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Best headphone amplifiers 2021: 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 2021.

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. A headphone amp is designed to sit between your source/amplifier and pair of headphones, and can be the basis of a compact and effective desktop hi-fi system.

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 for broader compatibility – ideal if you're listening to music stored on a computer, say.

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: Cyrus soundKey

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 Cyrus soundKey review

Best headphone amplifiers: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

(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 Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt review

Best headphone amplifiers: Chord Mojo

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 Chord Mojo review

Best headphone amplifiers: Chord Hugo 2

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 Chord Hugo 2 review

Best headphone amplifiers: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

5. Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

Cambridge’s generously featured DAC is the best you can buy at this level

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs: Coaxial digital x2, optical digital x2, USB Type-B | Outputs: RCA phono, XLR | Bluetooth: aptX | Max sample rate support: 332-bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512, MQA | Dimensions (hwd): 5.2 x 21.5 x 19.1cm | Weight: 1.2kg

Reasons to Buy

Smooth, clean, insightful sound
Generous connectivity
Native MQA support

Reasons to Avoid

No remote control
Tough competition

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

Best headphone amplifiers: AudioQuest DragonFly Red

6. 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 AudioQuest DragonFly Red review

Best headphone amplifiers: Chord Hugo TT2

7. 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 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

Best headphone amps: Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

8. Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable

Another brilliant portable DAC from AudioQuest with a clever design.

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs: USB-C | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: PCM 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256 | Weight: 27g

Reasons to Buy

Notable improvement to audio
Clean, precise character
Nicely made

Reasons to Avoid

No iOS device compatibility

Before Astell & Kern announced its AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine the company making such a product. After all, it has been in the portable digital audio game with portable music players for years and enjoyed much success.

That know-how has been put to good use in offering USB-C device owners an affordable, practical way to soup up their smartphone or desktop sound through wired headphones. Adding the AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable between these headphones and our source devices (which provide power to the DAC) makes the world of difference. It’s such an appealing option that we can almost forgive the unwieldy name.

Read the full Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable review

Best headphone amplifiers: iFi hip-dac

(Image credit: iFi)

9. 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 iFi hip-dac review

Best headphone amplifiers: Schiit Audio Magni 3

10. 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 Schiit Audio Magni 3 review

Best headphone amplifiers: Audiolab M-DAC+

11. 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 Audiolab M-DAC+ review

Best headphone amplifiers: Naim DAC-V1

12. 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 Naim DAC-V1 review

Best headphone amplifiers: iFi Zen DAC

(Image credit: iFi)

13. 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 iFi Zen DAC review

Best headphone amplifiers: Chord DAVE

14. 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 Chord DAVE review

MORE:

Check out the best DACs

And the best headphones for all occasions

Maybe the best over-ear headphones are more your thing?

Or maybe there's a deal for you here > Best hi-fi and audio deals 2021

  • 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
  • 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
  • Gray
    doifeellucky said:
    .....Based on the majority being DAC/Amp combos, where is the award winning Zen DAC.
    It's number 12 on that list.
    Reply
  • jayhouse
    This is a roundup of dacs mainly focussed on portable use, not a list of headphone amps. Where is the list of products the title promises? A list of items I could integrate in to a home setup where I don’t need a DAC or might already have that covered and want to add headphone use to. The products to upgrade the headphone output on an integrated amp or add headphone use to a turntable etc where I only have a phono stage and a power amp. This is not an uncommon scenario yet nearly every headphone amp or at least list of the best ones just rounds up the same portable DAC/headphone amp combo devices.
    Reply
  • Gray
    jayhouse said:
    This is a roundup of dacs mainly focussed on portable use, not a list of headphone amps. Where is the list of products the title promises? A list of items I could integrate in to a home setup where I don’t need a DAC or might already have that covered and want to add headphone use to. The products to upgrade the headphone output on an integrated amp or add headphone use to a turntable etc where I only have a phono stage and a power amp. This is not an uncommon scenario yet nearly every headphone amp or at least list of the best ones just rounds up the same portable DAC/headphone amp combo devices.
    I agree with you.
    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).
    Reply