InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" Headphone Amplifiers

Headphone Amplifiers
Headphone amplifiers are not needed to make headphones louder, but rather to drive them with more authority making them sound better. On this page we'll show you our favorite headphone amps in various categories and price points.

VACUUM TUBE AMPLIFIERS

HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Electrostatic Headphone Amp($4980)
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Often referred to as a "wire with gain" for electrostatic headphones, the Blue Hawaii is a perfectly splendid amp for your Stax and Sennheiser electrostatic headphones. The BHSE is a hybrid amp sporting a quad of EL34 output drive tubes in an OTL DC coupled configuration, fed by a solid-state input section and power supply. Both balanced and unbalanced inputs allow use with multiple sources.

"Every detail, every brush stroke on a drum skin, every fingernail tick on a guitar string, every chuff of air across the mouth of an organ pipe, was simply available to be heard in organic proportion." Can you tell I love this amp?

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Apex High-Fi Audio Teton ($5000)

Previously incarnate as the Wheatfield Audio HA-2, Pete Millett has breathed new life into his venerable design with subtle tweaks as only he can do and a drool-worth parts selection. This output-transformerless design uses a 6SN7 dual triode as the input tube, a 6AS7/6080/7236/5998 as the output tube (also a dual triode, but a much larger and more powerful one), and a 5U4GB as a rectifier tube. Output impedance is around 50 Ohm depending on the power tube used; this amp pairs best with high-impedance headphones.

Music played from the Teton flows in a remarkably effortless way. The beauty of the vocals, guitars, and keys, all of which like squarely in the all-important midrange, are a delight. The treble performance of the Teton is world-class—sweet, delicate, nuanced, clean, and not at all rolled off. This isn't that easy a trick for a tube amp that isn't both well designed and well implemented, but the Teton pulls it off well.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Eddie Current Balancing Act ($3850)
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The Eddie Current Balancing Act leaves nothing on the table, and is deserving of its title as a "statement" piece, offering the best design chops that Craig Uthus currently has to offer. Its price point of $3950 makes it competitive against its closest rival, which is the TTVJ Apex Pinnacle at $10,000, another fine sounding amp that offers similar functionality and sonic ability. The Balancing Act can accommodate all the inputs you would expect to have in a normal system, while offering excellent preamp functionality and pretty much will support any kind of termination that headphones are currently offered in. The soundstaging is spectacular and fits perfectly the core value of Craig's design philosophy that audio gear should strive to transport the listener inside the music itself. Detail and resolution are extraordinary and the amp is spot on tonally. Nothing else can be said other than saying the Eddie Current Balancing Act is one of the finest commercial headphone amps available, and owners will find themselves extremely happy with its sound.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Pathos Aurium ($1495)
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The Pathos Aurium is a hybrid tube amp using 6922 tubes as the input stage and a MOSFET output stage. With three unbalanced and one balanced input, and having rear panel continuously variable gain and balance controls, this is a very versatile amplifier.

The Aurium is very transparent, and is not "tubey sounding" in the colloquial sense of being super-buttery-smooth. It is smooth enough, and very pleasurable to listen to, but not in any way smoothed-over. There was a high degree of transparency and detail on tap, as well as a nice sense of liquidity.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Icon Audio HP8 MK2 ($999)
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The Icon Audio HP8 Mk2 amp uses 12AX7 tubes for the gain stage and the venerable 6SN7 as it's output tube. A multi-tap output transformers allow some flexibility in terms of output impedance. The user can select low, medium, or high—which translates to 32, 300, or 600 ohm output impedance—on-the-fly via a front panel knob. A single pair of unbalanced RCAs on the rear panel are used for input.

