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Best headphone amps
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 July 27, 2021, to add Monolith by Monoprice Liquid Spark by Alex Cavalli to the Best list. The Linsoul xDuoo Link and Monoprice Desktop Headphone Amplifier were added to Notable mentions.
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-inch 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.
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.
Related: Troubleshooting DAC issues
This is one of the 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 XLRs input for balanced connections.
Editor’s note: the Massdrop O2 + SDAC is commonly out of stock, but Drop members can place a request for it to become available again and they will be notified when it is.
What you should know before getting a headphone amp
Figuring out which headphone amplifier is best for your needs takes a lot of research unless you have a wireless headset—Bluetooth headphones don’t benefit at all from an amplifier. 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 signal feeding your headphones. They do this by providing ample power to the headset when the power coming from your computer or source isn’t enough to drive the headphones adequately. 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 for a good listening level, 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.
Related: How to choose a DAW
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 digital 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 might 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 too 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 upfront 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 most modern audio devices. In the case of smartphones, it’s used to decode MP3 files, for voice recognition, and more. They’re also in Bluetooth headphones and convert encoded digital audio to analog signals. Advanced DSPs can enable onboard EQs, noise cancellation, and even surround sound capabilities.
Does bit depth matter when choosing between headphone amps?
To a degree, but you’ll likely never need to think about it.
Again, the whole point of a headphone amp is to increase the level 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 for most people 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 AAA 789 Linear Amplifier housed in a milled aluminum chassis looks fabulous. It’s a linear bipolar amp that uses feedforward error correction to reduce distortion. 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.
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 are three-pin stereo XLR inputs alongside stereo RCA inputs, for balanced connections. It has a few more options for outputs: a 1/4-inch TRS output, 3.5mm TRS output, and a four-pin XLR output. All this is to say you have plenty of ways to listen to your music library.
Nearly all amplifiers introduce distortion, but you get a basically distortion-free signal.
User reports on the Drop website cite problems when using the four-pin XLR connection, which is likely a consequence of mass production. Expect duds with any high volume production. Fortunately, the amp is under a one-year warranty, so if you notice anything suspicious you can reach out to customer support.
Save some money with the Monolith Liquid Spark Desktop by Monoprice
This amp is as spartan as it gets, but Monoprice knows how to manufacture a product that puts function before form. Alex Cavalli, meanwhile, has been producing and designing audio equipment for about 20 years under the Cavalli Audio banner. You get a 1/4-inch headphone out and RCA preamp out, in a solid metal enclosure. The RCA lines are great if you want to amplify powered speakers.
The Liquid Spark is just a headphone amp with an impressively neutral frequency response output. If you’re looking for a DAC, it does not have one; you get an all-analog affair here. With a decently low distortion rating of 0.007% THD at 1 volt, you’re basically hearing what’s being amplified. This headphone amp is an absolute steal for around $100 and provides excellent sound quality for your money.
Take your headphone amp anywhere with the Spectra X
Do you hate Bluetooth? 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-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. But, midrange frequencies are emphasized and treble frequencies are slightly attenuated. For something so small, the Spectra X is a powerful amplifier, just watch the cable because it’s a weak point.
The JDS Labs Atom Amp is the best value
JDS crafted a minimalist product that balances function and form. This amp supports outputs including 600Ω. Distortion is nearly negligible at 1kHz, 32Ω as well. In the spirit of minimalism, the front plate has only gain and input buttons, a volume knob, and a 1/4-inch output.
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. Secondly, the default option is so lightweight that heavy RCA cables can drag the amplifier 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.
- Schiit Magni Heresy: This little amp has a 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.
- Chord Mojo: If you don’t mind breaking the bank, this one is the one to go for, with an unheard of 32-bit/768kHz max sampling rate, it’s somewhat portable and solidly built, supporting up to 600Ω headsets. The Mojo can double as your at-home amp and on-the-go amp, if you’re really prioritizing sound over carrying as little as possible, so I mean basically you’re saving money by just buying the one, right?
- Helm Audio Bolt: Whether you’re a fan of the MQA certification or not, this THX-ready USB-C portable option gives you a lot on paper for not much scratch. It’s Android compatible, iPhone users may need a workaround.
- Linsoul xDuoo Link Type-C to 3.5mm: For $55 you don’t need a battery, just a USB-C connection. Linsoul is known for making interesting and vaguely indie audio products at budget prices. Like a lot of headphone amps designed to work with phones, the cable is a weakness in the design, so be careful.
- Monoprice 111567 Desktop Headphone Amp: At under $100 this basic brick from Monoprice will drive anything from 16 to 600Ω without any complaints and includes a DAC.
- Topping DX3 Pro: This is a great headphone amplifier with Bluetooth functionality, but it’s very difficult to find in stock. In fact, it’s one of the best out there if you can track one down.
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 livelihood depends on you being happy and more informed.
Next: Do you need a DAC?
Frequently Asked Questions
You may want to hold off on buying those expensive cables. The cables that your headphones come with should be more than adequate, and the only reason we’d recommend buying audiophile cables are if the stock cable breaks or if you need to connect the headphones to something that doesn’t have a 3.5mm input. We’d recommend just buying the headphones and waiting until you try them out to see if you feel like they’re missing something essential.
No, it’s not a good idea to use a headphone amp with your electric guitar, but if you want to practice guitar through a guitar amp but listen to it through headphones, many guitar amps will allow you to plug in headphones. This will let you hear your guitar loud and clear, but nobody else in the room will hear it.
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.