Best DAC/AMP Combo: Our Top Headphone Amps with DAC In 2022

Best DAC/AMP Combo: Our Top Headphone Amps with DAC

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The enormous number of superb headphones available today, combined with the absolutely amazing quality of digital music streaming services and downloads (not to mention analog vinyl records) has made so many of us “desktop audiophiles.”

But many people are finding out that while their music recordings and headphones sound fabulous, the audio sections of their PCs and phones do not – in fact, the headphone output sounds average at best and often downright poor, which helps explain the incredible popularity of high-quality outboard desktop and portable headphone amplifiers with their own digital converters.

This popularity means that there is a pretty staggering number of DAC/Amplifier combinations available today, and in this special Speakergy buyer’s guide I am going to help you cut through the intimidatingly huge selection and narrow in on the 6 best headphone amps with DAC in 2022.

In case you’re in a bit of a hurry, here are my top four picks – but if you’re not, please read on, because there are a lot more awesome products listed below!..

My Favorite Headphone Amp / DAC

Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 ODAC Rev B. – maybe not the prettiest, or the most advanced, the Mayflower is a truly special and genuinely affordable headphone amplifier and DAC, with a sound that is just magical

Best Portable Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Budget

EarStudio ES100 MK2-24bit Portable Amp, DAC & Bluetooth Receiver –  incredibly advanced for the price, perfectly designed and truly useful, and a beautiful sounding bit of gear

Best Portable Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Overall

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC & Amplifier – despite the almost frantic competition, still the finest by far.

Best Portable Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Premium

iFi Micro iDSD Signature Transportable DAC and Headphone Amp – at this relatively affordable price, I’m not sure I should call this iFi Micro premium but I’m absolutely certain it’s the best

Best Home/Desktop Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Budget

FX-Audio DAC-X6 V2.0 Headphone Amplifier / DAC – power, clarity, and tonal beauty in a tough and overbuilt bit of gear, and at a very low price

Best Home/Desktop Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Overall

iFi Zen DAC V2 | Desktop Headphone Amplifier / DAC – like its brother, the Micro iDSD, the Zen is way too inexpensive to be chosen “best overall,” but it’s really just that good

Best Home/Desktop Headphone Amp / DAC Combo – Premium

SPL Phonitor x Balanced Headphone Amp/Preamp with DAC – despite the strong and superb competition, the SPL Phonitor x is in a class by itself, and one of the purest and most transparent audio components of any type I’ve ever experienced

What is a DAC/Amplifier?

DAC stands for digital to analog converter, or digital to analog conversion, and is the digital circuitry that converts music from digital streaming services, downloaded digital music files, old-school CDs, or any and all sounds from your computer, phone, or another device – into the analog signal which headphones need and use to reproduce that audio/music.

And amp, as you probably either already know or have cleverly figured out, is short for the amplifier.

And so the DAC/Amp combo is simply a device that takes digital files – again, digital music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Bandcamp, and the like, digital music downloads, or any digital audio signal – converts them to a normal analog audio signal, amplifies that signal loud enough to provide a satisfying – and yes, sometimes very loud – listening experience and outputs that amplified audio through the headphone jack.

And while we might be most focused on music, a DAC/amplifier does the same for movies and videos, meetings and calls, even the little beep we get if we’ve mis-clicked.

All of this – the digital converter and the audio amplifier – is already built into almost any PC, phone or tablet, so why do we need to buy one?

Why Are DAC/Amps So Popular?

The basic premise here – and indeed the experience of almost every single person I know – is again that the soundboard – that is, the DAC and analog audio amplifier, in their desktop PC, laptop/notebook, smartphone or tablet, well, kind of sucks – with harsh, compressed and very limited sound which can be jarring and unpleasant, and is quite harshly exposed given the high resolution of even inexpensive headphones these days, as well as the purity and beauty of so much digital music.

Heck, even YouTube or other video sites, games, and boring old work meetings can reveal just how awful the audio coming from even very expensive high-end smartphones and PCs can be!

Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, even the most expensive, premium phones and computers have truly substandard audio, and this is equally true of the digital conversion circuitry and the analog audio amplifiers.

