If you already have a good set of audiophile headphones and want to make sure you are getting every bit of performance out of them then you are going to want to invest in a good headphone amplifier.
Choosing the best amplifier isn't easy as in the last few years the portable audiophile market has been inundated with new models all offering a unique selling point, feature set, and price point.
2018 was a great year for this kind of gear and our pick was the Schiit Magni 3 but we wanted to keep it fresh and update our list of the top 10 headphone amps of 2019 to add a few new entries in the market.
What we look for in a headphone Amp?
Obviously, the main priority when compiling this list of 2019's best headphone amps was sound quality. There is no point in having a good set of headphones if you are attaching them to an inferior amplifier. That said there are a number of other factors that came into play when we were choosing our recommendations.
Features and connectivity were very important during our amp tests and many of the units listed below have many different features or designs that might be of use to different buyers.
As amplifier technology has advanced we have seen many models integrate extra connectivity options such as balanced outputs and EQ functionality.
Price is another consideration that played a big role as there is a point where some units didn't get included because they didn't do anything particularly better than another amp yet cost significantly more cash.
Value for money I think is important to everyone and at a certain point the law of diminishing returns kicks in and its hard to recommend certain models.
Finally, build quality and design are worth considering. If something is going to be sitting on our desk I don't just want some kind of monstrosity. I don't need to be all bells and whistles but a little thought going into the aesthetic goes a long way.
Top 10 Best Headphone Amplifiers of 2018
1. Schiit Magni 3 - Best Budget Headphone Amp
Adjustable gain (6db and 17db),
For headphones 16-600 Ohms
Extremely low THD 0.001% @1V RMS
Compact design with a simple interface
Analog volume control
Our Recommendation: I have had my Schiit Magni 3 on my office desk for some time now and I absolutely love it. As a total package and with the price considered this little guy is impossible to beat. The Schiit Magni is simple to operate, has a clean aesthetic and excellent build quality. We love its ability to easily drive a wide range of headphones and the sound is clear and well balanced. A stellar little desktop amplifier that doesn't break the bank.
2. Pathos Aurium - Best Small Tube Amplifier
Dual Tube Headphone Amp
Class A Amplification
Drives headphones 16-1000 ohms
1x balanced XLR & 3x RCA Inputs
Analogue Volume Control
Our Recommendation: The Pathos Aurium is not cheap but it is one of the best small tube amps on the market. Its one of these headphones that if the price is removed I simply cannot fault. The sound is rich and spacious with that excellent tube amp presence providing slight warm tones to the midrange and at the same time really allowing the low-end space to growl. Power and features aside if you have the cash this is an excellent purchase that is very hard to top.
3. Naim DAC-V1
USB input supports 24bit/284Khz
5 S/PDIF inputs to support multiple devices
Multiple output options
Class A amplification
Analog volume control
Our Recommendation: Ok so as you might have guessed by the name the Naim DAC-V1 is an integrated DAC and Amp solution. Since this is becoming more common and the standard of the internal amplifiers on these devices gets better and better you will see some more inclusions like it on the list.
The sound is energetic and very lively, spacious and clear. It does lend itself well to music with a lot of high emphasis with its top leaning sound so lovers of bass heavy music might be
4. Chord Dave
Top of the line end game DAC & Amp combo
Reference level amplification
Multiple sets up configurations
Large display and control
Our Recommendation: Ok so the Chord Dave is not cheap, nothing from Chord really is but this is one hell of a piece of kit that will make headphones, and more, sing to the best of their ability. I have only managed to spend 2 days with a loan of a Chord dave but believe me when I say its one of these products that you will wish you could own. One of the best sounding experience I have ever had when paired up with my Audeze LCD2. The sound is devoid of distortion and the space given when paired with good headphones is second to none. As you would expect it supports tracks up to 384khz and provides upsampling when need. I particularly like the way it auto switched PCM and DSD signal, something I have not seen before but a very nice touch.
5. Auris Audio HA2 SE
4x PL95 or EL95 tubes + 1x ECC input tube
3x RCA inputs
Output impedance 16-600 Ohms
Wood and leather casing
Our Recommendation: Easily one of the best-looking headphone amps on this list don't think is just a fancy window dressing. Yes, the wood and leather finish on the amplifier looks great anywhere in your house but lurking underneath is the guts to drive headphones to their full potential. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get this amp to produce hiss or distortion and it has to be one of the blackest backgrounds on the market today. The sound is remarkably transparent and clear and the included amp set does an incredible job at creating a huge open and airy soundstage. Again not a cheap headphone amp but the sound and styling won us over.
