If you use a pair of portable headphones, or even budget headphones, you could probably do with a decent amplifier. But if your favorite way of listening involves music on the go, it’s got to go with you. This week, we’re looking at portable headphone amps, based on your recommendations.
Earlier in the week we asked you for the best portable headphone amps. You turned up a ton of great options, as always—but we only have room for the top five, based on your nominations. Here they are, in no particular order:FiiO Mont Blanc E12
The FiiO E12 is a mid-range amplifier that’s still small enough (and battery powered) to be considered portable. You can get a full 12 hours of juice out of the pocket-sized amp, which is only about 5 inches by 3 inches, and just over a half-inch thick. It only weighs about five ounces, so whether you keep it in a pocket or in your carry all, it’s not going to add a ton of weight while you listen to it. The E12 has an all-aluminum body to protect it from drops and shocks, can boost the performance of just about any set of headphones (16~300 Ohm), and has a USB port on the side to charge from a laptop, your phone, or a tablet as well as a wall charger while you use it if you want, which makes it versatile for on-the-go listening as well as rocking out while you work. If you want one, they’ll set you back $129 at Amazon.
Those of you who nominated the E12 pointed out that it may not be the absolute best at doing what an amp is supposed to do, but it’s a best option because it delivers huge bang for your buck. It may be midrange, but the improvement in audio quality you’ll get when listening to even middling headphones or a mild audio source is huge compared to the amount of money you’ve spent—so if you love your phone, or your laptop has middling audio but you love your headphones, or vice versa, the E12 is worth a look, and a great starting point for skeptics who want to try our an amp without draining their bank accounts. Read more in its nomination thread here.FiiO Alpen 2 E17K
FiiO’s Alpen 2 E17K is the most recent model of the older Alpen E17, which made our list of the best digital-to-analog converters (DACs). The E17 proper turned up again in the nominations, but seeing as the Alpen 2 E17K is the current model (and it’s cheaper than the older E17) we’re focusing on it. The E17K is a little bigger than the E12, about 6 inches by 4 inches, and a good half-inch thick. Despite its larger size, it’s still only about five ounces, and packs a serious punch when it comes to audio performance. It’s also battery powered, and packs a bigger battery and holds about 15 hours worth of charge, again rechargable via wall socket, your phone or tablet, or any other USB device. This model is designed for more demanding headphones (15~150 Ohm), and can be used either as a standalone DAC or headphone amp, or (with added equipment) as an external sound card for desktop use. The E17K also supports dual-function inputs, and has a coax input, adding to its versatility as both a portable and a desktop device. If you want one, it’ll set you back $139 at Amazon, fifty dollars less than the $189 previous E17 model.
Those of you who nominated the E17 and E17K praised it for being useful for all sets of headphones, whether you’re on the go and listening to portable cans or IEMs, or you’re sitting at home in a quiet environment. That versatility makes it worth the extra money, and knowing that you’re getting something that can be used for more than just portable use is worthwhile. Beyond that though, many of you noted that its battery life is great, it can serve as a USB audio source when plugged into a computer for a clean audio source, and its aluminum look and design aren’t bad either. You can read more in this nomination thread or this thread here.Lucid Labs CMOY Headphone Amplifier
If you’ve ever wanted your superior sound to come out of an Altoids tin, or an old ginger candy tin, or a mint tin, or even just a plain aluminum tin, Lucid Labs makes quality amplifiers that come in a variety of altoid-tin sized cases that you can choose from. It’s a little personalization (you can choose from 8 different tin options!) that goes into an otherwise extremely portable, excellent-sounding amplifier that can drive all sorts of headphones (30-300 Ohm.) They’re battery powered and pocket sized, and can run for up to 20 hours on a pair of 9V alkaline batteries. Plus, every single amp they make is tested before it’s shipped, and they’re all custom made. You get a standard stereo input and output, but that’s about it—don’t expect too many bells and whistles, but they do sound great. Oh, did we mention that’s only $34 dollars at Amazon? You can check out all the case options at Amazon here, or just pick up one from Lucid Labs directly, where all of the cases are available and the price is the same.
