Find an Amplifier and Headphone Setup Powerful Enough for Your Music Preferences
The term downsizing is often associated with empty-nesters' move to a smaller home. Sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity, there are many reasons why you might be making the move to less square footage - and consequently fewer possessions. If you're an audiophile, this may mean downsizing your space-eating loudspeaker setup. If the thought of doing so makes you cringe, fear not! You can continue your audiophile lifestyle with a fabulous, space-saving headphone system that delivers amazing audio quality.
Whether you plan to listen to full-size headphones or IEMs (in-ear monitors or earphones that fit directly in your ear canal), you will need a minimum of two things: a source (where your music is coming from) and your headphones or IEMs. Depending on your specific living situation and audio goals, this might be as simple as a pair of headphones and a portable digital audio player (DAP). But don't let "simple" mislead you, as you can achieve maximum audio enjoyment from the smallest of music players. But whether you want to keep it simple or go all out, you will learn that audiophiles and apartments (or townhomes, tiny houses, or trailers!) can happily coexist. Check out Music is Therapy: Marc's Story to see how one man downsized his audio system for life in an RV.
If you already own the hifi headphones or IEMs that you plan to use, great! If you need help choosing your perfect pair of headphones, we have a great resource. Check out Headphones 101: How to Pick Your Perfect Pair. We can help you find headphones or IEMs that best suit your preferences: wireless headphones, headphones with active noise cancellation, headphones with balanced sound, headphones with great bass response, enhanced treble, a wide soundstage, prominent vocals, lots of detail, and much more. One thing to keep in mind when choosing headphones for small-space living is whether other people will be in your vicinity when you are listening to your headphones. If you're in a small space and you don't want the sound from your headphones to be audible to other people, you'll want to look at closed-back headphones, which have sealed ear cups that will keep sound. Open-back headphones, on the other hand, will bleed sound. That doesn't make them a deal-breaker, but it's something to consider.
Questions to Guide Your Headphone Gear Purchase
We've laid out several ergonomic scenarios for a headphone setup, from small and simple to larger and more lavish. We've suggested some of our favorite products for each. Of course, these are only some options. Feel free to contact us if you need help designing a headphone system that best suits your living situation and budget.
Want to use your phone, tablet, or laptop as your audio source?
Provided that your phone, tablet, or laptop is capable of powering your headphones, you technically don't need anything else. Except, as an audiophile, you'll want something else. Computers and mobile devices don’t typically have very good DACs (digital to analog converters), and their amplifiers are often too weak to drive high-performance headphones, leaving your music sounding less than stellar. Your high-end headphones will simply sound better with an upgraded DAC. Furthermore, many headphones, particularly planar magnetic headphones, will perform better the more power you throw at them, so an upgraded headphone amplifier often makes sense. The good news is that you an use a small DAC or a portable headphone amp/DAC that takes up no space at all but will make your headphones sound exponentially better.
Purchase: A USB DAC or a battery-powered DAC
- USB-A input
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Three individual user-programmable filters
- Small and tidy with excellent build quality
- USB Micro-B input
- Apple MFi certified
- 3.5 mm headphone jack
- Battery life up to 20 hours
- Five EQ preset loaded standard; four customizable settings
Want to listen to headphones at home or on the go?
If you want a dedicated music player that will allow you to stream music or listen to your own stored content, a portable digital audio player (DAP) is the way to go. Digital audio players are electronic devices capable of storing and playing high-resolution music or media files. Don't let their small size deter you - portable DAPs are plenty capable of delivering big, bold, audiophile-quality sound. With a portable DAP, you'll have your high-resolution music library on hand for listening at home on the couch or while you're on the go. What's more, any Astell&Kern or iBasso DAP can work as a stand-alone digital player and as a DAC for your computer/laptop. Furthermore, if you want to use Roon for high-res streaming, all A&K DAPs are Roon Ready. Roon is a subscription-based, multi-room music management and listening solution designed for the music streaming enthusiast. Roon manages the music from all of your digital sources -- TIDAL, Qobuz, hard drives, a NAS, iTunes, etc. -- and creates one seamless music library that's like a "Wikipedia for music," with lots of rich metadata and music suggestions. Learn more in our Roon Complete Guide to Music Streaming. Many audio brands are compatible with Roon, giving you the option of using the brand's own control app or Roon.
