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Best Headphone Amplifiers of 2018

They say art is how man decorate space while music is how man decorate time. For most of us audiophiles, nothing is purer than music. I mean it’s even more impressive when you realize that appreciation of harmony and melody rises above different cultures, age or nationality - there really is no single demographic for music appreciation.

So there are the usual audiophiles, and then there’s us. The die-hards. The ones who take this appreciation to the next level. We’ll go to the extremes to get the best top-notch audio gear to satisfy our passion (yes, even at the expense of really annoying our significant other or totally blowing the budget!)

There are headphones being sold that are so good at what they do that when you close your eyes, you can just imagine that what you are listening to is being played right there in the room with you. Music so pure that you can hear every note and beat of every instrument playing together.

These glorious headphones can only provide such service when supplied with enough energy and unfortunately, our normal smartphones are not always enough to supply these headphones with the power they require. This is where headphone amps come in and save the day.

Our Guide to the Top 8 Headphone Amps

Astell & Kern Layla Portable Headphone Amp

This portable headphone amp comes with custom in-ear monitors that were created as a result of a collaboration between Astell & Kern and sound engineer and in-ear monitor pioneer, Jerry Harvey. They’re made with carbon fiber and come with a titanium bezel and carbon fiber logo insert.

Not only are they visually appealing but they are sonically spectacular. As one would expect with any Jerry Harvey creation, the amp is decked in impressive custom features such as a triple quad Balanced Armature driver. It also comes with FreqPhase technology which ensures a phase coherent IEM through a signal guiding steel tube Wavedrive.

The in-ear monitors have a response of 10Hz to 23kHz, impedance of only 20 Ohm and input sensitivity of 117dB @ 1mW. The sound can only be described as smooth and super-accurate, with an adjustable bass of 0 +/- 10db, 26 Db noise isolation and a variable bass output that remains even across all sound volume levels.

Moreover, the Astell & Kern Layla portable headphone amp is made with over-the-top technology such as the SoundrIVe Technology otherwise known as Quad Driver Technology. This means that along with Jerry Harvey’s quad drivers, this headphone amp - which is comprised of 12 drivers per earpiece - provides one of the widest frequencies you will ever get to hear presently.

The package comes with two balanced connection cables and a bonus 3.5mm unbalanced cable/earphone connector that makes it compatible with any device you want to hook up.

Many customers and reviews praise this set of headphones as it has been nothing but satisfactory when used.

Pros

  • The amp features a custom Jerry Harvey engineered Armature driver with 12 drivers; 4 lows, 4 mids and 4 highs
  • It has a variable bass output which you can adjust using the cable
  • It also features with a FreqPhase technology equipped steel tube Waveguide for wave coherent IEM
  • It’s compatible with any type of device and comes with two balanced connection cables and a bonus 3.5mm unbalanced cable/earphone connector
  • The amp and IEM are made to last with carbon fiber and a titanium bezel and carbon fiber logo insert that audio heads will love
  • Equipped with over-the-top technology such as the SoundrIVe Technology (Quad Driver Technology)

Cons

  • This amp set does not have any cons

Sound Performance Labs is well-known for their ability to develop and provide high quality sound monitors and this one in particular is an upgrade from the legendary Phonitor headphone preamp model and it comes with much of the features from the previous model and plenty more besides.

Additionally, the SPL Phonitor 2 headphone amp or preamp has a Height x Width x Depth of 99 x 277 x 305 mm / 3.9 x 10.9 x 12 in and weighs 4,3 kg / 9.5 lbs 0 dBu = 0,775 V

It magnifies the acoustics on your headphones through analytical headphone monitoring, while the loudspeaker simulation gives the sensation of being in a room atmosphere but without the disadvantage of external room influences.

There are new features to look forward to and that includes 120-volt technology, a great sound, multiple input and output sources and the versatility to work as a monitor controller and preamp for three different sources.

Although this amp is designed with built-in speaker simulation circuitry for headphones, it has available outputs to connect loudspeaker and power amps, which makes it suitable for any environment where headphones are the predominant listening apparatus.