6. Burson Audio Play
Outstanding price to performance
Not usable with external DACs
Our Recommendation: Slightly cheaper than the above the Burson audio play is a DAC amp unit that sits in the midrange pricing bracket. I'm sure that Brunson shaved off some of the prices in the housing as it is pretty boring and uninspired for this price point but any saving on the case is worth it because sonically the Play is able to outshine many more expensive headphone amps.
The real selling point for the Brunson Play is the ability to leave it as is out of the box and let it do its thing (which it does very well) but you also have the option to tinker with the setup to best suit your needs. The Play has a switchable setup that lets you open up the unit and change Op-Amp units and thus giving more control of the sound profile to the user.
7. Arcam rHead
Audiophile grade class A amplifier
RCA & XLR Inputs
Crystal clear sound
Is forgiving with midrange headphones
Our Recommendation: The Arcam rHead is a headphone amplifier that has resisted to get all crazy with gadgets and add-ons and thus they have managed to keep the price down. Its quite a subtle design and hardly stands out when sitting on a desk but the level of smoothness from this little amp is incredible. You get tots of detail and extreme transparency for not much money spent which is something we really like. The only thing that we would be wanting to see on a future version of the rHead would be the inclusion of a balanced output option given that these types of headphones are becoming more common over the past few years.
8. Woo Audio WA7
Class-leading Aesthetic Design
Our Recommendation: The Woo Audio WA7 is by far and away my most used amplifier of the past few years and it sure as hell is the prettiest looking headphone amp I have ever owned. Eye-catching design aside it produces some awesome sound but with all the new entries on the market, I am going to have to say its feeling a little overpriced compared to the competition. The sound definitely fits in at the 500-700 USD price point but then nothing at that price looks as good as the WA7. If money is tight and sound is the only priority for you then, by all means, grab one of the cheaper options on the list (they are not better but comparable) but if you don't mind spending a bit extra for the external housing as well then the WA7 is a stunner
9. Bravo Audio V2
A lot of value for money
A good introduction to tube amps
Well made and long lasting
Our Recommendation:The Bravo Audio V2 is not an exceptionally good amplifier and if you spend just a little bit more money you can get a Schiit Magni. However, it has done a great job at introducing people to the world of tube amps. It's not the most transparent and you won't experience the warmth of a far pricier tube amp but for what it is it's damm charming. It looks great on the desk, adds a little oomph if your headphones are struggling can be picked up very cheap year round.
10. Audeze Deckard
Excellent file support
Solid Build Quality
A true all in one DAC/Amp solution
Our Recommendation: I have a love-hate relationship with Audeze. Some of their products are simply outstanding and many others are outstanding yet insanely priced for no other reason than that people will eat up marketing and spend money on whatever nonsense you are pedaling. Thankfully the Deckard falls into the former camp. Its a classy understated but of kit that is beautifully made, simple to operate. It uses a high-end DAC unit and a Class A amplification to produce an extremely crisp sound. There is nothing detectable in the coloration of the sound.
Best portable headphone amp 2019
Originally we were going to write a full article on the best portable stand alone amps but I really think that now in 2019 you should be looking at a full size DAP instead of running a brick amplifier off your smartphone. I have a list of the best DAC’s for audiophiles in 2019 and in it I touch on a few recommendations for running DAC and amp sections out with your phones internal architecture.
These options give you a large improvement in fidelity but they are not to intrusive to carry around with you on a daily basis. So whilst I suggest you go and read the full article I will include a mini list bellow of the best portable amplifiers for using with your smartphone below.
Dragonfly Red by AudioQuest
The Dragonfly red is an excellent little DAC and Amp unit with a design similar to a USB stick. It has support for 24 bit files and has a Sabre DAC unit inside giving off a very clean and detailed sound. T
he amp unit is more than enough to support most portable headphones and IEM’s and the price is very good. This used to be the DAC and Amplifier we recommended for use with a smartphone but it has been superseded by the Nextdrive Spectra X which has virtually indistinguishable sound and a better design due to the integrated USB cable.
Nextdrive Spectra X
The Spectra X is the latest DAC and Amp unit we have tested here at Audiophile On and since that day this thing is almost always with me when I leave the house. Similar to the Dragonfly red the DAC unit is the ESS sabre DAC and it has a very powerful Texas instruments amp section.
The thing I like most about the Spectra is the inline USB-C cable (Also available with a lightning cable for use with an iPhone and Micro Usb for compatible older devices.). The inline cable makes it very easy to use and you don’t have to cart about an adapter which you will inevitably lose.