Smartphones, laptops, and PCs are all effective for powering consumer headphones, but what if you’re using a pair of demanding studio headphones? In that case, you may need a dedicated headphone amp to get the job done. We’re here to help you decide if you need an amp, and crack other myths surrounding audiophile nonsense. Here are the best consumer headphone amps you can get.
Editor’s note: this list was updated on August 20, 2020, to include the Drop x THX AAA 789 Linear Amplifier and the JDS Labs Atom Amp as top picks, a notable mentions section was also included.
The best headphone amp is the O2 + SDAC
If you want the best performance without edging into $200 territory, get the Massdrop O2 + SDAC. O2’s roots are set in reproducing objective, accurate audio without frills. The all-black aluminum chassis is attractive and complements nearly any desktop arrangement. It has just the necessities on the front panel: a power button, ¼” input, and volume knob. The back panel has a microUSB input, and a power connection. It also houses an RCA input/output that can be used either to output audio from the amp when using it as a DAC with the USB input or as an analog input from a separate DAC.
Massdrop 02 + SDAC DAC/amp
Ok, so the outside is nice but what about the internals? Well, it houses an AKM AK4452 DAC, which converts a digital signal into an analog for your headphones to transmit sound. It can tackle 24bit/96kHz audio files. If your first reaction is to scoff at the 24-bit, rather than 32-bit, support, just remember that bit-depth doesn’t matter as much as we tend to think. In fact, standard CD-quality provides plenty of information for our ears to soak up. It has a low noise floor of -105dBu, which is virtually imperceptible and channel output is well balanced.
This is one of a headphone amp options that doesn’t require driver downloads for your PC. If you want to expand the setup, this is specifically designed to stack with the Massdrop × Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon X Amp which includes an XLR input for easy recording.
Editor’s note: the Massdrop O2 + SDAC is currently out of stock but Drop members can place a request for it to become available again. In the meantime, the Massdrop Objective 2 amp is available on Amazon.
What you should know before getting a headphone amp
Figuring out which headphone amplifier is best for your needs takes a lot of research. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and eventually let them devour you, as there’s so much to learn. Fortunately, we’re here to ease the research process.
What does an amp do, and do you need one?
As the term “amp” implies, headphone amps amplify the loudness of your headphones’ output. They do this by providing ample power to the headset when the power coming from your computer or source isn’t enough to power the headphones correctly. If you can hear your music at an acceptably loud level, you do not need an amp.
In all likelihood, you don’t need a headphone amp. However, there are instances beyond most consumer headphones, where you may very well need an amp. When the maximum output of your source device is lower than what your headphones require, then and only then do you need an amplifier. Bluetooth headphones won’t need an amplifier because power management is integrated into the headset, and getting an amp will not change anything about your experience.
How do you know if you need a headphone amp with certain headphones? Look at the headphone packaging. There should be a few numbers of note: impedance and sensitivity. Jot those both down, we’ll use them for a little math in a bit. By the by, impedance is a measure of how well your cans can resist an electrical current; sensitivity is how loud they get with one milliwatt of power. To understand the math behind determining if an amp is necessary, read Chris’ educational piece. Otherwise, just use this tool.
When it comes to powering headphones with an amp, it's about more than high voltage; you also have to keep an eye out for current requirements.
A base understanding of amplifier requirements may lead you to believe that the only relevant number is voltage (Vrms), but that’s only painting a partial picture. Power measurements are derived from voltage and current (mA). Generally speaking, high-impedance cans require greater voltage, while low-impedance cans require greater current. Even then, you only need a few volts for high-impedance headphones to get dangerously loud. It’s not just about loudness, though, you want everything to be amplified uniformly. In order for that to happen, the amount of current needs to be appropriate. That way, the drivers may move with enough force to reproduce an adequate measure of bass. In fact, when it comes to low-end frequency reproduction, current matters more than voltage.
What about a DAC?
A DAC stands for Digital Analog Converter and it essentially takes a collection of ones and zeroes and turns it into audible sound. Most devices that play music (your smartphone, a CD player) have DACs inside of them, and these days, they generally work fine. The only reason you would need to buy one separately is if your device is producing unwanted noise or is incompatible with and unable to play the high bitrate of your files. Many of the best headphone amps are combined with DACs, in order to amplify the new analog signal produced by the DAC. If you already have an analog signal produced by an internal DAC, the DAC within the amp will go unused.
Should you get audiophile cables?
No, you shouldn’t waste your time and money with audio snake oil.
