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Originally published on 9/17/19.
Reading: Best portable headphone amp 2014
- 2/10/19. added some xcan and xdsd phone images. you like it!
- 7/12/19. added topping nx4 and centrance dacport hd. 12/14/19. added link to centralized review.
- 1/3/2020. added link to cobalt shooting here and below . find out if it’s worth $300!
- 5/28/21. replaced a3 with btr3k.
- 12/23/21. added dac, made a note about 3k, added/updated links to various articles.
- 1/5/22. zen can/xdsd replacement, 3k update, added links to reviews.
- 2/14/22. removed e10k/k3, ha-2 (discontinued and now overpriced), as well as dacport hd, as no It’s really necessary. i want to simplify this list and keep it really portable (i.e. dacs that can be easily connected to a phone). the e10k/k3 are more desktop oriented and therefore don’t really belong here.
- 3/16/22. link correction/article review.
- 03/28/22. update q1.
hello friend, welcome aboard!!
before we get into the best portable headphone amps and amplifiers; dacs, grab some snacks, kick back and relax because…
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entry criteria entry level: all in one combo entry level: amp/dac combo mid level: amp/dac combo high end: amp/dac combo recommendation & last word
Now, without further ado, let’s get to work!
even just a few years ago, there weren’t that many amps & dacs out there today.
Without being too philosophical about it, let’s just say I don’t approve. lol.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with each and every amp, amp/dac, and dac I received for demo from various companies.
It’s been a great experience so far and I’ve learned a lot about the hobby!
but what are all these terms?
- an amplifier is just that. it is an amplifier without internal dac. what is a usb dac?
- the amp/dac is 2 combined into one. this is what i personally prefer but your mileage may vary.
- a dac is simply a digital to analog converter. I tend to think that some people carelessly call an amp/dac a dac out of habit, but not all dacs are amps/dacs. some are just dacs. there is an important distinction.
That said, there hasn’t been a product I’ve received from any company that I’ve absolutely hated. update: the soundblaster g3 was pretty awful, but for the most part, they all sound great!
There’s not much difference between them either, despite what some audiophile snobs might tell you.
sure, there are subtle differences; one might sound a bit grainier than the other, one might sound warmer, one might sound colder, etc., etc.
here’s a great explanation i recently got from stephen mejias at audioquest:
It’s important to note that these differences are pretty marginal, and probably no one will spot them except people like me who have plenty on hand to go back and forth vigorously with.
what varies much more?
raw specs and power output are paramount in my opinion.
why is that?
It’s because headphone impedance and sensitivity ratings are different from headphone to headphone.
If you’re not familiar with these terms, don’t worry! here are a couple of great articles I wrote on the subject.
- what is headphone impedance? [explained]
- what is sensitivity in headphones? [explained]
some headphones will work better with certain amps simply because the amp in question provides a lot of power for the impedance level of the headphones.
other factors such as output impedance, total harmonic distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, etc. are also important, but not as important as raw power output (at least in my opinion). what is the output impedance?
With that in mind, what are some good criteria to consider when deciding on the best portable headphone amps and amplifiers? dacs?
- output power. It is important to know how much power is supplied at various impedance loads. if you have a 300 ohm headphone like the hd 600, you’ll want to make sure you buy an amp that will put out enough power at that load.
- features. we’re looking at portable options, but do you need some extra features with your purchase? definitely something to consider.
- phone compatibility. planning to use it with your phone? if so, you’ll want an amp/dac combo since there’s only one piece of gear to worry about. buying an amp and dac separately makes the time that much more difficult.
- versatility. many of these amps and dacs have the ability to be used in more than one scenario. the e10k is a great example and we’ll discuss it in a bit. Are you looking for something basic or more flexible? this will help you decide what to choose in the end.
by that, what does portable really mean?
In fact, I looked up the term out of curiosity.
portable – adjective.
- capable of being easily transported or moved, especially as it is a lighter and smaller version than usual.
- synonyms: transportable, mobile, mobile, transferable, easy to carry, easy to carry.
using that definition produces good results. Let’s get into some of them!
I’ll rank this starting with entry level and working my way up to high end equipment. there is something for everyone on this list! I’ll also break them down into just amps as well as amp/dac combos. I’ve left out just the dacs because I doubt you’d want to lug around an amp and a dac. gotta keep it portable!
Lastly, we’ll also take a look at some great options with your phone, so sit back and enjoy. I’ll try to keep things simple and concise today. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or contact me!
By the time you’re done reading this, you should have a clear idea of what you’re looking for 🙂
portable bluetooth all in one combo
fiio btr3k or btr5
btr5 price: check it out on amazon! | check apos! | check b&h! | official comparison: here!
