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Updated Apr 12, 2022 1:30 PM

If you’re reading this, you’re a music lover. And if you’re a music lover, you’d probably love to hear your music in the best way possible. That quest has led you to buy new headphones, but when you hit play there’s still something missing—the pace and placement of each instrument just isn’t as energetic as you expected it to be. Boxy low end, harsh mids, fatiguing highs … a boomy blur is not an experience you signed on for. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a dedicated headphone amplifier—one crafted by experts with the express purpose of delivering a more sumptuous sound—things can be very different. Think of the best headphone amp like your audio chain’s mitochondria: feed it compelling music and clean power and it can generate a full, fleshy frequency response within an energetic, agile soundstage. The best headphone amps can scale up the clarity on almost any headphone, so here are our picks for gear to bring your ears immediate enjoyment.

How we picked the best headphone amps

There are plenty of headphone amplifiers available on the market. To narrow down our choices, we looked at a variety of factors: build quality, cost performance, additional features, and, of course, sound quality. We also looked at units in terms of their position in the market. Are they aimed at home or on-the-go listening? Are they priced at the budget end or the top of the spectrum? After selecting a number of possible candidates, we combined our own experience with critical consensus and user impressions to come up with this list of the best headphone amps.

Things to consider when shopping for the best headphone amps

Headphones are just two speakers strapped to your head and speakers need electrical current to translate signal into vibrations, ultimately generating the sound waves you perceive as music. A headphone amplifier does just what it promises in its name: amplifies the low-voltage signal that the headphones convert. If your first question is whether that just means you’ll hear something louder, the answer is yes and no. A headphone amp is less about just quantity and more about quality, less about pushing pure abundance and more about addressing the transducer’s resistance. Headphone amps aren’t just trying to make your headphones louder, pushing them to distort; they’re trying to give them the voltage or current they need to be more efficient, letting them sound dynamic at lower decibels. A simple rule of thumb: The higher the “impedance rating” of your headphone, the more it can benefit from or even require an amp (though even a $100 headphone can achieve more balance with the proper power).

Hear today, gone tomorrow?

When trying to decide on the best headphone amp for your needs, you’ll first need to choose whether you’ll do more at home or on-the-go listening. Desktop units have a very different feature set than portable ones, taking advantage of the increased space and power sources available for a larger component in order to increase inputs and outputs. If a less juiced, one-in-one-out system is all you need because portability is the priority, you’ll still want to think about connectivity. Although all of the headphone amps listed here power wired headphones, you may wish to cut the cord from a wireless-enabled audio source (think any smartphone) to the amp. If so, it’ll need something that’s Bluetooth compatible.

Do I need a DAC?

These days, we often listen to music from digital sources—think streaming via a smartphone or dedicated player. To convert those 1s and 0s into an analog signal for wired headphones you need a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter. The DAC can be part of the headphone amp (like the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt, Chord Mojo, or iFi GO Blu) or a standalone unit. And while they all perform a similar function, not all DACs go about it equally. If you plan to listen exclusively to old records and cassettes, a DAC may not be necessary. But if digital is in your life, a DAC will be necessary.

Can’t I just use the amplifier in my phone or computer?

Sure, your preferred listening device may have a headphone port, and it will get the job done. But it won’t blow your mind. Unless it’s running on a device like the 2021 MacBook Pro M1 or an ASUS ROG Phone 5s that features an adaptive, audio-focused design, that headphone jack’s internal DAC and amplifier are likely lacking. It’s certainly not going to give you an amazing listening experience. If you want more than just OK, it’s time to upgrade to a dedicated headphone amp. This is doubly true if you’ve invested in a decent pair of headphones.

The best headphone amps: Reviews & Recommendations

There are a number of things to consider when buying a headphone amp. As you read through the list, keep in mind whether you’re assembling a listening station or a mobile rig. Determine if you’ll need a DAC, and whether you want a DAC/amp combo. Consider your headphones’ power requirements, naturally, but also your gear’s aesthetics. Many of the items here have unique designs that may or may not line up with your tastes. However, you can be certain that any of the amplifiers here are among the best in class.

