Vacuum tubes are loved both for their aesthetic and their sonic performance. The best tube headphone amps are loved for their uniqueness and style. What isn’t to love about a little vacuum tube that glows with heat while you listen to your favorite music?
Tube amplifiers have made a comeback lately thanks to the power requirements of modern headphones. Tube amplifiers are powerful, but they are still capable of warm, clear sound. Tube amps are also fun because they are easy to modify and upgrade, adding an extra touch of personality. No audiophiles lineup is complete without a tube amp, even if it’s a basic one.
Top 10 Headphone Amps
1. Dared MP-5BT
The Dared MP-5BT is one of the best tube headphone amps, with over 100,000 units sold. It has simple controls (on/off, volume, and input switch) and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. It has an analog input and a pre-amp output, both with gold RCA jacks. It also comes with a Bluetooth 4.0 antenna, USB input, two pairs of speaker terminals, and a 110/220V selector.
Sample Customer Review…I searched for months to find the perfect entry-level hybrid tube amp, and I am so happy with this purchase. The build quality is solid and the aesthetics are beautiful. I am not a hardcore audiophile, but I (and others) can hear the difference in sound quality. There is a richness and warmth that’s hard to describe, but easy to discern. The separation between the various instruments is so clear. I have no regrets about this purchase, and can highly recommend this amplifier.Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
2. Fosi Audio T20
The Fosi Audio T20 is a great budget tube amplifier, both for its quality and affordability. It’s great for the beginner audiophile or even the general consumer who loves great music quality in the form of a tube amplifier (they look pretty cool if you ask me). The Fosi T20 isn’t the most transparent amp, and it isn’t as warm as more expensive options, but it still significantly upgrades your headphones’ sound performance.
Sample Customer Review…Everything about this little device is just super impressive. Most important in my opinion, the sound quality it achieves. With a decent set of speakers, I guarantee that anyone taking part in the listening experience will be blown away. Other than that; build quality, connectivity, device controls, appearance, etc. are all top-notch. I’m completely satisfied with this purchase and highly recommend the device.Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
3. Monolith Liquid Platinum
The Monolith Liquid Platinum is one of my favorite amps, out of both the best tube headphone amps and the best solid-state amps. It is the product of a collaboration between Monoprice and Alex Cavalli. The twin tubes deliver powerful bass and the amp is forgiving—something most of the amps at this price range are not. The sound is warm, it has modern features like balanced outputs, and the tubes are easy to swap out. The highs are a little unrefined, but the mids and lows sound amazing. Still, this hybrid solid-state/tube amp is a steal for its price.
Sample Customer Review…I am delighted with the Liquid Spark. It is solidly built, made of metal, and as handsome as my McCormack headphone amp from 1997. It has a really quiet power supply. In comparison, I had iFi iCan micro SE which buzz badly until I replace the power supply with a comparable one from a Seagate HDD. How does it sound? Great! It drives all of my headphones including planar like Hifiman HE1000. I actually prefer the sound from Spark as an external amp compared to the Chord Dave headphone jack. It can sound bright with some headphones but I must say that the AQ Nightowl really sings with this amp and I enjoy this Owl-Spark combo as much as my Utopia-HPA1. And the price match of the owl-spark is about right too. Best 100 bucks I have spent on headphone gear. Highly recommended.Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
4. LOXJIE P20
The LOXJIE P20 is a unique little amp. It’s a hybrid, fully-balanced tube amp that works well with common audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser HD600. A fully balanced amp at this price is unheard of, so there are some flaws. First, the actual tubes are of questionable quality. Thankfully, half of the fun with the best tube headphone amps is that you can upgrade the tubes to nail your sound down, but it’s still disappointing when your amp doesn’t come with great tubes. Either way, this is a great option for someone who doesn’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a fully balanced amp.
Sample Customer Review…Hard to beat this one for the money. The tubes give a really warm mid-range and plenty of headroom to prevent any clipping issues. One thing that sets this amplifier apart from many others in this price range is the ability to run it in balanced mode, this helps eliminate any cross-talk due to the common ground between the two channels. I’m using Hifiman HE4XX planar headphones and this Amp drives them beautifully. I’ve also been downloading a lot of high-resolution music and listening to every detail of things I could never hear in the past. After a lot of research, I decided this Amp had everything I wanted and that it was the biggest bang for the buck, I don’t regret my decision one bit after many hours of listeningRead more reviews at Amazon.com.
