The best headphone amplifiers for classical music lovers
BBC Music Magazine's audio expert Chris Haslam chooses the best headphone amplifiers for all budgets
What is a headphone amplifier? And what does it do?
Like a stereo amplifier, it converts the signal from your source (computer, smartphone, turntable) for use with quality headphones. They also include a DAC which converts your digital files into analogue music and offers significantly better sound than your computer or smartphone can manage on its own.
Do I really need a headphone amplifier?
If you’ve invested in a pair of high-quality wired headphones, even a cheap headphone amplifier will power them more effectively and present new levels of depth and detail in your favourite recordings.
Will a headphone amplifier improve audio quality?
Absolutely, but the quality of the source material is vital. Compressed MP3 tracks can sound terrible, so you’ll need to play hi-res music files, CD-quality (16 bit – 44khz) or ideally higher (24bit – 96khz/192khz, lossless FLAC, WAV, ALAC or DSD) to hear the greatest benefit.
What are the different types of headphone amplifiers available?
Known as DAC/headphone amps, you can choose a mains-powered desktop design, ideal for plugging directly into your laptop and streaming hi-res, or compact battery-operated portable designs that plug into music players or smartphones. Many also come with Bluetooth for wireless streaming, but audio quality will not be as good.
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iFi Go link review
For those who lament the loss of their smartphone’s headphone jack, this ultra-portable DAC/headphone amp extracts an impressive amount of detail from your digital recordings (up to 32-bit/384kHz, including MQA), offering ultra-low distortion, excellent clarity and impressive dynamic range. ifi-audio.com
iFi Zen DAC review
The perfect introduction to headphone amps, this superb value desktop USB-powered DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) will instantly elevate your computer’s audio output and make the most of a decent pair of headphones. A stylish, compact all-metal design, it handles most hi-res formats including MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) and you can adjust the output power depending on whether you’re wearing in-ear monitors (IEM) or larger over-ear designs.
Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M review
An excellent value DAC for hi-res recordings and headphones. It handles digital audio files up to 24-bit/768kHz or DSD512, supports MQA and has digital optical, coaxial and USB inputs for connecting CD players, laptops and games consoles.
Buy from cambridgeaudio.com
Best mid-range and top-end headphone amplifiers
Astell&Kern Kann Alpha review
A veritable multi-tool for hi-res streaming, this luxurious portable music player and its dual ESS Sabre ES9066AS DAC has enough power to drive high-impedance headphones, can play from 33 different music services and streams to compatible wireless headphones using aptX HD. Plugged into your computer, it becomes a seriously accomplished standalone headphone amp, bursting with detail, clarity and enthusiasm.
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition review
This is actually a fully-fledged audio system, DAC and headphone amplifier in one. You can plug in or stream from virtually any digital source and navigate around vast music libraries with ease via the large display. Once enjoyed, it’s irresistible.
Chord Hugo TT2 review
Chord Electronics are the current kings of headphone amplification and have been blazing a trail in audiophile circles with their quirky looking but sensational-sounding products. The pocket-sized Chord Mojo (£399) first showed how easy it is to improve audio performance vastly, but the Chord Hugo TT2 opened my ears to another world.
At £4,000, we’re deep into audiophile territory here and many thousands of words have already been written about the custom-coded Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) with 86 208MHz cores running in parallel. But what difference does all this techno jargon really make to your listening enjoyment?
Paired with the similarly priced Audeze LCD-4z headphones and my MacBook, streaming everything from Tidal Master (MQA) recordings to 24bit/192kHz files and uncompressed FLAC, the Hugo TT2 excels in every sense, reminding me of time well spent in demo rooms listening to £100,000 audio systems. In short, it’s products like the Hugo TT2 that drive people to make impassioned requests to their bank, or alternatively into hi-fi journalism. A real treat.
Buy Chord Hugo TT2 from Chord Electronics
Read more reviews and advice about audio equipment
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.