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Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

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 budget, mid-range and high-end options. And with Black Friday around the corner, it's a good time to be keeping an eye out for bargains.

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: 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

The Award-winning soundKey is a fantastic piece of kit, and is highly affordable too. It's 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: 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

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 its capable enough to give Chord's mighty Mojo a hard time.

Read the full review: Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: 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. 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: 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

There aren't many headphone amps that sing as sweetly as the Hugo 2. It's 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

5. AudioQuest DragonFly Red

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

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 sound. 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

6. Chord Hugo TT2

Chord's done it again - say hello to yet another class-leading headphone amp/DAC.

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, 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

7. Schiit Audio Magni 3

Crazy name, great product.

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. So if you can live without the DAC, this should make your shortlist.

Read the full review: Schiit Audio Magni 3

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

8. Audiolab M-DAC+

Extensive features, fine build and the sound quality we've come to expect from Audiolab.

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

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+

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

9. 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 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

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

(Image credit: iFi)

10. iFi xDSD

A smart and versatile headphone amp/DAC.

SPECIFICATIONS

In-built DAC: Yes | Inputs: Bluetooth, USB, coaxial, optical digital | Sampling rate: 32-bit/768kHz, DSD support | Dimensions (HWD): 1.9 x 6.7 x 9.5cm | Weight: 127g

Reasons to Buy

Impressive file support
Solid battery life
Clean, balanced sound

Reasons to Avoid

Not the most precise sound
Class-leaders extract more detail

The iFi xDSD has a number of strings to its bow, including a built-in battery pack (good for around 6-8 hours), aptX Bluetooth and extensive hi-res file support. There isn't much this device can't do and its sound quality is good enough to earn it a solid recommendation. It's not the most detailed or rhythmic sound on the headphone amplifier market, but it sounds clean, organised and evenhanded in its approach to music.

Read the full review: iFi xDSD

Best headphone amplifiers 2019: budget and premium

11. 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

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

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