Purchase: A portable digital audio player (DAP)
- 64GB internal storage
- Up to 1TB MicroSD card slot
- 3.6-inch touchscreen HD 720x1280
- 20 hours of playback
- Outputs: 3.5mm unbalanced, 2.5mm balanced 4-pole
- 64GB internal storage
- Up to 2TB MicroSD card slot
- 5-inch touchscreen full HD 1080P
- 11 hours of playback
- Interchangeable amp module design
- Outputs: 2.5mm TRRS, 3.5mm single-ended, 3.5mm line out
- Unique tube amp sound (the "T" stands for tube!)
- 256GB Internal storage plus microSD ≤1TB
- 5-inch touchscreen HD 1280x1080
- 9 hours of playback
- Outputs: 3.5mm unbalanced, 2.5mm balanced, optical 3.5mm, 4.4mm balanced
Want to use your desktop computer as your source via a direct USB connection?
If you've got the space for a desktop amp and you don't mind running cables, there are some wonderful desktop headphone amps at a range of price points. From the TEAC UD-505 USB DAC Headphone Amplifier to the top-of-the-line Chord DAVE DAC Preamp Amplifier, you can enjoy an elevated headphone listening experience. The TEAC 500 series offers great value for the money, with lots of bells and whistles. Chords are known for their phenomenal DACs. Both TEAC and Chord can run Roon.
Purchase: A desktop DAC/headphone amplifier
- Flagship dual monaural USB DAC
- Fully balanced headphone amplifier
- Versatile network playback capabilities
- Headphone out: 1/4" TRS stereo jacks x2 (gold plated); 4.5mm 5-pole Pentaconn x1 (gold-plated)
- Popular tabletop DAC
- Able to drive most headphones
- Four-stage user-selectable filter controls and three-stage user-selectable digital crossfeed function
- Headphone out: 6.5mm jack (x2) and a 3.5mm jack
- Chord's most advanced FPGA DAC
- Unmatched reality and musicality with an unrivaled timing response
- Beautiful styling with full-size LCD display
- Headphone out: 1/4" TRS jack
Want to use your laptop as your source without having to run a USB cable?
Picture it: You're on the sofa with your laptop, and your music player is nestled on a side table, tucked away on a shelf, or otherwise out of view. Now you can control it wirelessly with your iPhone, iPad, or Android device using the player's proprietary app or with Roon. Here are a few of our favorite options. We like TEACs because they are a great value for the money and offer lots of bell and whistles. We refer to them as a "tweaker's paradise" because of all of the options. The Bricasti M3h is a wonderfully powerful amplifier that can drive even power-hungry headphones. Both TEAC and Bricasti can run Roon.
Purchase: A network music player
- Dual monaural USB DAC/Network Player
- 5 types of PCM digital filters and 2 types of DSD digital filters
- Headphone output: 1/4" (3.5mm) stereo TRS jack (gold-plated)
- Bluetooth® receiver supporting LDAC™ and Qualcomm® aptX™ HD
- USB DAC, network player, analog preamp & headphone amp
- 4-pin XLR headphone amplifier that can be switched between balanced and active ground
- Bluetooth® receiver supports LDAC, aptX™ HD, and other high-resolution codecs
Must add network player card for an additional $1,000
- Fully balanced headphone system
- Two independent linear power supplies for the analog and digital processing
- Precision DDS clocking that lowers jitter to extremely low levels
- Headphone output: XLR balanced (pin 2 hot)
Don't want to use computer storage?
Check out the Matrix Audio Element Series of DACs/headphone amps/streamers. You can plug in a hard drive, then control playback using Matrix's MA Remote app or Roon. The flagship Element X is our No. 1 desktop DAC. It's balanced all the way through and runs a powerful audio playback system that supports all popular formats. Simply connect a USB drive or configure a NAS storage device to browse your music library and enjoy up to 768kHz PCM and 22.4MHz DSD. For headphone listening, the Element X features a dual-mode headphone amplifier consisting of four independent amplifier units. In balanced mode it can drive a pair of balanced headphones or in single-ended mode, it can drive two single-ended pairs of headphones, each having its own independent stereo amplifier. Compared to the other Element series models, the Element X has a superior word clock and a better preamp stage, should you choose to use it as a preamplifier.
Purchase: A music player that allows for the addition of an external hard drive
- "Bang for the buck" option
- Headphone out: 1/4-inch (3.5mm)
- SiTime Low Phase Noise Clock
- Good balance between performance, functionality, and price
- Headphone out: 1/4-inch (3.5mm)
- SiTime Low Phase Noise Clock
- Superbly engineered with "all in one" functionality
- Headphone out: 4-pin XLR, Dual 3-pin XLR, 6.35mm
- Crystek CCHD-950 Ultra Low Phase Noise Femtosecond Clock
Need lots of storage for a large music collection?
