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.
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.
Our guiding principle was that any amp that wanted to be on our list needed to be accessible and affordable, even for those who have never used a headphone amp before. We wanted amps which would make your audio life better. To achieve that, 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 it would be crazy not to rank them high just because they cost a little extra! As you’ll see, we’ve included options for any budget, all of which will dramatically improve your sound. One note: we have not included electrostatics on our main list - and we explain why below.
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 1-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 3 / 16Ω
What We Like: The amp for everyone.
What We Don’t: Large wall wart, you’ll need a separate DAC.
You probably think we’re insane. What are we doing, putting a $99 amp above the Fireflies and the MZ2-S? But no headphone amp has impressed us more in the past year than the Magni 3. For beginners, it will be the thing that kicks your music up a notch, and gets you addicted to this hobby. For hardcore audiophiles, it’s practically a throwaway purchase – but one that will keep you coming back again and again and again.
Schiit’s Magni amp line had gotten somewhat complicated, with multiple versions of the Magni 2, but they dispensed with all that, packing in all the previous options and still somehow managing to keep the price below $100. No matter what kind of headphones you own, be they $5,000 monsters or $10 earbuds, you need this amplifier. It is dead simple to operate, provides incredibly smooth sound, looks fantastic, and will power just about everything. Our only criticism is the wall wart power supply, which is a little large – but seriously, that’s all, unless you count the fact that you’ll need a separate DAC (see our Buying Advice below for more on this). And if you want something more powerful, the company makes plenty of other amps – although this is by far our top pick. However: if you want customization options, included DACs or multiple connections, look further down the list. Read our in-depth review...
See the Schiit Magni 3
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-300Ω
Watts Per Channel: 2 / 16Ω
What We Like: Beginner? Advanced? Doesn’t matter - this is the amp for you.
What We Don’t: Bass could be a touch weightier.
You know what we like so much about the Burson PLAY? It perfectly straddles the gap between being a device for headphone amp beginners, and being one for all pros. If you’re just starting out in the world of headphone amps, then all you need to do is plug it in, switch it on, and enjoy the great sound and the sweet digital volume display. If you want something a little more in-depth, Burson provide a turnkey to open the unit up, allowing you to swap out the existing op-amps for ones of your choosing (an op-amp is an internal bit of circuitry that amplifies the voltage).
It’s a fun amp with a creative concept, and the fact that you can buy it in various combinations from $299 all the way up to $549, which gets you advanced internals and a remote, makes it an affordable option. The sound is mostly excellent, although we did find ourselves wanting a little bit more power down low. This replaces the old (and still excellent) Burson Soloist on the list, and we think it’s a major step up, both in looks as well as sound and functionality. Read our in-depth review...
See the Burson Audio PLAY
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 really for beginners.
Hold on. Put the pitchforks down. For a long time, this amp was at #1 on the list, and after much thought, we think the Magni 3 just beats it. It's getting a little older, for one thing, and its high-end price and tube sound aren't to everyone's tastes. For a combination of functionality, value, and great audio quality, the Burson and Schiit models beat it out.
But: it's still incredible, easily a top five amplifier. 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. We aren’t wild about LTA’s naming style, which can lend itself to the confusing – for reference, any amp called the MicroZOTL can be considered to refer to this particular amp - but it’s a minor point. No amp more than this one has driven home the idea that sound can be glorious. You gotta hear it. Read our in-depth review...
See the Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: 1 / 32Ω
What We Like: Incredible looks, equally incredible sound.
What We Don’t: Stock tubes aren't great.
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 audio 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
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.
This is 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, 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 - 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. Read our in-depth review...
See the Sony TA-ZH1ES
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 Hafler are also planning to release a bigger, badder version, with much more oomph. We’ll update after testing. Read our in-depth review...
See the Hafler HA75
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
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-1,000Ω
Watts Per Channel: 3.6 / 16Ω
What We Like: Very flattering to just about any headphones.
What We Don’t: We prefer the Woo Audio WA7, which is also cheaper.
