Best Headphone Amplifiers 2021 | Amps for any Budget

by Editor

Recently I’ve invested in a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphones for monitoring and personal listening pleasure. After a lot of research, I chose this headphone for its excellent audio quality and flat response for mixing and mastering my own music. 

The headphones sounded great when connected to an external sound card in the studio or an external amp from my home stereo, but unfortunately felt it was lacking its impact when connected directly to my MacBook when editing and mixing on the go. These headphones are designed for the studio for referencing but I needed a way I can use these headphones on the go for my live recordings and reference to my client’s work. 

In my studio, I connect my headphones to the mixer which amplifies the monitoring process while recording my guitars and keys to get a better understanding of the recording quality but when working with other musicians in their studio. This option in most scenarios isn’t available so I needed a portable and efficient headphone amplifier that can be used anywhere, be it in a studio environment or in a client’s office to show him a reference of the recording. 

After researching a couple of options online, I’ve shortlisted a couple of the best headphone amplifiers that will give you excellent source signal amplification and premium monitoring levels.

Top 5 Best Headphone AmplifiersReason to Buy
iFi Zen DAC V2USB 3.0 No Latency
Cambridge Audio DacMagichigh-quality ESS Sabre DAC converter
AudioQuest Dragonfly CobaltCompact size with high quality audio, easy to use
FiiO BTR5-2021Wireless Headphone Amp
iFi Hip-DAC2Battery operated, smartphone compatible and portable. 

Recommended Read: Best Chinese Headphone Amp

What should you look for in a headphone amplifier?

The most important thing we look for in the best headphone amplifiers is the overall sound quality. It’s rather pointless using a professional grade pair of headphones with a low-budget amp that can not deliver the required amount of power to drive the headphones.

Another thing you need to look for in a headphone amplifier are the features and connectivity. Most of the units listed below com with different features that might be useful to certain buyers. Make sure the headphone amp you buy has all the connectivity options you need.

You will also have to consider the budget you’re going to put aside for your headphone amplifier. Don’t go overboard and spend all your money on a headphone amp, you actually do get some pretty brilliant headphone amplifiers like the AudioQuest Dragonfly which you can get for under $100.

Finally, consider the build quality and design of the amplifier before buying one. See whether you want it to sit on your desk or something compact that can fit in your pocket.

Top 5 Best Headphone Amplifiers

iFi Zen DAC V2

Best Headphone Amplifier

The first headphone amplifier we have on my list is from iFi, who’ve been making headphone amplifiers and pro audio equipment for quite some time now. The iFi Zen DAC V2 is the upgraded and latest version of the iFi Zen that did not have DAC incorporated into it making the Zen DAC V2 one of the top premium compact digital-analog converters. 

The device uses USB 3.0 to connect to the computer, they have also given the option if you have an older computer with USB 2.0 for it to be compatible but slower in terms of conversion.

The device provides the option to connect your headphones when traveling and requires an amplified headphone signal. A huge advantage with this headphone amplifier is that it comes with the option to connect studio monitors or external amplifiers through three mediums – 6.3mm Unbalanced, 4.4mm balanced, and RCA outputs. 

The device converts audio into rich amplified sound using Burr-Brown True Native digital to analog conversion that can provide high-resolution audio output and format up to PCM 384kHz/24 bit, DSD256, and DXD 384kHz. Which is excellent as you can hear the audio as the artist who recorded it intended it to sound. 

When using the device I found it easy to control the levels with the analog volume control, the TrueBass option works great with songs that lack low-end frequency by boosting those specific regions making it a pleasurable listening experience. 

Cons

There is an imbalance detected when the analog volume control is set to a 9’0 clock, it is advised to use the headphone amplifier at the 11 to 1 o’clock region for the best listening and monitoring experience. 

Cambridge Audio DacMagic

Best Headphone Amplifier

The first thing you notice about this Headphone amp is that it looks amazing and sturdy with a metal body and metallic finish. They’ve tried to match the look and feel of a MacBook pro which I feel they’ve achieved as it feels premium right from the start when you hold it. 

In terms of performance, they perform exceptionally well with the conversion of the digital signal from your laptop to an amplified analog signal with no latency. The device has MQA

incorporated that helps provide studio-quality audio from any low quality that is small enough to stream. 

What makes this Headphone amp really stand out from the rest is its excellent performance power, thanks to its high-quality ESS Sabre DAC converters. This converter helps convert digital audio files up to 32bit/768 kHz, basically, it can handle any digital conversion for high-quality amplified headphone monitoring. You can’t expect any less from a 500$ headphone amplifier.

