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If you’re an audiophile who won’t settle for anything but the best, you need to get a headphone amplifier. Headphone amps drastically improve the sound of your music, and if you don’t have one you’re not going to be able to enjoy your library to the fullest.
But the question is: what makes a good headphone amp? Well, if you’ve ever been curious as to what you should look for in a headphone amp you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you a basic intro to how headphone amps function, as well as a few great recommendations!
- So, What Does A Headphone Amp Do?
- What Should I Look For In A Headphone Amp?
- Tube vs. Solid State
- Top 5 Headphone Amplifiers
So, What Does A Headphone Amp Do?
Weirdly enough, all of you reading this probably already have a headphone amplifier on your person right now. Your headphones (including earbuds) are essentially nothing more than a miniature speaker, and all speakers require some form of amplifier in order to function.
So everything from the upcoming Marshall smartphone (yes, that Marshall is actually making their own smartphone) to that old boombox with an aux-in port you’ve got stashed under your bed technically feature headphone amplifiers.
The only bad thing is that headphone amplifiers you find in smartphones or mp3 players sacrifice sound in order to be price and space efficient, while an external headphone amplifier doesn’t have to sacrifice a thing to deliver a great sound.
What Should I Look For In A Headphone Amp?
The most important thing about a headphone amplifier is that it keeps you from getting distortion during “peaks” in your music when paired with proper headphones. Have you ever noticed that when you’re jamming out to a song that get’s a bit loud during the chorus it can cause your headphones to distort?
Aside from just being annoying, this actually prevents you from being able to pick out a lot of the intricacies of the song that you would be able to otherwise.
However, you should also think about your needs before investing into an external headphone amplifier. Do you want to listen to your music on the go? If so, you’re going to want to find a headphone amplifier small enough to be easily portable.
So like headphone amplifiers, most of you already have a DAC. Every sound file is a long string of 0s and 1s, and your DAC (Digital-to-Analog converter) is what transforms these files into sound. However, DACs don’t output a signal strong enough to actually listen to.
Unless you’re ready to really invest into getting the best sound possible, I would hold off on getting a standalone DAC. Though laptops and phones generally don’t use great DACs, the main things holding back the sound quality of your music are most likely your headphone amplifier and the headphones themselves.
And as an added bonus, there are also a few combination DAC/headphone amplifiers on the market at a pretty reasonable cost. Of course they’re not going to sound as good as standalone versions of those two pieces of equipment, but they’re a great place to start for the beginning audiophile.
Tube vs. Solid State
When I was researching this article, I didn’t realize that tube vs. solid state headphone amplifiers were such a divisive issue. I always thought that was more of a guitar player hang-up. I mean, I knew people had their preferences but I was expecting it to be way less controversial.
So, by my own admission, I’m not really all that much of an audiophile. I have used both a solid-state and a tube headphone amplifier, but they were both of a high-enough quality that I didn’t really notice all that much of a difference.
According to general consensus, a tube headphone amplifier reproduces your music in a way that sounds a bit warmer and more organic while solid-state headphone amplifiers tend to get a bit harsh in the upper end of the frequency range.
And really, neither option is objectively worse than the other. A tube headphone amp may or may not sound better than a solid-state depending on the model, but it’s going to be more expensive and require more maintenance.
Solid-state amplifiers may be a bit more rugged, but you don’t have the option to easily change out main components (like the tubes in a tube amplifier) in order to change the voicing of your headphone amp.
Top 5 Headphone Amplifiers
The purpose of this article was to give everyone enough information to make an informed purchase as to what option would be best for them. So we’ve included both some budget and high-end models in the hopes that everyone would be able to find something that will appeal to them.
And like always, it’s important to clarify what “best” means in the context of this article. Sure, a $17,000 headphone amplifier is going to sound great, but there’s no way the average person is going to be able to buy a luxury item worth more than the average first car.
FiiO A3 Portable Headphone Amplifier
Established in 2007, FiiO has one goal: to raise the reputation of “Made in China.” Made in China used to be a mark of poor quality, generally implying that the goods were poor quality and made from inferior materials. However, though Chinese manufacturing has not risen to the point where it can compete with high-end products China has upped their game in a variety of different areas.