Pathos makes some of the looniest amps around, including the Classic Remix, which has heatsinks that look like 1960s art deco gone wild. While the Aurium isn’t quite as outrageous, it’s much better known, and far more affordable.
It’s also one of the most flattering headphone amps we’ve ever come across. Its Class A stage and twin tubes give it a warm, bouncy sound – one that we found is flattering to any pair of headphones, no matter how high-end or budget they are. It’s also smooth and easy to operate, with great styling and functionality. Ultimately, it would have been nice to see a DAC in here, but it’s hardly a dealbreaker. And although we still think the Woo Audio WA7 is prettier, and deliver slightly better sound, there’s no question that this is one of the finest headphone amps available. It’s a must-buy.
See the Pathos Aurium
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 50-600Ω
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Incredible, detailed sound.
What We Don’t: Unwieldy design, tricky to find.
Hang around any audio show long enough, and you’ll come across this one – usually powering some high end headphones like those from HiFiMAN or AUDEZE. And while it shares the name of a much smaller portable amp from OPPO, it’s the absolute polar opposite: a deskbound giant with a huge power supply, a full complement of tubes, and a sound for the ages.
Holy hell, this thing sounds amazing. It reaches deep into your brain, rewiring your perceptions of just how good audio can be. Listening to one is an eye-opening experience. So why isn’t it higher on the list? For starters, as good as the amplifier is, it's also quite unwieldy, and it takes up a huge amount of space. We also realise that it can be quite tricky to find, unless you know a specialised hifi dealer. While it remains one of the best amps around, in terms of sound, it’s definitely not going to be for everyone.
See the Auris HA2 SE
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 MkII - 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. It may not be among the most accessible amplifiers on this list – it’s not going to give you the plug and play joy of the Sony – but it’s still bloody good. Read our in-depth review...
*Price is subject to location.
See the Feliks Elise MkII
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, go watch Blade Runner) 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 - 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
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 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. It’s not nearly as exciting as other amps on this list, in terms of design and functionality – you’re definitely not going to get people complimenting you on it in the same way that they would with the WA7 – but it works well enough.
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
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. Read our in-depth review...
See JDS Labs The Element
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. Although for the record, we much prefer the JDS Labsmodel above, which we think beats this on sound, design and functionality.
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. Read our in-depth review...
See the iFi Audio micro-iCAN SE
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Tiny size, great sound.
What We Don’t: Not super-powerful.
Wow, we get a lot of emails about this one. Number one question: is it really as good as they say? Big yes. It’s an absolutely extraordinary piece of gear which, as long as you’re at a desk, remains one of the most popular amp/DAC combos around.
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.
See the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
Watts Per Channel: Unknown
What We Like: Easy to hump around.
What We Don’t: Not great with iOS devices.
At some point, the folks at Cyrus must have looked at the success AudioQuest were having with their Dragonfly Red USB stick amp, and thought very long and hard about what they were doing. The result is the Soundkey: a compact little unit designed to fit between your phone and your headphones, ideal for on-the-go use.
It’s a little less expensive than the Dragonfly, and is designed to be used with mobile devices, rather than laptops. It’s a bit annoying to get it to work with iPhones and iPads, however, as you’ll need an additional camera connector. That being said, it offers excellent sound for the price, unbelievable convenience, and is light years away from the amp and DAC contained in your phone. This is the first iteration of the product, and we’re quite excited to see what innovations Cyrus can pack inside the next version. It’s got quite a way to go before it beats the Dragonfly, but it deserves a spot on this list nonetheless.
See the Cyrus Soundkey
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, the model below would probably claim the title of the best headphone amp on the planet right now. But for what it costs, we’re not sure most people would even consider it. Still, it's absolutely awesome, so in the interests of being comprehensive, let’s talk about it here. Don’t agree? Light up the comments.
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. And if this is too rich for your blood, the company make some less expensive models, too, like the Milo.
