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8/16/19. Fixed typo for DAC Magic 100 to RCA Outs, not Ins.
11/12/20. Complete overhaul and refresh of the article.
11/21/20. Another refresh, with video and more phone options added. Re-ordered according to video.
2,808 word post, approx 7 min read.
Greetings Bass Heads, and Welcome aboard!!
Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions leading to a beautiful audio experience, that will make you fall in love with music … all over again.
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Before we get into the Best Budget Headphone Amplifier, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
I’m Here To Help!
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
Choosing the best budget headphone amp doesn’t have to be complicated.
Today we’re going to keep it simple. I’ve demoed nearly 40 Amps and DACS at the time of this update, so I can confidently tell you I have a pretty good idea of which ones in the budget category are worth it. In fact, before it’s all said and done, you may not ever need to upgrade beyond this category.
I’ve spoken at length about why in many articles and videos, so we won’t get into that much here. I’ll just say this: Amps and DACS are generally way overrated. I’m not saying they all sound the same, but the differences between them are fairly minuscule if we’re being honest about it.
What is “Budget?”
In this case, we’ll mostly be looking at Amplifiers and DACS around the $100 range, some a bit above that, and some below. I will not look at anything below $75 because to me, it’s a waste of time.
I will also not go much past $200, because the closer you get to $250 and beyond, the less budget it becomes. So today we’ll try to stay below $250.
The benchmark standard for budget that I’m about to discuss is a DAC that I still use today. Let’s take a look at the others, first
We’ll start with an option that some people may scoff at, Creative’s SoundBlasterX G6. I too was skeptical that a product mostly geared towards casual consumers and gamers could be considered one of the best options for audiophiles in the budget category, but I truly believe this to be the case.
Why is that?
BECAUSE I SAID SO!
Just kidding. It’s because the G6 is incredibly versatile and comes power-packed with near-endless possibilities at its price point.
Use the line/optical input and output to connect to pretty much anything: separate speakers, a Nintendo Switch, your PS4, Xbox, turntable, a separate amp, a separate DAC, etc.
The unit connects to your PC via micro USB, and it has plenty of onboard features: Scout Mode, SBX, and plenty of gain for the most demanding of headphones. Creative claims it can power up to 600 Ohm headphones and I believe it.
It’s a lot of power…
Too much power, for an immature species.
It also sounds fantastic. With music, gaming, and film, you’ll be truly immersed in the experience. At 1 Ohm output impedance, it’s going to strike a perfect balance between neutral and warm. You won’t want to take your headphones off anytime soon.
But wait, there’s more!
Download SoundBlaster’s Connect App and you’ve got a fully functional, easy to use EQ feature along with many other add ons.
When the iFi Zen first came out, I saw it as a new benchmark standard for what an Amp/DAC combo could achieve for the price.
I still feel that way.
This combo is priced perfectly for everything you’re getting: You can hook it up to separate speakers via it’s RCA outputs or balanced 4.4mm jack, it has a power match (gain) button and iFi’s own TrueBass, and you can run balanced 4.4mm cables with your headphones. It’s also got a standard 1/4″ jack for use with a single-ended (unbalanced) connection.
It’s also Tidal MQA compatible and can play files up to 32-bit/384kHz. It’s also DSD compatible.
Pretty incredible value for just a shade over $100.
For 95-99% of people, the Zen will be a perfect all-around solution on your desktop when you’re just starting out.
iFi has since come out with a few variations on this unit, but this is the OG. It’s a perfect starter all in one Amp/DAC combo with plenty of features and options.
Are you a budding audiophile SNOB?
No, it’s not underpowered though.
No, it’s not distorted. It’s the song and how it was recorded that gives you that perception. Trust me, I have 12 amps and dacs here and listen to the same tracks on all of them. I know what I’m talking about.
So please, close your browser tabs and listen to music for once in your life. You might not get so worked up over useless measurements that have no bearing on the reality of an actual listening experience!
If you believe this Amp is underpowered, your ears are damaged, plain and simple. I don’t need to push the dial past 1 or 2, nor would I ever want to. It’s simply much too loud.
In addition to great sound and a roughly 1 Ohm output impedance (similar to the G6), you can also output to separate speakers via its RCA Analog outs. There’s also a balanced 4.4mm output.
I would describe the sound as clear and detailed with a hint of warmth, iFi’s house signature.
What can be said about the K5 Pro that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?
This is perhaps the most versatile unit I’ve come in contact with and did replace the Audioengine D1 in this article for that very reason.
I can do basically anything with it:
Hook it up to studio monitors/speakers and use it as a preamp.
Use it as a dedicated Amp/DAC on your desktop for music or gaming.
Output it to a separate Amp via it’s RCA Analog Outs.
Hook it up to your PS4 via its optical input.
Hook it up to anything in your home theater via its Coaxial input.
Use it in conjunction with pretty much any DAC via its RCA inputs. Just make sure the DAC in question has RCA Analog Outputs.
Use it with your turntable via its RCA inputs.
Add to that it sounds fantastic and has plenty of power. What more could you possibly ask for?
