Before we get into the Best Budget Headphone Amplifier, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this article
How to determine if you need an Amp
How to determine if you need a DAC
Quick note on high end gear
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
Choosing the best budget headphone amp doesn’t have to be complicated.
There are some great options out there and before it’s all said and done you may not ever need to upgrade beyond the more affordable category.
Some of these will even power headphones up to 300 Ohms and above.
In case you were wondering, there are some criteria to consider when deciding on if you should buy an amp in the first place.
Let’s find out!
How to determine if you need an Amp
Current and Voltage
Headphones need Current and Voltage, but some need more of one or the other depending on the headphone in question.
A good analogy would be the following:
Think of current as the volume of water in a bucket.
Think of voltage as the water pressure (PSI).
Think of impedance as the size of the hose nozzle.
A high impedance headphone = Tiny nozzle. They need a lot of voltage (pressure) or power to function properly.
A low impedance headphone = Is like filling a bucket with water. It requires more flow (current) but not a lot of pressure (voltage).
We can also use something as simple as an Amp’s spec sheet.
For instance, the Schiit Magni 3 provides 430mW of power (voltage) into 300 Ohms.
The Sennheiser HD600 only requires 20mW to perform optimally.
You can see why the Magni is such a great purchase. It will effectively power 99% of headphones without question.
You can also go by an Amp’s output impedance, and use the 1/8th rule.
The closer to zero, the better. There is some debate out there on this method.
Some will say that because old school equipment/receivers have a higher output impedance but still work really well with headphones, the philosophy or methodology is thus false and the number 0 in this scenario doesn’t really matter.
For me this wasn’t true with the HD600 out of my dad’s receiver. The sound was pretty God awful and in no way ideal.
Professional grade headphones just won’t cut it because the higher output impedance from the source results in a drop in voltage to the headphone itself. This manifests in lower impedance models especially, to the extent that a source with 50 Ohms of Output Impedance can’t even power a 32 Ohm headphone! That’s not ideal.
A higher output impedance also means the power to the headphone will change and behave erratically which mirrors my experience with the HD600 out of a standard receiver.
NwAvGuy (Northwest Audio Visual Guy) who is responsible for the creation of the fantastic JDS Labs 02 Amplifier wrote a great article on this.
The calculation for this method is fairly straightforward:
Take the Impedance of the Headphone. In this case we’ll use the HD600, which is 300 Ohms.
Divide 300/8 to get 37.5.
Next, check the output impedance of the amp. We’ll use the Schiit Magni 3, which is less than 0.3 Ohms.
To ensure that the amp in question will work, make sure that the output impedance never exceeds the Headphone Impedance. In our case it doesn’t. 0.3 Ohms is astronomically less than 37.5. We’ve got a winner!
Your PC’s internal DAC (Soundcard) doesn’t produce a sound that’s loud enough.
The second was my major issue with my Lenovo T510. Even plugging in a headphone with high sensitivity gave me issues in the volume level not sufficing. What is Sensitivity in Headphones?
Back in 2014, my remedy was to buy an audio interface and hook it up to some Studio Monitors. The interface also acts as an Amp/DAC for your headphones, and results in a much better sound than the one out of your standard PC or laptop.
Even despite the fact that the Scarlett 2i2’s output impedance is about 10, it still works pretty well with lower impedance headphones. I did notice a difference in comparing the sound quality out of it vs. an amp proper like the Schiit Magni.
That said, I bought the Interface at that time specifically to plug in a condenser microphone and also to power my studio monitors. What are Studio Monitors?
The added benefit of plugging in headphones was simply the cherry on top.
Fortunately, most machines and phones nowadays have pretty good internal Soundcards, so you may not even need a DAC.
The good news is that adding one of these will only benefit you in the long run, especially if you decide to add more headphones and/or upgrade in the future.
The best way to find out is just to buy a set of headphones and evaluate the sound. If you’re not satisfied, an Amp/DAC combo is the best solution.
That segways perfectly into the best budget headphone amplifiers that we’ll discuss today. I’ll outline Amp/DACs in the below $100 category and from $100-200. Anything more than that in my opinion is probably not budget anymore.
Let’s take a look!
