- 1 FiiO A3 Portable Headphone Amplifier
- 2 Creative Sound Blaster E3 Portable USB DAC Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth and NFC
- 3 FiiO A1 Silver Portable Headphone AMP A1
- 4 Pyle-Pro PHA40 4-Channel Stereo Headphone Amplifier
- 5 Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone Amplifier
- 6 Creative Sound Blaster E5 High-Resolution USB DAC 600 ohm Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth
- 7 FiiO A5 Portable Headphone Amplifier – Titanium
- 8 FiiO E17 Alpen Portable Headphone Amplifier USB DAC
- 9 AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
- 10 FiiO E18 KUNLUN Android Phone USB DAC & AMP
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What do we need headphone amplifiers for and how to choose the best device if your budget is $100 or $200? Many people like to listen to music on their way to work, college, or even at home. Sometimes, the real pleasure in listening to music is hampered by noise from the street, cars noise or it may occur because of your headphones’ bad sound quality. In this case, even the simplest AMP can help you improve the sound quality.
It often happens that after buying expensive headphones (like Westone 4 or Sony XBA-4) quality of the sound is not as it is to be expected from the top model. There is almost no difference with full-size models (on-ear headphones such as Audez’e LCD2); it seems that the volume is good, but the sound itself is lifeless, sometimes even annoying. Such a situation usually appears when connecting headphones to your phone, sound system or built-in sound card. In search of a solution, it turns out that for making a better sound you need to get headphone amplifier. However, before purchasing a headphone AMP we must understand the purpose of headphone amplifiers and possible technical parameters.
Many on-the-road music lovers don’t even know that headphone amplifiers exist. Still, there is no person who would say that they do not like good quality of the sound, regardless of where and what they prefer to listen. So, how do headphone AMP’s work? It seems that the answer is simple: amplifiers – they amplify. Therefore, amplifiers increase the volume; you connect them to your device so you can get best quality of the sound from high-impedance headphones. This idea seems to be true and yet, there is a second side of it. Amplifiers do not only enhance the output signal power, but also save it from distortion.
What Are the Main Features of Headphone Amplifiers?
Headphone amplifiers are in most cases compact. They can be divided into two types, one of them are for in-ear headphones (these ones are the most compact and have an output voltage of 0.5-2 V) and the other ones are for on-ear headphones (these ones are way bigger and have an output voltage of 1 V).
If phones and portable players’ manufacturers in most cases tend to make a compromise between the dimensions and the operating time of the device, then in headphone amplifiers more attention is paid precisely to the quality of the sound. When developing mobile phones, much attention is paid to the minimum energy consumption of all the elements; it allows you to use a more compact battery, therefore you get smaller dimensions of the device. As a result, instead of good microcircuits or discrete elements more economical microcircuit is chosen. This, as a rule, leads to lifeless and irritating sound. With such a device, user tries to make the sound louder in order to better hear it, but this won’t help; it will even make it sound worse.
The solution for this is an external portable headphone AMP, which must be connected to the headphone output jack (or to the line output, if there is one) and the headphones are connected to a headphone AMP.
Headphone amplifiers for in-ear headphones, as a rule, are very compact, and amplifiers for on-ear headphones are bigger. In addition to higher sound quality, the portable AMP is able to extend the operating time of the player or mobile phone; it doesn’t draw a lot of power from an external device, but uses its own battery to amplify the signal.
When choosing the equipment for high-quality music reproduction, either of us faced the problem of choosing the amplifiers, since this device is the last in the chain of processing the audio signal and it depends on its technical characteristics which sound we hear through the speakers. On the one hand, for many decades engineers have almost completely formalized all the main technical parameters of these devices, which are given in the majority of advertising brochures and in technical descriptions. But let’s not forget that science does not stand still. Traditional analogue methods of signal amplification dominated in power amplifiers long enough, but modern digital technology is slightly different. If you want to get high-quality sound, you should pay attention to the products of the top segment of well-known brands. When creating these models the manufacturers take into account all the latest scientific data and apply the most advanced technological developments. Of course the price of such devices may be a bit high, but the quality of their work is worth it.
How to Choose Best Headphone AMP?
By what parameters should you choose a headphone AMP? It seems that the best solution would be to make a table that shows the maximum power for each type of headphone resistance. However, the technical data of devices in best case scenario indicates only the maximum power level on the basis of which is not always possible to calculate the maximum level of current and voltage for the other types of resistors. The only option in this situation is to rely on the indicated tolerances of resistance with which the AMP works. For example, if the lower limit is 30 Ohms, it means that headphones with 16 Ohm impedance will play sound with distortion. On the other hand, if the maximum resistance is 300 Ohms, the headphones with a resistance of 600 Ohms will not play loud enough. All other characteristics, such as the frequency range and the level of distortion are mostly for the reference.
