Best Headphone Amps 2017: Get the best from your headphones

Headphones are big business, and we’re spending more money on them than we ever used to. Lossless streaming and Hi-Res Audio are making waves, so now’s the time to get the best from the sound coming out of your smartphone or laptop. A DAC-equipped headphone amplifier is the way to do it, and we’ve rounded up the best headphone amps around.

The sonic circuitry on a laptop or smartphone is built to cost and size constraints, rather than because it does the best job. If you use headphones costing around £100/$100 or more, you’ll be amazed at the difference you can hear when driving them with dedicated amplification.

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 designed 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.

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 Katana IEMs. Music files were everything from old 192kbps MP3s to 24-bit 192KHz Hi-Res Audio, as well as streaming services such as Qobuz.

Related: Best turntables

OPPO HA-2

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Score

Key features:

  • Suitable for mobile use (13-hour battery life)
  • 3.5mm headphones socket
  • USB input
  • 3.5mm line output

The OPPO HA-2 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Fiio E18 Kunlun, and shares a similar set of features.

Like the Fiio, it’s a portable headphone amp with an integrated battery, so as well as connecting to a computer, you can hook it up to a phone or tablet and take it on the go. Four small green LEDs on the side give you some indication of battery life. It also has a 3.5mm line out for feeding tunes to a hi-fi when you don’t fancy headphone listening.

Similarities with the Fiio don’t stop there, either – like that model it has a rotary volume control on the top corner, and a variety of sockets on both the top and bottom. It also has a bass-boost and high/low gain option. However, it’s altogether more classy, with a stitched leather wrap and matte metal shell.

One minor irritation when first plugging the OPPO into a computer is that it requires you to download device drivers. This isn’t a plug-and-play amp like most of its rivals. But once it’s done, it’s done.

Sadly, when you get down to the business end, the HA-2 doesn’t feel like it quite lets its hair down with music, taking the pace out of faster-moving tracks and constricting the soundstage. Listening to New Order’s Blue Monday, it felt like Bernard Sumner and co were performing in a box around my head – even through some exceptionally spacious-sounding Grado GS1000e open-backs. It does, at least, dig out plenty of detail.

Ultimately the HA-2 isn’t a terrible option if you’re after portability from your headphone amp, but it’s difficult to justify the extra cost over the extremely similar Fiio E18 Kunlun.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £259 | Amazon.com from $299

At time of review the OPPO HA-2 was available for £300.

Pro-Ject Head Box DS

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Score

Key features:

  • Mains powered
  • 6.3mm headphones socket
  • USB, RCA phono, coaxial digital and optical inputs
  • RCA phono output

The Head Box DS is a home headphone amp and DAC from a company better known for its enormous range of turntables. Phono outputs mean it can be used as a standalone DAC in a hi-fi system as well as for headphone listening duties.

It feels very solid, with an all-metal casing and a very readable LCD screen. The design’s exceptionally uninspiring, though, and I’m not a massive fan of the clicky buttons on the fascia. I also thought it was broken at first, until I found out I needed to hold the power button down for a super-long time to get it to boot up.

The sonics are uninspiring, too. A recessed upper mid-range makes vocals sound boxed in and unnatural. It never feels like it’s really opening up , even though the soundstage reaches quite widely outwards.

The AudioQuest DragonFly Red offers superior sound quality at almost half the price, and has the benefit of portability.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £299 | Amazon.com from $399

At time of review the Pro-Ject Head Box DS was available for £299.00

NuForce uDAC-3

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Score

Key features:

  • USB powered
  • 3.5mm headphones socket
  • USB input
  • RCA phono and coaxial digital outputs

The uDAC-3 is blessed with both a headphone output and RCA phono sockets for connecting to a hi-fi system.

It’s a solid little box, but brings to mind the PCB cases you can buy from electrical shops. Thankfully the NuForce logo stamped into the top prevents it from looking too DIY.

Around the back is a Micro USB socket for computer connection, as well as the aforementioned stereo phono sockets and a digital coaxial output for pass-through to something like another dedicated DAC or an AV receiver.

On the front is the 3.5mm headphone jack socket, a status LED and a proper volume knob. The knob has a lovely feel to it, and is a welcome addition — it’s so much more intuitive to quickly tweak volume up or down with a knob than it is with buttons.