See the Wells Audio Headtrip
|Schiit Audio Magni 3||$99||No||1-600Ω||3 / 16Ω||5" x 3.5" x 1.25"||1lb|
|Burson Audio PLAY||$549||Yes||16-300Ω||2 / 16Ω||8.3” x 5.7” x 1.7”||4.4lbs|
|Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S||$1,235||No||16-600Ω||1 / 4Ω||9.5” x 4.75” x 7.8”||8.94lbs|
|Woo Audio WA7||$999||Yes||8-600Ω||1 / 32Ω||5.1” x 4.8” x 4.8”||8.1lbs|
|Sony TA-ZH1ES||$2,198||Yes||12-600Ω||1.2 / 32Ω||12.4” x 8.3” x 2.6”||9.7lbs|
|Hafler HA75||$1,000||No||8-400Ω||Unknown||8" x 6.5" x 2"||4lbs|
|Bryston BHA-1||$1,995||No||16-600Ω||0.5 / 32Ω||17” x 12.25” x 2.75”||13.25lbs|
|Pathos Aurium||$1,495||No||16-1,000Ω||3.6 / 16Ω||9" x 7.9" x2.4"||6.6lbs|
|Auris HA2 SE||$2,200||No||50-600Ω||Unknown||12.6" x 11.8" x 9"||19.8lbs|
|Feliks Elise MkII||$1,609****||No||32-600Ω||0.2 / 32Ω||12” x 8” x 6.7”||10.14lbs|
|AUDEZE Deckard||$599||Yes||Unknown||4 / 20Ω||16 x 8.75 x 2.25”||4.3lbs|
|Arcam rHead||$599||No||16-600Ω||1.1 / 32Ω||7.6” x 5.3” x 1.7”||1.57lbs|
|JDS Labs The Element||$349||Yes||Unknown||1.1 / 32Ω||5.8” x 5.8” x 6.1”||1.13lbs|
|iFi Audio micro-iCAN SE||$299||No||Unknown||4 / 16Ω||6.5” x 2.5” x 1”||7.7oz|
|AudioQuest Dragonfly Red||$199||Yes||Unknown||Unknown||2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5”||2oz|
|Cyrus Audio Soundkey||$140||Yes||Unknown||Unknown||2.1” x 0.9” x 0.3”||0.6oz|
|Bravo Audio V2||$66||No||20-600Ω||Unknown||3.1” x 3.1” x 1.7”||1lbs|
|Wells Audio Headtrip||$7,000||No||4-2000Ω||25 / 32Ω||14” x 12.25” x 5”||20lbs|
*DAC = Digital-to-Analogue Converter
**RHI = Recommended Headphone Impedance
***WPC = Watts Per Channel
****Subject to Location
- Why Do I Need A Headphone Amp?
- Do More Expensive Amps Mean Better Sound?
- Headphone Amp Types: Tubes vs. Solid State vs. Hybrid
- Impedance And Wattage Explained
- Headphones / Amp Matching Explained
- DACs Explained
- Headphone Amps vs. Stereo Amps
- 3.5mm vs. 6.3mm Connections
- Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connections
Here's the thing. All headphones need them. They're speakers - just small ones that go on your head - 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 instead just plug straight into your iPhone/PC/Mac/iPad/whatever, is because these devices actually contain their own miniature amps. The reason you’d choose an external one is because these existing ones are a little bit underpowered, with stock components that aren’t really doing your music justice. 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 (maybe inserting a DAC along the way, which is something we’ll talk about below). 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).
The components inside a headphone amp – 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. (As a general rule, you won't need one of these if you have a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which have and require their own internal amps. Beyond that, we can't recommend buying one enough.)
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. 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.
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. Example: one of the best amps on this list, the Burson Audio PLAY, is almost a fifth of the price of something like the Sony TA-ZH1ES. On paper, the Sony is the better amp…but paper ain’t your ears, and we know which amp we’d save from a burning building.
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 amplifier includes it, then it may be worth your while looking elsewhere for a more simplified model.
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.
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.
These 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 Cyrus Audio Soundkey a pocket-sized amp that is fully solid-state.
These use both of the above types of innards, 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. We used to have 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. We've replaced it with the Magni 3, which is a better amp overall.
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.
