I’ve demoed over 25 Amps & DACs as this point, and I can tell you with certainty that the differences between them are fairly marginal. Most of my regular readers probably feel like I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but it has to be said over and over, as many times as humanly possible.
I’ve always been a frugal person and borderline obsessive researcher. I will research something until I’m blue in the face before buying it. It’s just how I’ve always rolled man.
Likewise, I want you to make the most sound decision possible before buying a piece of audio equipment. There’s no reason to over spend or under spend. You’ll want the right product for your specific need.
Fortunately, I’ve done most of the leg work for you, and will continue to do so until I die. Lol. The problem with Headphone Amplifiers is the Law of Diminishing Returns. The more you spend on a product, the lesser the improvement you receive. It’s just a fact of life.
This is why it becomes increasingly more irritating every time a new Amp from ____ (insert obscure audio company no one’s heard of) hits the market. There’s simply no reason for it. It’s excessively unnecessary.
Most Amplifiers and DACs sound great. That’s not the issue.
“The Chinaman is not the issue here dude. It’s about drawing a line in the sand.”Walter Sobchak
Okay I’m sorry. No more movie references.
The issue is over abundance and I dare you to tell me otherwise. With headphones it’s a bit more understandable. Companies improve their line, sound signatures vary quite a bit across the board, and people hear music very differently (that’s why audiophiles never f***ing stop arguing).
Here’s my reaction when somebody attacks me online:
Argument over. It works every time.
Heck, I don’t even respond to people who treat me like Dog sh**. Those people clearly have internal issues that they haven’t worked through yet. You know who I’m talking about – those little keyboard warriors banging out word vomit in their mom’s basement (in their underwear). That’s what I envision when I read some of the comments on my channel.
Lol. Thankfully that’s the exception and not the rule.
Alright enough of that. There’s some criteria we should adhere to before making a purchasing decision on a desktop amp. Let’s take a look:
Power Output. It’s important to know how much power is supplied into various Impedance loads. If you have a 300 Ohm headphone like the HD 600, you’ll want to make sure to purchase an Amp that outputs enough power into that load.
Features. We’re looking at desktop solutions today, but do you need some extra features with your purchase? Definitely something to keep in mind.
Versatility. Many of these Amps and DACs have the ability to be used in more than one scenario. The E10K/K3 is a great example and we’ll discuss in in a bit. Are you looking for something bare bones or more flexible? This will help in deciding what you ultimately go with.
Sound. If you’re looking for the best, you’re in the right place! It is important to make sure you’re getting a whole lot for your money, so we’ll discuss some entry level options and gradually move into a couple of great Hi-Fi options that I’ve personally had a lot of experience with.
With that, we’ll go over 7 of the best desktop amps (as well as some Tube options), and I’ll give a recommendation at the end.
First up on the docket is the fantastic FiiO K3, which also happens to be great paired with Koffee. Coffee. Sorry.
K3 + Morning Coffee = Bliss.
This little beast is a marked improvement and upgrade from the wonderful but now somewhat dated E10K Olympus 2.
It’s still got bass boost and gain, but they’re on the front now and more convenient to adjust. The unit keeps the coax and line out on the back, but now we’ve also got a USB audio 1.0 and 2.0 switch (1.0 is driver-less).
Lastly, the K3 comes equipped with fire exits on either end of the lobby. I know I said no more movie references, but I couldn’t help myself.
No the K3 comes equipped with a balanced 2.5mm jack as well as your standard 3.5mil. The volume knob still doubles as the on switch (turn it to power on and it clicks), but now lights up in 3 different colors according to source file.
Blue = 44.1kHz
Yellow = Anything above that
Green = DSD
Speaking of, the monster also supports DSD and most people know how I feel about it at this point. Cambridge Audio wrote a great article:
There are some important details worth knowing when making a comparison between DSD and a FLAC file, for example. The first is that DSD is not magically better than its rivals. A ‘standard’ DSD file- often referred to as DSD64 is roughly equivalent to a sample rate of 24/88.2kHz. ‘Double DSD’ or DSD128 samples that single bit of information 5.6 million times a second to give you a signal equivalent to 24/176.2kHz. Again, this is a sample rate that can be reproduced by formats that are not DSD. Higher rates exist but they are very, very rare. If anyone says that DSD is ‘better’ than other formats, the numbers don’t necessarily support that. Cambridge Audio
The sound of the K3 is fantastic, sporting a clean, neutral response that’s going to work well for most headphones. Do be aware that the power output is a bit less unbalanced this time around, but if you’re running a balanced headphone you’ll get some extra.
