” 16-600Ω 1 / 4Ω No
Woo Audio WA7 $999 8.1lbs 5.1” x 4.8” x 4.8” 8-600Ω 1 / 32Ω Yes
Schiit Mjolnir 2 $849 13lbs 16 x 8.75 x 2.25” Unknown 8 / 32Ω No
Sony TA-ZH1ES $2,211 9.7lbs 12.4” x 8.3” x 2.6” 12-600Ω 1.2 / 32Ω Yes
Hafler HA75 $1,000 4lbs 8" x 6.5" x 2" 8-400Ω Unknown No
Bryston BHA-1 $1,995 13.25lbs 17” x 12.25” x 2.75” 16-600Ω 0.5 / 32Ω No
Feliks Elise $849 10.14lbs 12” x 8” x 6.7” 32-600Ω 0.2 / 32Ω No
Audeze Deckard $699 4.3lbs 16 x 8.75 x 2.25” Unknown 4 / 20Ω Yes
Arcam rHead $599 1.57lbs 7.6” x 5.3” x 1.7” 16-600Ω 1.1 / 32Ω No
Schiit Jotunheim $399 6lbs 9” x 6” x 2” Unknown 5 / 32Ω No
JDS Labs The Element $349 1.13lbs 5.8” x 5.8” x 6.1” Unknown 1.1 / 32Ω Yes
iFi Audio micro-iCAN SE $299 7.7oz 6.5” x 2.5” x 1” Unknown 4 / 16Ω No
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red $199 2oz 2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5” Unknown Unknown Yes
FiiO A5 $130 6oz 4.9" x 2.6" x 0.5" 16-300Ω 0.8W/32Ω No
Bravo Audio V2 $67 1lbs 3.1” x 3.1” x 1.7” 20-600Ω Unknown Yes
PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP $4,399 66.3lbs 15” x 15.5” x 8.3” Unknown 11.4 / 32Ω No
Wells Audio Headtrip $7,000 20lbs 14” x 12.25” x 5” 4-2000Ω 25 / 32Ω No

*RHI = Recommended Headphone Impedance
**WPC = Watts Per Channel
***DAC = Digital-to-Analogue Converter

Buying Advice:

Do I Need A Headphone Amp?

Here's the thing. All headphones need them. They're speakers, and because they are speakers, they require amplification in order to get the sound to a level you can actually hear. The reason that most cans aren't actually used with external amps, and are instead just plug straight into your iPhone/PC/Mac/iPad/whatever, is because these devices actually contain their own miniature amps. The reason you choose an external one is because these existing ones are a little bit underpowered. They'll get the job done, but you'll get a much better results if you hand the amplification duties over to something purpose-built for it.

Most of these take the form of a box, designed to fit between your music source and your headphones. You simply plug your headphones in, then plug the amp into your computer or music player or turntable or whatever. In this way, the signal gets pushed through the amp before it reaches your ears, and the result, in theory at least, is warmer, richer, more powerful sound. It's not just the sound is louder; is that the sound will be better at high volume levels, with minimal distortion. (Important note: we don't actually recommend you listen to music at super high volume levels on your headphones, as this can really mess up your hearing, but that's the general idea).

Getting into what goes on inside those boxes can make the discussion very technical indeed. There are dozens of ways of modifying what engineers call the signal path, some of them extremely esoteric. But to give you an idea, the components inside – which usually consist of some combination of valves, tubes and other analogue elements – help strengthen, or amplify, the signal 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 a lot better than it was before.

The more expensive the pair of headphones, the more likely you are to need one of these. This is for two reasons. First, expensive headphones with excellent sound quality have a way of exposing the deficiencies of the audio source (for example, that compressed MP3 on your iPhone) and second, it is actually better for the headphones. 

(As a general rule, you won't need one of these if you have a pair of noise-canceling headphones, as the amplification in these is usually more than enough. Beyond that, we can't recommend buying one enough.)

And since we're talking about headphones, you're definitely going to need some - no point buying a great amp if you don't actually have cans to go with it, right? Try these high-end models.

Sony TA-ZH1ES | The Master Switch

Do More Expensive Amps Mean Better Sound?

Generally? Yes. The more money you pay, the more likely you are to get an amplifier with a set of components that treats your sound well.

However: this is not 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. There are a dozen different factors you need to consider. 

Firstly, while expensive amps do tend to have better sound, they are unlikely to be portable, and can be very bulky. They might also have fragile components, like tubes, that have a relatively high failure rate. Secondly, when you’re looking to buy, paying more means you might be paying for features you don’t need. If you aren’t interested in something like a bass boost function, and an AB includes it, then it may be worth your while looking elsewhere for a more simplified model.