So people want to upgrade their listening experience, and they want a sound that really does justice to the incredible sound quality of high-resolution digital music files, games, and online content, as well as the awesome sound of so many of today’s headphones and in-ear monitors.

And they want that music and those sounds to not just be clear, but loud and clear, and to be musically pleasing, exciting, and engaging, so a good DAC/amp has become a fairly standard bit of gear.

Of course more and more these days people are finding that they almost have to have an outboard headphone amp with a digital-to-analog converter, since some phones don’t even have headphone jacks anymore, and so many headphones do.

How Can You Find the Best DAC / Headphone Amp Combo?

Because of everything I’ve already mentioned, it seems like suddenly everybody and their third cousins are making external headphone amplifiers with DACs, ranging from almost suspiciously cheap to impossibly pricey.

And sadly, if not entirely surprising, given the sheer number of new choices and even new brands, quite a few of them are nearly as poor as the circuitry already included in your phone or computer.

Luckily, I have tried lots and lots of different DACs and headphone amplifiers – really, it feels like I’ve listened to almost as many as I’ve listened to headphones themselves (which, if you know my happily obsessive self, is a pretty staggering number).

And so I have put together a list of the very, very best choices at all price levels, from easily affordable to premium – the best headphone amplifiers with digital converters on the market today – and I will give at least a brief description and review of each.

This list will feature both more substantial desktop or stand-alone units and portable DAC/amplifiers, including the increasingly popular “dongle” variety – and no, dongle is not just a fun word to say, but an actual thing, which we’ll get to below – and is simply ordered by price, from least to most expensive.

So let’s look more closely at the best DAC/amplifier combinations available today.

The Best DAC/Amp Combos in 2022: A Speakergy Special Buyer’s Guide

Best Dongle DAC/Amp Combo

FiiO JadeAudio KA1 High Resolution DAC Amp Dongle

FiiO JadeAudio KA1 Headphone Amps Amplifier Tiny USB DAC High Resolution 3.5mm Lossless for...
  • [Supports high resolution sound]: KA1 headphone amps supports up to 32bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512 high-end decoding.
  • [Compatible with Android/Windows]: KA1 tiny amplifier can support multi-devices, supports smartphones/portable player/tablet/computer.
  • [Supports MQA 8x rendering]: KA1 portable dongle supports MQA rendering. You could get a lossless sound when you are listening music or...
  • [Lightweight but useful and powerful]: The tiny USB DAC KA1's body size is only 43x15x8mm, and it is just about 10g. It is convenient and...
  • [Multi-playing ways and portable]: KA1 amplifier with a USB Type-C connector, you could use it to get a high resolution sound for listening...

An increasing number of phones no longer include a normal 3.5 mm headphone jack, but instead have nothing but the USB port. And of course, you can get a simple adapter, or dongle, which plugs into that USB-c port and does little more than pass the audio through to a headphone connector, so you can use essentially any headphones.

These dongles tend to be quite cheap and work fine, but for a bit more you can really get into the game, with an actual outboard DAC/Amp that is the same size as a basic dongle, and only a bit more expensive.

And the best way I know to do this is the wonderful, simple FiiO JadeAudio KA1 dongle. The Jade is a true DAC/Amp combo that offers typically much higher resolution digital to analog conversion and cleaner, more musical amplification – and a lot more power!

With essentially audiophile-quality sound, lots of volume, and a level of musicality and beauty well beyond any phone I’ve ever heard, the FiiO JadeAudio KA1 is a cheap and brilliant upgrade that makes an absolutely enormous difference.

Please note that the above link is for the Android / USB C version, but you can also get a JadeAudio KA1 Lightning Version for use with newer Apple iPhones.

