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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?
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 10 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.
Just try to keep in mind, the best option for you may not be the best option for your neighbor.
So without much further ado, here are the best headphone amplifiers:
- FiiO E6 Portable
- Sennheiser HDVA 600
- Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Multi-Hybrid
- M-Audio Bass Traveler
- Sony PHA1A Portable Hi-Res DAC/Headphone Amplifier
- Topping TP30 MK2 Digital Hi-Fi Power Stereo Subwoofer Amplifier
- Little DOT MK2 Headphone Amp With Tube Pre-Amp
- Marantz HD-DAC1 High Definition USB DAC/Headphone Amp
- Nobsound Audio Reciever
- Magni 2 Uber
FiiO E6 Portable
Designed for high-impedance and low sensitivity headphone, the FiiO E6 Portable is a great option for the budding audiophile on the go. Featuring a built-in EQ as well as a sleek and compact design, the FiiO E6 will transform your listening experience.
Sennheiser HDVA 600
If you’re the type of audiophile who needs the best sounding music possible, odds are the Sennheiser HDVA 600 is the headphone amplifier for you. The device features premium components, simultaneous operation of up to four headphones, as well as symmetrical signal processing from input to output. For the ultimate listening experience, pair this headphone amp with Sennheiser's flagship HD 800 headphones.
Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Multi-Hybrid
A great entry level tube headphone amp, the Bravo Audio V2 Multi-Hybrid headphone amplifier is a great deal for listeners who want a great sound without breaking the bank. The headphone amplifier features parallel 3.5mm and RCA stereo inputs, as well as a gain control with a Japanese ALPS potentiometer.
M-Audio Bass Traveler
Sleek and rugged, the M-Audio Bass Traveler sports a wealth of impressive features for its price point. The Bass Traveler has the capability to drive two sets of headphones simultaneously, and the rechargeable Lithium polymer battery can last approximately eight hours without needing to be recharged.
Sony PHA1A Portable Hi-Res DAC/Headphone Amplifier
If you’re constantly on the go but won’t settle for anything but the best, you definitely can’t go wrong with the Sony PHA1A. This compact device features a Hi-Res audio DAC, direct digital connection for smartphones, as well as supporting up to PCM 192kHz/24bit audio.
Topping TP30 MK2 Digital Hi-Fi Power Stereo Subwoofer Amplifier
An inexpensive DAC/headphone amp combination, the TP30 MK2 is a great way for the average consumer to increase the sonic quality of their music library. As an added bonus, this updated version of the TP30 features full Android support.
Little DOT MK2 Headphone Amp With Tube Pre-Amp
Don’t let its diminutive appearance fool you, the Little DOT MK2 is just as capable of delivering a great sound as any of its bigger brothers or sisters. The device features gold-plated unbalanced phono RCA inputs and outputs, as well as the added bonus of a one year manufacturer warranty.
Marantz HD-DAC1 High Definition USB DAC/Headphone Amp
If you’re an audiophile looking to take your music’s sound to the next level, the Marantz HD-DAC1 might be right up your alley. The device features an easy-to-read digital display as well as 192kHZ/24bit Hi-resolution audio support.
Nobsound Audio Receiver
With Bluetooth functionality as well as the capability to function with 16-120 ohm headphones, the Nobsound Audio Receiver is a great way to inexpensively update the sound of your music library. The Nobsound comes with a Peking 6J1 vacuum tube as well as a dedicated power adaptor.
Magni 2 Uber
Made in the U.S.A., the Magni 2 Uber is a wonderful option for the inexperienced audiophile on the hunt for a simple headphone amplifier with a great tone. Featuring a sophisticated gain stage and a sleek aesthetic, the Magni 2 Uber will quickly become your favorite piece of musical equipment.
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!