Best solid-state headphone amp: Rupert Neve Designs RNHP

Rupert Neve Designs

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Why it made the cut: Superb, reference-grade sound makes this a clear winner for the best solid-state headphone amp.

Specs

  • DAC: No
  • Inputs: +4dBu balanced combo jack, unbalanced RCA, 3.5mm
  • Dimensions: 6.5 x 4.6 x 1.9 inches

Pros:

  • Variety of input options
  • Precise sound
  • Handles high-impedance headphones

Cons:

  • Design may turn some off
  • No DAC

Rupert Neve Designs is a relative newcomer to the hi-fi world but the company is not without audio experience. The company’s namesake and its engineers have been making mix consoles, mic preamps, dynamics shaping modules and more for recording studios since the late 1960s. The RNHP is a 24-volt reference-quality headphone amp based on the circuit in its 5060 Centrepiece Desktop Mixer, full of circuitry praised for its fidelity. The unit comes housed in a VESA-mountable steel chassis, letting you attach it to a mic stand, under studio furniture, and other places with a compatible mount. The spartan front panel features A, B, and C buttons for the rear panel’s three selectable channels: a pair of balanced Neutrik combination jacks capable of taking XLR and TRS (6.35mm) inputs (the boot-up default); two unbalanced RCA jacks calibrated for -10dBV signals; and a single 3.5mm port for mobile devices. Output is a 6.5mm jack, so make sure you have an adapter if your headphones use a 3.5mm connector, and volume is controlled by an old-school dial.

As you’d expect from one of the top channel strip manufacturers known for transparency, the sound quality is absolutely stunning. Offering an uncompromised spectrum from 10 Hz to 120 kHz, the RNHP is a wonder to hear. It has superb punch and imaging, with remarkable stereo separation and very little crosstalk. Also worth gushing over is the $699 price, which comes in lower than many units that don’t have comparable pedigrees.

Some users may take issue with the design; it was made, after all, for studios first—producing the kind of high-power, high-headroom output that musicians need to hear clearly, cleanly during tracking and playback sessions. And it reflects this purpose-built aesthetic. But that also means it’s inherently suited to give the most authentic playback of well-recorded material. Output is 230mW RMS @ 16 ohms and headphones with impedances up to 600 ohms are no problem. It lacks a DAC, so you’ll need one if you plan to use it with digital media, but it’s hard to beat Neve’s RNHP if you’re a listener who demands an honest, high-quality sound.

Best tube headphone amp: Monolith Liquid Platinum

Monolith

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Why it made the cut: Twin tubes bring extra warmth in the lows and mids.

Specs

  • DAC: No
  • Inputs: XLR and RCA
  • Dimensions: 8.8 x 8.5 x 2.0 inches

Pros:

  • Warm bass
  • Balanced design
  • Beautiful appearance

 Cons:

  • No DAC
  • Highs could be cleaner

There’s something magical about tubes—glowing glass cylinders that direct current through a filament to excite and amplify a signal. Think of them as the light bulbs of audio, but the dimmer controls the intensity of tone. Whereas solid-state gear uses all-digital transistors, resistors, capacitors, etc., for a more crisp result, vacuum tubes are famed for the smooth warmth they bring to audio. Reacting positively to overdrive, they’re perfect for adding heat and presence to your playback experience. As the best tube headphone amp, Monolith’s Liquid Platinum embeds two replaceable Electro Harmonix 6922 tubes alongside solid-state amplification and those make all the difference. The bass and mids are warm and gooey with a plethora of presence, while transients—those short bursts of energy that accompany hitting a note—shine through even in a wall of sound.

Of course, the rest of this amp is no slouch either, bringing together a sweet package that makes this our pick for best tube headphone amp. For starters, it was designed by Alex Cavalli, a renowned audio circuit designer focused on headphone amps. He based it on aspects of his audiophile-adored, multi-thousand-dollar Cavalli Audio Liquid Crimson amplifier, released in 2015 and now discontinued. Cavalli designed a fully balanced/differential amplification for the Crimson’s monoprice successor, focused on conveying the open character of music, with dynamics and detail all benefitting. And at half the cost of the Crimson. The Liquid Platinum looks stunning as well, with a gorgeous design highlighted by those twin tubes peeking out of the top. It pushes 3.6 watts per channel into a 50-ohm load and can comfortably drive headphones of up to 300 ohms. It features both three-pin XLR balanced inputs and RCA ins and outs in the back, as well as four-pin XLR and 6.5mm TRS jacks around the front to accommodate balanced (a specific high-power, low-noise wiring scheme) and single-ended (stock, standard) headphone cables. 