I did have the same issue with the NuForce uDAC-3 that I had with the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS, in that it doesn’t have any rubber feet to stop it sliding around a desktop when attached to a heavy headphone cable. The cable on my Grado GS1000e reference pair – overkill for the uDAC-3, perhaps – almost pulled it onto the floor.

Sound quality is decent, but not the best. The soundstage is enormous and crisp – the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine (2011 Remastered)” is utterly immersive. Close your eyes and you could be on the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

When that first bassline from Neil Young’s “Old Man (Remastered)” drops in, it’s fat but taut, while timing is similarly up to scratch. The uDAC-3 does dance music so well that it may as well come with glow sticks and a can of Red Bull.

However, vocals feel disconnected and overly pronounced, seeming to overpower much of the mid-range detail. In The National’s “Afraid Of Everyone”, there should be real metronomic drive when the drums kick into full flow, but through the uDAC-3 they’re muted and lack impact.

This isn’t a bad DAC headphone amp, especially if you want to hook up to your hi-fi and you listen to a lot of dance music. But if you’re mostly going to be listening through headphones, the cheaper AudioQuest DragonFly Black offers better all-round sonics.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £72.99 | Amazon.com from $85

At time of review the NuForce uDAC-3 was available for £100.

Audeze Deckard

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Score

Key features:

  • Desktop use only
  • 6.3mm headphones socket
  • USB, RCA phono inputs

 

The Deckard is the more affordable of Audeze’s two DAC headphone amps, both of which are firmly designed for home/desktop listening. But just because this is the cheaper Audeze option doesn’t mean it feels like a cut-price product – the build and design of the Deckard are amazing.

Seriously, if this had a four-figure price tag, you wouldn’t be surprised. The aluminium casework is beautifully milled and finished, and fitted with a substantial volume knob and switches. You even get an above-par USB cable in the box. The only outward sign of cost cutting is the choice not to include digital coaxial or optical inputs.

The Deckard features three gain settings, although even the mid setting was easily enough to drive the most insensitive headphones I could lay my hands on. Sadly, the sound quality wasn’t up to the level of construction, with some mid-range smearing that meant too much detail was lost for my liking. It does a decent job of plumbing the bass depths, but treble retrieval is also a little lacking. There’s definitely more power here than subtlety.

Buy Now at richersounds.com from £599.95 | Amazon.com from $699

At time of review the Audeze Deckard was available for £599.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

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Score

Key features:

  • 3.5mm headphones socket
  • USB input

The DacMagic XS may be tiny – smaller than a matchbox – but it’s solid class, oozing charisma from the brushed metal casing to the clicky volume buttons. Over-delivering on build quality has become a forte of Cambridge Audio over the past decade, and this is no exception.

It connects via a micro-USB cable, although the supplied one’s a little on the short side, so it’s just as well they opted for such a widely available cable type rather than something proprietary. If your headphones have a rather fat moulding around the plug, like our Grado reference pair does, the DacMagic also won’t sit flat on a desk, and the lack of any kind of rubber feet means it slides around a bit.

But boy does it deliver on the sonic front. It creates a huge, detailed soundstage that’s full of warmth. If we’re being picky, it sometimes struggles a little with timing, and doesn’t have quite the attack of the Audioquest DragonFly Black.

But it costs under £100, so we’ll forgive it those minor shortcomings.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £100 | Amazon.com from $119

At time of review the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS was available for £100.

Acoustic Research AR-UA1

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Score

Key features:

  • USB powered
  • 6.3mm headphones socket
  • USB and optical inputs
  • RCA phono output

This sumptuous little box is priced much closer to the premium end of the market – although nowhere near the true “high end”. As such, it’s great to see that it actually looks and feels the part.

The Acoustic Research UA1 is a stylish, angular box of aluminium with a metal volume knob, multicolour status LED and headphones socket on the front. The socket’s for the bigger 6.25mm jack plug that’s standard (sans adapter) on high-end headphones, which gives some idea of the UA1’s aspirations. Around the back is USB port, optical S/PDIF and a pair of RCA stereo line outputs for bypassing the headphone amp and feeding the DAC directly to a hi-fi system.

So far, so good in justifying the extra cost over some of the cheaper options here.

Sound quality, thankfully, doesn’t disappoint. It’s just ever so slightly richer and crisper than that of the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, creating a fuller, more detailed soundstage. But only just.