If you've got a massive digital music library, a dedicated server as your "music manager" makes sense. In this case you're upgrading from an add-on hard drive to a server with internal storage and then pairing it with a DAC/headphone amp. Here are a couple of our favorite server/DAC pairings.
Purchase: a music player and a stand-alone server
First, you could pair the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition with the Naim Uniti Core Music Server. We refer to the Naim Uniti as the "kitchen sink" when it comes to functionality. With the Core, you can store up to 100,000 tracks to internal (HDD or SSD - up to 8TB) of external Network Attached Storage or USB-connected storage and serve to your Uniti Atom or other network-connected player. The Core offers CD ripping; create bit-perfect copies of your CDs, store them internally, and play back via your Uniti Atom. Playback is through the Naim app or Roon. The app makes it simple to control your Uniti Core, and even link up other music systems around your home into a multi-room setup. Use the app to access all your music, including your favourite radio stations, streaming services and playlists, and explore artist discographies and biographies.
- CD ripping
- Use Naim app or Roon
- Store up to 100,000 tracks to internal (HDD or SSD - up to 8TB) or external NAS or USB-connected storage and serve to a network-connected player
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition
- Great looks; full-color screen
- Feature packed
- Headphone out: 4.4mm Pentaconn, 4-pin XLR, 6.35mm
- Powers the most premium headphones with ease
If you want to go all out with the best-of-the-best sound, you could pair the dCS Bartok DAC & Headphone Amplifier with the Aurender N20 Streaming Music Server. The Bartok can power hard-to-drive headphones. With the Bartok, you can use Roon or dCS' own app called Mosaic. The Aurender N20 allows for user-installed storage, with two trays for 2.5” 15mm/7mm HDDs/SSDs. Playback is through the Aurender Conductor app. The unit has a gorgeous, full color 8.8” 1980 x 480 wide screen. The linear power supply for the N20 utilizes two transformers, four cores, large audio-grade capacitors, and isolated grounding. It is extremely sophisticated and dead quiet. A power supply this good contributes immediately audible improvements to any audio component.
- Up to 16TB user-installed storage via two rear trays
- Aurender Conductor app
- Linear power supply; sophisticated and quiet
- Full-color 8.8” 1980 x 480 wide screen
- Able to drive low and high impedance headphones
- Proprietary Ring DAC and clocking architecture
- Stereo balanced output 4-pin male XLR connector; stereo unbalanced output on 6.35mm 3-pole jack
Want a cream-of-the-crop one-box solution?
Designed with the digital streaming enthusiast in mind, Aurender creates world-renowned audio products to help you get the most from your digital audio experience. The A30 is the flagship model from Aurender’s range of analog output digital music players. It's a caching music server/streamer with 10TB internal storage. It includes full MQA Decoder technology that enables you to play back MQA audio files and streams, delivering the highest possible sound quality of the original master recording. Aurender has designed A30 to be the comprehensive digital focal point of your system providing useful aides not usually associated with a typical music server. Functions like CD ripping, a high-quality headphone amplifier, 10TB of internal storage, ultra-wide color LCD display and an integrated software suite of metadata editing and library management tools. All this, and much more, makes the A30 the new performance standard in all-in-one digital source components.
The A20 shares the same basic circuitry topologies and form factor as the A30. However, it dispenses with the CD ripping functionality, metadata editing software, and the headphone connection provided is a single standard ¼” jack. By being scaled back, the A20 will appeal to the digital music lover whose library is already digitized and who want a full-fledged, high-performance server, streamer, preamplifier, DAC, and headphone amplifier. The A20 can be customized to your needs in terms of storage capacity and type. Two trays located on the rear panel each can accommodate a hard drive (HDD) or SSD. For users with large music collections, each tray could be fitted with an 8TB SSD providing a massive 16TB of digital file storage. Consequently, if you are streaming exclusively, you don't need to install any drives (though they can be added later if you change your mind).
Music management and control for all Aurender products is done through the award-winning Conductor app, available for iOS and Android. Note that Aurender does not support Roon.
Purchase: an all-in-one unit from Aurender
- High-performance server, streamer, preamplifier, DAC, and headphone amplifier
- No CD ripper; great for users whose library is already digitized
- User-installable storage up to 16TB
- Headphone out: 1/4" (3.5mm) jack
- 10TB of internal storage
- CD ripping functionality
- Integrated software suite of metadata editing and library management tools
- Headphone out: 4pin XLR balanced, 4.4mm balanced, 6.5mm unbalanced