While the high-end can be a little crisp—it’s a touch on the dry, wild side, though this can be tweaked by rolling in new tubes—the positives far outweigh the negatives in this gem of an amp. Note that you’ll need to supply your own DAC if your plan is to use it with a digital listening device.

Best portable headphone amp: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

AudioQuest

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Why it made the cut: New DAC and microprocessor chips allow the Cobalt to give music the nimble performance it needs to hover and dart.

Specs

  • DAC: Yes
  • Inputs: USB
  • Dimensions: 12 x 19 x 57 millimeters

Pros:

  • Clear sound
  • Extremely portable
  • Device compatibility

Cons:

  • Reveals imperfections in low-quality audio

It used to be that if you wanted a hi-fi listening experience, you had to stay at home with a stationary headphone amp. Now, thanks to the rise of streaming and communication devices, music is as close as our fingertips. AudioQuest wants to make sure that we’re hearing that music with as much clarity as possible and the company’s line of lip balm-sized USB DragonFly DAC/amps designed for the computer-audio experience does just that.

The top of the DragonFly line, Cobalt is the best portable headphone amp because it improves over the already superb Red model in a number of ways. First up is the ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip. Its minimum-phase slow roll-off filter ensures clear and natural sound, although it can be a little unforgiving when it comes to revealing the shortcomings of low-quality audio sources. Its 64-position, 64-bit, bit-perfect offers uncompromising volume control. The casing and circuitry are also great at filtering out Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular noise that can pollute and dilute a listening experience. An improved processor runs faster and more energy-efficient. And, with a hefty 2.1-volt headphone amp, this minuscule device will amaze you with its ability to power almost any set of cans you care to pair it with, from 16 to 300 ohms.

The Cobalt is compatible with Mac and Windows PCs and can fully render files up to 24-bit/96 kHz files, including MQA-encoded ones. (MQA, of Master Quality Authenticated, files use a specific type of compression to distribute higher resolution with less bandwidth, but require specific apps/DACs to decode.) In addition, it works with smart devices. And It includes a female USB-A to male USB-C adapter for most modern Android phones but requires a Lightning-to-USB adapter to work with Apple devices.

Best overall: Chord Mojo

 Why it made the cut: Mojo puts out a lot of power with a very small footprint.

Specs

  • DAC: Yes
  • Inputs: Micro USB, 3.5mm jack, Optical TOSLINK, Micro USB charging port
  • Dimensions: 82 x 60 x 22 millimeters

Pros:

  • Musical and detailed audio reproduction
  • Solid build quality
  • Credit card-sized

Cons:

  • Polarizing design

It says a lot about its level of bespoke engineering in our best overall headphone amp/DAC combo, the Mojo, that it also happens to be imminently portable. At only 82 mm x 60 mm x 22 mm, it doesn’t demand any more space than a wallet and yet it’s still capable of delivering some of the best sound in its class thanks to the purpose-built FPGA circuitry that has trickled down from British manufacturer Chord Electronics’ multi-thousand-dollar Hugo line of products. Audio reproduction is impressively musical and detailed; you usually have to pay a lot more than $700 for this caliber of sound. You’ll wonder how they managed to squeeze such wonderful sound out of such a small package. Remarkable.

Housed in a CNC-milled aluminum shell, Mojo’s build quality is also top-notch. Despite the diminutive size it manages to include inputs for optical, coax, and Micro USB, plus a Micro USB charging port for the 8-hour battery. In terms of outputs, it offers two 3.5mm jacks, making it as ideal for audiophile dates as it is for solo listening (though volume is not independent on these outputs). There’s power to spare: output is 35mW into 600 ohms and 720mW into 8 ohms supporting headphones of up to 800 ohms. The DAC’s specs are also ridiculously impressive, with sampling rate of 32 to 768 kHz and even featuring DSD 256 support. While you may not love the three LED globes (indicators for volume control and file resolution), they are unique.

