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Most people assume that headphones already perform their best without the use of extra equipment. Plugging them to your device and turning it on is pretty simple if all you want is to listen to some music. What if you want something a little more than that? What if you need to hear some music that’s as true to the source as possible?
What you need is a device that increases the amount of signal that your ears receive – a headphone amp. This device will enhance the structure and volume of the sound coming from your sound player to your headphones. You don’t need to worry about the price, because there are a couple of affordable models that still offers solid performance. But if you’re looking to splurge on the best headphone amp and DAC, you won’t run out of great options to choose from as well.
Buyers Guide For The Best Headphone Amp And DAC
Before you get into buying a new headphone amp, you need to know its key aspects if you want to choose the one that suits you.
Why Get A Headphone Amp?
Truth be told, most people don’t really need to get a personal headphone amp, and this is especially true if you have a cheaper headphone or a standard IEM. If you’re using either of those, you won’t really benefit much from a good headphone amp. So why do many people still use these devices? Here are the main reasons you would need one for yourself:
1. To power a high-impedance headphone
The majority of people who use a headphone amp buy them because they require additional power for their headphones that have high-impedance. Normally, headphones that give better performance will need between 300-600 ohms. This is quite a lot considering that your PC and mobile device can only offer an output impedance between the 5-15 ohm range.
Your PC and mobile can generally power a generic headphone or IEM that requires at most 32 ohms, but anything more than that will need more juice from an external source. If you keep using a high-impedance headphone without the appropriate amp, you could end up damaging both your headphones and the audio device it’s connected to. With headphone amps, you can boost a headphone’s audio signal that allows for more efficient powering.
2. A good speaker alternative
You might live in a place where you can make a lot of noise, so headphones might be your go-to for music or any other audio-related activity. If you like listening to headphones for longer periods, investing in an amp is a good idea. By improving the overall sound quality and clarity, you can hear your audio much better even in lower volumes, so you don’t have to worry about making a compromise when lowering the volume. If you think about it, this will also be good for one’s ears in the long run when using headphones for longer periods.
With decent headphones, you get an equal, if not better, experience when you’re listening to speakers. Now, you won’t have to bother anyone just to have a quality music experience.
3. To improve sound quality
A significant benefit of getting an amp is that it can enhance the quality of your audio. You will notice a significant change to your sound, having a much tighter and richer low-end response that gives an overall “warmer” tone. The best headphone amp and DAC will deliver cleaner audio and improve your overall sound stage.
Getting yourself a DAC amp will give you the advantage of better digital to analog conversion compared to what any other audio device can provide.
4. Audio Distribution
Another good reason why you might want to get yourself a headphone amp is that you might require a setup that will benefit from the audio distribution or multiple headphone sets. For example, this would be good for a podcast setting or studio recording. Distribution amps will enable every person on the set to have their own individual feeds and separate volume controls. One issue with these types of devices is that they usually cant support headphones that have an impedance over 80 ohms.
Key Features You Need To Consider When Buying The Best Headphone Amp And Dac
First off, you need to know about the impedance of your headphones. If you have a model that has a high level of impedance, you should opt for getting headphone amps that can match that level. However, if you’re just trying to find a device that can efficiently power your low-impedance headphones, then spending a buttload of cash on a pricey amp that’s made for high-impedance devices isn’t really necessary.
Next, you need to consider how you’ll use an amp. If you want something to enhance the audio quality of your PC, you might opt for a headphone amp DAC. While you do have the option of getting a separate headphone amp and DAC, this will cost you considerably more. You’re better off buying a high-quality device that can offer both instead of buying two separate devices.
If you want something that has good distribution capabilities, then steer clear of cheaper models since you won’t be finding any quality there. It’s often better to invest in a pricier device and get the level of performance that you want than settling for one that doesn’t since these devices usually last a long time. Be especially careful when getting dedicated DAC amps because cheaper components will have a negative effect on sound quality, or worse, noise artifacts and defects.
Sound Format Support
DAC amps might not have the capability to give high-quality sound when playing highly-compressed MP3 files since compression will reduce the audio integrity of a file. While most sound files nowadays use higher quality formats like FLACs, you should opt for getting a device that’s capable of supporting these formats. Formats like FLAC, WAV, PCM, and ALAC, are your top priority since these maintain the sound quality.
This is especially important for DAC-type headphone amps since you want to ensure that the device you choose has the appropriate digital inputs. DACs will typically have USB inputs, but you might have an audio device that only has coaxial or optical inputs. Several DAC-type headphone amps only have digital inputs, which won’t be enough if you need both analog and digital inputs. Always keep in mind the inputs of your audio devices and make sure that the amp you’re getting is capable of using them.