However, the amp is configured with a bypass switch to take out the loudspeaker simulation from the playback circuitry to make for comfortable listening whenever you connect actual loudspeakers to the amp.

Moreover, with high-resolution laterality correction, the amp is able to compensate for the sound difference in both the left and right side headphones. As mentioned, the amp also comes with multiple outputs and inputs, including electronically balanced XLR connectors, 6.3-mm TRS connector and the option to establish unbalanced connections through optionally purchased cables.

The Phonitor 2 is configured to read signals from any IR remote control, which makes it convenient for you to control the amp from anywhere in the house. With a balanced frequency range of 4 Hz to 480 kHz ( -3 dB), crosstalk at 1 kHz: -106 dB and THD&N at 1 kHz: 0,00085 %, this amp produces some really decent sound with low impedance and a Dynamic Range of 134,37 dB. It’s maximum output power is at 1 kHz and 600 Ohms at +30 dBu, while the power consumption is only at a max of 23,7 VA.

To make it even better, the SPL Phonitor 2 offers multiple methods of monitoring (or what others like to call “Phonitoring”). The analytical headphone monitoring is the same as when you’re working with an acoustic magnifier but only with headphones; the other monitoring method is called loudspeaker simulation and this one gives the room more of an ambiance.

Pros

  • It’s suitable for all types of headphones, but is ideally suited for low impedance headphones with 40 Ohm balanced output
  • You can control the volume on this with any IR remote control
  • It provides the best of both worlds with analytical headphone monitoring and loudspeaker simulation that makes for enveloping surround sound without the downside of external room influences
  • It comes with 120=volt technology
  • It’s an ideal monitor that provides great sound for studios and mobile units where headphones are the main listening apparatus
  • It delivers clean sound with a smooth bass, especially for headphones and you’ll never experience noise disruption while tuning some of the inputs and outputs

Cons

  • This amp is a bit pricey but it is professional grade equipment after all
  • This amp delivers an intimidating sound that might be overwhelming for gamers, so definitely not recommended for that use

As their name implies, Benchmark quite literally sets the ‘benchmark’ when it comes to creating headphone amps and is one of the pioneers in the field. With previous models including the high quality DAC 1 to the improved DAC1 PRE, DAC1 USB and DAC1 HDR, the brand certainly has a lot of hype to live up to and boy does it deliver!

With this amp, you can enjoy high-resolution files with studio sound quality through your headphones, while reaping the benefits of ultra-convenient front-panel tools such as word-length and sample-rate display.

Other features on the front panel include two headphone jacks, a motorized Alps volume pot, as well as the usual controls such as the Power button to switch it on and Dim/Mute controls. The amp also comes with a remote control with a straightforward design for those times when you just want to control it from afar.

With regards to inputs, the Benchmark DAC2 HGC provides up to five, including two optical inputs, USB and two RCA coaxial inputs, one of which you can use as a digital pass-through. The sound quality is amazing, with a solid and delicious bass and a silky smooth treble, with the ability to deliver true-to-sound instrumentals and vocals.

This amp allows each instrument to shine in an even keel and it delivers a very accurate sound whether you’re playing rock or your favorite classical composition, it just makes for a really pleasant listening experience.

The Benchmark DAC2 has a great jitter attenuation system which isolates the inputs for a seamless and user-friendly control and operating. You can also connect this headphone amp to your sound system to hear your old favorites in a whole new light with better tonal balance, treble resolution, lower distortion and excellent musical detail.

Other features offered by the Benchmark DAC2 is a 32-bit internal digital processing and conversion, an advanced digital filter design, precise stereo imaging and improved sound accuracy with 3.5 dB of headroom above 0 dBFS.

Customers with reviews of this product also give it nothing but praise for how good of a job it was doing and how much satisfaction they received from the Benchmark DAC2.

