Once you start getting into high-end audio and open-back headphones, you will often find yourself needing to invest in a headphone amplifier. Most high-end headphones are harder to drive, usually due to their high-impedance, which makes headphones amplifiers a must. It can, however, be tempting just to skip headphone amplifiers and DACs because they are expensive.
However, you should remember that your source is equally as crucial as your headphones. If you invest all of your money in a high-end pair of headphones and run them through a cheap smartphone, then you won’t be enjoying those headphones. This isn’t always the case, so to be sure if you need a headphone amp, check out our article.
In a lot of cases, you will need a headphone amplifier for your headphones. That is why we have compiled the best headphone amplifiers to help you with your purchase decision. These amplifiers range from the cheapest options that won’t break the bank to high-end options for those who want to maximize their gear.
The three products we recommend the most for each respective category are the Fiio E10K, the Schiit Magni 3+/Heresy, and the Drop + THX AAA 789. However, there are still plenty of different amplifiers with different specifications to the ones we mentioned. So to find out more, check out the rest of the article.
The Headphone amplifiers found in the budget category are generally weaker than the midrange headphone amplifiers. They will do their job, but they will not be able to do it efficiently and, as a result, will generally struggle to power high impedance headphones. However, if you have or plan to buy budget headphones, then this is a good starting point.
Fiio E10K – Best Budget
The Fiio E10K is one of the most affordable headphone amplifiers on this list. While it may not be competing with the higher-end models in terms of power, it still packs a punch with the number of features that it has.
The Fiio E10K is technically a DAC/Amp since it already has an internal DAC. However, most users have used this as a standalone amplifier because it shares the same amplifier module as the Fiio E17K Alpen. The E10K can also be paired with an external DAC, so we still include it on this list.
In terms of the build quality, the Fiio E10K has a simple design. The front panel is straightforward. It only has the bass boost button, volume dial, and headphone input. The bass boost option is something that you will see in a lot of Fiio products. While not the cleanest implementation, it certainly helps in adding a bit of low end on bright sounding headphones.
Given the E10K’s price point, it isn’t the most powerful amplifier on this list. The E10K will start to struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms. Headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX series will still have an acceptable volume, but it will lack in terms of the dynamic range.
It also has a fair amount of connection options, such as a line-output and coaxial output. This is very good to see since a lot of smaller devices tend to skip on these. It also connects to your source via USB, making it compatible with a wide range of digital devices.
The Fiio E10K’s shortcomings can be forgiven given the budget price. Also, the number of features that you get more than makes up for it. For beginners who are on a tight budget who want to immediately get a better sound, the Fiio E10K is our best recommendation.
Pros: The FIio E10K is one of the cheapest headphone amplifiers available that is packed with features that will instantly provide an upgrade to your setup.
Cons: The Fiio E10K doesn’t have enough power to drive higher-impedance headphones.
The Topping NX1S is another entry-level portable headphone amplifier. Like the Fiio E10K, the NX1S isn’t primarily designed to drive high impedance headphones. Instead, it is intended to be a small and convenient portable device made for powering IEMs and portable headphones. Its design also enables it to work both as a portable and desktop amplifier.
Its sleek and lightweight design makes it easy to carry around. Its flat chassis makes it easy to stack with other devices such as smartphones and DAPs. It also aesthetically fits with other desktop equipment. Volume is operated using a volume wheel, which is good to see in a portable unit.
In terms of battery life, the NX1S lasts up to 40 hours. This is perfect for people who often forget to charge their portable devices. Also, when used as a desktop unit, the battery automatically recharges and stops charging once it is full, which makes the overall experience very seamless.
The NX1S also includes a bass boost functionality. Again, it is going to slightly alter the sound signature, but the added kick can work well for headphones or IEMs that do not have a strong low-end reproduction.
Overall, for its given purpose, the NX1S performs very well. If you need a budget portable headphone amplifier that can double as a desktop unit, then the NX1S is a perfect choice.
Pros: The Topping NX1S is one of the best portable headphone amplifiers available due to its good battery life and excellent sound quality.
Cons: The Topping NX1S is similar to the Fiio E10K in terms of driving power. This means that it will not be enough for more power-hungry headphones.
Little Bear B4X
The Little Bear B4X is an odd device since it is the only portable tube headphone amplifier in this category. Tube headphone amplifiers are generally known to be on the more expensive side, so seeing an innovative product like the Little Bear B4X is refreshing.
Unlike the previous two products in this category, the B4X is a bit on the higher end of the budget spectrum. And despite the higher price, the overall build and design aren’t necessarily better than the other two. This is because the B4X is a DIY product whose main appeal is its ability to be modified by the user.
