The 4 Best Headphone Amps Under $500 in 2022

by Alex.   Last Updated On August 23rd, 2022.
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A headphone amp can make an exceptionally big difference in the sound quality you get from your headphones. When working with higher-end or professional-level headphones, you want them to sound as good as the manufacturer intended.

When plugged directly into some devices, the power output from that device may not be enough to make your headphones sound their best. But by using a headphone amp, you can get every last drop of power and remove any potential bottlenecks to ensure you get the highest level sound possible.

There are many different options for headphone amps on the market today, and finding the one that works best for you may take some time and research. However, once you find a headphone amp that meets or exceeds your needs, you will never want to be without it. Let’s take a closer look at several headphone amps and how they can work for you.

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Comparison of the Best Headphone Amp Under $500

Best Compact Headphone Amp Under $500See On Amazon
photo of the AudioQuest DragonFly CobaltAudioQuest
DragonFly Cobalt
Best Headphone Amp/DAC Combination Under $500See On Amazon
photo of the iFi Zen Amp/DAC V2iFi
Zen Amp/DAC V2
Best MQA Support Headphone Amp/DAC Under $500See On Amazon
photo of the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200MCambridge Audio
DacMagic 200M
Best Overall Headphone Amp Under $500See On Amazon
photo of the AudioQuest DragonFly RedAudioQuest
DragonFly Red

Reviews of the Best Headphone Amp Under $500

This compact dongle type headphone amp is great for travel and other portable devices. It offers a high level of versatility and good power for its size.

See On Amazon
  • Size
    • 57mm dongle
  • Input/Output
    • USB mini
    • 3.5mm jack
  • Features
    • Stylish exterior design
    • Includes USB-A to USB-C adapter
    • Includes audio interconnect cable

DragonFly has created a small and compact dongle-style headphone amp that can give you an excellent return on sound quality. When compared to other FireFly models, the Cobalt offers an improved power filtering level that reduces distortion and feedback when connecting with Bluetooth.

While you won’t get the power levels you need to power high end studio cans, the Cobalt makes use of an improved DAC chip and microprocessor that offer more than enough ohms for high end earbuds and most standard over-the-ear headphones. It connects to a wide variety of devices including PC, Mac, Android, iPhone and other USB devices.

What We Like

Excellent resolution on sound quality

Can be connected to smartphones

Compact and very portable size

Know Before Buying

Shares many features with other DragonFly models

USB-C connection can feel loose in some units

Offers improved power filtering over other models

See On Amazon

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly but powerful headphone amp and DAC combination, the iFi Zen is a great option to consider.

See On Amazon
  • Size
    • 117 mm x 100 mm
  • Input/Output
    • USB
    • RCA
    • 4.4mm
  • Features
    • Combined Amp and DAC package
    • Offers full MQA decoding
    • Improved processing over V1

If you’ve had the Zen V1, you should definitely consider giving the Zen V2 a chance. This Amp/DAC combination includes improved processing and improved codec decoding when compared to the earlier version. This means a direct increase in sound quality and versatility for you. It includes an XMOS 16-core chip to deliver unrivaled decoding and produce a stunning soundscape regardless of the headphones you are using.

The input options include USB, and the output are RCA and 4.4mm jack giving you a range of options when it comes to feeding your headphones, speakers, or other devices. The Zen includes options for adapters to suit non-standard devices as well, such as laptops, smartphones, and more.

What We Like

Exceptionally clear sound reproduction

Provides very good dynamics for the price

Audio output options include all modern types

Know Before Buying

Lacks a mains power adapter for travel

V2 uses similar components as V1 version

Combined headphone amp and DAC unit

See On Amazon

For anyone looking for a sizeable desktop amp and DAC combination, with full MQA decoding support, look no further than the DacMagic 200M.

See On Amazon
  • Size
    • 7.6 inches x 8.6 inches
  • Input/Output
    • USB
    • Optical
    • Coaxial
    • Bluetooth aptX
  • Features
    • Smooth and distortion free sound
    • Various input and output options
    • Offers native MQA support

Cambridge Audio has taken the Amp/DAC combination one step further with their DacMagic 200M model. This stylish and highly durable combination unit offers a range of standard features, as well as a few extras including an on board Bluetooth aptX and the ability to fully decode native MQA formats.

For internal specifications, you’ll be pleased to know it makes use of high quality components including two ESS Sabre converters for 768kHz or DSD512, as well as solid copper wiring with gold plated connections. For discerning audiophiles looking for a powerful headphone amp and DAC combination for your high quality studio cans, the DacMagic 200M (see also our review for the DacMagic 100 and other DACs under 200) can meet or exceed your needs.

What We Like

Stylish and durable exterior case

Combines a DAC with the amp

Has a Bluetooth aptX on board

Know Before Buying

Lacks a remote control

Has a soundscape unique to the brand

Has very little competition at this price point

See On Amazon

Small yet powerful, the DragonFly Red is a popular dongle style portable headphone amp that can provide enough power for even larger headsets.

See On Amazon
  • Size
    • 8 ounce dongle
  • Input/Output
    • USB
    • 3.5mm jack
  • Features
    • Smartphone connection compatibility
    • High performance 32-bit decoding
    • Enough power for high-efficiency headphones

If you have any experience with dongle-style amps but are looking for an upgrade, be sure to consider the DragonFly Red. Similar to the Cobalt and other DragonFly models, the Red is their flagship version which set the precedent for others to follow. It features a simplistic design, but offers a powerful return on sound when used with earbuds or headphones.

