10 Best Headphone Amps Under $100

by SoundGearLab-Team.   Last Updated On October 4th, 2022.
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Most people would expect headphones to not need special equipment to work. You buy a pair of headphones, plug it into your device and music comes out. While this works, sometimes you want better quality sound with enhanced details. A good headphone amplifier can do this, and the good news is that you do not have to spend a fortune to get one. At just under $100, there are some solid headphone amps for both beginners and audiophiles as well. So if you are looking for a budget headphone amp under $100, sit back and relax because you are at the right place. You can also check out our best DACs under $100.

Comparison Table – Top 10 Headphone Amplifiers under 100

Best Headphone Amp Under $100See On Amazon
photo of the Schiit Magni HeresySchiit
Magni Heresy
Best Portable Headphone Amp Under $100See On Amazon
photo of the AudioQuest DragonFly BlackAudioQuest
DragonFly Black
Recommended USB DAC and Headphone AmplifierSee On Amazon
photo of the FiiO E10KFiiO
Best Tube Headphone Amp Under $100See On Amazon
photo of the Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7Bravo Audio
V2 Class A 12AU7
Best Headphone Amp & Splitter Under $100See On Amazon
photo of the Behringer MICROAMP HA400Behringer
Recommended Desktop Headphone AmplifierSee On Amazon
photo of the Monoprice 111567Monoprice
Recommended Tube Amp Under $100See On Amazon
photo of the Nobsound NS-08ENobsound
See On Amazon
photo of the FiiO Q1 Mark II FiiO
Q1 Mark II
See On Amazon
photo of the FX Audio DAC-X6FX Audio
See On Amazon
photo of the Topping NX1sTopping

Reviews of the Best Headphone Amps Under $100

The Schiit Audio Magni 3 is the best headphone amplifier you can at this price whether you are a beginner or a hardcore audiophile.

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The Magni 3 is no longer available but the Schitt Magni Heresy deserves all of the accolades the Magni 3 previously received. The price is a tad above $100 but definitely worth the stretch. Updated review to come. For now, here’s our review of the extremely similar Schitt Magni 3:

Category: Desktop / Solid-State
What we like: Value for money, offers powerful and well-balanced sound, easy to use
What we don’t: You will need a separate DAC

The Schiit’s Magni line has seen multiple models such as the Schiit Audio Magni 3 and their powerful yet affordable Schiit Magni 3+. While all of them look very similar, they each come with different features. From the Magni 2 to the Magni 2 Uber that came with RCA input and outputs and now the Magni 3. Still Schiit has managed to make this a very affordable headphone amp.

Schiit has a very distinctive design that populates just about all its equipment and the Schiit Audio Magni 3 is no exception. It features a silver metal housing with a curved top edge. There is nothing I could fault in the design of this amp. The amp is designed to be stackable with the Modi 2 DAC, the Uber and the Modi 3.

At the front panel, there is a volume knob and a 6.3mm headphone jack. At the back, you will find two switches (power switch and gain switch), a power jack and two RCA inputs and outputs. The RCA outputs also turn this headphone amp into a preamp allowing you to connect your powered speakers.

A downside with this amp is, it does not come with an inbuilt DAC. In that case, you will need to purchase a separate DAC. If you need some recommendations, we have here 5 of the best headphone DACs under 500. Other than lacking the DAC, there is nothing else I can point out wrong with the amp. The Schiit Fulla is an excellent choice from the company at the same price and comes with a built-in DAC.

We tested the amp with two headphones, the Sennheiser HD600, and the HiFiMan HE400S. With the HE400S it performed well, but with the HD600 you will have to play around with the volume and gain switch to get the level we wanted. Depending on your headphone, once you get the right settings, you are good to go.

For most, if not all of the music we played with the amp we felt the audio improved. The amp adds weight to the quality of the sound and never did we feel that the amp did not give out its best. Although the addition of a DAC will add a difference, the amp does a great job in balancing the low end, mids and highs with just enough power to bring out the best in a track. The amp also brings more clarity to the soundstage making it feel wider and pleasant to the ear.

