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The Best Headphone Amp For The Money

by Stuart Charles Black
The best headphone amp for the money

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Updates:

  • 12/21/18.
  • 2/1/21. Article/link cleanup.
  • 2/6/21. Article overhaul. Removed HA-2 as it’s been discontinued. Still a great product, and certainly one of my all-time favorites, but very expensive nowadays being that new ones aren’t manufactured anymore.

2,323-word post, approx. 5 min. read


Hi friend and Welcome aboard!!

Before we go over the best headphone amp for the money, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

The best headphone amp for the money

The best headphone amp for the money

What I will bring you in this article


Table of Contents

Click any of these to navigate the page!


Desktop Amp/DACS
Standalone DAC Recommendation
The 1/8th Rule
Hooking it Up
Final Word

With that, let’s get into a couple of tried and true Desktop solutions…


The Best for the Money


Desktop Combo Amp/DACS


#1

Creative SoundBlasterX G6

Creative SoundBlasterX G6

Gamer’s heaven.

  • Price: Check Amazon!
  • Connections: 1x line input and output jack, 1x micro USB jack, 1x 3.5mm headphone jack, 1x 3.5mm mic input.
  • DSD support: No.
  • PCM: 192 kHz / 32-Bit (Recording) 96 kHz / 32-Bit (Playback)
  • MQA support: No.
  • Power Output: Not specified, but 150 to 600 Ohms (High Gain) 16 to 149 Ohms (Low Gain) 16 to 600 Ohms (Headphone)
  • Official Review: Creative SoundBlasterX G6 Review.

Until someone shows me something more versatile than this, it’s the best thing smokin’. #2 on this list was my previous do all Amp/DAC, but the G6 has replaced it even though I still enjoy listening to both.

The G6 is incredibly valuable because it’s cheap and can do basically anything via its line/optical input and output. Add to that the Scout Mode feature, SBX, mic input, EQ feature via a downloadable app, gain feature with the ability to drive up to 600 Ohm headphones, plus a fantastic sound, and it’s easy to see why I recommend it first.

I can even plug it into my turntable! It’s an incredible product at a dirt-cheap price, and what more could you ask for than that?

Simple turntable setup with the G6.

Creative SoundBlasterX G6

Video Review & Shootout with a lot of other DACS

 


#2

FiiO’s K5 Pro

Creative SoundBlasterX G6 Amp/DAC Review

  • Price: Check Amazon! | Check Apos Audio!
  • Connections: 1x pair of RCA Analog Input & Outputs, 1x Coaxial Input, 1x Optical Input, USB Type-B jack, 15V DC power jack, 1/4″ Headphone jack.
  • DSD support: Yes.
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/768kHz.
  • MQA support: Yes.
  • Power Output: 1.5W @ 32 Ohm.
  • Official Review: FiiO K3 vs. K5 Pro Review & Comparison

The K5 Pro was my previous go-to all in one Amp/DAC solution and still has a place in my studio. It’s capable of almost as much as the G6 and does do a couple of things that the G6 doesn’t – namely DSD, MQA, and up to 32-bit/768kHz decoding.

If you’re more of a budding audiophile snob who is working on being able to hear the grass grow, the K5 Pro is just what you’re looking for.

Video Review and K3 Comparison

 


#3

iFi Zen

  • Price: Check Amazon!
  • Connections: 1x pair of RCA Analog Outputs, 1x 4.4mm balanced output, 1x USB Type-B jack, DC5V jack, 1x unbalanced 1/4″ jack, 1x 4.4mm balanced jack (headphones)
  • DSD support: Yes.
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz.
  • MQA support: Yes.
  • Power Output: 280mW @ 32 Ohm (single-ended), 380mW @ 50 Ohm (Balanced)
  • Official Review: iFi Zen Amp/DAC Review

The iFi Zen is a great way to get started in the audiophile hobby without forking over an arm and a leg. I think it set a standard for what an entry-level Amp/DAC was capable of when it came out in 2019.

It isn’t quite as versatile as our above 2 options in terms of features, but as the K5 Pro, it’s more suited to budding audiophiles rather than gamers or casual consumers. You can game with it on PC, but it doesn’t have an optical input like the others.