The Red features high performance 32-bit decoding and is compatible with a wide range of devices including both Windows and Apple PCs, Android and iOS mobile devices, and more. While the audio rendering support caps at 96 kHz, you will still notice an outstanding improvement over non-amped usage. Additionally, the Red features a variety of colored LEDs to let you know what process the dongle is currently handling.

What We Like

Extremely dynamic and elegant sound

Has LED lights to give visual cues on processes

Very compact yet heavy duty feeling unit

Know Before Buying

Red finish can chip and scratch easily

Is the flagship model of the DragonFly line

Support tops out at just 96 kHz

See On Amazon

Buyers Guide

Things to Consider When Buying a Headphone Amp

Sound Quality

Obviously, the sound quality should be your first consideration when deciding on a headphone amp. Afterall, your high quality headphones will only be as good as the amplifier they are connected to. This is true for basic level earbuds and headphones, all the way up to professional studio cans.

One of the biggest things to consider with headphones’ sound quality is the amplifier (not the audio interface), and how it compares to your headphones. For example, the increased power from an amplifier can remove the bottleneck on your headphones, boosting their sound output to the high quality level the designer and manufacturer intended.

Amp/DAC combinations may have a higher power output than standard headphone amps, though this power output may be divided between the amp output and the digital-to-analog conversion rates. Be sure to consider both when making your purchase decision as conversion power won’t always directly mean higher sound quality.

Impedance Levels

Impedance is often misunderstood or overlooked, but can have a direct relation to the sound quality. Some headphones will require a higher impedance level than others, especially if you are comparing full cans to small earbuds. High quality studio cans will not be able to be used with some devices without an amplifier as those devices cannot provide the right amount of power for those cans.

It’s always important to take a look at the ohms rating on your headphones and then compare it to the power output of your audio device. If your device is lower than what your headphones require, you will have very poor sound quality when listening to any audio.

Price and Value

While a reasonable price and the value for money is subjective and will be unique to each person, it’s always important to take a bit of time and consider the value of the amplifier you are considering. Compare it to others that offer the same features and see if there is a drastic gap in the price.

Some name brand amplifiers can cost almost double what a lesser known brand may cost, even though the internal and external components are nearly identical. Paying for the brand name is not always the best value, and in some cases it’s difficult to recommend a model because of this.

Don’t be afraid to consider lesser known brand names, even if you have no prior experience with them. Sometimes you may just end up finding the diamond in the rough when it comes to getting a high quality and affordable return on your sound quality.

Construction and Design

Headphone amps should not only perform their job well, but should also be well made and look good too. The build quality is definitely something to consider before making your purchase, silver or gold plated connections, secure USB ports, and more can all play into how well an amplifier is constructed.

Additionally, you don’t just want your amp to look like a block of metal or plastic. You want it to look stylish and sleek, or perhaps even be discreet, so it doesn’t detract from the rest of your audio equipment. There’s nothing wrong with selecting one amplifier over another simply due to the design aspect and aesthetics, so take some time to consider what looks good to you.

Which Headphone Amp Works For You

After taking a look at the potential features each headphone amplifier can offer, and why it might or might not be important to you, let’s now take a look at which headphone amp would be better for your unique needs. Finding the right headphone amp will depend on the general use or location you have in mind for your headphone amp.

Permanent vs Portable

There are both portable amps as well as stationary amps that will remain on a desktop. Deciding on which one you want most can help narrow down your search for the right headphone amp.

Portable headphone amps are battery powered, so may only end up giving you a few hours of usable time before they need to be recharged. However, for those that travel a lot or want to enjoy high quality music while commuting, a portable headphone amp is definitely the choice for you.

Additionally, you can find dongle-style amps that connect directly to your portable device and don’t need their own battery source. This style is common with the FireFly brand of headphone amps, and can also be true with some amp/DAC combinations, though an adapter may be needed to connect these amps to your mobile devices.

On the other hand, a stationary or desktop amp will normally be able to offer more features than a portable amp can. It can also offer more power since it is not limited by battery life. However, a stationary amp is not able to be taken along on car rides without a separate battery bank which will be large and obtrusive. If you plan on enjoying your music at home or work and not taking it with you on trips or walks, desktop amps and amp/DAC combinations are an excellent choice.

Immersive Gaming Amps

Guitar pedal, headset, and audio card on grunge background - music concept

There are a range of headphone amps that were made with gamers in mind. These amps can provide 7.1 virtual surround sound to give you a more immersive experience in games of all types. Additionally, these amps also provide microphone support to ensure you have the best communication options available with your gaming teammates.

One of the biggest benefits to using a gaming amp is that you can have a better situational awareness. For example, when exploring buildings in looter/shooter games, you can easily hear the footsteps of the enemy and have a precise direction of those footsteps. This can give you an edge when it comes to competitive gameplay.

Conclusion

Best Compact Headphone Amp Under $500
Best Headphone Amp/DAC Combination Under $500
Best MQA Support Headphone Amp/DAC Under $500

From gaming amps to high quality audio reproduction, having the right headphone amp can mean the difference between a good song and a fully immersive orchestral experience. The right headphone amp can bring out new notes and tones in your favorite songs that you may have missed before.

Whether you are just looking for a headphone amp to get the job done, or want a higher end model with a DAC inclusion and additional non-standard features, you can surely find the right amp for your needs on this list. Or if not, perhaps this closer look into the different headphone amp options and features helped point you in the right direction when considering what features and extras are important to you.