A compact, multifunctional DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp is a great value in a small package.

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Category: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
What we like: Value for money, compact design
What we don’t: Lacks DSD support

In 2012, AudioQuest launched the first series of the Dragonfly a DAC/headphone amplifier that was compact and simple to use. Two years later in 2014, the Dragonfly v1.2 (Discontinued) was launched and came with improvements in sound. Now comes the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.5, both the back and red.

The Dragonfly v1.5 Red comes with a double output of 2.1 volts, while the Black is designed with an output of 1.2 volts. Well, after listening to both, I can confirm there are differences between the Black and Red versions. However, I see no reason to pay an extra $100 for the Red one just because of the minor differences.

The build quality of the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.5 Black is just okay. It comes in a small portable size that can easily fit into your pockets without worries. The housing is made of metal and features a soft rubbery textured finish. The DAC/Headphone amp also features an LED that indicates the sampling rate of music files it is processing. The DragonFly v1.5 Black has no buttons to speak of. It comes with a gold-colored USB port on one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the opposite side. The AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.5 Black DAC/Headphone amp can readily connect with your laptop or PC via the USB connector. However, you will need an adaptor – a micro USB connector for Android devices or an Apple’s camera adapter for iPhones to use the DragonFly with portable devices.

The DragonFly Blacks as I earlier stated comes with a power output of 1.2 volts. Easy-to-drive and power efficient headphones can easily benefit from this but, in case you need more power, the DragonFly Red is there but at 2.1 volts and a higher price.

To improve the overall performance of the new DragonFly models, Both the Red and Black incorporate an upgraded 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip and specifically the 9010 in Black. I found the DragonFly Black having more of a neutral sound signature. The bass is tight while the mid-range is leveled and the treble is easy-going and presents enough details.

The FiiO E10K combines a solid DAC, preamp and amp and is a great option for someone just getting into the headphone game.

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Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
What we like: Value for money, great budget DAC/headphone amp
What we don’t: The USB cable is too short

FiiO is one of the manufacturers of headphone amps that has changed the market. Most of the headphone amps from this company have been very affordable and deliver impressive audio performance working with a good headphone.

The FiiO E10K Headphone amp combo is made of aluminum making it strong and durable for the long run. It is also lightweight, and the size of the amp is smaller than most desktop headphone amps out there. The bottom part of the FiiO E10K includes rubber feet that will stop it from being dragged off the desk by wires due to the small size.

On the front panel, you get a 3.5mm headphone jack (1/8” headphone jack), an off/on bass switch, and a volume knob. There is also an led light near the volume knob that lights up blue to indicate power. The volume wheel is smooth and clicks for switch off/on.

On the back you will find a coaxial out port, a line out port the high and low gain switch and a USB power port. The bass and high/low gain switches are made from plastic; I would have preferred it to be a metal because the plastic might break.

The FiiO E10K also comes with a built-in DAC which works to improve the audio quality from the amp. We tested the FiiO E10K with the Sennheiser HD 650’s, and the amp proved to be much better than the PC built-in sound card when using it as only a DAC. If you have a computer, the FiiO E10K could be a good upgrade as a DAC. However, in terms of power, it did have enough to drive the Sennheiser HD-600 properly. Also, with lower impedance cans, it performed quite good.

Now, as for how the sound quality shifts when using the FiiO E10K, the overall sound is warm yet clear. When used with a PC you can clearly hear a difference in the mids, and the bass is slightly accentuated when the bass boost switch is turned on. With headphones, it did have enough power to drive the HD 650 properly, but with bass boost, you can feel the sound change. With AKG k7xx or Audio-Technica ath-m50x, the FiiO E10K packed enough power to drive the headphone to full potential and improve the bass.

A fun, inexpensive and surprisingly high quality tube amp.

