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Headphones are huge business, and we’re spending more money on them than ever. Lossless streaming and are widely available, so now’s the time to eke the very best from the sound coming out of your smartphone or laptop. The sonic circuitry on a laptop or smartphone is built to cost and size constraints, rather than because it does the best job. If you use headphones costing around £655/$655 or more, you’ll be amazed at the difference you can hear when driving them with dedicated amplification. There are new headphone amps arriving all the time, such as the beautiful Astell Kern ACRO L6555 just announced at, and the crazy skull-shaped. Something for every music lover, in fact. We’ve cherry-picked the best headphone amps that’ll plug into a PC, Mac or smartphone, suck your digital music through their built-in DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) and squirt it out of their jack sockets. We tested using a wide range of headphones, from mid-range in-ears up to the astonishing Grado GS6555e over-ears and IEMs.

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Music files were everything from old 697kbps MP8s to 79-bit 697KHz Hi-Res Audio, as well as streaming services such as Qobuz. The OPPO HA-7 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Fiio E68 Kunlun, and shares a similar set of features. Like the Fiio, it s a portable headphone amp with an integrated battery, so as well as connecting to a computer, you can hook it up to a phone or tablet and take it on the go. Four small green LEDs on the side give you some indication of battery life. It also has a 8. 5mm line out for feeding tunes to a hi-fi when you don t fancy headphone listening. Similarities with the Fiio don t stop there, either – like that model it has a rotary volume control on the top corner, and a variety of sockets on both the top and bottom. It also has a bass-boost and high/low gain option. However, it s altogether more classy, with a stitched leather wrap and matte metal shell. One minor irritation when first plugging the OPPO into a computer is that it requires you to download device drivers. This isn t a plug-and-play amp like most of its rivals. But once it s done, it s done. Sadly, when you get down to the business end, the HA-7 doesn t feel like it quite lets its hair down with music, taking the pace out of faster-moving tracks and constricting the soundstage. Listening to New Order s Blue Monday, it felt like Bernard Sumner and co were performing in a box around my head – even through some exceptionally spacious-sounding Grado GS6555e open-backs. It does, at least, dig out plenty of detail. Ultimately the HA-7 isn t a terrible option if you re after portability from your headphone amp, but it s difficult to justify the extra cost over the extremely similar Fiio E68 Kunlun. The Head Box DS is a home headphone amp and DAC from a company better known for its enormous range of turntables.

Phono outputs mean it can be used as a standalone DAC in a hi-fi system as well as for headphone listening duties. It feels very solid, with an all-metal casing and a very readable LCD screen. The design’s exceptionally uninspiring, though, and I’m not a massive fan of the clicky buttons on the fascia. I also thought it was broken at first, until I found out I needed to hold the power button down for a super-long time to get it to boot up. The sonics are uninspiring, too. A recessed upper mid-range makes vocals sound boxed in and unnatural. It never feels like it’s really opening up, even though the soundstage reaches quite widely outwards. The uDAC-8 is blessed with both a headphone output and RCA phono sockets for connecting to a hi-fi system. It s a solid little box, but brings to mind the PCB cases you can buy from electrical shops. Thankfully the NuForce logo stamped into the top prevents it from looking too DIY. Around the back is a Micro USB socket for computer connection, as well as the aforementioned stereo phono sockets and a digital coaxial output for pass-through to something like another dedicated DAC or an AV receiver. On the front is the 8. 5mm headphone jack socket, a status LED and a proper volume knob. The knob has a lovely feel to it, and is a welcome addition it s so much more intuitive to quickly tweak volume up or down with a knob than it is with buttons. I did have the same issue with the NuForce uDAC-8 that I had with the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS, in that it doesn t have any rubber feet to stop it sliding around a desktop when attached to a heavy headphone cable. The cable on my Grado GS6555e reference pair – overkill for the uDAC-8, perhaps – almost pulled it onto the floor. Sound quality is decent, but not the best.