Top 5 Best Headphone AMP Under $100 In 2018
|Best AMP Under $100||Model||Rating||Review|
|FiiO A3||4.4||Read Review|
|Sound Blaster E3||3.7||Read Review|
|FiiO A1||3.9||Read Review|
|Bravo V2||4.0||Read Review|
Top 5 Best Headphone AMP Under $200 In 2018
|Best AMP Under $200||Model||Rating||Review|
|Sound Blaster E5||3.7||Read Review|
|FiiO A5||4.4||Read Review|
|FiiO E17||4.0||Read Review|
|DragonFly Red||4.5||Read Review|
|FiiO E18||4.1||Read Review|
Without going too much into the technical details we come to the conclusion that headphone amplifiers are specialized audio equipment, and not a phone that has all at once (including a sound AMP). Accordingly, they improve the quality of the sound.
Why Should You Buy a Headphone AMP?
The need for a portable audio AMP for headphones depends entirely on the needs of a user. Someone may be satisfied with just having music on the phone, while some people don’t find this quality good enough. Thereat, you have two options: to buy a player (even low-priced device would increase the quality of sound), or purchase a headphone AMP, connect it to your phone and listen to music through it.
In choosing the best headphone AMP your first decision is determining your budget for the purchase. Despite of how much you are willing to pay for the device, it is important to understand how often you are going to use it (every day, once a week etc.) and whether it has all the necessary parameters. For a head start on choosing the right headphone AMP for your needs, check out our top picks below, sorted into two categories: headphone amplifiers under $100 and $200.
Let’s start with devices up to $100.
FiiO A3 Portable Headphone Amplifier
- Dimensions: 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches;
- Weight: 3.5 ounces;
- Batteries: 1 Lithium ion battery required.
Portable headphone AMP FiiO A3 is a compact device with a battery. The device has all-metal body with slightly sloping front and back sides; in appearance resembles a mini flask for hot drinks. This resemblance gets even bigger if you take a look at the volume knob in the center of the top panel, which is very similar to the neck with a screw cap. Design of FiiO A3 is quite modern and the quality of its production is very high. The amplifier will look great with any gadget and thanks to its light weight (96 gr) the device is very easy to carry.
The FiiO A3 package is the standard for the latest FiiO products. A flat cardboard box which is a bit smaller than a CD box; everything is designed in black, white and red colors. Inside of the box there is the AMP itself and accessories that go with it. With the headphone APM you will get: a simple cable with angled 3.5 mm jacks for connecting sound sources, a pair of rubber bands for attaching the AMP to the player, a USB charging cable and rubber feet that can be attached to the device.
Of course, ergonomics and ease-of-use are very important for any AMP, but its main task is to sound good, and this is exactly what the A3 does very well. Let’s talk about its disadvantages first. You can hear a slight noise in silence, even on the most sensitive headphones. Still, the device itself is quiet, and when the music is playing you can’t hear it, nor can it be heard on any headphones with sensitivity slightly less than the maximum. There is also a small imbalance of the channels at the initial positions of the volume control, but in the second position it disappears. Also, we must say that the problem is mainly for sensitive headphones. On the other hand, why do the sensitive headphone models need an amplifier?
Now let’s talk about the advantages. For its price, the A3 works just fine. It can be a great addition to the simple players (it works just great with the Fiio X1) and smartphones. It has enough power for most of existing headphones, including even on-ear models. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to connect it to the 300 Ohms Sennhiser or isodynamic HiFiMan models , but this is to be expected.
Bass is good for the price; it controls it well and gives it very energetically. Another thing we should mention is the function of enhancing the bass, which is constantly being improved by the FiiO engineers. It works very nice in the FiiO A3 model, amplifying the area up to 200 Hz.
The FiiO A3 has a mini-jack input and it can develop an output power up to 450 mW with a headphone impedance of 16 Ohms or 270 mW when working with 32 Ohm models. Thus, this AMP will be compatible with almost all models of headphones for portable equipment available on the market (recommended resistance is from 16 to 150 Ohms). The FiiO A3 model has a gain switch (low/high) for more accurate matching with low or high impedance headphones. In addition, this model is equipped with a special scheme for bass enhancing, performed entirely on discrete elements. With its activation, low-frequency sounds seem to be more accurate and energetic, which can be useful for some headphones or genres of music. This scheme may be disabled, if desired.
The AMP utilizes an OPA1642 as the voltage preamp and an AD8397 amp for a maximum power output. To adjust the volume, use the adjustable resistor from ALPS ELECTRIC CO. Thanks to audio-optical circuitry, this headphone AMP will provide much higher sound quality than built-in amplifiers for smartphones or tablet computers. Charging the built-in battery goes through the mini-USB connector; the battery capacity is enough for about 16 hours at an average volume.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The headphone AMP has all-metal body with compact dimensions.
The headphone AMP is lightweight portable.
Poor design of the cable used for device connection.
