Review of the best according to the editorial board. On the selection criteria. This material is subjective and does not constitute advertising and does not serve as a purchase guide. Before buying, you need to consult with a specialist.
The richest variety in the retail sale of a wide variety of headphones, in the absence of even a hint of scarcity, limits the consumer in choosing only the cost of each specific model. But purchasing even the highest quality and expensive headphones, we may not suspect that they can not fully reveal their full potential on every device. Often, in order to hear all the richness of a musical composition, headphones need to be 'helped' through a special device – an amplifier. This is especially true for headphones with high impedance (impedance).
The editors, based on the results of market research by our specialized specialists, have prepared for you a short overview of the most interesting and noteworthy amplifiers as of the beginning of 2020.
- How to choose a headphone amplifier
- Amplifier class
- Combining amplifier performance with headphone performance
- Rating of the best headphone amplifiers
- Best stationary headphone amplifiers
- Fiio Olympus 2-E10K
- Sennheiser GSX 1000
- Fostex HP-A3
- Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2
- Best Portable Headphone Amplifiers
- Fiio BTR3
- Fiio Q1 Mark II
- OPPO HA-2
- Chord mojo
How to choose a headphone amplifier
First, let's clarify the most important points to take into account when choosing a headphone amplifier.
The main task of any headphone amplifier is, in fact, to amplify the signal without introducing additional 'accidental' or 'intentional' distortion into it. That is, to give the opportunity to hear everything that was originally included in the track being listened to. Everything else – surround sound, emphasizing highs or lows, creating a scene, suppressing noise – all these are already bonuses that may not even always be appropriate.
The ability of an amplifier, in combination with a specific headphone model, to transmit sound as it should be 'as intended', or to embellish it in various ways, is characterized by a number of indicators.
The most general characteristic that makes it possible to quickly narrow the search field. Two approaches have been established here. More or less objective – division into classes A, B, AB, C, D and others; and purely marketing – division into Hi Fi and Hi End classes.
It is conventionally considered that Hi Fi is the basic level of truly high-quality sound, and Hi End is the highest level. In fact, there is no objective and, moreover, no documentary base behind this classification. Therefore, if to generalize strongly, we can say that Hi Fi solutions are mostly good and at a fair price, and Hi End are often overvalued in all respects, and their real advantages are too subtle, and only narrow-profile specialists can appreciate them.
As for the letter classification, the situation is more transparent here. Class A amplifiers are truly capable of delivering the best possible sound quality. But they do this to the detriment of the actual amplification, since they have a relatively low efficiency – 15-30%. They also have the most pronounced side effects in the form of strong heating, gluttony in terms of energy consumption and the highest upper bar in terms of weight – the mass can amount to tens of kilograms.
Classes B, AB and C are trade-offs that strike a balance between efficiency and distortion. Class D amplifiers are digital, while the previous ones are analog. The difference is more or less obvious – analog amplifiers 'try' to convey the sound of the 'as is' track, that is, as it is, without embellishment and distortion, while the digital D-class tends to model good sound more, broadcasting at the output, albeit excellent sounding, but actually completely different audio material.
Combining amplifier performance with headphone performance
Finally, the main criterion for choosing an amplifier is the compatibility of its characteristics with the characteristics of the headphones themselves, in tandem with which it will work. The amplifier must be selected for a specific headphone model, or at least for a certain range.
The main indicator here is consistency in power and resistance. A self-respecting manufacturer clearly indicates this parameter in the product description. The combination most 'demanded' by most consumers is 120-200 mW per channel at a given impedance with distortions of no more than 0.01%. So, for example, if the manufacturer specifies the power per channel of 180 mW at a resistance of 250 Ohms, this means that the amplifier will easily 'swing' headphones with an impedance of 250 Ohms or even more, providing not only impressive volume, but also decent quality.
In any case, the most important thing is that the minimum operating impedance of the amplifier is at least equal, or better, lower than the impedance of the headphones.
The listed criteria are the most important ones, those that really affect the result. The rest of the characteristics, such as the frequency range and so on, are more auxiliary, and are rarely of fundamental importance for the mass consumer.
