Best headphone amps for 2021
How to get better sound from your wired headphones
In this article: I’ll give you some shopping advice to help you find the right headphone amp. And I'll share my top picks for several different uses and setups...
- Best portable headphone amp — AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
- Best portable headphone amp (battery-powered) — iFi Audio Hip-dac
- Best desktop amp for home office/small workspace — iFi Audio ZEN Can
- Best headphone preamp — iFi Audio NEO iDSD
- Best headphone amp for vinyl lovers — Music Hall PA 2.2
- Best high-power headphone amp — iFi Audio Pro iCAN
... Along with some of our favorite combinations of headphones, amps, and DACs.
f you plug your wired headphones directly into your phone or laptop, you’re probably not hearing them at their best. A dedicated headphone amplifier can drive your wired headphones to their top potential.
My job is to audition some of the world’s best headphones and personal audio gear, so I have experience with all types of headphone amps. And since I've been working from home exclusively, my headphone amp use has really ramped up. I figure that I spend so much time at my desk, I might as well get the best possible sound I can.
I’m fortunate that Crutchfield offers a nice, diverse collection of headphone amps. I’d like to share some of my personal favorites.
My work-from-home setup is not exactly spacious or private — but I can still enjoy high-end sound thanks to my compact iFi Audio ZEN-series headphone amp.
So, what is a headphone amp?
All headphones need power. They get it from a headphone amplifier. And EVERY device with a headphone jack (or output) has a headphone amp inside.
There’s even a tiny amp inside your smartphone — but that one is weak, an afterthought compared to the other circuitry stuffed inside your phone. When you invest in a good pair of wired headphones, it's worth getting a dedicated headphone amp.
The thumb-drive-sized AudioQuest Dragonfly® Cobalt is our best-selling headphone amp — it's incredibly portable and offers a premium upgrade to your phone's sound.
But what if you don’t crank up your music that loud?
Headphones are essentially tiny speakers — more robust power generally means better sound. You might be thinking, "I would never play my tunes loud enough to need a dedicated amplifier." But it's really not about volume as much as effortlessly handling the large sonic peaks and valleys in your favorite music.
It’s like having an engine with plenty of horsepower. You might never drive 200 MPH, but it's nice to have some get-up-and-go when you need it. There are headphone amps of all different styles and sizes, each with their own sonic character and set of strengths and weaknesses.
Specific sound improvements
The first thing most people notice when they add a decent headphone amp is deeper, more-precise bass. And the highs typically sound smoother and more natural. I usually notice more overall clarity and musical transparancy.
A note about DACs
When we talk about improving the sound coming from your phone or laptop, the conversation often leads to the topic of DACs. I have an entire buying guide that explains the product category in detail. But really quickly, the term stands for “digital-to-analog converter” and refers to a built-in chip that transforms digital bits — those icy, functional 1s and 0s — into sweet music.
DACs work hand-in-hand with headphones amps, so we'll discuss them a lot here. And like headphone amps, DACs are built into your phone and computer. But surprise, those usually aren’t that good either.
So most of the headphone amps we offer actually feature a built-in DAC, though not all.
What should you spend on a headphone amp?
While there’s no exact formula, I’d shoot for at least 25-50% of the amount you spend on your headphones. The headphones themselves are the most important link in the audio chain. But you want to ensure they have enough power to do their thing.
A cost-efficient step into high-end audio
If you're worried about an amp adding cost to your headphone setup, consider this: a high-quality headphone rig is the most cost-effective route to audio nirvana. They're relatively affordable compared to a high-end stereo system.
Plus, they're neighbor- and apartment-friendly. They don't take up much space and you can listen whenever you want, as loudly as you want (just give your ears a break — prolonged exposure to music at loud volume can damage your hearing).
Matching headphones to amps — connections and more
Choose an amp that has the right audio output for your headphones. Otherwise you'll need an adapter to connect them.
Most wired headphones use a traditional unbalanced connection, like the famed 3.5mm minijack or the larger 1/4" headphone output typically found on home stereo receivers and the like. But higher-end headphones can also come with cables that offer fully balanced connections.
Balanced circuitry keeps the left and right audio channels completely separate. It can result in more powerful sound, with lower cross-talk and distortion. The downside is there are several different types of balanced connections, so different amps don’t always play well with different headphones.
The two most common balanced connections you'll see are the newer 4.4mm Pentaconn (top) and classic XLR (bottom).