There is no battery level indicator.
Creative Sound Blaster E3 Portable USB DAC Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth and NFC
- Dimensions: 4.1 x 1.9 x 5.5 inches;
- Weight: 5.6 ounces;
- Batteries: 1 Lithium ion battery required (included).
Sound Blaster E3 is a multifunctional sound device. By connecting it to a personal computer or laptop, it can be used as an external sound card with a Texas Instruments PCM5122 chip and a signal-to-noise ratio of 112 decibels. At the same time it works as a Bluetooth AMP: any speakers or headphones without Bluetooth can be connected to the E3 cable and the device itself may be connected to any reproducing device. Also, the microphone Crystal Voice is built in the AMP; by connecting regular headphones without a microphone you can use the device hands-free. The Sound Blaster E3 supports a wired connection too. The impedance value for wired and wireless connection is the same (600 Ohms) and the device can amplify the signal of almost any headphones, with a low or high resistance value. A pleasant bonus is the possibility of using two sets simultaneously. Listening to music or watching a movie at the same time is much more enjoyable if everyone has separate headphones.
The On-The-Go cable that comes in the package helps connecting the Sound Blaster E3 to a smartphone or tablet with micro-USB or a lightning cable. In this case, Apple devices recognize it as they are connected to the Sound Blaster E3 amplifier via AirPlay.
It is also important to mention the ASIO technology (Audio Stream Input/Output) – a low-latency audio transmission protocol developed by Steinberg. This technology supports sound processing software in real time. But the most important thing that it has is high accuracy of the original signal reproduction.
Another advantage of the device is that you can use it via Bluetooth. All you need to do is to connect the headset to the correct input of 3.5 mm and then put the smartphone or tablet to the NFC sensor on the front panel. You can disconnect it the same way but you’ll have to switch off the Sound Blaster E3 by pressing the button. If there is no NFC on your device, you must hold the power button for a few seconds until it flashes blue. This means that the Sound Blaster E3 is ready to detect devices with Bluetooth.
We must keep it clear that the Sound Blaster E3 can make the sound very loud, so we recommend that you set the volume to 50%, especially when using low-impedance headphones.
Built-in lithium-polymer battery with a capacity of 850 mAh gets fully charged in about one hour. The discharge time depends on the usage scenario. If you connect the Sound Blaster E3 through the cable it will use the charge for the sound amplifying only; it will work up to 17 hours. If you connect it via Bluetooth, the operating time will be reduced to eight hours.
The quality of the built-in microphone Crystal Voice is very high, the sound is clean. It can be used with both mobile devices and PC’s. Truly saying, it will not work when connected via the On-The-Go cable. In other cases, the microphone will make a full headset from the regular headphones connected to the Sound Blaster E3. When answering an incoming call, the music will go pause, and when the call is completed, it will turn on again.
It must be said that the Creative Sound Blaster E3 does not belong to the hi-end category; however, it performs the amplification function perfectly. In addition to the amplification, the sound card slightly processes the outgoing tracks, adding a bit of low frequencies and slightly cropping the averages. At the same time, the sound palette remains flat, without distortion at the bottom. In any case, the sound quality does not depend on the Sound Blaster E3, but on the headphones that you use. Still, the main function of Sound Blaster E3 is to amplify the audio signal, and not to improve it.
It is also important to mention that as soon as you plug the cable into the line input of the Sound Blaster E3, Bluetooth switches off and vice versa.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Wired and wireless connection for the device.
Amplification of headphones with impedance up to 600 Ohm and 112 dB DAC.
Built-in microphone Crystal Voice.
Two 3.5 mm jacks for headphones and headset.
Poor design of the device.
FiiO A1 Silver Portable Headphone AMP A1
- Dimensions: 1.6 x 0.4 x 1.6 inches;
- Weight: 0.6 ounces;
- Batteries: Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Polymer Battery.
Another FiiO device that caught our attention is the A1 model. Models prior to the A-series had plastic cases, but here Fiio decided to return to the all-metal case so the device will have desired strength. The company has also decided to develop the idea of strengthening the bass, as this is one of the main goals of such devices. A1 model has 3 additional presets of the “improver”; we’ll talk about them below.
It must be said that the index of this model might be a bit confusing, since Fiio has already had a model with the same name (A1); it was an amplifier of class D for acoustic systems. Since it’s considered to be an outdated model, the headphone AMP got its alphanumeric characters. Of course, the main advantage of this product remains the same and it’s the low price. But will this purchase justify your expectations? Let’s check out the basic parameters of this device.
Fiio has a tradition of packing its products in a transparent plastic and A1 model is no exception. Except for the AMP itself, in the box you will find a USB charging cable, a pair of wires with 3.5 mm connectors (one is short and the second one is a bit longer), a spare clip and a plastic bezel without a clip. It should be noted that delivery set is pretty good for its price.
