Skip to main content

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

DAC: iFi Zen DAC v2

(Image credit: iFi)

3. iFi Zen DAC V2

One of the very best ways to upgrade your desktop headphone system on a budget

Specifications
Inputs: USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible)
Outputs: RCA, balanced 4.4mm x 2, 6.3mm
Native sample rate support: 32bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256, MQA
Dimensions (HWD): 3 x 10 x 11.7cm
Weight: 0.8kg
Reasons to buy
+Clearer and more insightful than predecessor+Expressive dynamics+Good output selection
Reasons to avoid
-No mains adapter included

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

Best headphone amplifiers: Chord Mojo

4. 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

5. 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)

6. 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

7. 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

8. 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 amplifiers: Chord Anni

(Image credit: Chord Electronics)

9. Chord Anni

Chord's diminutive amplifier offers a premium twist on desktop sound

Specifications
Power: 10W (8 Ohms)
Remote control: No
RCA inputs: x2
Digital inputs: No
USB: No
Bluetooth: No
Headphone output: 3.5mm, 6.3mm
Dimensions (hwd): 43 x 160 x 97mm
Reasons to buy
+Detailed, dynamic and musical sound+Pleasing sense of sonic stability+Fine build
Reasons to avoid
-Only two inputs-Ergonomics aren’t great-Runs hot

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

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

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

10. 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)

11. 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

12. 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+

13. 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

14. 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: Chord DAVE

15. 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

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.

  • 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