The Icon is indeed smooth but not at all dark—rather than shelving down the highs, it displays them in vivid color, yet remains free from grain or harshness. I'd still call it mostly neutral though; just with a certain gracefulness to it as compared to a strictly analytical sound. The second word that came to mind was "effortless"—the HP8 just flows like a gentle breeze on a summer day, never forceful but always welcome and refreshing. It's one of the more potent single-ended triode amps I've seen in terms of power delivery which probably helps explain this aspect of it.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

SOLID-STATE AMPLIFIERS

HeadAmp GS-X mk2 ($2795 w/Alpha pot; $2995 w/DACT stepped attenuator; blue and red color options +$200)

The HeadAmp GS-X mk2 is one of the most fairly priced high-end headphone amplifiers of which I'm aware. Build quality, and fit and finish may rarely be equaled, but I doubt ever surpassed. The price/performance ratio is outstanding—and that's something you'll rarely hear from me with high-end gear.

This is a purist amp; you will not get balanced drive unless you have a balanced source. The focus here is performance, not handy features.

Sound quality is ruthlessly articulate. If you've got headphones you consider a bit too bright, don't pair them with this amp, you'll just bring out the worst in your cans. EQ is a must if you'll be using headphones with a lean signature. But if you use EQ or pair the GS-X with warm cans you will be shocked with the detail retrieval and resolution to be found here.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Simaudio MOON Neo 430HA ($3500, $4300 w/DAC)

The Simaudio MOON Neo 430HA ($3500) is both brute and ballet dancer. It easily drives even the most stubborn of planar magnetic headphones with Adam's apple wobbling authority. And it's lithe articulation simply and cleanly draws out fine detail, without drawing undue attention or venturing into treble excesses of any kind.

The 430HA has a well fleshed out feature set with full complement of analog and digital inputs, and both single-ended and fully-balanced headphone outputs. It comes with a remote control, and has an optionally available built-in DAC.

The 430HA just wreaks of competence. It's going up on the Wall of Fame as an outstanding all-around, neutral-reference amplifier...and as my current personal reference here at InnerFidelity.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Resonessence Labs Concero HP ($850)

The Concero HP is good. But maybe good doesn't cover it. Great? No, that seems too cliche. Amazing? Superb? Preposterously capable? Now we're getting closer. How about this: I'm confident enough in the HP to bestow upon it the Wall of Fame award. That means it's among the absolute best I've encountered for anywhere near the price. Does that get my point across? For the modern user who doesn't have a lot of space, and doesn't need a dozen inputs, it really doesn't get much better than this. Doubly so if IEMs are your weapons of choice. Can you get more if you spend more? Always. But a lot of people won't need more and that's the whole point of this device. As sound quality goes, there is very little compromise involved—maximum power is about the only thing to watch out for. Aside from that, a brilliant device that I really can't recommend strongly enough.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Lake People G 109 P ($695)
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The Lake People G 109 features a toroidal transformer with a larger array of smoothing caps, a premium Alps RK27 pot, and offers three gain choices (-4, +8, +14 dB). The business end consists of a classic NE5532 opamp driving a discrete diamond buffer made up of 4 transistors per channel. Output impedance is less than 0.2 ohms. The philosophy of headphone amplification, according to Lake People, is simple: high output voltage; high output power; high damping factor due to low output impedance; and low noise through low internal gain. These four essential ingredients are easy to describe but not always easy to achieve.

The G 109s long suit is its universal ability to drive pretty much any headphone in existence. Very short is the list of relatively affordable amps that can swing this much voltage into high impedance loads while delivering gobs of current into planar models (over 2000 mW at 50 ohms), with variable gain and an inky black silent background with even the most sensitive IEMs.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Meier Audio Corda Rock ($240)
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The Rock is based around the TDA2030 IC, and the relatively few parts it has are of nice quality. Being a non-portable amp, it sports a full-size 1/4" headphone jack, and one pair of RCA jacks on the back. The Rock's power supply is on-board, and it has an IEC power cord receptacle, although one cost-saving method is that it does not come with a power cord.

