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Buyers Guide & Information

Best Headphone Amps For Improved Sound

Picking out a headphone amp can be a difficult process. Use this comprehensive guide to help find a top-rated headphone amp for your requirements.

by PITeam

Buyers Guide & Information

Best Headphone Amps For Improved Sound

Picking out a headphone amp can be a difficult process. Use this comprehensive guide to help find a top-rated headphone amp for your requirements.

by PITeam

by PITeam

A headphone amplifier is an electronic apparatus that increases the strength of electric signals going to headphones or earphones so that the final sound is higher in amplitude (or louder). Some amplifiers have other features that alter the sound quality in desirable ways.

This headphone amp review outlines the best headphone amps for various needs—those of a musician, choosy listener, or frequent traveler who needs great audio on-the-go.

Image

Product

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Check Price

Schiit Magni 3 Headphone Amp and Preamp

Schiit Magni 3

Up To 600 Ohms

+108 DB

Rupert Neve Designs RNHP Headphone Amplifier...

Rupert Neve Designs RNHP

Up To 600 Ohms

Not Given

VOX AP2BS amPlug 2 Guitar/Bass Headphone Amplifier

Vox AP2BS amPlug2

Not Given, But Works For Most

Not Given

AudioQuest - DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone...

AudioQuest – DragonFly Red

Up To About 250 Ohms

Not Given

New: EarStudio ES100 MK2-24bit Portable...

EarStudio ES-100 High-Resolution Bluetooth Receiver

Not Given, But Works With Most

+109 DB (Unbalanced) And +110 DB (Balanced)

CHORD Electronics Mojo, ultimate DAC/Headphone...

CHORD Electronics Mojo

8 To 600 Ohms

+120 DB

Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 ODAC Rev...

Mayflower Electronics Objective2

Up To 600 Ohms

Not Given

NextDrive Spectra Portable USB DAC - The World’s...

NextDrive Spectra

Up To 300 Ohms

+121 DB; Potentially Up To 135 DB

Behringer Microamp HA400 Ultra-Compact 4-Channel...

Behringer MicroAmp HA400

Not Given

Not Given

Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid...

1Bravo Audio V2

About 20 – 600 Ohms

+90 DB

How Headphone Amps Work

Headphone amps take electrical energy from a wall outlet, battery, or device battery charge. They add voltage and wattage to an incoming electrical signal to create a higher-magnitude reproduction, which you hear in your headphones as a louder version of the same sound.

However, in reality, there usually is some unwanted sound signal (aka noise), but very little with a good amplifier. Also, some amps are intentionally designed to alter the sound in ways that are considered ideal for specific purposes. 


Types of Headphone Amps

  • Tube Amps:
    Tube amps have a series of vacuum tubes (aka valves) that control the flow of electricity to create sound signals. Tubes are older technology, and they provide a warm, somewhat retro, sound quality which many musicians and audio technology fanatics/audiophiles love. Furthermore, turning up the gain (or amplification strength) generates a special kind of distortion noise that is desirable to electric guitarists. Some even enjoy changing the sound by trying different tube types in their amps.
  • Solid State Amps:
    Solid state amps use transistors—specially crafted semi-conductor structures—or circuit boards (such as those in a computer) to control electric signals to generate sound signals. Solid state amps are new technology and are generally more reliable, with less noise and distortion. A drawback: They are unable to create the easily adjustable, desirable distortion of tube amps.
  • Hybrid:
    Hybrid amps are what they sound like: There is a tube stage and a circuit/transistor stage of electric signal processing. The result is a tube amp sound but with the reliability of a solid state amp. A bonus of hybrids is that they generally are more effective than plain tube amps when used with high-quality headphones.

Benefits of Headphone Amps

So, why use a headphone amplifier? In truth, with inexpensive earbuds, you probably do not need to. Head/earphones are the first things to change if you want a sound quality update. Second, consider changing your digital-to-analog converter (DAC)—this will allow you to listen to higher-fidelity music files. Then finally, get a headphone amp.