Pros

  • The DAC2 has an ability to deliver true-to-sound instrumentals and vocals, which makes for a high quality and unforgettable listening experience
  • This is a versatile piece of sound equipment
  • The remote control is a really nice feature, too
  • It offers spectacular musical detail
  • State-of-the art noise filtering ability with an advanced digital filter design and 32-bit internal digital processing and conversion
  • Great dynamic range

Cons

  • It’s a bit on the pricey side, but you do get your money's worth in terms of sound quality and functional versatility
  • The volume control can be complicated even when using a remote control

This beautifully designed amp is capable of simultaneously operating four high-impedance and high-quality headphones via two 6.35 mm (1/4”) jacks and four pin XLR inputs. In fact, when the gain is turned up, you can enjoy a potent sound even from the powerful 600 Ohm Sennheiser HD800.

It features a high-quality Burr-Brown digital/analog converter (DAC) which works great to decode and convert digital content into analog signals with a 24-bit resolution and a sampling rate of up to 192 kHz. What this means is that the amplifier is able to convert audio content from digital to analog without compromising the integrity of the sound and you can rest assured that what you’re hearing is exactly how it should be.

This amp also comes with well-proportioned inputs for both digital and analog, with the perfect alignment needed to symmetrize incoming signals to an asymmetrical input socket. Supported digital inputs include XLR (AES/EBU), optical, coaxial and USB port to connect your laptop or PC and as mentioned, it also has RCA and XLR inputs, as well as an additional XLR output. So you can listen to your favorite artists on Spotify or stream your favorite online radio station through SiriusXm and feel like you’re right there in the studio with them.

Other features that this amp comes with include a D/A transducer for CD and DVD players, < -110 dB THD, a frequency response of 0.3 Hz to 100 kHz at -3dB and the ability to deliver excellent sound regardless of the types of headphones you use.

The high-end components of this durable headphone amp ensure the delivery of incredible acoustics, accurate bass and a perfectly harmonized sound. Basically, this amp enables you to enjoy a top-grade sound system from the comfort of your home office or small studio, using only your laptop and your favorite headphones or IEMs.

Many customers praise this headphone amplifier for its excellent quality of sound and how amazing it is combined with the right kind of headphones. Reviews also say that the Sennheiser HDVD-800 is versatile because it can be used as a DAC as well.

Pros

  • It’s able to simultaneously operate up to four high-quality and high-impedance headphones
  • It delivers a sound that is realistic, pure and dynamic, with superior separation and clarity that classical music audiophiles will enjoy
  • The HDVD 800 is a really versatile amp with digital and analog inputs, as well as sockets for playing CD and DVD audio
  • It comes with an in-built Burr-Brown digital analog converter
  • All digital inputs are configured to support 24-bit signals at 192 kHz
  • You can wirelessly play music with Chromecast audio
  • It’s beautifully designed with great craftsmanship

Cons

  • This amp does not come cheap

The HiFiMan EF6 is a class A MOSFET headphone amp with an exotic design and quality construction with symmetrically placed LED inputs with cool relay-switched push selectors. It produces a super clear and highly accurate sound thanks to 0.03% THD and a signal-to-noise ratio of 95dB. It comes with two switchable RCA inputs on the back end, one front-end ⅛” stereo mini. It also has ¼ “ unbalanced headphone jack outputs and a standard 4-pin balanced output.

This amp is capable of producing 5 watts per channel at a capacity of 50 Ohm impedance in each channel from a high-end transistor circuit. Also, the EF6 lends a very smooth and lifelike sound to the headphone speakers because the gain is regulated by a very capable 24-step attenuator. Therefore, it delivers a very balanced sound that’s very detailed, nuanced and dynamic but it can also be very smooth and pure when necessary as well.

Pros

  • This amp features hand-built and exquisitely exotic design
  • It’s the ideal companion to the HE-6 headphones by HiFiMan
  • It’s accessible and reasonably priced
  • It offers great depth of sound with meticulous attention to detail so you’re able to hear even the most nuanced detail clearly
  • It features a hand-made 24-step attenuator
  • It can produce 5 watts per channel at a capacity of 50 Ohm impedance in each channel through a high-end transistor circuit

Cons

  • It’s a bit large and heavy for a headphone amp
  • The volume control knob is also quite heavy and it makes an annoying clunky noise every time you turn it around
  • It doesn't come with a built-in DAC

This stylish vintage-design amp is made from finely polished striped ebony wood, which is not only aesthetically impressive but enables superior acoustic delivery as well. The construction of the amp also includes a machined brass hybrid insulator that eliminates unnecessary vibrations and a machined aluminum volume knob with a smooth finish.

