Building an Audiophile Headphone system can be a rewarding and economical way to enjoy high-fidelity music reproduction. For example, when I was younger and couldn’t afford a super-expensive 2-channel hi-fi system (I also didn’t have much room for one), I was able to piece together my personal hi-fi nirvana using a tube headphone amp and a pair of Sennheiser HD 580 Jubilee headphones.
If you want to build your headphone rig on a budget, you need to pick up a good headphone amp to supply clean power and bring out the full dynamics. We have assembled a list of robust and transparent amps that are also affordable! Check out our list of the Best Headphone Amplifiers For Audiophiles On A Budget (2022)!
What to know about Headphone Amps:
Desktop or Portable?
Desktop headphone amps are usually larger, have the most input and outputs, and are usually the most powerful since you can plug them into wall current. Portable headphone amps are generally smaller and lighter than desktop amps. They run off of battery or USB power so that you can take them on the go.
Headphone amps come either with or without a built-in Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). If you’re using a source (like a laptop or cellphone) that doesn’t have an analog output (like a headphone jack or RCA connection), then getting a head amp with a DAC (called a DAC/Amp Combo) is the way to go. It will let you take the USB digital audio, change it into analog audio, and then send it out of the headphone amp section.
Suppose you already have a source with a built-in DAC, like a CD Player, Digital Audio Player, etc. (or a standalone DAC). In that case, you can buy an excellent standalone (or analog headphone amp) and connect your source to its analog inputs.
Balanced or Unbalanced?
Should you get a balanced or unbalanced amp? Well, genuinely balanced amps will have separate amp circuits for the left and right channels, which can have sonic benefits and send more power to the headphones. That said, you usually only need a balanced amp for the most power-hungry of headphones, typically planar magnetic headphones. Other than that, a run-of-the-mill unbalanced amp will do.
Here’s our shortlist of the Best Headphone Amps For Audiophiles On A Budget (2022):
- Best Value Desktop Combo: Ifi Audio Zen Dac V2 DAC/Amp ($189)
- Best Desktop Combo Upgrade: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M DAC/Amp ($499)
- Best Standalone (Analog) Upgrade Option: S.M.S.L HO200 Hi-Res Balanced Headphone Amplifier ($399)
- Best Sounding Portable: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC/Amp ($329)
- Best Value Portable: THX Onyx Portable DAC Headphone Amplifier ($199)
- Best Value Battery-Powered Amp: iFi Audio hip-dac2 Portable USB DAC/Headphone Amp ($189)
- Best Value Standalone (Analog) Amp: IFi ZEN CAN Desktop Headphone Amp ($199)
- Best Value Balanced Portable: SHANLING UA2 Portable USB DAC Headphone Amp ($85)
- Best Value Ultra-Portable: Hidizs S3 PRO Ultra Portable Hi-Res DAC ($69)
Want to know more about Audiophile headphones? Check out our buyers guide!
1. Best Value Desktop Combo: Ifi Audio Zen Dac V2 DAC/Amp ($189)
While we loved the sound and power of the original ZEN DAC, the sonic upgrades in the Zen DAC V2 are well worth the additional $30 bucks. iFi did a great job adding more sophistication to the sound while still keeping the price low. Also, if you’re an MQA fan, the full MQA decoder will give you the best sound the format has to offer. (Full Review)
2. Best Desktop Combo Upgrade: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M DAC/Amp ($499)
For $500, it’s hard to beat the combination of sound quality and features offered by the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M. The 200M’s DAC supports up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM, both DSD and MQA hi-res files, plus has built-in aptX Bluetooth. Additionally, there are a ton of connections, including balanced XLR outputs and a powerful Class A/B headphone amp that will drive just about any headphones out there. (Full Review)
3. Best Standalone (Analog) Upgrade Option: S.M.S.L HO200 Hi-Res Balanced Headphone Amplifier ($399)
If you’re looking for a powerful, yet affordable balanced headphone amp for your desktop, the S.M.S.L HO200 is one we would recommend. This stand-alone headphone amp is fully balanced with an XLR input/output, a 4.4mm jack, a pre-out, a 3-step gain setting, plus a smooth volume control knob. It’s also powerful enough to run any headphones on the market (think about 3 watts max from the balanced output at 32ohms). Check out the SMSL DO200 if you want a matching DAC. (Full Review)
4. Best Sounding Portable: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC/Amp ($329)
This compact USB DAC/Headphone Amp is a powerhouse! The latest addition to the acclaimed Audioquest Dragonfly line, the $299 Dragonfly Cobalt, is the best yet. It has the most power and the cleanest sound (thanks to a flagship ESS DAC Chip). It’s also the smallest and lightest they have ever made. In addition, Cobalt has a depth to its sound that we’ve never experienced in a USB DAC/Amp.
5. Best Value Portable: THX Onyx Portable DAC Headphone Amplifier ($199)
At $199, The THX Onyx may be the best value in USB DAC/Amps today. It has crazy power, a clean, transparent sound that is breathtaking, and a sleek design that makes it easy to carry around. The well-thought-out features also make it quite flexible for many different use cases. Music lovers looking for a lightweight USB Dac/Amp that can compete with Desktop models for output power and sound quality should give the THX Onyx a look. (Full Review)
6. Best Value Battery-Powered Amp: iFi Audio hip-dac2 Portable USB DAC/Headphone Amp ($189)
If you’re looking for a battery-powered portable DAC/Amp combo under $200, the iFi hip dac2 is hard to beat. It has an excellent mix of features, remarkable power, and most importantly it sounds damn good. If you have the original hip dac, I wouldn’t say there’s a wholesale change to the sound, but I believe the additional detail and transparency make it worth the upgrade. Highly Recommended! (Full Review)
7. Best Value Standalone (Analog) Amp: IFi ZEN CAN Desktop Headphone Amp ($199)
The $199 ZEN Can is an analog Headphone Amp that’s marketed as an upgrade to the headphone amp stage in the previously mentioned ZEN DAC 2, or as a headphone amp companion to iFi’s ZEN Blue wireless DAC. The ZEN CAN has a Balanced, dual-mono circuit capable of driving tough headphone loads. Designed with the input of hi-fi legend John Curl, it pulls some critical elements from iFi’s flagship device, the Pro iCAN headphone amp, which retails for about $1799. Power is rated at a hefty 1600mW into 32 Ohms. Along with that, it also has four-step adjustable gain, plus iFi’s excellent 3D and XBass audio enhancements.
8. Best Value Balanced Portable: SHANLING UA2 Portable USB DAC Headphone Amp ($85)
We really dig the Shanling UA2. We love the compact metal casing, the detachable cable, and the balanced output option. Both the balanced and single-ended outputs can drive a wide variety of headphones, and the detachable cable makes it easy to use with an iPhone. The sound is also excellent, especially on the Balanced side with its excellent separation and tonal balance. If you don’t care about MQA and like running your headphones balanced, the Shanling Audio UA2 is a top-flight DAC Amp Combo available for a song.
9. Best Value Ultra-Portable: Hidizs S3 PRO Ultra Portable Hi-Res DAC ($69)
While the Hidizs S3 Pro isn’t the most potent dongle, you get decent output and a smooth, refined sound for the price. I also like the lightweight form factor and MQA/DSD decoding options. For $69, to me, this dongle is a no-brainer unless you need a little more power. In that case, you can look at the Shanling UA 1 Pro, which has a little more juice, but no MQA. This is an excellent way to transform your smartphone or laptop into a high-resolution music player for very little cash! (Full Review)
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.