You wouldn't expect headphones to need any special equipment to work. 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. For more background information on headphone amps, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
 

Best Overall Headphone Amp

1. Schiit Audio Magni 3 ($119)

Schiit Magni 3Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 1-600Ω
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 at the top of a list filled with four-figure monsters? But no headphone amp has impressed us more in the past year than the Magni. 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 - one that will keep you coming back again and again.

Schiit's Magni amp line had gotten somewhat complicated - this is the third version of the amp - so Schiit rebooted. Instead of being known as the Magni 3, this is now simply the Magni. And 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 criticisms are the large, wall wart power supply and the fact that you'll need a separate DAC (see our Buying Advice below for more on this). If you want something a bit more powerful, the company makes plenty of other amps, but 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
 

A Close Second

2. Rupert Neve Designs RNHP ($499)

Rupert Neve Designs RNHPCategory: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
What We Like: Incredible, life-changing sound.
What We Don't: Looks like something you'd see installed in a university physics lab.

The Rupert Neve Designs RNHP surprised the hell out of us. We couldn't believe how good it made our headphones sound, with audio quality that was both balanced and engaging. It really felt like it brought the best out of whatever we plugged into it. The sound was dripping with power, putting real weight behind the music. Then again, that's hardly surprising. Rupert Neve is a famed designer of mixing consoles for recording studios. This is his company's first headphone amp, and they've have knocked it out of the park in terms of sound quality. And the bang-for-the-buck ratio is just huge here - this sounds better than much-more expensive solid-state amps, like the Sony TA-ZH1ES.

However, the RNHP is about as simple an amp as you can get. It doesn't even have a gain switch. It's also really ugly. The industrial look may make the amp robust, but it's not exactly easy on the eyes. Elements like super-bright input lights don't help matters much, either. It also has no DAC – if you're looking for an amp in this price range that does, try the Burson Audio Play, below. The Play doesn't sound quite as good as the RNHP, but it is a one box solution. If sound quality is what you're after, though, and you don't mind unattractive looks, give the RNHP a go.
See the Rupert Neve Designs RNHP


Best Portable Headphone Amp

3. AudioQuest Dragonfly Red ($200)

AudioQuest - DragonFly RedCategory: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 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. It's a simple USB dongle, and all you need to do is plug it in, and connect your headphones.

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 price tags.
See the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red


Best Tube Headphone Amp

4. Feliks Elise MkII ($1,480*)

Feliks Elise Mk2Category: Desktop / Tube
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 32-600Ω
What We Like: One of the best tube amps available.
What We Don’t: Very heavy - and definitely not for everyone.

The Feliks Elise MkII 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 glowing, gooey mids: the Elise has them all, and we think the amp offers some of the best tube sound available. 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 the Elise MkII 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, or give you the plug and play joy of the RNHP, but it's truly exquisite...Read our in-depth review
*Price is subject to location.

See the Feliks Elise MkII


Best Solid-State Headphone Amp

5. Woo Audio WA11 Topaz ($1,399)

Woo Audio WA11 TopazCategory: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8-600Ω
What We Like: Stunning sound quality, truly premium experience.
What We Don't: No Bluetooth, not really suitable for in-ear headphones.

Woo Audio make some of the best headphone amps on earth. Their brilliant WA7 Fireflies was previously on this list, and remains one of the most beautiful tube amps ever made. But we think their newer WA11 Topaz is the one you should go for. It's an incredible amplifier: a battery-powered solid-state number, with gorgeous design and sound that oozes quality. As we said in our review: "The overall impression of the sound was of cold, clear sharpness - like a mouthful of freshly-fallen snow."

The WA11 Topaz works equally as well as a portable amp and a desktop one. Although we must note that there's no Bluetooth connection option, which is a strange omission. It's also not ideal if you primarily listen to in-ear headphones – it will handle them adequately, but the best experience will come with full size cans. Regardless of these issues, it remains one of the best headphone amplifiers we've ever tested. But if you want a solid state amp with a bit more grunt, try the Sony TA-ZH1ES, below...Read our in-depth review
See the Woo Audio WA11 Topaz
 

Best High-End Headphone Amp

6. Wells Audio Headtrip II ($7,000)

Wells-Audio-headtrip-IICategory: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 4-2000Ω
What We Like: Insane levels of power and quality.
What We Don't: Insane price tag.

The new Wells Audio Headtrip II is the kind of equipment you see in two places: audio shows, and your rich uncle's house. 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, but what it offers in return is ungodly sound quality.

