You don’t have to be an audiophile to need a headphone amplifier, as they come with some great benefits that are sure to rock (or rap) your world. I had mine set up, and I’ll never go back to the ampless world, but I was initially stumped when I heard how much they cost.
Well, you’ll be happy to hear that there are plenty of options for people on a budget as well.
In this article, I’ll tell you all about great headphone amps under a hundred bucks. Aside from the headphones themselves, I’ll give you all the info you need on headphone amps and some additional reading material linked throughout the text to help you make an informed decision.
What Is a Headphone Amp
A headphone amplifier is a low power (but high reward!) amplifier that drives your old wired headphones from 0-60 in the blink of an eye. It’s a great little tool if you want to get the most out of your headphones or experience music in a new way.
It works through raising the low voltage audio signal from your device into your headphones, transforming the signal into sound waves. It’s just like the big amplifiers, but instead of translating signals to a large speaker, it does so to your headphones.
It’s without a doubt, a transformative and new way to enjoy your headphones – new or old.
Things to Look for in a Headphone Amp
Like any other audio device, you’ll want to know a little bit about it before you can make your purchase. When I first researched headphones amps, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of options I had to choose from.
After some initial digging, I’ve come up with a couple of things you need to know before purchasing a headphone amp. Keep all these things in mind if you want to ensure you’re making an informed decision!
Headphone Amp Types: Tubes vs. Solid State vs. Hybrid
Tube headphone amps are absolutely rad. Not only do they look cool, but they’re arguably better. Some people love the specific distortion of tube amps and think that these amps augment the music.
Me personally, I love valve amps because they’re so cool looking. The only issue with tube amplifiers is that they’re a bit more expensive than other options. It uses tubes for both the preamp and the power amp stage.
Solid-state amplifiers are standard amplifiers. Do you know that vast Randall on your friend’s electric guitar? Well, this is virtually the same thing, just scaled down to headphone size. It uses transistors for both the preamp and power stage.
A hybrid is a mix of these two technologies – it uses tubes for the preamp stage and transistors for the power amp stage.
Rackmount vs. Desktop vs. Portable Headphone Amplifiers
That’s another factor I found out about when I was researching headphone amps.
Rackmount headphone amplifiers are pretty self-explanatory. They’re usually hybrid or solid-state headphone amps that are rack-mounted. Desktop headphone amps are small devices that fit your desktop, or any desk you want to put them on. They’re my personal favorite, as they compliment the rest of my HiFi paraphernalia perfectly.
Portable headphone amps aren’t my cup of tea. They’re small amps that fit in your pocket, and they’re great if your earbuds aren’t loud enough.
They’re small, light, and portable – so if you don’t fancy dragging a large desktop amp with you if you travel frequently, they might be a good option.
3.5mm vs. 6.3mm Connections
That is the size of the jack on the end of your headphones, and the input on your amplifier. The 3.5mm is the new jack, which is small and probably fits in your phone (unless you’re an iPhone user), and the 6.35mm is the older variant.
While 6.35mm is the standard for serious music equipment, unless you’re using your old headphones or serious audio equipment, you might want to go for the 3.5mm.
And hey, if you still aren’t sure about which connection you should go for, you can always find a converter!
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cable Connections
Believe it or not, there is a difference between balanced and unbalanced headphone connections, so there are two different options for the type of signal your wire is carrying.
Unbalanced cables have two wires – the ground and the signal wire. The ground acts as an antenna and serves as a ground point for the signal wire. It assists the signal wire in conveying the signal but has a bad tendency of picking up unwanted signals along the way, such as radio and electrical interference.
Balanced wires have three wires – one ground wire and two signal wires. The two signal wires are mirrored, which means that they convey the same signal. These two are known as the positive and negative audio signal wires.
When they come to the end of the connection (the cable tip), they switch polarities, perfectly syncing the signal. These connections are usually a bit louder than unbalanced connections.
DACs Vs. Amps
DAC stands for Digital to Analog converter. Its function is pretty self-explanatory, as it converts the digital signal coming from your device output into an analog speaker that it needs to power.