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Category: Desktop/ Tube
What we like: inexpensive tube amp, a tiny powerhouse
What we don’t: Distortion, open design, sensitive volume knob

Tube amplifiers have long been a favorite to many people, and still many prefer tubes to the solid-state amplifiers. However, unlike solid-state amps, tube amps are typically expensive to buy and maintain. Now, enter the Bravo Audio V2, a tube headphone amp that is perfect for anybody looking to experience tube sound.

The Bravo Audio V2 comes in an open design with two transparent acrylic plates on top and bottom of this tube amp. The top plate has three cutouts, one for the tube and the other one for the large capacitor that sticks out on top. Am not a fan of the open design of this tube. The Bravo Audio V2 does get hotter, especially the heat sink that can pose safety risks. For this reason, try as much not to move it while in operation and do not touch the heat sinks!

On the front of this tube amp, it has a 3.5mm minijack input port, a Japanese ALPS potentiometer volume knob, and a 6.3mm headphone jack port. It also features the RCA inputs on the side. The back of the V2 has an on/off toggle switch and a connection power port for the wall-wart. Most parts of the amp feel durable, but the volume knob is a little too sensitive when adjusting the volume.

The Bravo Audio V2 is somehow designed to handle headphones that are difficult to drive such as the DT-990 (600 ohms) or the Sennheiser HD650 at 250 ohms. For low impedance headphones, the Bravo Audio V2 will still work, but you will have to be careful to avoid excessive volume levels.

Again, as I said earlier, the volume knob of the Bravo Audio V2 is very sensitive, and the slightest adjustments can lead to a higher volume.
The amp comes with the Shuguang 12AU7 tube and allows for tube rolling to make the sound better and customize it to your preferences. The Bravo Audio V2 also comes in a V2+ Upgrade model, and the only difference between the two amps is the tubes. The Bravo Audio V2+ upgrade uses the Golden Lion ECC82 tube.

In this review, I tested the Bravo Audio V2 without any modifications on the tube, so let us see how it sounds.

First, some high sensitive headphones do not need this amp, or there will be distortion in the sound. With that out of the way, I found the Bravo Audio V2 warms up the low end and the midrange. Vocals and instruments like guitars come out clearly, while the treble is slightly emphasized.

FiiO is one of the best brands providing entry-level gear, and the FiiO Q1 is one of the many quality products in their line.

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Category: Portable / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
What we like: Good sound quality, long battery life
What we don’t: The hip flask shape is a real pain when stacking with a smartphone

FiiO has been among the top industry player who have worked hard to give some of the best and affordable audio gears. If you are a person who considers himself as a newcomer in the world of HI-Fi equipment, it can be very tough to determine what is needed and if you are not careful, you may end up spending a lot of money on useless stuff.

The FiiO Q1 has a hip flask like design and somehow resembles the FiiO E11K now renamed as the FiiO A3. The amp is solidly built with the casing made out of metal. The only plastic part I could notice on the FiiO Q1 was at the top that partly covered the volume knob.

Overall, I like the design of this amp but would have preferred it to have one completely flat area, either top or bottom for better stacking with other devices. On the front panel of the FiiO Q1, it comes with a bass boost switch, the volume knob centered in the middle and partly covered, and a 3.5mm headphone jack port. On the back panel, the amp has a 3.5mm input port; next to is a gain switch and a micro USB port for charging the amp. At the far right of the amp, a switch turns the USB charging on and off. All the switches on the FiiO Q1 are firmly held in place and very easy to operate. The amp also comes with a front LED light that lights up blue when in use, green when fully charged and red/blue when the amp is charging and being used simultaneously.

The FiiO Q1 comes with a 1400mAh Li-Po battery that is said to power the amp for up to 30 hours. 30 hour of playback is very good but the hours might decrease depending on how you use the amp and your settings. During my tests, I would say the time is very accurate and the better part is it only takes less than four hours to recharge back to full.

What I like most about this amp is that it is very simple to use. Just plug in your source and your headphones, press play on your playback device, adjust the volume and you are good to go. There are also other settings you can use like the gain switch and the bass switch to set the amp to your preferences.

