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.
- Listen up! The best headphones: in-ear, on-ear, over-ear
- Learn how to play hi-res music on your iPhone
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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+
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
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
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
Check out the best DACs
And the best headphones for all occasions
Maybe the best over-ear headphones are more your thing?