Rating of the best headphone amplifiers
|Nomination||a place||Name of product||price|
|Best stationary headphone amplifiers||1||Fiio Olympus 2-E10K||5 380 rub.|
|2||Sennheiser GSX 1000||RUB 13,990|
|3||Fostex HP-A3||RUB 19,790|
|4||Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2||RUB 47,920|
|Best Portable Headphone Amplifiers||1||Fiio BTR3||RUB 4,590|
|2||Fiio Q1 Mark II||RUB 7,900|
|3||OPPO HA-2||RUB 24,990|
|4||Chord mojo||RUB 35,000|
Best stationary headphone amplifiers
Let's go directly to the review and analysis of specific models, and start with stationary amplifiers. Let us clarify that within the framework of this review we will consider, although not the cheapest, but still very affordable solutions, which for the most part are also quite compact. Large and heavy models that still work even on (modern) lamps and cost more than one thousand US dollars are a topic for another conversation.
Fiio Olympus 2-E10K
Let's start traditionally with the most inexpensive option, and then as the cost increases. Olympus 2-E10K is a product of a relatively young Chinese company Fiio. One of the most successful models on the market in terms of a combination of characteristics and cost.
The first thing that catches your eye as soon as the Fiio Olympus 2-E10K falls into your hands is its dimensions – 49x21x80mm. The miniature amplifier is actually pocketable, but only in terms of transportation, since the power supply and controls do not allow it to be used as a portable one. The device weighs 82g.
Let's list the main technical characteristics. The amplifier delivers 150mW of output power into 32 ohms. Contains a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Declared headphone impedance compatibility 16 to 300 ohms. Hereinafter, you need to understand that the upper bar of the range specified by the manufacturer can be significantly overestimated. That is, at the maximum impedance of the headphones, of course, there will be some sound, but the actual signal amplification and its quality may leave much to be desired. The operating frequency range is from 20 to 20 thousand Hz.
On the front edge of the amplifier there is a volume control wheel, a standard 3.5 headphone minijack and a bass boost mode switch. On the trailing edge are mini USB input, line out and S-PDIF out. At the bottom there is a mechanical 2-position gain switch. All connectors are gold-plated.
The presence of a line-out is a separate advantage, which makes it possible to connect an external active speaker system to the amplifier bypassing the volume control.
This model is powered only through the USB port, which makes it stationary, despite its miniature size. The package includes a USB cable, instructions and eight rubber feet that can be glued to the bottom surface for stability.
This amplifier does not pretend to be a Hi-Fi class, but is intended to replace with a large margin any, even the highest quality integrated or even discrete, but internal sound card for a PC or laptop. The device copes with this task 100%. The only bottleneck is not very effective shielding, which easily 'pierces' a working mobile phone.
- anodized aluminum body;
- miniature sizes;
- does not require special drivers;
- built-in DAC;
- attractive appearance.
- weak shielding of the analog part.
Sennheiser GSX 1000
The second issue is the interesting solution of the famous Sennheiser brand. This model is interesting for its gaming focus, both in terms of functionality and appearance. In some places this is done to the detriment of the direct function – signal amplification – but not too much, and in the context of a gaming station, such a device can serve as an effective logical completion of the most complete set.
Even during the announcement, as well as already at the presentation and after this model went on sale, the manufacturing company kept secret the subtle technical details of the device. Potential buyers know only the most key information. But for a conscious choice, it is quite enough.
So, Sennheiser GSX 1000 is an external DAC with an amplifier, semiconductor circuitry. The operating frequency range is from a few units to 48 thousand Hz. The manufacturer's declared compatibility with headphones in impedance – from 16 to 150 Ohm. Nonlinear distortion factor – 0.005%. The device is powered by a sound source via a USB cable.
Like the previous model, the Sennheiser GSX 1000 connects to a computer (PC or Mac) without any drivers – everything that is needed to interact with a computer is contained in the amplifier in its own memory. The set of interfaces is minimalistic, but sufficient: a standard 3.5mm mini-jack for headphones, AUX 3.5mm line-out; Micro-USB Type B input.
The dimensions of the amplifier are 99x99x27mm, if on a standard stand, the height will be 46mm. Weighs about 150g. The most notable detail is the LCD screen, which is dominated by the bright red color of the dial. Combined with other futuristic design elements, the device looks extremely impressive. Even the stock USB-wire of bright red color directly indicates the gaming accessory of the device. The screen, by the way, is touch-sensitive and supports multitouch.
The volume control function in the Sennheiser GSX 1000 is performed by an aluminum ring around the screen. The engineers managed to make the ring move incredibly soft, airy and extremely tactilely pleasant. The proximity sensor will track when the operator's hand reaches the amplifier and turns on the circular illumination and the screen itself.
