Most people don’t think twice about where they plug in their headphones. They simply stick them into their computer, iPod, or smartphone and take whatever comes out of the speakers. The truth is that just like any other speaker system, your headphones make use of amplification. Your electronics all have tiny amplifiers built into them. Unfortunately, these have to be built for size and power specs suited to the inside of a phone. That’s a fine compromise when you’re away from home, but when you are sitting in your lounge or music room you can do better.
If you want to know more about headphone amplifiers, be sure to check out my buyer’s guide. Here I’ve brought together some of the most promising desktop headphone amplifiers. These are also some of the best selling units in this category.
I’ve listed my best headphone amp choices at the top and the rest are in no particular order. So I hope you’re amped up, because here we go!
Top Pick: Magni 2 Headphone Amplifier
The Magni has the sort of look that I really appreciate. Yes, it might be boring, but the simple brushed-silver look is one that can never go wrong. There’s something to be said for a fairly plain silver box.
The front face of the Magni 2 is also pretty idiot-proof. There’s a single knob and a jack to plug in your phones. What more do you need?
The Magni is not designed for any specific headphone design. So you can be sure that they’ll improve the output of any headphone you fancy, as long as it’s wired.
This is one of the cheapest fully-discrete amplifiers on the market. What does that mean? It means that the different amplification channels are not on one integrated chip, but separated out over multiple discrete components. This usually means a significantly less noisy signal.
How much power this will pump to your headphones will of course depend on the impedance. It ranges from 1.8W on low-impedance headphones to 130mW on high-impedance models. That’s per channel, by the way.
Based on feedback from people who put down the money, this little amp is transformative. The sound is clear and provides a wide soundstage. In other words, it sounds amazing, not just for the money, but in general.
The Magni is a pretty awesome choice. Especially if you live in the USA, since this is locally made and manufactured. That means support is much easier to get as well.
It’s also a great choice if you can’t afford high-end headphones now, but want to invest in them later without buying a new amp.
Best Tube Amp: Bravo Audio V2
Most of the headphone amps you’ll find are digital solid-state models. That seems a little counter-intuitive when you want to listen to vintage analog audio. Some people swear that running the sound from a vinyl or other analog source through a digital component adds “coldness” to the sound. Personally I don’t feel that digital amps take away from the signature vinyl sound, but if you want even more of that warmth, you can now invest in amps that use classic tubes.
This particular example is a hybrid model. This means that it uses both valve and solid-state components.
The verdict on this little guy seems to be pretty unanimous. It sounds loud, warm, and clear. For most people, full volume from this amp will be intolerable. There are a few downsides to having this amp. First of all, it’s not very tough. Those tubes will break from a bump or drop,especially if they are hot. Speaking of which, this little guy will get very hot. Finally, as with many tube amps, there is an audible hum from them. That’s normal and meant to be part of the charm of tube amplification, but if you’ve never used a tube amp you may find this irritating or unpleasant. So be warned.
While this is not a “true” tube amp but a hybrid, some purists may dismiss it. For the rest of us it provides an affordable taste of what a tube amplifier can do. Apart from that, it looks gorgeous if you are into naked electronics and shiny chrome parts.
The price is very good for this sort of technology and the ear-on results are fantastic, so this gets my nod as the best tube amp solution.
Pyle-Pro PHA40 Headphone Amplifier
If you are the type that prefers having lots of controls instead of a single volume knob, the Pyle-Pro may be for you. It’s also for you if you are low on cash, since this is a very, very cheap amplifier. This fact does not fill me with confidence, especially since it also has the word “pro” in the name.
The looks of the Pyle put me in mind of a lot of professional sound gear. It looks like a lot of stuff I’ve worked with behind the scenes at music festivals and band performances. I quite like the upwards-facing controls. For home use it may be less than practical, given that all the controls on home systems usually face forward from inside a cabinet. How much of a problem or useful feature this is to you will depend on your setup.
Should you consider this amp? Based on the experience people have had, the answer should be “No”. This is just too cheaply made. The jacks are dodgy, the amplification is too low, and there are better ways to spend your money.
Magni 2 Uber
The Magni 2 Uber looks exactly the same as the plain old Magni 2, which is an amp that really impressed me. The price is very different, however. It’s about $60 more than the base model and you may wonder what you get for your money.
As I said with the Magni 2, the looks of this are simple and very elegant. It’s not full of stickers and bluster – something that I appreciate.
The changes come from the inside. Compared to its cheaper brother, the Uber has some extra tricks. The gain is switchable, so you can fine-tune the sound for your specific headphones. The sound, power, and performance are upgraded compared to the plain Magni. The Uber can also do double duty as a preamp for full-sized amps. Unfortunately, it can’t double as a phono preamp.
Is it worth the extra money over its excellent sibling? I don’t think so, and many people simply can’t seem to hear the difference at all. Unless you are an audiophile with extremely discerning ears, it’s better to spend the difference on better headphones.
CHORD Electronics Mojo Headphone Amp
A hundred dollars may seem like a lot of money for a tiny little headphone amp, but how about $600? Yes, this headphone amp from CHORD doesn’t mess around when it comes to the asking price, but then it’s a bit more than just a headphone amplifier.
The look of this device is not something I particularly like. It looks a little like a cheap PC accessory from the 90s; not something I’d like if I were putting down this much money.
In the end, that may not matter if it has the right performance and features. So what justifies the price?
In addition to being an amp, this is also a DAC or digital-to-analog converter. So it can play digital sources directly. This is also a portable model with a built-in battery.
It’s a pretty impressive piece of kit that delivers (according to buyers) amazing sound. If all you want to do is listen to vinyls on headphones, this is definitely overkill and you’ll waste most of the value on offer. If you want one amp to do it all, then the Mojo may actually be worth it.
Bravo Audio Ocean Mini
Given the existence of tube amps like the Bravo V2, I can’t say that I like the design of the Ocean too much. If you are going to have an amp with such interesting and pretty internals, you might as well show them off. I guess if you are happy to hide it all away, you could do worse than the rather boring casing this comes in.
The aluminum case is not just for show, however. It also acts as a heatsink. Heat is one problem that I’ll admit the Bravo V2 has, so it’s not a frivolous difference.
The Ocean has all the inputs you could want and some damn decent specs. It can accommodate high-impedance headphones and most low-impedance ones as well. The harmonic distortion is nice and low at medium impedance levels, and the SNR is also pretty good for the price.
There are quality issues however, and lots of people complaining that their units bite the dust in just a few months. Tube amps are already pretty fragile, but it seems that the Ocean is on the wrong side of acceptable in the durability area. I recommend you pick another model.
Vinyl Vintage Audio System Reviews
If you’re completely new to the world of vinyl and vintage audio, I’d recommend to start with the reviews on Turntables, Phone Preamps, Record Cleaners and Speakers. Once you’ve got this covered, make sure to check the menu for more of my reviews.