The K3 is great, but let’s take a look at something with more power..
iFi Zen DAC/Amp
I absolutely love this thing. It’s packed with features and options, sounds great, has plenty of power for most headphones, and it’s build quality will make your jaw drop.
It’s iFi’s Zen Amp/DAC, and it’s phenomenal. You can hook it up to separate studio monitors/speakers via it’s RCA outputs or 4.4mm balanced out, it’s got a power match (gain switch) and bass boost, you can used balanced headphones via it’s 4.4mm input on the front, and it supports a plethora of different formats including PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD64/128/256, and Tidal MQA, supporting Master quality files with simple firmware update.
All of this for around $130? Just shut up and take my money.
Another fantastic option at this price point? Gotta be the JDS Labs Atom.
The Atom is extremely versatile and makes a perfect desktop solution at this price point or any other.
It’s got 2 pairs of RCA jacks (1x Output and 1x Input), which can be used to send the audio signal to a pair of studio monitors. What are Studio Monitors? It’s got a pair of RCA inputs, which can receive the signal from any DAC, and it also has a 3.5mm input for any DAC that has line out. A great pair would be the K3 + Atom!
The coolest ting about this set up is that you could purchase a K3 to start out, and then upgrade to the Atom later if you end up needing more power. It’s just a logical progression since the Atom needs a separate DAC to function anyway. What is a USB DAC?
Lastly, we’ve got a gain button just in case you needed more power.
I particularly loved the sound of the Atom running a Sennheiser HD 600 and 6XX. You’re getting plenty of juice for around $100, and the signal is cleaner than Windex homie!
This driver-less, multi-function, small footprint Amp/DAC has a nice warm tilt to it, and works phenomenally well with headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600, 650, as well as many others (anything really).
It’s got a pair of RCA Outputs, an optical input for console Gaming and whatever else, as well as a USB jack for your desktop listening/PC Gaming. An affordable jack of all trades!
Literally just plug it in and it’s ready. No drivers to worry about.
I used it with my PS4 as well and it sounded sublime. The ambient music that plays in the background when your at the menu screen suddenly became 100x more interesting. I sat there and listened to it’s intracies for a good few minutes before I even fired up a game.
Like the D1, the Black Label can output audio to studio monitors via it’s RCA Analog Outs.
Like the Atom, the Black Label functions as both an Amp and preamp, but is also a dedicated Amp/DAC as well.
WOOO!! -Ric Flair
A quick run down reveals smart power charging (confirmed working), S/PDIF in/out jack with optical adapter for console gaming (and whatever else strikes your fancy), USB-A for your laptop, a pair of RCA outs to your studio monitors, stereo receiver, etc., 3.5mm line out on the front for use with a phone (I used it with my Android), an XBass+ switch on the front with Soundstage enhancer, a power mode switch featuring Eco, Normal, and Turbo mode, a Polarity switch and a Filter featuring Bit Perfect, Minimum Phase, and Standard, an IEMatch switch for High Sensitivity or Ultra Sensitivity IEM’s and headphones, enough juice to power a small country, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Oh. my. God.
The Black Label is the stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun.
“WOOOO!” -Ric Flair
Yeah the Black Label was a head banging good time back when I demoed it. The sound is ultra pristine and clean, and it’s more powerful than explosive diarrhea.
The Chord Mojo is tied for the best sound I’ve personally heard out of an Amplifier DAC. DAC/Amp. Amp/DAC. Whatever you wanna call it.
The experience was none other than absolutely mind blowing and I truly mean that. I was using a MrSpeakers Aeon Flow and listening to Ekali and Medasin’s Forever (feat. Elohim).
It felt like the vocalist was singing directly in front of me. No lie.
As I mentioned at the start, I tend to think Amps and DACs are mostly overrated, but the Mojo was one of the only exceptions to that rule. This roughly $1300 combo of the Aeon and Mojo was sublime.
