Best headphone amplifiers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphone amplifiers you can buy in 2023.
If you're spending big on a pair of premium headphones, a dedicated headphone amplifier will make them sing much more than if you were to simply plug them into a computer, phone or even, depending on the quality of its built-in headphone amp, a hi-fi component. An external headphone amp is designed to sit between your source/amplifier and pair of headphones for listening to your hi-fi in intimate isolation, and it can be the basis of a compact and effective desktop hi-fi system too.
We've rounded up the best headphone amplifiers money can buy, including the top budget, mid-range and high-end options, starting with the 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award winners...
How to choose the best headphone amplifier for you
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So what should you look for in a headphone amplifier? Analogue inputs are the most common and mean you can plug in any source that has analogue outputs (which is most of them). These days, though, the majority of headphone amps also boast built-in DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) that feed digital inputs for broader compatibility – ideal if, say, you are listening to music stored on a computer. This means many headphone amplifiers are also DACs (and can be called as such), although you can get DACs without headphone sockets.
Size and portability are also key considerations. Some of the headphone amps below will happily slip into a jeans pocket and, with the right cables and connectors, can be paired with a phone. Bigger models, whether they're are battery- or mains-powered, command that you clear your desk or make some room on your hi-fi rack. So, decide whether you'll be listening to your headphones on the move or solely at home.
- Here are the best headphones – all styles, all budgets
- Learn how to play hi-res music on your iPhone
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 Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt review
The fittingly named Mojo 2 is the long-anticipated, re-engineered replacement to the 2015-released original, which burst onto the scene as a real benchmark-setting game-changer in the then-fledgling world of portable DACs/headphone amps. And while those familiar with Chord’s most affordable product will see from this review’s accompanying images that the aesthetic hasn’t exactly been overhauled for the sequel, significant progress has been made elsewhere to protect its position as the pinnacle of portable DACs.
While from a performance point of view the Mojo 2 can just as confidently raise a hi-fi system’s game too, some of those looking for a system boost might reasonably prefer a dedicated system alternative with more suitable connections, such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M (below). But for those who are after a primarily portable or desktop DAC solution in this price region (and cannot triple their budget to Chord Hugo 2 territory), we believe the decision to Mojo 2 or not to Mojo 2 is far easier. And what about existing Mojo owners? Honestly, Chord has left us no choice but to recommend the upgrade.
Read the full Chord Mojo 2 review
The ‘if it ain’t broke…’ saying isn’t lost on us. But at the same time we realise that in a competitive industry such as hi-fi, making the best even better off your own back isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s what iFi has done with its budget home DAC and headphone amp offering, with the original Zen DAC now making way for a ‘V2’ model that offers improvements in terms of processing, MQA decoding and circuitry.
They pay off. This budget DAC, which can be USB or mains powered, is excellent in both the features and performance department for the money.
Offering a significant upgrade over computer sound quality in an era where people need it most, the Zen DAC V2 is another feather in the cap for iFi’s budget Zen series.
Read the full review: iFi Zen DAC V2
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 has won What Hi-Fi? Awards for its efforts.
Read the full Chord Hugo 2 review
If you're looking for a DAC that combines all manner of useful features into an attractive and sonically astute package, the DacMagic 200M is a bot of a no-brainer, especially at this price.
It's well-equipped enough to slot effortlessly into any hi-fi or desktop system. A wide selection of digital inputs caters to a range of sources and there's aptX Bluetooth on board too. Add balanced and unbalanced outputs into the mix, plus a headphone output and hi-res audio support and that's pretty much any and all bases covered.
Sonically, it's got that recognisable 'Cambridge' sound which means a full, smooth tone partnered with an open, expressive, and authoritative delivery. Ignore this talented all-rounder at your peril.
Read the full review: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
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 AudioQuest DragonFly Red review
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 it 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 as 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 Chord Hugo TT2 review
Chord Electronics has proven to have quite some talent in finding new market niches. And the diminutive Anni desktop integrated amplifier is a perfect example of that.
Make no mistake, this really is a proper Chord amplifier in miniature, using as it does the Ultima dual feed-forward circuitry seen in the latest generation of the brand’s high-end power amplification. However, this little box is only the size of the Chord Qutest digital-to-analogue converter – for the uninitiated, think smaller than a pair of coasters laid end-on – and it’s intended to be an ideal partner for that DAC and the company’s Huei phono stage. The important thing to note is that it’s designed for desktop use with either headphones or suitable speakers.
This is one of the most capable headphone amplifiers we’ve heard. It sounds clean, clear and articulate yet captures the manic energy of Nick Cave & The Bad Seed's Babe, I’m On Fire superbly.
Use it as a desktop amplifier as intended and it shines. Sure, there are operational quirks – something that’s proving to be a Chord trait – but when the Anni sounds this good we can forgive a lot.
Read the full Chord Anni review
The headline is that this portable DAC/headphone amp offers a Bluetooth 5.1 connection to your source device (although not to your headphones, those still need to be wired into the unit) thus eliminating one wire from the potentially bulky, tangled equation of phone, to DAC, to headphones.
When discussing DACs to improve the sound quality of your music, Bluetooth puts the cat among the pigeons owing to the inescapable truth that its delivery has yet to catch up with both wi-fi and wired listening for a truly high fidelity sound. However, when portability is paramount and convenience is key, you cannot currently better the iFi Go Blu. It levels up your phone’s sound with very little effort or added weight in your pocket or strain on your wallet. It can sit in the tiny watch pocket of your jeans, doing its good work nowhere near your actual phone, and if you’re working in a cafe, it will both look and sound exceptionally good next to your flat white. Highly recommended.
Read the full iFi Go Blu review
At this level, you’re unlikely to find a portable DAC as clear, zealous, fully featured, or as downright good-looking as the iFi hip-dac 2. When a product leans quite heavily on a gimmick – i.e. masquerading as a vessel for alcohol, albeit a nice one – you might feel yourself dismissing it before you’ve given it a chance. To do so where iFi is concerned would be wrong, because really, this DAC is anything but a joke.
It improves the quality of portable music without issue, faithfully plays virtually anything you ask it to, and the extra oomph afforded by the company’s more premium processor, in conjunction with its favoured Burr-Brown DAC, is well worth the nominal extra outlay over the original. Said original is still a noble, inexpensive DAC. It’s just that its successor is that little bit better.
Read the full iFi hip-dac 2 review
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 Schiit Audio Magni 3 review
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 Audiolab M-DAC+ review
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 Naim DAC-V1 review
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 Chord DAVE review
Check out the best DACs – including ones without headphone amps
And the best headphones for all occasions
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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.
You're better off looking elsewhere if you're investigating amps.
(The two latest Magni 3 variants and the Topping A50S are prime contenders, in their respective price brackets).