If you’re looking to improve the raw performance of your setup, do not invest in audiophile cables (expensive cables). You can get perfect results from a coathanger bent into a cable if you were so inclined, so spending to much on cables is a fool’s errand. In fact, our blind testing revealed few people prefer high-end cables over coathanger-constructed ones.
Related: What is a DSP?
Generally speaking, all you need is the correct audio connection and an appropriate gauge wire. As long as the audio product’s power requirements are met, all else is a frivolity. That’s not to say audiophile cables are a complete gimmick. There are plenty of reasons to invest in expensive things, such as a lifetime warranty or more durable build quality—but if you can save money up front by getting a store-branded option, definitely do that.
If you really want to experience a difference in audio quality, look for a headset with an advanced DSP (e.g. the AirPods Pro or the Dirac mobile app). A digital signal processor, DSP, is found in nearly any audio product. In the case of smartphones, it’s used to decode MP3 files, register the wake words “Hey Google,” and more. They’re also in Bluetooth headphones and convert codecs to analog signals. Advanced DSPs can enable on-board EQs, noise cancellation, and even surround sound capabilities.
Does bit-depth matter when choosing between headphone amps?
Again, the whole point of a headphone amp is to increase the loudness of an analog signal. By the time the signal gets to the amplifier, the signal will already have been converted by the DAC unit from the digital file. That said, in order to get the most out of your headphone and amplifier setup: you still want to use high-quality audio files, which often go hand-in-hand with greater bit-depth.
Hi-res, 24-bit audio sounds nice, but it’s akin to using a chainsaw to cut butter. Products with these specifications promise improved audio quality compared to 16-bit files, but you often can’t tell the difference between the two. As is common within the world of audio, there are plenty of misunderstandings surrounding bit-depth. All you need to know is that 16-bit resolution, CD quality, is all you need. The main benefit of increasing bit-depth isn’t that more detail is being exposed, rather it’s the lessening of quantization noise—what may be perceived as a quiet hiss, if perceived at all.
Bit-depth doesn't matter nearly as much as we think it does; if you want high-quality sound pay more attention to using lossless file formats.
What matters more than bit-depth when listening to music is how the file is compressed. Unless you’re using a lossless file like WAV or FLAC, your music files have likely undergone some form of compression. If this is the case, then you’re listening to a lossy audio file like an MP3 or AAC file. When audio data is compressed, the dynamic range is lessened. Psychoacoustics informs the compression process and directs formats to get rid of less important audio information. This includes frequencies that may be too high-pitched to hear.
If you want to get the most out of your headphone amplifier and headphones listen to FLAC or WAV files.
What if the headphones still sound bad?
If you’re thinking you need an amp because your headphones sound bad, there are a few alternative possibilities to consider first.
- You’re noticing signs of noise-induced hearing loss and aren’t able to perceive certain frequencies.
- The headphone internals or cables are broken.
- You’re perceiving unwanted interference from noisy computer components.
If none of these scenarios are applicable, chances are your smartphone, laptop, or computer can’t meet your headphones’ power requirements. In which case, an amplifier is appropriate.
Get a clean sound with the Drop x THX AAA 789 Linear Amplifier
The Drop x THX AA 789 Linear Amplifier is housed in a milled aluminum chassis that looks fabulous. It’s a linear bipolar amp that uses feedforward error correction to reduce crossover, harmonic, and intermodulation distortions. It can drive highly sensitive headphones and power-demanding headphones. Nearly all amplifiers produce some degree of distortion as the signal crosses from one transistor to the other, but it’s nonexistent with this pricy amp.
Drop + THX AA 789 Linear Amplifier
All channels feature a low-bias, class-AB main amplifier and an auxiliary amp for error correction. This error correcting technology is low power, and won’t introduce any distortion into the audio signal. There are multiple gain settings on the front panel, so you may adjust output levels for headphones and earphones.
Now to truly nerd out: there is a three-pin stereo XLR input alongside stereo RCA inputs for powered speakers. It has a few more options for outputs: a 1/4″ TRS input, 3.5mm headphone input, and a four-pin balanced XLR input. All this is to say you have plenty of ways to listen to your music library.
User reports on the Drop website cite errors when using the four-pin XLR connection, which is likely a consequence of mass production. There are always duds when high volumes of a given product are manufactured, and amplifiers are no exception to this phenomenon. Fortunately, the amp is under a one-year warranty, so if you notice any thing suspicious you can reach out to customer support.