Whoo boy. OK. These aren’t too complicated to understand, but they do require a little bit of explanation.
The short version: wattage is the amount of power an amplifier puts out, and impedance is the level of electrical resistance to that power. If an amp puts out 1 watts at 32 ohms, that means that a pair of headphones with an impedance of 32 ohms (Ω) will be taking one watt of power.
The good news: wattage and impedance are much less important for headphones than they are for, say, full-sized speakers. Most amps will have a range of compatible headphone impedances, and as long as your particular headphones fit inside this range, you’re golden. That’s all there is to it.
We’ve got a full explainer here, if you need more detail. 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).
As mentioned, 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 anyway. 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.
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.
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. The Woo Audio WA7 probably has one of the best DACs on this list, although others do compete with it.
Even if you do have to pick up a separate one, you can get some very good ones for not a lot of outlay. Here’s a full roundup of the best DACs on the market right now.
The difference between these is relatively simple. Headphone amps power headphones, and stereo amps power speakers. Really, that’s kind of all there is to it.
Except: not quite. While most headphone amps won’t be able to power speakers by themselves – they simply don’t have the output wattage that these bigger beasts require – there are several stereo amps that have headphone amps included. After all, if you have an amplifier that generates tons of power, it’s no hardship to simply insert a headphone jack and tell the interior switching circuitry to dial down the power a little bit. So, you know, you don’t end up exploding a pair of speakers that are right next to someone’s ears.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to headphones this way. And if you find yourself switching between headphones and speakers, it can be a very easy option. But for our money, we think that dedicated headphone amplifiers provide better sound. The amp circuitry isn’t tacked on as an afterthought, which is the case with so many stereo amps these days. If you can afford to buy two separate amps, definitely do so.
One trick that headphone amps do have is that they are often able to act as preamps, sending the audio signal to a power amplifier without boosting it further. That way, you get the advantage of their interior circuitry, while using the power amp to provide the grunt for your speakers. The Schiit Mjolnir 2 is among several of the amps on this list that have dedicated preamp outputs, and all you need to connect them to a power amplifier is an RCA cable.
Very obviously, you need to connect your headphones to your amp. To do this, you will commonly encounter three different types of ports. They all function the same way, with very subtle differences.
3.5mm is the most common. Any widely available headphone - think Apple, Beats, Monster, Skullcandy - will have this, a tiny plug that connects to most phones. Headphone amps, and high-end headphones, tend to favor 6.3mm connections, the jacks of which are bigger, chunkier and longer. The reason for this, in theory, is that the increased surface area of the 6.3mm jack allows for slightly finer connections, corrodes less easily, and is much harder to bend.
You can readily buy adapters that switch between the two, for no more than a few bucks at your local electronics store, and the differences between them are so minimal that you can consider them functionally identical.
This is more a topic about cables than anything else, but given that you’re going to need to plug things in with your amplifier, it’s worth knowing the difference between balanced and unbalanced connections.
A cable that is unbalanced is one that has two wires inside its sheath: a ground wire, and a signal wire. The signal wire does the audio processing, sending the sound along to the next piece of equipment in the signal chain (your headphones, for 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, contain two signal wires along with the ground wire. While they do function the same way as unbalanced cables, in that the roles of each type of wire don’t change, they are built to work with the converters that they will be connected to at each end. Those converters – and we’re trying not to get overly technical here – rely on information in the signal wires to cancel out distortion. In theory, then, balanced cables mean your audio will have less distortion in it. XLR cables – the ones with the chunky, circular male/female connectors - and some 6.3mm cables are considered balanced. Plenty of amps on our list, including the Bryston BHA-1, include these connections.
So on balance – ha ha – you’d prefer to go for balanced over unbalanced cables. Right?
Well, maybe. Firstly, balanced cables, and the equipment they connect to, are always far more expensive then unbalanced ones. Secondly, the difference between the two is extremely subtle, really only becoming audibly apparent when cables stretch over long distances. Ultimately, this is a decision you make based on your budget and your listening set up, but don’t be too stressed-out if you can’t afford balanced connections