Several aspects of the B4X, such as the tubes and the opamps, can be modified by the user. This is, of course, not a simple task of hot-swapping the components, so some DIY knowledge is required. Changing out those parts can have various effects on the overall sound signature of the B4X. The various effects can be seen in the op-amp sections here.
Also, the B4X is the only headphone amplifier in this price range that supports a balanced output. It is, however, reported that the balanced output isn’t significantly more powerful than the unbalanced output, which in some ways defeats its purpose. And speaking of its driving power, the B4X is considerably more powerful than the other two in this category.
The manufacturer claims that the Little Bear B4X can power headphones with 300 ohms. However, some tests show that it struggles on the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD650 and the hard to drive Fostex T50RP. It gets enough volume, but the overall sound quality isn’t on par with more expensive options.
Despite its shortcomings, the Little Bear B4X is still an innovative device. For its price, you are getting a portable hybrid tube headphone amplifier that can be tuned for your preferred sound signature. Just the fact that it is a tube headphone amplifier makes it unique for its warm coloring characteristics. For consumers who are curious about the infamous tube sound, and for those who are into modding and experimenting, the B4X is the perfect device for you.
Pros: The Little Bear B4X brings the tube amplifier experience to the budget market. With its great sound and modular design, this is a bang for the buck in the budget price category.
Cons: The Little Bear B4X performs better than the other two amps but is still lacking in terms of driving power. The modular aspect may also be a bit intimidating or confusing to beginners.
Headphone amplifiers in this category are almost comparable in terms of both power output and sound quality to the high-end options. If you have a higher budget and want a significant and more professional improvement over the budget options, then these are the best products for you.
Schiit Magni 3+ / Magni 3 Heresy – Best Mid-Tier
Schiit Audio’s products are infamous in both their naming conventions and for the quality that they provide. The Schiit Magni and Modi combo have been revered in various audio circles as one of the best mid-tier or starting amplifier and DAC combo that you can get for your money.
Now, Schiit has further improved on the famous Schiit 3 amplifier by adding two new variants. These are the Magni 3+ and the Magni 3 Heresy. Both of these units come in their proprietary color schemes. The Magnie 3 Heresy only comes in red and black while the Magni 3+ only comes in silver.
A lot has changed with these latest revisions. When compared to the Magni 3 and other previous Magni iterations, the new Magni models have both eliminated the distortion that is found in the high gain-setting, and both have removed the top end harshness that was a known fault of the original units.
This makes both of these models highly competitive with products twice their price. In terms of the difference between these two models, the Magni 3+ is a discrete headphone amplifier. The Magni 3 Heresy, on the other hand, is an integrated circuit amplifier, which is also known as an opamp.
Despite having a different internal architecture, both the Magni 3+ and Heresy sound almost identical. The Heresy measures better in the high-gain setting but is otherwise indistinguishable from the 3+.
Overall, Schiit raises the bar again with the Magni 3+ and Heresy. Regardless of which model you choose, you are getting a high-quality headphone amplifier that can compete with models that are even twice its price. If you are looking for an amplifier to power your high-end headphones in the midrange market, we highly recommend the Schiit Magni 3 models.
Pros: The Schiit Magni 3+ and Heresy brings the best value in the midrange category with their excellent sound quality and driving power.
Cons: The Magni 3 models still have the compressed sound that Schiit has been known for. This isn’t really a dealbreaker, but it is something you have to take note of.
The Darkvoice 336SE is our tube headphone amplifier pick for the midrange category. Both its power output and excellent build quality give the Darkvoice 336SE a significant advantage over its competitors.
The Darvoice 336SE has all the typical characteristics of a tube amplifier. Unlike solid-state headphone amplifiers, tube headphone amplifiers are known for producing a less accurate sound, and the Darkvoice 336Se is no exception.
The vacuum tubes found on the 336SE adds distortion, which gives an added warmth to the sound. Despite not being true to the source material, this warm coloration has a nice effect that is preferred by a lot of enthusiasts. When paired with high-impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD650 or Sennheiser HD800s, the sound is transformed into a lively kind of sound instead of the more typical clinical and accurate sound.
Of course, this is purely based on personal preference. Not everyone is going to enjoy this sound signature, which is why it is ranked below the more traditional Schiit Magni 3+. If you are looking to upgrade your sound and venture into the tube amplifier category, then there is no better product than the Darkvoice 336SE. The combination of its build quality and sound quality make it the best tube headphone amplifier in the midrange category.
Pros: The excellent build quality, sound quality, and driving power of the DarkVoice 336SE make this the best tube amplifier in the midrange category.
