Let’s talk Best Budget Headphone Amps.

We’ve all been there...

Headphones plugged into our phone, volume turned up to max, squinting as the sound seems to whisper to us from the other side of an ocean.

You can only yell “What?” so many times before you start to feel a fool, and the person on the other end starts to get affronted, but why isn’t the volume loud enough? It’s a phone, dammit, it’s supposed to connect you!

There are two points here. If you actually want to know why the volume isn’t loud enough, we can tell you the importance of impedance and the ohm-threshold in your headphones. Want the explanation, the flow charts, all that kind of fun?

Or would you just like the solution?

The solution’s a lot simpler than the explanation. It’s time to face facts. You need a headphone amp.

A what-now?

A simple, small device that ramps up the volume in the headphone so at last you can make out what people are saying.

Naturally, as it works on your headphones, it can also make sure you get the full bang for your musical buck without disturbing anyone around you, or make sure any audiobook you listen to is clear and cool.

And similarly, because it works on the headphones, not the sound producer, you can use a headphone amp to boost the headphone sound of any given noise-maker – watching a movie on your laptop, but need more oomph? Headphone amp to the rescue!

We’ve got five of the best headphone amps lined up for your consideration, so you don’t have to spend your weekend wandering among the ohm-thresholds and losing the will to hear anything, ever again. And relax – we’re not about to offer you platinum-plated bits of bankruptcy. We’ve kept our recommendations towards the budget end of the pricing spectrum, because hearing clearly shouldn’t be a luxury.

In a hurry? Here’s our top choice.

Best Budget Headphone Amp

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier (Black)

The FiiO E10k connects to your phone, laptop or other sound source through a micro USB, for simplicity and ease. There’s a 1/8-inch headphone jack, a 1/8-inch output and a coaxial digital output, so if need be, you can send your audio where you want.

The FiiO advertises itself as a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), and true to its word there’s a DAC chip here that can handle PCM files up to 24 bit/96kHz without breaking a sweat.

It also carries a linear audio filter which reduces delay (the hell of all audio issues), turns down the internal silence between audio tracks, and boosts the overall quality of the sound you hear coming through your headphones. To handle the low-noise floor, it comes with a low-pass filter and a bass boost, so you’re not losing out on the crispness of sound in a sonically competitive environment.

All this is a pleasingly technological solution to the high impedance levels in your headphones, and makes for a much more enjoyable, much less strained audio experience.

For portability and strength, the shell and the chassis of the FiiO E10k is made of aluminum.

So, ultimately, the FiiO delivers on lightness, portability, durability and simple but impressive technology to boost the clarity of sound coming through your headphones.

In particular, the reduction of silence between tracks can be a huge benefit in some audiobooks where the producers have been cunning and put the track break, seemingly silently, in the middle of a word.

The FiiO helps overcome the tendency towards ‘accidental’ silence at these points, and so greatly improves the smoothness of the listening experience.

There is one major issue, of course, which is that the USB needs to be plugged in to work. That can limit the usefulness of the amp when you’re on the go, rather than within plugging distance of your computer.

That could be said to be the FiiO’s big Achilles heel, especially as a headphone booster for cell phone clarity. But overall, there’s enough in the FiiO to make it our top pick for the best budget headphone amp.

Pros:

  • The aluminum shell and chassis of the makes it both robust and lightweight to use and carry
  • You can switch between low gain and high gain modes very easily
  • The sound quality, boosted by the FiiO is highly detailed but loses no one of its natural warmth

Cons:

  • You need to have it plugged in at all times for it to work, which can be a hassle while you’re on the go

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier (Black)
  • DAC Chip¡ªThe Internal DAC chip is a PCM102 and can handle PCM files up to 24-bit/96 kHz while improving audio quality via a linear filter, reduced delay and internal silence on changing tracks, and no phase shifts.
  • LOW NOISE FLOOR ¡ª The unit has an optimized low-pass filter and selectable bass boost circuit that are designed for a low noise floor in all states.
  • CONNECTION VARIETY ¡ª The variety of connections include a front-panel 1/8¡± headphone jack, a rear-panel 1/8¡± line output, and a rear-panel coaxial digital output, which allows you to send your digital audio to another destination.
  • USB CONNECTION ¡ª Connects to your laptop via its micro USB connection, which also provides it with power.
  • PORTABLE DESIGN ¡ª A sleek, brushed aluminum shell and chassis allow for durable, portable use.

AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp

AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp

The AudioQuest DragonFly is a simple USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter, remember?) preamp. You can use it with a whole range of sound sources, including phones, speakers, headphones and laptops, but you need to pair it with an appropriate adaptor. It can play all types of music files, irrespective of their resolution and has a 1.2volts output, compatible with most headphones that are commercially available.

For the real technicians among us, it also has a 32-bit ESS 9010 DAC with a minimum-phase filter. So there!

That’s about as technical as it gets, because the outcome of all this technology is that your headphones can get a major boost to their sound quality and clarity.

Naturally, the boost you get depends on the overall quality of your headphones. To paraphrase Star Trek’s Dr McCoy, the DragonFly is a budget headphone amp, not a miracle worker. But the flexibility of the DragonFly, and the seamless ability to play all sorts of audio files without a hiccup makes it feel like a plug-and-play addition to your headphone life.

Pros:

  • USB compatibility means you can use it with many devices
  • It plays all kinds of audio files effortlessly, irrespective of the resolution
  • Delivers potentially superb sound quality and clarity

Cons:

  • The improvement to the sound quality is naturally bounded by the quality of your headphones, creating a Catch-22 loop. To get more improvement, get better headphones – but if you get better headphones, you may not need the headphone amp…
AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp
  • 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre DAC
  • Offering tremendously enhanced sound, higher value, and significantly lower power consumption than the original award-winning DragonFly
  • Works with Apple and Android phones and tablets when paired with a simple adapter
  • This versatile DAC improves everything detail, transparency, immediacy, richness, tone associated with your music
  • Plays everything from MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution files

Neoteck Hi-Fi Portable Headphone Amp

Neoteck 3.5mm Headphone Amplifier Two-Stage Gain Switch, Portable HiFi Headset Amplifier, Aluminum Matte Surface

The Neoteck hi-fi headphone amplifier, like the list-leading FiiO, has a chassis of aluminum for the combination of lightness and rugged durability. More to the point, it delivers genuine stereo without the distortion that sometimes comes with it. Hiss and hum are minimized by the Neoteck headphone amp, and all you’re left with is deliciously clear sound quality. You get 8 hours of use from the Neoteck’s chargeable battery, and like the DragonFly, it plays extremely well with others, meaning it barely blinks at any of the most regularly used audio file formats, and works well with headphones, phones, computers, and laptops too.

It’s that combination of true distortion-free stereo and the compatibility with practically anything that marks the Neoteck out from the crowd. It’s such a straightforward, happy-go-lucky headphone amp that it encourages you to use it more and more.

Where you may stumble with that is that while it plays well with most anything in terms of files and devices, it doesn’t get on well with an especially wider range of headphones. That’s baffling, given everything it will do if matched with a set of headphones it does like, but it’s worth checking whether the Neoteck is compatible with your headphones before you click the ‘Buy’ button.

Pros:

  • Gets rid of humming and static from the sound through your headphones
  • 8-hour rechargeable battery gives you decent sound for a full workday
  • Lightweight, sturdy aluminum construction means it’s built to last
  • Integrates well with a large range of devices

Cons:

  • Perversely, not compatible with a wide range of headphones
Sale
Neoteck 3.5mm Headphone Amplifier Two-Stage Gain Switch, Portable HiFi Headset Amplifier, Aluminum Matte Surface
  • 【Mini HiFi Headphone Amplifier】It is Delicate, Compact, Lightweight, and Portable that it can be Carry Conveniently
  • 【3.5mm AUX Input and Output】3.5mm AUX Input and Output, SNR>120Db and THD+N 0.0003%, Make it Possibility to Output not just Louder Sound, but a Sharper and More Real Stereo Sound without Distortion
  • 【Aluminum Matte Surface】Fashion Design Provides You a Comfortable Handheld Feeling While the Aluminum Matte Surface Makes it Durable
  • 【Rechargeable Lithium Battery】It Adopts a Rechargeable Lithium Battery with 1500mAH Capacity, Which Allows it to Stay Working More than 8 Hours
  • 【Wide Compacity】It can Remarkably Compatible with a Various of Digital Devices, Such as MP3 MP4 Mobile Phone Computer (Tips: It is not recommended to use while charging, because current disturbance will occur when charging, Which may lead to noise)

ART HeadAMP4 Eight Output Stereo Headphone Amplifier

ART HeadAMP4 Eight Output Stereo Headphone Amplifier

The ART HeadAMP4 is an eight output (or four-channel) stereo headphone amp.

It has inputs and outputs at both 1/8-inch and ¼-inch, meaning you can connect it to laptops, iPods, mixers, and more, controlling the individual input/output volumes without blowing either the mind or the load of the headphone source.

That’s a bit cute, and a bit more clever, and the amp itself is detailed for style but built for functionality. Those multiple inputs and outputs, and the ability to precisely balance what you hear through the headphones as though they are connected to your personal mixing desk is a feature you don’t find among other headphone amps. Also, there’s no need to find and fiddle with adaptors to give you clean, clear, bass-boosted sound quality, which positively reeks of quiet competence in the engineering behind the amp.

Is there an issue with the ART HeadAMP4?

Mmm, possibly. The one thing it lacks is the facility to convert from mono to stereo. For upwards of 90% of users, that will be no issue at all, but just be aware – don’t go clicking the ‘Buy’ button and then acting all shocked when you can’t do a mono conversion. If you know you’re going to need to do mono conversions, then this is clearly not the headphone amp for you.

Any other flies in the ART ointment? Not really, though you may experience some static if you plug in more than one headphone. That’s not exactly a known fault, it’s just an occasional thing, suggesting it could be down to the make-up of the particular headphones and how they play with the amp.

Overall, it’s joyfully proficient in giving you boosted, clear, sound through your headphones, and that’s more than enough to earn it a place on our list.

  • Individual channel volume control
  • Eight outputs
  • Custom metal stackable case

Pros:

  • Eight outputs, each with individual channel volume control, gives a gorgeous sound balance
  • No need for adaptors to make the ART amp play well with others
  • Enhanced bass sounds without distortion or unhelpful rumble
  • Delivers a clean, clear sound profile to help you get the most out of your headphones

Cons:

  • There’s no capacity to do mono/stereo conversion with this amp
  • The potential for static if multiple headphones are plugged in is noted, but is not a consistent issue
ART HeadAMP4 Eight Output Stereo Headphone Amplifier
  • 8 output (4-channel) stereo headphone amp
  • 1/8-inch as well as 1/4-inch inputs and outputs
  • Lower noise, lower distortion and more output
  • Custom extruded stackable metal case
  • Ideal for virtually any home or project studio

Schiit SYS Volume Control and 2-Input Switch

Schiit SYS Volume Control and 2-Input Switch

The Schiit SYS is a two-input passive preamp. There’s a separate knob, by which you can determine the volume of the inputs, and you can also switch between DAC and a straightforward phono preamp.

The thing that brings the Schiit SYS to the fore is that you can use it with any line-level source, so it gives you an unexpected versatility, despite having only the two inputs.

The Schiit SYS is a highly affordable headphone amp DAC, and while it’s not the most stylish amp in our selection, there’s no denying that it does everything it promises. Two inputs mean you can switch between speakers and headphones seamlessly, and you get no leakage between the outputs either – which is not necessarily a given at this price point.