The Headtrip II is a scaled down version of Jeff Wells' massive Innamorata Signature amp, taking all the technology in that monster and putting it into a slightly friendlier package. The 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 planets. Headtrip is right: this is, by far, one of the most powerful and astonishing amps we've ever heard. Try it with a solid pair of Beyerdynamics, like the top-of-the-line T1, for the full experience. And if this is too rich for your blood, the company also make some less expensive models, like the Milo.
See the Wells Audio Headtrip II


Best of the Rest

7. FiiO Q5 ($350)

FiiO-Q5_Edited.jpgCategory: Portable / Solid State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-300Ω
What We Like: Superb sound quality, amp module swapping.
What We Don't: Too expensive for the target market.

FiiO make some truly excellent amps and DACs, and the Q5 is their latest culmination of everything they know. It's a slim, portable, silver slab that looks and sounds fantastic, and is fully Bluetooth-capable. Slide it in your pocket, connect to your headphones, and you're good to go.

The really neat trick it has are the amp modules. You can swap these out if you want to change up the sound - a process which not only works well, but is intuitive and fun. Add that to an excellent range of accessories, and a build quality that feels suitably premium. However, at $350, it's expensive for a portable amp. Especially when you compare it to the $199 AudioQuest Dragonfly Red and the $129 Bluewave GET. We love the Q5, and think FiiO have made one hell of an amp, but we worry it's a little overpriced for what you get. At the time of writing, FiiO are gearing up to release an update, the Q5S, which has dual DACs and reportedly better sound. We'll include more details once we've tested it...Read our in-depth review
See the FiiO Q5
 

8. Burson Audio PLAY ($549)

Burson PLAYCategory: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-300Ω
What We Like: Beginner? Advanced? Doesn’t matter - this is the amp for you.
What We Don’t: Bass could be a touch weightier.

What we like so much about the Burson Play is that it perfectly straddles the gap between being a device for headphone amp beginners and being one for 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 excellent sound quality. We also loved the sweet digital display. If you want something 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.

The Play is a fun amp with a creative concept. You can even buy it in various combinations from $299 to $549, which offer advanced internals and a remote, making it a great option for any budget. The sound is almost perfect, but we did find ourselves wanting more power in the low-end. Something worth noting is that Burson have since released the FUN and SWING amps, which are both very similar to the Play. But in all honesty, we don't think they dramatically improve on the Play. We suggest you stick with this one...Read our in-depth review
See the Burson Audio PLAY


9. Benchmark HPA4 ($2,995)

Benchmark HPA4Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
What We Like: Lots of power, redesigned interface.
What We Don't: Less-expensive amps on this list are better.

The Benchmark HPA4 is a surprisingly enjoyable amp. Surprisingly, because Benchmark make some of the most complicated and finicky audio equipment available. But they started the HPA4 with a blank slate, and we think it paid off. The designer, Michael Siau, built the amp around a glorious touchscreen, which gives you everything you need in a single place. And with three watts into 32 ohms, the HPA 4 can power just about any pair of headphones. We tested this with about five or six different models, including the Focal Utopia and Meze Audio Empyrean.

The main issue we had with this headphone amp is that, while the HPA4 may be a lot of fun, it doesn't do anything particularly special, or deliver a better experience than other, slightly less expensive amps. The Woo Audio WA11 Topaz, for example, may not have a touchscreen, but we think using it is a much better experience. It's also far more versatile, in the sense that it's entirely portable. The HPA4 absolutely deserves a spot on this list, but it's not our first choice.
See the Benchmark HPA4
 

10. Sony TA-ZH1ES ($2,188)

Sony TA-ZH1ES Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 12-600Ω
What We Like: Crystal-clear sound, ease of operation, superb build quality.
What We Don’t: Expensive, sometimes hard to find.

The TA-ZH1ES 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 spot in this category.

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 upscales 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


11. Auris HA2 SE ($1,999)

Auris HA2-SECategory: Desktop / Tube
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 50-600Ω
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
 

12. Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum ($769)

Monoprice Monolith Liquid PlatinumCategory: Desktop / Tube
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 3-300Ω
What We Like: Forgiving amp with great bass.
What We Don't: Undefined and woolly highs.

It's not the match we would have expected. Ultra-square manufacturer Monoprice teaming up with headphone impresario Alex Cavalli? OK, guys. But the result, the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum, not only has an amazing name but terrific sound. The twin tubes deliver bass that really makes an impact, and the amp is surprisingly forgiving, bringing out the best - even in cheaper headphones. While we would have liked the highs to be just a touch sharper - they really don't compete with amps like the JDS Labs The Element here - the Liquid Platinum still slays.

