When we first started making this list over 9 years ago, there weren’t that many good quality headphone-specific amps available. But today, we have a great many high quality products to choose from, and the DACs have greatly improved as well. This has actually made it more difficult to choose “the best.” In fact, among most of the higher- end products, your choice is really about features and “sounding different” (and the flavor YOU prefer) rather than “sounding better.” Of course, some of these amps appear to have better synergy with certain headphones than others.
Here's a variety of Headphone amp suggestions from our resident audiofools– keep in mind they have their own biases. Some units are amps only; others combine both DAC and amp. Prices in USD, and may not be accurate. This is not meant to be the Holy Grail of information; just to help point the buyer in the right direction, and this is not a complete list of all the models available – only the ones we’ve had direct experience with.
NOTE: If you have an LCD-4 (and to some degree the LCD 5), then you need a more powerful amplifier than “The Usual Suspects.” Take a look at the Burson Soloist GT (10 watts/channel!) or Conductor 3x GT, Benchmark HPA4, Headamp GS-X MkII, Bryston BHA-1, Chord HUGO 2 or Hugo TT2, Linear Tube Audio,
Pathos Acoustics Inpol Ear, Nimbus, HoloAudio Azure/Bliss, etc.
In Alphabetical order:
Benchmark HPA4 (amp only) - This Balanced amp will drive the LCD4 & LCD5. It’s an amazing line-level preamp as well. And we love it has a balance control! $2,995. Incredibly low self-noise!
Boulder 812 - DAC, amp, and preamp. So good, and looks very cool.
Bryston BHA-1 - Choose this if you need a balanced output amp - $2,295. This is also
one of the few amps with a balance control (like Luxman, Pathos, & SPL) – more
necessary than you might think as everyone’s left and right ears are different. And this
is a powerful amp for the LCD-4 & 5.
Burson Conductor 3x GT DAC - Balanced headphone amp and line level preamp and streamer. This a DAC/preamp/headphone amp in one box, about $2,700. And if you have hard-to drive headphones, this amp is a great solution. They also have an amp- only version of this which we often use with the HoloAudio May DAC for our show demos.
Chord Hugo 2 & Hugo TT2 - Excellent. Different DAC sound than others due to their own FPGA implementation. $2,600 and up. The Chord Mojo2 is great, too. If you have the financial resources, then add their M-Scaler. If you have an LCD4/5 and need a portable amp/DAC, then the Hugo 2 is your best choice. And you should try the LCDi4 with it.
Cyrus Audio Cyrus ONE HD - a great headphone amp, DAC, and integrated amplifier
(even a phono preamp is included!). About $1200.
DCS Bartok - Another FPGA-type DAC with an optional headphone amp. Great product, great sound. And the new LINA system, of course.
Headamp GS-X mkII - Great balanced amp for driving the LCD-4 & 5.
IFI - They make a number of headphone amps and amps/DACs, from portable units at $299 to the Micro iDSD at $600+ that has LINUX support and MQA.
Lehmann Audio Linear - One of the original headphone amps, $1100. And we need to thank Norbert Lehmann for creating the “premium headphone amp” product category so many years ago!
Linear Tube Audio - Amp only. Can’t go wrong – plenty of power for everything, and the Z10E does Electrostatics (580volt) as well.
MalValve (Germany) Headamp 3 - This has both 580v electrostatic and regular headphone outputs. Like the LTA, but smaller and has more options – like having adjustable higher bias voltage!
Matrix Element M - And check out their PC USB interface, the Element H. Or they have a great DAC – the X-Sabre 3.
Mjolnir Carbon electrostatic headphone amp - One of our favorites, but expensive and hard to get. The LTA Z10e and the Malvalve are easier to find and get support.
Mytek Brooklyn & Manhattan II - Also does MQA.
Nagra Tube DAC - Frighteningly good. It you have too much money, you seriously need to demo this product. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Nimbus US5 Pro - from the makers of Violectric. Is also a great preamp! About $6k.
Pathos Aurium - Hybrid tube and solid state (MOSFET), more analytical sounding than the WOO, has great features like gain & balance controls and balanced in/out. $1400. Amp only, no DAC. Maybe partner this with the Matrix X-Sabre DAC or the Chord Qutest?
Pathos InPol Ear - balanced amp to drive anything, but also functions as line level preamp and DAC with streaming. Uncheap at $4500+.
Prism Sound Callia DAC/amp - Linux support! About $1800.
