If you’re streaming music through Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music, chances are you’re listening to compressed MP3 files that are 30 to 40 percent of the original recording’s quality. These MP3 files (128–320kbps) sound way worse than the lossless audio (1,411kbps) on FLAC files, CDs or streamed from Tidal, because the compressed files exaggerate high and low frequencies, which also induces more ear-fatigue, meaning you can’t listen to these files for as long without needing a break. And who wants breaks?
A headphone amp is a simple and (sometimes) affordable solution to boost your system’s audio performance. It connects to your desktop computer or laptop, or even your smartphone or tablet, and effectively helps your audio sound more like hi-fi. The headphones you’re using will remain to be the most important piece of the hi-fi puzzle, but a good headphone amp comes in at a close second.
Without a headphone amp, the sound coming from your computer’s or smartphone’s audio jack simply isn’t very good. It’s flat and grainy and doesn’t deliver the expansive soundstage that higher-resolution music files promise. A good headphone amp with a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC) can change that. Also, because the audio is more accurate and less harsh on your ears, you can listen to music longer. It’s a win-win.
If you look online, you’ll find some great and expensive DACs, but there are also good options for $200 or less. These are the ones that we recommend.
Schiit Audio Fulla 3
Schiit Audio is small California audio company that makes a variety of high-performing DACs and amplifiers, and it sells them direct to customers which helps make all their really affordable. The Fulla 3, for example, is a simple-yet beautiful headphone DAC/amp that costs just over $100. It has a wonderful large and tactile volume knob and a mic jack for gaming. The Fulla 3 plugs directly into your laptop or desktop and you can use it as a DAC/amp with wired headphones or as a DAC/preamp for a nice pair of powered monitors. This third-generation model is available in two colors, black or polished silver, so you can buy one to match your desktop.
Fosi Audio Q4
The Fosi Audio Q4 is a gaming headphone DAC/amp that pushes well above its paltry price tag. It plugs directly into your laptop or desktop and is fully capable of driving most hi-fi headphones (between 16ohm to 200 ohms) and playing high-resolution audio (up to 24bit/192kHz). On top of that, it's audio control knobs and all-metal shell add a level of customizability and elegance that few other desktop amps have.
IFI Nano iDSD Black Label
This battery-powered headphone amp is designed to be used as both a portable device (connected your headphones to smartphones, tablets and laptops) and as a fixture in your desktop audio setup. It has 10 times the power output of the iPhone 6, according to What Hi-Fi?, and supports most digital music file formats (DXD, DSD256, PCM and MQA). There’s a 3.5mm line-level output, too, in case you wanted to connect an amplifier or pair of active speakers.
Creative Sound Blaster X3
The Sound Blaster X3 is a versatile headphone DAC/amp that's optimize for gamers. It supports surround sound technologies (like 7.1 virtual surround on headphones), has a convenient microphone input that offers excellent and natural noise cancellation, and it has a wonderfully large volume knob — that glows blue! — that gamers will love. However, the Sound Blaster X3 is actually a way more versatile than that. It supports high-resolution audio (up to 32bit/192kHz) and its Toslink connection allows you to connect directly to stereo amplifier or a pair of active speakers, meaning you can integrate it into a larger hi-fi system.
FiiO K5 Pro
The FiiO K5 Pro is a powerful desktop headphone amp/DAC combo (featuring AKM’s AK4493EQ DAC chips) designed for higher-end headphones. It has multiple gain switches, depending on how much power your headphones crave, and it supports high-resolution up to 32 bit/768kHz as well native DSD. The neat thing is that its wonderful volume actually glows different colors (RGB) depending on the sampling rate you're listening to: blue (48kHz and below), yellow (above 48kHz) and green (DSD).
The D1 USB DAC and headphone amp was first introduced in 2012, but like many of Audioengine’s products, it’s built to last and still works terrifically. Just plug it into your computer and plug your headphones or desktop speakers in and you’re rocking and rolling. No batteries needed.
Schiit Audio Hel 2
The Hel 2 is essentially a higher-end and more expensive version of the company's Fulla 3. It is four times more powerful than the Fulla 3 with gain controls, making it perfect for more demanding headphones. It also supports high-end mics and has a convenient microphone volume wheel, making it ideal for more serious gamers. Like the Fulla 3, the Hel 2 is a plug-and-play amp/DAC that's super easy to use.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
The DragonFly Red is AudioQuest’s most popular portable headphone amp. It’s small, the size and shape of a USB drive with a 3.5mm jack on its back, and you can use it with your computer or smartphone. It has a built-in DAC that makes audio sound much cleaner than if your headphones were just plugged into computer or smartphones. The only real downside is that it’s not the most powerful headphone amps. You might also want a fixed headphone amp that looks better adjacent to your computer.