Cheaper cables will definitely have a negative effect on audio quality, even if you’re using the best headphone amp and DAC. For example, cables that aren’t properly soldered or ones that have poor-quality copper components will give off unwanted noise artifacts. The cables that Amazon sells are decent enough. What you should avoid are those dirt-cheap cables that you often find in sales bins that are bought by the dozen or comes free with the purchase of a different product.
Is it worth it to go the extra mile and buy a very expensive cable? No, not really. While there is some difference between the performance between copper and gold cables, it is not that significant, if you’re the type who’s very particular about the sound that they want, only then should you splurge on a pricey cable. But generally speaking, the marginal sound difference isn’t worth the expense.
One other aspect relating to connections and cables is balancing, whether you should pick unbalanced or balanced. A balanced cable is superior compared to an unbalanced cable because of its enhanced distortion and noise-canceling properties. You will also have much longer runs if you opt for a balanced cable.
Most balanced cables come in the form of XLR, but you will also find ¼ inch type cables that are balanced.
Many believe that the bigger the connector, the better the transfer of sound signals. So, for instance, a ¼ inch connector will be superior to a 1/8 inch one. This, however, isn’t true at all. Let’s consider a connector of the XLR type since this type is the most widely used for professional settings. Its pins are far smaller than a 1/8 inch connector, but they still produce impressive audio quality.
1/8 inch-type connectors are specifically designed for small devices in mind because ¼ inch-type connectors will be too big. So far, that’s the only perceivable difference between varying connector sizes. If you’re using a connector for audio applications in a professional setting, where you’re constantly unplugging and plugging equipment, a bigger connector (1/4 inch) will often offer more durability and be less likely to get damaged when bumped or bent.
Most DAC-type amps nowadays will have a compact build. Because of the advancement of technology, these smaller devices will still come with an array of useful features, but one minor downside is that they carry fewer connections and ports.
Fully-sized devices, though, will have plenty of space for extra chipsets, ports, connections, and different settings. Despite the higher number of features that they usually offer, a lot of audiophiles tend to choose their compact counterparts because of the price difference.
Generally speaking, the more you spend on an amp model, the better audio you’re going to get. You’ll find a few exceptions, though, where cheaper units will offer better performance than their expensive counterparts. Regardless, sound quality is mostly subjective, so what might sound good for you might not be satisfactory for another.
However, you’ll often see a significant difference for amps and DACs when it comes to a cheap unit and a pricier one. The sound experience you’ll be getting will be completely dissimilar because you’re essentially paying for high-quality components that will perform better. In the end, though, it all depends on your tastes and preferences.
The Best Headphone Amp And DAC Models Of 2019
Chord Electronics DAC Mojo
Despite being small enough to fit in your hands snuggly, this model still offers great performance and helpful features. This unit is an amp and DAC all in one, so you don’t have to buy separate devices just to get these capabilities. Just makes sure that you will benefit from an amp and DAC unit. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting your money on nothing.
The DAC Mojo is specifically designed to be portable and compact, so most of its users will use it on their laptops, tablets, or phones, so they can enjoy good-quality music anywhere and on the go. Another plus is that it handles every OS currently in the market, so it won’t get any issues during installation, regardless of what device you’re using. It will also save you’re adjusted settings, and you can easily change them without much hassle.
Finally, it can play almost every audio file since it full supports anything below the 32bit 768kHz range, and quad DSD 256. This model also features dual analog ports (3.5mm), which allows you to listen to music with a friend at the same time. Lastly, its LiPo-type battery will give you between eight and ten hours of use. Overall, this sturdy unit with a strong aluminum frame is an excellent choice if you want a portable model that offers great performance.
- Compact and portable
- Headphone amp and DAC all in one
- Two analog ports
- Long battery life
- Compatible with many devices and file types
- Sturdy frame made from aluminum
- Can’t be used while it’s charging
- On the pricier side
Sound BlasterX DAC G6
Both consoles and gaming rigs can really benefit from a high-quality DAC. This is especially true if you have a sub-par sound card, where the audio feels slightly flat and empty. Getting a DAC unit like Sound BlasterX’s G6 will enhance the quality of your sound while focusing on areas most gamers will appreciate, such as in-game communication, deep and powerful bass, and stronger volume.
In addition, there’s an available “Scout Mode” that will enhance the specific cues that alert the player when an enemy is nearby. This model works well with the Dolby Digital-type formats, and it comes with the manufacturer’s “Virtual Surround” technology version 7.1.
Lastly, you’ll be getting an amp that will enhance every audio channel to create an immersive gaming experience sound-wise. It also sports a very compact frame and is compatible with most audio devices. The G6 is the best headphone amp and DAC if you’re looking for a solid model for your gaming needs.
