Audio. So many people are doing it totally wrong. Technically, if you’re listening to headphones, they’re being run through a headphone amp. Usually, these are built into a device, whether that means your smart phone, computer, iPod, the headphone jack on your guitar amp, they all have a headphone amp built in, but for the best headphone amps you want something external, and of much higher quality. For a lot of audio products and electronic products, the sound amplification being sent to your headphones isn’t a priority, but it makes a huge impact on the sound, which is why we’ve scoured the audio world to find you the best headphone amplifier reviews and show you just why you should be considering one of these products.
Now, it should be said that these products are more essential for some people than for others. If you’re a bedroom producer making your own music, a top headphone amp is really nothing short of essential. If you tend to just listen to music in the gym, putting up with what is in your smartphone or iPod already may be the best option.
So what does a Headphone Amp actually Do?
A headphone amp serves a couple of purposes. It will boost the signal of the audio being carried from device to headphones, but in my opinion its more important feature is the fact that it can prevent distortion. When tracks get loud and your headphones are ‘stretched’ in terms of their capacity, sometimes the audio can start to distort and sound fuzzy and unpleasant. Nobody wants that, and you can actually lose a fair old chunk of the detail from a track. The listening experience is not just better in terms of volume but in terms of detail too, and avoiding distortion can be a big plus point.
As well as headphone amps being a standard inclusion in audio devices, so are DACs. This stands for digital to analog converter and what it does is take the binary signal a song has been converted into and turns it into sound. The signal that comes out though is very quiet, hence the need for products which amplify it.
You can get DACs that work as standalones, and though for the proper audiophiles and producers out there this may be worth considering, I think that for most of us the headphone amp is going to take priority. Fortunately, there are even some products out there which tie the two together, providing both a headphone amplifier and a DAC all in one and giving the best of both worlds. Just like the amp, the built in models which came with your laptop, console, tablet or other device, aren’t likely to provide the highest quality in the world, but they’re more than sufficient.
Choosing a Headphone Amp
It is important, before we get into the meat of the headphone amp reviews, to quantify what is a good headphone amp. The following criteria is what we have used to judge the best, and the metrics used will generally be the same for all of us:
- Audio clarity. This is of the utmost importance, any sort of distortion or low quality audio is a no-no. Of course, this means you must make sure your headphones are good quality too.
- EQ. Many of the top models come with a built in equalizer which gives you the ability to alter the sound, and the frequency response of the audio you’re listening to, you can cut or boost bass, mid and high frequencies and this is a nice feature to have for casual listening. Some of the models currently on the market have a built in bass boost, but this is not something I would recommend if you are looking to make your own music as it will give you a skewed view of how the music is sounding.
- Volume control. This needs to be easy to use and give you full control of how much sound you’re pumping through your audio device.
- Portability. Some of us will be happy to set up and use our headphone amp at home or in the studio and it being portable isn’t their top priority, however, if you’re a laptop producer and you want to be able to take a headphone amp out and about, or you just want one for casual listening, there are lots of portable options on the market.
- Price. This is usually a consideration for most of us. Unfortunately the cheapest headphone amps may not be the best quality, but there are some affordable, good priced models out there representing value for money.
- Reviews. A look at the all round reviews and a summary of what people who are using the product have said, which is what we try to bring here on our site as we review the products in question. Something that has been terribly reviewed probably isn’t worth your time and money.
Guitar Headphone Amps
These are worthy of a mention, if you’re a guitarist and you prefer to play electric guitar, these are slightly different products, designed with the role of plugging into the jack out part of the guitar, boosting the signal to an audible level and then having headphones plugged in which allow you to listen to the guitar at higher volumes, some even have effects built in. They’re a slightly different thing and not what we will focus on below, but they’re worth considering if this is what you are looking for as an instrumentalist.
FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier
FiiO seem to really dominate the market when it comes to headphone amps and there are a lot of models to choose from made by the manufacturer. We’ve picked the E10K out as one of the best for a few reasons. Without being designed to be portable in the sense of putting it in your pocket, it is very compact and can be moved around easily and has some excellent features. The FiiO has a digital analog converter built in which is very useful for a lot of us and further adds to the benefits, as we’ve already described.
- Easy to use volume switching pot
- 3dB bass boost built-in which can be switched on and off
- USB DAC built in
- Supports all modern operating systems, no driver installation needed
- Supports audio formats up to 96 kHz/24 bit, great for studio use
As you can see from the list of features, there is plenty going for the E10K. As well as being powerful and giving a nice boost to the crispness and clarity of many sets of headphones, it has the DAC, and the installation is as simple as plug in and go. There’s little more you can ask for from an amp and for home listening or even home studios this is a great product.
FiiO E6 Portable Audio Headphone Amplifier
FiiO again. Their E6 model is equally well made, but this time has been created with a portable user in mind. It doesn’t quite offer the same features as the other models, but if you need to be truly portable with your headphone amp then this is worth considering.
This also has easy to control volume settings, an optional bass boost, and even a lock switch to avoid accidentally changing the settings while it is in your pocket or clipped elsewhere. It is easily charged via USB and has pretty minimal noise or distortion, providing a vast improvement on a lot of media playing devices such as laptops and MP3 players. In spite of being small and portable the E6 is pretty robust too, and is a significant upgrade on its brother the E5, the model which preceded this.
FiiO have become a brand to reckon with. You know what kind of quality you can get when purchasing from them and this is another string to their bow. If you need something pocket sized, the E6 Portable Headphone amp could be an option.
Beyerdynamic A20 Headphone Amp
Well, the article is titled the Best Headphone Amps and this will not let anyone down. Beyerdynamic are excellent manufacturers of audio products including mics, headphones and of course headphone amps as we’re looking at here. The A20 is truly exceptional, and the reviews online show just how delighted people who have bought it tend to be.
What makes it the best? Without going into too much detail, the craftsmanship, parts and amazing design, which has been based on previous legendary models of these amps, mean that this is one of the top models. It is simple, and doesn’t have a lot of controls for EQ etc, but it is perhaps assumed that this will be used in studios and therefore the user will have other ways to control those aspects. What do you get? Simple, high input and ultra low noise headphone amplification.
I can’t speak highly enough about what this does for headphones, and don’t be surprised to see it in some of the top recording studios for when you’re laying down a vocal take, for instance. The two year manufacturer warranty also shows just how excellently made this product is.
ART Pro Audio HeadAmp 4 Four Channel Headphone Amplifier
Another option worthy of consideration, the Art Pro audio headamp has 8 outputs on four channels, making it great for band practice or many other uses, offering both 1/4 and 1/8 inch ins and outs. It has a cool design with a stackable, rigid case. From a quick look at the reviews online, it is easy to see why people think so much of this, and there are a lot of five star reviews talking about the great quality, low-noise and ease of use this product has to offer. For home or studio use with just about any media source, this can be a wonderful choice for a headphone amp.
I think it is fair to say that for home and portable use headphone amps, FiiO are really leading the way, and truth be told there are three or four of their models that we could’ve mentioned on the list. The whole brand is truly excellent. There are tried, tested and even legendary brands also making great products for more professional and studio use, such as the Beyerdynamic A20, but the price tags can be pretty pricy.
It is amazing that we can get these products, once reserved for recording studios, can be carried around in our pockets and used on the go. If you’re a true audiophile, the chances are you’ll really notice the difference when you listen to something which is being amplified and even run through a DAC, you’ll never want to go back. Most of the above options will provide an excellent option and depending on your needs and whether you want something portable or something for producing and mixing audio, there is something to fit your needs within the headphone amps mentioned.