Those of you who nominated Lucid Labs’ amplifiers pointed out that the look alone is fun and whimsical, and the sound quality is incredible for the money that you spend on the amplifier. Lucid Labs also does a great job of describing on their web site why you would consider an amplifier for your mobile device. Some of you pointed out that CMOY amps are great because you can always build your own if you like, but for the price of one of these, you’re saving money on the time to assemble as well as the parts, which makes it a pretty smart purchase. You can read more in its nomination thread here.Objective2 Headphone Amplifier
The Objective2 amplifier from JDS Labs actually made an appearance with the ODAC in our list of the best DACs a while back. The newer model is still small and still doesn’t have to be paired with the ODAC if you don’t want one. While it’s definitely pushing the line of “portable” thanks to its design, it’s still only 4 inches by 3 inches and about an inch or so thick. The knob off the front is a little tricky to handle in a pocket, but if you keep it in a bag or carry-all, you’ll have no issue. It’s also battery powered and rechargeable, and can run for about six to eight hours on its pair of internal 9V NiMH batteries. It’s also customizable, so you can tweak the components and the inputs to suit your needs. The standard models though come in silver and black, have standard stereo or RCA inputs, 3.5 or 6.3mm stereo outputs, all of which can be customized if you prefer a different configuration of inputs and outputs. The O2 is built for virtually any type of headphone, and promises improvements at all levels, regardless of the headphones you’re listening to or the source. If you want one, your best bet is to snag one for $129 direct from JDS Labs.
Those of you who nominated the O2 noted that this is another extreme bang-for-the-buck option, one that has the power to rival full-sized amps but is small enough to fit into a pocket for on the go or stationary listening. Its design is clean and minimal, but still rugged enough to go anywhere, and those of you who have had your own noted that it’s a top notch amplifier, regardless of what you plug it into. The fact that you can either buy the default configuration or have a say in what inputs and outputs are on your model is a huge benefit too. You can read more in its nomination thread here.FiiO Fujiyama E6
The FiiO E6 is a tiny (only 1.6 inches square and less than a half-inch thick) headphone amplifier that epitomizes the idea of “portable.” You could stick this sucker on the back of a phone case, or just leave it in your pocket with your phone and have no idea it was even there—it only weighs about half ounce. Of course, in this case its strength is portability and price, not necessarily power—which even FiiO is quick to point out. It boasts a simple single input, single output, and a volume rocker on one side, concealed power indicator that changes color when charging or on battery power, and the battery usually works for about 10 hours on a charge. Somehow there’s even a triple-mode EQ built into the tiny thing. It even has a removable clip you can attach to a bag strap or inside of your pocket to keep it in place while you listen to it—that’s how small the thing is. It’s designed for a decent range of headphones (16~150 Ohm), and will set you back a pittance compared to the others in the roundup—$28 at Amazon, a perfect price for people wondering whether or not an amp can make a difference for their headphones at all, and a great starting point if you’re curious whether the audio source you listen to (or the headphones you wear) on the go could use an amplifier.
The E6 was our own Whitson Gordon’s nomination, and while everyone was clear on the notion that it’s probably not the best amplifier on the market, you can certainly consider it one of the best for most people—and the best for your wallet. It’s so cost effective and the benefit you get from it is more than worth the money you’ll pay for one. More than a few of you chimed in with your experiences with the E6, pointing out that you got one with your headphones, or that you’ve had yours for years with no problems—and while the documentation isn’t exactly great, it’s definitely worth it, just for the bang for the buck. Read more in its nomination thread here.
Now that you’ve seen the top five, it’s time to put them to an all-out vote to determine the Lifehacker community favorite:Honorable Mentions
This week’s honorable mention goes out to the Emmeline, The Shadow, from Ray Samuels Audio. It’s a custom made amplifier—bespoke, as it were—so you’ll have to wait your turn to have one hand-crafted for you and your specific needs, but once you have one, you’ll have something truly personal and handmade that you can appreciate both on the go or sitting at home listening to whatever audio source you may have to listen to. These things are almost works of art, not just amplifiers, and just reading the description at the homepage tells the tale—just enough goes into the making of each one, no more, no less, and certainly not so much that it’s over the top. Some of you shared your experiences with them, and suffice to say, we’re impressed. It’s pricey, at $395, so it’s certainly not an entry level model. You can read more in its nomination thread here.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favorite, even if it wasn’t included in the list? Remember, the top five are based on your most popular nominations from the call for contenders thread from earlier in the week. Don’t just complain about the top five, let us know what your preferred alternative is—and make your case for it—in the discussions below.
The Hive Five is based on reader nominations. As with most Hive Five posts, if your favorite was left out, it didn’t get the nominations required in the call for contenders post to make the top five. We understand it’s a bit of a popularity contest. Have a suggestion for the Hive Five? Send us an email at email@example.com!
Title photo by Miki Yoshihito.
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