Choosing a High-Quality Headphone Amp

Amp Type:

Amps are generally categorized as either portable or desktop (aka stationary). Portable amps are small enough to fit in your pocket. Some users remark they do not provide as good sound quality as desktop amps. However, many are just as capable of amplifying robust headphones, and many have equally good user controls and software elements.

Headphone Type:

Before choosing an amp, pick out your ideal headphones. Aside from earphones (high-quality earbuds), headphones come in 3 categories—closed, open, and semi-open. Closed headphones isolate sound, both inside and out; while open headphones allow more sound exchange with the environment.

Discriminating listeners sometimes prefer the sound quality of one or the other. Semi-open headphones are a hybrid with some of the benefits and drawbacks of both.

Headphone Compatibility:

The biggest amp-headphone compatibility factor is headphone impedance. Impedance is the total resistance of electrical circuitry to electric flow. Quite often, better headphones have higher impedances. If the amp is not strong enough in output wattage to overcome the high impedance, the amp will not increase the signal strength sufficient to deliver consistently adequate volume.

Sound Quality:

Sound quality comprises many factors that come together to make a pleasing sound: timbre (sound waves accompanying the leading tone that makes different instruments and voices sound special), loudness, purity (lack of unwanted noise); distortion to the original sound signal—can be good or bad; and more. Some might consider the spatial effects part of sound quality as well.

Ease of Use:

You want your amp to be a blessing, not a headache. Most good headphone amps have well-labeled and intuitively positioned controls, inputs, and outputs. Even if there is a build-in DAC component, the software should be plug-and-play, regardless of the operating system. Be sure to get the required adapters or cables for your amp—while this is an added complication, addressing it upfront saves trouble down the road.

Size & Portability:

Most headphone amps are relatively small devices—many desktop amps are nearly portable in size. However, some portable headphone amps are hardly bigger than a USB drive or an output cable. You can get portable amps that are still large enough to have basic controls on the amp itself—many users prefer this, even when there are also controls in the DAC software.

Connectivity Options:

Almost all desktop amps come with a matching charging cable/adapter. Portable amps usually are either battery-powered or plug directly into your computer or mobile device by USB.

Some headphone amps also come with the most commonly used input/output cables for connection to your music source and to your headphones/earphones. In some instances, you might need to get a cable to match your specific device—if it is, say, a Mac or PC.

Build Quality & Design:

A high-quality headphone amp will have a durable exterior, often called a chassis/body—usually made of aluminum. Many users also appreciate a prominent volume dial, potentially with knurling (little ridges) for grip. Many desktop amps look like miniature scientific laboratory instruments—an aesthetic that many audiophiles and tech nerds enjoy.

Music Source Connections:

There are a variety of different connections that transmit electric signals; many headphone amps give the user the option of more than one. Most connections are standardized—all USB-A’s, B’s, C’s and mini match up; as do all 3.5mm (1/8-inch) or 6.3mm (1/4-inch) connections.

With RCA connection cables, get balanced/imbalanced and stereo/mono, as needed. Also, consider the male/female aspect of connectivity—this tells you which part plugs in and which part receives. Some amps even allow optical or coaxial connections.

Price & Warranty:

Often, a higher price means better amplification, sound quality, and more extended warranty. However, it is possible to find inexpensive or moderately priced headphone amps that deliver almost equally good sound as much pricier ones. That is what this review article aims to help you do. Most of the amps reviewed here have 1-year warranties.


10 Best Headphone Amps Reviewed

1. Schiit Magni 3

Best headphone amp (Top pick)

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Up to 600 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

No

Sampling Rate

N/A

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

+108 dB

Amp Type

Desktop, solid state

Warranty

2 years

The Schiit Magni 3 is, for most people, the best headphone amp. It has a plain, almost retro, aluminum exterior, with a prominent volume knob and basic labels over the inputs and outputs. More importantly, this amp can power nearly any headphones. Even with its compact size, it has the connectivity to work as a pre-amp, as well. Many users find that it is every bit as good as more expensive units. However, it does not have a built-in DAC. You can get the reasonably priced Schiit Modi 3 D/A Converter which both matches its design and stacks neatly on top of it, however.

