The 2020 Best Headphone Amps Under $500
Before we get to our 2020 Best Headphone Amps Under $500 list, it's important to understand what is a headphone amp and why you need one. Below is a short recap of our full article, which you can find here.
If you are in the market for a headphone amp, you likely have one of several reasons for shopping around. Perhaps your headphones need some extra power to get going. Maybe your audio gear does not have a headphone jack or has a weak headphone amp. It could be you want to use your headphones in another room. Or you might be after an improvement in the overall sound your headphones provide.
Most headphone amps will solve any of these issues and the majority of them today come with an upgraded DAC as well. Headphone jacks are an afterthought on our smartphones and most audio gear. When you under power your headphones the bass does not have the impact it could give you and the sound can just be anemic. Most good headphone amps will have 10 times the power of the standard smartphone or laptop headphone amp to give you better bass and more dynamic sound. When you couple the dedicated headphone amplifier with a good DAC you will hear a substantial improvement in sound quality. Many of these headphone amps with DAC’s also have the capability of connecting up to your audio system to improve your main speakers as well for an added bonus.
If you have high impedance headphones, you have likely found out, the headphone jack on your phone will just not play them loud enough. A portable headphone amp may be just the ticket for your system. All of our choices on this list have the ability to drive just about any pair of headphones on the market. We also picked units that can serve that great multi-purpose of a headphone amp along with improving your home audio system. Since most of us listen to headphones on the go, we leaned toward portability for most of our choices.
Audioengine D3 ($99)
When you first look at the D3, you’ll think it's just a USB memory stick, but there is a 24bit HiRes DAC on the inside just waiting to vastly improve the sound of your headphones! It has a wide range of capability making it able to drive almost all headphones with ease. The D3’s headphone amp section has a very wide frequency range with low distortion and a very low noise floor that is comparable to units costing 4-5 times its modest price. The D3 is equally amazing at driving your headphones on the go or your home audio system.
AudioQuest DragonFly Red ($199.95)
The DragonFly Red, designed by AudioQuest and Gorden Rankin, is filled with a ton of high tech. It is only slightly larger than a USB stick and connects directly to the USB port on your computer. With the right adapter cables, you can also connect it to your smartphone or tablet. The DragonFly Red has plenty of power for even the hardest to drive headphones and has 24-bit 192Khz capable DACs inside. You can also connect it to your home audio system or powered speakers. With its tiny size and great sound, many people use it both at home and on the go.
Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus ($349.99)
The DacMagic Plus is the only headphone amp on our list that is designed for home use exclusively, but we included it for its classic British sound. Your headphones will love its powerful amp or it can be used in a home audio system as a standalone DAC, or a preamp with a DAC built in.
You’ll get two digital inputs plus a USB input for computer connections. You can connect a CD player with digital out, your TV, and a computer to this great little DAC.
The audio performance of the DACMagic Plus is very impressive due to the Dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs and support circuitry from Cambridge Audio. This headphone amp DAC has a very warm, smooth sound that will make your headphones sing.
Chord Mojo ($479)
Chord Electronics,out of England makes some of the best DAC’s anywhere in the world. Their products are the choice of BBC sound engineers all over the UK. Chord developed a custom clocking system for their DAC’s that we feel gets you as close as possible to the original digital file. The Mojo may be small, but it packs in this custom circuitry, USB, coax, and Toslink inputs. It can be set up as a standalone DAC, a headphone amp, or preamp for your home system. You can drive any set of headphones we have ever tested and it has plenty of gain for home use.
Since the Mojo is tiny and battery powered, it makes a great on the go option for your smartphone. When you get home, plug it into your home audio system and smile!