- many settings, including special for games with the ability to record in presets;
- spectacular LCD touch screen with multitouch support;
- proximity sensor;
- colorful appearance;
- tactile comfort;
- flawless technical implementation as a whole.
- not too outstanding power (a conscious decision of the manufacturer in order to minimize the price);
- the problem of accidental clicks, especially on the touch buttons for saving presets on the side edge;
- works only from USB ports of outdated generation 2.0 (it can be treated through a firmware update).
The third number in the review of the best headphone amplifiers according to the version will consider an even more expensive model, this time without gamer charm and gloss, but with significantly wider possibilities. The manufacturer is a Japanese specialized company of the same name.
Fostex HP-A3 is a transistor amplifier with built-in DAC – 32-bit AKM AK4390. The dimensions are very modest – 108x36x140mm with a relatively impressive weight of 450g. The body is unprepossessing – an ordinary black metal box with controls.
Consider the most important technical characteristics of the device. The manufacturer's declared combination of output power per resistance is 100mW / 32Ω. The minimum resistance is 16 Ohm. The operating frequency range is from 20 to 20 thousand Hz. Nonlinear distortion factor – 0.01%. Audio playback quality – up to 96kHz / 24bit.
Like both previous models, this model, despite its diminutive size, can only be considered portable at a stretch. The amplifier is also powered via the USB port and does not have its own battery. Of course, it can be easily used on a trip by connecting to a laptop, but this will not make the device completely autonomous.
On the body of the amplifier there are S / PDIF inputs / outputs, USB B-type, RCA and a gold-plated 6.3mm headphone jack.
The amplifier copes with its immediate task completely, without any problems fitting into the parameters of compatibility with headphones declared by the manufacturer. The power is far from being a record, but there are no complaints about the quality. The output is pure, natural sound with high detail, and the bonus is a moderately wide and well-traced virtual scene.
A noticeable part of users is dissatisfied with the very 'simple' appearance of the device. This has nothing to do with its intended purpose, but the feedback is noticeable, and our experts included this point in the shortcomings.
- clear sound;
- high detail;
- moderate but crisp scene;
- reliability and durability;
- strong build;
- useful I / O ports.
- not too impressive power;
- 'clumsy' appearance.
Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2
Rounding out the magazine's selection of the best stationary headphone amplifiers is the most expensive model, which is the closest to a stationary form factor. This is a logical and factual continuation of the previous Burson model Audi o Soloist SL, which also had significant commercial success.
Compared to the previous generation, Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2 has received an increase in the already high power by almost a quarter. Actually, in terms of amplification power, this model leaves far behind all three of the above options.
Let's list the key technical characteristics. Front channel power is 2500mW per channel with 16Ω impedance. Circuitry – semiconductor. Harmonic distortion rate – 0.03%. The signal to noise ratio is 96dB. The input resistance at the line input is 30 kOhm. Channel separation – 73dB.
Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2 dimensions are 140x80x210mm, weight – 2.5kg. This already indicates the applicability of the amplifier only in home or studio conditions, but the power supply puts the final point. And this model is powered only from an outlet or any alternative comparable in voltage and current strength. It consumes a little at the same time – only 23W. Built-in power supply.
On the front part of the amplifier body there are controls: a gain switch button, an input switch button, a volume control wheel. On the back there is an on / off switch, a power socket (the form factor is the same as in a stationary PC, so if something happens, replacing the power cord will not be a problem) and interfaces.
This model has two stereo inputs – this is a plus, and only one output is a minus. One output means that you can only use headphones for listening in its pure form. If you need to distribute sound to a speaker system or other receiving device, you need to think over the options for correct switching in advance and purchase the appropriate accessories.
A few more words about the technical features of this model. From a technical point of view, Burson Audi o Soloist SL MK2 has a lot to be proud of – toroidal transformer with high efficiency filtering system, Elna Silmic II capacitors, high precision ALPS volume control, quality Dale resistors. Assembly and installation are flawless.
- exceptional power output;
- precise and controlled bass;
- neutral tonal balance;
- solid and rhythmic sound;
- professional appearance;
- high quality electronics;
- flawless assembly.
- no line-out;
- there is no possibility of a pass-through connection between the sound source and the preamp.
Best Portable Headphone Amplifiers
The second selection in the review of the best headphone amplifiers presents not just miniature models, but truly portable ones that can be used for high-quality audio listening literally on the go. The unifying characteristics are the presence of a built-in battery and optimal compatibility for the most part with not too 'heavy' headphones. The rest of the presented models are no worse than the stationary ones described above and in no way cheaper.
