We tested 10 top-rated headphone amp plus USB DAC combo components with a blind-listening panel with three different headphones, five laptops, an iPhone, and also an iPad, then up with laboratory dimensions of the panelists’ favorites. We decided that many individuals are unlikely to notice a substantial increase in sound quality on a modern notebook or phone’s built-in headset jack. But if you would like to get the most from fancy headphones that sound too dull or silent without further amplification, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red is very good for computers, whereas the battery-powered Oppo HA-2SE is best for mobile devices.
|AudioQuest DragonFly Red
Best for computers
Mobile and strong enough to push high-impedance headphones, the DragonFly Red functions with notebooks and mobile devices, but drains the battery.
The USB-powered AudioQuest DragonFly Red can comfortably power difficult-to-drive cans, and sounds great also. Discerning listeners may detect a somewhat more three-dimensional soundstage and a touch more accuracy in the bass notes compared with a computer’s built-in headphone jack. It also does not add any coloration to the sound–tools sound accurate to their listed tones. And it’s compatible with Windows, macOS, iOS (via Apple’s Camera Adapter), and Android (using AudioQuest’s DragonTail adapter). At roughly the size of a small thumb drive, the DragonFly Red is very mobile, but it lacks a battery and draws a decent amount of power, making it a poor selection for unplugged use. You can obviously use the DragonFly Red with your cellular devices, but you should anticipate those to take a hit in battery life.
For mobile devices, the battery-powered but costlier Oppo HA-2SE is the best choice as it’s the most flexible DAC/amp from the box. It’s USB and Micro-USB inputs, a Lightning jack, and also its internal rechargeable battery, which can even charge your mobile phone in a pinch. It is compatible with Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android, and it’s sufficient power for hard-to-drive headphones. Assessing its results with those of a phone or laptop’s built-in headset jack, you might notice a touch more clarity in treble and bass, and marginally more depth in the soundstage. Additionally, it has a bass-boosting mode if you like extra low end. The HA-2SE is around the size of an iPhone 8 plus includes silicone bands that you may use to strap it to your phone for simple carrying.
The FiiO K1 is significantly less expensive than many DAC/amps offered and is easy to pop in a laptop bag. It is ever so slightly less clear and three-dimensional sounding compared with our other selections, but it is good for the price–and chances are, most people will not see the difference whilst listening to the majority of sources through many headphones. It requires no drivers for Windows and supports as much as a 96Â kHz/24-bit sampling speed (higher than CD quality, but not the degree of some industrial hi-res sound recordings that our other selections can handle), and it connects via USB. It’s a fantastic option if all you need is a replacement for an ailing headset jack on your PC or Mac. However, it can’t satisfactorily power hard-to-drive headphones and doesn’t work with mobile devices.
Best for mobile devices
This battery-powered Oppo version has more inputs and will not drain your battery, but it is as big as an iPhone.
An inexpensive option
It is not as adaptable as our top picks and does not work with phones, but it’s cheap and does not sound that different. It’s ideal for replacing a laptop’s headphone jack that is broken.