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8 best headphone amps 2021: Expand your music listening on the go and at home

8 best headphone amps for portable and home use 2021
(Image credit: iFi)

If you’re looking for more devil in your musical detail, you need to invest in one of the best headphone amps. Even a low cost portable headphone amp has the potential to dramatically improve your private listening, providing your cans with more power and precision than a smartphone ever could.

For home listening, a dedicated headphone amp on your desk, partnered with premium over-ear headphones, will outperform a speaker-based system often for a fraction of the price (and leaving you more floor space for vinyl, CDs, mags and merch).

Let’s take a look at some of the best models. If you need more guidance, hit the buying advice button above.

The best headphone amps: The Louder Choice

Ridiculously affordable, beautifully built and as adorably compact as Ronnie James Dio, the iFi Audio Zen Can warrants top spot in our headphone amp roundup. There’s some serious sonic science at work under the hood, but we love its ease of use too. It's a superb, high-value desktop headphone amplifier.

Running the Zen Can a close second in our affections is the Chord Mojo. This fantastic sounding portable headphone amp and DAC is a star performer, certain to unlock the potential of higher quality cans. Once heard, you’ll never want to travel without one.

For serious home listening, opt for the venerable Naim DAC-V1. This is a classic Hi-Fi headphone amp for those seeking an uncompromising private sound system. Expensive, for sure, but you’d expect no less for signature Naim sound and superlative build quality.

The best headphone amps: Product Guide

iFi Audio Zen Can

(Image credit: iFi Audio)

1. iFi Audio Zen Can

This stylish headphone amp offers big bang for the buck

Price: £149/$169 | Features: four stage gain control | Inputs: Analogue stereo, 3.5mm jack, 4.4mm Pentaconn | Bluetooth: Optional | Dimensions: 3.5 x 1.60 x 1.17cm (H/W/D)

Four level gain control
Volume control
XBass
No Bluetooth

UK-based iFi Audio says its Zen Can headphone amp offers 25x the power output of a typical smartphone. Using Class A amplification, and boasting stuff like ceramic capacitors and MELF resistors, it’s clear there’s a lot going on inside this diminutive unit.

We just know we dig the design, and love the way iFi Audio makes stuff sound. 

There are three inputs - a 3.5mm jack, stereo phonos and 4.4mm Pentaconn - so it’s pretty versatile. The Zen Can offers a choice of balanced and unbalanced outputs, so you can confidently pair it with higher-end head-fi.

There’s also switchable XBass, a booster if your own headphones don’t drop deep enough. 

Other niceties include a four stage gain control, to precisely match the Zen Can to your headphones. This means you can eke out more volume, without going into distortion, which is obviously something we approve of. 

There’s no Bluetooth on board, although you could partner it with iFi Audio’s matching Zen Blue component if you feel the need.

Chord Electronics Hugo 2

(Image credit: Chord Electronics)

2. Chord Electronics Hugo 2

This compact headphone amp is a stunning performer - if you can afford it

Price: £1799/$2400 | Features: 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone outputs, four selectable filters | Inputs: Digital optical, coaxial, USB | Bluetooth: Yes | Dimensions: 2.1cm (H) 10cm (W) 13cm (D)

Astonishing audio clarity
Versatile connectivity
Not that portable... for a portable

Offering next level audio, Chord’s Hugo 2 is a transformational portable headphone amp. Cutting edge filtering improves the dynamic range of all source material and it’s powerful enough to drive even the most demanding of audiophile cans.

It looks astonishing too, thanks to an aircraft grade aluminium case, and futuristic spherical control buttons. These colour coded spheres are used for volume control, input selection and filtering.   

There are four digital inputs (optical, coaxial and HD USB) plus aptX Bluetooth with high-res audio support. Outputs include analogue stereo, plus 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone outputs. Audio quality is precise, detailed and dynamic.

The Hugo 2 has a battery life of around seven hours, but it’s quite a chunky device to carry. Heavy metal indeed.

