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 January 13, 2020, to account for price changes and include information regarding digital signal processors (DSP).
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 an RCA input/output, microUSB input, and power connection.
Massdrop 02 + SDAC DAC/amp
Ok, so the outside is nice but what about the internals? Well, it houses an AKM AK4452 DAC chip that 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.
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.
Do you 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.
Should you get audiophile cables?
If you’re looking to improve the raw performance of your setup, do not invest in audiophile 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.
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 Creative Outlier Gold 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 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
- If you have wireless headphones it may be a matter of incompatible Bluetooth codec support
- 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.
Gamers should get the Sound BlasterX G6
If you own multiple gaming systems or plan to expand your setup, the Creative Sound BlasterX G6 is a pocketknife pick. This compact desktop DAC and amp configuration works with the Nintendo Switch, Sony PS4, Xbox One, and PCs. It has easy-to-reach buttons and a volume dial.
Sound BlasterX G6
It has two inputs of importance: a 3.5mm headphone jack and mic port. It houses a 32-bit/384kHz, 130dB DAC combined with Creative’s Xamp. This 130dB of dynamic range exceeds what the human ear perceives (~120dB), so you’re experiencing plenty of auditory detail with the Sound BlasterX G6.
Gamers also benefit from Dolby Digital Decoding and 7.1 surround sound, which is important for gaming when you need to register enemy movement. Speaking of which, you can also switch on Scout Mode which amplifies sounds like footsteps and weapon-switching, making it easier to identify in-game action.
The Xamp amplifies the left and right channels separately, mitigating distortion. It can power headphones up to 600Ω. In order to get complete functionality, you have to download the Sound Blaster Connect 2 software. This lets you switch between sound presets (e.g. gaming, movies, etc). Overall, it’s an attractive device that’s ideal for gamers but works for anyone.
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.
Related: How to read charts
Take your headphone amp anywhere with the Spectra X
This DAC/amp combo is a dongle on steroids. It supports 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 chip — 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 Monoprice desktop amp is the best value
This amp is as spartan as it gets, but Monprice knows how to manufacture a product that puts function before form. This amp supports up to 600Ω headsets and is adorned with a mode switch, volume knob, and ¼” input. Monoprice provides an RCA cable, USB cable, and power adapter. The RCA lines are great if you want to amplify powered speakers. Just like the O2 + SDAC, it supports 24bit/96kHz audio.
There are only two minor drawbacks to this desktop amplifier. For one, the volume knob is purportedly difficult to grip and the LED indicator on the front panel is ridiculously bright with no way to adjust it. Of course, an easy fix is to put electrical tape over it, but that’s not the most aesthetically pleasing look. That said, this headphone amp is an absolute steal for less than $100 and provides excellent sound quality for your money.
Why you should trust us
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.
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