The device comes with multiple connectivity options like optical digital connection via optical cable, digital coaxial, and USB inputs making it compatible with any digital audio equipment. It also supports Bluetooth connectivity that exports files to your smartphone or tablet. 

Cons

Performance for digital conversion is great but the MQA conversion on CDs is slow and not to the mark as the brand suggests.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt

Best Headphone Amplifier

This headphone amp from Audioquest is known for its compact design and portability without compromising on quality. The external body build is solid and sturdy with a USB connector at one end and a 3.5mm amplified output on the other end. The Audioquest Dragonfly is the upgraded version of the Audioquest red with MQA and Hi-Resolution audio. 

The device houses a DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip that has incorporated a roll-off filter with low phases that provides organic and natural sound from any recording. It supports all music files from low-quality MP3 files to MQA high-quality audio files. It is best to use high-quality audio files for the best results. 

This is one of the few devices that is compatible with iOS mobile devices like Apple iPad and iPhone with the help of an Apple lighting-to-USB adapter that can be purchased separately. 

If you’re looking for a portable and efficient headphone amplifier that doesn’t add too much weight to your hand baggage while traveling. This is my top pick for you. 

Cons

The device doesn’t have an analog volume dock but is provided with digital control on the device it is connected to. 

FiiO BTR5-2021

If you aren’t a fan of wired headphones amplifiers and want something portable and easy to connect without losing analog sound quality the Fiio BTR5-2021 is designed just for this purpose. 

It provides high-performance audio using its DAC ES9219C*2 that doesn’t fail to impress with its powerful output. The device is built to support high-resolution formats like AAC, SBC, aptX/aptX Low Latency, aptX HD, LDAC up to 96kHz. Making it compatible with almost any digital audio format available. 

The device uses the latest Bluetooth 5.0 to connect to your laptop and other multimedia devices with zero latency. Making it the perfect portable wireless headphone amplifier in the market in its price range. 

The 2021 edition supports MQA render that provides exceptional sound quality that enhances the sound quality from low-quality MP3 files to studio-quality from any multimedia device. The device also supports MQA 16x decoding that works great with modern music streaming apps like Spotify and SoundCloud. 

One of the most unique features the devices offer is asynchronous audio decoding with the help of the USB Audio Class 2.0. This helps the device decode up to 384kHz sampling rate which is possible by connecting the device directly to the laptop via USB 2.0.

The headphone amp provides two high-quality headphone monitoring options of 3.5mm and 2.5mm. The output has active noise cancellation removing any unwanted sounds from vinyl rips. 

Cons

The in-built EQ when adjusted in a laptop doesn’t create much of an audible difference making you feel limited to explore your music to your liking. 

iFi Hip-DAC2

No this is not a fancy whiskey flask, this is another premium headphone amp from iFi called the Hip Dac2. The device is battery operated and can last a good 6-8 hours depending on the volume levels you set on it. The device is compact and small and just like a flask it can fit in your pocket making it super portable and perfect to travel with. 

The device is integrated with the latest MQA British technology that transforms all your favorite MP3 tracks and music app playlists like Spotify into high resolution audio format by converting it from digital to audio format. This provides you with an amazing listening experience that is very close to how the artist who recorded it intended you to listen to it. 

The device can be connected to your smartphone via USB input with a maximum output of 400 mW. You can perceive this through a balanced 4.4mm headphone slot or S-bal 3.5mm slot. 

If you’re an audiophile who isn’t happy with the listening experience during your travels, this super portable headphone amp from iFi is my top choice for you. 

FAQ’s

Are headphone amplifiers and guitar amplifiers the same?

No, as a matter of fact, headphone amplifiers cant support your guitar and if you really need to practice your guitar with headphones, you can plug in a pair of headphones into the guitar amplifier.

Can using a headphone amplifier damage my hearing?

Headphone amplifiers are designed to deliver detailed and crisp sound and won’t damage your hearing unless you listen to music at extremely high volumes for a prolonged period of time.

Are desktop headphone amps better sounding than portable headphone amps?

Desktop headphone amplifiers are bigger and would have a larger power output than portable headphone amps. But this doesn’t mean that desktop headphone amps sound better. Compact headphone amps like the Dragonfly Cobalt can out perform a desktop headphone amp as long as the headphones you use do not require high levels of power to run.

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