Cheap, Clean, and Powerful

FX-Audio DAC-X6 V2.0 Headphone Amplifier / DAC

FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini HiFi 2.0 Digital Audio Decoder DAC Input USB/Coaxial/Optical Output...
  • Unique Design: Compact and adaptable, connect to active speakers via RCA to improve sound quality, or for use as a powerful headphone...
  • A variety of input and output modes: The amps can be PC-USB, optical fiber, coaxial three inputs, can be connected to TV set-top box, DVD,...
  • Chipset: The mini amps chip uses TPA6120A2+LM4562NA+SA9123+CS4398+CS8416 to provide strong guarantee for tone input and output.
  • Efficient protection and long life: The audio decoder uses LM4562NA special op amps specially designed for audio. The op amp can be freely...
  • Perfect for music : When you use it for music, it can bring you fantastic music enjoyment.DAC-X6 also is really good for FPS gaming.Can use...
  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 24 Bit / 192 kHz
  • Power Output: 520 mW @ 16 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB, Optical & Coaxial
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced
  • Power: AC Adapter (not portable)

There are so many headphone amplifiers with digital converters on the market today at this lowest price level, and while not all of them are worth our time, quite a few are actually quite decent.

But for overall value, sound quality, clean and musical digital conversion, build quality, and reliability, the extremely popular FX-Audio DAC-X6 would be my first choice, especially the latest version 2 of the X-6.

I have spent a lot of time with the DAC-X6 – I actually own the first-gen model, and have used the 2.0 a lot as well, and am always surprised by not just the clarity, resolution, and both dynamic power and subtlety it always has, but with the space, it so easily represents – really, everything seems to appear from silence in a three-dimensional space which allows both accurate and immersive imaging as well as a real presence and palpability.

It sounds like I’m talking about a much, much higher level amplifier here, but to be sure the FX-Audio DAC-X6 is still a budget product, and there are increases in detail, musicality, and dynamic reserve as you move up our list. But for sheer value, this is it – a powerful and beautiful-sounding amp, with a very advanced digital section, that will make all the difference compared to your PC’s audio section.

Best Portable DAC / Headphone Amplifier – Budget

EarStudio ES100 MK2-24bit Portable Amp, DAC & Bluetooth Receiver

  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 32 Bit / 384 kHz
  • Power Output: 1.1 Vp @ 160 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB, Bluetooth
  • Headphone Jack: 3.5 MM Unbalanced & 2.5 MM Balanced
  • Power: Rechargeable Battery

This EarStudio portable headphone amplifier is one of those brilliant products that are perfect for so many people – so much so that you wonder why there aren’t a lot more just like it.

In fact, over the last few years, there have been lots and lots of just this type of product released, and this has become a very popular niche – a portable high-fidelity headphone amplifier and DAC converter that also has an audiophile-level Bluetooth wireless receiver, track selection controls and even a microphone your best-wired headphones are now superb-sounding wireless headphones!

But as many product choices, as you have, this very inexpensive EarStudio is an easy recommendation, with a rich, powerful sound that would be best-in-class even if this were a more simple portable amp without Bluetooth. And the Bluetooth itself is first-rate, with full lossless transmission through LDAC and aptX protocols.

A real audiophile product at the lowest price imaginable, the EarStudio ES100 MK2 even has a balanced headphone output for high-end headphones. Most importantly, though, it has the resolution, the wireless technology, the power, and the sound quality to make those high-end ‘phones – or any headphones – sound amazing

In case it isn’t already clear, I’m not just calling the EarStudio ES10o MK2 the best Bluetooth receiver for headphones, but the best budget portable amp/DAC period – really superb for the price, or for any price, and one of my favorite headphone amp / DAC combos overall.

Best Super-Portable DAC/Amplifier Combo

AudioQuest DragonFly DAC/Amp USB Sticks

Sale
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
  • Native Resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz
  • DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound
  • Plays All Music Files: MP3 to MQA and Hi-Res
  • Compatible with iOS Mobile Devices (requires Apple Lightning-to-USB adaptor) and Android Mobile Devices (requires USB adaptor)
  • Dimensions: 57mm (l) x 19mm (w) x 12mm (h)

How do you make the whole audio industry jump? Ask AudioQuest – I can’t say that their DragonFly portable headphone amplifiers were the first of their type, but they are certainly the best, and when they were introduced they had such an impact on the industry that all kinds of other companies, big and small, scurried and hurried to get their own versions of this perfectly shaped and sized product on the market.

