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.
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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.