This is a high-powered MOSFET amp with R-core transformers to lower magnetic leakage and a vibration eliminating brass hybrid insulator. It responds wonderfully to digital audio including powerful SACD/DVD-AUDIO at a reproduction frequency of of 5~200 kHz.

It also features an A-Class output stage with 1200-mW+1200-mW power supply at 32 Ohms, 30-watt input sensitivity and a low output impedance of only -- 0.1 Ohm on the input terminal. It comes with high-quality headphone jacks, a total harmonic distortion of 0.006% at a 100 Mw output and a 32Ω load, as well as a signal to noise ratio of 117dB.

Lastly, two 3.5 to 6.3mm adapter plugs, two 6.3mm headphone outputs, two RCA inputs and a low output impedance of 0.1 Ω complete the package of this classy amp.

Pros

  • The design features smoothly polished striped ebony wood with a Raffinato texture
  • Great for low impedance and high sensitivity earphones, regardless of brand
  • It features durable construction machined brass hybrid insulator that eliminates unnecessary vibrations
  • 30-watt input sensitivity and a low output impedance of only -- 0.1 ohm on the input terminal
  • It also features A-Class output stage with 1200-mW+1200-mW power supply at 32 Ohms
  • Smooth aluminum knob
  • The power supply uses R-core transformers to lower the vibration and magnetic leakage
  • It offers Super Digital Audio Support for audio CDs, DVD audio discs at playback frequencies at 5 to 200kHz

Cons

  • There’s nothing bad to say about this amp

This compact and budget friendly amp comes with front mounted ¼ ” 6.3mm headphone jacks that have the ability to deliver a clean and pure sound, regardless of whether the headphones are of low or high impedance.

It features a minimalist design with full metal housing that prevents annoying electrical interference, plus it’s available with a silver or black faceplate and a smooth turning volume knob. The front panel has a simple on/off switch and it also comes with a DC power supply and < 1 watt of standby power.

It also comes with RCA stereo input and an RCA loop-out stereo output that seamlessly passes the signal through for a very accurate and balanced sound. Sound-wise, this amp delivers realistic and dynamic audio with detailed transparency; the highs are clear and the bass is balanced and free from distortion with 50 to 300 Ohm.

Other features on this amp include a frequency response of 30Hz – 20kHz/-0,05dB, 0,003% (0,002%) THD, 11dB gain and an outboard power supply of 18V/500mA DC. If anything, this petite headphone amp really does prove that dynamite comes in small packages.

Pros

  • Super easy to understand, with minor tech capabilities required to assemble
  • The minimalist design interface makes it easy to operate this compact amp
  • The construction features full metal housing that prevents annoying electrical interference
  • It’s lightweight and easy to carry and operate
  • It provides plenty of power and great sound quality that is rich but clear
  • It powers low, medium and high-impedance headphones with ease
  • With it’s simple interface, it’s really easy and simple to operate
  • The loop-out RCA stereo output is able to maintain lasting connectivity to any recording device
  • It comes at a bargain price and provides loads of value for money

Cons

  • Although highly portable, the small size does make this amp quite fragile and it needs to be handled with care
  • It doesn't come with a versatile assortment of inputs
  • This amp can only power up to 30 Ohms and doesn’t have the oomph needed to process sound for super powerful headphone models of 55 Ohms impedance for example

This FiiO amp really enhances the sound for IEMs, with a standard Headphone Impedance of 16-150 Ohms and a Combo OPAMP for Low Distortion. It’s titanium colored and constructed with a strong aluminum alloy chassis, featuring durable metal film resistors. It has a 3.5mm stereo jack audio input and the same sized headphone output, with a single level Bass Boost and a dual-level GAIN control.

Unfortunately, these are the only inputs you’ll be getting from this amp and for most it’s not enough for their input requirements, so you’ll be to take that into consideration if you’re someone who wants to plug in multiple sources at once.