Need Bluetooth support? Get the Topping DX3 Pro
This powerhouse DAC/amp combo is one of the nicest looking ones on the list. The front LED display blends in well with the metal housing. The DX3 Pro features four output modes: headphone amp, headphone amp and line out, DAC, and preamp. It supports 32bit/768kHz analog decoding alongside a slew of Bluetooth codec inputs if you want to use the same source for wireless cans. It supports: SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX LL, and aptX HD.
Topping DX3 Pro
Measurements indicate the Topping DX3 Pro drives headphones without affecting the frequency response. If you’re looking for an amp to modulate your headphone’s sound signature, this isn’t the amplifier for you. However, it’s great for professional use. The back panel hosts an array of audio inputs including USB, optical, and coaxial.
Topping further sets itself apart from the pack of entry-level amps by including a remote control. At first, it seems like a frivolity, but you can control nearly everything with it. This includes toggling mute on and off, choosing your input, adjusting gain, managing screen brightness, and more.
It’s worth noting that some users have reported standby issues: whereby the amp enters standby mode and is unable to recover. However, the amplifier has still received plenty of praise from reviewers for its fidelity and versatility.
Take your headphone amp anywhere with the Spectra X
This DAC/amp combo is a dongle on steroids. It supports lossless PCM audio files up to 32-bit384kHz. The biggest perk of the Spectra X is its portability: it doesn’t even require batteries. That said, this can also work against it in some instances as user reviews have reported the Spectra X quickly drains phone batteries.
The Spectra X model is available in two configurations: USB-C and USB-A. The former is great for phone and tablet use, while the latter is ideal for laptops and computers. Note: the USB-C version is not iPad Pro 2018-compatible. Regardless of which you choose, the metal housing shields an ESS Sabre 9018Q2C DAC — this happens to be what FiiO M7 lossless media player uses, too. This combined with NextDrive’s audio processing yields audio with low distortion and a low noise floor. It can power headphones with up to a 300Ω impedance.
The Spectra X doesn’t deliver an unadulterated sound, which may or may not be preferred. According to the site page, “[it] delivers exceptional bass speed and clarity, well-balanced mids that are slightly forward, and smooth treble…” This requires a bit of translating, which is why we shy away from abstract language. Put planing, midrange frequencies are emphasized and treble frequencies slightly attenuated. For something so small, the Spectra X is a powerful amplifier.
The JDS Labs Atom Amp is the best value
This amp is as spartan as it gets, but JDS crafted a product that balances function and form. This amp supports outputs at 32Ω, 150Ω, and 600Ω. Distortion is nearly negligible at 1kHz, 32 Ω.
The front plate is adorned with a gain and input buttons, a volume knob, and a ¼” output.
JDS Labs Atom Amp
Atom Labs uses Smart Logic technology to rid transmission of any pops and thumps on startup, something that desktop amps of this price often suffer from. You also benefit from low gain which can drive efficient IEMs, and dual gain functionality can drive more demanding headsets.
There are only two minor drawbacks to this desktop amplifier. For one, the volume knob is a bit slippery, and the default build option is so lightweight that heavy RCA cables can drag the amplifier down and off of a desk. You can reach out to JDS and request a weighted option, so it won’t be tugged by an assortment of input cables.
Best headphone amps: notable mentions
- Creative Sound BlasterX G6: Gamers should get this amp because it supports Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound, and works with all platforms (even the Nintendo Switch). Scout Mode makes it easy to identify in-game sounds like footsteps, which could improve your response time.
- Monoprice Desktop Amp: Although this compact amplifier is rarely in stock, it’s a great value when it is available. Similar to the JDS Labs Atom amp, Monoprice’s amplifier has RCA outputs for driving powered speakers.
- Schiit Magni Heresy: This little amp has time-delayed startup and instant shut down, so you won’t get any pops or crackles in your headphones. It supports up to 600Ω headsets, but it doesn’t have an inbuilt DAC.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
We broach the study of audio with a split understanding of how it functions, meaning we take great care to observe objective measurements while taking into account subjective experience and preference. Ultimately, our job is to make buying your next investment a pain-free one, because no one has time for buyer’s remorse.
What’s more, lists like this one are a living document, so be sure to keep an eye on it as we update it with more recent picks. When we champion a product it’s because we truly believe it’s a good fit for our readers. If you’re curious, our ethics policy is publicly available, but at the end of the day, our goal is for you to be happy and walk away more informed.
Next: Do you need a DAC?
Frequently Asked Questions
An amp won't damage your hearing unless you subject your ears to excessively loud sounds for a prolonged period of time. Sounds 95dB and greater can do damage after just 50 minutes of exposure according to the CDC. For reference, this is about as loud as a motorcycle and sounds as loud as 100dB can damage your hearing after a mere 15 minutes.