I recently purchased some nice headphones for riding the bus. I really like them, but this review isn’t about headphones. The amount of ink people spill covering headphones should cause you pause. In reality, most of it comes down to preference. As much as I love my headphones, I discovered their fatal flaw when I tried to use them at work. For just about any pair of good headphones, if your connection isn’t a high quality source, you’ll notice it. When I connected my headphones to the generic workstation at my desk, I immediately noticed a distinct difference in sound. You can fix this problem by replacing your computer’s soundcard, but that won’t help with your work computer. A more realistic option may be a desktop headphone amplifier.
The best desktop headphone amplifier
After hours of research, I concluded that the best desktop headphone amplifier is the Monoprice Desktop Headphone Amplifier. With a list price of $112 ($104.44 at the time of publishing), it fits well within most budgets. The Monoprice amplifier includes a Texas Instruments Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). The built-in DAC effectively turns the amplifier into an external soundcard that supports high-resolution, 24-bit audio sampled at 96 kHz. It uses USB 2.0 and connects effortlessly to both Macs and Windows PCs without special drivers. The amplifier requires an external power adapter; good sound often requires extra juice.
The high-current output uses a 1/4” connector. You may need a 3.5mm adapter depending on the requirements of your headphones. It has low and high gain modes and supports headphone impedances of 16 ~ 600 ohms. I have efficient headphones; I keep the gain setting on low and never turn the volume knob above 50%. If your headphones are power hungry, you may want to look elsewhere for something more adept at driving your cans.
The best desktop headphone amplifier/DAC combo features both pre-out and line out for connecting to a different amplifier or powered studio monitors respectively. I can’t use speakers in my current work environment, but I would definitely use the feature if I worked from home. This flexibility also accommodates an upgraded desktop setup. You can replace the amplifier while still using the Monoprice as your primary DAC — great news if you’re just getting into personal audio and don’t want to break the bank right away.
When I first connected it to my HP workstation, the difference between the low-quality sound card and the best desktop headphone amplifier blew me away. It was like going from FM radio to listening to the same song on a CD. This is largely the result of the external DAC. I also tried it on a MacBook Pro. The difference in sound quality was negligible. This wasn’t surprising to me; Apple typically uses high-quality components. Even without the quality improvement, I still like using the Monoprice amplifier’s physical volume knob at my desk. I also like having the unit connected to my docking station.
About that volume knob… some reviewers criticized its quality. They noted an elliptical rotation rather than a smooth circle. My unit did not exhibit this behavior. If you order it from Amazon, you can easily return it for a different one. Other people noted that the blue status LED is too bright. In my experience, the LED brightness wasn’t an issue in my office environment, but it could be annoying in a bedroom. If this is a concern for you, use LightDims to tone down the brightness. Alternatively, a little permanent marker goes a long way. Even with these minor complaints, I am extremely satisfied with the product. I would definitely call them the best desktop headphone amplifier for most people.
The best desktop headphone amplifier alternative
In the personal audio community, people know Fiio for providing stellar products at reasonable prices. If the price of the Monoprice is too high or you require something more portable, I recommend the Fiio E10K ($75.99). Similar to the Monoprice amplifier, it includes a DAC. However, it sacrifices maximum power output in favor of portability. The E10K is a USB-powered device. It’s easy to take with you for library study sessions or potential mate scouting at your local coffee shop of choice.
A few upgrades to get you going
If you are looking to really amp up your game, I recommend upgrading to Schiit’s line of products. At this level, the sky is the limit in terms of quality and cost. I’d keep using the excellent DAC in the Monoprice desktop amplifier but add the Magni’s incredibly clean power to the mix. The Magni 2 Uber ($149) is a great amplifier that upgrades the overall output in conjunction with the Monoprice unit. If I were going to update the DAC as well, I’d snag the Modi 2 Uber ($149). It’s a versatile DAC that supports sample rates up to 24/192. It includes TOSLINK and Optical output for a variety of uses beyond just feeding your desktop rig. Both of the Schiit products, come in regular or “Uber” configuration. Make sure you buy the “Uber” configuration for the best experience.
Best desktop headphone amplifier conclusion
There are many ways to spend your money on personal audio. It’s intimidating to wade through the multitude of products when you’re just starting out. If this is your first venture into personal audio, I‘m confident that the best desktop headphone amplifier is the Monoprice Desktop Headphone Amplifier. As with all of our product reviews, we hope our pick works well for you. We welcome all feedback and product review suggestions. If you think we should consider another option for our best desktop headphone amplifier recommendation, please let us know in the comments.