The amp offers >420 mW of output power with <0.003% (1 kHz) of TDH &N and a frequency response of 10 Hz~90 kHz. For a small-sized piece of equipment, this amp comes with decent power capacity of 1500 mAh, a max output voltage of 10.3 Vp-p and a max output current of >113.3 mA.

Sure, you won’t feel like you’re in a live concert, but at least the power can last for up to 20 hours and it has a quick charging time of about 3 hours. Lastly, the package comes with USB to micro-USB charging cable, 3.5mm right angle L8 line out short cable, two sets of rubber bands for mounting/attachment and 6 stick-on rubber bumper dots.

Pros

  • It provides a really full and detailed sound with a boosted bass and no background noise
  • The design is sleek and beautiful
  • This amp can power up your IEMs for up to 20 hours of uninterrupted listening and it requires only 3 hours of recharging time
  • It comes with a standard micro-USB charging port so you can use your phone as a charger when traveling
  • It’s portable and lightweight
  • It conveniently comes with two sets of rubber bands for mounting and attachment

Cons

  • With time, the amp tends to require a longer charging period in order to maintain its 20-hour playtime record
  • Although tiny, this amp does weigh a little
  • It doesn't fare too well with truly power-hungry IEMs
  • This amp provides a limited selection of inputs and outputs which restricts you to connect only a few sources at a time

So You’ve Never Heard of a Headphone Amp?

Maybe you’ve heard of guitar amps but headphone amps? That might sound a little over the top for you. If you know how an electric guitar works, then you know that it is always accompanied by an amplifier. People think that electric guitars can’t make music without the amplifiers but in actuality, if you stand really close to an unplugged electric guitar, you will be able to hear it play ever so faintly.

However, in order to rock the roof out of a stadium, amplifiers are needed. So hopefully, this gives you a rough guess at what a headphone amp is even though it’s not exactly the same. The headphone amps (amps short for amplifiers) provide additional energy that can power stronger headphones.

It’s that simple, really. It’s no surprise that better headphones are, well, better for a reason. Since headphones are just basically speakers you put next to your ears, better headphones mean better speakers which then mean better hardware.

But this hardware can’t just produce better quality sound compared to normal hardware with the same amount of energy. To produce higher quality sound, it has to receive more power and more electricity. This is essentially what a headphone amp does.

Do I Really Need One?

If you’re reading this article about headphone amps, you or someone you know have probably listened to audio through headphones at least once in your life. You can even do it right now. Go ahead and try it. Plug in your headphones to your smartphone or computer and give it a listen.

Are you satisfied with what you hear? If so, then you’re good where you are. But really, the fact you’ve read this much means you’re probably like me - you yearn for more! If you want more distinction between the bass and the mids, if you want to listen to crisp HD music, then you will need a headphone amp!

But remember, don’t go buying a headphone amp if you don’t have headphones that can utilize them in the first place. Tech companies are aware that the majority of the market are not that picky when it comes to sound quality so they’re manufacturing headphones that can work well just with the power from the smartphones.

Only dedicated audio companies manufacture headphones that need a headphone amp to operate.

How to Choose the Best Headphone Amp

So, you decided to get yourself a headphone amp? Well, good for you. However, you have to learn a bit more about it first because there are different kinds out there and you’ll have to find the one that’s right for you.

The first thing that you have to consider is whether you’re the type to stay at home in front of your computer, or the person who’s on the go. If you fall into the former group, then a desktop amp will be appropriate but if not, then go for the portable amp.

However, this isn’t the only thing you should consider when choosing between a portable amp and a desktop amp. You should also consider the purpose of your needing the headphone amp in the first place.

Most often, people who go for desktop amps are those who work with audio at home or in an office. For people like music producers and DJs, a desktop amp is needed in their line of work. Although portable amps can be used by those people, too, portable amps are mostly sought after by audiophiles because it lets them enjoy their music anywhere they are.

The difference between the desktop amp and the portable amp is simply the power source. As you can guess, desktop amps are plugged in while portable amps are battery-driven. So instead of just asking what kind of person you are, ask yourself why you need the headphone amps in the first place.

You should also be looking into headphone amps that are coupled with a digital to analog converter (DAC). This little combo will enhance the sound quality even further. The conversion of a digital file into music is the job of the sound card and unfortunately, smartphone and computer manufacturers don’t really put much emphasis on this department because what they have been offering has been enough for most of their market.