- Specifically enhances the gaming experience
- Scout Mode
- Virtual surround version 7.1
- Portable and compact
- Good bang for your buck
- Some audio settings are only available for PC
- No way to create a backup for your custom settings
Schiit Audio Amp Magni 3
If you’re looking for a very cheap headphone amp that can still compete with other models well over its price range, then the Magni 3 is a solid choice. Despite having a very affordable price tag, this model still offers an impressive build and performance. This is a good entry point for beginners who want to enhance their audio experience, and many learned audiophiles will still enjoy the level of sound that this unit can give.
This unit is similarly sized as a chunkier wallet, so it’s pretty compact and portable. It’s worth to note though that it has a large power plug that requires a little more room, so you need to squeeze your sockets a bit to compensate for the needed space. The outer frame is clean and simple, with a long volume knob and the headphone connection.
The top of the unit is filled with patterned holes to allow any heat to dissipate. In terms of audio quality, Magni 3 is very comfortable to listen to. It doesn’t have any edging or harshness at its maximum frequency, it is bass notes give just enough without being too overbearing, and any vocals sound precise. It might not have much when ultimate fidelity comes to mind, but the well-balanced sound that it offers is more than enough to compensate for that.
To cut it short, the Magni 3 is a good choice if you’re a normal headphone user who doesn’t have any need for a DAC-capable model.
- Good sound quality
- Thick power plug
- No DAC
Audioquest Dragonfly USB Red DAC and Amp
For those on a tight budget who want a DAC and Amp capable device that’s portable, then the Dragonfly Red USB is an excellent option. This device is just the same size as a hefty USB stick, and it sports both an audio jack (3.5mm) and a USB port that’s situated on opposite sides.
This model also has the capability to drive your headphones, a big reason why many consider this the best headphone amp and DAC. The Dragonfly is compatible with many devices, and this includes tablets, audio systems, and powered speakers. This model can also decode a maximum resolution of 24-bit 96KHz, so you can play any file ranging from lower-quality MP3s to high-quality MQAs. To put it simply, the Dragonfly offers good performance that lets you fully enjoy your favorite games, movies, or songs.
- Portable and compact
- Amp and DAC in one device
- Compatible with many devices and file formats
- One audio jack and USB port
- Louder than most, even at its lowest volume
- Might hinder your access to adjacent USB ports
- Its LED lights will create extra strain on the battery of portable devices
Cambridge Audio Magic Plus DAC
Many consider the Audio Magic Plus to be one of the best headphone amp and DAC models with a relatively affordable price. Being equipped with high-quality 24-Bit Twin Wolfson DACs and AFT2 384kHz 24-bit sampling, you’re sure to have the best sound-enhancing device in the market. It also comes with jitter reduction and upsampling to boot.
This model comes with a wireless Bluetooth connection, which is more convenient compared to a wired connection. If you like extensive customization, you will enjoy the digital features that this unit features. This way, you can adjust the sound to suit the device or format that you’re using.
It’s also compatible with most devices ranging from phones, sound systems, laptops, audio players, and many others. Overall, Audio Magic Plus is a great choice for those who want a high-quality wireless model.
- 24-Bit Twin Wolfson DACs
- AFT2 Up-sampling
- The USB input is Asynchronous
- Capable of being an external digital preamplifier
- Bluetooth wireless connection
- On the pricier side
- No visual indicator for the level of volume
- Doesn’t have a remote control
Yamaha DAC A-S801BL
For those who need an amp and DAC device for professional use but are on a tight budget, you might consider getting Yamaha’s A-S801BL. This device is compatible with many audio devices like phones, headphones, TVs, and audio systems because it can support many kinds of inputs.
Another thing worth mentioning is this model’s speaker terminals and gold-plated audio inputs, both of which ensure a high level of conductivity and low signal loss. This results in a rich, booming sound that will let you hear every tiny detail that one may not have noticed beforehand. Lastly, the build of this unit is made from materials of the highest quality, with its aluminum chassis giving the look of sleek elegance and finesse.
- Aesthetic appeal
- High-resolution sound quality
- Compatible with many kinds of input
- Good enough for professional use
- Wide range of customization
- Inputs are gold-plated
- Pricier than most
- Knobs are made with plastic
- No visual indication for the level of volume
Getting the best headphone amp and DAC for your needs will greatly enhance your audio experience so much so that you won’t be able to listen to music any other way. If you’re willing to splurge on a higher-end unit that will give you more quality-of-life features, or maybe you just want something simple and affordable, our list covers every price point. It all depends on what kind of results will satisfy you.