We were genuinely surprised by how much texture and warmth the Liquid Platinum brought to the table. We shouldn't be - Cavalli is known for extracting the best from his components. This amp remains an excellent if underappreciated sub-$1,000 product, and a lock for this list for the foreseeable. Be warned: there's no DAC, so you'll need to supply your own...Read our in-depth review
See the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum
 

13. JDS Labs The Element ($349)

JDS Labs The ElementCategory: Desktop / Solid State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Unknown
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 a large volume knob that recalls professional audio interfaces used by recording musicians, like the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 or the Apogee Duet.

It's not the newest amp from JDS Labs – that would be the $99 Atom - but in a world where the Schiit Magni exists, the Atom feels redundant. The Element is good enough that we are comfortable leaving it on the list, even if it is slightly older. It's got a big, in-your-face, punchy sound, delivering not only volume but a fantastic clarity. That being said, we don't think it's the best sounding amp on this list, as models above it deliver more character. It's far from bad, though, and if you're looking for a basic desktop amp/DAC combo, then this might be the one to go for. It might not be the most fully-featured of the models on this list, but it still manages to impress by delivering great sound and functionality at a decent price...Read our in-depth review
See JDS Labs The Element


14. Cyrus Audio Soundkey ($130)

Cyrus Audio SoundkeyCategory: Portable / Solid State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 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
 

15. Bluewave GET ($129)

Bluewave GETCategory: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
Recommended Headphone Impedance: Up to 600Ω
What We Like: Excellent sound, affordable price, great Bluetooth.
What We Don't: Volume wheel issues, design feels like it need improvement.

The downside of a portable headphone amp involves...well, carrying around a portable headphone amp. It's another thing in your pocket, and it's why portable amps aren't as widespread as they should be. Montreal's Bluewave wanted to change that, so they made a tiny, credit-card-sized amp that was fully aptX Bluetooth capable. It's a little wonder, and we love ours to pieces. It provides a noticeable boost in both volume and audio precision, and is a total breeze to use.

Bluewave are an indie company, and it shows: the design really feels like it needs a little work. We also had some issues with the volume wheel, which often resulted in us blasting music at top volume. All the same, this amp is more affordable than the $350 FiiO Q5, with more functionality than the $199 AudioQuest DragonFly Red. It's an amazing product, and we can't wait to see what Bluewave do next...Read our in-depth review
See the Bluewave GET
 

16. Bravo Audio V2 ($66)

Bravo Audio V2Category: Desktop / Solid State
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 20-600Ω
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


17. Periodic Audio Nickel ($299)

Periodic-Audio-Ni-(Nickel)-Category: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16-600Ω
What We Like: The smallest portable amp we've ever come across.
What We Don't: Ridiculous price tag.

We adore the Periodic Audio Nickel, but it comes with a huge asterisk. It's a genuinely-brilliant little amplifier, with killer sound and a tiny size that we still can't believe. It's smaller than a box of matches and is capable of powering just about any wired headphones. The Nickel is smaller and lighter than both the FiiO Q5 and the Bluewave GET, and is an excellent choice as a portable amplifier. It also has a superb eight-hour battery life, with a full charge taking no more than 30 minutes.

While the Nickel may be excellent, Periodic Audio's $299 price tag is...let's go with optimistic. This is an amplifier with no features at all – no external controls, not even an on/off switch. The sound is great, but given that you can buy the FiiO Q5 for slightly more and get an enormous range of features (including Bluetooth), great sound isn't going to be enough to cut it. If the price drops, the Nickel will become essential. But right now, it is almost hysterically overpriced for what you get.
See the Periodic Audio Nickel


And For DIY Enthusiasts

18. Bottlehead Crack 1.1 OTL ($299)

Bottlehead Crack 1.1 OTLCategory: Desktop / Tube
DAC: No
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 3-600Ω
What We Like: Unreal clarity and definition - especially when paired with the right pair of headphones.
What We Don't: Not for those who dislike DIY!

Normally, we steer clear of DIY products on this site. The Bottlehead Crack is the exception. It has a legendary place within the headphone community, and with good reason. The Crack ships ready to be assembled, with detailed instructions, and only requires a soldering iron to build. It doesn't really deserve a spot on the main list - it's kind of in a class of its own - but if you have the adventurousness to build it, you'll unlock headphone perfection.

