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Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

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. 

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

1. Cyrus soundKey

A great portable headphone amp/DAC for those on a budget.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: USB micro-B | Sampling rate: 24bit/96kHz | Dimensions (HWD): 2.3 x 5.4 x 0.8cm | Weight: 18g

Reasons to Buy

Clean, open sound
Loaded with detail
Compact and unobtrusive

Reasons to Avoid

Attaching to an iOS device is a faff
Not as dynamic as some rivals

Not only is the Award-winning soundKey a fantastic piece of kit, it's highly affordable too. A killer combination.

This dinky headphone amp and DAC is built to handle all manner of file types, including MP3, AAC and FLAC. So it's ideal for everyone, from casual listeners to those who of us who are more particular about sound quality.

Speaking of sound quality, it's spot on – a spacious presentation is the order of the day, giving each instrument the space it needs to breathe. This is especially pronounced when listening to quieter, sparser material, as opposed to frenetic, busy tracks. Recordings like this are opened up nice and wide, allowing the tiny details space to reveal themselves and giving tunes a widescreen aspect some lesser portable DACs are simply not capable of.

The result? A gloriously detailed soundstage that will do mobile listeners of all stripes proud. Don't leave home without it.

Read the full review: Cyrus soundKey

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

(Image credit: Audioquest)

2. AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

Wonderful clarity and insight make this headphone amp/DAC a great option at this price.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: USB | Sampling rate: 24bit/96kHz | Dimensions (HWD): 1.2 x 1.9 x 5.7cm

Reasons to Buy

Impressive resolution and clarity
As convenient as ever
Smartphone compatible

Reasons to Avoid

Less forgiving than the Red

It's certainly not cheap, but Audioquest's newest Dragonfly is an excellent performer. The Award-winning 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, so you might have to watch those lower-quality recordings. But give it a good signal and it's capable enough to give Chord's mighty Mojo a hard time – and that's something not many headphone amps can claim.

It shares many of the same features as the multiple Award-winning DragonFly Red, including the 2.1v headphone output, bit-perfect digital volume control and MQA renderer. But there are also numerous upgrades, like the more advanced DAC chip, delivering a clearer, more natural sound, and new microprocessor which increases processing speed by 33 per cent. Plus improved power supply filtering (increasing immunity to wi-fi, Bluetooth and cellular noise), a 10 per cent smaller enclosure, and included DragonTail USB-A (female) to USB-C (male) adaptor for use with the growing number of electronics with connectivity for the latter.

Suddenly it doesn't look all that expensive after all...

Read the full review: Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

3. Chord Mojo

The audio quality surpasses what we'd expect at this price.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: Coaxial, optical | Sampling rate: 32-bit/768kHz (USB), 32bit/384KHz (coaxial), 24bit/192kHZ (optical) support | Dimensions (HWD): 0.22 x 0.82 x 0.6cm | Weight: 180g

Reasons to Buy

Informative, subtle, dynamic sound
Fine rhythmic drive
Solid build and good finish

Reasons to Avoid

Tends to heat up

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. 

Build quality is terrific. It feels like a solid chunk of metal, with its aircraft-grade aluminium casing beautifully machined and finished to an extremely high standard. And it'll last you a while too – eight hours once fully charged, though this will vary depending on your volume levels and type of headphones used. 

The sound doesn't disappoint either. It's packed with detail, and bursting with insight. But it's the Mojo’s ability to organise all that information into a cohesive and musical whole that makes it stand out from the competition. The presentation is solid, full-bodied but avoids any hint of excess richness at mid- and low-frequencies.

It all comes together to sound wonderfully cohesive. Highly recommended.

Read the full review: Chord Mojo

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

4. Chord Hugo 2

Chord knows how to make excellent kit, and this DAC/amp is worth every penny.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: Micro USB, optical, coaxial, Bluetooth | Sampling rate: DSD512 and 32bit/768kHz support | Dimensions (HWD): 2.1 x 10 x 13cm | Weight: 450g

Reasons to Buy

Well made and specified
Exotic multi-coloured control system
Prodigiously detailed sound

Reasons to Avoid

Confusing colours
Not very portable

The Hugo 2 is a strange one. It's just about small enough to take with you (though this is clearly the intention, as it has its own 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 also not the easiest device to use at times, mostly thanks to its system of coloured lights, which can get confusing.

Oh, and it's expensive, too.

So what's it doing on this list, you might ask. Two words for you: sound quality. It's very difficult indeed to fault the way Hugo 2 converts and delivers your digital audio files. And not just sparklingly high res ones, but lower quality files, too – whatever you feed it, Hugo 2 serves up a detailed, dynamic and punchy performance.