Still, this is a great option for someone looking to get their feet wet and see what all the hubbub is about.

Video Review!

 


#4

AudioQuest Dragonfly Red

This is simply the most portable Amp/DAC combo out there and is perhaps all you will ever need if you’re less of an audiophile and more of a casual listener. That said, it bridges the gap between the two, as both will enjoy this offering from Audioquest immensely. An outstanding Amp that’s roughly the size of your thumb? What more could you possibly ask for? It powers my HD600 with relative ease, although I wouldn’t try to power anything over 300 Ohms. This provides just enough power to drive an HD600. You can use it with your laptop or phone as well!

 


#5

Audioengine D1

FiiO Q1 vs. DragonFly Red vs. Audioengine D1

  • Price: Check Amazon!
  • Connections: 1x pair of RCA Analog Outputs, 1x Optical Input, USB Type-B jack, 3.5mm Headphone Jack.
  • DSD support: No.
  • PCM: Up to 24-bit/192kHz (optical), 24-bit/96kHz (USB)
  • MQA support: No.
  • Power Output: RCA Outputs: 2 Vrms at 0 dBFS. Headphone Outputs: 2 Vrms at 0 dBFS.
  • Official Review: Audioengine D1 Review!

Before I discovered the K5 Pro, this was the do-all Amp/DAC. For less than $200, you can power your studio monitors, use it as a headphone amp, or even hook it up to a PS4! It improves the sound of the gaming environment so well that I was simply astonished. Like I didn’t want to leave my couch astonished. Go ahead, fire up that Fallout 4, and be taken away. Connections include RCA/Analog outs, Optical input, as well as USB input.

Audioengine D1
Mugshot.
Versatility for days.

 


Under $100

FiiO E10K/K3

The Best Headphone Amp for the AKG K701 & K702

2 peas in a pod.

The K3 is just hare over $100 normally, but the E10K hovers around $75 most of the time. It’s still one of the best portable budget Amp/DAC combos. With an output impedance of less than 1.04, it will also power most headphones without issue. I would steer clear of trying to use it with 600 Ohm headphones, as well as power-hungry planar magnetics with their weird drivers. 😛 What is a headphone driver? However, these will work with cans like the HD600, and the amp is more capable than some give it credit for. I love the crisp and neutral sound these provide. Comes with coaxial out, line out, and USB. Very clean signal, lots of detail. Currently, I’m listening to an E10K and HD650 paired with the gain switch and bass boost on. It’s good! You like!

Video Comparison to the K3

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Desktop Amplifiers

#1

JDS Labs Objective 2/ATOM

Crisp, just like its sound.

  • Price: Check Amazon!
  • Connections: 1x pair of RCA Analog Input & Outputs, 1x Coaxial Input, 1x Optical Input, USB Type-B jack, 15V DC power jack, 1/4″ Headphone jack.
  • DSD support: Yes.
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/768kHz.
  • MQA support: Yes.
  • Power Output: 1.5W @ 32 Ohm.
  • Official Review: JDS Labs Atom vs. Objective 2

Designed and built by NwAvGuy (Northwest Audio Video Guy), this baby has been praised the world over, with an output impedance of 0.54 ohms. Sound-wise, it slightly edges a Magni 2 but this is when I paired it with the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100. I have yet to test it with a Modi, but I would still say the Amp provides a cleaner and more resolving sound than the Magni. Looking back, I can say without a doubt that the Magni 2 really wasn’t a great amp. It sounded brash and kind of harsh. Objective 2 is a much better product.

 

Video Comparison

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As far as Standalone DACs?

Here I will mention a DAC that I really enjoy.


Standalone DAC


Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100.

Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100

There’s a reason why they call this thing a DAC Magic. the A/D conversion is pristine, and music, as well as the gaming environment, takes on an added dimension of clarity that must be heard to believe. I used the Magic with an Objective 2 as well as a Magni 2, and the results were impressive, to say the least. Every intricate detail is heard, and even the PS4’s Dashboard music sounded interesting and was also revealing to an astonishing degree. I heard little nuances to the song that I never dreamed were there. Learn more: The Best Headphones for Gaming

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.

Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100
Hooray!

CHECK OUT THE DAC MAGIC 100 FOR YOURSELF!!

But how will you know if you even need an amp?


The 1/8th Rule

In order to figure out if a headphone amp will sound good with your headphones, use the 1/8th rule:

  1. Find out the impedance of your headphones.
  2. Divide that number by 8.

So the output impedance of your amp/DAC should not be greater than this number.

For example:

The AKG K240 Studio headphones have an impedance of 55 Ohms.

55/8 = 6.875

So any amp with an output impedance below 6.875 will suffice to drive the AKG K240’s.

Keep the 1/8th rule in mind and you won’t have any problems!!

I also go into a lot more depth in my What is Headphone Impedance? and What is Sensitivity in Headphones? articles.

If you’re interested in more of an in-depth discussion, check out: How to choose a headphone amp!


Hook it up, homie!


Laptop/PC


If you use a standalone DAC like the DAC Magic or Modi, your chain would go:

  • Computer/laptop > DAC > Amp > Headphone.
  • For the Modi to the Magni, you would simply use these RCA to RCA cables. For The DAC Magic to the Objective 2, you would need RCA to 3.5mm as mentioned above.

If you use a combo Amp/DAC, your chain would go:

  • Computer/laptop > Amp/DAC > Headphone via USB.

For Your Console

(PS4 specifically)


Not quite sure about the steps for the Xbox One, but they are likely pretty similar.

Amp/DAC Combo

(Audioengine D1 as an example)

  • The PS4/Xbox receives an optical cable in the rear. It should be noted that I used this Audioquest Cinnamon Cable which is much more expensive. Not sure if this has an effect on the sound.
  • The other end of the optical cable plugs into the back of the D1.
  • Use a USB cable from the back of the D1 into the front of the PS4 or Xbox One. I’m not familiar with the SexBox because I don’t have one, but there are USB inputs on it so don’t fret!
  • Plug your headphones in.
  • Go to Settings > Sound & Screen on your PS4.
  • Go to Audio Output Settings.
  • Click Primary Output Port
  • Change it to “Digital Out”
  • The Input format should be Linear PCM.
  • Go back to Settings > Devices > Audio Devices.
  • The Output Device should be the name of your DAC, i.e Audioengine D1.

Note: With the DAC Magic 100 I had no issues. With the D1 I ended up having to change the output device from “Audioengine D1” to “TV/Amplifier.” Your mileage may vary. Switching it to TV/Amplifier allowed the sound to come through the headphones. I’m not sure why it was being difficult, or why the sound wouldn’t come through even though the settings were right. If you have any insight into this, let me know!


Amp with Standalone DAC

(Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100 or Modi 2 Uber/Multibit)

  • The PS4/Xbox receives an optical cable in the rear.
  • The other end of the optical cable plugs into the back of the DAC Magic, Modi 2 Uber or Multibit.
  • Use a USB cable from the back of the Modi 2 Uber into the front of the PS4 or Xbox One.
  • If you’re using the Modi 2 Uber with an Objective 2, run RCA to 3.5mm from the back of the Uber into the front of the 02. If you’re using the Modi 2 Uber with a Magni 3, use these RCA to RCA cables. Two ends plug into the back of the Uber and the other ends run into the back of the Magni.
  • Your headphones plug into the front of a Magni 3 Amp via 1/4″ termination. Make sure you have a 1/4″ adapter. 99% of headphones come with one so no worries. I have like 9 laying around. Lol. If you’re using the 02, it’s a standard 3.5mm jack with no need for an adapter.
  • Use the same settings as above, only this time the name of the DAC will read “Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100.” As mentioned above, I had no issues with the sound coming through the 02 paired with the Magic with these settings.

So what’s the final word?


Final Word

Out of all these, the G6 is my current go-to. It can hook up to basically anything, has plenty of power, and sounds great. What sets it apart for me is the EQ feature with the app, Scout mode, SBX, and the mic input.

 

Second Place: FiiO K5 Pro.

 

Third: iFi Zen

 

For the money (i.e. everything you’re getting in the package, I think those 3 are the best. You can’t go wrong with any of the above listed though!


Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the best headphone amp for the money.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

Which of these are you more likely to go with? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!

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6 comments

HappyB September 18, 2018 - 7:51 pm

Great Post.
I certainly read through all of these and some of the headphone links as well.
What I was looking for was an amp / headphone combo to listen to TV in the bedroom. I often want to watch different programs from my family.
I was disappointed in the Oppo situation. Is this the same Chinese company that makes phones? I really liked the compact shape and connections. Oh well, back to the articles and see if I can find something similarly priced and compact to boot.
Any suggestions?

Reply
Stuart Charles Black September 18, 2018 - 9:01 pm

Hey Happy!

For your question, nah. Oppo Digital is separate from the Oppo that makes phones.

I would still recommend the HA2 for listening with a phone or laptop as it’s such a fantastic product, but for your situation I may go with something like an Audioengine D1. It’s really versatile with RCA/Analog, USB, and Optical capabilities. So basically it can connect to anything, a TV/Receiver, Console, BluRay Player, etc. You can use it to power speakers (Studio Monitors), use it as a Gaming rig, (PS4), or as a dedicated Headphone Amp/DAC as well through a laptop via USB.

I have used it with my PS4 and the results are very impressive. Adds a ton of clarity and dimension to the Gaming environment, with crisp sounds being heard in all directions. Would be fantastic for movies as well. What kind of headphones will you be using? Let me know if you need a recommendation for that as well. I remember you saying you had a pair of HD600’s and really enjoyed them, but do not have a pair as of now?

As for the D1, it hits all the marks: Compact, durable, affordable, versatile, and efficient. Check out my official Audioengine D1 Review and let me know if it would be a viable solution. I certainly think so.

Talk soon!

-Stu

Reply
Eduardo June 27, 2019 - 10:42 pm

In your opinion whats the better? chord mojo or o2 + magic 100?

Reply
Stuart Charles Black June 28, 2019 - 3:59 pm

Hey man! That’s a tough one. I guess it would depend on if you need something with your phone or not, and of course the price jump. I love the neutrality of the Objective 2 and DAC Magic 100, but the sound of the Mojo is a bit better. Still I’d probably go with the Objective 2 unless you absolutely need to pair something with your phone.

Keep me posted!

Reply
Thomas December 25, 2020 - 4:45 pm

Hi Stu, I wonder if you could recommend me some dac amp/Amp for my setup. I have BD Custom One Pro, Sennheiser HD 560S and recently bought HiFiman Ananda (after seeing your best gaming phones list). I’m using an integrated Amp Rotel RA 12 but I found out it isn’t great for my cans as it probably has around 330 Ohms of output impedance. I know the headphones are quite easy to drive but I’d love the amp to be powerful enough to use two pairs VIA splitter so my fiancee can join me in Netflix session. Would you go with a separated dac amp combo or maybe just an amp (I wonder if I can use my Rotel just as a DAC and a dedicated headphone amp to solve the impedance issue, would that make any sense?)

Reply
Stuart Charles Black December 27, 2020 - 3:56 pm

Hey man! Have you though about getting a Chord Mojo? It has 2 3.5mm jacks on the front and perfect for Netflix as it has the optical input on the back. I don’t know what your source is, but I used one with my PS4 and absolutely loved it. The Mojo provides amazing sound quality as well, and is probably my favorite DAC/Amp in terms of overall sound. The problem with the Mojo is Quality Control unfortunately. You are taking a gamble with it, as there have been reports of the battery not holding a charge, the unit dying, etc.

As far as the RA 12 into a separate amp, yeah you could do that as well.

For you I may recommend something like a Topping stack with optical and coax. That way you have options depending on what your source is. Right now I’m demoing the A50s/D50s and it has plenty of power. I also just finished trying the E30/L30, which comes in at a very affordable price, has plenty of power, and sounds extremely clear and detailed due to it’s low output impedance. It also has a remote which is perfect for your situation. I loved it for gaming and film!

Check out my full comparison to the Zen CAN stack here: Topping E30/L30 vs. iFi Zen CAN Signature 6XX

Let me know what you think of that and we can go from there!

Thanks for stopping by 🙂

-Stu

Reply

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