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Before we get into the Best Headphone Amp Under $100, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
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What I will bring you in this article
- How to determine if you need an Amp
- How to determine if you need a DAC
- The Players
- Final Word
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
There are an abundance of headphone amps out there for under $100, but not all of them are even worth your attention.
My philosophy is that generally speaking, anything with under 4 stars on amazon is poop. I have personally never bought a product with that rating, and I don’t plan on doing it any time soon. It has worked for me, and because of that I’ve never returned a piece of gear because it broke down.
The other issue is that a lot of websites tend to list out every single option (or most) for under $100, even the bad ones. This only ends up causing a lot of confusion, and today we will try to avoid that at all costs (no pun intended).
It’s easy to get caught up in the sea of amps available, but most of the time they are completely unnecessary. In my opinion, there’s too much of an influx of gear out there that it really just ends up overwhelming folks to the point of “analysis paralysis.” This is a term used in the fitness industry a lot due to the sheer amount of “experts”, all telling you to buy their products and do their methods because “this is what works,” not that.
The same sort of thing goes on with the music production side of things, because every company that sells an amp is going to tell you what you want to hear, rather than the reality.
What is the reality?
That all products are flawed no matter how you slice it. It becomes a matter of making trade offs and sacrifices, and accepting that you’re never going to be completely 100% satisfied with anything you buy.
A prime example is the Sony MDR V6. This is my go to headphone 99% of the time, and I will likely never sell it because it’s so valuable and has an incredible price to performance ratio.
That said, there are a few things that really annoy me about it:
- It’s ear pads are infamous for breaking down, flaking, and peeling to a startling degree. Luckily the are replaceable.
- The coiled chord is annoying, and is prone to tangling pretty badly after a year or two of heavy studio use.
- It doesn’t have a replaceable cable, or an option for a straight cable without a DIY project.
Other than that, the headphone is the easiest recommendation I could ever make.
Another example is something like an Audeze LCD series headphone. Sound wise, they are some of the best on the planet. Perfect bass response, balanced/flat mid-range, and a semi dark treble that sounds heavenly and never too bright. Here’s a good graph of my favorite, the LCD-X. It’s liquid and smooth baby!
When you put them on, it feels like you’re literally wearing a size 8 bowling ball. No joke.
But what about Amps?
Amps suffer from this same sort of phenomenon, but in a different way. The problem is that there are simply too many to choose from in this category, and most will break down over time because of how cheap they are sold for.
This is why I like to recommend the high end of the price range, i.e. just a hair under $100. I personally would never buy one for like $25 unless it was for strictly testing purposes and it had at least a 4 star rating with plenty of reviews.
The FiiO E6 dances around these parameters, but I still don’t see the point in buying it when you could save some more money and get something much better.
Please keep in mind these are my personal opinions/experiences, and they’re not necessarily right or wrong. It’s just the way I prefer handling things. Like I said before, my methods haven’t failed me. I’ve been purchasing audio gear since around 2007. Not once have I returned a product using this protocol of:
- The product must be over 4 stars, and preferably at least 4.4/4.5.
- The product must be researched thoroughly from a bevy of websites and reviews.
It’s really that simple.
But how do I know if I need an Amp/DAC?
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.
On the flip side of that, consider the FiiO E6.
It only outputs 16mW into 300 Ohm, and is only good for low impedance headphones.
The Dragonfly Red outputs 2.1 Volts, and will effectively work with 99% of headphones. The Dragonfly Black outputs 1.2 Volts, and is a bit more limited but still tends to out perform an E6.
So the question is, why even bother with the E6? The answer is that you should just save some more money and go with something else.
More on that in a bit!
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 bad 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 Visual Guy) who is responsible for the creation of the fantastic JDS Labs 02 Amplifier wrote a great article on this.
Learn more: Headphone & Amp Impedance
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!
The main takeaway is to only purchase amps that have an output impedance of 2 or under. A quick google search will do wonders in determining this number on a spec sheet.
How to determine if you need a DAC
A DAC is simply a Digital to Analog Converter. Learn more: Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate.
It’s job is to convert the digital 1’s and 0’s that your computer understands into analog data that we can understand.
A good external DAC is only necessary if:
- Your PC’s internal DAC (Soundcard) sounds like poop. What is a Soundcard?
- 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. What does an audio interface do?
Even despite the fact that the Scarlett 2i2’s output impedance is about 10, it still works pretty well with lower impedance headphones. I did notice a difference in comparing the sound quality out of it vs. an amp proper like the Schiit Magni.
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 Soundcards, 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 Amps & DACS below $100 that are worth the investment.
Let’s take a look!
- Schiit Magni. I have version 2, but 3 has since come out and boy howdy does this puppy deliver. I was talking with a guy at Audio Advice and we both agreed that the performance of this amp should render it a lot more expensive than it is. As mentioned earlier, the 3 provides 430mW of power into 300 Ohms, which is reason enough to just stop everything you’re doing and purchase one. The Magni Uber version comes with and extra pair of RCA inputs, and the Modi 2 Uber has USB, Toslink/Optical, and RCA inputs meaning you can hook it up to a receiver and blast your favorite tunes. You can also use it for Gaming as well by hooking it up to your console or your PC if you like to game there. The Best Headphones for Gaming! It is important to note that you will need to add a DAC with this one, which does up the cost.
Combo Amp + DAC
- Audioquest Dragonfly Black. This is my #1 recommendation for under $100, as it’s portable, convenient, and roughly the size of a Tic-Tac. Well not that small, but you get he idea. It can go anywhere, much like a real Dragonfly! Learn more: Audioquest Dragonfly Red vs. Black. The reason I put this at #1 is because of the almost impeccable sound quality, portability, versatility and price to performance ratio. Also learn more about the Dragonfly Red: Audioquest Dragonfly Red Review! Use it with your phone or laptop/PC.
- JDS Labs cMoyBB V2.03. 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.
- Schiit Fulla 2. This baby can do a bunch of cool stuff. It’s a combo Amp + DAC, and you can use it as an Amp, a preamp, or a DAC. 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. t 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 as well, so it’s compatible with nearly all headphones. Is there anything it can’t do?
- FiiO E10K. Another combo Amp + DAC into one, and for roughly $75 it’s an easy recommendation being that the sound quality is comparable to both a Schiit Magni and Schiit Fulla. It’s not quite as powerful as a Schiit stack, but for the majority of situations you’ll be fine as you may not even be able to tell a difference with a headphone like the Sennheiser HD600. Learn more: Sennheiser HD600 Review!
Anything more than this and you’re bound to get overwhelmed. To be honest, buying a good amp isn’t that difficult, and any of these are going to sound really good. They all get the job done, and they all sound great. The differences between them are more subtle than you would think.
Higher end Amp/DACS will sound better, especially with more expensive headphones. But if you’re just beginning, all of these should be on your immediate radar.
If I had to choose one out of this lot, I would probably go with the Dragonfly Black. It’s extremely portable, has a fantastic sound, and can be used with your phone and laptop/PC with relative ease. Just make sure that you’ll only be using it with headphones 100 Ohm and less.
Need more juice? The Red version is unbelievable but you’ll need to save an extra $100.
For headphones that need more juice, I would go with the Schiit Fulla 2 as a portable option.
And for a desktop solution with nearly any headphone, the Magni is the way to go!
Well that’s about it for today folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the best headphone amp under $100, and came away with some valuable insight.
What do you think about these? Which are you likely to go with? Let me know!!
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Let me know in the comments below or Contact me!! I would love to hear from you..
Until then, all the best and God bless..
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