A good example of this is FiiO Electronics Technology, which has quickly gained a reputation as being one of the best entry-level manufacturers of quality digital audio solutions. The company produces a variety of products that are both fairly price and feature rich for the investment required. A great example of the company’s ethos is the FiiO A3 portable headphone amplifier.
The first thing to know about this headphone amplifier is that it emphasizes portability and efficiency. It’s designed to be a cheap headphone amp that you can throw in your pocket to use throughout the day, and not be out hundreds of dollars should you happen to misplace it.
Spec wise, the A3 is able to cover headphones with an impedance range of 16-150 ohms. It has a max power of 450 mW at 16 ohms and 270 mW at 32 ohms. It also features a frequency response range that spans from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
A notable thing about this product is how durable it feels. The outer casing is made from brushed aluminum, and feels as solid as anyone could reasonably ask for with a product in this price tier. The battery life of the unit is also a selling point, featuring a 1400 mAh battery that has an estimated usage time of 16 hours. Something to keep in mind with this unit is that the battery can’t be replaced, so when charging and using it be sure to use proper battery sustaining practices.
The unit comes with a variable gain control, a low and high gain switch, as well as the aforementioned bass boost. All of the switches are laid out in an intuitive manner and are very easy to manipulate from a variety of positions.
Because of the price point, the general use for this headphone amp is pairing it with mid-range headphones and a device that has a poor sound quality to begin with. It’s a great fit for burgeoning audiophiles looking to get the best sound possible with the combination of devices they have on hand for a relatively low initial investment.
We aren’t a fan of the fact that you can’t use the device while it’s charging. Having said that, the FiiO A3 Portable Headphone Amplifier is a good buy for those looking to get into more advanced audio technology.
Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone Amplifier
Established in May 2010, Bravo Audio is one of the more recent high-end audio companies to pop up on the market. The brand is focused on delivering high-performance headphone amplifiers that are both affordable and diminutive, resulting in a high-quality product that doesn’t take up too much valuable real-estate in your listening area of choice.
Because audiophiles are looking for a greater degree of fidelity in their music, the choice of which headphone amplifier to use in any given situation is an intensely personal matter. To learn more about the Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone Amplifier and how it compares to the competition, be sure to check out the specifications below.
The most controversial design decision taken with the Audio V2 is that the design is pretty much entirely open. The good part of this is that there’s a definite “cool” factor with being able to see all of the components, but the con is that the open design does make it more vulnerable to spills and dust. The degree to which this is going to impact you is largely going to depend on where you place the device, but it’s something to be aware of nonetheless.
Another thing to be aware of is that this headphone amp is a hybrid design. Hybrid amps are exactly what they sound like, they combine elements of tube and solid state construction for a sound that is somewhere in between the two. This is neither a good nor bad thing, and we’ll get more into the sound of this headphone amp in the section below.
The V2 isn’t very feature rich, so if you’re looking for a flexible unit you may be better off going with something else. With that being said, the features it does include are definitely enough if you don’t want to use the amp for anything beyond simply listening to music. It comes with a standard 3.5mm jack and RCA stereo inputs. It obviously also has a variable gain control, allowing you to dial in the amount of gain that works with your headphones.
As previously stated, hybrid amps don’t really sound like solid state or tube amps. They have a portion of the warmth you get with genuine tube amplifiers, but they do still retain some of the more digital qualities of solid state variants.
This is also going to be a matter of personal opinion and taste. There isn’t really a verifiable difference between tube and solid state construction because the technical differences between the two are still a subjective matter. If you are looking for a tube-like response, the V2 is a good way to do so without spending a lot of money.
With that being said, the reports of the unit not performing as expected are pretty few and far between. Just like any other product they’re definitely there, but not to the point where we would tell you to skip the V2 in favor of something else.
For the price it’s a good entry-level headphone amplifier, and can do a lot to help increase the amount of detail present in your music. Tubes are inherently fragile, so if the unit is dropped it can appear like it’s broken when all it really needs is a new tube.
The Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone amplifier is a good option for anyone looking for a budget headphone amplifier that features some tube-like warmth. But due to the open design and fragility of tubes you’re going to have to be more gentle with it than you would with a more rugged device.
Beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amplifier
One of the oldest audio companies still in operation, Beyerdynamic is widely hailed for their range of quality audio products. They’ve actually been around since the mid-1920s, and were an innovator in the then beginning cinema industry. Their first products were actually loudspeakers which were used in conjunction with early films. They also developed the world’s first dynamic headphones in 1930, though shortly thereafter the company’s production was halted by WWII.
Though like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Beyerdynamic stepped onto the market once again in 1948. In addition to their previously established products the company soon began designing microphones, among which was one of the earliest wireless microphones. This microphone was actually used by the Beatles during their 1966 tour of Germany.
Beyerdynamic has established a legacy as one of the world’s premier manufacturers of high-end audio equipment, and the Beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amplifier is a worthy addition to their line of products. To learn more about it, as well as how it stacks up to the competition, be sure to check out the specifications below.
The most notable thing about this headphone amplifier is that it uses Surface Mount Technology (SMT). Surface Mount Technology is a new approach to designing electronic circuits directly onto the surface of their boards. This helps to reduce the space the circuit takes up, resulting in a unit that has a much smaller footprint than a product that doesn’t use this approach. The unit’s diminutive size for the features it boasts makes it a great fit for more cramped areas, so it’s definitely worth a look if you’re short on space but still want a high-end headphone amplifier.
A potential flaw of the unit is that it doesn’t have a setting for high and low output, which means that you’re going to want to be more careful when you’re adjusting the gain. So long as you make adjustments carefully you’re not going to run into any issues, just be aware that the potential to blow out your headphones does exist with this unit.
Lastly, the unit is housed in a brushed aluminum chassis designed to be both durable and resonance free. Overall, it’s a pretty solid feeling (if a bit heavy) unit.
The most important thing to know about the sound of this unit is that because it’s a higher level of equipment you’re going to get a higher fidelity of sound than you would with a budget minded option. Describing sound is a bit vague, so while every headphone amplifier does increase the dynamic range and clarity or your music remember that you’re going to get an experience that reflects the cost.
It’s a very neutral (not imparting heavy levels of bass, mids, or treble) yet dynamic sound. It’s a good fit for headphones that you’re already in love with, but if you’re using a cheaper pair your money would likely be better spent on a nicer pair of headphones paired with an entry-level headphone amplifier.
In some situations the A20 doesn’t have quite enough power for some headphones. Though, just like any other headphone amplifier your experience is really going to depend on your setup. Just keep in mind that the unit may not pair well with hard to drive headphones.
While the A20 is a very solidly built unit, should you happen to experience any flaws in materials or workmanship you can send return it and receive a replacement unit.
The Beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amplifier is well worth the cost for serious audiophiles.
Schiit Magni 2 Headphone Ampliifier
Founded in 2010 by Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat, Schiit is among the recent wave of companies attempting to market high-end audio equipment to people who are unable to afford vintage examples. The company has set itself apart from its competitors by maintaining a commitment to analog construction, which a majority of audiophiles believe to be the superior method to attaining a high-fidelity of sound.
Just as importantly, Schitt designs its products with the average consumer in mind. They aren’t a company known for making unwieldy or fragile pieces of equipment, and they recognize that their consumers are going to have a variety of needs and budgets. A perfect example of the ethos that Schitt holds so dear is the Schitt Magni 2 Headphone Amplifier.
The most notable feature of this product is that Schitt overbuilds everything they make. This is literally stated on their website, and it’s a claim that is backed up through countless reviews. This feature alone makes the unit worth serious consideration if you’re looking for an entry-level headphone amplifier that’s going to last until you can afford an upgrade.
The Magni 2 is also designed to pair well with any headphone, featuring a high gain mode and a low gain mode in addition to the obvious inclusion of a variable gain switch. While this does help to boost the unit’s utility, be sure to not crank it up on high-gain mode and blow out your headphones.
Another thing to note about this product is that everything (with the exception of the wall warts) on the Magni 2 is made in America. While America definitely does not have a monopoly on producing quality pieces of equipment, there is generally a higher level of quality control in American products because they’re produced in better working environments.
A potential flaw of the headphone amplifier is that it comes with a 6.35mm input jack as opposed to a 3.5mm, so if you’re using a pair of headphones with a 6.35mm male end you’re going to want to purchase an adapter.