There are plenty of inputs to take advantage of, plus aptX Bluetooth as well. See past its quirky looks, and you'll be rewarded with a handsomely detailed, dynamic and punchy performance. No wonder it won a What Hi-Fi? Award for its efforts.

Read the full review: Chord Hugo 2

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

5. AudioQuest DragonFly Red

Clear, open treble and tight bass make this headphone amp a great option.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: USB | Sampling rate: 24bit/96kHz | Dimensions (HWD): 1.2 x 1.9x 6.2cm

Reasons to Buy

Sophisticated, solid, subtle sound
As convenient as ever
Smartphone compatible

Reasons to Avoid

Red finish seems easily chipped

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.

Downsides? Its support for high-resolution music tops out at 24-bit/96kHz. And the glossy red finish does chip a bit easily.

But the Red is a supremely compact and convenient device that can be taken anywhere for an immediate musical boost. If you can live with that slightly flaky finish (and we certainly can), you can consider the DragonFly Red a pretty perfect computer music upgrade.

Read the full review: AudioQuest DragonFly Red

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

6. Chord Hugo TT2

Another class-leading headphone amp/DAC from Chord.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: optical x2, coaxial digital x2, USB, aptX Bluetooth | Sampling rate: DSD512 and 24bit/768kHz support | Dimensions (HWD): 4.6 x 23.5 x 22.3cm | Weight: 2.53kg

Reasons to Buy

Dynamic, detailed sound
Wonderfully articulate
Brilliant build quality

Reasons to Avoid

Can be frustrating to use

As you can see from this list, Chord knows how to make a decent headphone amplifier-cum-DAC. The Hugo TT2 is a high-end delight. It's hugely impressive and not just in the looks department. 

It's eminently usable thanks to its multiple digital inputs of the optical and coaxial variety, plus USB and aptX Bluetooth. There are no fewer than three headphone outputs too – handy for listening with friends. 

In fact, the TT2 is many things to many people. It’s a high quality DAC, it’s a headphone amplifier and can even drive a power amplifier or active speakers directly. At the press of a button, you can even get it to have a fixed output so that it can be plugged straight into your existing amplifier and work like a conventional hi-fi DAC.

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

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

(Image credit: Zorloo)

7. Zorloo Ztella

A nifty portable DAC/headphone amp for your smartphone.

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs: USB Type-C, 3.5mm audio, USB 2.0, USB | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: PCM (up to 384kHz), DSD (up to 5.6mHz), MQA | Dimensions (hwd): 11cm (length) | Weight: 5g

Reasons to Buy

Clean and detailed sound
Lots of energy and excitement
Unobtrusive size and form

Reasons to Avoid

Tiresome with bright headphones
Android users need MQA app

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, partner the Ztella with a pair of neutral-sounding or mellow headphones and 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

(Image credit: iFi)

8. iFi hip-dac

This mini DAC/headphone amp delivers high-quality sound on the go.

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs: USB Type-A, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio | Outputs: 3.5mm, 4.4mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: PCM (up to 384kHz), DXD (up to 384kHz), DSD (up to 256kHz), MQA | Dimensions (hwd): 1.4 x 7 x 10.2cm (length) | Weight: 125g

Reasons to Buy

Easy-going by engaging sound
Battery power
Fine build and finish

Reasons to Avoid

Up against tough competition
Larger than some rivals
Sub-par sampling rate indicators

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 at around this price 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

9. Schiit Audio Magni 3

Crazy name, great headphone amplifier/DAC.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: No | Inputs: RCA, Hi/Lo Gain | Sampling rate: n/a | Dimensions (HWD): 3.2 x 13 x 9cm | Weight: 454g

Reasons to Buy

Well-balanced, smooth sound
Easy to listen to
Affordable

Reasons to Avoid

No-frills styling and features

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.

The Magni 3 is about the size of a chunky wallet, so will fit almost anywhere. And its premium-feeling brushed aluminium casing looks very smart next to a MacBook Pro. 

Around back you get one stereo RCA input and one output, plus two old school toggle switches – one for power, one for hi/lo gain (17 or 6db). That analogue output tells you this headphone amp can also act as a preamp, allowing you to connect straight to a pair of powered speakers. Very handy indeed.

If the lack of a DAC isn't a dealbreaker, this should definitely make your shortlist.

Read the full review: Schiit Audio Magni 3

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

10. Audiolab M-DAC+

Extensive features, fine build and super sound quality – we're big fans.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: 3.5mm, USB | Sampling rate: 24-bit/192kHz (optical, coaxial, AES), 32-bit/384kHz (USB), 2.8MHz (DSD64), 5.6MHz (DSD128), 11.2MHz (DSD256) | Dimensions (HWD): 11.4 x 24.7 x 29.2cm | Weight: 3.7kg

Reasons to Buy

Extensive spec
Fine build and finish
Organised, tidy, expansive listen

Reasons to Avoid

Could use more attack

Look at this tank. Unsurprisingly, it's very much a desktop amp – and you'll need a sizeable desktop, at that. 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. 

