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Best USB Headphone Amps 2016

by

Chord Mojo

With more people spending decent money on headphones, and Hi-Res Audio making waves, now's the time to improve the sound coming out of your computer. A USB headphone amplifier is the way to do it.

The audio circuitry on a laptop or phone is built to cost and size constraints, not because it does the job well. If you use headphones costing, say, £50 or more, you'll be amazed at the difference you can hear from using accompanying hardware that's built for purpose.

Related: Best headphones

We've cherry-picked the best headphone amps that'll plug into a PC, Mac or smartphone, suck your digital music through their built-in DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) and squirt it out of their jack sockets. Some are for home listening only and need plugging into the mains, while others are ready for on-the-go use, with their own internal battery or the ability to draw power from your mobile device's charging socket.

This Week's USB Headphone Amp Deals

NuForce uDAC-3 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £100 | Now £72.99

Audioengine D3 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £115 | Now £99

NuForce uDAC-3 at Amazon.com | Was £116 | Now $107

Video: Trusted Explains – What type of headphones should you buy?

We tested using a wide range of headphones, from mid-range in-ears up to the astonishing Grado GS1000e over-ears and Noble Audio Kaiser 10 custom-fitted IEMs. Music files were everything from old 192kbps MP3s to 24-bit 192KHz Hi-Res Audio, as well as streaming services such as Spotify and TIDAL.

Related: Best turntables

Read on to find out which amps gave us real sonic delight, or use the dropdown menu on the picture above to head straight to the model you're interested in.

pimlicosound

December 1, 2014, 10:27 am

I bought the DacMagic XS earlier this year and it's a great bit of kit for the price. Paired with the wonderful Philips Fidelio X1 headphones, I get a lusciously warm and smooth sound. The only problem is since I upgraded to OSX Mavericks on my work laptop, support for USB DACs has partly broken so now the connection is really finicky.

torjs99

December 1, 2014, 12:05 pm

fiio build quality is terrible. I own the E17 usb dac/amp and E09K headphone amp to drive my Q701s. the sound quality is great but straight away the connector that links the E17 to E09K would not connect the two without a piece of cardboard to wedge them together. the left channel of the headphone socket on the E17 failed after only using it twice! i wouldn't buy fiio again. fiio looks like a lot value for the money but you get what you pay for.

robfol

December 2, 2014, 8:24 pm

Hi all, the Arcam rPAC is now £100 at SAVI, Sevenoaks and most retailers. This makes it great value, especially for feeding a Hi-Fi system as well as headphones.

robfol

December 2, 2014, 8:25 pm

My XS work fine on a MacBook Pro under Yosemite. Maybe an upgrade?

danielfrisbee

February 24, 2015, 6:16 pm

I've been using the dac magic xs with some hifiman he400's and am very happy with the sound. Lately though, the usb connection keeps cutting out, and I have to unplug it and plug it back in again.. anyone have any ideas what this could be? I thought either the usb ports have broken, that there's some driver issues, or that the dac magic itself is breaking.
No idea which, nor what if anything I can do about it.

Steven Clarke

February 24, 2015, 7:26 pm

At what level of headphones would it be recommended to buy a headphone amp. I have a pair of soundmagic E30 and mainly listen to free spotify?

darktrain

February 24, 2015, 11:35 pm

will be buying the dragonfly for my dell laptop..had some of the fiio dac's but never been impressed and they are fairly bulky..heard nothing but good stuff for the dragonfly,and steve do you feel you're not getting the best out of the e30's or want to upgrade..I have both in ear iem's ultimate ears 900 and over the ear cans the akg 550's and they both sound better when using a decent amp.

Simon OW

February 25, 2015, 8:52 am

You'll probably hear some difference through the E30s, but perhaps not enough to justify the cost. You get better return for your money from investing in better headphones -- I'd spend at least as much on the headphones as the amp. You might even find that better headphones satisfy you enough that you're not bothered about the amp. But then you might wonder how much potential's going untapped...

oldschool

February 27, 2015, 1:47 pm

Em, LH Labs Geek Out, anyone?

Jamil Dhillon

April 12, 2015, 12:36 pm

HRT Microstreamer

Altex lan

August 18, 2015, 2:47 pm

I bought the X1 and the E10K olympus 2.

Richard Wray

October 17, 2015, 8:22 am

Not a single mention of any Sony kit like the PHA-3? Amazing results, especially when paired with a set of MDR-Z7 headphones.

canali

December 3, 2015, 6:29 am

am surprised you didn't review the hrt microstreamer or the iFi micro dsd...

megasuperexa

February 25, 2016, 9:33 am

Audioquest? the guys selling "usb filters" for 50 bucks??
Stopped reading after first mention of them.

Dexter McDade

May 13, 2016, 2:22 pm

$900.00 thats why

canali

June 6, 2016, 9:57 am

Your loss I'm afraid

Andrew

September 2, 2016, 10:53 pm

If Gordon Rankin, or Streamlength mean anything to you.. wait, never mind. you are obviously way too ignorant to have any idea what I am talking about

Alca Traz

November 25, 2016, 8:57 am

A word to anyone who owns, or is about to buy, a PC that includes a hi-end motherboard. It's possible that your board includes very competent audio circuitry, typically ESS ES9023P DAC; RC4580 2V rms headphone amp; automatic output impedance matching for 32-600 ohms, and other refinements. If so, I strongly recommend that you try the headphones directly from that before parting with the cash for a usb dac/amp. I'm using ATH-MSR7's (35 ohm) driven from the Asus Maximus VIII Hero, and they sound superb.

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