For an even more top-tier portable listening experience, there’s Chord Poly, a high-quality music streamer/player attachment designed to bring Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay, DLNA, and Micro SD card playback to Mojo. And, when you’re ready to upgrade, take a look at the Mojo’s higher-end sibling, the Hugo 2, a not-as-svelte but still-transportable headphone amp that works at home or on the road.

Editor’s note: An updated model, the Mojo 2, was announced the day this post was scheduled. While sharing the same form factor as the original, the new Mojo 2 has increased recharging capacity/efficiency, redesigned filter/DSP cores, an integrated EQ feature to tailor the neutral signal to taste, and an added USB-C port. We’ll be updating this entry after we take a closer look at the extra dimensionality of the Mojo’s successor.

Best high-end: Manley Labs Absolute

Manley Labs

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Why it made the cut: Manley Labs makes top-of-the-line studio gear and has brought that gorgeous expertise to Absolute.

Specs

  • DAC: No
  • Inputs: 2 RCA input pairs
  • Dimensions: 11.5 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches

Pros:

  • Jaw-dropping tube sound
  • Tonal controls
  • Gorgeous design

Cons:

  • Very expensive

Manley Labs’ incredible equalizers and compressors can be found in many of the best studios in the world. The company also makes audiophile equipment and the aptly named Absolute is our choice for best high-end headphone amp.

Powered by six vacuum tubes—two 12AX7s and four 6AQ5As—Absolute positively glows with warmth. Rich, thick and powerful, it’s a listening experience like no other. Unlike many headphone amps, which offer little in terms of tonal control, Absolute goes the extra mile, providing user controls that make this into a very active listening experience. Baxandall Tone Control bass and treble knobs place you in charge of the tonal character, while control over the amount of negative feedback in the signal puts you in control of harmonic distortion and thus the tightness of the audio playback. Uniquely, it also possesses switchable topology, allowing you to change from odd-order to even-order harmonics and take charge of the saturation color. There’s even a mono switch for enjoying pre-stereo music sources. It has a maximum output of 1W into 12 ohms, with headphones of up to 600 ohms working comfortably with it.

Connectivity is also varied, with two pairs of Manley-designed RCA ports on the input side and a 6.5mm TRS and a four-pin XLR jack for headphones, plus an output RCA pair should you want to use Absolute as a preamp to boost/sculpt a source signal prior to your favorite receiver, interface, or powered speakers. There’s a remote control and the amp is available in three beautiful chassis colors: black, copper, and silver.

Of course, all this comes with a hefty price tag of $4,499. If you have the means and the kind of power-hungry dynamic and/or planar headphones that can benefit, however, it’s an audiophile ride worth taking.

Best budget headphone amp: Schiit Magni

Schiit

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Why it made the cut: Sound that punches way above its weight class.

Specs

  • DAC: No
  • Inputs: RCA
  • Dimensions: 5 x 3.5 x 1.5 inches

Pros:

Cons:

  • No DAC

Everyone has to start somewhere. And, thanks to Schiit’s dual Magni headphone amps, that place is a happy place. The two models, Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy, are fun and wallet-pleasingly affordable way to get into the audiophile world and way of thinking about customizable sound. They’re the same price and very similar in connectivity, although the tone differs between them. As for which one is the best budget headphone amp for you—the roughly $100 each asking price is right for you to try them both.

Magni 3+ is an all-discrete circuit headphone amp, with individual components rather than chips. This results in a sound that is well-balanced and weighty from top to bottom. It comes in a brushed aluminum case. Magni Heresy, on the other hand, uses modern op-amp chips in its circuitry and delivers clean and crisp audio. Its casing is black with red accents. Both have a maximum output of 1V RMS into 32 ohms and offer superb sound for the price. The high/low gain switch on the back ensures that even 600-ohm power-hungry headphones won’t break a sweat with these.  

Both have a single 6.5mm headphone out in the front, with RCA ins and outs in the back (yes, you can use it as a preamp). Neither has a DAC though, which could be an issue for those with digital listening habits. However, at this price, you can certainly afford to buy a separate digital to audio converter (like Schiit’s own Modi). 

