Best Portable Headphone Amp Under $100: top 6 picks

Written by Michele Zangrandi

You might think that headphones are relatively simple little devices, needing no extra equipment to be fully functional. That’s only partly correct because people often want high-quality audio rather than the standard headphone sound. But don’t worry, you need not spend a ton of cash to get a decent headphone amplifier.

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The Top Six Portable Amps Under $100

What To Know Before Getting Started

A high-quality headphone amplifier can bring out the very best in the music you listen to on headphones. Most people refer to these devices simply as “amps” and it’s pretty common to search online and in retail stores for the best portable headphone amp under 100 or just for the best headphone amp under 100, portable or not.

And just like so many other consumer tech products, there’s no “perfect” one out there. They all have a few shortcomings. Plus, each person has their own preferences about how they like their sound and what kinds of music they listen to. Some products in this line have problems with so-called “loose bass,” or just don’t have a very detailed sound profile.

There’s sort of a secret about the difference between great headphone amps and mediocre ones: the really high-end products are able to not only boost the general sound level but can deliver very accurate reproductions of the original recording, which is what you should be aiming for. It’s one thing to merely make something louder, but quite another to bring all the rich, subtle tones along with the additional volume.

However, beware of one common trap. If you have headphones that aren’t very good to begin with, all your amp will be able to do is give you more of the same. That’s why looking for the best headphone amp under 100 can be a bit of a challenge. Higher prices do not always mean better products. And even if you do end up with the best headphone amplifier in existence, a pair of low-quality headphones can prevent the amp from doing its top-notch work.

Common Features You Want To Shop For

If you’re an audiophile, you probably have a very long checklist of features you search for when you go out to shop for a headphone amplifier. For example, perhaps you’re only looking for the best DAC amp under 100 or the ideal amp for hd650 headphones. When you’re already conversant with the products, your goals are quite different from a beginner’s.

For those relatively new to the world of amps, it helps to stay focused on just a few categories in order to find what you’re looking for. Generally speaking, try to locate products that are very small, allow for the audio to be augmented, can reduce a lot of distortion, and allow for a wide range of impedance. Here’s a more detailed look at each of those four points:

  • Impedance: When trying to match impedance levels, you can run into problems if you buy an amp that has too narrow a range. Opt for amps that are able to match various headphone impedance levels so you’ll be able to get an exact match and hear high-quality sound from the headphone you already own. For example, a good amp for hd650 headphones will be able to exactly match the given impedance level.
  • Augmentation: Even if your source audio feed is not exactly the best-quality stuff around, a good amp can bring out the good tones and make it much better than it was. This is a typical situation consumers face when they already have a high-quality set of headphones but are working with a low-quality audio source. The addition of reliable, quality amp can improve the overall situation quite a bit.
  • Distortion reduction: What should you do if your headphones become highly distorted at high volumes? When you add an amp that offers good SNR, or sound-to-noise ratio, you can get rid of a lot of that high-volume distortion and end up with a richer, tidier sound output.
  • Size: Whether you’re looking for an amp for hd650 headphones in any price range, or are dead-set on finding the best headphone amp under 100, keep size in mind. The point is to get as small of an amp as you possibly can within the price range you are comfortable with. Smaller means “more portable,” which is a universal good when it comes to sound system components.

Given those requirements it should be much easier to shop for the best DAC amp under 100, even if you are not an audio expert. As long as you know about those four key qualities, you’ll be on the right track.

Why Do You Even Need Amps?

If you like to listen to high-quality audio, you need a good amp. Remember, it’s not about just “pumping up the volume,” but about bringing out the full beauty and complete tonal quality of the original sound. When you force your source audio through a headphone, it’s possible to lose a lot of that core quality, like the rich tones, the high peaks, and the tonal subtlety. An amp solves this problem well and does so for a very reasonable price, if you know how to shop.

The Top Six Portable Amps Under $100

#1

EarStudio ES100

This unit is ideal for anyone who owns a smartphone that lacks a headphone jack because you can use it with just about any headphone on the market. It’s your choice to run your earphones either balanced or in a single-ended fashion. It lets you do hands-free calling as well. The basic packaging is functional but not elaborate. It arrives in a small box that contains not much more than protective packaging and a quick-start guide.

When you open it up, you’ll find a usb-to-micro-usb charger cable, the quick-start guide card, a lanyard, and the ES100 unit itself. It’s tiny and is fully operated from a super-lightweight plastic chassis, but doesn’t feel inexpensive or flimsy. The matte-finish front includes a round LED that uses multi-color flashing to announce different operating modes. You can easily pair it with one or two sources at once, even switching between them at will. You’ll hear a clear prompt when it pairs with any audio source or when you turn it on or off.

