If you've decided to make your next pair of headphones wired, chances are your number one priority is sound quality. After all, the best wired headphones still beat wireless alternatives for performance-per-pound (or dollar) value. Of course, you can unbox your new pair and plug them straight into your portable hi-res player or hi-fi component amplifier, but connecting them to a dedicated headphone amplifier will make them sing much more impressively (so long as it's better than the one in your system, of course).
A headphone amp is separate from a conventional amplifier. As speakers need more power than most headphones, a headphone amplifier circuit must be engineered to perform at lower signal levels, and many standard amps aren't made to do just that. Hence the need for a proper, separate headphone amplifier.
Considering that this might feel like somewhat unfamiliar territory, even if you do happen to be a committed hi-fi enthusiast, we've rounded up the best headphone amplifiers that we'd put through their paces in our dedicated listening rooms, including top-budget, mid-range and high-end options for every type of consumer, as well as desktop and portable models.
How to choose the best headphone amplifier for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
Why do you need a headphone amplifier at all? An external headphone amp is designed to sit between your source/stereo 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 computer-based desktop hi-fi system too.
A headphone amp is specifically designed to drive headphones rather than speakers, and while dedicated headphone outputs are now less common for many smartphones, they still exist on a huge array of products that span the audio and video fields.
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, analogue-only headphone amplifiers like the Chord Anni and SPL Phonitor xe are a rare breed, as 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 such), although be aware that you can get DACs without headphone sockets, such as the Chord Qutest.
Size and portability are also key considerations. Some of the headphone amplifiers 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 (like you'd need to for the upcoming Yamaha HA-L7A). In short, you'll need to decide whether you'll be listening to your headphones on the move or solely at home before committing to a purchase.
Then, of course, there's the matter of price, and the quality of the equipment you're going to be plugging your new gadget into in the first place. Your headphones need to be of a pretty decent standard before you get the benefits of a dedicated amp - we use Austrian Audio’s Hi-X15 (£89/$119/around AU$160) or the similarly-priced Grado SR80x as decent benchmarks - so you might not want to bother if you're currently rocking a pair of £20/$20 knock-offs you found on sale at Amazon.
Conversely, you may decide that your headphones are performing well enough as it is, and that you like the sound just fine without needing any extra oomph or refinement. If you've just forked out many hundreds of pounds for some decent wired over-ears, you may not be that keen on parting with even more cash to make some noticeable, but possibly incremental, audio gains. That's a totally reasonable position.
It's certainly not cheap, but Audioquest's top-range DragonFly USB DAC 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 that 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 a 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 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. The compact Zen will polish your music with a new level of sparkle, revealing not only more detail but offering a greater sense of dynamic range as it does so.
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 (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. It's also at the higher end of the price scale, so entry-level users seeking a bargain may want to consider a cheaper alternative.
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/headphone amplifier that combines all manner of useful features into an attractive and sonically astute package, the DacMagic 200M is a bit 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. While the Chord Mojo 2 offers greater levels of rhythmic accuracy and detail at a now lower asking price, the Cambridge is still a fine option and is more clearly labelled, too. Ignore this talented all-rounder at your peril.
Read the full review: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
Another Award-winner, albeit back in 2018, this DAC/amp offers a more affordable alternative to the flagship Cobalt in AudioQuest's DragonFly range. Plugged into a laptop or smartphone (with an adapter) the sound is dynamic, with ample weight and body. There's 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
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
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
The Phonitor xe marked the first time we'd reviewed a product from the German audio manufacturer SPL, but it didn't take long to make an impression. At the higher price end of the headphone amp scale, the handsome and well-made analogue-only model certainly looked the part and had a chunky price tag to match, leaving us interested to see just how much it could enhance our headphone listening experience.
Played from a top-quality source, the Phonitor xe is a smooth, articulate performer. The premium amp feels fluid and full-bodied without losing detail or dynamics, excelling when it comes to bringing out voices with their natural warmth and passion. There is an optional digital module available that offers digital inputs and hi-res compatibility, but it costs an additional £875 / $850 / AU$700 – we've stuck with the analogue-only model in this five-star review. If you are after a high-end DAC-and-headphone-amp combo, then the class-leading Chord Hugo TT2 (£3995 / $5795) that delivers exceptional transparency, articulation and dynamic expression should be on your list.
This SPL headphone amplifier does requires some decent accompanying kit to get the most out of it, but provide the Phonitor xe with an appropriately talented source and headphones, and it will deliver some of the finest sound quality you'll hear for this price.
Read the full SPL Phonitor xe review
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