Questyle CMA 400i & 1200 - have a balanced mode. But check out the M15 at only $249 if you need something small.
Schiit Mjolnir - If you can pronounce the name, then this is a very good balanced amp. $849 direct from them.
Simaudio MOON 430HA - Many features, will drive the LCD4/5 in balanced mode. $4,500.
SPL Phonitor X - has great feature - spatial controls! Plus, 3 inputs, and balanced in/out. $2k+, and can be used as a line stage preamp. I’d use this with the Audeze XC or X for studio mixing. And check out the Phonitor E in balanced mode. Violectric DHA V590 Pro and DHA V226 (DAC & amp).
WOO Audio WA6-SE - great tube sound if you want to be in SET heaven, not very expensive.
Zaehl amp - expensive, but great.
Here's a variety of headphone amp suggestions for the professional market (some are amps only, some are combos with DACs, in no particular order):
Lynx Hilo and Aurora(n) – excellent converters with equally excellent headphone sections. They're located near us and are nice people, too.
SPL Phonitor 2 – three inputs, and balanced in/out. Can be used as a line stage preamp.
RME ADI-2 PRO – a great 2-channel ADC and DAC, with analog inputs and some flexible DSP options.
Mytek Brooklyn and Manhattan series – great products, and they also do MQA.
Little Labs Monotor– made especially for pros, with various channel assignment possibilities for checking phase, etc.
Benchmark HPA2 and HPA4 – a great group of products for different use cases.
Rupert Neve RNHP – purpose-made for the pro world, with flexible routing and lots of headroom.
Anything from Chord Electronics in the UK – their products are stellar and we often partner with them at trade shows.
Weiss DAC502 – Loaded with features and will soon have Audeze's LCD target curves from Roon and Reveal built-in to the firmware.
Linear Tube Audio MZ3 (or anything from their line) – Extremely accurate OTL tube amps that are hyper-detailed without being analytical.
Portable battery powered headphone amp+DACs
Chord Mojo2 and Hugo2
Sony PHA-3 - Excellent (ESS Sabre 9018 DAC), AND balanced outputs! $995
Periodic Audio Nickel - Amp only. Great solution for cellphone users. $299
Questyle M15 - only $250
IFI - they have some new versions coming this year, so watch for them.
The new “under $1,000” list:
Chord Mojo 1 or 2
Burson Audio Funk (amp only)
IFI Micro iDSD Signature or xDSD Gryphon
Periodic Audio Silicon and Selenium models (amp/DAC)
Questyle M15 (but not for low sensitivity headphones)
Schiit Mjolnir (amp only)
You may also want to check out the models by Topping and SMSL (although we haven't
heard them yet).
Other special use case suggestions:
- If you need Linux OS support, get the Prism Sound Callia
- If you have a Windows desktop computer (with PCI card slots), then consider the Matrix Digi X-Hi USB PCDIe card for much, much better sound from your Windows machine than the built-in USB ports. Or their Element-H USB interface.
- If you want an integrated amp, look at the Cyrus ONE HD is a great integrated 100 watt amp, with phono preamp & DAC, and a very good sound headphone amp for a very reasonable price. And the big Luxman integrateds have good headphone amps.
- If you’re a turntable/vinyl person, then check out the ClearAudio Active turntable – it has a headphone amp built-in that works great with the LCD-1, but not enough power for our larger models.
- If you’re a Producer or Mastering Engineer and need a headphone amp that will bypass the volume control so you can use your Grace M905/908 or CraneSong Avocet to control everything, then consider the SPL Phonitor 2 or Phonitor X, or better yet, the Weiss DAC502 - which has all our Reveal+ target curves built-in!
- If you need a Balance control (something I’m personally fond of), look at the Pathos Aurium, Bryston BHA-1, Benchmark HPA4, and Luxman P750U.
- If you need the smallest, best-sounding battery-powered portable amp – the Periodic Audio Nickel.
- If you have our CRBN electrostatic headphone. Then look at the Mjolnir Carbon, LTA Z10e, Headamp Blue Hawaii, MalValve Headamp 3 (does both E- stats and dynamic headphones), or Stax SRM 700S or SRM T8000. More information in our Electrostatic amp suggestions article.
If you're curious about an amp not listed here, you can see this article for info on power recommendations, etc.
For more info, impressions and opinions, we'd recommend publications like Stereophile, or an online forum such as Head-Fi.org, etc.