Pocket Pandemonium: 6 Best Portable Headphone Amps

When listening to any audio system, the sound is only going to be as good as the weakest component in the chain. Cheap wiring, bad cables, a substandard subwoofer, distorted speakers, or a poor recording compressed into a mediocre audio file all contribute to the quality of sound that reaches your ears. When it comes to using headphones, there’s a limited number of items that go into the mix, but each one needs to be the utmost quality or your experience will suffer. That is doubly true for mobile listening, since more can go wrong when you’re far from home.

Choosing a portable amp is all about getting the biggest return in the smallest package. You want to balance your amp with your mobile music player and your headphones, because each piece of the puzzle can make or break a recording. You don’t want to automatically choose the Platinum Amp of Supreme Power unless you have – or plan to have – a set of earpieces and a mobile music device to complete the set. So you can find an amp to fit your gear, we found the 6 best headphone amplifiers for any budget.

Audiophile CMOY

Audiophile CMOY

Pro: Adds authority, not volume to recordings
Con: No DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter)

DIY: The CMOY isn’t going to blow your hair back, but for an inexpensive amp that you assemble yourself, it’s well designed and constructed with aspirations of grandeur. The people at Audiophile know their audience and used a TI TLE2426 rail splitter with a virtual ground to keep performance stable, even if you’re using headphones with a low impedance. There’s fewer issues and sounds stay crisp throughout, often compensating for some of the flaws inherent in inexpensive headphones. The CMOY doesn’t move much power, aiming instead to offer a clearer soundstage, even when working with a pair of plastic knock-offs. Though it is, literally, just a few electronics in a mint tin, those pieces make all the difference. A quality Alps volume control provides smooth volume movement and fine tuning as a Burr Brown OPA 2134 amp does the heavy lifting. If this small wonder isn’t enough, you can attach a secondary amp using the 8 pin DIP socket.

Purchase: $35

Topping NX1

Topping NX1

Pro: Powerful volume enhancement
Con: RFI noise is common

Undying: It claims to run for 100 hours on a single charge of the 1000 mAh battery. It can do that, but you’ll barely be using it. In reality, you will get about 72 solid hours worth of good, honest listening all in a package that is small and slender, but still has a dense, worthy, industrial feel that tops many competitors with much heavier price tags. It supports headphones up to 300 ohms, but won’t give you much of anything if you go beyond that. You’re generally better using the NX1 with lesser earbuds and mp3/mp4 formats, since its intent is to give you the best quality when you’re using plain equipment, not give your Bose earphones the boost they need. The total harmonic distortion weighs in with 0.0001% at 32 Ohms, proving that it’s more than just another black box. The NX2 and NX3 are upgraded versions should you require a little more from the unknown Topping.

Purchase: $39

FiiO E12 Mont Blanc

FiiO E12 Mont Blanc

Pro: Quick charging via laptop
Con: Will dump texture on some high-end recordings

Power Pusher: The Mont Blanc doesn’t look like much, but when you hook it in, the slim body manages to throw out almost 9VDC/ch which translates into plenty of voltage to get your music to pop and blare. It can slam when paired with headphones that have a big 600 ohm impedance, and make them sing a song of triumph. With a gross tonnage of 850mW worth of output power this is going to be overkill for most earbuds, but will give your over-ear monsters more than enough juice. Even the little aspects of the Mont Blanc feel custom-engineered with clean headphone and input jacks, as well as a tight, smooth volume potentiometer courtesy of Alps. The front lights tell you exactly how much juice is going into the amp so that you know how best to employ it and how much playtime you can expect when going solo on the road. In short: It lives up to the Mont Blanc name.

Purchase: $128

Fiio E17K Alpen 2

Fiio E17K Alpen 2

Pro: ASIO and SACD driver/plugin support
Con: Uses only a S/PDIF coaxial input

Space Oddity: With a build reminiscent of the onyx obelisk from Kubrik’s 2001, the E17K only brings greatness. Intended to be a Swiss Army version of Fiio’s heavier line, the company cut down the weight by using thin aluminum for the body, which doesn’t feel as sturdy as their other models, but also goes better with a lightweight EDC load for taking it on the run. The E17K uses many of the same components as the E10 from Fiio, which is to say it’s got some bombproof guts, and a few new friends. Inside is also a SA9027 USB receiver and PCM5102 DAC which are dreamy enough to put pics up in your locker and permit the Alpen 2 to take on 96kHz/32bit normally and 192kHz/24bit when using coax (PCM). The overall result of the sound quality is a clean, linear staging that prizes precision. You won’t get the typical Fiio warmth, but you will get a nice bit of meat at the lower end through a lower frequency range that is ideal for taking your Drum & Bass into town.

Purchase: $139


Pro: Enhances sound quality on mobile devices many times over
Con: Middling power output (220mW into 32 ohm headphones / 30mW into 300 ohms)

Eye-Catcher: Wired to the gills, the HA-2 has an analog 3.5mm jack right alongside its USB and mini USB ports. The high-resolution USB DAC works with nearly any device under the sun, hopping from Android tablets to Macbooks to iPhones as easily as lying. Apple fans will find a little more functionality if they put it with their iPads rather than off-brand tablets, though it’s savvy enough to take all comers without losing a step. As faithful to reproducing sound as possible, if you put the HA-2 into the right setup, you’ll find a new depth and humanity to music that isn’t always apparent. At 3000 mAh, the battery goes for about 15 hours, requiring a quick 90 minutes to get back to full capacity. The on board ESS Sabre 9018-K2M DAC can process at speeds up to 32bit/384kHz using PCM, along with the ability to chew through codecs.

Purchase: $300

Shure SHA900

Shure SHA900

Pro: Several output gain structures
Con: It’s likely to get stolen

Listen Good: For a portable amp, asking a full grand seems like robbery. For that price you could easily get a portable hi-fi player that will do a similar job, but then you’ll need to load it with high-fidelity recordings, which changes the landscape. Most of us live in the workaday world using heavily compressed audio files, and that’s exactly what the SHA900 is made to invigorate. Double click the volume knob and you’ll be treated to a full 4-band EQ with limiter, the power switch is also a back button, and a stellar hold feature prevents accidental bumps from blowing out your eardrums. In the box is everything you need to connect to any device, right down to the wires. The numbers on the SHA900 don’t lie: 24bit/96kHz audio resolution, 10Hz-50kHz frequency range, and the ability to deal with any headphone impedance from 6 to 600 ohms. It’s glorious power and clean sound for anyone with the know-how to make it work. Can also double as a computer sound card.

Purchase: $999

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