Music source connections
Make sure your headphone amp has the inputs you’ll need to connect to your music sources. If your amp also has a DAC, you’ll need to make a digital connection with a digital cable (optical, coaxial, or USB). If you’re making an analog connection to your music source, get a stereo RCA cable or mini-to-RCA cable.
The Sennheiser HDV 820 headphone amplifier/DAC has a plethora of inputs and balanced 3-pin XLR preamp outputs.
Headphone impedance is a complex topic that could easily take up this entire article. For the sake of simplicity, think of it as how much power is required to coax a good performance from the headphones.
Generally, lower-impedence headphones require less power to drive, so you don't need to feed them too much. Higher-impedence headphones need more power, so you want to make sure your headphone amp is up to the task.
We list headphone impedance on our product web pages whenever it's available from the manufacturer. The same goes for the headphone amps and recommended “minimum headphone impedance.” If these numbers sync up, you should enjoy a full, flat frequency response. Not sure? Contact us.
Gain switch and selectable impedance
Some headphone amps have a “gain switch” or "selectable impedance" dial that helps ensure the power properly matches up with your headphone's impedance. These amps are more versatile, so they can work together with more headphones.
The iFi Audio Pro iCAN headphone amp/preamp features a three-position gain switch to match the impedance of your headphones.
Our picks for 2021
Here are my top picks for different situations, uses, and setups. As a bonus, I’ve included some suggested headphone pairings for each — recommended either by me or one of our other personal audio experts.
Best portable headphone amp — AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
By far, our most popular headphone amps are the AudioQuest DragonFly models. A DragonFly is an all-in-one headphone amp/DAC combo — that's roughly the size of a thumb drive! There are three models to choose from: the DragonFly Black v1.5, DragonFly Red, and, my pick, the flagship DragonFly Cobalt.
The sound is dialed in a bit more as you step up through the models. Many of us here at Crutchfield have one of these handy little devices in our bag, pocket, or desk drawer. After an employee scores their first nice set of headphones, their next no-brainer purchase is often a DragonFly.
The DragonFly Cobalt plugs into your phone or computer to deliver premium, high-precision sound. You’ll find a USB connection on one end, and a 3.5mm mini headphone jack on the other. It draws its power from your connected mobile device or computer, so you don’t have to worry about recharging it.
I love it because it slips right into my laptop bag, and its sound rivals that of some popular (non-portable) desktop DAC/amps out there. And of the three DragonFly models, the Cobalt sounds the most spacious and spread out. It also delivers more realistic dynamics for those soft-to-loud musical moments.
Suggested headphone pairings
Dragonfly series headphone amps happen to be incredibly versatile, so there are countless headphones that could benefit from connecting to the Cobalt. But I’d like to sort of play “personal audio sommelier” and share some amp/headphone combinations that complement each other in ways I found particularly interesting.
Meze 99 Classics over-ear headphones: When paired with the Cobalt, the lively, musical 99 Classics opened up quite a bit with better imaging and quick, muscular bass. (We also named these our most comfortable over-ear headphones.)
Meze Rai Solo in-ear monitors (IEMs): I like this combo as a powerful portable listening rig. The Cobalt DAC/amp fits neatly in the Rai Solo's pocket-sized hard-shell case along with the needed cables. The soundstage sits just outside the head; nice vocal presence and plenty of breathing room between instruments.
Grado Hemp headphones: Bonus pick from fellow A/V writer Colin M., who paired Grado's hand-built hemp on-ears with the DragonFly Black. "I picked up on fine details in the Tool track ‘Parabol,'" he told me, "like subtle background vocals drift from one ear to the other."
Best battery-powered portable headphone amp — iFi Audio Hip-dac
While the ability to draw power from your phone or laptop is super-convenient, there are some advantages to having a built-in rechargeable battery. The compact, lightweight iFi hip-dac can play music for up to 12 hours on a full charge — saving the battery from your other devices. It also delivers higher output power for driving headphones.
This flask-sized DAC connects easily to your phone or computer to bypass the rotgut audio circuitry inside those devices. It’s one of the most uncomplicated DACs I've ever used. There are several cables included for connecting your music source, and there is a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack along with a balanced 4.4mm headphone output.
Suggested headphone pairings
Earlier I mentioned all the different balanced connections out there. Well, the 4.4mm Pentaconn seems to be on its way to becoming the accepted industry standard. Or at least as close as we're going to get. A growing list of headphones from multiple brands use it.
