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No matter where you might stand on the subjective vs. objective, measurements vs. “trusting your ears” debate, you can’t deny that the miniDSP IL-DSP DAC-headphone amp ($99 USD) can have a radical effect on the sound of your headphones. Like other roughly finger-sized DAC-amps on the market, the miniDSP plugs into a computer, phone, or tablet, and performs digital-to-analog conversion and powers a set of earphones or headphones. But while most of those products’ marketing claims are simply that they sound more awesome than other companies’ DAC-amps, the miniDSP incorporates a digital signal processing chip that can be user-programmed with different EQ curves.

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Pennsylvania-based Rogue Audio has been producing tubed electronics for 20 years. Although they’ve long included headphone jacks on many of their products, Rogue is not oblivious to the demands of today’s ever-growing market of headphone enthusiasts. Many high-quality headphones can sound great when plugged directly into a smartphone, but their sound can often further benefit from connection to a dedicated headphone amplifier fed signals from high-quality source components. Some high-end headphones require greater power than a smartphone, or even the headphone amp in a typical audio component, can deliver. Rogue’s solution to these needs of the headphone aficionado is the RH-5 headphone amplifier-preamplifier ($2495 USD).

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Many companies selling DAC-headphone amps snazz them up with every possible feature and a design that grabs attention. Lehmannaudio has a different approach. Its Linear USB II DAC-headphone amp ($2199 USD) is about as simple as it could be: basically one digital input, a stereo analog input, a volume knob, and two 1/4" unbalanced headphone outputs, all in a plainly designed rectangular chassis. I’m only mildly familiar with the company -- Lehmannaudio is a German brand that seems best known in Europe, and I’d previously encountered it only at Munich’s High End show -- but I gather from reading around a bit on the Internet that elegant simplicity is the company’s thing.

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The Periodic Audio Nickel is the gutsiest audio product I’ve seen in many years. It’s a headphone amp that measures only 2” long, comes in a plastic enclosure, has no controls, no Bluetooth, no DAC . . . yet it costs $299 USD. I can’t find a directly comparable product, but the FiiO A3 amp has about as much rated power, plus volume, gain and bass-boost controls, and costs only $49 on Amazon, although it is about three times the Nickel’s size. The first time I encountered the Nickel at a CanJam headphone show, I had to wonder what kind of sonic juju this thing could have to justify its price.

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The Auris Audio Euterpe is, in some ways, the opposite of what I usually look for in audio gear. But that’s OK. Actually, it’s more than OK.

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Reviewers' ChoiceThe Monolith Liquid Platinum and Monolith THX 24459 are both headphone amps, and they both come from Monoprice, but otherwise, they couldn’t be more different. The tech behind the Liquid Platinum comes from artisanal amp designer Alex Cavalli, while the tech behind the Monolith 24459 comes from THX, a company known for its dedication to technical standards and measurements. The Liquid Platinum ($769.99 USD) is a plain ol’ amplifier, with nothing but a couple of tubes to distinguish it, while the Monolith THX 24459 ($479.99) is packed with technology, including a built-in DAC with digital inputs; a menu-driven control system with a front-panel display; and a digital signal processor (DSP) that allows parametric equalization, multiple filter modes, and Dirac Sensaround II headphone processing.

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Latest Comments

@JohnUnfortunately, there's much more to consider than the version of Bluetooth incorporated into the chipset. ...
Can't get more up to date than Bluetooth 5.0 Brent. Perhaps your phone is out ...
Brent Butterworth 8 days ago miniDSP IL-DSP DAC-Headphone Amplifier
@MauroI'm not sure where the biggest of those ears comes from, but the two flesh-colored ...
@Brent ButterworthI read once about different pinna sizes here https://clarityfidelity.blogspot.com/2015/05/introduction-measurement-procedures.html, but it seems to me a ...
@Doug SchneiderMauro, thanks for the tip on Marshall durability! Maybe I will put some heavy "mileage" ...