The predominant complaint about the Magni is the large "wall wart" that connects it to an electric outlet. However, it really is not so different from the adapters used for many household devices. Users universally agree that the Magni can improve the sound quality of almost any headphones. Amazon users specifically site the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 over-the-ear (maximum 480 ohms); the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (80 ohms); and the Beyerdynamic DT 880 250 ohm headphones—a range of impedances.

In addition to the standard ¼-inch headphone output in the front, the Magni also has 1 set of RCA stereo inputs and outputs in the back that allow it to be used as a pre-amp or output to speakers/monitors. For more versatility, there is a HI to LOW gain switch, too. If you are interested in more upscale options from Schiit, look at the Vali 2 tube hybrid (if you like tube amps). If you really need an amp-DAC combo, see the Fulla 2.

Pros

  • Great value for money
  • Works with nearly all headphones
  • Straightforward to use
  • Simple aesthetic
  • Both headphone and pre-amp outputs

Cons

  • Large (and unsightly) wall charger

2. Rupert Neve Designs RNHP

Best headphone amp (Runner-up)

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Up to 600 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

No

Sampling Rate

N/A

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Not given

Amp Type

Desktop, solid state

Warranty

1 year

The Rupert Neve Designs RNHP is another near-perfect headphone amp. Rupert Neve of England is a Technical Grammy Award-winning electronics engineer. Accordingly, the brand is a reference level. A professional musician can listen and see exactly what they sound like and can adjust performance accordingly. For the ordinary headphone listener, this is the best headphone amp.

The RNHP has a scientific instrument-like appearance that is understated but potentially especially appealing to some. Unlike other similar amps, it has three different inputs—a balanced XLR/TRS combo jack, an unbalanced RCA (left and right jacks), and a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) stereo. However, you can only listen to one channel at once. That said, the multiple inputs adds versatility—you can hook almost any device up to this amp—DSLR camera, CD/DVD players, speakers, smartphones, turntables, and more. For this reason, it is excellent for audio engineers, musicians, and those involved in other audio-visual projects.

Another bonus for those using this for audio-visual projects it that it is easy to position however you need. In fact, it is VESA-certified mountable. While a few users suggest that the bass might dampen a bit with high-impedance, most feel that it gives exhilarating sound quality even with very upscale headphones. Users report it working with Audeze LCD2 ClassicBeyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro and Grado RS-1 headphones.

Pros

  • Impressive sound quality
  • Simple to use
  • Versatile
  • Works with most headphones
  • Easily mountable

Cons

  • Might dampen with very high impedance

3. Vox AP2BS amPlug2

Best guitar/bass headphone amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Not given, but works for most

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

No

Sampling Rate

N/A

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Not given

Amp Type

Portable, solid state

Warranty

No

The Vox AP2BS amPlug 2 packs a lot into a 3-oz., 3.4-inch long device—making it the best guitar or bass headphone amp you can buy. The input that goes into your guitar can swivel 180 degrees along the amp to fit almost any instrument shape. The device has gain, tone (brightness/mellowness), and volume controls. There are 3 possible gain levels, and a total of 9 built-in sound settings, including 3 each of choruses, delays, and reverbs.

The amPlug 2 only needs 2 AAA batteries to keep going 11-17 hours, depending on whether you use one of the 9 settings described above or just the amplification by itself. It has auto turnoff. The version featured here is for bass—so it is ideal for low-frequency sound signals. However, the same device comes in versions for metal, lead, clean, classic rock, and blues—as you will see on its Amazon listing.