But despite the sudden and plentiful competition, none of them have this perfect recipe of plenty of power, exceptionally low noise and distortion, incredible phase coherence, imaging and spatial representation, detail and resolution, and warm, rich musicality.

An incredibly simple and intelligent product, the DragonFly looks just like a USB stick and has a normal USB connector on one end and a headphone jack on the other. Just plug it into your phone or PC, plug your headphones in, and you are set – you can change the volume from the device, or with the audiophile-grade volume control in the DragonFly, but at any level, the immediacy, energy, and beauty of the sound are pretty overwhelming.

To be fair, a lot of the tiny USB stick-type headphone amp/DAC combos sound pretty good, but all of the AudioQuest amps are on a different level – from their least expensive Black to the still super-affordable flagship Cobalt, they offer superior digital circuitry, flawless functionality, and that stunning AudioQuest sound.

It really just comes down to budget, but at any of these price levels, the AudioQuest Dragonfly USB portable headphone amplifiers are the best you can get, and make any music come alive.

Best Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier / DAC – Budget

Douk Audio P1 Vacuum Tube Bluetooth Preamplifier

Douk Audio P1 Bluetooth Vacuum Tube Preamp Headphone Amplifier with Extra GE5654 Tubes
  • Douk Audio P1 Preamp has been acclaimed by countless audiophiles worldwide, now we upgrade 6J5 to JAN5654 / GE5654 tubes according to many...
  • With 3 kinds of audio input(Bluetooth/USB/RCA) and 2 kinds of output(RCA/3.5mm headphone), P1 can be used as HiFi tube Preamp, USB DAC or...
  • Bluetooth 5.0 (QCC3034) supporting APTX-HD lossless transmission. PC-USB (CM6642) supporting 24bit 192KHz and compatible with...
  • Adopting NE5532 op amp+classic 47 headphone amp architecture which can drive 32-300 ohms headphones, and a bypass switch is specially...
  • Exquisite appearance with proper size, blue and orange light decorating vacuum tube, makes it fashionable and attractive, bringing wonderful...
  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 24 Bit / 192 kHz
  • Power Output: 160 mW @ 32 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB, Bluetooth
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced
  • Power: AC Adapter

The Douk Audio P1 is an amazing product and a super-cool amalgam of old-school and new-school technologies. With warm, sweet vacuum tube amplification the P1 is easily the prettiest-sounding amp I’ve heard at this level, and with Bluetooth wireless streaming it is one of the most versatile.

More than just a headphone amplifier, the Douk P1 can be used as a preamplifier for powered speakers, and its Bluetooth receiver makes it easy to stream from a phone, tablet, or other devices to those speakers or to headphones. Plus it has the normal digital inputs for easy wired connection to your PC – a perfect desktop music solution, and with wonderful sound and tons of power.

The Bluetooth receiver supports full audiophile-level aptX lossless signals, and the built-in digital-to-analog converter decodes up to 24 bit and 192 kHz, and there are surprisingly useful simple tone controls – bass and treble – which can also be bypassed for the purest sound possible.

The Douk P1 vacuum tube headphone amplifier and digital converter offer so much for its price, including a very good Bluetooth receiver, a preamplifier output, and a lot more, but even judged solely on its audio performance alone this is the best-sounding amp I’ve heard at this low price, with an ideal balance of tube warmth and superior detail, clarity, and coherence – with even average headphones the sound is amazingly vivid and exciting, and with better headphones, the P1 is just unbelievable.

Best Affordable Headphone Amp / DAC Overall

iFi Zen DAC V2 | Desktop Headphone Amplifier / DAC

iFi Zen DAC V2 | Desktop Digital Analog Converter with USB 3.0 B Input only/Outputs: 6.3mm...
  • ✅ UPGRADE YOUR SYSTEM - With this state-of-the-art compact Digital Analogue Converter for home audio, office, or desktop use, you will...
  • ✅ EASY CONNECTIVITY - Connect via USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible) input from your USB source such as a computer or Digital Audio Player (DAP)....
  • ✅ HIGH RESOLUTION AUDIO - Hear familiar songs in a whole new light with rich detail and warm natural tones created by the Burr Brown True...
  • ✅ TECH PACKED - With technology like: Variable analogue volume control, PowerMatch adjustment for iEMs/On & Over Ears, and TrueBass to add...
  • ✅ NOTE ✅ - Due to the analogue volume control used there may be a slight channel imbalance under 9 o'clock on the volume dial. This is...
  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 32 bit / 384 kHz
  • Power Output: 330 mW @ 32 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced & 4.4 MM Balanced
  • Power: USB (can be used portable): Optional iFi SilentPower DC Adapter