Sonically, it's a valuable additional to your home audio setup. It’s an overtly neat and tidy listen – showing a slavish attention to detail when it comes to the delineation of the soundstage. That’s a trait we wholly admire, and few other comparably priced DACs describe a stage quite as explicitly as the M-DAC+.

Even the densest, busiest recordings are laid out openly – in terms of staging, focus and sheer three-dimensionality, the Audiolab dishes out the details like a bar room gossip.

Add in fantastic powers of organisation and a rhythmic assurance that few can match, and you've got a solid headphone amplifier that truly justifies the outlay.

Read the full review: Audiolab M-DAC+

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

11. Naim DAC-V1

A striking headphone amp/DAC that delivers an equally striking sound.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: Coaxial, optical, USB | Sampling rate: 24bit/192kHz (S/PDIF), 24bit/384kHz (USB) | Dimensions (HWD): 8.7 x 20.7 x 31.4cm | Weight: 4.3kg

Reasons to Buy

Great build
Precise, rhythmic sound
Supports PCM and DSD

Reasons to Avoid

Not the most relaxing presentation

Again, home listening is the name of the game here, but again, that's no bad thing, as long as you know that going in. The V1 has buttons on the front for selecting your input, or you can use the remote control instead.

As well as a headphone amp using the 6.3mm jack, it can work as a preamplifier too. You’ll find three coaxial inputs (one BNC and two RCA) and two opticals for hooking up various sources.

Sonically, this is typical Naim. That means a big, full-bodied performance with superb rhythmic ability. There's real precision here, not to mention a fantastic level of bite. And it manages to keep everything organised without ever sounding clinical or disjointed. The low end is powerful with plenty of rumble, the midrange strong and focussed, while the treble remains balanced and refined. A true five-star product – add it to your desktop now, you won't be disappointed.

Read the full review: Naim DAC-V1

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

(Image credit: iFi)

12. iFi Zen DAC

An accomplished budget headphone amp/DAC with many talents.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible) | Outputs: Audio RCA, optical/coaxial | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256 | Dimensions (HWD): 3 x 10 x 11.7cm | Weight: 0.8kg

Reasons to Buy

Lots of detail
Great build quality
Plenty of features

Reasons to Avoid

Nothing at this price

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

Best headphone amplifiers 2020: budget and premium

13. Chord DAVE

Daft name, extraordinary performance as a headphone amplifier.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: Fibre optical, AES, USB | Sampling rate: 44.1Khz – 768Khz DSD64,128,256,512 native DSD + DoP (input dependant) | Dimensions (HWD): 7.1 x 33.4 x 14.2cm | Weight: 7kg

Reasons to Buy

Class-leading sound quality
Excellent dynamics and rhythmic ability
Impressive feature list

Reasons to Avoid

That price

This is a lot of money to spend on a headphone amp, 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. 

But there's a steep learning curve. For some reason, Chord has opted not to label any of the ports, which makes setting it up anything but straightforward.

But once you do fire it up, you'll struggle to find a weakness. Instead of buying in third-party DAC chips, Chord has implemented an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) loaded with highly-developed proprietary software. Which gives it total control over how it sounds.

It shows. 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 impress us the most. This headphone amplifier has to be heard to be believed.

Read the full review: Chord DAVE

MORE:

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  • Neiljbp
    Once again the question arises.....................
    Which of these products is guaranteed to work with a CHROMEBOOK........
    The last time I posted this question, I got ONE response. and that response was all about what worked with Windows and Apple.........Avoiding Chromebook.
    See I told you how tricky the question was.
    Surely SOMEONE at WHAT HIFI ? must know the answer.....
    Reply
  • anort3
    Neiljbp said:
    Once again the question arises.....................
    Which of these products is guaranteed to work with a CHROMEBOOK........
    The last time I posted this question, I got ONE response. and that response was all about what worked with Windows and Apple.........Avoiding Chromebook.
    See I told you how tricky the question was.
    Surely SOMEONE at WHAT HIFI ? must know the answer.....

    I don't know but you might ask the question on the forums. Someone who does know might be able to help you. :)


    This is another 'best' list of things previously tested. Not a real 'best' list.
    Reply
  • doifeellucky
    Strange that this list of headphone amplifiers only actually contains one dedicated headphone amp in it. Even that is labelled incorrectly as a DAC/Amp. Then directly below it says it actually doesn't have DAC in it. Get your facts right. Based on the majority being DAC/Amp combos, where is the award winning Zen DAC. I'm increasingly starting to question the hi-fi knowledge of whoever puts these 'lists' together.
    Reply