Best headphone amplifiers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphone amplifiers you can buy in 2020.
If you're spending big on a pair of headphones - and why wouldn't you? - a dedicated headphone amp can really make them sing.
So what should you look for in a headphone amplifier? Analogue inputs mean you can plug in a traditional source, such as a CD player, but more modern amps boast digital inputs and a built-in DAC. This is ideal if you're listening to music stored on a computer. A good headphone amp can be the basis of a compact and effective desktop hi-fi system.
Size and portability are also key considerations. Some of the below will happily slip into a jeans pocket and, with the right cables and connectors, can even be paired with a mobile phone. Other models command that you clear your desk. So, decide whether you'll be listening to your headphones on the move or solely at home.
We've rounded up the best headphone amplifiers money can buy, including the top budget, mid-range and high-end options.
The Award-winning soundKey is a fantastic piece of kit, and it's highly affordable too. This dinky headphone amp and DAC is built to handle all manner of file types, including MP3, AAC and FLAC, and the sound is spot on - spacious presentation is the order of the day, giving each instrument the space it needs to breathe. The result is a gloriously detailed soundstage that will do mobile listeners of all stripes proud.
Read the full review: Cyrus soundKey
Audioquest's newest Dragonfly is an excellent performer. The Cobalt improves on the already talented Red by offering even better clarity and sonic precision. Its excellent transparency means that the Cobalt reveals shortcomings in the source and recordings than others in the family don't, but give it a good signal and it's capable enough to give Chord's mighty Mojo a hard time.
Read the full review: Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt
The Mojo boasts much of the same sound prowess as the Chord Hugo, but without the price tag of its more expensive sibling. Its footprint is barely bigger than a credit card, but there's space for plenty of connections, including micro USB, optical and 3.5mm headphone jack. The sound is packed with detail, bursting with insight, and all comes together to form a fully cohesive whole. Highly recommended.
Read the full review: Chord Mojo
There aren't many headphone amps that sing as sweetly as the Hugo 2. It's just about small enough to take with you (there's a built-in battery), but a little too large to sit in a pocket, so it's not ideal for on-the-go listening. It's not the easiest device to use at times, but you've plenty of inputs to take advantage of, plus aptX Bluetooth. See past its quirky looks, and you'll be rewarded with a handsomely detailed, dynamic and punchy performance.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo 2
Another Award winner, this amp is a little pricier than the soundKey, but you can hear where your extra money's going: the sound is more dynamic, with more weight and body. There's also an extra level of detail that, combined with excellent low-level dynamics, means everything sounds more natural, subtle and expressive. Like the DragonFly Cobalt, the logo even lights up different colours to tell you what file format the Red is processing. It's a nice touch to an already excellent device.
Read the full review: AudioQuest DragonFly Red
As you can see from this list, Chord knows how to make a decent headphone amplifier-cum-DAC, and the Hugo TT2 is a high-end delight. It's hugely impressive and not just in the looks department. There are multiple digital inputs of the optical and coaxial variety, plus USB and aptX Bluetooth. There are no fewer than three headphone outputs too. File support is extensive as you'd expect, but it's the sound quality which is truly spectacular. Taking everything in its stride, the Hugo TT2 is one of the most finessed and transparent-sounding devices you're likely to hear.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo TT2
Zorloo claims that the Ztella is the world’s smallest USB DAC with high-end audio capability. Don't be fooled by those diminutive dimensions, though – this DAC has a big personality.
The Ztella can be partnered with a smartphone or computer. If you want to listen to MQA tracks on an Android device you'll need to download the additional USB Audio Player Pro app, but if you're using an iPhone you're good to go from the off (provided you've bought the version from Zorloo.com with a Lightning adapter).
The built-in headphone amp can analyse whatever you feed into it and optimise its sound to match, without losing access to all the in-line controls and the mic on your wired headphones.
When it comes to sound, partnered the Ztella with a pair of neutral-sounding or mellow headphones you'll be rewarded with a clean, confident sound with tons of detail. A brilliant-sounding headphone amp for those who want extreme portability at an affordable price.
Read the full review: Zorloo Ztella
This portable DAC/headphone amp resembles a hip flask and delivers a hit of high-quality sound on the move. The most compact option in iFi's range, it's essentially the guts of the British brand's excellent desktop-based Zen DAC squeezed into a smaller, battery-powered form.
The aluminium case feels rock solid and is accented by a nicely-damped metal volume control. As for audio quality, the hip-dac serves up the typical easy-going, refined iFi sound and we particularly praised its "undemanding nature, partnered with expressive dynamics and pleasing rhythmic precision."
In short, the iFi hip-dac is a superb buy – but it's up against a strong field. The likes of Zorloo’s Ztella set high standards for below the £100 mark, while the Cyrus soundKey remains hard to beat. Still, if you're looking for a high-quality portable headphone amp, this well-designed DAC/headphone amp deserves to be a front-runner.
Read the full review: iFi hip-dac
Be warned: this amp is a little basic, with no built-in DAC, but the sound quality is superb. There's no harshness or edginess at the top of the frequency range, bass notes are bedded in nicely without being overbearing, and vocals are placed precisely where they should be. So if you can live without the DAC, this should make your shortlist.
Read the full review: Schiit Audio Magni 3
This is very much a desktop amp - if you're looking for something portable, best look elsewhere. But if it's home headphone listening you're after, it could well be the one for you. The M-DAC+ shows a slavish attention to detail, fantastic powers of organisation and a rhythmic assurance that few can match. This is a solid headphone amplifier that truly justifies the outlay.
Read the full review: Audiolab M-DAC+
Again, home listening is the name of the game here, but that's no bad thing. The Naim is a big, full-bodied performer with superb rhythmic ability, showing real precision and a fantastic level of bite. And it manages to keep everything organised without ever sounding clinical or disjointed. The low end is powerful, the midrange strong and focussed, while the treble remains balanced and refined. A true five-star product.
Read the full review: Naim DAC-V1
IFi's digital-to-analogue converters offer a combination of features and sound quality that’s hard to better at the price, and the company's Zen DAC is no exception.
Unlike the battery-powered iFi hip-dac (above), this USB-only desktop DAC takes power from the computer that’s connected to it. It's still very portable, though, and you can still use this paperback-sized device in the garden, in a cafe, on the train... wherever you take your laptop.
Despite the budget price, the iFi can handle PCM files up to 384kHz and DSD256 files. And it can also decode MQA, which is impressive in this price bracket.
It sounds great, easily outperforming the sound card in a typical laptop and lending plenty of authority and weight to your favourite tracks. For the money, the Zen DAC is up there with the best at this price and a great headphone amplifier for those on a tight budget.
Read the full review: iFi Zen DAC
Eight grand sounds like a lot of money - and indeed it is - but if you're one of the lucky few with a huge budget, then you should definitely get to know DAVE. It is quite simply the best DAC money can buy, despite the fact that setting it up is not as straightforward as it could be (Chord hasn't seen fit to label any of the ports).
But once you do fire it up, you'll struggle to find a weakness - the soundstage is excellent, managing to be precise, layered and neatly arranged, while the tonal balance is even-handed and utterly convincing. But it's the dynamics that really impressed us the most. This headphone amplifier has to be heard to be believed.
Read the full review: Chord DAVE