If you’re looking to level up your home listening game, this is the place to start your headphone amp journey.

Best wireless headphone amp: iFi GO blu

Why it made the cut: The iFi GO Blu does the impossible and combines excellent sound quality with Bluetooth compatibility.

Specs

  • DAC: Yes
  • Inputs: USB-C, Bluetooth
  • Dimensions: 54 x 32 x 13 millimeters

Pros:

  • Handles all Bluetooth formats
  • Small and lightweight
  • Built-in mic

Cons:

  • Inherent limitations of Bluetooth
  • No clip

While there are a number of excellent portable headphone amps with built-in DACs (see AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt above) they’re still wired. If you’re looking to untether your amp from your music player or smartphone, the Bluetooth 5.1-compatible iFi GO blu is the way to go for both Apple and Android devices.

Smaller than seemingly possible and only 26 grams, iFi GO blu is so unobtrusive you might even forget it’s there. However, you’ll certainly notice the improvement it brings to audio quality, despite the inherent limitations of Bluetooth. It offers a wide soundstage, with clear and precise audio thanks to individually optimized circuit stages. It achieves this with a Cirrus Logic CS43131 advanced DAC, as well as balanced circuits for less crosstalk and noise. Output is 245mW @ 32Ω; 5.6v @ 600Ω (balanced)/165mW @ 32Ω; 2.8v @ 600Ω (unbalanced) so—despite its small size—the GO blu will power most headphones. Should you find your source sound lacking, iFi GO blu also includes analog XBass and XSpace enhancements for extra low-end presence and soundstage width. The Swiss chronograph-inspired ChronoDial is a marvel of ingenuity and manages to pack a number of functions into a very small space, handling analog volume control, track selection and play, plus Bluetooth voice assistant activation.

With Qualcomm’s latest four-core QCC5100 Bluetooth processing chip, iFi GO blu supports all current Bluetooth codecs (SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, LHDC/HWA up to 24-bit/192 kHz). It has outputs for both 3.5mm (single-ended, S-Balanced) and 4.4mm (balanced) headphone cables, and it uses USB-C for charging the 8-hour battery and for establishing a 24-bit/96 kHz connection with non-Bluetooth devices. It even has a built-in microphone for hands-free telephone calls. And if you find yourself needing even more power and/or versatility, at the expense of some portability, the flask-sized iFi xDSD Gryphon is an upgrade path for those with more demanding headphones/connectivity needs—great for a compact desktop set-up and relatively pocketable for on-the-go.

FAQs

Q: Is it worth buying a headphone amp?

If you have spent money, or plan to spend money, on a good pair of headphones, then a quality headphone amp is a worthwhile purchase. The improvement in sound quality will be apparent. Some headphones have a high impedance rating and actually require the additional power that an amp provides to properly drive them (see below). Most in-ear monitors and noise-canceling headphones will not benefit from being paired with a headphone amp though.

Q: What is impedance?

Impedance refers to the resistance of an electrical signal. The higher the impedance rating of a pair of headphones, the more voltage  is required to achieve a listening level with high clarity, low distortion, and minimal coloration. Most headphones have a rating of 16 (low impedance) to 600 (high impedance). Power-hungry high-impedance headphones need a lot of juice to sound good and put out proper volume. These headphones likely will not function properly without a solid headphone amp.

Q: What are tubes?

Some headphone amplifiers use vacuum tubes as part of the amplification circuit, such as the Monolith Liquid Platinum and Manley Labs Absolute. This is a technology that was largely replaced in consumer goods when solid state transistor circuits came online in the 1960s. Enthusiasts, however, may prefer the sound of tube amplification to solid state due to its “positive distortion,” a perceived warm tone. Tubes burn out after a period of time like a lightbulb, but can usually be replaced easily by the owner.

A final word on selecting the best headphone amps

When taking the plunge and expanding your plugs, it can be comforting to know that you don’t have to shell out a lot of money to get started. You can find some of the best headphone amps at remarkably affordable prices. Of course, when you’re ready to step it up a notch, there’s a whole world of ever-more expensive (and great-sounding) amplifiers available.