According to FiiO, the recommended headphone impedance to use with the FiiO Q1 is between 16 ohms and 150 ohms. The maximum power rating of the amp is 190mW at 32 ohms, which was a pretty good range for such a portable amp.

After several hours of listening tests on the FiiO Q1, I found the amp to have a neutral sound signature but slightly warm. The amp brings out the details of a song better with good transparency and separation. Do not expect the amp to blow your mind, but you can be sure it is surprisingly good at its job. Compared to a similarly priced model, the FiiO A3, the FiiO Q1 is more neutral than the A3.

FX Audio DAC-X6 provides great sound and is very solidly built with high-quality materials.

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Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
What we like: Various input ports
What we don’t: Slight hiss in the sound at a higher volume

The FX Audio DAC-X6 is a less known name in the audiophile world. I first saw the model in Aliexpress long before it was available on Amazon. The DAC/Headphone amp is from a Chinese company and after I read a ton of user review on the product, I decided to try it when it became available on Amazon.

The FX Audio DAC-X6 comes in two colors, silver, and black. I got the black model. The casing is made of metal, which adds to the sturdy built structure of the FX Audio DAC-X6.

On the front panel, the FX Audio DAC-X6 features a power switch, a three-stage switch which you can select fiber, coaxial or USB, a 6.3 mm headphone connector and a volume knob. On the back panel, you have the USB input, an optical input, a coaxial input, two RSC inputs, and a power input. As you see the FX Audio DAC-X 6 has many input options, having USB, coaxial, optical all in one unit is nice, and I love the fact that the DAC is not USB powered.

To test the power of this DAC/headphone amp headphone, I used three headphones, the HiFiMan HE400i, Audio Technica ATH-AD 700X, and the Sennheiser HD650. Surprisingly the FX Audio DAC-X6 does pump enough power to drive the HD650, which is a power-demanding headphone. The FX Audio DAC-X6 also did a great job in giving out extra power to the ATHAD700X, which I mainly use for gaming. The amp improved the soundstage, especially in FPS games with positional sounds.

Overall, I can say the FX Audio DAC-X6 worked better for me as a headphone amp rather than a DAC. The sound quality output from the PC is greatly improved so is the sound output from the headphones. Even though the FX Audio DAC-X6 operates on AC power, it has very low background noise during music playback. But when you pause your music, you can hear a hissing sound especially when the volume is set to maximum. However, the noise is very low, and I hardly notice a reduction on the audio quality.

The sound of the FX Audio DAC-X6 is clear and was loud in the headphones I tested the amp with. The clarity and soundstage were also greatly improved. I did not use The RCA and coax inputs, but the other inputs lived up to my expectations.

At just under $30, the BEHRINGER MICROAMP HA400 is one of the cheapest headphone amps that you can use with up to four headphones at a time.

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Category: Portable / Solid-State
What we like: Cheap price, Connects up to four headphones
What we don’t: Lacks power switch, doesn’t include any cables or audio plug adapters

For a home studio starter or if you are into recording, you can conveniently use this headphone amp to check out your music or mix using different settings with different headphones.

First, the design and the BEHRINGER MICROAMP HA400 is solidly built with quality materials and can take a fall without breaking down. The amp chassis is metal made with a powder coated paint finish that adds to the quality of this product. The knobs on the amp are also high quality made of rubberish plastic.

The BEHRINGER MICROAMP HA400 comes with four audio ports, and all are 6.3 (1/4″). All the four audio ports are located on the back panel together with the power and input port while the knobs are on the top. One limitation of the amp is that it does not have an on/off switch and you will have to disconnect the power cable to power it off or connect the cable to turn the amp on.

The BEHRINGER MICROAMP HA400 lacks an inbuilt DAC and works only to amplify the sound from your source.