Also, there is the Vox AC30, which is famous in the professional musician and audiophile worlds for its early usage by world-famous British musicians. Connoisseurs appreciate the exact sound characteristics of the AC30, but in fact, you should get the model that best suits your type of music. Despite its illustrious history, the Vox meets modern, down-to-earth demands—such as hooking your instrument to Bluetooth speakers (for convenient listening) or smartphone headphones (for private practice).

Pros

  • Very compact
  • Swivel input plug to fit any instrument shape
  • Inexpensive
  • Designed for specific music type/range

Cons

  • Relatively few settings

4. AudioQuest – DragonFly Red

Best headphone amp under $200

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Up to about 250 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

Yes

Sampling Rate

24 bit/96 kHz

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Not given

Amp Type

Portable, solid state

Warranty

1 year

The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is not only the best headphone amp under $200 but also, according to Wirecutter, the best DAC headphone amp overall. While its portability presents some drawbacks—consumption of device battery power instead of wall power — its 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC is universally satisfying, and the amp allows high-quality head/earphone (for example the Shure SE535 or the HIFIMAN HE 400i) users to enjoy beautiful sound even on mobile devices.

The DragonFly Red is itself only a little over 2 inches long and has no analog controls, but the included DAC software works on almost all music files—MP3 to MQA/hi-res files, including Qobuz streaming. It works perfectly for YouTube and Spotify users.

An added budget bonus: many users report that the DragonFly Black (a less expensive model that appears on the Red's listing) is actually equally effective for most systems. Ultimately, you have to decide whether your system would really benefit from the Red (or the even more expensive Cobalt—also on the same listing). The Red is a little more powerful voltage-wise so that it can drive higher-impedance devices, and it has a slightly more powerful DAC.

The built-in connections of the Red are simple—just a USB input and a stereo output. However, you likely will need to find the right adapters, cables, or accessories to use it with different devices.

Pros

  • Excellent DAC
  • Works with almost all music file types
  • Very portable
  • Makes headphones work with smartphone

Cons

  • Connectivity issues/confusion
  • Might not work for very high impedance

5. EarStudio ES-100

Best headphone amp under $100

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Not given, but works with most

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

Yes

Sampling Rate

24 bit/ 96 kHz

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

+109 dB (unbalanced) and +110 dB (balanced)

Amp Type

Portable, solid state

Warranty

30 days

The EarStudio ES-100 is not only the best headphone amp under $100 but also, arguably, one of the best portable headphone amps for Bluetooth. It has Bluetooth compatible technologies—SBC (compression-decompression [codec]), LDAC (streaming), and Qualcomm aptX (data transfer)—which make it compatible with Bluetooth 5 (the latest) devices.

At only 2 inches long, this little device has both a touchscreen like a smartphone and push-buttons along its side for readily available analog and digital controls. You can clip it onto your clothing or bag, so the controls and the built-in microphone are in reach. The ES-100 has 2 Hi-Fi DACs, so you can respond to calls and pause (but not turn off) your audio content. Users are generally surprised by its ability to drive high-impedance headphones—it is a powerful amplifier with adjustable gain. It drives devices in a completely different price category: one user reports it working with the very expensive Campfire Andromeda earphones, for example.

The EarStudio app (actually from Radsone) has AAC that allows 1x, 2x, and 4x sampling options to accommodate a range of audio files, and it has equalization features and left/right volume adjustments. Software updates, when needed, come for free. The ES-100 has both a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) unbalanced and a 2.5mm balanced output jack to accommodate a range of devices. An appropriate USB charging cable comes with the purchase.

Pros

  • Very portable
  • Bluetooth-friendly
  • Choice of filters and sample rates
  • Touch screen
  • Truly helpful customer service

Cons

  • Causes headphone mic to not work
  • Short warranty

6. CHORD Electronics Mojo

Best headphone DAC amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

8 to 600 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

Yes

Sampling Rate

Adjustable over a wide range

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

+120 dB

Amp Type

Portable, solid state

Warranty

1 year

The CHORD Electronics Mojo is the altogether best headphone DAC amp—it is portable, powerful, and versatile. Made in Great Britain, the Mojo has a rather unusual design consisting of ball-shaped indicator lights around its body. These fun-looking lights change in brightness and color to show what sampling rate, volume, or charge level you are working with. Amazingly, it is only a little over 3 inches long—while not the tiniest you can get, still easy to carry around.