To add to its appeal and versatility, it comes with multiple setting, balanced output for the headphones. Firmware updates are performed regularly by the manufacturer. Software for the app is also updated regularly, which means you’re always getting additional features thrown in for no additional cost. As a Bluetooth solution, this unit does it all and then some.

4.7 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • The battery life is relatively long, thus enabling convenient portability
  • The overall value for price is excellent
  • Output power is considerably higher than other choices at this price range
  • The unit is extremely lightweight
  • There is an extra 2.5 mm output which is balanced
  • Superb wireless functionality
  • Comes with top-grade iPhone and Android software
CONS
  • The placement of the button is not ergonomic or convenient
  • There is very low force to the clamp, thus it can fall off if jostled
#2

Sabaj Audio PHA2

The Sabaj PHA2, for those who are familiar with the company’s other products, is a nicely upgraded version of the previous PHA1. So, what’s the big difference between the two? Plenty. The PHA1 was not able to work with high-powered outputs and thus was unable to drive headphones that offered resistance on the high end. However, the new unit, the PHA2, offers power input in the plus/minus 15V range, so you will feel comfortable using it with any headphones you like.

The power-enhancing/boosting module, along with the unit’s exceptionally strong chips that power the headphone amp are able to deliver true audiophile-level sound that is both high-quality and sonically pleasing. Consider the fact that the product comes with a pair of input jacks, one a 3.5mm version and the other a 6.35mm. They are capable of driving headphones of both high and low resistance efficiently and seamlessly. That’s the major selling point of this product, according to the manufacturer’s literature and based on what we discovered on our own by testing it.

The aluminum cabinet is CNC-sourced and looks great. Its sleekness is only enhanced by its size and design.

Power input includes a 5V as well as the possibility to use either a micro-usb or power the unit straight from the adapter. For speaker connections, the Sabaj PHA2 utilizes a versatile RCA analog for input.

4.3 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • Very solid build with intuitive, ergonomic controls
  • High value for the price point, considering all the features
  • The overall design is extremely compact
  • Perfectly workable AMP-DAC combination capability
  • Is able to drive headphones of all kinds
CONS
  • Seems to need frequent charging due to the short battery life
  • There is only one input and one output channel, which means limited versatility
  • Treble capability is less than impressive
  • It is impossible to use the device while your are charging it
#3

AudioQuest DragonFly

This product, like many of its competitors, is an upgraded version of one of the company’s predecessors, but with many added features, primarily in the area of compatibility. The volume control as well as the multi-colored LED that alerts uses to file size are extremely convenient and well designed features. The overall advantage of the device is its incredibly high value, especially for an amp with such high sound quality and compact size.

With much less power consumption than either its predecessor or its competitors, the Dragonfly works ideally with both Android and Apple phones as well as tablets when you use a standard adapter. Expect better immediacy, tone, detail, richness, and transparency in all your musical choices when you opt for this amp. And even though it doesn’t come with DSD support and has limited playback potential, you’ll get incredible versatility in terms of playing what you want, from MP3s to high-res 24-bit files.

Reproduction is exceptionally clear and the overall sound quality is much better than you’d expect for a tiny amp in this price range. Its ability to drive the headphones directly and the fact that it works with all tablets and smartphones is a major plus. For all-around value and functionality, the Dragonfly is an excellent choice.

4.4 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • Very dynamic sound quality with completely clear reproduction
  • Extremely small, which means its fully portable
  • The Dragonfly works in conjunction with all tablets and smartphones as long as you use a standard adapter
  • It has the ability to play virtually anything you have from high-res 24-bit to common MP3s
  • Excellent for a good value
  • Improves a full range of qualities like overall tone, detail, richness, and even transparency
  • Doesn’t consume nearly as much power as its predecessor
CONS
  • The unit does not offer any support for DSD
  • The playback limit is a bit stunted at just 96kHz
#4

EarStudio ES100 MK2

Measuring in at just two inches by one inch by a half inch, this tiny amp weighs only 1.5 ounces, making it one of the lightest and smallest in its class, and one of the best. The unit’s pitch-black panel includes a status light, an LED, right at the bottom. The rocker switch and standard headphone jack on the left side of the unit as well as a holed microphone. On the other side of the device is a pause/play button and a forward-back button. This juxtaposition offers compactness but it also makes it easy to accidentally push something you don’t want to. That’s a very small price to pay for compactness and high functionality, however.

The ES100 MK2 is an advanced audio device in many way, including its 2.5mm headphone port for balanced audio. There’s a convenient clip on the back that is spring-loaded for easy attachment to a shirt or bag. There’s also a handy micro-usb port that doubles as a unit charger or a usb-dac input location. A nice touch is the long battery life, at about 14 hours of play time.

We were surprised by the sheer power of the amp, its overall quality, and the fact that it can drive just about any headphones on the market. What we especially enjoyed was the amount of control we had when we used the amp, the sound quality, and its value.