The Magni 2 is obviously going to be an upgrade if you don’t already have a headphone amplifier, but even among its peers the Magni 2 has been very well received. Like any headphone amplifier, the Magni 2 produces a sound that’s more detailed and clear than your run of the mill sound card. The only thing that really lets the Magni 2 down as far as sound is concerned is that it doesn’t have a bass boost circuit, which depending on your preferences may really limit the enjoyment you get out of this device.
The most commonly cited aspect of this headphone amp is that for the price point its considered to be a very good value. Most reviewers are impressed with the overall quality and how well the unit pairs with the majority of commonly purchased headphones. With that being said, there are of course some reviewers who weren’t really in love with the product. There are a few reports of quality control issues, but they make up such a small portion of the total reviews that we wouldn’t say that it’s anything to be overly concerned about. There’s also one reviewer who states that the headphones didn’t pair well with his Sennheiser HD600s, though your experience is going to vary.
Lastly, the Magni 2 comes with a 2-year manufacturer’s warranty. This warranty covers parts and workmanship, so should you happen to experience any issues you can send the unit in for a replacement.
The Magni 2 is a great entry level option for beginning audiophiles. For the price point it’s very respectable in regard to the sound its capable of producing as well as its overall quality. A more expensive headphone amps will of course sound better and have more features, but the Magni 2 should hold you over until you’re ready to upgrade.
Rolls PM50s Personal Monitor Amplifier
Founded in 1989 by Marilyn and David Francesco, the Rolls Corporation has gained critical acclaim in the audio technology market. The company has produced a variety of products that have earned them accolades from professionals and hobbyists alike, namely their line of signal mixers, signal sources, and interface accessories. During their tenure in the industry they’ve also manufactured rack units for studio and gigging musicians as well as a variety of different effects units.
While the Rolls PM50s Personal Monitor Amplifier may not be the product that the company made their name on, it’s high level of quality and its low initial investment makes it a great option for any musician on the hunt for a headphone amplifier that won’t break the bank.
To learn more about how the Rolls PM50s Personal Monitor Amplifier compares to the competition be sure to check out the specifications below. If you’re just looking to compare the products on this list at a glance skip to the end.
The most important thing to know about this product is that it’s a combination mixer and headphone amplifier intended to be used in recording applications. It’s intended to fix monitor issues where a musician (typically a vocalist) isn’t able to hear themselves well enough to be confident in their performance. With that being said it will still function as a headphone amplifier, but because it doesn’t have a standard AUX cord (it has ¼” jacks) you’re going to need to get an adapter if you intend on using it for a cellphone or computer.
A selling point of the unit is that it’s very durable, making it a good fit for hobbyist studios that need to be set up and taken down frequently. The jacks and components are also very securely attached, so if you happen to be looking to travel with the unit you’re not going to have to worry about it failing.
A potential flaw in the design is that the adapter is a bit short. This can be pretty inconvenient in situation where you may not be able to place the device right next to an outlet.
Lastly, the PM50s does come with a year-long warranty that protects against errors in workmanship or materials. Just keep in mind that as with the majority of warranties modification and wear and tear aren’t covered.
The Rolls fulfills its purpose admirably, but it’s not the best option for use with listening devices. We wouldn’t call this a flaw considering that the unit’s intended purpose is clearly outline both in the review section itself as well as the product page, but it’s still something to be aware of nonetheless. It’s also not really described as having its own character like many other devices, which is reasonable considering its sole intention is simply to boost the volume of a monitor mix.
Because of its low cost it’s a good option for people trying to establish a hobbyist recording setup, but there are occasional reports of the unit not being very durable. With that being said, considering that every product has an inherent failure rate and the fact that the reports of the units not being very durable are few and far between we can safely assume that this isn’t going to be a common experience.
Lastly, a positive thing about the unit is that the controls are very simple and intuitive to use. There are similar units that can be a bit confusing, so the simplicity of this design makes the unit a good fit for beginners who aren’t very experienced with this type of equipment.
The Rolls PM50s Personal Monitor Amplifier is a great fit for hobbyist recording studios, but because its intended for recording applications we wouldn’t recommend it to any musician looking to boost the sound quality of their headphones or listening device.
So how do you feel about headphone amplifiers? If you have any opinions or personal anecdotes that you’d like to share, feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below!