A1 design is very simple; it’s a compact aluminum case, the upper and lower sides are plastic. There is an audio input on one side and a micro USB-socket for charging on the other. It is also very simple to work with it: two buttons adjust the volume, next to them is the main control button with the LED in it. Long press of the button turns the device on and off, short press switches the equalizer settings. There are three settings; when one of them is turned on, the indicator starts blinking. The number of “blinks” corresponds to the number of the selected setting.
When charged, A1 can work up to 12 hours, which is not bad. Unfortunately, there is no auto power-down function, so if you forget to switch it off, the battery can discharge faster and you need to spend more than an hour charging it back again.
There is a clip on the body that allows you to attach the amplifier to something. If you break it (which is possible since it’s plastic), there is a spare in the kit. If you don’t need a clip, you can remove it. In general, the build quality is good, everything is adjusted to the size of the device and it sits well.
When it comes to the sound, it must be said that its amplification is not as big as expected. Of course, the sound of the AMP is very simple; it is not designed for high-class players. So, most likely it’s not going to work with the Sennheiser HD600. Its main goal is to fix the sound when the phone line does not work with high-resistance headphones. In those cases, A1 simply makes the sound exactly as it should be. Furthermore, even in the “neutral” version, the A1 adds a bit of bounciness to the bass and slightly smoothes the midrange.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Bass-boost modes that give nice sound.
Low price of the device.
Small easy; easy to carry.
Poor design of the device.
It doesn’t work with high-class devices.
Pyle-Pro PHA40 4-Channel Stereo Headphone Amplifier
- Dimensions: 4.3 x 2 x 5.8 inches;
- Weight: 14.1 ounces.
Pyle-Pro PHA40 headphone AMP comes in the package with four 1/4″ jacks, 12V DC jack (adapter is included), and additional 1/4″ audio input jack for connection with audio sources.
The Pyle-Pro PHA40 4-Channel Stereo Headphone Amplifier is a good purchase at any time. This product becomes more and more popular, due to its unchangeable and good quality. This headphone AMP can work perfectly if you want to split the signal from the audio interface to multiple headphones or plug your headphones into TV. The only thing you’ll have to do is to plug the cable into the input of the Pyle-Pro PHA40 4-Channel Stereo Headphone Amplifier with 3.5mm to ¼ inch adapter. Here you can adjust the volume separately for each of four outputs.
If your devices don’t have a headphone jack you may use an RCA to ¼ inch adapter to send the audio to the AMP.
Good side of this headphone AMP is its size; its compact and lightweight design allows you to carry it in your pocket and use it anywhere. The sound is nice and accurate with very low distortion at low volumes. We must say that the Pyle-Pro PHA40 can make the sound very loud, so we recommend that you set the volume to 50%. It provides a lot of power and splits it four ways.
We must say that the Pyle PRO PHA40-4 works great as a headphone splitter, so if you don’t find it satisfying you may use it not only as an AMP.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The red power LED indicates that the headphone AMP is switched on.
Stereo Headphone 1/4” TRS Output Jacks.
12V/150mA DC Power supply is included.
It doesn’t require batteries.
It doesn’t work with high-class devices.
There is no on/off switch.
Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone Amplifier
- Dimensions: 1.7 x 3.1 x 3.1 inches;
- Weight: 1 pound.
Another device that we find interesting is Bravo V2 Tube Headphone AMP – a product from high-end audio company Bravo Audio. It must be said that the company is focused on e4stablishing high-performance headphone amplifiers; its products main parameter is high quality. Device comes in the package with ShuGuang 12AU7 Tube, AC Power Adapter 110~240V/ 50~60Hz, 24V1A x1 (US/EU/UK/AU plug selectable), 6.5mm to 3.5mm Headphone Jack adapter and Power Cable.
If you take into account the price, this amplifier is very good. The sound is very energetic, but not tiring. With suitable headphones, the sound is very good. Naturally, a comparison with more expensive models allows us to identify certain shortcomings in the sound of the Bravo V2 Tube Headphone AMP, but it holds well even compared to the models in a half to two times more expensive. This amplifier is a good how one device can have everything that customers need: low price, good quality and uniqueness.
The Bravo V2 is not feature rich; therefore if you’re looking for a flexible unit maybe it would be better to choose some other model. The features that this device has are enough if you’re going to use the amplifier only for listening to music. It comes with a standard 3.5mm jack and RCA stereo inputs.
When it comes to hybrid amplifiers, the sound of it is pretty solid. It has a portion of the warmth, but they still retain some digital qualities of solid state variants. It must be said that there is no significant difference between tube and solid state construction due to the technical differences. The Bravo V2 will be good choice if you are looking for a tube-like amplifier and want to spend less than $100. Still, because of it open design and fragility of tubes you must be more careful with it than you would with any other device.
Advantages and Disadvantages
It has high-quality Shuguang 12AU7 tube.
