If you have landed on this page, of course, you are looking for the best headphone amp under 200 and 100 dollars (yes as a treat we tried to give more options, Yay). Not only this but today we will also cover the best USB DAC along with the best Amp. AMP or amplifiers have been around for ages and music enthusiasts use them to sizzle their equipment.
So let’s start here, but before that let us understand the difference between an AMP and DAC. we want to make sure that you pick the correct equipment and do not waste your money on something you do not need.
Difference between AMP and DAC
AMP is an amplifier, simply it helps boost or amplify the audio signal coming out of the DAC/source. wherein a source could be your PC
DAC is digital to analog converter. It primarily converts the digital signal to an analog signal. For example, the output from the PC is in digital form and the speakers understand analog form
What should you buy – DAC or AMP?
If you are using standard earphones, the one bundled with your mobile device or the ones with the iPod – sorry buddy DAC is not going to help much. If you are using better sounding, high-quality headphones and you are using your computer or mp3 player as a source, it is highly likely that you are missing on the brilliant quality of the sound in which it was recorded originally and moreover you are not using your headphones to their full potential.
So, Let us split the question into two parts or sub-questions to answer is efficiently:
- When should you buy a DAC: If you are using your computer or PC as source and high-end headphones then it is a big possibility that you are hearing some hissing and buzzing sound in between and because of that you cannot hear the beautiful voice of the artist and the orchestra. DAC eliminates the interference produced by the sound cards or the basic digital audio sources. Although the iPod has an inbuilt DAC but it is not comparable to the standalone external DAC. So if you are looking for a cleaner and distortion free sound, an external DAC is a good choice as the inbuilt DACs are of cheap quality mostly
- When should you buy an AMP: So you have bought the DAC, now the problem is that DAC thou enhances the quality and clarity of the output, it does not amplify the audio signal enough. To push your speakers/monitors a well amplified audio signal is required to move the drivers efficiently. Also, if you are using headphones with higher impedance (above 32 Ohms) it is generally advisable to go for a dedicated AMP, as the headphone may sound low (depends on the Ohm rating).
For example – If we can use a 32 Ohm impedance headphone with a smartphone or iPod and they should perform well. However, if you want to extract the real juice, get yourself a 250 Ohm headphone clubbed with an entry level AMP and hear the sound difference. it will get sweeter with more honey you put (I mean money). Its a vicious circle of good sound quality and expensive equipment! You can buy 35 Ohms, 80 Ohms, 250 Ohms, 600 Ohms and so on headphones and expensive AMPs clubbed with it to extract the best possible sound. But for me, a $150 headphone (Beyerdynamic DT880) with $40 AMP (Creative Sound Blaster E1) serves the purpose. Share your need in the comments below.
Just to put into perspective, the most widely used (maybe not) earphones when tested gave this result:
Oh yes, as you can see above that the Apple earpods have 42 Ohm impedance, they are driven by the Apple devices with come equipped with DAC+AMP, although I and most of us as well like the sound of Apple earpods/airpods, they are not the best in the market. But having said that, at this price point I would say Apple has done an incredible job. People generally like the old Classic iPods output (I still own one too) as they used to come equipped with WOLFSON and CIRRUS DACs of the audio chips, everyone goes as per their liking but most people like the one equipped with the Wolfson audio chip. I have seen a difference when connected my monitors to the Apple device (iPod classic and iPhone) and any other smartphone, other phones sounded too low and it felt like I was not doing justice with my beloved monitors.
TIP: Prefer to use and play FLAC or ALAC (for Apple devices) format if you want to have a great listening experience. These high fidelity formats though take more space for storage but are definitely worth every extra Mb of space acquired.
To bring the point home, just have a look at the video below which beautifully summarizes the connectivity, equipment required and why is it required in a precise way:
I hope by now you have a decent idea of whats and hows of the DACs and the AMPs. Let us now dig into the best headphone DACs and the best headphone AMPs to buy in the market currently under various price categories.
