In addition to being a private violin teacher, Alecia started writing music-related articles 3 years ago and has been enjoying this experience greatly. Loves quilting and scrapbooking in her free time.
Marcus has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Thanks to his knowledge, he actively helps musicians with technical problems, improving their audio quality and even promoting their tracks so that thousands of listeners could enjoy some really good music.
Last updated: May 14, 2023
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In the world of high-quality audio, every detail matters. As true audiophiles, we understand the sheer pleasure that comes from experiencing sound in its richest, most nuanced form.
One of the key components in our quest for auditory perfection is a device that may seem simple but has the power to transform our listening experience: the headphone amp.
Headphone amps elevate your audio journey, allowing your headphones to reach their full potential. They take the low-voltage audio signal from your source device, amplify it, and deliver it to your headphones, ensuring an immersive and captivating auditory experience. They provide much-needed power and significantly improve the sound quality, adding depth, clarity, and a sense of space to the music.
The Schiit Magni, our Editor’s Choice, is an incredible feat of audio engineering. This headphone amp brings a new dimension to your listening experience, offering an extraordinary balance of power and clarity. Its sleek, sturdy design is a testament to its quality, and it’s compact enough to fit comfortably into any audio setup.
When it comes to performance, the Magni stands in a league of its own. Its robust power output effortlessly drives even the most demanding headphones, delivering a sound that is both dynamic and articulate. The level of detail and resolution it offers is truly commendable, allowing you to explore the depths of your music like never before.
This headphone amp shines in a variety of scenarios. Whether you’re immersing yourself in a symphony orchestra’s intricate layers or feeling the raw energy of a live rock concert, the Magni brings it all to life. It’s also an excellent choice for studio applications, offering accuracy and detail that professionals demand.
What sets the Schiit Magni apart from its competitors is its uncompromising commitment to audio quality. Every element of its design, from its solid build to its powerful performance, is geared towards providing the listener with the best possible audio experience.
However, even the best products have room for improvement. While the Magni excels in power and resolution, a more versatile set of features like a built-in DAC or Bluetooth connectivity would have been appreciated.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt captures the essence of a truly immersive audio experience. This small, flash drive-sized DAC/amp is an ideal companion for those who crave superior audio quality on the move. Its sleek, vibrant blue body encapsulates a power that belies its compact size.
The Cobalt is not just portable but also impressive in terms of performance. It enriches your music, making vocals stand out with amazing clarity and richness. It provides a well-balanced sound profile that ensures all elements of your music are adequately represented.
The Cobalt is a fantastic choice for vocal-centric genres, from soulful blues to energetic pop. Its ability to bring out the best in vocals makes it an ideal choice for singers, podcasters, or anyone who values clear and detailed vocal reproduction.
What sets the Dragonfly Cobalt apart is its portability combined with high-end performance. It offers audio quality that rivals desktop headphone amps in a pocket-sized package, making it a favorite among audiophiles on the go.
As for improvements, the Cobalt could benefit from a more robust build. Despite its impressive audio capabilities, its plastic construction feels somewhat lacking, especially given its price point.
The Chord Electronics Mojo is a testament to the wonders of modern audio technology. It’s a compact, powerful headphone amp designed to deliver high-quality audio wherever you go. Its unique design with color-changing buttons makes it a standout in aesthetics.
When it comes to performance, the Mojo excels. Despite its small size, it’s capable of powering even the most demanding headphones with ease, providing a detailed and dynamic sound experience. The audio quality is consistently excellent, regardless of the genre or volume.
The Mojo is a perfect companion for those who frequently travel. Its compact size and durable build make it easy to carry around, and its battery life ensures hours of uninterrupted listening.
What sets the Mojo apart is its combination of portability and powerful performance. It delivers a sound quality that rivals much larger, stationary devices, all while fitting comfortably in your pocket.
However, the Mojo isn’t without its flaws. While visually appealing, the device’s unique button design can be confusing to use, especially for first-time users.
What makes it special?
Compact and portable
What cons did we find?
Confusing button design
FiiO E10K – Good for Streaming and Studio Applications
The FiiO E10K is a compact, affordable headphone amp that doesn’t compromise sound quality. Its sleek, black design houses a potent amp capable of driving a wide range of headphones, delivering a clear and detailed sound.
The E10K excels in its simplicity. It provides a clean, uncolored sound that allows the true character of your music to shine through. It also includes a bass boost feature, adding extra depth to your music.