Parallel 3.5mm and RCA stereo inputs.
It doesn’t work with high-class devices.
Now, if your budget is $200 and you are willing to spend it on some good headphone amplifiers, we suggest you take a look at the list of our picks for the best devices in this price range.
Creative Sound Blaster E5 High-Resolution USB DAC 600 ohm Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth
- Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 3 inches;
- Weight: 1.1 pounds;
- Batteries: 1 Lithium ion battery required.
High-quality sound amplification, portable analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converter, external sound card – it seems that Creative Sound Blaster E5 can satisfy every experienced user. This is a multifunctional sound device. How does it actually work and why should you buy it?
First of all, the package itself is pretty impressive. The device is packed in a black branded box with the company logo and brand and a photo of the device on the front side. The backside of the box contains a lot of information about the device, its characteristics and parameters.
Inside of it there is velvet substrate with E5 on it. Under it you will find a warranty card and brief user guide. The package includes a red-colored micro-USB cable and a Mini Toslink optical cable. There are two elastic bands that can be used as bracelets to carry the Sound Blaster E5 on your hand or to fasten your device and smartphone. Another detail of the package is a stand for putting your device on the table.
Front side of the device basically has a decorative function. At its center has a strip of black aluminum that shows the Sound Blaster logo. At the bottom it has a NFC sensor, on top of it the Crystal Voice logo. On the front side you can see the microphones: two of them are on top of it, and one on the bottom. Only two of them can work at any time. The back side of the device has the Sound Blaster logo too. The upper end is equipped with two audio outputs 3.5 mm for two pairs of headphones. In the center there is a wheel for volume adjustment (by pressing it you put the played track on pause).
At the bottom end there are: 3.5mm audio input and 3.5mm audio output. USB-interface allows you to control the Sound Blaster E5 through applications. There is also a micro-USB connector for connecting it to your PC or laptop so it can work as an external sound card. You can also use it to charge the device.
The Sound Blaster E5 has a battery with capacity of 3200 mAh. It will take about 3 hours to charge it. The device will work for about eight hours if you use it via Bluetooth. With a wired connection it will work twice longer. The battery will also allow you to recharge your smartphone, player or tablet.
Inside of the device there is a SB-Axx1 processor that works with sound processing, although this is not the main thing. The main thing is the digital-to-analog converter Cirrus Logic CS4398 that lowers noise level; supports 24-bit digital audio stream with frequency up to 192 kHz. The signal-to-noise ratio is 120 dB. However, the SB E5 has an equally useful analog-to-digital converter Cirrus Logic CS5321. It supports a 24-bit audio stream too, but the frequency is half the size 96 kHz. The signal-to-noise ratio differs a bit too (114 dB).
On the case of the device there is an amplifier mode switch that allows you to select the amplification of the sound: 5 dB when working with an impedance of 32 to 120 Ohms or 15 dB for headphones with a resistance of 120 to 600 Ohms.
The device does not experience any problems when working with popular audio formats. Once you connect the E5 and your device via micro-USB, the device asks you to install the application Sound Blaster Central, which allows you to make a connection between the smartphone and the audio device. There is also a desktop version for PC and Mac, so the Sound Blaster E5 is compatible with almost any operating system.
Creative Sound Blaster E5 seems to be a multi-tool. In addition to listening to music you can record your voice, change it, use the device to make podcasts, or at least to upgrade headphones to the highest level.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Wide switching capabilities;
Optical inputs and outputs;
Quality headphone amplification with impedance up to 600 Ohms;
Universality of use;
No platform limitations.
There are no keys for tracks switching;
There are no protective covers or plugs on the connectors.
FiiO A5 Portable Headphone Amplifier – Titanium
- Dimensions: 4.9 x 2.6 x 0.6 inches;
- Weight: 5.9 ounces;
- Batteries: 1 Lithium ion battery required.
A5 uses the high-performance combination of MUSES02 + LME49600 chips previously tested in E12A model. All the main components use high-precision resistors made of metal film. In addition to all of this, this model has an improved design and a set of first-class components that help reducing distortions to almost zero (33% less than the E12A model had) and improving the signal-to-noise ratio to 115 dB. This means that the A5 model has a gain level close to the E12 model, improved channel balance, lower noise level, and clearer sound in general.
You can connect headphones up to 300 Ohms to the FiiO A5. When connecting high-quality headphones, power is more than 150 mW, and distortion a little less than 1%. Most of us use simpler headphones, so the power may come up 800 mW (with a load resistance of 32 Ohms).
The separation of the channels shows an impressive 75 dB, and signal-to-noise ratio is exactly the same as for the desktop models ≥ 115 dB.
All the elements are packed in all-metal case with an extremely nice design. The battery is built-in; its volume is 880 mAh, which is enough for 13 hours of listening to music. There is a microUSB port and a special Bass Boost switch on the left side of the FiiO A5, which amplifies the low frequencies by +6 dB. The right side is absolutely clean.