When fed the best, the little Rock provides a clean, smooth sound that isn't audibly flawed in any one dimension. Detail retrieval is admirable, and soundstage is reasonably deep and wide, if somewhat lacking in definition. Bass has good weight, though the very deep bass seems a tad truncated. Treble is smooth and clean, and the mids are also smooth and essentially transparent. Yes, I have heard better in just about every dimension--but for the relatively low price of admission, the show put on by the Rock is really very satisfying.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

PORTABLE HEADPHONE AMPLIFIERS

CEntrance HiFi-M8 ($699)
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The CEntrance HiFi-M8 portable headphone amp/DAC is rather pricy and large, but boy you get bang for your buck with this gem. Input and output options are abundant; iOS users (30-pin cable only with current units, a Lightning cable version is in the works and will be available sometime in the future) should get the standard model; Android users might prefer the "XL" version with Toslink input. Output options are available for a variety of balanced and unbalanced connections; please see the the review for details.

The M8 is a spectacularly competent amp and sounds...well, like a wire with gain. CEntrance is famous for high gain, low distortion and noise designs, and the M8 clearly possesses these genes. The amp simply delivers the goods with any and all headphones tested. In addition, numerous controls for tone shaping, gain, and output impedance gives enthusiasts subtle and suitable control for fine tuning the match between amp and headphones.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Leckerton UHA-6S MKII ($279)
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The Leckerton UHA-6S MKII has 1/8th" jacks for input and output like nearly all portable amps. Charging is done through the rear-panel micro-USB port, which can also link to a computer for USB DAC functionality. SPDIF digital connections are also offered in both coaxial and Toslink form. The SPDIF inputs are functional up to 24-bit/96kHz while USB tops out at 16-bit/48kHz. Power is supplied by a Lithium ion battery which has a life of approximately 30 hours using the analog input, or 10 hours when fed through an SPDIF input. Gain can be set at +0dB or +18dB to fit a wide range of headphones. The stock configuration uses the OPA209 but other options like AD797, AD8610, or OPA627 can be had for an extra fee. Output impedance is suitably low at 0.4 ohm thus preventing any impedance-related interactions.

The sound from this amp is clear, detailed, and very natural absent any coloration. The Leckerton UHA-6S MKII is a spectacular performer. It can be used in many different scenarios, fed by various sources, driving a wide range of different headphones, and it never fails to impress. There are more expensive portables than this, and more powerful ones too, but at this moment the UHA-6S MKII is our number one recommendation for low cost portable headphone amps.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

DIY HEADPHONE AMPS

Bottlehead Crack ($279)
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The Bottlehead Crack is a great first-time project for DIYers ready to move on to more complex projects than building cables. It uses a 12AU7A as its input stage, and a 6080 in a cathode follower configuration as its output stage. The output is capacitively coupled (the only cap in the audio path), and has an output impedance of about 120 Ohms making it an amp suited mainly for higher impedance headphones. The power supply is a simple unregulated supply, with a full-wave solid-state diode bridge rectifier, and a C-R-C-R-C supply filter. It really doesn't get much simpler than this.

The Bottlehead Crack is a superb introduction into the world of DIY audio. The parts quality is very good, the documentation is truly excellent, the Bottlehead forums provide fantastic peer-to-peer assistance, and construction is very easy. The big win, however, is that once you've finished your build, you'll have a fantastic sounding amp for your high impedance headphones. I simply can't recommend the Bottlehead Crack highly enough, if you've got a yen to try a little soldering, this is the way to go. You'll love it!

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Headphone Amps Retired from Wall of Fame
AURALiC TAURUS Mk2 ($1899)
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This amplifier was retired with the introduction of the Simaudio MOON Neo 430HA.

The remarkable handsome AURALiC TAURUS Mk2 is a solid-state headphone amp sporting both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The front panel has a standard 1/4" headphone jack as well as a 4-pin XLR balanced output. A pair of selection buttons allows any input to flow through any output—the system automatically converts balanced to single ended or vice versa, as needed, with minimal sonic penalty.

If you want an endgame-level headphone amp which offers extremely accurate, resolving sound while maintaining a warm and inviting tone, look no further. The AURALiC TAURUS MKII is one of the absolute best values in the high-end, and worthy of the Wall of Fame.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.