The Mojo has a volume control on the amp itself, as well as intuitively located and labeled inputs and outputs. There are 2 stereo 3.5mm outputs, so 2 headphone users can listen to the same input at once. Another nice feature is that there are multiple input options: coaxial, USB, and optical. Furthermore, the Mojo works with all basic device types—PC, Mac, Android, and iPhone. Its 4-hour charge time gives 8 to 10 hours of use.

The Mojo delivers loud, beautiful sound to almost any headphones, including such high-impedance ones as the Beyerdynamic T1 Gen 2. The DAC software can work with high sample frequency files—up to 768 kHz/32 bit and Quad DSD/DSD 256. Most users find the amplification power and sound quality of the CHORD Mojo is on par with the more expensive CHORD Hugo, but this could depend on your system.

Pros

  • Adjustable sampling rate
  • Choice of 3 different input types
  • Plenty of analog and digital controls
  • 2 can listen at once

Cons

  • Customer service lacking

7. Mayflower Electronics Objective2

Best desktop headphone amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Up to 600 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

Yes

Sampling Rate

A range, but up to 24 bit/96 kHz

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Not given

Amp Type

Desktop, solid state

Warranty

10 years

The Mayflower Electronics Objective2 is the best desktop headphone amp you can get, for more than its price. Users report that its amplification is so powerful that there is no risk of dampening with high-impedance and a greater chance of dangerous loudness. Thankfully, you can dial down the volume and the gain easily with volume and gain controls on the front of the device.

It has a 1/8-inch input on the front and USB input on the back. It plugs into a standard wall outlet for electric power—appropriate charging and USB cables are included. Connectivity options and powerful amplification make it versatile; it even has power monitor speakers. However, users note that it does not work well with microphones. The Mayflower Electronics ARC model is ideal for this purpose, as it has RCA output jacks.

The Objective2 is outfitted with a Rev B ODAC (objective digital-to-analog converter), which means it can connect to any operating system without help from a special driver. Most users—both professional and recreational—will appreciate that it is reference-grade.  It has a scientific instrument aesthetic, but with bottom feet on each corner: altogether its look is compact and clean with intuitive button and input/output labels.

Pros

  • Long warranty
  • Simple but attractive build
  • DAC compatible with all operating systems
  • DAC works with most audio files
  • Very powerful amplification

Cons

  • Could make powerful headphones dangerous

8. NextDrive Spectra

Best portable headphone amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Up to 300 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

Yes

Sampling Rate

32 bit/384 kHz

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

+121 dB; potentially up to 135 dB

Amp Type

Portable, solid state

Warranty

1 year

The NextDrive Spectra is the best portable headphone amp for the stunning power that it packs into its tiny, discreet body. In fact, NextDrive offers a whole line of Spectra devices that use different USB types and have different amplification and DAC qualities. The SpectraX line is generally pricier and a little better, but the most economical choice for you might depend on your system.

Unfortunately, getting the right connection can get complicated. While the amp itself works with almost all operating systems, including Linux, you might need the correct adapter—potentially, the Lightning adapter or Apple USB 3 adapter for Apple or the OTG (on-the-go) adapter for Android. Otherwise, there is little to worry about; the driver and software for your device come free, and there is no battery. (It uses your device’s charge.)

The pulse-code modulation (PCM) HyperStream DAC can handle even the highest resolution files, up to 32 bit/ 384 kHz and DSD 5.6 MHz. It cuts noise down to a 1/100,000 harmonic distortion rate with its XtraSOUND™ noise reduction technology.

The SpectraX is great with gaming, such as Switch and  PS4. NextDrive gives recommendations of Hi-Fi music sites to use with the SpectraX, such as HDtracks, Primephonic, Chandos, music.jp, Ototoy, AIX Records and Tidal MQA.” (Note that SpectraX does not support MQA unfolding, but can work with MQA decoding software.)