For amplifiers in this still very affordable sub-200 dollar price range we have lots of competition, and lots of really fantastic products, but in the ways that really matter – material and build quality, reliability, testing, and quality control, digital technology, analog amplification components, and circuitry and – especially, of course – sound quality, nothing comes close to the iFi Zen DAC.

Quite possibly the most acclaimed and awarded product of its type, both in its original iteration and this new and improved version 2, the Zen is amazingly simple on the outside and as sophisticated as it gets on the inside, with full MQA decoding and native DSD 256 capability from its superlative Burr Brown DAC chip.

In addition to the best digital processing you can get at this price – including, significantly, much lower digital noise floor – the iFi Zen DAC also has superb analog amplification, which has plenty of power for even high impedance, low sensitivity headphones (especially in the balanced mode) and an easy, unforced and wholly stressless quality to the sound that no other headphone amp at this level even comes close to.

Frequency response is nicely extended, with especially strong, fast, and accurate bass, deep bass and sub-bass, and lovely, liquid high frequencies, and there is a perfectly engineered bass boost switch that adds warmth and impact without any compromise in sound. Also included in the simple interface is a very high-quality volume control and gain control for different types of headphones.

Including RCA output jacks that can be used for powered speakers, the iFi Zen DAC is the perfect headphone amplifier and DAC for desktop use, and can also be used as a fantastic (if slightly large) portable amp with PCs, phones, and tablets. But however you use it, the Zen has a level of sophistication, and a superb audiophile sound, that set it apart – not just the best affordable headphone amplifier and DAC, but my top choice overall!

My Favorite Headphone Amp / DAC

Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 ODAC Rev B.

Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 ODAC Rev B.
  • Benchmark Performance
  • Hand Made in New York, Individually Tested
  • Includes 120v US Power Supply and USB Cable
  • 1/4" (6.5mm) Output Jack, Upgraded Aluminium Knurled Volume Knob
  • 10 Year Warranty
  • Maximum Bit Rate: 24/96 Bit Driverless – ASIO Drivers Available
  • Power Output: 613 mW @ 32 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced
  • Power: AC Adapter

We need a really special amplifier to provide much improvement over the superb iFi ZEN I recommended above, and in fact most amp/DAC combos I’ve found (even, strangely enough, from iFi) either aren’t as good or offer such small improvements and advantages that their often substantial price increase just doesn’t make sense.

But not so with the Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 , which is something of an inside secret and minor legend among the audiophile community. 

Yes, the iFi Zen is all the amp anybody would ever need, and gives a true and satisfying audiophile experience – I personally own a first generation Zen (I’m listening to it right now – a little Fripp/Sylvian, at a volume that’s surely a bit unwise) and the sound is wide open, musical, incredibly detailed and expressive. The newest gen 2 is even better, and I can hear substantial improvements with the equally lauded iFi Can Signature, which is about 100 dollars more and has a definite increase in usable power, and attendently more excitement, more authority and more realism even at the lowest volumes.

The Mayflower Desktop Objective2, on the other hand, is bare-bones technologically – the max sample rates and resolution are definitely sufficient for everything I listen to – even super-high quality audiophile digital tracks – and if they are higher that the Mayflower’s native capability I could easily have my audio player downsample.

Even in appearance and functionality it is not an overwhelmingly exciting piece – definitely well finished, and hand made in New York, it is as high quality as anything on this list of best headphone amps, but it does have a minimalist, even spartan, appearance, and is also hyper-minimalist in terms of inputs, outputs and controls – a USB input, an auxiliary input (which is fantastic to have), a normal headphone output, volume and a two-level gain control.