Chord Electronics Mojo

(Image credit: Chord Electronics)

3. Chord Electronics Mojo

This upmarket Chord is a gloriously capable portable headphone amp and DAC

Price: £399/$600 | Features: 2 x 3.5mm headphone jack | Inputs: Digital optical, digital coaxial, micro USB | Bluetooth: Yes | Dimensions: 0.22 x 0.82cm x 0.6cm (H/W/D)

Performs nearly as well as the more expensive Hugo 2
Versatile connectivity
Pricey for a portable

If the Hugo 2 occupies rarefied air, the Mojo is rather more accessible, and much easier to pocket.  It shares many of its stablemate’s characteristics: analytical of tone, but never dry or dull to listen to, and it’s unflinchingly dynamic, sledgehammer riffs landing unerringly on the chin.

It’s also able to drive a wide variety of quality headphones, with plenty of volume. True to form, it features a high-grade aluminium case and Chord’s idiosyncratic control spheres. The power button illuminates with different hues, depending on the sampling rate of the input signal. Battery life is a solid eight hours.

Pricey, but borderline perfect.

iFi Audio Hip-dac

(Image credit: iFi)

4. iFi Audio Hip-dac

This lightweight DAC/headphone amp is a real tonic

Price: £149/$149 | Features: 3.5mm headphone jack, Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced output | Inputs: USB | Bluetooth: No | Dimensions: 1.4 x 7 x 10.2cm (H/W/D)

Compact design
Works with a wide variety of headphones
Affordable
No Bluetooth

It may be styled after a hip flask, but the Hip-dac from iFi Audio is as sober as it gets. This compact headphone amp and DAC is easy to carry, and boasts some seriously high grade tech.

A Burr-Brown DAC makes the most of all key audio formats, including PCM, DSD and MQA, with sampling rates that go up to eleven (or more specifically, 384kHz), 

Usability is good too, thanks to a dinky rotary volume control. Connectivity includes a USB input and two outputs, a standard 3.5mm socket and a Pentaconn 4.4mm.

If you favour over-ear headphones, there’s a PowerMatch mode which optimises its output, while XBass, a user-selectable bass boost tool, ripens low frequencies without damaging the mid-range.  

Battery life lasts around eight hours.  We think it’s a steal for the money.

Naim DAC-V1

(Image credit: Naim)

5. Naim DAC-V1

This audiophile headphone amp is a stone cold old school classic

Price: £1600/$2500 | Features: Asynchronous USB for laptops, pre-amp mode | Inputs: Digital coaxial, digital optical, USB | Bluetooth: No | Dimensions: 8.7 x 2.07 x 3.14cm (H/W/D)

Timeless design
Signature Naim sound quality
No support for MQA
No Bluetooth

This long-serving audiophile grade headphone amp from Naim looks as timeless now as it did when first launched back in 2013.  

The DAC-V1 sports five digital inputs (three coaxial and two digital optical audio), plus  an asynchronous USB port for a laptop connection. Analogue outputs comprise analogue stereo and DIN. Naturally it's Hi-res and DSD compatible, but lacks support for MQA, as favoured by Tidal Masters.

When it comes to musicality, Naim is a classic rocker - the brand has a signature sound that’s rightfully won it a legion of audiophile fans.   

It's practical too. The compact design means you’ll be able to find room on your desk or shelf, with simple on-body buttons to select inputs. Just plug your headphones into the 6.3mm headphone jack and you’re good to go.

Topping DX3 Pro

(Image credit: Topping)

6. Topping DX3 Pro headphone amplifier and DAC

The desktop headphone amp punches well above its weight

Price: £229/$339 | Features: aptX-HD and LDAC, AKM DAC | Inputs: digital optical and coaxial audio, USB | Bluetooth: Yes | Dimensions: 12 x 16.5 x 4cm (H/W/D)

Excellent spec for the price
On-body display
Bluetooth
Looks industrial

This rugged headphone amp will give your headphones a high fidelity lift without putting undue strain on your pocket. Designed for desktop at-home use, it comes with a remote control for easy volume control, and offers a range of tasty features. 

There’s Bluetooth built-in (v5.0) with support for aptX-HD and LDAC, and unlike most every other headphone amp and DAC we’ve seen of this size, there’s a clear on-body status display too. High-res audio support is good, up to DSD512 - Topping is using an AKM DAC chip inside.