The intimacy, warmth, resolution, detail retrieval, instrument Timbre, and Soundstage were all absolutely astounding. It’s like all of the elements of great sound came together to finally form a cohesive whole. Nothing was missing from the experience.
It’s what an audiophile always hopes to achieve, and this combo certainly fulfilled that expectation and then some. Some of the reviews on amazon are spot on in their analysis of how great this sound is.
You’ve got 2x 3.5mm headphone inputs for music/movie sharing, optical input for console gaming and more, a micro USB jack for your PC, and another micro USB port for charging. The unit does run hot and can be finicky, but I think as far as pure sound quality goes it’s really hard to beat.
The NAIM is on the bottom. I have not gotten a chance to do an official review yet. Better image coming soon!
This roughly $2500 Super Mutant Behemoth is Audio Advice’s standard amp/preamp that they provide for in store demoing, and goodness me it does deliver.
I would describe the sound as very smooth, musical, and effortless. I’ve demoed many headphones on this monster, including Audeze’s LCD-4, LCD-3, LCD-X, LCD-2, LCD-XC, Sennheiser’s HD600, Philips’ SHP9500, Focal’s Elegia, Clear, Elear, and Utopia, a bunch of HIFIMAN headphones, countless Grado’s from Barbados (sike they’re based in Brooklyn), etc. etc.
Is the NAIM worth it? If you’ve got that kind of disposable income, sure, but I would mostly recommend this one for people with high end dynamic and Planar headphones that need a lot of juice, or someone that wants to output audio to an expensive pair of speakers/monitors. If that sounds like you, and you’re after another Swiss Army Knife of epic proportions, this certainly fits the bill and then some.
On the back of the NAIM, we’ve got the 115V power jack, an Asynchronous USB input for your PC (up to 24-bit/384kHz), 5x S/PDIF Inputs including 2x Toslink/Optical, 2x Coax, and 1x coaxial BNC, as well as selectable fixed or variable analogue outputs (DIN or RCA).
It also comes with a BNC to RCA Adapter in the box if need be.
What about the other Amp tied for best sound with the Mojo?
Gotta be the Bryston BHA-1.
This mammoth machine costs a pretty penny (a shade over $2K), but it was the best experience I’ve had bar none.
It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. I’ve heard the song a thousands times but the anticipation of Bonham and John Paul Jones coming in as Plant belt’s “Many times I’ve loved, many times been bitten” was so realistic and natural that it becomes hard to put into words. The tension was so palpable that I kind of started squirming around in my seat at the local Audio Advice, waiting impatiently for the drop.
In general sometimes the drop disappoints. You know what I’m talking about; you feel like it should have sounded a certain way and it just didn’t.
The Bonham + Page + John Paul Jones drop exceeded expectations and then some.
The store has since sold the unit, and I really wish it was still there. I had loads of fun with the BHA-1 running some of my old classic rock albums and various headphones like the 400i and Audeze LCD-3.
The Crack sounds sublime with headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600 & 650. It’s a DIY project, but don’t fret; Bottlehead has made it super easy to put together. Included in the kit is a clear and easy to read instruction manual, so you’ll never be in the dark trying to figure out what to do next.
Headphonesty agrees. In their extensive guide on how to build it:
The Crack is Bottlehead’s biggest selling kit and has earned a reputation as a fun and easy-to-build project. Yet it yields an amplifier whose performance punches well about its price point.
Bottlehead considers the Crack a simple circuit “Skill Level 1” kit. This makes it first-time builder friendly. It has a low parts count which keeps the price reasonable. It’s on its second revision (version 1.1) since release and can typically be completed in 5-10 hours depending on expertise and level of care.
One of the best things about a Bottlehead kit is the instruction manual. It is chock full of friendly hand-holding steps and pictures. It includes information on how to solder components for beginners and troubleshooting steps if things don’t go as planned. Coupled with the excellent community found on Bottlehead’s forums – where all questions you have will be (or already are) answered. – the support is outstanding. This takes a lot of the fear out of tackling a DIY product.Headphonesty
My boy Shawn Quint loves this thing. He swears by it in fact. We talk audio a lot and he had this to say:
The DarkVoice, as well as tubes in general, are going to give your headphones a liquidy warm, smooth, and gooey sound. If that’s your cup of tea, a tube amp like this one is a fantastic option to get your feet wet.
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.