Against the backdrop of the rapid growth in the popularity of portable technology for listening to music on the go, classic desktop and full-length headphone amplifiers have faded into the shadows a bit. However, it is they, in combination with embracing wired headphones, regardless of the types of emitters used in them, that provide the highest sound quality.
For those who want to get maximum details and enjoyment from their favorite music, we have collected the latest models of desktop devices, sometimes combining not only an amplifying part, but also digital-to-analog converters, and even streamers.
8. TempoTec March III-M3
Price – $139
Our selection opens with an inexpensive model from TempoTec, which is designed for use with not the most difficult headphones in terms of load. In addition to the DAC on the AK4493SEQ chip from Asahi Kasei, capable of working with 32-bit / 768 kHz PCM streams, native DSD512 and MQA files, the device is equipped with a Bluetooth 5.2 adapter. It supports LDAC, SBC and AAC codecs and provides wireless connection up to 30 meters. The model also uses two clock generators to eliminate jitter. The amplifier is made on four OPA1688 op amps and provides output power up to 630 mW for balanced connection (4.4 mm) and 310 mW for unbalanced connection (3.5 mm) with a load of 32 ohms.
Pros – good DAC, Bluetooth adapter, low price
Cons – low power, no 6.35 mm headphone jack
Verdict: A successful model at the junction of portable and stationary audio
7. xDuoo TA-26S
Price – $319
A new version of the low cost tube headphone amp that adds a balanced 4.4mm jack in addition to the standard 6.35mm jack. The amplifier is built on 6N8P and 6N5P tubes, there is also a pre-amplifier output on RCA connectors for connecting to an external power amplifier or active speaker systems. The device is enclosed in an aluminum case, the panels of which have been sandblasted. The amplifier is designed to connect headphones with a resistance of 60 to 600 ohms, the output power is 500 mW. The declared signal-to-noise ratio is 110 dB. Amplifier dimensions – 250 x 110 x 160 mm, weight – 3.9 kg.
Pros – lamp path, small dimensions
Cons – not the most powerful
Verdict: Starter tube unit with good sound
6. Topping EHA5
Price – $399
The most affordable electrostatic headphone amplifier promises to unleash the potential of even the most demanding models. The device provides both balanced and unbalanced connection to the signal source, as well as the bypass function when the power is off. The output voltage is 700 V, two gain levels are available to the user – 39.9 dB (Low) and 44.9 dB (High). Switching between the two levels is done with a dip switch on the front panel. Amplifier dimensions – 232 x 93 x 173 mm.
Pros – low price for this type of amplifier, small size
Cons – none
Verdict: Reasonably priced ESD headphone amp
5. Topping A70 Pro
Price – $499
Another device from Topping in our rating is distinguished by the use of an improved input stage with an ultra-low noise level. The input impedance of 20 kOhm allows you to expand the choice of compatible signal sources. The volume control in the amplifier is built on a resistive matrix (R-2R), which ensures a long service life, precise control and maintains dynamics at low signal levels. There are three jacks on the front panel for headphones – a four-pin XLR, 6.35 mm and 4.4 mm jacks. The power of the amplifier is 10,000 mW, and the device can also be used as a pre-amplifier. Analog inputs include unbalanced RCA and balanced TRS/XLR.
Pros – high power, volume control on a resistive matrix
Cons: no 3.5mm jack
Verdict: Balanced analog device for a component system
4. DAART Yulong Aquila III
Price – $999
Available in three colors, the amplifier incorporates a DAC unit built on the flagship combination of the AK4191 decoder and the AK4499EX chip from Asahi Kasei. As a result, the unit can handle PCM streams up to 1536 kHz, as well as DSD1024 streams when connected via USB. Optical, coaxial and AES/EBU inputs are also used to supply a digital signal. Analog outputs are organized on RCA and XLR connectors – the model can also be used as a pre-amplifier. The LCD display on the front panel shows the volume level, active input and spectral analysis of the reproduced signal. For headphones, there are 6.35 mm, 4.4 mm and four-pin XLR connectors. The power of the amplifier is 1,000 mW into 32 ohms unbalanced and 4,000 mW into 32 ohms balanced.
Pros – top DAC, high output power, compact size
Cons – no 3.5mm jack
Verdict: Serious DAC and Richly Connected Amplifier
3. Astell & Kern ACRO CA1000T
Price – $ 2,299
Not quite a typical device, which is designed for desktop use, although it also has a built-in battery that provides up to 10 hours of continuous playback. The main features of the model are the DAC unit based on top-end ES9039MPRO chips and an amplifier with three operating modes: tube, hybrid and transistor. KORG Nutube miniature double triodes are installed in the tube stage. The amplifier has a fully symmetrical circuit and is built on proprietary Teraton Alpha topology, which effectively eliminates power noise. The maximum output voltage is up to 15 V, which is enough to drive any headphones. Digital inputs include coaxial, optical and USB-C, analog input is 4.4mm balanced only. There are also Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless adapters with aptX HD and LDAC support. The model is Roon Ready certified and works with PCM 32 bit / 768 kHz and DSD512 streams, full MQA support is also announced. The device weighs 980 gr.
Pros – Full set of headphone outputs, built-in battery, flagship DAC, turntable
Cons – only one analog input
Verdict: Device for all occasions
2. iFi Audio iCAN Phantom
Price – £3,749
The new top-end amplifier of the British company has compact dimensions of 120 x 256 x 185 mm, while it has two separate amplifying paths – a transistor in class A and a tube one on the General Electric 5670, capable of operating, according to the manufacturer, up to 100,000 hours. The unit can also function as a pre-amplifier. On the front panel there is a round OLED display, volume control knobs and input switching knobs. Six cards are supplied with the amplifier, with which you can change the bias current to ensure the best match with your headphones, including electrostatic ones. The output power on a balanced connector is 15,000 mW, on an unbalanced connector – 5,760 mW (figures are indicated for a load with a resistance of 16 ohms).
Pros – high power, tube and transistor paths, adjustment to a specific headphone model
Cons – only price
Verdict: The Ultimate Headphone Amplifier
1. Hifiman EF1000DAC
Price – $15,000
This unit can also operate as a headphone amplifier, as well as a digital-to-analog converter and pre-amplifier. The DAC is made on the proprietary assembly R-2R Himalaya Pro, in which the conversion is carried out by a resistive matrix that supports PCM digital stream up to 24 bit / 768 kHz. The front panel features a large volume control, 6.35mm headphone and 4-pin XLR outputs. For a digital signal, USB-B connectors, optical and coaxial inputs, as well as a Bluetooth adapter with support for LDAC and aptX HD codecs are provided. For an analog signal, there is a line input on the RCA connectors. Analog outputs include adjustable RCA unbalanced and XLR balanced. The output stages are built on four paired transistors and provide up to 13.7 watts at a balanced output.
Pros – proprietary Himalaya Pro DAC, high power
Cons – expensive, no 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm outputs
Verdict: A logical choice for building a top Hifiman proprietary system