Listening to music on a Bluetooth speaker is great, as is jamming out in the car while blasting your favorite tunes. However, if you want to dig in and really appreciate the song you’re listening to, a good pair of headphones is far and away the best way to do it. But what if listening on headphones could be — and hear me out — even better? That’s what a headphone amp accomplishes. A headphone amp is just like an amplifier for your home stereo system, except it’s purpose-built to amplify the signal from your device to your headphones.
What to Consider Before Buying a Headphone Amp
A headphone amp increases the signal coming from your source, enhancing the quality and detail of the sound that goes into your headphones. The best headphone amps are obviously intended for use with wired headphones — there’s nowhere to plug a headphone amp into if you’re using Bluetooth. There are a lot of factors to look at when buying a headphone amp. When picking an amp for your bookshelf speakers, for example, you likely don’t think too much about its size and weight. But with a headphone amp, this becomes a much more important consideration.
Some headphone amps are pocket-sized, making them great options if you’re listening to music on the go. Others are fairly large desktop models that you’ll likely need to use while sitting at a desk. You may eventually decide you want multiple headphone amps for every setting.
Many modern headphone amps feature digital-to-analog conversion or DAC. DAC is an important feature, because many people use digital audio sources when listening to headphones, whether that’s a smartphone, laptop, or an old-school music player. Your phone and laptop already have DAC — otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything in your headphones. But a headphone amp with DAC will be able to improve the audio quality of your music.
How We Chose the Best Headphone Amps
A headphone amp is a pretty niche purchase for those who take their audio performance very seriously, so it’s no surprise that there are a lot of really expensive headphone amps. But being budget-conscious and caring about audio quality are not mutually exclusive, so we included some headphone amps on the more affordable end of the spectrum. Some people will be looking for something to use while sitting in front of their computer, while others will prefer something they can take to make the most of their noisy commute. That’s why we picked out desktop headphone amps as well as pocket-sized amps. We tried to find options in both categories in a range of prices. We also tried to focus on headphone amps that include DAC, for optimal versatility.
1. FiiO K3
Sleek, simple and not outrageously expensive, the FiiO K3 is a great option for use at home. It’s very compact, although it doesn’t have its own battery — that means if you’re plugging into your phone, it’ll drain its battery. That said, it won’t take up too much space on a desk or media console. It has a variety of interfaces that make it a modern option — you can connect using USB-C, for example, and you can toggle between USB 1.0 and 2.0. It also features built-in DAC.
2. iFi Headphone Amp
DESIGNED FOR PHONES
This DAC/headphone amplifier from iFi is a portable option that’s designed to work with your smartphone. It has up to six hours of battery life, and it’s smaller and thinner than most phones, meaning you can easily slip it in your pocket and take it on the go. It features a convenient USB connection, and the 4.4mm and 3.5mm connections give you versatility. The balanced circuit is designed to reduce distortion.
3. AudioQuest DragonFly
FLASH DRIVE SIZED
The AudioQuest DragonFly is super compact, and it could easily be confused for a flash drive. In fact, it works in a pretty similar way — plug the USB port into your laptop. If you want to use it with your phone, you’ll need a converter. It has a built-in DAC, in addition to amplification. It’s easy to tuck into your back pocket and take it on the go for enhanced audio, no matter where you are.
4. Drop Headphone Amp
PREMIUM DESKTOP AMPLIFIER
If you’re looking for a strictly desktop option, this sleek and stylish pick from Drop is a solid pick with a variety of features. The amplifier was made in collaboration with THX, and this powerful amplifier is capable of driving high impedance headphones. This unit is just the amplifier, so you’ll likely want to be adding a separate DAC. The inputs available are XLR-3 gold-plated Neutrik and RCA gold-plated.
5. Schitt Magni 3
COMPACT DESKTOP OPTION
One of the most frequently lauded headphone amps, the Schitt Magni 3 is one of the best options to enhance the audio quality of your headphones. It’s designed to have low distortion. The switchable gain makes it easy to get it to work with your headphones. It’s a desktop option, albeit a compact one.
6. Monolith by Monoprice Headphone Amplifier
THREE GAIN SETTINGS
The Monolith by Monoprice, like the Drop option featured here, uses technology from THX to produce high-quality audio with little distortion and unwanted noise. A DAC will need to be added along with this amplifier. The amplifier has three different gain settings, allowing it to be paired with different kinds of headphones. There’s an XLR balanced input, plus 1.4″ and 3.5mm inputs.
7. Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC
This convenient option from Audioengine combines a DAC and amplifier into one compact, stylishly designed package. It has USB and optical outputs, allowing you to decide the most convenient way to enjoy your favorite songs. It’s designed as a desktop option, and it works with Apple or PC computers.