The best headphone amps, DACs and DAPs 2023

Find the best headphone amplifiers

Are you looking for the best headphone amplifiers, whether for the studio, living room or on the road? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Table of contents

What is a headphone amplifier?

In simple terms, a headphone amplifier (amp) is an amplifier designed exclusively for use with headphones.
These amps are widely in use: in MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, PCs, televisions and stereo systems, they provide the necessary voltage and current for the connected headphones to work properly. But of course, many of the above examples use headphone amplifiers that cannot compete in terms of quality with special customised solutions. Of course a smartphone or PC with a so-called “onboard sound card” with a 3.5 mini-jack are assembled with low-cost components. This saves money as well as power, so that the rechargeable batteries of our mobile devices are protected. However, this is always at the expense of sound quality. In addition, these “mini solutions” never provide enough voltage and current to operate high-impedance headphones. Headphones with an impedance of e.g. 250 ohms need enough power from the connected amplifier to sound not only loud, but also good enough.

What is a DAC?

A DAC is nothing more than the abbreviation for “Digital Analogue Converter”, i.e. a converter that converts the digital signal into an analogue signal. The higher the quality of these converters, the higher the quality of the conversion of the audio stream. DACs are of course found in all headphone amplifiers that have a digital input (TOS-LINK, S/PDIF, USB, Lightning), but there are also purely analogue amps, such as the extremely high-quality SPL Phonitor 2 (check our review here).

What is a DAP?

“DAP” is the abbreviation for “Digital Audio Player”. These electronic devices store (high-resolution) music or media files and can of course also play them. We all know the original version: the Sony Walkman. The concept of a DAP is therefore by no means new, but of course technical progress has not stopped there either. After the portable cassette players, variants with CD and minidisc followed, until finally MP3 players (e.g. Apple iPod) conquered the market. Since the breakthrough of smartphones, however, this player category has lost its appeal for many. Nevertheless, DAPs have their raison d’être. Those who want to enjoy lossless audio with high-quality converters in combination with their high-end headphones on the go have no choice but to reach for a DAP. Fortunately, the choice is diverse: for example, there is the FiiO M17 (check our review here), a high-end player in the premium class, with a highly optimised power supply, powerful battery and large display.

When do I need a headphone amplifier?

If the cheap headphones sound bad, a headphone amplifier won’t help. They cannot conjure up a hi-fi sound from a poor sound image. But if you have high-quality headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD 800 S (see review), you can use a special amplifier to get an even better sound with better signal fidelity, better impulse fidelity and better three-dimensionality.

What types headphone amplifiers are available?

Many headphone amplifiers are available in a small, handy format for your pocket (Violectric Chronos), with a luxurious colour display including an integrated player for high-resolution music files (FiiO M11 Plus LTD, iBasso DX 240) or as a desktop version for stationary use in your home or studio (SPL Phonitor 2, Sennheiser HDV 820, Focal Arche, RME ADI-2 Pro FS).

How to connect a headphone amplifier?

You can connect a headphone amplifier (almost) anywhere, depending on the audio inputs of these players. However, the ideal way would be via digital inputs, not only on a stereo system. This is because a conversion is always accompanied by a degradation of the actual desired sound signal. If your source does not have digital outputs (and neither does your headphone amplifier), you should make sure that your cables are of the highest possible quality to avoid interference, mains hum and signal degradation.
If you are using a mobile amp to get the conversion work done for your smartphone, it is best to use the cables that are included in the package. Depending on the manufacturer, there are different types of plugs: Apple users need a Lightning to USB cable, Android users only need a cable with corresponding USB plugs.


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