The classic pairing in the headphone world is a Bottlehead Crack with a pair of Sennheiser HD600s. The result is extraordinary, the kind of thing that will make your jaw hit the floor. Sumptuous detail, rich and engaging bass, and stunning dynamics - all of them a few solder beads away. If you can afford it, it's also well worth shelling out for the Speedball upgrade, which will jack the sound quality even more. That will take the total cost to around $414. Honestly? Whichever one you choose, the Crack is a fantastic project, and we think it's earned its place on this list.
See the Bottlehead Crack 1.1 OTL
 

New Headphone Amps Coming Soon

There are several amps on the way that we think are going to smash their way onto this list. The one we're most excited for – the one that hit every want button in our minds - is the Auris Euterpe. It's a glorious tube amp that doubles as a headphone stand, and it sounds magnificent. We heard it at the CanJam NYC event, and can verify its excellence. It's not available to the public yet, but will be soon, and we can't wait to do a full review.

Another amplifier we've heard recently is the Focal Arche. Focal make some of the best headphones in the world, so it was inevitable that they would produce a headphone amp of their own. The Arche has two key selling points: it incorporates a headphone stand, comes with presets designed to bring the best out of various Focal headphones. We had a chance to listen to it with their amazing closed-back Stellia, and it crushed our expectations. The Arche does not yet have a release date, but we anticipate a full review soon. We do however have a price: $2,500. Yowzah.

The days of the DragonFly Red are numbered! AudioQuest have just released the latest version, the Dragonfly Cobalt. It includes an upgraded DAC section, and works with both Android and iOS devices. More info as soon as we've tested.

Finally, as we mentioned previously, FiiO are set to bring out an update to the Q5 portable amp, the Q5S. This model will incorporate dual DACs and be able to handle files of much higher resolution than the existing Q5. We will provide more information as we get it, but we don't anticipate there being any problems here. FiiO are good at upgrading their tech.
 

Older Headphone Amps Still Worth Buying

It's taken years, but we've finally replaced the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies on our list. It's a classic, with one of the most beautiful designs of any headphone amp, but it's also a little old now. It feels like a legacy product, and we think there are newer and more interesting amps available, like the Feliks Elise. However, it remains a superb purchase.

And since we're talking tubes, we also want to highlight one of our most favorite tube amps: the Hafler HA75. It's getting more difficult to find, and its design and control scheme looks more dated by the day, but it remains one of the best-sounding amps we've ever heard. If you own a pair of Sennheiser HD600s or HD800s, it will give you an absolutely stunning experience.
 

Headphone Amps Comparison Table

Amps Price DAC* RHI** WPC*** Dimensions Weight
Schiit Audio Magni 3 $119 No 1-600Ω 3 / 16Ω 5" x 3.5" x 1.25" 1lb
Rupert Neve Designs RNHP $499 No 16-600Ω 0.23 / 16Ω 6.5" x 4.6" x 1.9" 3lbs
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red $200 Yes Unknown Unknown 2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5” 2oz
Feliks Elise MkII $1,480**** No 32-600Ω 0.2 / 32Ω 12” x 8” x 6.7” 10.14lbs
Woo Audio WA11 Topaz $1,399 Yes 8-600Ω 1.2 / 30Ω 5.1" x 4.8" x 4.8" 8.1lbs
Wells Audio Headtrip II $7,000 No 4-2,000Ω 1.8 / 600Ω 15" x 12.25" x 5" 20lbs
FiiO Q5 $350 Yes 16-300Ω 0.16 / 32Ω 4.9” x 2.5” x 0.6” 6.8oz
Burson Audio PLAY $549 Yes 16-300Ω 2 / 16Ω 8.3” x 5.7” x 1.7” 4.4lbs
Benchmark HPA4 $2,995 Yes 16-600Ω 3 / 32Ω 8.65" x 8.3" x 3.9" 8lbs
Sony TA-ZH1ES $2,188 Yes 12-600Ω 1.2 / 32Ω 12.4” x 8.3” x 2.6” 9.7lbs
Auris HA2 SE $2,200 No 50-600Ω Unknown 12.6" x 11.8" x 9" 19.8lbs
Monoprice MLP $769 No 3-300Ω 1.78 / 33Ω 8.8" x 8.5" x 2.0" 3.2lbs
JDS Labs The Element $349 Yes Unknown 1.1 / 32Ω 5.8” x 5.8” x 6.1” 1.13lbs
Cyrus Audio Soundkey $130 Yes Unknown Unknown 2.1” x 0.9” x 0.3” 0.6oz
Bluewave GET $129 Yes Up to 600Ω 0.125 / 32Ω 2.25" x 1.25" x 0.5" 1oz
Bravo Audio V2 $66 No 20-600Ω Unknown 3.1” x 3.1” x 1.7” 1lbs
Periodic Audio Nickel $299 No 16-600Ω 0.25 / 32Ω 2" x 1.2" x 0.7" 0.7oz
Bottlehead Crack 1.1 OTL $299 No 3-600Ω Unknown 11.25" x 7.25" x 3.5" 5.5lbs

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

Want Even More Master Switch? Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Woo-Audio-WA11-Topaz headphone amp | The Master Switch

Headphone Amps Buying Advice


How We Chose our List of Headphone Amps

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.