Let's start with the most affordable model in this selection from the already familiar young but reputable Chinese company headquartered in Guangzhou. This is a multifunctional device with a built-in DAC and a number of additional features typical for wearable gadgets. This is one of the best-selling portable headphone amplifiers as of late 2019, early 2020.
Fiio BTR3 pocket dimensions – 25x58x10mm, weight – 26g. The design is laconic, but quite presentable. Deep black body, rounded corners. The body is made of glass and metal, there are no questions about the assembly and the quality of materials. The high level and class is visible in everything, including packaging, holographic artifacts and even an erasable layer of authentication. Easily attaches to clothing with a large clip over the entire back side.
Technically, the device is optimally designed for in-ear headphones with low impedance: the power distribution is 0.033W at 16 Ohm and 0.025W at 32 Ohm. Harmonic distortion rate – 0.003%. The signal-to-noise ratio is 120dB. Distribution of channels – 75dB.
This model has an unspoken priority in the direction of interaction with the sound source through the channel Bluetooth 4.2 on the CSR8675 chip. Built-in support for many important and minor codecs for wireless audio transmission, including the most important one – AptX HD (others – AAC, LDAC, HWA, etc.). Actually, the transformation of digital into sound is carried out by a discrete DAC AK4376A. There is also a built-in noise canceling microphone, but quite mediocre.
In addition to Bluetooth, there is another element of wireless technologies – the NFC module. The controls are located on the left side of the case. The Fiio BTR3 has its own volume control located in the same place. There are only two interfaces – USB Type C and a standard 3.5mm MiniJack for connecting headphones.
The miniature device is powered by a built-in lithium battery with a capacity of 300 mAh. A full charge lasts for 10-11 hours of continuous use. The amplifier can simultaneously work and charge via USB, or, as an option, connect to a sound source not wirelessly, but through the same standard USB cable.
- high-quality sound;
- flawless technical performance;
- reliability and reliability;
- disadvantages of ergonomics (close location of USB and MiniJack, difficult to operate blindly);
- blocks the microphone of the smartphone.
Fiio Q1 Mark II
The review is continued by another model of the Fiio trademark. It is twice as expensive as the previous one and can please with noticeably wider possibilities and more attractive general characteristics. This is one of the best combinations of price, features and quality, as key electronic components of the device are often found on much more expensive models.
In principle, the Fiio Q1 Mark II is the same 'combine' (DAC + amplifier) as the previous model. Like the previous generation Q1, the Mark II is designed in a funny shape, reminiscent of a miniature flask with dimensions 59x99x13mm and weighing 101g. 'Neck cap' – volume control. The technical performance is impeccable. The gadget is pleasant to hold in your hands, and even just to look at it.
The circuitry of this model is semiconductor. The ratio of output power and resistance is 0.112W at 16Ω or 0.075W at 32Ω. As you can see, the capabilities of the amplifier for 'rocking' the headphones are noticeably higher than that of the previous model. An unusually wide operating frequency range is characteristic, which goes far beyond the limits of human hearing – from 5 to 55 thousand Hz. Low harmonic distortion – 0.002%. Distribution of channels – 79dB.
The configuration of the model is truly flagship and, considering the price, is a pleasant surprise. So, here there is a fully-fledged balanced output of 2.5mm with a ratio of 220mW at a 32Ω load. The DAC supports all resolutions up to 384 kHz / 32bit. There is even support for DSD256. The device interacts with gadgets Apple without any adapters. There is also a line-out, and the operating frequency is even more impressive here – from 6 to 80 thousand Hz.
Fiio Q1 Mark II operates independently from a built-in 1800mAh lithium battery. The charge is enough for 10 hours of continuous work in DAC mode. Full charge time is less than 4 hours.
Among other things, the real flagship equipment also pleases: the amplifier itself; puff pouch; two pairs of elastic rings for connecting the amplifier and the source in a 'sandwich'; silicone pad for 'sandwich'; cable with a Lightning plug; MicroUSB cable for charging and connecting to a PC; cable with 3.5mm plugs for direct connection as an amplifier; documentation.
- sufficiently high power;
- wide operating frequency range;
- DSD support;
- flawless technical performance;
- linear and balanced output;
- ratio of price, performance and quality;
- flagship equipment;
- significantly exceeding user expectations in general.
- user complaints about the lack of a USB Type-C-MicroUSB cable (needed for Android – devices).