I've chosen one set of 'phones that shares that connection, and one that doesn't.
Sony MDR-1AM2: The ultralight MDR-1AM2 over-ears have a 4.4mm balanced connection that offers an extra dose of clean power. The results? Splendid vocals, shimmering cymbals, and punchy, pronounced percussion.
Audeze LCD-1 planar-magnetic headphones: Headphones with planar drivers are notoriously hard to drive, but the iFi hip-dac has a nice grip on their start-stop movement. Extra oomph from the hip-dac's “Xbass” button really rounds the sound out.
I'd put the LCD-1 and hip-dac up against amp/headphone combos that cost three times as much.
Best desktop amp for a small workspace — iFi Audio ZEN DAC
You’ll notice there are a lot of iFi products on this list. We only recently started carrying the award-winning British company’s audio gear. I’m really glad we did — they offer so many versatile options in the DAC/headphone amp category and I’m impressed with everything up and down the line. From top to bottom, it’s all well-built with cutting-edge, sophisticated audio circuitry packed inside.
Case in point — their so-called “entry” level ZEN-series desktop gear. These heavy-duty aluminum pieces don't feel entry level. And when I connect a nice pair of headphones, they don’t sound it either.
This is actually a nice way to introduce a buildable system — and the idea of separate DACs and headphone amps. If you’re looking for an immediate upgrade to the sound from your laptop, start with the iFi ZEN DAC. It features a built-in DAC and serves as a pretty substantial headphone amp on its own.
Plus it’s compact and has an interesting design. The first few months of my work-from-home stint, I used the ZEN DAC on its own. My new workspace was more cramped, and the DAC/amp combo fit in nicely. And it served up killer sound to a variety of headphones. In my Pandemic Playlist article, I mentioned how it was even robust enough to drive the super-premium Audio-Technica ATH-AWKT over-ear headphones.
Then iFi released the ZEN Can.
The ZEN CAN is unapologetically ONLY a headphone amp. There is no DAC inside and there are no digitial audio connections at all. It receives the analog audio signal from a separate DAC and has one job — powering your headphones.
But it didn't take up much more space. This amp is built to compliment the ZEN DAC in sound and design. I stacked a ZEN Can on top of my ZEN DAC and connected them using the included RCA cables. It definitely opened up the sound even more.
It offers a ridiculous amount of power for its size. I barely had to move the knob to get enough volume for most headphones. But my favorite feature is their "sound control processing" button that adds extra bass or expands the soundfield (or both). Most headphones have benefitted from the extra low-end punch, and it's as tight and controlled as it is strong.
Suggested headphone pairings
While the ZEN products hold their own with many of the highest-end headphones, I found they really hit the sweet spot with a couple of Sennheiser models. You can trace the lineage for both of these headphones to Sennheiser's legendary, time-tested HD 600 series.
Sennheiser HD 660 S: The HD 660 S has a more forward sound presentation than most of the other headphones I've mentioned. And it REALLY leaps out at you when connected to the ZEN DAC/Can stack. Still, within that immediate soundstage, you get layer upon rich layer of depth and detail.
Sennheiser HD 560S: This younger sibling is one of my favorite headphone releases this year. No balanced cable, but still feels like a natural combo with the ZEN gear. The extra power and bass boost helps them a lot. These 'phones are little more laid back than the HD 660 S. But they're still very well balanced with spot-on imaging — and just super-fun to listen to.
Best headphone preamp — iFi Audio NEO iDSD
A good headphone amp can also serve as the foundation of a more complete hi-fi system. (This may be why some people say "headphone preamp," rather than heaphone amp.) If you connect a good pair of powered stereo speakers to the preamp outputs, you can listen with or without your headphones.
iFi's recently released NEO iDSD replaces our longtime pick, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus. The NEO iDSD costs a little more, but features an updated DAC chip and some state-of-the-art internal circuitry.
It has built-in Bluetooth and several digital input options, and can squeeze out more digital details from Spotify, Apple Music, and high-resolution music sources. Plus, the back panel has balanced and unbalanced analog outputs for connecting to powered speakers or a separate amp.
Suggested headphone pairing:
This kitchen-sink device does have its own built-in headphone amplifier that I found worked well with all types of headphones and music. Its strength was in its simplicity. It isn't cluttered with extra DSP modes and tweaky controls — this piece is designed to preserve audio purity.