This amp is an excellent choice for those on a budget. It offers a taste of high-quality audio without the high-end price tag, making it a popular choice among entry-level audiophiles and those just starting their journey into high-fidelity audio.
What sets the FiiO E10K apart from its competitors is its unbeatable value for money. It delivers an impressive audio performance that rivals more expensive models, proving that excellent sound doesn’t always come with a hefty price tag.
While it performs exceptionally well for its price point, it might lack the power needed to drive high-impedance headphones to their full potential. However, this amp delivers an outstanding performance for its target market and price point.
The Sennheiser Consumer Audio HDV 820 is a testament to high-end audio engineering. This premium headphone amp exudes quality from its sleek, robust design to its exquisite sound reproduction.
The HDV 820 delivers a sound that’s both powerful and nuanced. Its impressive dynamic range allows it to bring out the subtlest details in your music, making every listening session a unique experience.
This amp is the perfect fit for audiophiles seeking the best sound quality, regardless of the price. It’s designed to easily drive even the most demanding headphones, making it an excellent choice for professional musicians and audio engineers.
The Sennheiser HDV 820 stands out with its high-end DAC integration, providing an exceptionally clear and detailed sound that sets it apart from its competitors. This is a headphone amp that truly caters to the discerning audiophile.
While it offers exceptional audio performance, its high price point might be a barrier for some. But for those who value superior sound quality above all else, the HDV 820 is well worth the investment.
The iFi Micro iDSD Signature is a versatile headphone amp that offers a wealth of features for its size. It’s compact enough for portable use yet powerful enough to drive a range of headphones.
The iDSD Signature delivers a balanced, detailed sound that works well with various music genres. It also offers adjustable power output, allowing it to match the needs of different headphones.
This headphone amp is ideal for those seeking versatility in their audio setup. Its wide range of features and customizable settings make it a perfect fit for anyone looking to fine-tune their audio experience.
The iFi Micro iDSD Signature stands out with its versatility and customization options. It provides an array of features typically found in larger, more expensive models, making it a unique offering in the headphone amp market.
While it offers impressive features, some users might find its wealth of options overwhelming. However, for those willing to explore its capabilities, the iDSD Signature offers unparalleled control over your audio experience.
What are its best features?
Versatile with a wealth of features
Adjustable power output
Compact and portable
What could be improved?
Can be overwhelming for beginners
High price point for its size
Things to Consider
Choosing the perfect headphone amp can transform your audio experience, extracting every ounce of potential from your music and your headphones. However, with the multitude of options available, finding the ideal fit for your unique needs can be a daunting task. This extensive buying guide aims to help you navigate the intricacies of the headphone amp market, focusing on crucial features and considerations to guide you toward an informed purchase.
Defining Your Audio Needs: Setting Your Priorities Right
Understanding your specific requirements forms the cornerstone of choosing the right headphone amp. A wide variety of headphone amps are available in the market, each with its unique features and capabilities. Therefore, defining what you need from your headphone amp is a crucial first step in making a purchase.
Purpose of Use
Firstly, consider the main purpose of your headphone amp. Are you a professional musician or a recording artist in need of studio-grade sound? Perhaps you’re a gaming enthusiast in search of an immersive audio experience that brings your games to life. Or maybe you’re a casual listener looking to elevate your daily music listening or movie watching experience.
Different usage scenarios call for different features in a headphone amp. For instance, if you’re using it for professional applications like recording or mixing, you might need a headphone amp with a high signal-to-noise ratio and low distortion levels. On the other hand, if you’re a gamer, you might want an amp that supports 3D audio standards for a more immersive gaming experience.
Your audio preferences also play a significant role in your choice of a headphone amp. Do you prefer a warm, rich sound that emphasizes the bass and mid frequencies? Or do you lean towards a more neutral or even bright sound signature that brings out the details in the treble range? Different amps have different sound signatures, and understanding your preference can steer you toward a model that aligns with your taste.
For instance, tube amps are known for their warm and smooth sound, which many listeners find pleasing. On the other hand, solid-state amps generally offer a more neutral sound that accurately reproduces the source audio. Understanding these differences and knowing what you prefer can significantly impact your overall satisfaction with your purchase.
Power Output and Impedance: Matching Your Headphones
The compatibility between your headphone amp and your headphones is crucial to achieving optimal sound quality. Two key factors to consider here are the amp’s power output and the headphones’ impedance.
Understanding Power Output
The power output of a headphone amp, usually measured in milliwatts (mW), impacts its capacity to drive your headphones optimally. Headphones come in a wide range of impedances, and different headphones require different levels of power to perform their best.