Input options cover coaxial and optical digital audio, plus USB. There’s also a stereo analogue output. With a decent power output, and adjustable gain, it’s good for a wide range of headphones.

You might say this Topping is pure cream.

Creative Sound Blaster X G6

(Image credit: Creative)

7. Creative Sound Blaster X G6 headphone amp and DAC

This headphone amp is a gaming upgrade too

Price: £129/$160 | Features: 7.1 virtual sound processing, Scout mode | Inputs: 3.5mm jack, digital optical audio | Bluetooth: No | Dimensions: 11.1 x 2.4 x 7cm (H/W/D)

Proprietary 7.1 virtual sound
Scout Mode game enhancement
32-bit 384kHz DAC
Voice comms not supported on Nintendo Switch or Xbox 

The Sound BlasterX G6 from Creative is a headphone amp and gaming DAC, designed principally to upgrade the audio from games consoles. A wacky combo? Not if you listen to metal playlists on Spotify while perfecting Mortal Kombat fatalities!

The G6 boasts a Creative-designed Xamp amplifier module with adjustable gain control, to drive both in-ear monitors and audiophile over-ears. A 32-bit 384kHz DAC ensures you're always listening to the highest fidelity.

Outputs include a 3.5mm headphone jack, mic socket and optical output, along with a digital optical input and Micro-USB (which works with consoles but not smartphones).

Unlike other headphone amp DAC units in this roundup, this Sound BlasterX supports 7.1 virtual audio from your PlayStation, Xbox or Switch, using Sound Blaster’s proprietary surround sound encoder.

We particularly like Scout Mode, which enhances in-game audio cues (like footsteps), theoretically giving an edge on opponents. So even when you’re playing Call Of Duty to Sabaton, they won’t hear you coming.

Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

8. Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus

This multifunction headphone amp and DAC is brilliant value for money

Price: £199/$275 | Features: Asynchronous USB for laptops, pre-amp mode | Inputs: Digital coaxial, digital optical, USB | Bluetooth: Optional | Dimensions: 5.2 x 2.15 x 1.91cm (H/W/D)

Multiple connection options
Volume control
Bluetooth is an optional extra

Both a dedicated headphone amplifier and a system defining desktop DAC, this combi from Cambridge Audio is a great upgrade for headphones, laptop and Hi-Fi components for the price.

The DacMagic Plus uses twin Wolfson WM8740 DACs, coupled to some clever audio upscaling, to improve the quality of streaming services.

Connectivity is versatile, with a quartet of digital inputs (split between coaxial and optical), plus USB for your laptop. There’s a 6.3mm headphone output on the front fascia.  Outputs include both optical and coaxial digital outputs, along with analogue stereo and XLR.

It’ll work with Bluetooth (kinda) - you’ll need to buy an optional BT100 receiver.

The best headphone amps: Buying Advice

iFi Zen Can

(Image credit: iFi)

So what exactly is a headphone amp, and how do you use one?

A headphone amp is essentially a power amplifier designed to drive headphones rather than loudspeakers. They can be small, light and utilise either a single amplifier chip, or embrace a more audiophile approach, with a separate output stage and premium componentry. 

Consequently, they come in all shapes and sizes, from small portable pocket units, to more traditional looking Hi-Fi kit. 

A headphone amp sits between your source component and your headphones. Depending on the inputs available, you’ll be able to connect anything from a smartphone or laptop, to CD player and one of the best record players. It’ll then amplify the source to drive your headphones.

Some offer Bluetooth connectivity, for convenience, others don’t. 

The question is, do you need a headphone amp at all? If all your listening is done on wireless headphones, save your money for cheap vinyl records and gig tickets. That said, if you really like the idea of a headphone amp, read our guide to the best audiophile headphones, and then jump on board.

Many headphone amps also have a DAC (digital to analog converter) built-in, another big sonic upgrade, and some offer additional functionality (but let’s not concern ourselves too much about that).

Buy the best headphone amp for the job, one that will match both your cans and how you intend to use them. Connectivity can also be a minefield, so double check before you write that cheque.