My only complaint is that the volume control is stepped, so the knob clicks around and volume goes up and down in set increments, which is less precise than using a smooth-turning mechanical potentiometer.

Is the very slight sonic improvement, additional connectivity and dedicated volume control really worth such a hefty price increase over the DragonFly Red? I don’t think the UA1 offers quite such good value for money, but it’s really going to come down to how much those extras mean to you.

However, the Chord Mojo offers even better sound quality as well as portability.

Buy now at Amazon.co.uk from £379.99

At time of review the Acoustic Research UA1 was available for £400.

Copland DAC215

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Score

Key features:

  • Desktop use only
  • 6.3mm headphones socket
  • USB, RCA phono, coaxial digital and 2x optical inputs
  • 2x RCA phono outputs

The Copland DAC215 is a serious high-end headphone amp for home use, combining valve amplification with one of the best DAC chips around. A shedload of connection options means you can hook up pretty much anything to it, and it can even be used as a preamp in a full hi-fi system.

Sound quality is breathtaking, as you’d expect at this price. The delivery has incredible scale and the mid-range warmth typical of valve amplification. The DAC215 has effortless power aplenty.

Add to that the retro-cool Scandinavian design and there’s not much to dislike. Well, apart from that price.

Buy now at stoneaudio.co.uk from £1,998

At the time of the review the Copland DAC215 was available for £1,998.00

Read the full Copland DAC215 review

AudioQuest DragonFly Black

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Score

Key features:

  • Suitable for mobile use
  • 3.5mm headphones socket
  • USB input

One of the most popular USB headphone amps, the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2, has received a bit of a makeover and morphed into the more advanced DragonFly Black. And it’s cheaper, too.

One of the biggest upgrades from the v1.2 is the ability to connect the Black to a smartphone, thanks to the lower power needed to drive it. AudioQuest sells a very neat USB OTG adapter, although any female USB adapter cable will do. Of course, you can still plug it straight into your computer’s USB socket, too.

The sound quality is still exceptional for this price. It’s a little harsh and brittle compared to the very best, but still a huge upgrade on the built-in amps on phones and laptops. My only complaint is that the DAC is still limited to 24-bit/96kHz files.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £89 | Amazon.com from $99

At time of review the AudioQuest DragonFly Black was available for £89.00

Chord Hugo TT

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Score

Key features:

  • Desktop use only
  • 3.5mm and 2x 6.3mm headphones sockets
  • 2x USB, RCA phono, coaxial digital, optical and balanced inputs
  • Bluetooth aptX
  • Remote control

Easily the most expensive headphone amp of the Chord Electronics trio that made it into this round-up, the Hugo TT has an eye-watering price tag by any standards. What you get for that large stack of cash may surprise you, though.

Like the smaller Hugo 2, the Hugo TT (“Table Top”) has a decent array of sockets – with the addition in this case of balanced XLR outputs – as well as Bluetooth aptX for wirelessly streaming to it. It also has an internal rechargeable battery, which doesn’t exactly make it properly portable, but does mean that it’s easy to pop it down anywhere in the house that you fancy sitting for a listening session.

The addition of a remote control – and a very classy one, at that – combines with those analogue output options and a front LED display to mean the Hugo TT can moonlight as a useful preamp. In fact, Chord launched the TToby power amp to partner it, forming a complete digital-centric amplification solution.

Even just used as a DAC and headphone amp, though, the Hugo TT is absolutely sublime. When it comes to timing and transient handling, this just can’t be beaten. In fact, it does pretty much everything without fault. Music sounds exciting, intricate and grand in equal measure through the Hugo TT.

The problem is that the Hugo 2 sounds almost exactly the same and has most of the same features – for less than half the price. Still, if you’re considering using this as the preamp in a high-end system, that extra outlay doesn’t seem so bad. Just remember it doesn’t have any analogue inputs.

At time of review the Chord Hugo TT was available for £2995.00

AudioQuest DragonFly Red

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Score

Key features:

  • Suitable for mobile use
  • 3.5mm headphones socket
  • USB input

For 2016 AudioQuest launched this upgraded model of its popular DragonFly headphone amp. It has the same simple form factor – a USB dongle with a 3.5mm headphone socket on the end – but the internals are vastly improved.

The DragonFly Red features a new digital volume control, an improved DAC chip and a higher output voltage for driving less sensitive headphones. Like the cheaper DragonFly Black, it can also be connected to a smartphone or tablet, via a suitable adapter, for non-laptop-based portable listening.