Serbia's Auris make the amazing HA2 SE | The Master Switch

Why Do I Need a Headphone Amp?

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 under-powered, 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.
 

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. 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.

Benchmark HPA4 headphone amp | The Master Switch

Headphone Amp Types: Tubes vs. Solid State 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

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.

We love the FiiO Q5, which is an excellent portable headphone amp | The Master Switch

Hybrid Systems

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.
 

Impedance and Wattage Explained

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 impedance, 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). 

The Sony TA-ZH1ES is an almost-perfect solid state amp | The Master Switch

Headphones and Amp Matching Explained

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.

JDS Labs The Element: A complete desktop solution | The Master Switch

DACs Explained

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 isn't 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. Here’s a full roundup of the best DACs on the market right now.

Size---iFi-xDSD.jpg

Portable vs. Desktop Headphone Amps

Deciding whether to make your headphone amp portable, or whether to stick to a desktop version, is actually surprisingly complicated. Each has their own pros and cons, and it's worth taking a minute to think about what you want from a headphone amp.

The biggest advantage to portable headphone amps, like the $350 FiiO Q5 (full review here), is that they are portable - obviously. You can take them with you, and use them to augment 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 drop in power - we've never had an issue powering even demanding headphones with the Q5, or other portable DACs like the $199 AudioQuest Dragonfly Red. But what you do see is a reduction in the number of inputs and outputs, and possibly audio formats as well. And of course, you'll need to worry about battery life.

A desktop headphone amp, like the $700 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 like swapping out tubes. There are some exceptions, like the Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse, which is one of the few portable tube amps available. But you'll pay dearly for the privilege - the Eclipse costs a staggering $1,800. Ironically, portable headphone amps almost always include a DAC, while desktop amps sometimes don't. Either way, you'll need to think about what you want from an amp before making a call on desktop or portable.

The Burson Audio PLAY is an excellent alternative to the top-ranked Magni 3 | The Master Switch

Headphone Amps vs. Stereo Amps 

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.

Rupert-Neve-Designs-RNHP headphone amp | The Master Switch

3.5mm vs. 6.3mm Connections

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.

Periodic Audio Nickel and Bluewave GET headphone amps | The Master Switch

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connections

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 Wells Audio Headtrip, 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.

Buy this amp. It costs $99 and will make your life better | The Master Switch

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 require special amps to drive, and those amps are often heavyweight, audiophile-only gear that will mystify anybody not involved in the audio world. Also, they cost the earth.

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.

Back To Our Headphone Amp Picks Back To Our Comparison Table

Best High-End Headphones of 2019

Sometimes, you need to take a step back, look at how you’re listening to music, and improve it. Sometimes, you just need to break the bank, go deep, and invest in something that will last you that years and deliver the best sound you’ve ever heard.

Best DACs of 2019

A simple DAC upgrade can do wonders for your audio playback, as for example, a 4K-capable TV might change your movie viewing experience. So why not take the jump?  We’ve gathered some of the most exciting converters currently on the market.

Best Digital Audio Players of 2019

Remember the very first iPod from seventeen years ago? No? Damn, we're old. Anyway, it sold around three hundred and sixty million units. It changed the way we listen to music forever - and today, Apple is no longer the market leader.

Best Wireless Headphones of 2019

Wireless headphones are officially in our good books. It's been a long time since the days where wired headphones could claim superiority - the sound quality, useability and style have more than caught up.

Best Stereo Amps of 2019

An amp should be the center of your hi-fi world. It should be the focus point for all your efforts, the piece of equipment that can make or break your sound. Everything flows into it, and everything flows out of it...

4 Tricks To Improve Your Headphone Sound

At The Master Switch, we spend an awful lot of time thinking about audio. More importantly, we spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to improve it. Everything we do is geared towards creating bigger, better sound.

Schiit Magni 3 Review

It’s almost a right of passage for anybody looking to get into the world of audio. For many, the first stop in upgrading their headphones sound is a little outfit out of Valencia, California: Schiit Audio, pronounced exactly like you think it is.