4.4 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • Comes with its own mic so you can receive calls while listening
  • It’s quite lightweight and very small
  • For its size, the power output is seriously high
  • The companion app is useful
  • Battery life is longer than most comparable products
  • Huge number of compatible codecs
  • The ability to use unbalanced and balanced outputs
  • Overall sound quality is superb
CONS
  • The chassis feels low-end and doesn’t appear to offer durability for the long term
  • The layout of the buttons is a problem because you can easily make a mistake due to their opposite-side placement
  • There is little documentation that comes with the product, just a sheet for quick-start directions and that’s it
#5

Topping 4330354362 NX1s

This is Topping’s upgrade of a previous amp. The NX1s is an aluminum-covered amp that is quite small but that delivers a sound quality that is on a par with many higher-priced and larger devices in its class. Designed to be a low-priced competitor for entry-level users, especially people who own smartphones and are looking for a compatible unit.

The accessories are impressive, too. The box contains two rubber bands so you can secure this little unit to your source, a cable 8 centimeters long that features jacks on both its ends for a 3.5mm connection. There are also some strips made of Velcro for buyers who want an alternative to the rubber bands. Additionally, you get a rubber pad and a standard micro-usb cable.

The general design features a rounded motif. There are output and input jacks for 3.5mm cables with a micro-usb on the other side of the unit for recharging it. Other features are a gain switch, a bass boost, each of which has to separate levels, high and low. It has the ability to clean up background source sound and make significant improvements in overall sound quality. This inexpensive unit can cancel noise better than some products three and four times its price.

You can fine-tune as much as you want when you use this handy, powerful little amp with a smartphone. Not only that, but we discovered that one of the NX1s high points is that you can listen to standard music on a smartphone and use this amp to micro-manage volume and bass equalization. That’s a nice function in an amp that does many other things and cost so little.

4.5 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • The overall feel of the unit is compact and it features a design that is quite refined and sleek
  • For the number of features offered and the quality, it is exceptionally affordable and is an excellent value
  • The build is solid
  • There are bass and gain switches, unlike some of its competitors
  • The output is thoroughly clean and the sound is neutral
  • Battery life is longer than most other similar products at this price point
  • Charges up quickly and easily
  • Features a workable, touchable volume knob designed for human hands, unlike some competing models
  • Extremely small, unexpectedly powerful, and priced lower than most of its competition
CONS
  • The impedance output seems to be a bit on the high side
  • The sub-bass section includes coloration
#6

FiiO A3

The FiiO offers users many key advantages and features, like a size small enough to be truly portable. The edges are beveled and thus feel very easy to hold, with no protruding ridges or sharp points. There are three central controls, the first one being the top-mounted volume knob which is designed smartly to sit in between a pair of arms that are made of solid aluminum. In case you drop the device, the aluminum arms offer reliable protection for the all-important volume knob.

There are flicker switches on either end of the volume knob, on the top of the unit. They are the gain switch, both a low and high option, and a two-setting bass booster with “on” and “off” settings. We found ourselves using these two flicker switches quite a lot while listening to music on the amp. You get a feeling of total control because the switches allow for minute changes in the settings.

This compact amp offers a very long battery life, which we found to be one of the very best things about it. For a unit in this price point to offer all the standard amp features as well as a 16-hour battery playback time is quite impressive. You’ll find yourself, as did we, spending about four full hours charging the lithium battery, but considering you get four times that much return on your time investment, it’s a pretty good deal all around. We also discovered sound quality to be excellent, the number of features as good or better than its competitors, and its overall quality worthy of our top six list.

4.2 of 5.0 Stars
PROS
  • Very versatile design and extremely compact
  • If you have low-impedance headphones, this unit works perfectly
  • Ideal for at-home or portable use
  • It has a high-quality, durable dial for the volume control
  • Very simple to use and a nice fit for those new to audio tech
  • The built quality is rock-solid
  • A long battery life makes for easy portability
CONS
  • If you have a touch-screen, the elastic bands can be frustrating
  • There’s a loud “pop” if you switch the unit off or on while you have in-ear-monitors on
  • The unit cannot be operated at all during the charging phase
  • If the battery gets too low, you won’t know it by the LED because it does not change color
  • Does not stack easily due to the shape, which is rather curved

Conclusion

Any of the six choices on the list are perfectly fine if you are wanting a high-quality product, but the AudioQuest DragonFly stands out as our favorite. In spite of a couple very minor drawbacks, like the lack of DSD ability and a relatively short playback limit, the unit is a winner at our under-$100 price point. The sound is quite dynamic and offers wonderful detail. This little device brings crystal clear sound right to your ears and is fully compatible with tablets and smartphones. Its diminutive size of 16x19x12 mm is tiny, fully portable, and easily stored just about anywhere. This baby gets the job done, and then some.