Denon AH-9200 Bamboo headphones: Denon’s flagship, hand-crafted headphones require control as much as power, and NEO iDSD handles them well. The Dynamics are especially notable. Softer sounds appropriately subtle, and louder, dramatic sounds come through vividly and textured.
Best headphone amp for vinyl — Music Hall PA 2.2
The Music Hall PA 2.2 is a phono preamp by trade, but it features a pretty nice built-in headphone amp. The back panel has a phono inputs for either moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. So it will amplify the tiny signal from your turntable without adding distortion or noise.
You can also connect your computer and listen to high-res downloads or streaming music services. The Music Hall PA 2.2 features a built-in DAC for your digital tunes.
There's a 1/4" unbalanced headphone output for connecting your 'phones. Plus, a good old-fashioned, tactile analog volume dial — I’m always a sucker for those!
Suggested headphone pairings:
I usually steer vinyl fans towards headphones with a warm, natural soundstage.
Grado Reference Series RS2e: Grado headphones always a good place to start when spinning records. The RS2e's hand-crafted mahogany earcups give you smooth, relaxed highs that pair nicely with vinyl.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50X: These budget-friendly headphones are known as a “gateway” into the world of audiophile headphones. Their well-balanced, revealing sound is what you want to hear when you drop that needle on the groove.
Best high-power headphone amp — iFi Audio Pro iCAN
I’ve featured iFi a lot on this list, but for the most part I’ve highlighted and celebrated their competence. The Pro iCAN is their statement piece — and they really let loose. This beautiful-looking workhorse serves up to 14,000mW of power in balanced mode.
That’s enough to drive the power-thirstiest, highest impedance headphones out there. So much power that I put multiple disclaimers on our product page to remind folks to turn it down whenever they connect new headphones. It will save your headphone drivers and your ears.
Inside, there’s both solid-state circuitry and real vacuum tubes. So you can choose between the greater clarity and detail that solid-state circuitry provides, or the extra warmth and emotion often associated with tubes. Speaking of warmth and emotion — I get those good feels adjusting that large Alps Electric volume dial.
Suggested headphone pairings:
We opened our brand new Contact Center a few months before Covid forced us to work from home. In our new relaxation lounge, we used the Pro iCAN as the muscle in our high-end portable listening rig. It was a nice treat for our Advisors, Techs, and CS reps on break — and turned the heads of guests checking out our new digs.
Hopefully we’ll be able to safely enjoy it again someday. But I did take a spin with some of our best headphones. And boy, are the memories fun!
Sennheiser HD 800 S: At 300 ohms, Sennheiser's flagship HD 800 S headphones need A LOT of power to perform their best. And the Pro iCAN has more than enough horsepower to oblige. The combo offers rich tonality, spaciousness, and plenty of high-end resolve — without any grating resonances.
Audeze LCD-3 planar-magnetic headphones: These huge, heavy over-ears feature extra-large, power-hungry planar drivers. The Pro iCAN opens up their sound and creates an incredible headphone experience. Three-dimensional and around-the-head, with super-deep, yet intricate sub-bass.
Specialized headphone amps
I've covered the categories that are best represented by our selection of headphone amps. But there are a few other categories to look out for:
“Closed-system” headphone amps
By the letter of the definition, this usually refers to a headphone and amp set that are only made to work with each other. You see this a lot with electrostatic headphone systems — the headphones can only connect to a specific amp, and that amp will only power headphones.
I asked Nicolas Debard, the head of Focal’s audiophile personal audio division, why their amp makes a good combination with their best headphones. "Essentially, we know the driver's DNA," he said, "looking at that, we know exactly what the drivers can do — and precisely what they would need in terms of power and damping."
Sony's DMP-Z1 Signature Series High-resolution digital music player with their flagship MDR-Z1R headphones.
“Transportable” headphone amps
OK, I’ll admit. This might actually be a category of one…or at least very few. Anyways, take a look at the Sony DMP-Z1 Signature Series. It is an all-in-one portable music player, DAC, and super-high-end headphone amp. And it even has a robust rechargeable battery supply to give it plenty of power and keep it off the dirty AC power grid.
I interviewed Tomo Sato, the head of Sony’s Walkman division, back when they released this incredible audio machine. "Due to its large size," he said, as he showed me under the hood, "we call it transportable instead of portable."
Sony's Tomoaki "Tomo" Sato gave me an inside look at his masterpiece, the DMP-Z1 digital music player.
Still have questions?
Get in touch with one of our Advisors for personalized shopping help. They can help you find the right amp for your headphones and listening habits.