Pros

  • Very portable
  • Very high sampling rate
  • Simple, discreet design
  • Unusually high SNR—very high-fidelity

Cons

  • Complicated to get a proper connection
  • Some find customer service lacking

9. Behringer MicroAmp HA400

Best budget headphone amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

Not given

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

No

Sampling Rate

N/A

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

Not given

Amp Type

Desktop, solid state

Warranty

3 years

The Behringer MicroAmp HA400 is the best budget headphone amp, as it offers very powerful amplification with no unneeded trimmings. However, it does allow 4 stereo listeners to plug their headphones/earphones in to listen to the same track at once, and individually control the volume. This makes it great for the young audiophile who wants to share with 3 friends or the church music minister who needs a cheap line-level breakout box or a monitor distribution system to distribute the same track to multiple lines.

The HA400 is not really a remastering or music production device, but this is understandable, considering it is just a powerful German-made amp with no DAC software. Many users find it to be especially helpful for amplifying a TV—such as for those who are hard of hearing. However, many use it with such high-quality headphones as the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x and find that it is every bit as good as amps in the $100 price category.

Despite the 4 ¼-inch TRS output jacks along the front, this device is only about 4 inches long; it is nearly portable. For many uses, you will need 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapters. One thing to note is that many complaints about the sound from this amp are probably attributable to DAC issues—this only can make sound louder, so make changes to your source for better quality sound.

Pros

  • Can plug 4 headphone sets in at once
  • Very good value for money
  • Very powerful amplification
  • Almost-portable size
  • Versatile

Cons

  • Difficult/confusing to use for some

10. Bravo Audio V2

Best tube headphone amp

Recommended Headphone Impedance

About 20 – 600 ohms

DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)?

No

Sampling Rate

N/A

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

+90 dB

Amp Type

Desktop, hybrid

Warranty

No

The Bravo Audio V2 is the best tube headphone amp for most people. At under $100, this amp combines the reliability of a solid state/transistor-driven amp with the uniquely warm and pleasant sound quality of a tube amp. The audiophile/nerd will greatly enjoy the aesthetic—this device has a transparent body so you can look at all of the internal components. An unfortunate side effect of this is that when the device heats up with use, the hot parts are somewhat exposed. Therefore, this device is not entirely safe for pets or children who might tamper with it.

The V2 has both right and left RCA and stereo 3.5mm input and a 6.3 mm headphone output. The volume dial sticks out prominently from the structure: Despite its complicated appearance, it is quite straightforward to use and works for such basic uses as Spotify, video, YouTube, and iTunes listening. Furthermore, it works with most headphones, and some users even report that it even works great with phonographs.

Users advise buying a better tube to replace the one that comes in the device; generally, companies use inferior tubes to lower the as-is price of tube amps. One user enthusiastically recommends the Electro-Harmonix 12AU7 EH Vacuum Tube for $20. There is no compatibility concern since this is the same essential kind of tube as the Shu Guang 12AU7 tube that comes in the V2.

Pros

  • Classic warm sound of tube audio
  • Interesting design
  • Great value for money
  • Works with almost all headphones

Cons

  • Gets very hot during operation
  • Installed tube might be unsatisfactory

Understanding Impedance and Wattage

Wattage (or rate of electric energy production) is ultimately what gives amps the power to bring up the signal amplitude (and thus the sound volume) through high-impedance (resistant) headphones. It can be challenging to compare wattages, as different standards often report them to their own terms. Excellent headphone amps generally have enough wattage to work with most headphones, however. 

While excellent headphones typically have relatively high impedances, you can get wonderful headphones without top impedance. 600 ohms seems to be the maximum, but there are capable headphones under 100 ohms. (The ohm—sometimes represented by the Ω symbol—is a unit of resistance and impedance.)