Cons: The DarkVoice 336SE doesn’t really do anything special to address the faults of the tube amplifier design. If you do not like the downsides of analog equipment, then the other solid-state options may be a better fit for you.
Monolith Liquid Spark
Another good option in this price category is the Monolith Liquid Spark; It is considered to be a direct competitor to the Schiit Magni 3+ since it has the same build quality and feature set. It is widely considered to be a better amplifier than the original Magni models, which is quite impressive.
It is not as powerful as the Schiit Magni 3+, but it still has a respectable amount of power. It can comfortably drive high impedance headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800s. The power that comes from this amplifier is also very clean, with only a slight hint of distortion near its max volume.
In terms of the sound signature of the Liquid Spark, it is relatively neutral and does not introduce any coloration. Unlike other amplifiers, it also has a good amount of soundstage. It doesn’t sound too cramped like the early Magni models but also doesn’t sound as wide as some of the higher-end models.
Overall, if you want a headphone amplifier that is mostly similar to Schiit’s Magni models but has slightly different characteristics, then the Monolith Liquid Spark is an excellent alternative.
Pros: The Monolith Liquid Spark is an excellent alternative to the Schiit Magni 3 Models. It shares similar characteristics but presents a different and more neutral sound signature, which some listeners may prefer.
Cons: The Liquid Spark has less power compared to the Magni 3 models. It is still a powerful amp, but some headphones may benefit from the additional power that the Magni 3 models provide.
All of these amplifiers in the high-end category are capable of driving high-end headphones. Most of these have excellent synergy with high-end headphones. At this point, it’s all just a matter of personal preference.
Drop + THX AAA 789
The Drop + THX AAA 789, as the name implies, is one of the newer THX-certified amplifiers. It is also one of the few options on this list that has a balanced XLR headphone output. The build quality in the THX AAA 789 is nothing special since the sound quality is the star of the show.
Let us brush off the build quality real quick. The metal material used in the THX AAA 789 feels generic. It is the same material used with SMSL Amplifiers and DACs. It doesn’t feel bad, but some users may want a better build for this price point.
However, despite the build quality, you get excellent power and sound quality in return. In terms of power, the THX AAA 789 has lots of them. It delivers 6 watts of power into 32 ohms, which is unheard of in this price range. It also has three gain options for fine-tuning how much power you need. This signal is very clean and has a low noise floor. See full details on Drop.com
In terms of the sound quality, the THX AAA 789 provides a neutral sound signature. When paired with high-end headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800s, you will get an accurate and dynamic sound that genuinely makes your music sound alive. While this amplifier is highly regarded as a good amp for critical listening, it also has good synergy with different headphones.
The THX AAA 789 is also known for having better dynamics and soundstage to its direct competitor, the Schiit Jotunheim. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference as they both have distinct sound signatures. However, the THX AAA 789 is known for delivering a more realistic overall presentation.
If you want to have an amplifier with a neutral sound signature but synergizes well with more headphones, then the THX AAA 789 is a good fit for you. It is an excellent all-rounder, which is why we are recommending it as the best at this price point.
Pros: The THX AAA 789 has a neutral sound signature that pair really well with most high-end headphones. This is one of the best amplifiers for critical listening.
Cons: One minor flaw that the Drop + THX AAA 789 has is the build quality. If Drop manages to improve this aspect, then the THX AAA 789 would be perfect.
The Schiit Jotunheim is a very similar product to the Drop + THX AAA 789. They both have similar inputs and are the only amplifiers on this list that feature a balanced XLR headphone output. The Jotunheim is, however, not as good as an all-rounder compared to the THX AAA 789, specifically because of its single-ended output.
In terms of the build quality, the Jotunheim has the signature Schiit look that is shared across multiple products such as the Magni 3+. Compared to the more generic feeling THX AAA 789, the Jotunheim feels more premium. It is a lot heavier, and the overall construction feels more robust than the THX AAA 789. The build quality perfectly reflects its price tag, which is a bit higher than the Drop + THX AAA 789.
In terms of the power output, the Jotunheim performs similarly with the THX AAA 789. The XLR balanced output gives 5 watts per channel into 32 ohms. The single-ended output, however, is not great for the price. It only produces 1.5 watts into 32 ohms. Even a less expensive model, such as the Monoprice Liquid Spark, performs better than the Jotunheim’s single-ended output.
As for the sound quality, the Schiit Jotunheim is similar to the Drop + THX AAA 789 but has the signature Schiit characteristics. Unlike the more neutral and analytical THX AAA 789, the Jotunheim is slightly V-shaped and has that compressed sound that is common with most of Schiit’s products.