What a DAC does is act like an external sound card, a better one, that really improves the quality of the sound. However, don’t think that the DAC is some magic technology that can improve sound more than what it should be.

To make things better, let’s just say that a DAC doesn’t improve the quality of the sound but improves the representation of the sound. If the music is bad, don’t expect a DAC to work wonders on it. You’ll just hear how bad it is in higher definition.

Another thing to consider is impedance. This is one of those things wherein if you have it, there’s no decision to make about getting a headphone amp because you might actually really need it.

Impedance is like a resistance level of a set of headphones to electricity. Most headphones out there that the majority are using have an impedance of less than 100 Ohm, if that’s the case for you, then you won’t necessarily need one.

The headphone amps won’t be doing much in that scenario. However, as headphones get better and better in quality, their impedance increases. Once you get headphones that are labeled with more than 100 Ohm, getting a headphone amp is highly recommended, if not required.

Types of Headphone Amps

Just like most products out there in the market, there are different kinds of products in order to cater to different people. And in the case of headphone amps, there are a few types out there that you could choose from.

Firstly, as mentioned before, headphone amps can be divided between portable headphone amps and desktop headphone amps. Their main difference is that the power source of the desktop amp is a socket on the wall while the power source of the portable amp is a battery.

If you are an audiophile who needs quality music on the go, then it’s the portable amp for you. But if you need an amp for a stationary setup like your desktop computer or even stereo, home entertainment center and sound system, then a desktop amp is what you’ll need.

Some headphone amps have DACs (Digital to Analog Converter) and some don’t. DACs act like an external sound card which improves the conversion of digital data into sound.

Another thing that divides headphone amps is the brand and manufacturer. It can’t be denied that there are some companies out there that already have a reputation for excellence while there are some with less savory reputations.

Fortunately for audiophiles and those who work with music, there are a number of companies out there dedicated to audio such as Grado Labs, HeadRoom, NuForce, Pyle, and many more.

FAQs

Q: Will an amplifier make my headphones sound better?

A: That’s literally what they were made to do. However, in terms of how much there is to improve, you should check the impedance level of your headphones because if it’s less than 100 Ohm, then the improvement in sound may not be that significant as opposed to having headphones with an impedance of more than 100 Ohm in which an amplifier will significantly boost the audio experience.

Q: What is a DAC?

A: A DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. As sound cards installed in computers and smartphones convert digital files into sound, a DAC works in the same way.

Q: Do I need a DAC?

A: If your job is music-related or you’re an audiophile, then a DAC will be a useful and important investment.

Conclusion

There’s no better way to get the most out of your high-end headphones than to pair them with a dedicated high-powered headphone amp. Not only do you get better sound, you’ll be able to fully appreciate all the nuanced details of your favorite tracks, from a smoother bass to a delicate flute and a thorough treble. If depth of sound weren’t enough, some of these amps also come with a compact and mobile construction, as well as a streamlined interface and truly unique design.

If you are an audiophile or just a lover of music in general, with these high-quality headphone amps, you will never wish to go back to those days where you were without it. Wherever you are, listening to music or even just watching videos will be a whole new experience. With these headphone amps, whatever it is you are listening to will be crystal clear to your ears.

If I were to pick one out of the eight amps previewed above, I’d go with the Sennheiser HDVD 800. This amp literally ticks all the boxes, with the ability to play and deliver realistic and pleasant sound to four high-quality, high-impedance headphones at the same time. It also provides for all your input needs with digital and analog inputs, as well as sockets for playing CD and DVD audio.

Plus, it comes with a kick-ass lightweight and smooth finish design and the ability to wirelessly play music with Chromecast audio. With so much attention to detail, it’s no wonder that Sennheiser is receiving so many rave reviews on their product, and what more could you want really?

Of course, there is a wide variety of headphone amplifiers available in the market that were not mentioned here so don’t worry if you weren’t to find any of interest to you in the ones listed above. With a little more research, you are bound to find one or two that will fit within your budget while at the same time fit your needs as well.

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