High-impedance headphones, typically over 100 ohms, are generally favored by professionals due to their superior sound quality. However, they need more power to drive, which is where a powerful desktop headphone amp comes in. On the other hand, low-impedance headphones, commonly used with portable devices like smartphones and laptops, require less power and can be driven effectively with portable headphone amps or even the built-in amps in your device.
Impedance matching is a crucial concept in audio electronics. In the context of headphones and headphone amps, it’s essential to match your headphones’ impedance with the headphone amp’s output impedance to avoid distortion and ensure optimal performance.
Generally, the headphone amp’s output impedance should be less than one-eighth of the headphones’ impedance. For example, if your headphones have an impedance of 32 ohms, your headphone amp’s output impedance should ideally be 4 ohms or less. This rule of thumb ensures that the amp can deliver enough power to the headphones without distorting the sound.
DAC Integration: Bridging the Digital-Analog Divide
In our increasingly digital world, the importance of a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) in a headphone amp cannot be overstated. A DAC is a component that converts digital audio signals into analog signals that your headphones can interpret as sound.
Role of DACs
DACs play a critical role in the audio chain, particularly if you’re using digital sources like computers, smartphones, or digital audio players. They convert the digital audio data into an analog signal that your headphones can turn into sound.
The quality of the DAC can significantly impact the sound quality. A good DAC can preserve the details and nuances in the music, while a poor one can introduce noise and distortion.
Many contemporary headphone amps, such as the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt and the Chord Electronics Mojo, feature a built-in DAC. This is an excellent feature as it ensures that the DAC and amp are optimally matched, and it saves you from having to buy and connect a separate DAC.
Importance of Digital Sources
An integrated DAC in your headphone amp becomes crucial if your primary audio source is digital, like a computer or a smartphone. These devices output audio in digital format; a DAC is necessary to convert this to an analog signal for your headphones.
Using a good DAC can dramatically improve the sound quality of digital sources. It can help reduce noise and distortion, improve detail retrieval, and enhance audio fidelity.
Portability and Design: Meeting Lifestyle Demands
Your lifestyle and listening habits will greatly influence the type of headphone amp that best suits your needs.
A portable headphone amp can be a game-changer if you’re always on the move. These compact devices can significantly enhance the audio quality of your smartphone or laptop, making them ideal for travel or commuting.
For instance, the Chord Electronics Mojo is a highly portable headphone amp that delivers impressive sound quality. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket yet powerful enough to drive a wide range of headphones. Plus, it has a built-in battery, allowing you to use it on the go without having to hunt for a power outlet.
A desktop headphone amp might be more fitting if your listening is predominantly done in one place, such as at a desk or in a home theater setup. These devices usually offer superior power output and sound quality compared to their portable counterparts, making them ideal for serious listening sessions.
For instance, the Schiit Magni is a desktop headphone amp with excellent sound quality and enough power to drive even high-impedance headphones. It’s larger and requires a power outlet, but these aren’t significant drawbacks if you’re mainly listening in one place.
Sound Quality: The Heart of the Matter
The ultimate goal of investing in a headphone amp is to enhance the sound quality of your headphones. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider the amp’s impact on the sound.
Harmonic Distortion and Noise Floor
Every headphone amp introduces some level of distortion and noise into the audio signal. This is usually expressed as Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N), a metric that captures both the distortion caused by the amp and the background noise level (the noise floor).
When it comes to distortion, less is more. A low THD+N means the amp is accurately reproducing the audio signal without adding unwanted artifacts. High-quality headphone amps often have a THD+N of less than 0.01%, ensuring that any distortion is inaudible.
The noise floor is another crucial aspect to consider. A low noise floor means you’ll hear more of your music and less background noise, especially when using sensitive headphones or in quiet listening environments. On the other hand, a high noise floor can mask subtle details in the music and create a hissing sound in the background.
The frequency response of a headphone amp can affect its sound reproduction accuracy across the audio spectrum. This is usually expressed as a range, like 20Hz to 20kHz, which represents the audible spectrum for most people.
In general, a wider frequency response is better. It ensures that the amp can accurately reproduce all the frequencies in the music, from the lowest bass notes to the highest treble details. However, keep in mind that the actual frequency response can be influenced by other factors, like the headphones you’re using and the quality of the audio source.
Connectivity: Ensuring Compatibility
Considering the types of devices, you’ll be connecting to your headphone amp is crucial. This involves looking at both the input options (for connecting your source devices) and the output options (for connecting your headphones).