At the price range, you get this headphone amp; you would think it is underpowered. Because of splitting the signal 4-ways, you would think it loses lots of levels, but in my experience, this amp did the best to power my headphones. The BEHRINGER MICROAMP HA400 uses an active circuitry that includes a dedicated power supply that boosts each channel to the original power supplied level.

As for the sound quality, I would say at this price it is perfectly fine. The sound is clear. However, when you plug a headphone you can hear some sound disturbances. This also happens when the cord moves, so it is better to keep the amp firmly fixed in place. The amp also had problems with distortion when I cranked up the volume to max. Other than that at normal levels, this headphone amp did quite good and with adequate volume.

The Monoprice 111567 is a very solid desktop headphone amp at a great price.

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Category: Desktop / Solid-State
DAC: Yes
What we like: Great design, better sound
What we don’t: A really bright LED light

For a long time, I have not been a fan of Monoprice’s design in most of their products. The team usually has boring designs and also lack better products names, take for example this headphone amp, the Monoprice 111567. However, one thing Monoprice never fails to disappoint in is the bang for the buck. Most of their products are budget-friendly and come with enough features to rival the competition.

This headphone amp somehow looks like the FiiO E09K unit. The minor differences being the FiiO E09K comes with a top dock for the E07K or the E17. Monoprice has also admitted to be using the same manufacturer in China for the case, but the similarity ends there.

The Monoprice 111567 is just a well-built headphone amp. The casing is made of metal, the connectors are also sturdy, and overall the amp has a very decent weight to it. The volume knob is not that smooth to turn but pulling it out a little bit makes it work better.

On the front panel, the Monoprice 111567 has a switch that toggles from USB DAC to AUX and vice versa. In the middle, you have a large volume knob, and on the far right, there is a headphone jack port, 6.3mm to be precise. There is also a blue LED light on the front panel that is just too bright enough to leave you with a white spot. On the back panel, from the left you have a power port, a USB port, a gain switch and finally pre-out, line out and aux in ports.

According to Monoprice, the Monoprice 111567 desktop headphone amp can drive a wide range of headphones with different impedances the minimum being 16 ohms and up to a max of 600 ohms. After plugging in the Sennheiser HD-650, which is at 300 ohms, the Monoprice 111567 can drive them without fail. You can also use this headphone amp with your speakers by toggling the front switch to AUX. I have not yet tested this amp with my speaker, and therefore I cannot comment on the audio quality.

So how does the Monoprice 111567 sound? In two words, I would say very good. The quality of the audio is also noticeably better and even louder than my onboard sound. It also improves the soundstage of my headphones and keeps the sound clear at high volumes with no hissing or distortion. The sound is neutral to warm, and the amp keeps the music natural with good clarity and details.

For a tube amp this cheap, the Nobsound NS-08E really is great.

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Category: desktop / hybrid
What we like: Cheap hybrid amp, packs a lot of power
What we don’t: short power cable, large wall-wart

Nobsound (Douk Audio) is a company that has brought quality products at favorable prices to most audio consumers. The Chinese based company has some of the cheapest tube amplifiers and the Nobsound NS-08E, a hybrid headphone amp, is one the few I came across that caught my interests.

The Nobsound NS-08E is a hybrid amp, meaning the tubes are used for pre-amplification of the audio while the solid-state part of the amp output the audio. The build quality of the amp is nice, and the front panel is brass and the volume knob also. The Nobsound NS-08E comes with a metal casing (aluminum) and has two tubes that come out on top.

On the front panel, there are two recessed 3.5mm headphone jack ports, for both input and output and a smooth easy to operate volume knob. The volume knob has a solid feel and makes a soft click, which is very faint, but you can feel it. The back panel comes with a power port and a red power button. However, I found the power cord to be very short, and you could require an extension to get it at a better height.

On the top plate, there are two 6J3 tubes. The Nobsound NS-08E allows for tube rolling but you need to check the list of compatible replacement tubes.