All other elements are on the top of the device: a volume potentiometer, a gain mode switch and two 3.5 mm jacks (input and output). The regulator is partially recessed into the body, but you can turn it even if you have gloves.
The compact and ergonomic design of the FiiO A5 headphone AMP offers a wide range of possibilities for the device usage. A5 will be equally good both in traveling used with a mobile player, and at home if the owner does not have a stationary headphone amplifier. And its metal case with beveled edges will protect the amplifier from mechanical damage and will serve as an excellent shield against electrical interference.
Despite the low noise level and the output impedance which is over-zero, we find it pointless to use FiiO A5 with sensitive headphones; it was made for full-sized isodynamic models and high-impedance headphones. If we make a comparison, than this is a suburban utility vehicle which is capable of driving on extremely rocky surfaces, but if you travel most of the time around the city, then the best choice for you will be FiiO A5 model.
We must say that FiiO A5 is very good headphone amplifier, which is a real portable monster giving out excellent power and able to cope with almost any device. Of course, not everyone might find it good enough, but if you need a headphone AMP that will improve the sound the FiiO A5 will be an excellent and very inexpensive solution for the problem.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Signal to noise ratio of 115 dB.
Compact and good design.
Long battery life.
High output power.
Not convenient to carry around.
FiiO E17 Alpen Portable Headphone Amplifier USB DAC
- Dimensions: 3.8 x 2.2 x 0.6 inches;
- Weight: 4 ounces.
- Battery: 1500 mAh Internal battery.
FiiO has recently redesigned the packaging of its main products which made it look better. E17 comes in a good-quality box of white cardboard. In the box you will find a velvet cover with FiiO E17 inside of it. Two separate compartments store all the extra elements. In addition to the E17 you will get a short audio cable with two 3.5 mm jacks at the ends, SPDIF adapters for coaxial and optical cables, an extra screen cover, and USB cable for connecting the device to a computer and for charging it, a pair of rubber bands and 6 rubber feet to be attached to the device.
When it comes to design, we must say that the E17 model looks more solid, more metallic and more modern than the previous model E7. It is made of anodized black aluminum with very nice texture; it’s practical in everyday use. All buttons are on the front side. What we find as an advantage is that there is a separate power button with a ring LED indicator. There is even the button “Hold” that can be used for disabling the screen and locking the buttons.
Most of the connectors are on the top and the bottom of the device, which is also very reasonable in terms of ease of use. The device comes with a line input, headphone output, coaxial input, USB and proprietary connector.
FiiO E17 may become your favorite among the other FiiO devices because of it two-color OLED screen. It shows the current volume, selected sound source, battery charge and other service parameters. It is also convenient for setting up a variety of device options; Alpen has plenty of them. By the way, for those who like to listen to music at night, the FiiO E17 has a sleep timer.
The device has a very powerful battery at 1500 mA/h, which allows it to work autonomously for about 15 hours after 3.5 hours of charging. In practice, the fully charged E17 can work even more.
The sound in the mid-frequency range is clear; the bass is more elastic and well controlled. A nice feature of this model was the separate adjustment of high-frequency, low-frequency and gain; this isn’t made in 4 positions as on E7, but fully from -10 to +10, which allows you to achieve the desired sound at the right time.
FiiO managed to raise the bar of portable audio devices to the high level again. E17 is a unique solution, both in versatility and sound quality, and at the reasonable price.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Case material and its design.
High-quality OLED display.
Simple and convenient interface.
3.5 mm stereo headphone output: Suitable for 16-150 Ohm headphones.
Uselessness of the device in amplifier mode if a non-qualitative signal source is used.
AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
- Dimensions: 2.4 x 0.8 x 1.2 inches;
- Weight: 3.5 ounces.
AudioQuest is primarily known as a manufacturer of cables for use in audio, both expensive and cheap. This brand is also well known for its line of solutions for personal audio. One of them is headphone AMP DragonFly Red that we find worth buying.
What is the DragonFly Red? A very small, compact device the size of a typical USB flash drive (but slightly heavier). On the one hand this is a USB connector, on the other it’s an output for the headphones. On the top panel there is a logo in the shape of a dragonfly that is at the same time an indicator (it shows the incoming signal by different shades). That’s all we find on the device. Simplicity and minimalism. No controls (all the controls come from the source), no additional features like an optical output. The aim of the device is very simple: turn it on and listen to music.
It was AudioQuest who was first to popularize such a format, making two models at once, which have received different colors as their code names. First of them is DragonFly Black – the continuer of the line of “classic” models. Another one is DragonFly Red, that is an attempt to make a new device, a higher level, less relying on previous developments. In the DragonFly Red developer decided to use Saber 9016 and make the volume control digital, carried out by the AMP itself. Another good side of this device is that the power level is much higher; the output voltage is about 2.1 volts. Of course, the price got bigger too; it is about 200 dollars now. There is still a small difference in design; we’ll talk about it below.