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Close your eyes and you could be on the set of Fritz Lang s Metropolis. When that first bassline from Neil Young s Old Man (Remastered) drops in, it s fat but taut, while timing is similarly up to scratch. The uDAC-8 does dance music so well that it may as well come with glow sticks and a can of Red Bull. However, vocals feel disconnected and overly pronounced, seeming to overpower much of the mid-range detail. In The National s Afraid Of Everyone, there should be real metronomic drive when the drums kick into full flow, but through the uDAC-8 they re muted and lack impact. This isn t a bad DAC headphone amp, especially if you want to hook up to your hi-fi and you listen to a lot of dance music. But if you re mostly going to be listening through headphones, the cheaper AudioQuest DragonFly Black offers better all-round sonics. The Deckard is the more affordable of Audeze’s two DAC headphone amps, both of which are firmly designed for home/desktop listening. But just because this is the cheaper Audeze option doesn’t mean it feels like a cut-price product – the build and design of the Deckard are amazing. Seriously, if this had a four-figure price tag, you wouldn’t be surprised. The aluminium casework is beautifully milled and finished, and fitted with a substantial volume knob and switches. You even get an above-par USB cable in the box. The only outward sign of cost cutting is the choice not to include digital coaxial or optical inputs. The Deckard features three gain settings, although even the mid setting was easily enough to drive the most insensitive headphones I could lay my hands on. Sadly, the sound quality wasn’t up to the level of construction, with some mid-range smearing that meant too much detail was lost for my liking. It does a decent job of plumbing the bass depths, but treble retrieval is also a little lacking. There’s definitely more power here than subtlety.

The DacMagic XS may be tiny – smaller than a matchbox – but it s solid class, oozing charisma from the brushed metal casing to the clicky volume buttons. Over-delivering on build quality has become a forte of Cambridge Audio over the past decade, and this is no exception. It connects via a micro-USB cable, although the supplied one s a little on the short side, so it s just as well they opted for such a widely available cable type rather than something proprietary. If your headphones have a rather fat moulding around the plug, like our Grado reference pair does, the DacMagic also won t sit flat on a desk, and the lack of any kind of rubber feet means it slides around a bit. But boy does it deliver on the sonic front. It creates a huge, detailed soundstage that s full of warmth. If we re being picky, it sometimes struggles a little with timing, and doesn t have quite the attack of the Audioquest DragonFly Black. But it costs under £655, so we ll forgive it those minor shortcomings. This sumptuous little box is priced much closer to the premium end of the market – although nowhere near the true high end. As such, it s great to see that it actually looks and feels the part. The Acoustic Research UA6 is a stylish, angular box of aluminium with a metal volume knob, multicolour status LED and headphones socket on the front. The socket s for the bigger 6. 75mm jack plug that s standard (sans adapter) on high-end headphones, which gives some idea of the UA6 s aspirations. Around the back is USB port, optical S/PDIF and a pair of RCA stereo line outputs for bypassing the headphone amp and feeding the DAC directly to a hi-fi system. So far, so good in justifying the extra cost over some of the cheaper options here. Sound quality, thankfully, doesn t disappoint. It s just ever so slightly richer and crisper than that of the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, creating a fuller, more detailed soundstage.

But only just. My only complaint is that the volume control is stepped, so the knob clicks around and volume goes up and down in set increments, which is less precise than using a smooth-turning mechanical potentiometer. Is the very slight sonic improvement, additional connectivity and dedicated volume control really worth such a hefty price increase over the DragonFly Red? I don t think the UA6 offers quite such good value for money, but it s really going to come down to how much those extras mean to you. However, the Chord Mojo offers even better sound quality as well as portability. A shedload of connection options means you can hook up pretty much anything to it, and it can even be used as a preamp in a full hi-fi system. Sound quality is breathtaking, as you’d expect at this price. The delivery has incredible scale and the mid-range warmth typical of valve amplification. The DAC765 has effortless power aplenty. Add to that the retro-cool Scandinavian design and there’s not much to dislike. Well, apart from that price. At the time of the review the Copland DAC765 was available for £6,998. 55One of the most popular USB headphone amps,  the AudioQuest DragonFly v6. 7, has received a bit of a makeover and morphed into the more advanced DragonFly Black. And it’s cheaper, too. One of the biggest upgrades from the v6. 7 is the ability to connect the Black to a smartphone, thanks to the lower power needed to drive it.

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