I’ve demoed over 25 Amps & DACs at 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 overspend or underspend. 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 ones 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 overabundance 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 are 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 it 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 10 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 the 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 a 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 or speakers (like the Zen). 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 a line out. A great pair would be the K3 + Atom!
Do be advised that the ATOM is just an amp, so you’ll have to pair it with a DAC.
The coolest thing about this setup 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!
I’ve thought quite a lot at length about it over the last few months, and this desktop Amp/DAC from FiiO may be the only thing you would ever need in a home studio or home theater/gaming environment.
It works incredibly well as both a desktop amp and a gaming amp in my living room. The sheer amount of ways you can connect it with other components in your rig is simply astounding. Let’s take a gander:
Use it as your desktop Amp/DAC via USB. Pretty straightforward. Great for listening to music through Tidal or Spotify, as well as PC Gaming.
Use it as a console gaming Amp/DAC via Optical. Just run an optical cable from the back of your PS4’s output to the Optical in on the K5. Unlike the D1, the K5 is instantly recognized and plays sound immediately. You won’t have to fiddle with any settings inside your console dashboard. Just make sure the switch on the left is set properly (should be in the “up” position).
Hook it up to your turntable. If you have something like an Audio Technica AT LP60 (or any turntable with a built-in phono preamp), simply plug the red and white RCA’s into the inputs on the back of the K5. Now you can listen to crispy vinyl through headphones in a snap.
Use it with a separate DAC or Amp. Because it’s an Amp/DAC combo and has both RCA Ins and Outs, you can basically use it with any separate DAC that has RCA Outputs, and any Amp that has RCA inputs.
Use it with anything in your home theater via its optical in. Anything in your home theater that has a Coaxial output on the back can hook up to this. You can use it with a Receiver + CD/Bluray Player if you like to listen to CDs and watch movies that way, and you could in theory hook it up to a TV that has a Coaxial out. The possibilities are vast.
Use it as a Preamp. Because it has RCA outs, you can hook it up to separate speakers or monitors and use it that way. This could also work as a preamp between your Turntable and speakers if your turntable doesn’t already have built-in preamps. Pretty convenient!
As for its sound, it errs on the side of warmer, and much more laid back than a typical neutral-ish amp would sound. Great for kicking back with some Jazz tunes on your couch!
Like the K5, the Black Label can output audio to studio monitors via its RCA Analog Outs.
So 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 an 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, 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 demos, 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 analog outputs (DIN or RCA).
It also comes with a BNC to RCA Adapter in the box if need be.
It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. I’ve heard the song a thousands of 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.
Generally speaking, “The Drop” is one of the most important aspects to a song, as it sets the stage and gives you a general idea of how good the music is going to sound. Why? Because you’re hearing the instruments fresh for the first time, and there’s nothing quite like that first impression. It’s one of those feelings that’s really hard to put into words, but you know it when you hear it. With cheaper products, often times the drop ends up being kind of underwhelming. You know what I’m talking about; you feel like it should have sounded a certain way, but it just didn’t.
That wasn’t the case with the Bryston BHA-1, 400i, and the lossless file of “Over The Hills & Far Away.” The Bonham + Page + John Paul Jones drop exceeded expectations and then some. It sounded absolutely sublime like I had never actually heard it before. As if I was hearing the song for the first time, as the artists intended – felt on an almost spiritual level. It’s a moment I will never forget for as long as I live!
Audio Advice has since sold the unit, but 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 its 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.
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So what’s the final word?
Recommendation & Final Word
It’s a close call. My initial recommendation was the ATOM, and it’s still a fantastic choice, but I just keep going back to the K5 Pro for most people.
It’s the standout from this bunch because it can basically hook up to anything inside of your home studio or home theater listening environment and comes packaged as a combo all in one Amp + DAC. No need to freak out! 😛 It’s definitely the most versatile out of these as well, and sounds fantastic to boot!
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.