The rest of the parameters is pretty similar to the DragonFly Black; both of them support the connection to iOS (using the adapter from Apple) and to Android, both are powered directly from the port, both have near-zero output resistance. Both models support resolutions up to 96 kHz/24 bit.
The packaging is pretty simple: it’s a flat, black cardboard box. On one side of it the characteristics of the model are listed. There is a standard plastic tray, in which the device itself is fixed and a case for it. Also, you receive a promotional code for the store HDTracks and a code for 60 days of free use of a very good but very expensive Roon app.
When it comes to design, DragonFly Red has a stylish coating that looks very nice. The quality of the device is very good, the caps are well fixed. The interface is as simple as possible, there’s nothing special to describe: we connect it to the sound source, turn on the headphones, if necessary we select the AMP in the operating system settings and enjoy it. In the instructions you’ll find a full description for connecting the device to almost all sources.
As additional options AudioQuest offers a filtering USB-powered Jitterbug and small adapters extensions Dragontail (available for PC’s and Android). By the way, this is really useful since the headphone AMP sticking out of the USB port of the laptop with careless handling may break.
When it comes to the sound, DragonFly Red gives a spectacular sound with nice touch of warmth. Compared to the DragonFly Black, the sound of DragonFly Red is more massive, the notes are more powerful and the whole melody sounds more realistic. The bass is better controlled; it is fast enough and well textured. Average frequencies show a pleasant fusion. This device can work with high-impedance headphones.
In general, the AudioQuest devices are getting better with every new device, and the DragonFly Red is one of the. It’s not that only the sound is better, but pricing policy was also revised, which makes the purchase of DragonFly devices more profitable.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Compact and good design.
32-Bit SABRE DAC.
It plays everything from MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution files.
It works with Apple and Android devices when paired to a simple adapter.
This headphone AMP does not have any disadvantages.
FiiO E18 KUNLUN Android Phone USB DAC & AMP
- Dimensions: 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.6 inches;
- Weight: 5.9 ounces.
- Battery: Built-in Rechargeable Battery.
With the growing popularity of technology for Android operating system, it’s no surprise that its manufacturers began to pay more attention to the sound quality. In many models there is support for high-definition sound reproduction, but to place in the smartphone’s case everything necessary for high-quality sound is almost impossible. Therefore, for those who want to achieve the maximum level of the sound from their smartphone on Android, FiiO made the headphone AMP model E18. The FiiO E18 works as a portable digital audio converter and a headphone amplifier.
In the delivery set there is everything you can dream about. The amplifier in the case is in the package in the center of the box. You’ll also get with it: 4 rubber bands for attaching your E18 to a smartphone of ordinary and large size, rubber feet for protecting your device, a short audio cable with two angled 3.5 mm connectors, a cable adapter for connecting S/PDIF, a pair of cables for connecting smartphones via USB OTG, a pair of cables for connecting E18 to your computer.
It should be noted that the Fiio made a case with a slightly narrower top on the elastic band, which makes it convenient for usage. As you can see, the delivery kit has everything you’ll need and even more!
In the external appearance of E18 seems to differ from E07 and E17. The new portable device is more like the E12 AMP. There is no screen and the digital volume control, the device itself became noticeably larger. The size of the E18 is almost the same as the iPhone 5, which is quite big for an amplifier. The increased size is because of a very capacious 3500 mAh battery, which helps the E18 work 25 hours. Another great feature of this headphone AMP is that it can recharge your phone, if necessary.
All control buttons are located at the ends of the device. At the top there is a volume control combined with a switch, a headphone jack, a universal output/input jack, a bass boost switch and a gain switch. On the right side there are three playback control buttons, allowing you to switch tracks without tapping the screen of your smartphone. What is particularly nice is that they work even when the E18 is connected to your laptop. At the bottom you will find two micro USB slots, a mode switch and a coaxial output jack. Instead of the screen, four small LEDs are used for indication: three of them show the battery charge level, and one serves as an on-off indicator.
To ensure compatibility with Android devices the chip Tenor Te7022a has been used as USB-controller, with a well-proven microcircuit PCM1798. The amplifier can handle up to 32 bits/192 kHz, but due to the Te7022 limitation, the E18 supports only 24-bit/96 kHz (which is more than enough for a portable device). In the case of connecting to Android, everything will be limited by the capabilities of this operating system, and the amplifier will most likely work in 16 bit/44.1 kHz mode. The amplifier is made of OPA1642 and two LMH6643, which gives approximately the same output power as the E17 model. Low output impedance of the device allows you to use it without any problem with multi-driver headphones.
Finally, we must say that we find this device very interesting: great sound technology, rich functionality, long battery life, nice design and build quality. Adding to this an affordable price we get a very interesting device.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Separate DAC & Amp functions.