The V-shaped sound signature gives a subtle emphasis on the bass and highs. Despite being boosted, both of these frequencies are not as tight or as refined as the ones found in the THX AAA 789. This results in more bass and highs but not necessarily better bass and highs.
Overall, the Schiit Jotunheim is still a great headphone amplifier despite its drawbacks. The sound coloration that you get from the Jotunheim can either be good or bad for headphones. In contrast, the THX AAA 789 is mostly going to have better synergy with most headphones,
If you like a safer option, then the THX AAA 789 may be a better fit for you. But, if you don’t want a neutral sound signature and you are willing to experiment more with your headphones, then the Schiit Jotunheim may be a better fit for you.
Pros: The Schiit Jotunheim shares a lot of the positives of the Drop + THX AAA 789. The most notable improvement that it has is the more premium build quality.
Cons: The Schiit Jotunheim is a hit or miss for headphones. Its synergy is not that great compared to the THX AAA 789. The single-ended output is also disappointing for its price.
The Beyerdynamic A20 is one of the best reference amplifiers that you can get. It has a very clean sound that accurately reproduces the music. This model was made to be specifically paired with the Beyerdynamic T1. However, it synergizes well with a wide variety of headphones.
The accuracy of the A20 means that it can be used for professional uses such as music production. It can also satisfy a lot of critical listeners with high-end headphones that listen to the highest quality music available.
One downside of an accurate sounding amplifier like the Beyerdynamic A20 is that it may sound too dull for some. The music won’t sound fun or exciting since no coloration is added. It will sound exactly the way it was intended. This usually leads to a cold and dead sound that does not appeal to a lot of casual listeners.
Another downside with an amplifier like this is that it often highlights the peaks in the high frequencies of bright sounding headphones. One of the biggest criticisms of headphones like the Beyerdynamic T1, DT1990 Pro, and the similar-sounding Sennheiser HD800s is that they have peaks in the high-end. Adding a warm sounding amplifier usually helps to correct this. An amplifier like the A20, on the other hand, accurately reproduces these peaks, which will sound unpleasant for treble sensitive people.
Overall, if you are in the market for a powerful headphone amplifier that pairs well with critical listening headphones, then the Beyerdynamic A20 is for you.
Pros: The Beyerdynamic A20 is one of the best in presenting a neutral and accurate sound. When paired with the Beyerdynamic T1, it is possibly one of the best experiences you can have.
Cons: The Beyerdynamic A20 may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Its accurate sound may sound dull and lackluster to some.
While both the Drop + THX AAA 789 and Schiit Jotunheim sound excellent, a few headphones may have trouble synergizing with them because they sound better with tube amplifiers. For these cases, you can actually combine the properties of a tube amplifier and a solid-state amplifier without sacrificing your solid-state amplifier.
This can be done by adding a tube preamplifier. This introduces distortion into the sound of your headphone amplifier, which will make the sound signature warmer. We have a dedicated article for you to check out if you are interested in adding a preamplifier in your system. But if you want a tube amplifier instead in this price range, then check out the next product.
Schiit Lyr 3
The Schiit Lyr 3 is one of the most interesting amplifiers on this list. It is a hybrid modular tube amplifier that has the ability to sound like a solid-state amplifier. Traditional tube amplifiers are already modular in a way that you can change the tubes to get a different flavor of sound. The Lyr 3 takes this a step further by introducing a solid-state tube called LISST, which drastically changes the sound of the amplifier and makes it sound closer to a solid-state amp.
With the stock tubes, the Lyr 3 adds the warm coloration that is usually associated with tube amplifiers. This smoothens the sound and helps with controlling the peaks of bright sounding headphones like the Sennheiser HD800s. It does not entirely sound accurate like the Beyerdynamic A20, but it sure sounds more fun and alive.
As mentioned earlier, the Lyr 3’s party trick is its ability to sound like a solid-state amplifier. With the LISST, the Lyr 3 sounds more accurate. The added warmth significantly decreases while details across the spectrum increase. This helps with critical listening if the user intends to.
Overall, the Schiit Lyr 3 is a versatile choice. While it’s accuracy is still not as good as the Beyerdynamic A20, more users will appreciate the versatility it adds. It’s modular aspect also makes it synergize better with a wide variety of headphones. If you are a person who likes to customize your sound, then the Schiit Lyr 3 is for you.
Pros: The Schiit Lyr 3’s modular hybrid design makes it the most versatile on this list. It can synergize to any high-end pair of headphones due to its solid-state and tube characteristics.
Cons: Even with the solid-state option, the Schiit Lyr 3 is still not as accurate as other models as the Beyerdynamic A20. This isn’t really a bad thing but will depend on the user’s personal preference.
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s