5. Dayton Audio HTA100BT
The Dayton Audio HTA100BT offers a lot of great features at a very affordable price. Its classic look isn’t just practical either, the old-school arrow indicators work better than LED lights, which are prone to failure. The sound is warm and creates a natural soundscape. It has stereo RCA, USB, optical, coaxial, phono, and Bluetooth 5.0 inputs. The mono RCA subwoofer output also offers the potential for some pretty awesome sound (if you have a subwoofer, that is).
Sample Customer Review…OK, I’ve only had this unit for one day, so I can’t speak to longevity yet. But I will say I don’t generally leave reviews of products I buy. But I felt compelled because I am enjoying this unit so much- I really am loving this unit! The rich sounds it produces are really pleasing to the ear. Santana, Sting, Tom Petty, Chris Isaac all sound awesome on it- the sound of the guitars are awesome on this little unit. I can honestly say that listening to my favorites on this unit is like listening to music for the first time. I own a 30-year-old Yamaha receiver which I have enjoyed for years, I prefer this unit- and it isn’t close. The only thing I would change is changing the white device light to match the lovely gold tones of the tubes and volume meters. Other than that, awesome product for the price. Do yourself a favor – buy it and enjoy the rich tones.Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
6. Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies
The Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies tube amp is one of the most expensive amps on this list, but its performance is exemplary. It combines a tube amplifier for stereophones and a DAC with a USB input (32 bits/192kHz parameters). The asynchronous USB-DAC performs terrifically with high-res files. It features ultra-quiet ¼” and 3.5mm outputs for headphones. The amp uses a linear power supply, but the sound quality can be upgraded with a better power cable and connecting it to a power strip.
The sound can become a little grainy and there is some background noise, but you can also upgrade it with conditioners to eliminate these issues. These upgrades are pretty expensive, but if you’re already going to spend this much on an amp, it’s worth the extra cost. The amp shows the dramatic differences between standard and high-res quality. It’s pretty unforgiving to bad recordings.
Sample Customer Review…I doubt I can do it real justice–or more eloquently say what’s been already said by dozens of others, but I WILL say that I am extremely pleased with both the FORM (it’s a real piece of art, and as an Industrial Designer by education, I can say that) and its function. I love it! It looks really cool on my desk, and delivers exceptional sonic sounds! I had absolutely no problem with setup on my system – extremely pleased and happy to recommend.Review from audioadvisor.com
7. Rockville BluTube
The Rockville BluTube is a grade tube amplifier with Bluetooth with a range of 33 feet. It has coaxial and optical input as well as sub output. It has adjustable bass and treble and a USB input. In the rear, there is a banana plug and binding post outputs for 2 speakers.
Sample Customer Review… I bought the Rockville Blutube to push a pair of 1970’s Sansui SP-1200 speakers that needed a bit more power than my current amp was delivering. Running two turntables through a pre-amp with gain control on a splitter to input one and a CD player to input two. Wired an active Cerwin-Vega 12″ sub through the speaker ports as well. Let me just tell you that the Blutube absolutely rocks! I’m getting punchy tight bass, clear mids, and ticking clean highs with this little amp. Vinyl sounds fantastic, and Bluetooth connectivity is perfect.I’ve owned a lot of more expensive amps and receivers in my day and this little bad boy outperforms them all. I highly recommendedRead more reviews at Amazon.com
8. Little Dot MK2 MKII
The Little Dot MK2 MKII is a funky-looking amp, but it’s also charming. This is a more budget-friendly option, and it is one of the best tube headphone amps for such a low price. You can also easily tune it with different tubes to make it better suit your taste. Since you are going to save some money by buying this less expensive option, I recommend you replace the two small tubes with some Jan5654w tubes.
Sample Customer Review…I purchased this Little Dot MKII some time ago and I love it. To be honest it is my first tube amplifier and I am by no means an expert on tubes. I did purchase some upgraded tubes, however. I went with some GE and some Russian tubes. I really enjoy the sound of this little amplifier with my HD-600’s but some of my other cans play better with my Emotiva XDA-2 Gen 2 DAC. I have been healing up the past few months and unable to sit at my desk so I’m not sure how it’s going to work sound with my Planar headphones. I think this little amplifier will provide a newbie with enough choice in the types of different tube rolling possibilities in order to allow them to see if they like the tube sound. It’s a good starter amp is all I’m trying to say.Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
9. Nobsound MS-10D MKIII
The Nobsound MS-10D has coaxial and optical inputs as well as 3 different audio outputs including banana speakers, subwoofer, and 3.5 mm headphone allowing it to be compatible with most devices audio systems. The vacuum tubes make for a clear and smooth sound.