Audioquest Dragonfly Black. If you have an extra $100 lying around, go with the Dragonfly Red. But if you can’t afford it at the moment, the Black version is the next best thing. This baby is extremely portable (being that it resembles a standard flash drive), and will power a lot headphones. Just don’t buy this and expect it to power much over 100 Ohms. For that you’ll want the Red version. More on that in a bit. 🙂
JDS LabscMoyBB V2.03. An underrated gem, this Amp disguised as Altoids mints packs a mean punch, with an output impedance of 0.6 Ohms, and a crisp, neutral response. Pick one up at the JDS Labs website! Make sure to get the standard 2x9V, as it will power headphones 150 Ohms and up.
Schiit Fulla 2 (or Fulla Schiit). Hehe. This bad boy is an Amp/DAC combo as well and can power an HD600, but just barely. It provides 40mW of power into 300 Ohm, 230mW into 50 Ohms, 360mW into 32 Ohms, and 550mW into 16 Ohms. It also has an output impedance of 0.5, so you’re pretty much golden with this beast! It’s a combo Amp + DAC, and you can use it as an Amp, a preamp, or a DAC. You can also use it with phones, tablets, or computers with low powered USB ports. Connect powered monitors or speakers using the variable outputs on the back. Connect to an external preamp or processor with the fixed 2V line outs on the back, or use the variable outputs.
FiiO E10K. If you don’t have much to spend but want the most bang for your buck, the E10K is the way to go. It can power a good chunk of headphones without issue, and will improve sound quality tremendously from your crappy Soundcard’s output. It has a great build, clean sound, and provides up to 200mW of power for your headphone. For clarity’s sake, the 300 Ohm HD600 needs 20mW.
A Step Up
Audioquest Dragonfly Red. I would buy this instantly without hesitation if I had $200 lying around. It’s going to provide enough power for the majority of headphones, and sounds fantastic with my HD600 (I was fortunate enough to demo the red version on a few occasions). In fact if you’re starting out this will be all you need for a while, until you get the upgrade-itis itch which is pretty much inevitable. 😛 Learn more:Audioquest Dragonfly Red Review!
Schiit Magni 3. I still have the 2, but the Magni 3 provides even more power to your headphones, which is crazy considering the power output was already quite ridiculous. The go to desktop solution in this price range for sure. Learn more:Schiit Magni 2 Review!
Audioengine D1. This is a versatile Amp that has USB input as well as optical and RCA. This means you can use the D1 to hook up to studio monitors, TV, DVD/BlueRay player, CD Player, or even a gaming console via optical. A true jack of all trades!
Cambridge Audio DAC Magic. Another fantastic option similar to the Audioengine D1 is the DAC Magic. Also extremely versatile, this baby has RCA inputs, a Toslink/Optical input for use with Consoles/Receivers, two S/PDIF inputs, and a USB input. I mean it will even brew you a cup of coffee if you ask nicely! Lol. Not only that, but the sound quality is unbelievable, especially if you’re coming from an iMac or something similar.
Anything more than these 7 options and you’re going to get overwhelmed. The important thing to remember about Amp/DAC solutions is not to get carried away in choosing one. They all get the job done. They all sound great. The differences between them are subtle and almost marginal, negligible, etc. etc. (insert term here).
Yes, higher end Amp/DACs will sound better especially with more expensive headphones. But if you’re just starting out, these should be on your radar.
Some higher end stuff I’ve had experience with:
Audeze Deckard. A fantastic Amp that’s a step up from the $100-200 range we discussed today.
Bryston BHA-1. The best I’ve personally ever heard. This thing brings music to life on a level that you wouldn’t believe. Source file is important, but these will render tracks with un-real clarity to the point of discomfort. The “You’re squirming in your seat” kind of discomfort.
NAIM DAC V-1. Another gem, very clean signal, but also very expensive like anything Mr. Dink puts his hands on.
Oppo HA-2. Perhaps the best all in one solution at any price point. Learn more: Oppo HA-2 Review!
If I had to choose one, I would go with the Audioquest Dragonfly Red to start. It’s an easy recommendation and a great solution, and will have you smiling from ear to ear. Interested in learning more about it?
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.