An amplifier works to power up the sound coming from your device. These two are usually integrated within a headphone amp, and depending on your device – you might not need a DAC at all.
Keeping this in mind, if you’re using a headphone amplifier, you’ll get both the DAC and the AMP in the same product.
Best Headphone Amp Under 100 Buying Guide
We’ve reviewed a bunch of different headphone amps to find the five best options for you. Not only are all these products excellent – they’re affordable as well!
Do you know what I dread? Timid, shy, and quiet YouTube songs.
When I’m blasting hard-hitting music, I want it to be loud and heavy. However, all the songs that should be a bit louder and heavier on the bass are timid and silent, and all the soft, low, and slow songs are deafening. I hate this.
I’ve used the Topping NX1s to fix this issue, and it did so wonderfully. When I’m on the bus, and I want to blast some Mannie Fresch, it does wonders to amplify the sound with an output of 150mW.
While portable headphone amps aren’t my thing, I have to give props where props are due. This little thing isn’t only functional – it’s as gorgeous as they come. The slick aluminum case is good-looking, but it’s also sturdy as all heck. I’ve dropped this thing twice, and it’s still kicking!
Another thing I like about this amp is that it’s not a Chinese knock off. It has an actual potentiometer, not a predetermined position switch – and the thing is sturdy! It doesn’t turn on its own in my pocket.
Aside from dreading quiet YouTube songs, I also despise short battery life with my electronics. When I did my homework on portable headphone amps, this was one of the most present issues.
I was a bit of a skeptic when I bought this thing, but I was wrong. The battery life lasts quite a long time, and it even has a convenient indicator. This thing is also surprisingly affordable when it’s quality and features are taken into account.
In short, I’m thrilled with this brave little amplifier.
- Slick and high-quality design
- Long battery life and battery indicator
- Sturdy potentiometer
- Small and tough bass and gain buttons
- Not TOO powerful
Nobsound NS-08E: Best Headphone Amp Under 100
Remember our talk about how gorgeous tube amplifiers are? Well, this is their sole representative on this list.
Let me tell you – tube amplifiers are gorgeous. It’s small, convenient, and completes my desktop. I was worried that it was a bit too small and frail for my desktop (my cats adore things that they can push over), but its build quality proved otherwise.
While you really shouldn’t handle the tubes too much, none of these little amp components are frail. Avoid touching the tubes on the amp, though, as the grease from your fingerprints could mess with the sound.
On to the technicals, this amp performs perfectly. It goes up to 1100mW, which is insane if you take its small dimensions into account. Size doesn’t ALWAYS matter, and the Nobsound NS-08E is a perfect representative of that rhetoric.
Tube amps tend to have an issue of distorting the sound a bit because the tubes pick up some electronic or radio interference. You know when your phone is ringing next to your speakers, and they make that bizarre ringing noise – that’s the same thing.
However, this tube amp doesn’t seem to have such a pronounced issue. While it does pick up some interference, it isn’t nearly as much as other tube amps.
It does come with some assembly, though. The shell is lightweight and made out of aluminum, and the bulbs are pretty sturdy as well. If you’ve ever assembled legos, you can assemble this as well.
The only shortcoming with the Nobsound is that it has a power button on the back instead of a power switch.
- Excellent build quality and simple assembly
- Extremely cool looking
- Buzzing and ringing reduction built-in
- It takes some time to turn on
- Clicking potentiometer
The FX Audio DAC-X6 is a solid-state amplifier and a solid one at that. It’s small, it’s compact, and it’s reliable!
After using this amplifier initially, I was surprised that its compact size could produce such a sound. Transistors aren’t everyone’s favorite preamp state component, but they do a great job at it.
Getting into its components, I was surprised that it has the CS4398 receiver and CS8416 DAC in its chipset. These two are very renowned components and are a rare commodity in the sub $100 amp world.
Most audiophiles are into that comfortable and familiar distortion that amps provide. While it’s a great feeling hearing it for the first time – if it’s a bit louder than usual, the sound can become annoying after a while.