Portable vs Desktop Headphone Amps

Users repeatedly report satisfaction with portable amps, but at the same time, many say the sound quality is not quite what you would get from a desktop amp. However, for some, this might be a negligible difference, and if you are on-the-go a lot, you might like just having the same portable amp for all listening purposes. However, realize that a portable amp will draw some power from your device, so plan your battery charging/rationing accordingly.


Stereo Amps vs. Headphone Amps

Many headphone amps are powerful enough to double as a stereo speaker/monitor amps. While stereo is often used to refer to speakers, the term stereo means that the sound is delivered in 2 different signals. With headphones, this means that your 2 ears get contrasting sounds from the same track.

If the stereo signals are blended, the signal becomes mono. Most people prefer stereo sound—the spatial effect makes for better sound quality.


Connecting the Headphone Amps to Audio Interfaces

The key is to have your cable ends match the input and output inlets/outlets of your devices. Most desktop amps have the headphone outlet—usually a 6.3mm, but sometimes a 3.5mm, outlet—in front and labeled with a headphone icon.

Other connections, if available, are generally on the back or sides of the amp body. Sometimes, you see the term "line-level," which generally just means that the amp has the right mechanism to power high-impedance devices, usually headphones.

Issues of digital output are more a question of DAC quality. Many headphone amps have a built-in DAC—potentially an improvement over the DAC built into your computer or mobile device.


Headphone Amp Care Tips

In general, a simple wipe-down with a soft cloth is enough to keep a headphone amp clean. Many portable amps come with soft pouches, but you can carry an amp however you want to, as long as it is relatively cushioned from severe blows and sheltered from fluid spills.

If you have a tube amp, it is reasonable to have to change the tubes every so often—much like lightbulbs in a lamp. While some people get inventive about it, the conservative choice is to find tubes from a reliable source that are the same model number as the original.


Common Headphone Amp Issues & Fixes

For solid-state amplifiers, malfunctions are more absolute—you probably need to contact customer support, and if in warranty, get a repair or replacement. With tube amps, it might be as simple as a blown-out tube that needs replacing.

Solid-state amps sometimes have clipping (breaks in sound), when the amp is overwhelmed by the strength of a signal and attempts to deliver an amplitude beyond its capacity. In contrast, tube amps might distort in what some might call a cool way when overwhelmed.


Frequently Asked Questions

Do headphone amps really improve sound quality?

Amplifiers alone enhance sound quality when increased signal strength is the need. Amp-DAC combos and DACs fix sound quality issues that originate with the digital audio file process.

Do tube amps sound better?

To some people, they do. If you have vintage/retro music tastes, you probably will think so, and the sound created with tube amps is equally played.

Do low impedance headphones need an amp?

It depends on how low, but generally the sound quality from a low-impedance device is less likely to be improved by an amp.

What is a DAC headphone amp?

A DAC headphone amp is an amp with a built-in DAC (you can get DACs separately, too). The DAC-amp combination is ideal for those who want a total systemic update of sound quality, as it gives the power to control equalization (EQ function—adjustment of the relative strength of different frequencies), sampling rate, and more—along with increasing signal strength to power excellent headphones.

Where is the best place to buy headphone amps?

For the lowest prices, definitely consider Amazon. However, company sites often offer appropriate connection cables for their devices, so at least look at these sites as a resource.

What is the difference between a preamp and an amp?

Many amps can act as preamps. A preamp is really just an amp that adds some strength before the signal is sent to another amplifying mechanism. Most recreational listeners will not need this; it is more for those involved in sound technology projects like setting up a turntable. 

Which is better, a 3.5mm jack or a 6.33mm jack for connection?

It is not so much about one being better as it is being sure you are connecting the right cable to the right jack.


Conclusion

A headphone amp might solve your lack-of-volume problem—or possibly inspire the compilation of a whole new personal audio system. Considering the first headphone amp on this review list—the Schiit Magni 3—is a great way to set the pace, even if you ultimately conclude that a different headphone amp is right for you. 

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