If you have trouble pairing, press the volume buttons – and + on the side simultaneously until the indicator light stops flashing. restart it and then try to make the connection again. this essentially clears the pairing info and acts as an update/reset, something I’ve done before but totally forgot about. xdd
For more information, check out the go blu article or read on, as I talk a bit about go blu here too 🙂
whether or not you choose the btr5 over the 3k depends entirely on the power you need.
if you have really efficient headsets or iems and don’t plan on ever upgrading, the btr3k will be perfectly fine.
if you plan on using low sensitivity and/or high impedance cans, the btr5 provides more power. For sound differences, see the article btr3k vs. btr5.
both are getting quite a bit of use on my desktop lately but if I had to choose between them knowing what I know I’d probably skip the 3k and get a btr5 because I’d rather have a lot of extra free space and you probably will too.
both can be easily paired with your phone via bluetooth to listen on the go too.
we move on…
fiio q1 mk ii
price: consult amazon! | official review: here!
For starters, there’s the wonderful fiio q1 mk ii, which I chased quite a bit at first. initially the power output seemed extraordinarily low, but after spending quite a bit of time with the unit I really grew to like it and found that even despite the somewhat disappointing stats on paper the unit performs admirably and pairs well with many headphones. .
One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is its value.
we’re getting a really good package here; Comes with a short 3.5mm interconnect, a short 2.5mm interconnect for the balanced connector, an apple lightning cable for your iphone, a standard micro usb cable for your pc, 4 elastic bands, a carrying bag of high quality soft mesh and of course a user guide and warranty card.
Another reason I love this amp is because of its fantastic sound. It’s a warm, smooth, detailed signature that can make recordings sound impressive, especially through Tidal or Spotify. read: tidal vs. spotify [ultimate guide]
The slim, sleek and streamlined design really does look quite beautiful in person. *British accent* That’s quite charming, man! add to that its durability; holding it in your hand feels good and right. for a budget unit, this really does feel quite substantial.
what’s even better is the gain switch and bass boost on the back. If your headphones need a little more juice, the Q1 has you covered. if you need a little more bass, just flip the switch and enjoy. there’s a fair amount of good taste here and it’s not over the top like your mom’s meatloaf. 😛
On the front, we have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and also a balanced 2.5mm one. if you have balanced headphones or like mods, the 2.5mm jack provides more power to your headphones.
the amp/dac is also compatible with dsd if you have some files lying around. I’ve talked at length about why this phenomenon is overrated, so I’ll spare you this time.
cambridge audio also wrote a great article about it:
Overall the Q1 is a fantastic entry level option with a lot of versatility and some nice features on board. for the price, it really is a bargain.
fiio q1 has increased in price and it seems that it will be discontinued. if you go this way, look towards q3!
With that, on to our next option!
if I turn blue
portable bluetooth all in one combo
price: consult amazon! | check the audio of apos! | official review: here!
I rarely change my amp recommendations & dacs, but i really think the go blu is a worthy entry in the portable bluetooth lineup, although i think the btr5 is a better value overall.
seems to aim to compete with the btr3k/btr5 demographic, but adds a couple of nifty features that come standard with most ifi products; the xbass and xspace options. it also has more power than the 3k so if you have more demanding headphones like a 400se i would go for the go blu.
I’m listening to the 400se now with the 3k and it just isn’t powerful enough.
the go blu also seems more reliable/stable than the btr3k with regards to phone pairing.
I mention this issue in the review and it speaks to the value of keeping the products that companies ship past that initial honeymoon phase.
why? because over time you really get a sense of how something really works. Are you prepared for the long haul? Is the longevity factor worth the initial investment?
My problems with btr3k seem to indicate yes and no as it can be unpredictable. It’s a great example of why I generally avoid recommending dacs under $100. The E10K is one of the only outliers in that regard, but the 3K at around $70 is really bringing it down.
In other words, most dacs below that price will never be worth it, which is why I almost always start my recommendations above $100.
even so, the btr3k still works fine, but it is finicky and temperamental. if you can do a reboot every once in a while, you’re okay with fiddling around for a few minutes to stop being a drama queen, and you don’t plan on turning on more demanding headphones, I think it’s a good investment.
what about mid level combos?
red dragonfly audioquest
Price: Check Amazon! | Check B&H! | Check eBay! | Official Review: Here!
- update: is cobalt worth the extra $100? find out here: audioquest dragonfly red vs. cobalt vs. chord mojo vs. dacport hd
- dragonfly red official review: here!
could this be the best portable option on this list?
It certainly is a great possibility my friend.
the red dragonfly is without a doubt the easiest recommendation I’ve made on this site, hands down. it’s the size of a flash drive and powers 300 ohm headphones with ease. There really isn’t much more to say than that, but I’ll humor you. 🙂
plug it into your laptop, fire up spotify and they’ll take it away. the sound that comes out of this thing is actually an upgrade of your pc’s internal dac, and it’s pretty amazing. I talk more about its dac chip and what makes it so special here.
soundstage enhancement is one of the most noticeable improvements it will provide, along with amazing clarity, detail, width and depth.