Best headphone amp under $100
- PORTABLE DESIGN — A sleek, brushed aluminum shell and chassis allow for durable, portable use.
- LOW NOISE FLOOR — The unit has an optimized low-pass filter and selectable bass boost circuit that are designed for a low noise floor in all states.
- DAC Chip—The 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.
- CONNECTION VARIETY — 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 — Connects to your laptop via its micro USB connection, which also provides it with power.
2. Creative Sound Blaster E3 Portable USB DAC Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth and NFC
- High-quality headphone amplification for headphones up to 600 ohms and 112dB DAC
- Connect it to your smartphone or tablets via USB for incredibly high audio streaming quality
- Conveniently connect to smartphones or tablets via Bluetooth
- Users with NFC-enabled phones can pair and connect to the Sound Blaster E3 by simply tapping the two together
- Up to 8 hours of Bluetooth audio streaming or 17 hours of analog audio playback
- Connectivity: Dual Headphone-Out, Mic In (applicable on desktop mode Only), Line In, USB
- Built-in Microphone, versatile USB DAC/AMP
- Buttons Control: Power/Bluetooth, Volume, Next track/Forward, Previous track/Rewind, Call Answer/Play/Pause
Best headphone amp under $200
1. AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
- 32-Bit SABRE DAC, compact and easy to use
- 2.1v Output Drives Almost Any Headphones
- Works With Apple and Android devices when paired with a simple adapter
- Plays everything from MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution files
- This versatile DAC improves everything – detail, transparency, immediacy, richness, tone
2. FiiO A5 Portable Headphone Amplifier, Titanium
- 800 mW at 32 Ohms
- Signal to Noise Ratio of 115 dB
- Total Harmonic Distortion of 0.002>#/span###
- High/Low Switch for Various Headphones
- sleek and stylish, good build quality
Best dedicated DAC for PC or MAC
1. Audioengine D1 24-bit Digital-to-Analog Converter
- Most famous DAC with its sleek and compact size
- easy to carry and store, user-friendly
- Mac/PC plug-n-play
- USB and optical S/PDIF inputs
- Stream bit-perfect 24/96 HD with low jitter
2. JDSLABS Objective2 + ODAC Combo Headphone amp By NwAvGuy model
- BEST Selling DAC in the market currently (Our Recommendation goes with this too)
- Old school look, solid build quality, and true performer
- Frequency Response: +0.01, -0.01 dB (20Hz-20kHz)
- Output impedance:0.5-ohm Volume Potentiometer Taper: 15A or 3B
- Power:14-20V AC adapter with a standard 5.5 x 2.1 mm(not DC adapter). You can charge the 9V battery from AC Jack and carry this amp. (battery not included)
- Size: 108.50 x 80.00 29.50 x mm Weight: 311g Accessories: cleat rubber/adapter
3. Marantz HD- DAC1High Definition USB DAC / Headphone Amp
- Jitter remover 192kHz/24bit D/A Converter (CS4398)
- Dual clock.Headphone Power-800mW / 32 ohm
- Double bottom plate
- DSD Playback (2.8MHz/5.6MHz)
- 192kHz/24bit Hi-resolution audio support
- One of the classy looking DAC/AMP available
4. Benchmark DAC3 HGC with Remote Control
- Best in class DAC – considered industry benchmark
- Active 2nd and 3rd Harmonic Compensation
- Asynchronous 192kHz USB Audio 2.0
- 32-bit D/A conversion system
- High-Headroom DSP
- on the expensive side
We hope that our collection of AMPs and DACs help to find the right fit for your beloved headphones and monitors. one thing we are sure that to extract the real juice of your investment into the terminal equipment like high-end monitors and headphones, you definitely need either a DAC or AMP (as per your use case). We tried our level best to share some knowledge and arrange this post of the best headphone amp and the best USB DAC currently available in the market.
Please share your feedback and comments below in case you also had a pleasant or not so pleasant experience with any of the product mentioned above. It always helps the audiophile community, like they say sharing is caring.