Audio / Buying Guide

10 Headphone Amplifiers for Audiophiles

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So, you love listening to music through headphones, but degraded audio quality turns your love into a deep sigh of disappointment. Admit it, you're one of those people... you're an audiophile. You've invested a sliver of your better self into headphones that by all specifications and indications should have filled that sound-shaped hole in your soul. Yet, something's missing and your ears can't deny it. What is it? Maybe it's that thing that feeds the headphones, drives them, and pushes them to perform. I'm talking about the headphone amp. A low-quality amp may compromise the greatness of your stupendous cans, while a great one can bring out the best in your headphones and make them sound the way they were designed to sound. Let's meander through some solutions and tour ten headphone amps from Audio-Technica, FiiO, Fostex, Grace Design, Marantz, Sony, SPL, and Teac that can treat your headphones right.

1. FiiO Q1

The Q1’s compact size and built-in, 30-hour rechargeable battery make it a great mobile-device companion. Input digital signal at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution via a micro-USB port and convert it to analog using its Texas Instruments DAC, or bring in analog signal via the 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. The 3.5mm headphone output supports unbalanced headphones with recommended impedances ranging from 16 to 150 Ohms. A two-position gain switch and selectable bass boost give you basic sonic customization. The sturdy chassis can easily be secured to a smartphone using the included silicone bands.

FiiO Q1 Portable Headphone Amplifier & DAC

2. Teac HA-P50

Like the Q1, the HA-P50 is compact and portable, features a built-in rechargeable battery, and is supplied with straps to affix it to a smartphone. It can accept digital signal at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution via micro-USB, USB Type-A, or optical inputs with a BurrBrown PCM5102 DAC handling the conversion. The optical input port doubles as a 3.5mm analog input, which supports a frequency response of 10 Hz to 100 kHz. The unbalanced 3.5mm headphone output works with headphone impedances from 8 to 600 Ohms, thanks to a high/low gain selector.

Teac HA-P50 Portable Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC

3. Audio-Technica AT-PHA100

As with the Q1 and HA-P50, the portable AT-PHA100 has an internal rechargeable battery, smartphone attachment bands, a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack analog input, and a micro-USB digital input. However, its ESS ES9018K2M DAC goes beyond 96 kHz sampling rate by supporting up to 32-bit/384 kHz PCM audio and up to 5.6 MHz DSD audio. Analog output signal is fed to the unbalanced 3.5mm headphone output, which incorporates a Texas Instruments op-amp to minimize distortion. Its high/low gain switch enables the use of headphones with impedances between 10 and 300 Ohms.

Audio-Technica Consumer AT-PHA100 Portable Headphone Amplifier

4. Sony PHA-3

In this article’s product lineup, the PHA-3 is last of the compact, portable models designed for on-the-go use with smartphones. Thus, you’ll not be surprised to know that it has a built-in rechargeable battery and silicon straps. In addition to those essentials, it supports up to 32-bit/384 kHz PCM audio, up to 5.6 MHz DSD audio, and a 10 Hz to 100 kHz frequency response. It provides micro-USB, USB Type-A, TOSLINK optical, and 3.5mm inputs. Selectable gain, DSEE HX upscaling, and balanced and unbalanced 3.5mm outputs ensure a rewarding match for your headphones, whether they are 8 Ohms, 600 Ohms, or anywhere in between.

Sony PHA-3 High Resolution USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

5. Fostex HP-A4BL

The desktop HP-A4BL offers support for PCM sample rates up to 192 kHz and DSD sample rates up to 11.2 MHz. Though it has no analog inputs, digital inputs include TOSLINK optical and USB Type-B ports. A BurrBrown PCM1792A DAC takes care of converting the digital source to analog signal, which feeds unbalanced 1/4" and balanced XLR 4-pin headphone jacks. Selectable roll-off filter/cut-off frequency and gain settings allow you to appropriately match the HP-A4BL to headphones with impedances ranging from 16 to 600 Ohms.

Fostex HP-A4BL High-Resolution DAC / Balanced Headphone Amplifier

6. Marantz HD-DAC1

Another desktop model, the HD-DAC1 supports up to 24-bit/192 kHz PCM resolution and 5.6 MHz DSD resolution. Versatile digital and analog input connectivity includes S/PDIF coaxial, TOSLINK optical, USB Type-A, USB Type-B, and 3.5mm jacks. A three-level gain selector and high-current CS4398 DAC feed the 1/4" headphone output with compatibility for impedances up to 600 Ohms. Extra goodies include a jitter remover, a dual clock, and a ground isolator.

Marantz HD-DAC1 Headphone Amplifier with DAC-Mode

7. Grace Design m920

Though not small enough to put in your pocket, the m920 is packed with a variety of top-notch options that will make you not care. Its Sabre DAC features customizable filter response and grants compatibility with PCM resolutions up to 32-bit/384 kHz and DSD sample rates up to 5.6 MHz. Digital inputs include an XLR for AES/EBU, S/PDIF coaxial, TOSLINK optical, and micro-USB, while the analog inputs are balanced XLRs and unbalanced RCAs. A large display shows the current level, which is adjustable in 0.5 dB increments and boasts 0.05 dB channel level matching. Selectable cross feed delivers the imaging normally only experienced with speakers to the dual 1/4" headphone outputs.

Grace Design m920 High Resolution Monitoring System

8. Sony TA-ZH1ES

The TAZH1ES brings support for DSD up to 22.4 MHz and PCM up to 768 kHz. RCA connectors, digital coaxial and optical jacks, and a USB Type-B port provide input connectivity. Multiple balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs complement impedances from 12 to 600 Ohms and include XLR 4-pin, 1/4" TRS, 3.5mm, and 4.4mm jacks. Bonuses features include FPGA processing, a DC phase linearizer, and more.

Sony TA-ZH1ES Headphone Amplifier with DA-Hybrid Amplifier Circuit

9. SPL Phonitor x

The desktop Phonitor x offers analog and digital inputs via balanced XLRs, unbalanced RCAs, S/PDIF coaxial, TOSLINK optical, and USB Type-B. XLR 4-pin and 1/4" TRS outputs are provided for use with balanced and unbalanced headphones. High-end configurability is offered via adjustable frequency-dependent cross feed and arrival angle, a balance control, and mono/stereo switching. The unit is built upon 120V rail technology for minimized distortion and enhanced dynamic range, maximum level, and signal to noise ratio.

SPL Pro-Fi Series Phonitor x Headphone Amplifier & Preamplifier with DA Converter and VOLTAiR Technology

10. Audio-Technica AT-HA5050H

If your fulfillment requires tubes and transformers, the AT-HA5050H is the one for you. It marinates the signal with two E88CC tubes and Lundahl transformers. Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA analog inputs and S/PDIF coaxial and USB Type-B digital inputs provide connectivity for a variety of sources. The unit supports PCM sample rates up to 384 kHz and DSD sample rates up to 5.6 MHz. Eight 1/4" headphone outputs at 0.1 Ohms, 33 Ohms, 82 Ohms, and 120 Ohms deliver compatibility with headphone impedances from 16 to 600 Ohms. To top it off, there are VU meters with adjustable level range.

Audio-Technica Consumer AT-HA5050H Hybrid Headphone Amplifier

Well, there you have it, a bunch of headphone amps that can all bring a smile to your inner audiophile. From compact and portable to glowing and large, these amplifiers span the spectrum in prices and features, but all focus on the same priority: high-quality audio for headphones. Check them out, prepare for aural delight, and share any other marvels of headphone amplification you happen to find!

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