The funniest part is that I almost always underestimate this thing after a while away from it. As soon as I plug it into my laptop, I find out all over again why I highly recommend it.
It just makes the music sound better and livelier. more concentrated. more present and intimate. It’s hard to explain, but there is a difference. sometimes it can be subtle and other times very noticeable.
the dragonfly red is one of the few dacs that I feel can contribute to a pretty significant difference in the way music sounds, which is again why I tend to recommend it highly.
as for convenience and portability? I think it’s at the top of this list.
the amp/dac itself supports files up to 24bit/96khz and displays one color for each.
- green = 44.1 khz
- blue = 48 khz
- amber = 88.2khz
- magenta = 96khz
The only other feature is that once you plug it in, the volume controls on your PC or laptop take over.
simple and effective! if you want to sync it with your phone you will need an otg cable for android (here, here, and micro here) or lightning to usb for apple.
don’t think about it too much!!
price: consult amazon! | check the audio of apos! | check drop! | official review: here!
this is a great little amp/dac combo, similar to the ha-2, now discontinued. it has bass boost, gain switch, line out, but also supports dsd.
Think of the sound as a very clean, neutral sound, with a lot of sharpness and clarity. with an output impedance of less than 0.4, it pairs great with just about anything!
I did a demo with a hd600, creative aurvana live and philips shp9500.
If you’re the kind of person who wants the cleanest, most honest representation of music, the nx4 is the first thing you’ll want to consider on this list.
a step ahead of these?
fi xdsd faucet
price: consult amazon! | official review: here!
In an effort to keep things simple, I removed both the xcan and the xdsd, as the faucet is both in one. it’s more expensive since it essentially combines the prices ($300 + $300) of both, but it’s incredibly versatile and could be your all-in-one solution.
It’s a bluetooth amp/dac combo that comes with 3 cables: a usb type-a to type-c for your laptop, a lightning to usb for apple, and usb otg for android).
the faucet can be used with a phone, on your desk, with a console, with a separate pair of speakers, as just an amp from a separate dac (balanced or unbalanced), as just a dac on a separate amp , and has plenty of built-in features for the discerning snobs.
use it balanced with headphones or also single-ended.
tap sound is typical ifi: detailed with a hint of warmth that is standard for the burr brown chip.
I think feature-wise it’s definitely the most valuable on this list and should be considered if you’re looking for a product that ticks all the boxes.
price: consult amazon! | official review: here!
last on the list is mojo.
Even though people hate it lately, it’s still the best sound I’ve personally heard from an amp/dac, and rivals a lot of things in much higher price ranges.
I actually preferred the mojo sound against a hugo 2 as well. it was warmer and more musical versus the kind of cold and sterile sound of his more expensive brother. related: mojo vs hugo 2 chord!
Other than that, the mojo experience was really impressive for me.
I talk a lot about my first real lightbulb moment; i.e. the moment i first heard a hifiman he400i through a bryston bha-1 playing a lossless file of led zeppelin’s “over the hills and far away”.
That was the first time I thought, “wow, there really is something to this audiophile shit.”
Listening with the mojo, an eon stream of closed-back mrspeakers, and “again” for honors through the tide yielded the same kind of result.
The sound was so intimate and inviting that it felt like the vocalist was singing right in front of me. it was really fascinating. the mojo provides this overwhelming sense of detail and warmth that is really hard to put into words.
The soundstage was especially remarkable as if I had never experienced it in its entirety.
I could literally select each individual sound as if it were breathing and had a life of its own.
The transients in the mojo cannot be overstated. attack, sustain and decay, everything verges on the amazing. this dac is truly a blast to listen to, and I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to a duel. 😛
Anyway, enough talking. It’s time for the final exercise.
raiden, take solidus dow… sorry I got carried away 😀
so what’s my recommendation for today?
recommendation & last word
If I had to pick one amp/dac on this list for portability, it would be the BTR5 without a doubt.
perfectly fits the description of what we’re looking for.
can be used on your desktop or with a phone via cable or bluetooth, it’s the most portable amp/dac on this list, it sounds phenomenal, it’s super easy to use, and it’s a great price.
Interested in my best portable option?
well that’s all for today my friend! I hope you enjoyed this article on the best portable headphone amps and amplifiers. dacs.
questions? comments? requests? Did I miss the mark on something? please let me know below or contact me!!
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which of these are you most likely to go with? Do you have any to add or remove from this list? I would love to hear from you. until next time…
all the best and god bless you,
can’t decide which headphones to buy? Are you interested in a comprehensive buyer’s guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on the best audiophile headphones to learn more!
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