Most headphone amps come with a standard 3.5mm or 6.35mm headphone output, which should be compatible with most headphones. However, some high-end headphones use different connectors, like XLR or 2.5mm balanced connectors, so you’ll need to ensure the amp has a matching output.
On the input side, consider what devices you’ll be connecting. If you’re using a digital source, like a computer or digital audio player, ensure the amp has a suitable digital input, like USB or optical. If you’re using an analog source, like a turntable, ensure the amp has an analog input, like RCA.
In our increasingly wireless world, some headphone amps offer Bluetooth connectivity. This allows you to connect your source devices wirelessly, adding convenience and reducing cable clutter.
However, keep in mind that wireless audio can suffer from issues like latency (delay) and reduced sound quality due to data compression. If sound quality is your top priority, a wired connection is usually the better option.
Build Quality and Durability: Ensuring Longevity
The build quality of your headphone amp can influence its performance and durability. A well-built amp can deliver consistent performance over time and withstand the rigors of regular use.
Material and Construction
Consider the materials used in the construction of the headphone amp. High-quality materials, like metal casings, are usually more durable than cheap plastics. The construction quality is also important – look for signs of solid construction, like a sturdy volume knob and high-quality connectors.
While specifications and features are important, don’t overlook the importance of user reviews. These can provide insights into the real-world performance and durability of the headphone amp. Look for patterns in the reviews – if multiple users are reporting the same issues, it could be a red flag.
Price and Value: Balancing Cost and Performance
While high-end headphone amps often deliver superior sound quality and features, they also come with a higher price tag. It’s important to balance the cost of the headphone amp with your budget and the value it provides.
Budget and Expectations
Firstly, set a budget for your headphone amp purchase. The price of headphone amps can vary dramatically, from less than $50 for entry-level models to over $1000 for high-end ones. It’s essential to have a clear idea of what you’re willing to spend before you start shopping.
Next, manage your expectations based on your budget. While it’s true that more expensive amps generally offer better sound quality and more features, the law of diminishing returns also applies to audio equipment. This means that while the jump in quality from a $50 amp to a $200 amp might be significant, the difference between a $500 amp and a $1000 amp might be less noticeable.
Assessing Value for Money
Value for money is a crucial factor to consider when buying a headphone amp. Its price doesn’t just determine a product’s value but also the performance and features it offers for that price.
When assessing the value of a headphone amp, consider its power output, sound quality, build quality, features, and user reviews. An inexpensive amp that delivers excellent performance and durability can offer better value than a pricier model with similar capabilities.
Brand Reputation and Support: Trust and Reliability
Finally, consider the reputation of the brand and the support they offer. Buying from a reputable brand can give you confidence in the quality and reliability of the product, and good customer support can be a lifesaver if you run into any issues.
The brand’s reputation can give you an indication of the overall quality and reliability of its products. Well-known and respected brands in the audio community are generally a safe bet.
Consider the brand’s history and expertise in audio equipment. Brands with a long history in the industry have had time to refine their products and technology, and they’re likely to produce high-quality headphone amps.
Customer Support and Warranty
Good customer support can make a big difference, especially when buying high-tech equipment like a headphone amp. Check if the brand offers support channels like a hotline, email, or live chat, and read customer reviews to gauge the quality of their support.
Also, consider the warranty offered with the headphone amp. A good warranty can protect you from defects and issues, giving you peace of mind with your purchase. The length and terms of the warranty can vary between brands, so it’s worth checking this before you buy.
A headphone amp boosts the audio signal from your source device, allowing your headphones to perform at their best. This leads to improved volume levels, better sound quality, and an overall superior listening experience.
A headphone amp boosts the audio signal for your headphones, while a DAC converts digital audio information into an analog signal that your headphones can produce as sound. Some devices, like the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt, combine both functions.
While higher-priced headphone amps often offer superior performance and build quality, many affordable options still deliver excellent sound. It’s about finding the best headphone amp for your specific needs and budget.
In the world of high-fidelity audio, a quality headphone amp can make all the difference. Our Editor’s Choice, the Schiit Magni, stands out with its extraordinary balance of power and clarity, delivering an audio experience that’s hard to beat. The AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt, with its outstanding vocal reproduction, and the Chord Electronics Mojo blend of power and portability, impressed us with their performance.
Choosing the best headphone amp ultimately comes down to understanding your specific needs and how each device can meet them. Whether you’re an audiophile, a studio professional, or a music enthusiast looking to enhance your listening experience, there’s a headphone amp out there for you.