Nobsound claims the Nobsound NS-08E headphone amp can power headphones with impedance values ranging from 24 ohms to 600 ohms. Well, after spending time with the amp, and using it with the HD-650, I can say the amp packs a lot of power to bring out the best of the Sennheiser HD-650.

The HD-650 was brought to life by this amp increasing the bass, and the soundstage felt wider. The amp brings out a warm tube sound signature with a better bass response for an open headphone such as the HD-650. When using the amp sometimes, I could hear a hissing or buzzing sound, which is faint and seems like the power input is connected to the issue: Fiddling with the chord temporarily gets the noise to stop.

For a cheap headphone amp like the Topping NX1s which retails way below $50, the amp is sure to deliver way above its price.

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Category: Portable/ Solid-State
What we like: Long Battery life, solid built, cheap
What we don’t: Not enough volume with high impedance headphones

Apart from the low price of this amp which means almost everyone can afford it, it is very compact, portable and works well for smartphone users.

The design of the Topping NX1s is a little different from the previous versions of this headphone amp. The main difference with Topping NX1s are the projections on the front panel of the amp. The size of the amp is also smaller than its predecessors. The build quality of the amp is quite good, the casing is made of metal (aluminum), and the overall weight of the amp is good.

On the front panel, The amp has a headphone jack port, an input port (Both ports are 3.5mm) and the volume knob which is partly covered by the projection on the side. The volume knob has a good feel to it, a nice potentiometer. On the back panel, there is the micro USB port for charging and two switches, one for bass boost and one for the gain.

The Topping NX1s is said to deliver up to 40 hours of audio playback. This is a perfect range, especially with a portable headphone amp. After using the amp for a couple of hours a day, it took almost three weeks running on a single charge. Apart from the battery life, the amp also packs enough power to drive a low impedance headphone such as the Sennheiser 558s at 50 ohms. Trying it on a much higher impedance headphone like the HD650 was good, but it is not as powerful as I expected. Overall, I would recommend this headphone amplifier for portable headphones or IEMs.

At full settings, max gain, max bass boost, and full volume, I heard no hiss or distortion both on the 558s and HD-650. But with the HD-650 the volume is very low. The sound quality is transparent and clear, and the bass boost gives it an extra kick on the low notes. Trying the amp with different headphones, you can feel the loss in the quality of audio when the high gain is set.

How We Chose The Best Headphone Amp Under $100

If you have tried to look through the web pages for a headphone amp, then you know there are quite many choices to consider. Leave alone the number of headphone amplifier; the terms can get deep and technical.

Our first mission was to select headphone amps under 100 dollars (we also have here headphone amps under $200). The number was quite high, but after reading through reviews from top audio blogs, we narrowed down our list to just 40 headphone amplifiers.

We also scanned online forums and reviews on Crutchfield and Amazon to look out for any problems that users mentioned consistently about each headphone amp. Armed with this information we narrowed down our list to less than 25 headphone amplifiers.

Out of the remaining 25 amps, our guiding principle to select the top 10 picks was:

  • The amp should be easier to use even for beginners, and It should make your audio life better than what you get with the amp included in your phone, PC or laptop
  • Portability – we looked for portable amps that can easily fit into a laptop bag or your pockets easily the build quality of the amp
  • The brand in question, the warranty, reliability, and responsive customer service in case you need assistance

After this testing exercise, our team narrowed down to 15 possible contenders that could make it to the list. The value for money and other features such as DAC support and output impedance made us stick to 10 headphone amps.

Our list is subject to change over time to include new of deserving models into the list. If you think we have left out your best headphone amp, comment below and we will consider it in our next update.

Headphone Amp Buying Advice

Below we’ve answered some frequently asked questions about buying a headphone amp.

Why Do I Need A Headphone Amp?

Headphones are like small speakers, and all speakers need an amplifier. Most devices that play music already include a built-in headphone amplifier, whether it is a Smartphone, a tablet, or a computer. So, why do you need an external headphone amp?

