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, like the McIntosh MHA150 ($4,500), but there are also good options for $200 or less. These are the ones that we recommend.
FiiO E17K Alpen 2
The FiiO E17K Alpen 2 is a dependable headphone amp with a built-in DAC that’s designed for both desktop and smartphone use. Its exterior is brushed aluminum, which gives it a pristine look. A neat feature is that it has a direct line-out jack so you can use the E17K Alpen 2 as a DAC all by itself. The other thing is that it has a multi-function scroll wheel, which allows you to adjust the volume on the fly as well as tweak the bass and treble.
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.
Meridian Explorer 2
The Explorer2 is slightly more portable than the Audioengine D1 and supports sample rates up to 24-bit/192kHz. It’s not a headphone amp that’s meant to be used with your smartphone or tablet — it’s for your laptop or desktop only. And it has a second line-out jack in case you want to go big and hook it up to a stereo amp. One of its best (and nerdiest) features is that it uses your Mac’s or PC’s potentiometer, allowing you to control your music volume from your keyboard.
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.
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.