Sample Customer Review… I recently added this amp to my PC system. I had a small amp before I decided to go with tubes. My subwoofer is a Cerwin-Vega with a 6″ subwoofer. It rocks! Then I have two small (outdoor rated) Altec Lansing speakers. The change was night and day. My sound usually blows most people away when they see it’s a YouTube song on my PC. Great little amp, plenty of power.Read more reviews at Amazon.com
10. Nobsound NS-08E
The Nobsound NS-08E is one of the most popular budget tube headphone amps. It offers 1100 mW at 32 ohms and can drive 18-600 ohm headphones. It has a 6J3 vacuum and valve tube. It has a warm sound with powerful lows and bright highs. It also doubles as a pre-amp. Like most tube amps, it has a lot of potential for modification and upgrades, so someone new to tube amps should start here.
Sample Customer Review…One of the best upgrades I’ve ever made. Very inexpensive and high-quality sound. I should have bought it year(s) ago when I found out about it. If you are not sure about getting it, do yourself a favor and get it. You won’t be disappointed, you’ll be amazed. Where else can you get tube sound for this price? Make sure you have at least decent headphones. Cheap earbuds are not going to get a lot of improvements. I’m using Sennheiser Momentum and Sennheiser hd 558. I would not recommend any headphones with extra bass. Happy listening!Read more reviews at Amazon.com.
Buying Guide to the Best Tube Headphone Amps
What are tube amplifiers? Well, I’ve already mentioned those little vacuum tubes (or valves). Those are the distinguishing features of a tube amp, and they are responsible for amplifying the electric signals of their input. This input could be anything from an electric guitar to headphones. There are different kinds of tubes and tube amps, but most of them are renowned for their “warm” sound. This adjective is describing the aurally pleasing satisfaction of distortion.
While some tube amps get more distorted as they get louder, others stay fairly consistent—it’s mostly a matter of preference and purpose. Professional musicians or true audiophiles might even have multiple tube amps because of the wide variety of options and features. Some of the best amps, which could cost thousands of dollars, can run multiple circuitries at the same time—allowing for a variety of sounds and distortions.
Tube vs. Solid-State Amps
There are two types of amps: solid-state and tube. Some hybrids mix qualities of both. Like I said earlier, tube amps use vacuum tubes to amplify a signal and are driven by voltage. Solid-state amps use electronic transistors and are driven through current. These two modes of amplification do not produce the same result. Solid-state amps are usually very transparent and unforgiving, with little-to-no coloration. Tube amps, on the other hand, live for coloration and distortion.
Solid-state amps tend to be more affordable and more durable, and there are also more options and unique audio-styles. Tube amps are more expensive and fragile, but they are usually more sensitive to subtle details and allow for more creative sound.
Like all products in the audiophile and music professional industries, solid-state and tube amps have specific purposes, so neither one is a better or worse option. However, tube amps are especially fun to own because of their looks and ability to be modified.
How to Care for a Tube Amp
It is also important to know that tube amps require maintenance. The tubes can go bad if they aren’t cared for properly, and then you have to buy new ones.
Let your amp warm-up for a few minutes before use. If you replace your output tubes, be sure to replace the whole set. You cannot mix tube types. Always let your tube amp cool down for about fifteen minutes before you move it. Make sure you are impedance matching correctly, especially if you have multiple speakers connected in parallel.
Benefits of a Tube Amp
Tube amps are usually appreciated for the liveliness they give to acoustic and vocals, but the more expensive models can offer some great bass as well. Generally, the highs and mids sound the best from a tube amp, and the lows can be a bit too robust and unrefined.
Also, as with all headphone amps, it isn’t worth the cost if you only have $30 headphones. But if you have a nice pair of headphones that would sound even better through an amp, a tube amp is a great choice—both for its sonic qualities and its iconic looks. I promise you never get tired of looking at those little vacuum tubes (the best part about the best tube headphone amps is that they usually come with even more tubes!).
The aesthetics of tube amps are beautiful, but there are also beautiful solid-state amps. Even so, vacuum tubes look great on any desktop. Unfortunately, in case you haven’t realized, tube amps are almost always impractical for portability. If you need a portable headphone amp, check out something like the AudioQuest DragonFly series or the Cyrus soundKey. Most tube amps also don’t come with DAC chips and the unique design of tube amps is expensive.
Even though there are tube amps as cheap as $100, many tube amps can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. While they might not always be the most convenient or affordable, it’s no surprise that the best tube headphone amps are loved by artists, audiophiles, and music professionals. Whether you’re plugging your headphones, guitar, or stereo system into them, tube amplifiers won’t disappoint you.
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Written by Dawson Graham and Megan Schimp