The third number in this collection is an even brighter 'combine' produced by the prominent Chinese company OPPO Electronics Corporation. This is already a device of a real Hi-Fi class, and even compared to the more than worthy previous model, it looks an order of magnitude higher. The price, however, is also remarkable – OPPO HA-2 is three times more expensive than Fiio Q1 Mark II.
Device dimensions – 68x157x12mm, weight – 175g. This miniature case with a strict but pretty design with a cover made of genuine embossed leather contains powerful electronics that can qualitatively change the user's view, into well-known and seemingly heard to holes in musical compositions.
At the center of everything is the high-end discrete DAC ESS Sabre32 ES9018-2M. The optimal ratios of power per channel to load can put more than one stationary model to shame: 220mW at 16Ω, 150mW at 32Ω and 17mW at 300Ω. As you can see, the amplifier is not afraid of even very heavy full-size headphones. The operating frequency range starts from 20Hz, and the upper bar is completely prohibitive – 200 thousand Hz.
With the interfaces, the manufacturer decided to do the following. This model has onboard digital inputs USB A and micro-USB; standard analog input minijack 3.5mm; the same headphone jack; line output combined with analog.
A few words about the capabilities of the DAC and, in fact, the amplifier. The characteristics of the input signals are quite comparable with the DACs of stationary devices – PCM – up to 384 thousand Hz at 32 bit, there is support for DSD – 2.8, 5.6 MHz and DSD256 – 11.2 MHz.
Foreign experts and specialists agree that this model can be confidently ranked as AB class. This implies that at low output power, OPPO HA-2 is in conditional mode A without distortion of the 'step' type, and when a certain threshold is exceeded, it automatically switches to a more economical mode B. These subtleties suggest the conclusion that headphones with increased sensitivity with OPPO HA -2 will definitely sound cleaner than without it.
The device is powered by a Li-ion battery with a capacity of 3000mAh. Nominal autonomy – up to 13 hours with an analog connection and up to 7 hours via USB. Full charging time is about one and a half hours from the adapter, via USB – it is expected many times longer.
- full Hi-Fi level;
- extremely wide frequency range;
- ability to 'swing' high impedance headphones;
- support for DSD256;
- premium class in technical and design performance.
- compatibility problems with Android (being treated);
- user complaints about the volume control without a latch.
Rounding out the list of the best headphone amplifiers according to the version is the most expensive solution in the collection – Chord Mojo. The lack of alphanumeric designations hints that the device belongs to the premium class. And this is true, despite the fact that the Mojo looks quite 'budget' against the background of the rest of the Chord product range with completely unimaginable prices.
To make this model even a little more affordable for the mass consumer, the British company Chord even “stepped on the throat of its own song” and abandoned its proprietary attention to detail. Therefore, the body of the Mojo (stands for 'Mobile Joy') looks extremely minimalist.
The dimensions of the device are minimal – comparable to two matchboxes or a credit card. But at the same time, the set of interfaces is not bad: micro-USB for connection; coaxial input with a 3.5mm jack, not RCA or BNC, as is most often the case; separate USB for recharging; two outputs minijack 3.5mm.
The circuitry of this model is semiconductor. Front channel power to load ratios: 0.72W at 8Ω to 0.035W at 600Ω. The harmonic distortion factor is absolutely negligible – 0.00017%. The sampling rate of the DAC is generally prohibitive – 768kHz at 32bit. In this case, it is more of a marketing 'multi-move', since no one really needs such an insane value. However, the very fact of its presence says a lot about the device level. Signal to noise ratio – 120dB. The channel separation index has the same value.
Chord Mojo is powered by a built-in battery, which is enough for 7-8 hours of full operation, depending on the headphones and operating mode. The first battery charge will take at least 10 hours and the side effect will be noticeable heating – this is not good, but inevitable.
Overall, our experts and other independent testers have judged that Chord Mojo is capable of truly wowing and wowing with astonishingly convincing sonic character and confident dynamics. He can fully convey the power and scale of the legendary classics, without losing the sophistication of quiet passages. In the case of poor recording quality, its shortcomings will inevitably appear, but the DAC will not seek to focus attention on them.
- premium class;
- flawless technical performance, not devoid of original approaches;
- extremely low harmonic distortion;
- high, even oversampling rate;
- clean, detailed sound;
- masterly work with rhythms and dynamics;
- set of interfaces;
- support for DSD format;
- heats up significantly when charging.
Attention! This rating is subjective and does not constitute an advertisement and does not serve as a purchase guide. Before buying, you need to consult with a specialist.