It can work both with computers and mobile devices.
Supports resolutions up to 24-Bit/96 kHz.
This headphone AMP does not have any disadvantage.
Best Headphone AMP Under $100 & $200
Every time you want to improve the sound of your home system comes the question: what exactly you change or buy? Should you replace the headphones with more expensive ones or it’s time to purchase an amplifier? Does it make sense to change the source of the sound to more expensive one or better to invest the money in something else? Balanced audio path is when all the equipment shows the maximum of its capabilities. As a rule, if there is something wrong in the path, you should begin making some improvements on it. How can you know what is wrong with the path? Well, you must know two things.
First of all, the most of low-budget headphones are designed for the use without any special amplifier. This does not mean that its sound doesn’t get better with quality amplification, but this difference is not as significant as for higher category headphones. A good sign showing the need of headphones quality enhancement is the nominal impedance indicated in Ohms. Headphones with a resistance of more than 120 Ohms almost always require a separate amplifier to give out their intended sound.
Second of all, we mustn’t forget that almost any sound card or player is rather to be the sound source, than headphone amplifier. This means that there is hardly ever something wrong with the source at the initial stage. Nevertheless, after connecting even the simplest headphone AMP to it, some problem may occur with it (this happens primarily with the built-in and low-budget sound cards, as well as combined low-budget CD/DVD/Blu-Ray players). Therefore, two-in-one devices are good solution for the start. For example, Asus Xonar Essence sound card (one of the rare sound cards with an affordable headphone amplifier) is such a device, as well as external devices, like the Nu Force Icon. These combined solutions allow you to get a full-fledged sound from good headphones of a high price category. But for those who prefer Hi-End headphones must think about buying a separate headphone AMP, otherwise the headphones simply will not work at their best.
Some of you may wonder if buying expensive amplifier means that you will get better sound than with the cheap one. It is true that the more you pay, the more likely your AMP will have everything you need to make the better sound. Still, this is not always the rule. There are many factors that must be considered while buying the perfect product for yourself and the price range is not the first one on the list; possibility of taking the AMP everywhere you go (the size of the device is quite important), sensitivity of its elements (some devices might have fragile components), bass boost function etc. The amplifier you choose might have some features that you are not going to use. We suggest you to take into the consideration the fact that you might need the simplified model; for less money you will get everything that you actually need.
Another important thing you should consider when buying an AMP is matching your headphones and the amplifier. How to do that if you are not an audiophile? Well, first you have to check the impedance of your headphones. You can find this on the web site of the manufacturer or on the sheet that you get in the package when buying the AMP. If you choose the AMP listed in this article, the information is given in the text below. Then, check the recommended headphone impedance for the amplifier that you have chosen. If they match you’ll be fine. We must say that sometimes manufacturers don’t give this information. It’s not that common, but if you can’t find it you should not be worried, just follow the simple rule: if your headphones impedance is in the 16 – 300 Ohms range you won’t have any problems; most of headphone amplifiers will play nice with any of them.
Taking into account all the devices that we have mentioned above, the main question is: which one should you choose? Judging from the position of quality and sound character, this depends entirely on your need are. If you choose the device by the loudness of the amplifier, first you’ll need to evaluate the size of the device: if it’s small (less than a phone), then do not expect that this amplifier will work with the headphones of the full-sized type. Also, pay attention to its characteristics. If they indicate the voltage of the output type without taking into account the load, the maximum possible output power and the output resistance, then it is possible to calculate its parameters. If you know the sensitivity of the headphones, estimate the final volume level. The output voltage for the in-ear headphones should be within one or two Volts, for on-ear headphones must be up to five Volts.
If your choice of the headphone AMP depends on the price, than we hope you will find our list helpful in finding that perfect headphone amplifier for your needs. We understand that it is very hard to draw a conclusion which of the devices is better to choose, since all of them are in different price categories, and also each of them have unique character of the sound. If you are looking for the most inexpensive option, that will at the same time give you better quality of the sound, then it makes sense to pay attention to some of the model given in our first list. In case if your budget allows you to get a better device, then our second list shall just be right for you. Anyhow, when choosing a headphone AMP, don’t forget to compare few options so you can choose the best one. Also, when looking for best headphone AMP, we highly recommend you not to forget to make a balance between two main factors: quality and price range.
Hello, my name is Danny Brown.
I am writer and editor at HeadphonesEncyclopedia, I’ve been reviewing all kinds of electronic devices, audio and video equipment for almost a decade. My specialty is audio equipment and I have a strong passion for headphones, speakers, and home theater systems. I spend hours and hours testing and evaluating audio equipment in order to offer you unbiased reviews. Since we all have different tastes when it comes to sound, don’t take my reviews for granted. They can offer you a lot of useful info but you should definitely test (hear) the headphones/speakers before making the purchase.