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After another round of testing, we’ve got some brand new options: the EarMen Eagle is our top pick if you need some extra power, our upgrade pick is the iFi Hip-dac2, and our budget pick is the Hidizs S3 Pro.
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Many audiophiles still prefer wired headphones, but the best pairs can demand more power than the cheap built-in amplifiers in phones, tablets and computers. If your favorite wired headphones sound too quiet or muffled when connected to a mobile device, you may need a portable headphone amplifier with a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC). We recommend the EarMen Eagle for most people because of the perfect combination of comfort, performance and affordability. But if you need something more durable or affordable, we’ve got that too.
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The EarMen Eagle packs impressive power into a super-compact and affordable design, but lacks some audiophile-focused features like MQA support and balanced audio output.
Despite its small size, the EarMen Eagle packs enough power to get optimal performance out of most heavy-duty audiophile headphones. Depending on how it’s measured, it produces nearly four times the power of our previous top pick, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, but costs about 35% less overall. Similar to a USB flash drive, the Eagle has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on one end and a USB-A connector on the other end for easy connection to most computers. A USB-A to USB-C adapter is included for use with most Android phones, and the Eagle is also compatible with Apple iOS devices, though you’ll need to purchase an adapter in that case, adding to the cost. This headphone amp lacks some features that audiophiles might notice, such as balanced output and MQA audio format support (more on that below), but we don’t think these features are necessary at this price point. Also, the Eagle doesn’t have a built-in battery and needs to be powered by your mobile device, but our tests showed that battery life is negligible.
This massive headphone amp is nearly three times more powerful than our top pick and is powered by a built-in rechargeable battery, but you almost feel like you’re carrying an extra phone.
The iFi Hip-dac2 is a huge improvement over the other portable headphone amps featured here in almost every way. It delivers nearly three times the power of the EarMen Eagle and has a built-in rechargeable battery rated for around eight hours of use, so it won’t drain your phone’s battery. The Hip-dac2 has both balanced and unbalanced audio outputs, and the balanced output has a bit more power so it can produce a slightly better sound. This iFi model also supports MQA, a controversial technology embraced by some audiophiles that promises improved performance when streaming MQA-processed audio from Tidal. The downside of the hip-dac2 is that it’s almost as big and heavy as a regular smartphone, so it probably only makes sense if you’re a really hungry headset. The kit includes a USB-A cable for connecting to most computers, as well as a USB-C adapter for connecting to Android devices; also works with Apple iOS devices using an adapter.
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The Hidizs S3 Pro is the size of a five-pack of nickels, but has enough power to drive most headphones. But the design feels a little weak.
The Hidizs S3 Pro is barely noticeable in your pocket, but don’t judge it by its size. Although the EarMen Eagle only delivers 50% to 70% power, that’s enough to power all but the most power-hungry audiophile headphones. The S3 Pro has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a built-in USB-C cable, and a USB-C to USB-A adapter is included. Works with Apple iOS devices via an inexpensive adapter. Like the iFi Hip-dac2, the Hidizs S3 Pro supports the controversial MQA technology favored by some audiophiles. Our main concerns with the S3 Pro: the cable design feels flimsy for a portable device, and like the EarMen Eagle, this model draws power from your computer or mobile device, which drains your device’s battery faster (but not as fast). our tests showed).
I have been writing professionally about sound since 1989. In that time, I’ve done more brand listening tests than any other audio journalist in North America (and possibly the world), evaluating several thousand speakers, amplifiers and other types. from audio equipment. I have served as a staff editor or contributor to several audio publications, including Sound & Vision, Home Theater Magazine, SoundStage, and AudioXpress. I am a member of the Audio Engineering Society and have a full suite of laboratory measuring equipment for testing audio products.
Senior contributor Lauren Dragan wrote earlier versions of this guide and helped with listening tests and product evaluations for this guide. Lauren earned her BA in both Music Performance and Sound Production and spent several years as a radio engineer and voice actor in top recording studios. In addition to the more than 1,500 headphones and audio accessories she’s reviewed for Wirecutter, Lauren has also reviewed and written about high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Cinema Magazine, and Sound & Vision. Audio for publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, Los Angeles Times and Time.
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The pre-test panel also included John Higgins (wife Lauren), a professional musician, composer, sound mixer, and co-author of Wirecutter with an M.A. in Music from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in Music and Recording from Ithaca College. was .
Wireless headphones can provide very good sound quality, but they can’t provide the best sound quality due to Bluetooth compression losses and the compromises required to fit too much technology into a small space. Wired headphones often offer better sound for the money, but many new smartphones don’t have headphone jacks, and some audiophile-oriented wired headphones require more power than mobile devices and computers can muster to provide satisfactory volume levels. You can solve both of these problems by using a portable headphone amplifier/DAC that can be connected to the digital output of an audio device – usually USB-A on computers, Lightning on Apple iOS phones, USB -C on new devices. Micro USB-B connector on Android phones or older Android devices.
Inexpensive dongle-type amplifiers/DACs (such as this Lightning adapter) are available for a low price, and one of these will work well with most headphones. However, it may not have enough power to handle headphones with higher impedance (stated in ohms and describes how resistant the headphones are to the flow of electrical current) or lower sensitivities (stated in decibels and describes how loud they sound). headphones play with a certain power). You can learn more about headphone impedance and sensitivity on Shure’s website. If you have, or are considering purchasing, headphones with an impedance of 100 ohms or more or a sensitivity rating of less than 98dB, a cheap amp/DAC switch may not have enough power to reach the appropriate volume levels.
The same goes for headphone amplifiers built into phones, tablets and laptops, so headphone enthusiasts tend to add a portable amplifier/DAC when listening to music from their mobile device.
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There is another possible reason for using a portable headphone amp/DAC: many high-end headphones aimed at audiophiles use balanced armature drivers, whose impedance increases significantly at higher audio frequencies. An amplifier with a high output impedance interacts with the headphone’s own impedance to change the sound, often making the result a little dull and lively. (You can learn more about output impedance in the next section.) Even most inexpensive headphone amps have a fairly low output impedance, which shouldn’t be a problem. However, the output impedance specification is almost never published, and only a few review sites (with the exception of Wirecutter) measure it, so it’s rare to know for sure.
What about the DAC part of the equation? Promotional materials for these amplifier/DAC models often promise that the digital-to-analog converters sound better than those built into phones and computers. However, we have never seen these claims confirmed in independent controlled tests. In our own testing, where we did our best to dispel bias and fairly compare all competitors, we heard extremely minor and musically minor differences between these models.
Lauren likened the experience of comparing amps/DACs to tasting two batches of cake: let’s say one batch has 1/16th of a teaspoon more salt than the other. Can you taste the difference between the cakes from each batch? Maybe, but even if you could, you’re unlikely to be able to make or break a batch of muffins, and it’s impossible to know which batch a particular taster would prefer. In addition, there are many other factors
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