A built-in headphone amp from a playback device such a phone or computer is limited in space, size and the power. These limitations are likely to compromise the efficiency of the built-in amp when powering a pair of headphone. An external headphone has much more space and better circuitry with more power, which allows for better sound and in some headphone amplifiers, more power to drive headphones.

The work of a headphone amplifier is not to blast your ears with audio, but to deliver enough power to a pair of headphones and overall make the sound cleaner and more controlled without sounding distorted especially at the musical peak…read more about headphone amplifiers and learn how to match an amp to your headphone.

Bravo Audio V2

Bravo Audio V2 Headphone Amplifier | Sound Gear Lab

Headphone Amp Types: Tubes vs. Solid State vs. Hybrid

Tube Amplifiers

The technology of tube amps is nearly over a century old. However, tube amplifiers are still popular and feature in many audiophiles or musicians audio setups. Musicians love tube amps especially because of their flexibility in the audio production – especially those that use electrical instruments.

The first thing to understanding tube amplifiers is to know how they work. With that knowledge, you can better handle a tube amp and know its importance.

Vacuum tube amps work around triode – these are the tube you usually see and consist of three electrodes inside. Most common tube amplifiers have only two electrodes. A filament heats up and frees electrons for improved electrical performance, while the third electrode in the triode controls and boosts the produced current. Well, I am not too knowledgeable of the specifics, but that’s about what happens.

In tube amps, most people believe the euphoric distortion warmer sound characteristics created are what make up the difference and more vibrant sound production. This also applies to guitar amps (see also the best headphones for guitar amps here), where when distortion in the tube amplifiers when pushed to the edge creates better sounds than what comes from solid-state amps when overdriven.

The biggest difference between a tube amp and a solid-state amp is that a tube amp is driven by voltage throughout the output device while a solid-state amp is driven by current.

The biggest advantage of tube amplifiers is tube rolling which either changes or improves the sound output of a system. On the downside, tube amps are more expensive to operate and in initial costs. Tubes will also break, short-circuit or burnout and will need to be replaced occasionally.

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

Solid-State Amplifiers

Solid-state amplifiers use a use diode, transistors, and other solid states electronics to amplify the audio electrical signal. Because they do not use a tube, they lack the warmth characteristic of tube, but on the other hand, they are known for giving out a sharp and detailed sound.

Solid-state amps are also very reliable, and because of their circuitry, they can be very portable. A perfect example is the Fiio Ek10 a pocket-sized amp.

Hybrid Amplifiers

Some amps are not simply tubed amps or solid-state amps, but mixes of both these two technologies, these are hybrids. In working, hybrid amps use tube technology in the preamp stage and use solid-state for the power section. Because of this hybrids have a tonal warmth and are closer to tube amps in response.

FiiO Q1 Portable Headphone Amp

FiiO Q1 Portable Headphone Amp | Ryanjsoo

Rackmount vs. Desktop vs. Portable headphone amplifiers

Rackmount amplifiers work well with studios. They not only make your studio look more like a studio, but also tend to have more inputs than desktop or portable headphone amps. Rack mounted headphone amplifiers also feature more channels making them an excellent choice is require more versatility and more channels. In studios, rackmount headphone amps more than six headphones and are mostly used for fixing, critical listening, recording or tracking.

Rackmount headphone amps offer more versatility, but most of them are hardly portable.

Desktop on the other hand come in handy if you need a portable amp to power more headphones. Desktop headphone amps can drive one or two pairs of headphones and might include up to four outputs with some having outputs for studio monitors. Desktop amps are designed to sit on your desk where you can easily access the volume and other knobs easily.

Portable headphone amps are the kind that are designed to be smaller and can fit even in your pocket. This type of headphone amp will accept audio from your phone or mp3 player and deliver it to your headphone. Portable amplifiers, such as the FiiO Q1 or Topping NX1s are battery powered and have to be charged from time to time.

