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8/16/19. Fixed typo for DAC Magic 100 to RCA Outs, not Ins.
3,356 word post, approx 7-8 min read.
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
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
Why Should You Trust Me?
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!!
Why Should You Trust Me?
Because I know what I’m talking about. I haz an education!
Lol. I’m being funny but I’m also serious.
I don’t have fancy credentials like some people (and I don’t think that automatically means you’re legit by the way), but like Craig Boyles said about me on his website Mage Audio,
“Stu knows headphones. He’s reviewed over 70 of them on his website.”
I’ve been a headphone enthusiast for as long as I can remember, ever since I had a pair (or 8) of Sony MDR V150’s. I’ve loved music and everything about it for equally as long. I’ve been making and producing music for over 10 years, and have learned a lot about EQ and sound a long the way. I’ve sold beats, I’ve given them away, I’ve collaborated with a lot of people, and I’ve had a lot of fun.
I’ve had plenty of experience with high end amps, entry level ones, and anything in between. I don’t claim to know everything, but do I know what sounds good and what doesn’t. I know what’s worth your money and what can be glossed over and discarded.
Check out my Resources Page for more helpful information!!
The Main Reason
The biggest reason to trust me is that I’m just like you! I do an exhaustive amount of research before I purchase anything, and don’t stop searching just because I own a product. I keep up with trends, reviews, blogs, and stay immersed in this niche because I’m truly passionate about it and care a great deal about it as well.
My Goal is to Help You
In addition that, I receive emails, comments, and testimonials fairly frequently from people thanking me profusely for what I do here, and for making such great recommendations specific to their need. It’s refreshing to be able to connect with people from all over the world and help them make the best decisions possible with regards to studio equipment and anything music production related! I truly love and enjoy conversing with you all, because I’m passionate about this stuff!
Lastly, I’m truly a genuine person and have fostered relationships with a lot of the people that frequent my blog and YouTube channel. In other words, I’m not a faceless corporation or even a faceless blog. I respond to all emails and comments, and value true interaction with people. Peruse my YouTube channel, Instagram feed, Facebook page, Soundcloud page, or any comment thread on my blog and you’ll quickly come to realize that I’m truly here to help in any way I can.
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Bachelor of Fine Arts, Graphic Design – Western Carolina University (2010 – 2013), 3.2 GPA
Best in Class for Painting – Western Carolina University – Spring 2012. See the painting here on my other site!
If you have any other questions, let me know!
With that let’s get into the meat of this thing!
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 Video 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 and higher impedance headphones. I did notice a difference in comparing the sound quality out of it vs. an amp proper like the Schiit Magni or an Objective 2. The sound coming out of a dedicated amp with a headphone like the HD600 is just tighter and more focused.
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 DACs, 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 $100-300. Anything more than that in my opinion is probably not budget anymore.
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. What is a Soundcard? It has a great build, clean character, and provides up to 200mW of total power. Yeah homie, this beast is ready and willing. It comes with coaxial out, line out, and USB input. It also has a gain switch and bass boost for your music enhancement pleasures. Is this the best value for under $100? I would say most certainly. It’s an incredibly easy purchase and will instantly improve the sound of all of your headphones – even the ones that don’t necessarily need amplification.
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. 🙂
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.
My Video Review
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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! What is Output Impedance? It’s a combo Amp + DAC, and you can use it as an Amp, a preamp, or a standalone DAC for a different amp. 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.
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. That said, I love how portable this thing is. If you move around a lot like me, you’ll be ecstatic at the fact that you can simply put it in your pocket or laptop bag with absolutely zero hassle. You can also pair it with your phone, but you’ll need this adapter. Luckily it’s cheap and gets great reviews, so don’t fret! 😛 Learn more:Audioquest Dragonfly Red Review!
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!
Absolutely love the neutral, clean signal this provides to my headphones. It sounds crisp and alive, with startling detail and clarity. You can purchase this amp standalone and pair it with a DAC, or get the combo 02 + ODAC. Personally, I paired it with the DAC Magic (discussed below), and was blown away. You will need this RCA to 3.5mm or something similar to make the connection. I used these from Evergreen. I liked it paired with the Modi as well, but not quite as much. I would say that overall I have enjoyed the 02 the most out of the entry level amps I’ve tried.
This is a versatile Amp/DAC combo 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. I was flabbergasted at just how good the sound was vs. plugging the headphones straight into the Dualshock 4. As a headphone amp, it’s clean and crisp with a hint of warmth. I noticed this slight difference in comparison to an Objective 2 + DAC Magic. If I had to recommend an all around solution, the D1 wins out fairly easily. An Amp/DAC combo under $200 with a plethora of uses and an extremely solid build. What more could you ask for? A true jack of all trades!
Another fantastic option similar to the Audioengine D1 is the DAC Magic. Also extremely versatile, this baby has RCA outs, 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. I paired this puppy with the Objective 2 and was sent to heaven musically and in gaming sessions with Fallout 4. I didn’t want to leave the couch! If you’re used to plugging in your headphones into the controller and getting an OK sound, get ready to be blown away by this monumental experience.
Not only is it much louder, but it’s resolving to a startling degree. Even the ambient music that plays when you’re at the PS4 dashboard is intriguing. Not only that, but you can hear every intricate detail that you had no idea existed before. The environment you’re in becomes 100x as immersive than when you were using the controller jack on the cheap. It truly is something to behold. This set up (O2 + DAC Magic) with an FPS shooter would almost be like cheating in my opinion! Music provides a similar effect, with sounds heard in all directions, and a much more intimate experience overall.
Anything more than these 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 as far as a dedicated home theater type of unit. This thing brings music to life on a level that you wouldn’t believe. Source file is important, but these will render tracks with unreal 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.
Chord Mojo.This edges out my Oppo HA2 and is currently the best Amp/DAC combo I’ve heard at a ridiculously great price. In fact, this isn’t only comparable to Chord’s over $2k Hugo 2, but I may indeed prefer it due to it’s slightly warmer character. The Hugo2 provides a bit more cold and clinical detail, but at times it’s a bit much. The differences in sound quality between these two amps are smaller than many would have you believe.
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 help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His strict attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel and stand out among-st the crowd.