The improvements in sound quality over the DragonFly Black and the previous-gen DragonFly v1.2 are immediately obvious. The Red has a much fuller, sweeter, less spiky sound that justifies the price premium.

Its only downsides are that, like the DragonFly Black, it’s limited to 24-bit/96kHz files and it doesn’t have its own battery – if you connect it to your phone, expect it to drain your charge rather quicker than normal. The DragonFly Red still offers great value, though.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £169 | Amazon.com from $198

At time of review the AudioQuest DragonFly Red was available for £169.00

Chord Mojo

11 of 12

Score

Key features:

  • Suitable for mobile use (10-hour battery life)
  • 2x 3.5mm headphones sockets
  • Micro USB, coaxial and optical inputs
  • Line output via headphones socket

The funky little Chord Mojo is intended to be a high-end portable DAC headphone amp, for hooking up to mobile phones. But it’s a lot more versatile than that.

The design, with its blackness, curves, scallops and round buttons – which light up in different colours depending on the volume level and status – reminds me of the iconic ’70s Lip Mach 2000 watch.

It’s a little smaller than a pack of cigarettes and has a pair of 3.5mm headphones sockets on one end, plus an array of inputs on the other. There’s a 3.5mm digital coaxial input, an S/PDIF optical socket and a pair of Micro USB ports – one for audio, one for charging. The headphones sockets can also be set as line outputs, bypassing the headphone amplification for hook-up directly from a phone or computer to a hi-fi.

There are grooves milled into the four top corners of the aluminium casing so mobile audiophiles can pop rubber bands around it to clamp it to their phone, but oddly there are no bands supplied.

The Mojo isn’t cheap, but it’s the best-sounding DAC headphone amp you’ll find under £1000.

There’s not a vast gap between this and the Acoustic Research UA1 or even the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, but the improvement’s most noticeable in how the Chord Mojo handles vocals. They’re altogether more natural. Josh Ritter’s voice on “Another New World” has far less of the bloom it has through the UA1, and a tad more subtlety than the DragonFly can manage.

This exceptional performance, combined with its versatility, make it one of the best all-round headphone amps you can buy. Excitingly, Chord has an accessory coming in September, called the Chord Poly, that will turn the Mojo into a full Hi-Res Audio player and streamer with a microSD slot for music storage.

Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £399 | Amazon.com from $599

At time of review the Chord Mojo was available for £400

Chord Hugo 2

12 of 12

Score

Key features:

  • Desktop or portable use (7-hour battery life)
  • 6.3mm & 3.5mm headphones sockets
  • 3.5mm coaxial digital output
  • USB, coaxial digital and optical inputs
  • Bluetooth aptX

The Hugo 2 is the larger sibling of the Chord Mojo and, obviously, an update of the awesome original Hugo. It offers more features than the Mojo – but for a lot more money. It’s similarly portable, thanks to an internal battery offering 7 hours of listening time, but this isn’t pocket portability – unless you’ve got proper trench coat pockets that can cope with the Hugo 2’s size and sharp corners. This beauty is better suited to sitting on a train table or aeroplane tray when it’s not on a desktop or hooked into a hi-fi.

Still, aside from not slipping into slim Levi’s, the Hugo 2 is incredibly versatile. The array of digital inputs is comprehensive, even including Bluetooth aptX for wirelessly streaming to it when it’s plugged into your speaker system as a standalone DAC. One of the updates from the original Hugo is a remote control that makes it even better when hooked into your hi-fi.

Other upgrades from the first Hugo include Micro USB charging, much better controls – more of those lovely multi-coloured glowing ball-buttons – and decent labelling of all the inputs and controls. I’d still like some subtle plus and minus signs on either side of the volume roller-ball, to indicate which way to roll it, but that’s a minor thing.

Now, the Chord Mojo sounds excellent, but the Hugo took it to another level, and the Hugo 2 goes just a tiny step further with even greater separation. Just listen through a pair of top-drawer headphones to “Master and a Hound” on “Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony” and you’ll hear the increased scale of the Hugo’s soundstage and the subtlety with which it handles a great number of instruments. It really comes into its own on those epic, sweeping pieces. Fans of orchestral classical music will love this thing. Actually, it sounds great with everything, so…

This is pretty much as good as a headphone amp can sound.

At time of review the Chord Hugo 2 was available for £1799.00