Nobsound NS-08E

The Nobsound NS-08E is a very powerful hybrid headphone amp

3.5mm vs. 6.3mm Connections

Leave alone the 2.5mm; there are two main ports that you will encounter. These are 3.5mm and 6.3mm. The 3.5mm is the most common and most available headphone will this type of connection. However, headphone amps and high-end headphones will come with 6.3mm connections.

So, is there any sound quality difference between these connectors?

Well, there is no sound difference. Therefore, there is no such thing as the 6.3 jack sound better than the 3.5mm jack. Nevertheless, a 6.3mm connection has its own advantages over the other connections. First, because of its cross-sectional area, it is much stronger. Second, a 6.3mm jack is almost impossible to bend making it resilient to handling forces due to accidents. Third, because of a bigger surface area, a 6.3mm jack allows for slightly finer connections.

Front panel of the FX Audio DAC-X6

Front panel of the FX Audio DAC-X6

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cable Connections

The talk of balanced and unbalanced connections is usually about cables. So, is it worth it to invest in a balanced cable? or better yet is there discernible audio differences between a balanced and unbalanced cable? Let us take a look.

First, before talking about the differences, let us look at each cables design.

An Unbalanced cable, on the other hand, has only two conductors. One for the audio signal and the other for the ground. If you cut it open, you will find two wires R+ and L+ and the ground/shield. The ground carries the negative signal but also shields a bit of RFI signals. The problem is it is not effective in shielding leaving you with some RFI and hum.

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cable Connections

Balanced and Unbalanced Circuits | Joey McGowan

A balanced cable has three conductors – one for the positive signal, one for the negative signal and one for the ground. Inside a balance cable’s enclosure, you will find four wires – R+, R-, L+, L- and the ground/shield. When an audio signal passes through the positive and negative wires, it picks up the same noise thus canceling each other’s noise out which results in better sound and a broader soundstage.

So, can you the difference between these two cables?

Well, Yes, there is a difference between a balanced and unbalanced cable. But, you do not have to stress over this if you cannot afford a balanced cable, the difference is extremely subtle, and you can only notice it when the cables stretch over long distances.

Impedance And Wattage Explained

The impedance of a headphone is the resistance of an electrical circuit to the current being supplied. Wattage, on the other hand, is the amount of power an amplifier will generate. For example, if an amp puts out 2 Watts at 32 ohms, that means a pair of headphone with an impedance rating of 32 ohms will be taking two watts of power.

Schiit Audio Magni 3

Schiit Audio Magni 3 | Sound Gear Lab

DACs Explained

You might not know it, but just like amplifiers, there is a DAC in every playback device. A DAC, short for Digital to Analogue Converter, is a device or a chip on your playback device that takes the digital ones and zeros that make up your music and convert them into analog sound.

Until recently, external DACs were not popular, and you could only find them in recording studios or with a diehard audiophile. However, with the growth of audio formats, especially HD, people dissatisfied by the quality of audio playback by onboard DACs in their computers have resulted in getting standalone DACs.

In this list, quite a number of models have a DAC installed, so should not have to worry about getting one. However, if you need a separate DAC, there plenty of options in the market for every price range.



Headphone Amps vs. Stereo Amps

The difference between a headphone amp and a stereo amplifier is simple. A headphone amp is dedicated to powering headphones while a stereo amp powers speakers. However, if you have a good integrated amp, why would you need a dedicated headphone amplifier?

I do not think the answer to this is very simple. In designing an integrated amp, there are different requirements than designing a headphone amplifier, and this could make a difference to the end result. With some receivers, the headphone output port could be a side feature whereas with a dedicated headphone amplifier the headphone output is the main feature. However, there are stereo amps that sound just as good and the same goes for a headphone amp, there are some that sound just plain.

In Conclusion

Best Headphone Amp Under $100
Best Portable Headphone Amp Under $100
Recommended USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

The Schitt Magni (now the Schitt Magni Heresy) is our highest recommended headphone amp under $100. If you’re looking for something more portable, the AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 is a great option and if you’re looking for an amp/DAC combo, the FiiO E10K is an excellent choice.