If you’re actively looking for something that might be an issue, the volume knob is small and sometimes fiddly to operate. But that’s barely an issue in an otherwise affordable, competent and surprisingly robust 2-switch headphone amp.

Pros:

  • This amp works with any line-level sound source
  • You can easily switch between using it as a DAC and a phono preamp
  • You can control the volume of your inputs
  • The sound is highly clear and transparent

Cons:

  • The volume knob can sometimes be difficult to use, as it’s small and in close proximity to other controls
Schiit SYS Volume Control and 2-Input Switch
  • It's just a 2-way switch and a volume knob. That's all.
  • Works with pretty much any line-level source.
  • It's a 2-input passive preamp that adds no distortion, and gives you complete volume control.
  • Designed and assembled in the USA from high quality components.
  • For those times when you want to switch sources without unhooking one and rehooking up another. Hook them both up to SYS and have full control over which one you're listening to and at what volume.

Buyer’s Guide

When you’re buying a budget headphone amp, you have to keep a few things squarely in mind as you narrow down your options to your final choice.

Desktop or portable?

Simply because it’s a headphone amp, its use isn’t necessarily defined – you can use it at home with your computer, on the go with your phone, or both. Knowing how you intend to usually use it will help guide your thinking on the must-have elements you need from your headphone amp, and those elements that are simply cool add-ons to have.

The questions that flow from understanding your motivation to buy include whether you need it to be portable and small, or can it be chunkier and a stay-at-home games helper? This is a rule of thumb, but you’ll usually find the more features you can let go of in one direction (portability, small size, etc), the more you can get in the other direction (sound richness, bass boost, etc).

So knowing how you intend to most often use the amp will help you buy a better amp for your particular needs.

Headphone Impedance

We blew past this early on in the piece to get you to the meat, but headphone impedance is an important issue when it comes to buying a headphone amp. Impedance is measured in ohms, and is the opposition to the flow of alternating current within a circuit.

The higher the impedance in your headphones, the more you’ll need a headphone amp. What’s more, knowing your headphone impedance level will tell you the degree of boost you need to get good results out of your headphone amp.

As a general rule, if you have in-ear headphones, you probably won’t need a headphone amp, because they’ll have smaller drivers and less voltage. If your headphones are putting out 33 ohms or more impedance, you’re going to struggle with them, and will probably benefit from a headphone amp.

Balance

With headphones and headphone amps, there’s always a balancing act – and we’re not talking about matching up the levels of individual inputs. If your headphones have a high level of impedance attached to them, ask yourself if what you need is a budget-friendly headphone amp, or whether you’d be better served by simply buying new headphones with a lower level of impedance.

This can be a fine line, and in fact, most amps will work better with a lower level of headphone impedance. That then sets up a Catch-22 loop, because if you spend the money on the lower-impedance headphones, you have to ask whether you still need the amp at all, even though it will now work more effectively than it would have done before. Weigh up your options before choosing the headphones (or headphone amp), that gives you the best performance within your lifestyle.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What’s DAC?

DAC (digital-to-analog converters) are what you need to turn digital audio information into a low-voltage signal that can then be amplified by amplifiers. They are a common feature in headphones in the 21st-century. Computers, phones, and other digital audio devices require a DAC so you can hear the sound through your headphones.

2. How complicated is using a headphone amp?

If you can use a memory stick, the chances are high you can use a headphone amp. When it comes to inputs and outputs, all you’re doing is adjusting signal volumes and strengths, almost like a graphic equalizer, to give you the best sound mix for your headphones and ear.

3. Should I get a headphone amp or just better headphones?

That depends on the headphones you’re using right now, and in particular, on their level of impedance. High impedance headphones will do you no favors, and you can get significantly improved performance for a reasonably small budget by getting a good headphone amp to attach to them.

If you’re more about performance leaps and having the performance boosted for you, it’s possible a pair of lower-impedance headphones will be the better option for you.

Last update on 2021-09-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API