But the sound! Words fail me, well, pretty much never, but when I try to describe a sound that is so subtractive, and thus so organically whole, I have no idea how to do it. I mean, most amps here have very low distortion, very little digital or analog noise, very slight coloration, but the Mayflower Audio Desktop Objective2 literally seems to have none. 

Spatial and temporal cues and interactions are revealed at a whole new level, and there is simply music in an acoustic space. The tiniest inflections and effects of both the musicians as they perform and the sounds as they move through that totally natural space are as overwhelming as cannon blasts or, well, Sylvian & Fripp. I don’t think of tonality, or dynamics, or frequency response, of digital artifacts or distortion or bloom or bass slam. I simply think about music, and then just stop thinking completely.

I was lucky enough to borrow a Mayflower Audio Desktop Objective2 for a couple of weeks very recently – it is in fact what inspired me to write this article – and I literally returned it after just a couple of days. For one thing, I wasn’t getting any work done, and for another I wanted to continue to love and be happy with the gear I have.

More powerful, accurate and beautiful sounding than any headphone amplifier I’ve ever spent extended time with, the Mayflower Desktop Objective2 but this is sublime – a truly top-tier audiophile product at a ridiculously low price, and my favorite headphone amplifier with DAC by far.

Best Portable Premium Headphone Amplifier & DAC

iFi Micro iDSD Signature Transportable DAC and Headphone Amp

iFi Micro iDSD Signature Transportable DAC and Headphone Amp
  • Dual Core Burr Brown True Native chipset supports all hi-res audio formats up to PCM 32 bit / 768kHz, DSD512, and MQA
  • 4000mW headphone amplifier with balanced topology and 4.4mm pentacon output
  • XBass+, 3D+, and iEMatch create an immersive and personalized headphone or speaker listening experience
  • USB A, S/PDIF digital and optical audio inputs; 6.3mm and 4.4mm headphone outputs, RCA line outputs
  • Rechargeable battery provides 6-12 hours of listening, or play while charging
  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 64 bit / 768 kHz
  • Power Output: 330 mW @ 32 Ω
  • Digital Input: USB
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced & 4.4 MM Balanced
  • Power: USB (can be used portable) :: Optional iFi DC Adapter

I should be offering a separate choice for best mid-priced portable headphone amplifier / DAC combo, but in fact nothing I’ve heard – not even from leaders like FiiO or iFi – can really compete with the DragonFly Cobalt I mentioned earlier, which for its beauty and authority of sound, ist size and super-portability, its extreme resolution and all other factors is pretty much unbeatable.

When we step up a bit, though, to a more premium price level, a couple of amplifiers emerge which are clearly better than the wee DragonFly, and the best of them all is, IMHO, the iFi Micro iDSD Signature transportable DAC and headphone amplifier.

In a small but reassuringly substantial package you get dual Burr Brown DAC chips that decode up to 768 kHz and have full MQA support, as well as exceptionally low levels of digital noise and distortion. There is also 3D+ circuitry for a more immersive spatial effect with headphones (not my cup of tea, and the Signature images incredibly well without it), TrueBass (definitely and totally my cup of tea, and the most warm and natural bass boost I’ve used),  automatic level matching for headphones of various impedances, and both USB and Optical digital inputs.

So the tech is literally as good as it can get for this price, and then some, but the amp itself is where the Signature really shines.With enormous power for a portable amplifier, the Micro iDSD Signature can drive even the highest impedance headphones with ease, real authority and expressivity with low level dynamic inflections and even micro-dynamic cues, and raw power and slam when needed – and, speaking of slam, easily the best bass extension and energy I’ve ever heard on a battery powered headphone amplifier.

But all the way up and down the iDSD Signature has energy and life, and makes all music sound so engaging, so real and three-dimensional in space, and so very expressive. And yet somehow, for all of its almost analytical detail and resolution, and all of its dynamic responsiveness, the Signature has the most relaxed and effortless sound of any of the iFi products – equalled only by the Pro version of this same iDSD model, which is about three times the price.