The surprising thing about this little amp that could is that it has a minimal distortion to it. Using a sturdy, small, affordable amp like this will provide nothing short of an eargasm.
The only thing that I dislike about this device is that it’s so sensitive. If anything taps it while you’re using it, it will deaden the sound.
A common issue with older devices is that as long as they’re affordable, you can count on their DAC being pretty poor quality. I have an older laptop that I use regularly, and I don’t plan on changing it any time soon. Not only does it sound pretty terrible – its DAC is horrid too.
With the addition of this little device, I’ve upgraded my sound tenfold. I was amazed by how much a little amp like this does for the sound.
In short, I’m surprised by how transformative this amp is to my sound.
- Great chipset components
- Minimal distortion
- Very affordable
- No analog input
- Relatively sensitive instrument
An amp doesn’t have to be huge to hugely transform the sound, or as heavy as lead to be durable. The FiiO E10K isn’t only small, compact, and powerful – it’s surprisingly lightweight!
I don’t like it when instruments are too sensitive, and headphone amps have a nasty tendency to be an absolute princess about this. If you tap one ever so slightly, it will reflect on the sound quite a lot.
I was surprised when I found out that the FiiO E10K seems to be tap resistant. When I set it up and plugged everything in, my vape pen fell on it, and I didn’t even realize it until it rolled off my table.
Not only is this little device impact resistant – it has some superb properties. The bass boost does something, unlike most other small amps. Some designers are too focused on features, without placing enough focus on perfecting the features that are there.
This one, on the other hand, does both. It has a high-quality potentiometer, which goes up if you want it to. Even if you’re deaf, you will hear something when you set this amplifier to full throttle.
If a song has terrible quality, an amp won’t make it enjoyable. It’ll amplify it, making it sound even worse.
I’ve downloaded a program to help me set up my songs, and with the DAC/Amp combo, this amp has done wonders for a lot of songs. When the song production can’t cut it, this amp and a bit of finesse do the trick just fine!
- High-quality design, components, and switches
- Sturdy, stable, and subtle as a hammer
- Superb DAC/Amp combination
- Short and wonky USB cable included
- Not as affordable
A portable tube headphone amp? I thought it sounded a bit too good to be true, but I was wrong. The Little Bear B4-X is stunning. It’s the perfect blend of modern technology in a technical, almost steampunk presentation.
I can’t explain how gorgeous this little portable amp is. Aside from its looks, it’s packing some serious heat when it comes to power.
We’ve talked about YouTube and quiet music – but there is nothing quiet about this portable amp.
That’s a dual-mono balanced version, which means that it provides a balanced connection. I’ve mentioned the difference before in this article – dual-mono means that it amplifies both sides in your headphones at the same time.
Since I can’t spend two minutes without mentioning aesthetics, let me tell you about the amp’s little screen. The amp is made out of high-quality aluminum, and it has a clear transparent screen on it. It shows you the two tubes inside, and when they light up – there’s nothing quite as gorgeous.
Portable amps tend to have a relatively short battery life, and this one is no exception. In my personal experience, it really could benefit from longer battery life, but with an output power of 450mW, it packs a punch sound-wise.
- Objectively gorgeous
- Fantastic build quality
- The significant power of 450mW
- Short battery life
- Sound tends to suffer from messages, calls, and 4G data connections
All of these were tested and tried by me, and I really can’t stress this enough:
“All of them are fantastic, relatively affordable, and do the job perfectly!”
But if I had to pick one out of the lot, I’d have to go with the Nobsound NS-08E. It’s components, affordability, and overall quality really come into play, and here is why.
It includes tubes and all the things that go into a top-of-the-line amplifier. All the individual components are sturdy and tough, and I love its appearance.
Since it offers a pretty large amount of power, 1100mW at 32Ω, it can no doubt make even the deafest of listeners hear something. The tubes themselves have their signature sound, but the tubes in the Nobsound NS-08E have a softer, warmer sound.
It’s small, it’s compact, and it’s insanely cool – I love it.