Like the G6, you can use it in a plethora of different ways: output to a separate amp, use the inputs from a separate DAC, connect to a turntable, game on your console via its optical input, hook it up to studio monitors and use it as a preamp, use it with anything in a home theater that outputs coax, etc.
Add to that you’ve got plenty of power with its 3 gain stage and 1.5W total at 32 Ohm.
The sound of the K5 pro definitely leans towards warm, perhaps even warmer than both the Zen and G6.
Yep. Still relevant, even despite the barrage of Amps and DACS that have flooded the scene over the last few years.
But why are they still relevant, Stubear?
Outside of the #1 super budget option, this is basically all you need if you want to hear music as it was intended (i.e. clean and neutral, with a low output impedance).
Whether or not you go with the ATOM over the O2 really comes down to build. The ATOM is quite a bit flimsier feeling in your hand, while the Objective 2 is built like Thanos.
I personally believe that both of these Amps sound roughly the same, although there are some snobs who would disagree.
With either, you will need some sort of DAC to pair as both are standalone amplifiers only. I would recommend JDS’ own OL DAC, but a wide array will work here and I’ve used many different combinations.
Like the Zen and the K5 Pro, you can output to separate speakers with the ATOM.
The Objective 2 affords you some nifty customization as well. I’ll leave a link to both in the description.
Absolutely love the neutral, clean signal these provide to my headphones. It sounds crisp and alive, with startling detail and clarity. As of 11/12/20, JDS has discontinued the combo, but you can still purchase the O2 as a standalone unit.
I’ve paired both the ATOM and O2 with many different DACS. Let’s take a look.
DAC Magic 100 (discussed below). 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 O2 the most out of the entry-level amps I’ve tried.
E10K/K3. Great cheaper option. If you first bought the E10K and wanted to upgrade the Amp, this combo would be perfect as it sounds pristine.
DragonFly Red. At around $199, this is starting to venture out of range, but I had to mention it here because of how much I love the Red as both a DAC and a DAC/Amp. Highly versatile!
Schiit Modi. My first DAC. Not much else to say. Does the job.
My regular readers and viewers are probably sick to death of me talking about this thing, but it’s still relevant to me. Why? Because I’ve demoed close to 40 Amp/DACS and the E10K still sounds just about as good as the majority of them. That’s right, you heard me correctly: Amps and DACS are incredibly overrated. I don’t know how much more plainly I can put it.
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. So when you feel like you need to upgrade the Amp portion of your chain, you can simply use the line out feature and hook it up to an Amp like the JDS Labs Objective 2 or ATOM.
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. Keep in mind this is strictly for your desktop and runs off of bus power.
A good upgrade from this would be to simply purchase a JDS ATOM or Objective 2 and a 3.5mm interconnect cable. You can also use a 3.5mm to RCA if you want as well.
FiiO has since come out with the K3, and it does sound a bit more refined than the E10K. Get it if you run DSD or plan to use balanced cables with your headphones. Because the E10K supports 24/96, it will play master files inside Tidal, but the color won’t change. With the K3, it will. Just make sure to set Tidal to exclusive mode first to see those colors.
Outside of that, the K3 is essentially the same DAC with a more modern aesthetic.
The DF Red and Black are Amp/DAC combos that can also be used on your desktop with a separate amp if you want. Like the E10K, you’ll just use a 3.5mm interconnect or 3.5mm to RCA for the connection. With your phone, but you’ll need this adapter.
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.
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. You’ll be ecstatic at the fact that you can simply put it in your pocket or laptop bag with absolutely zero hassle.
The reason I chose the DF Red out of the rest is that its ESS Sabre DAC chip does sound better to my ears than some AKM or burr brown varieties. It’s open, cool, and crisp sounding, with slightly better Soundstage and depth.
I didn’t include this one in the video, but I should have.
If the G6 and K5 Pro are the swiss army knives for your desktop, the BTR3K is most certainly that as far as portability goes.
Not only can you use it on your desktop with the supplied USB-C cable, but it’s also a wireless Bluetooth DAC that you can use with your phone in a snap.
Most of my readers and subscribers know that I don’t really like strapping DACS to my phone while I’m on the go.
The BTR3K is the perfect compromise. I can attach it to my belt loop using the supplied clip and listen to music quite easily when I’m out and about. No wires are necessary. Just plug your headphones into the DAC and pair it with your phone. It also makes a great mate with something like the Koss KPH30i.
If you do need some extra power, the BTR5 is your homie. The 3K should only be used with lower impedance, high Sensitivity cans like the Philips SHP9500/9600, etc.
Aside from that, the 3K sports FiiO’s traditional house sound: crisp and detailed, with a hint of warmth – similar to the Zen and G6. I absolutely love it on my desk or on the go, and YOU WILL TOO.
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, all of the above should be on your radar.
If you’re interested in checking out what I’ve demoed or what I have coming up, check out my Amps & DACS page!
Some of them are:
If I had to choose only one from this list, I would most certainly invest in a FiiO K5 Pro. It sits at an unbelievably good price point for what you’re getting and will prove most valuable for years down the road. I don’t plan on getting rid of mine ever!
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, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.