I can’t help but notice that the iFi Zen DAC is way too inexpensive to be called the best desktop DAC / headphone amplifier overall, and yet is my clear choice, and this iDSD Signature is way too inexpensive to be called the best premium portable amp/DAC, but is also an easy choice.

But that’s iFi for you, and if you hear either of these amplifiers you will understand – you can spend a lot more, and get a little more – maybe – but all things considered, including price, technology, design and usability, build quality and reliability, and the most neutral sound this side of a live concert, the iFi Micro iDSD is as good as I’ve ever come across, and a frankly astonishing product.

SPL Phonitor x Balanced Headphone Amp/Preamp with DAC

SPL Phonitor x Balanced Headphone Amp/Preamp with 24bit/192 DAC (Red)
  • SPL Phonitor X Balanced Headphone Amp/Preamp with 24bit/192 DAC (Red)
  • Maximum Bit/Sampling Rate: 24 bit / 192 kHz
  • Power Output: 2.7 Watts @ 32 Ω (!!!)
  • Digital Input: USB, Optical
  • Headphone Jack: Standard 6.5 MM Unbalanced & 4 Pin XLR Balanced
  • Power: AC

Our last spot on this extensive list of best headphone amplifiers with digital converters is the coveted best premium desktop choice – OK, I don’t really know if anybody covets this spot, but I myself am pretty excited.

It was a super-tough choice, too, especially considering the other choices – the iFi Pro iDSD Signature is possibly has the most accurate amp and DAC available today, not to mention an unbelievably open, spacious and effortless sound, and the Sony Signature TA-ZH1ES is probably the most advanced headphone amp and digital convertor on the planet, with a sound that has an indescribable combination of finesse and expressivity on the one hand and sheer power and authority on the other.

People also love, and swear by, the Chord Hugo 2, the Monolith Desktop Headphone Amplifier and the Burson Audio Soloist 3X. I’ve spent a little time with each of these, and while it might not have been enough to form a substantial and valuable opinion, I have to say that none of them excited or impressed me the way the iFi Pro or Sony Signature did – although the Burson is incredibly impressive considering its low price, and one of the best values you can get in a top-tier headphone amp/DAC.

But while all of these amp/DAC combos are truly spectacular, with incredible energy, musicality, resolution and expressivity, with each of them I tend to think mostly about how they sound – the iFi less so than the others, but even still.

The SPL Phonitor x, on the other hand, is the only headphone amplifier and digital convertor combination I’ve come across – and one of the few pieces of audio gear of any type – that seems to have no sound of its own.

The Phonitor x is not as advanced as some of the other premium audiophile products I’ve mentioned, even if it is absolutely sufficient for pretty much any listener at any level, but it is certainly as well made as any of them, and a true lifetime piece, with industrial grade meters, controls, circuitry and construction, and is as advanced as any product I know in terms of audio engineering, including power supplies, discrete circuitry design and noise isolation, among many other important factors.

But all of that – the brilliant design, the superb construction and the top quality components – cannot really explain the sound, or lack of. I can’t think of a single time in my listening sessions with the SPL Phonitor x where I thought about how the amp sounds.

Music simply appears from absolute emptiness, and is wholly unrestricted in its space, dynamics, tonality and expressive language. The Phonitor x does not have superb timing, or incredible power, or breathtaking resolution – of course, it has all of those things, and at a higher level than anything else on this list, but all of them, and all audio qualities (including absolutely massive power), are so high that they become non-factors, because the theoretical limits of the amplifier are way past what even the most demanding, dynamic, complex music could ever need – or, for that matter, the most disarmingly simple music.

I don’t know what else to say, because when I think of this amp / DAC I am really just thinking about the music I heard. Suffice it to say that the SPL Phonitor x is the very best headphone amplifier and digital converter I have ever spent time with, and will not just satisfy but wholly overwhelm even the most demanding audiophiles.

If there is one caveat, it is that those “demanding audiophiles,” myself included, are always searching for something slightly better – and specifically something that completely lets itself disappear, leaving only the music – and the SPL Phonitor x may very well  snuff out that flame!