FiiO A5

Solid State Vs Tube Vs Hybrid

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

Tubes, or vacuum tubes, or valves (as they are variously called) are those glowing glass cylinders you see on the Bravo Audio V2 or 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, understanding what driver and power tubes do, why some tubes work while others won't, and how different tubes affect the sound. It's a demanding but rewarding amp, and we adored it. A tube amp can be identified by - and sorry if this sounds obvious - the giant glass tubes in or on top of it. There's usually a giant, boxy power supply at the back of the unit, too...

Tubes can be a huge amount of fun, and can give you a never-ending project that will leave you with a whole rack of versatile, gleaming tubes (hint: a little polystyrene works well for storing them - just stick them in pin-side down!) However, there are some 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 will find completely addictive. We know. We’ve been there. Secondly, any system with tubes is going to be temperamental. Tubes break, short-circuit, or just generally don’t perform as advertised. They will inevitably need to be replaced. This isn’t too common, but it’s a foible that you need to be aware of.

Thirdly, any system with tubes should allow you to perform the arcane practice of ‘tube rolling’, or quite literally replacing the tubes with different ones in order to alter the sound. You can spend hours, and a lot of money, doing this. We not going to go into the process of finding and choosing different tubes, mostly because that would entail us explaining the difference between Russian and Chinese tubes, and getting into the intricacies of the nomenclature, and neither you nor we have time for that. Bottom line: tubes rock.

Solid-state models don’t use tubes. Instead, they use more traditional circuitry to do the job. While they don’t have the warmth and character of tubes, they are known for being reliable, and for transmitting sound that is accurate, sharp and detailed. Perfect example: the FiiO A5, a pocket-sized amp that is fully solid-state.

Hybrid systems use both, relying on tubes to provide the color and electronics to provide the power. We can’t really advise you as to which of these three to pick, as it all comes down to personal choice. You'll find one of these on our list in the Schiit Mjolnir 2 - not a traditional hybrid, as it lets you stick in solid-state circuits in place of the tubes, but it's a good example nonetheless, and worth it if you want to experiment.

One further point. We were kidding about the jargon here. Get anywhere into this particular product category, and you can 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 probably don’t need to be too aware of, at least when you’re just starting out. If you want to know more, there’s a great guide here.

Impedance And Wattage Explained

Whoo boy. OK. These aren’t too complicated to understand, but they do require a little bit of explanation. 

We’ve got a full explainer here, but if you don’t want to wade through it, you only really need to know the following. (And by the way, the explainer talks about speakers, but the content applies to headphones too). 

Impedance refers to the amount of opposition an electrical current will meet, measured in ohms. Wattage is the amount of power on a given channel of sound (most amps will have two channels: left and right) We’re not going to delve too deep into it here, so check the explainer. And if you really just want a quick way to match amps to headphones, without worrying about the details, someone built a truly fantastic tool to do just that.


How To Match Headphones And Amps

All you need to do is look up the impedance of your headphones, which will be readily available on the spec sheet that comes with them, or on the manufacturer website. Then, look at the recommended headphone impedance stat for your chosen amp. We’ve actually listed these for the models above, where they’re given. As long as your headphone impedance falls in the given range, you’ll be fine.

It’s true that some manufacturers don’t give this range. But to be honest, any of these amps will quite comfortably drive a pair of headphones in the 16-300 ohm range, and most contemporary headphones - with the exception of $10 earbuds - will play nice with most headphone amps.

In fact, we’re going to go a little further. There are those who advocate matching amps and headphones based on sensitivity, and how much gain you need to give the headphones to get them to an acceptable volume. We say: it isn’t worth it. All the amps on this list will be able to drive almost any decent pair of headphones to a suitable volume, and if you need it to go louder, you’re probably going to damage your hearing a little. It’s far more tricky to match amps and speakers than it is to match amps and headphones, so our take is to simply pick one of each that you like, and see what they do together. Trust us, nothing is going to explode.

Hafler HA75 | The Master Switch

What Is A DAC?

In short, a Digital-to-Analog Converter. Yes, you need one.

Before sound goes from your computer or smart phone to your ears, it has to be converted from digital ones and zeros to actual audio you can hear, in the form of sound waves in the air. To do this, you need a DAC. Most players will already have this built in, which is why you can listen to music out of your computer speakers, but the quality is very good. We highly recommend offloading the task to an external DAC.

Quite a few of the models in this list will have one installed already, so you shouldn’t have to worry. Even if you do have to pick up a separate one, you can get some very good ones for not a lot of outlay. We recommend any of the Schiit DACs for now (we’re putting together a full roundup of the best as we speak)

JDS Labs The Element | The Master Switch

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