I’ve cranked out several reviews of <200USD headphone amplifiers recently and in a few of those reviews promised some more detailed comparison thoughts of those amps. This post is the delivery on that promise. The competitors are: JDS Labs Atom, Monolith Liquid Spark, Topping L30, Geshelli Labs Archel 2 GMR, iFi Zen CAN, Schiit Magnius, Schiit Asgard 3. There was a stretch in early December 2020 where I had all of those amps in-house at the same time. The Atom, Liquid Spark, Zen CAN, and Asgard 3 are all personal purchases. The L30, GMR, and Magnius were loans from Apos Audio, Geshelli Labs, and Schiit, respectively. See my reviews of those three for the relevant disclaimers and declarations. Yes, there are other amps that exist in this category that are not part of this round-up. Notable omissions include the two $99 pieces of Schiit: the Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy, and the new Topping A50s (which is actually $220, but will likely go on sale for <200 with some regularity). I am only human and do so many at once, afterall ;p. Apos is planning to send me an A50s sometime in early 2021.
Some Early Commentary
If you’re plugged into the audiophile world in 2020 and now early 2021, you’ve likely heard the phrase “good audio is getting cheap and cheap audio is getting good.” This collection of headphone amps provides some pretty good evidence of that claim. Even the amps that fall below the averaged standard of this group outperform many of the more expensive headphone amps that existed even a decade ago. Another familiar term “a rising tide lifts all boats” is another pertinent and more general expression that applies here. Simply put, the bar for headphone amplifier performance has been raised significantly. All of the amps in this roundup sound better than headphone amps from 10+ years ago at this price point. The comparisons that follow are therefore all relative to each other and with respect to the early 2021 state of budget headphone amplifyery (yeah, made up word), not in comparison to all headphone amps that exist right now.
I’ll first introduce each amplifier, in ascending order of cost. As part of those introductions I’ll include pros and cons and a ‘recommended for’ summary. Then, I’ll use a graphical ranking system and follow it with some limited commentary. At the end I’ll give my bottom line.
THE COMPETITORS (Skip this if you’re familiar with these models)
Open for more details on each amp
- Excellent measurements
- Wide and coherent soundstage, especially considering price
- Strong midrange timbre
- 2 inputs and a preamp out
- Physical build quality
- Can struggle with Fostex RP driver-based headphones
The Atom amp was an early measurement champion, out-THX-ing the single ended performance of the Drop THX AAA 789 amp and doing it without THX tech. I found in my own direct comparison that it was hot on the heels of the THX-based SMSL SP200 in most aspect of sound quality and even bested the SP200 in midrange timbre. In that comparison I stated the SP200 had better treble performance than the Atom. After more listening and learning more about this audiophile hobby I’m betting that the Atom is actually smoother and just as detailed in the top end but may not present that way immediately because more forward treble can masquerade as being more detailed. For $99, though, the Atom is virtually without sonic fault. The only price-appropriate headphone I found it to have any issue with was the Fostex RP driver-based Dekoni Blue. I thought the bass was a little bit more bloated and less controlled on the Atom than the Liquid Spark or the Magni 3 (not the 3+). The Atom handles planars and high-impedance loads with equal aplomb, but it may not be the best sonic match for some of the more treble-forward cans out there like the Beyer DT series.
Anyone on a tight budget who wants to explore the world of <$500. It’s also handy if you’re on a budget and have 2 sources you want to run through a headphone amp.
*This comparison is old and was written while I still had even more to learn than I still do even now. My viewpoints on some things have likely changed since I wrote this and that’s ok. I’ll leave this comparison as is as evidence of growth and learning.
Monolith Liquid Spark - $109.99 – Buy it here
- A different sound than most of these other measurement-chasing amps, namely warmer and smoother
- Designed by Alex Cavalli
- Build quality
- The PSU power brick is in the middle of the cord (OK, I might the only one who cares, but I think that’s nice)
- Preamp output
- The gain switch is only about 3db difference and in practice is more of a slight EQ switch
- Runs hotter than all other amps in this group save Asgard 3
The Spark is another excellent entry into headphone amplifiers. It dares to have a different sound than many of its direct competitors with a warmer and smoother sound signature. The high frequencies have a slight roll-off, or at least the perception of one, it still measures horizontally in a frequency response curve. It’s a little bit more powerful than the Atom and was my favorite amp for the Dekoni Blue. The Spark controlled the Blue’s bass well and also somehow reigned in its midbass bloat better than even the Asgard 3. The Spark also really shines with treble-forward headphones like the Beyer DT series. My 600-ohm DT880 was far less sharp and sibilant on the Spark than it was the Atom. Since the Spark has a slight warm coloration to the sound from perceptive neutral you need to be a little more careful in headphone pairings than some of the other amps here, but is also really hard to go wrong with the Spark at $109.
Those on a budget who find their headphones to be a little too sharp in the treble or someone seeking a budget alternative sound to the clean and clinical sound of many of the other amps on this list.
- Best measurements in this group
- Build quality
- Preout and headphone amp toggled with physical switch
- Oversmoothed sound
- Aggressive bass roll-off below 50Hz – not measured but definitely heard
- Chased measurement excellence over sound quality
The Topping L30 is based on the same single-ended circuitry found in Topping’s top-of-the-line A90 amp. It is the measurement champ in this roundup. It has a very robust physical construction and for the price point it has a unique twist on switching between the headphone amp and preamp. However, its measurements do not translate well to sound quality. Overall, its sound is oversmoothed to the point of sounding sluggish and the bass audibly falls off and quickly disappears below about 50Hz.
Budget-minded listeners who care about measurements alone.
- Great balance between excellent measurements and sonic performance
- Excellent delivery of available power to the headphone drivers
- A slightly more lively, engaging sound than most measurement-focused amps in this price range
- Strong timbre that challenges that of some of the more expensive amps in this set
- 2 inputs
- An interesting DIY-style aesthetic
- Not a ton of power
- No preamp
- Indicator LEDs are bright
By specification the GMR is the least powerful amp of this group but it in no way sounds like it. Even with my 600-ohm DT880 and an iFi Zen DAC’s bass boost piped through it the GMR sounded confident and in-control. I admire this amp for that alone. It draws only 6 watts of power from its PSU but delivers that power to the headphone drivers with remarkable efficiency and ease. To my ear there is a slight v shape to the sound signature when compared to the more neutral amps in this roundup but it is not fair to call its midrange recessed. The detail retrieval and timbre are very good. The soundstage is wide and coherent.
You have $150 for an amp, you want a little bit more technical performance than the Atom can deliver but still like that type of sound, and don’t need a preamp output.
- Class A output stage
- Bass boost and crossfeed circuits in analog domain
- 2 single-ended inputs and one balanced input
- Balanced (not single ended) preamp out
- Power spec is good but that power is not delivered well to headphone drivers
- Cannot handle high-impedance loads well despite iFi’s confident claims to the contrary
- All balanced connections are 4.4mm pentacon, requiring specialized and hard-to-find cables
The Zen CAN is a Jekyll-and-Hyde product that sounds pretty good above 100Hz with low-impedance headphones and sounds dreadful with high-impedance headphones. It’s also deceptively costly if the goal is to use it balanced, as it’s constructed, because its balanced input and preout is 4.4mm pentacon, which is unusual for interconnect cables.
Those with low-impedance headphones who also live in countries where Schiit products cannot be easily obtained.
- SE & balanced preouts
- Solid construction
- Best sounding of the budget, measurement-focused amps I’ve heard so far
- SE headphone output sounds mediocre at best
- Power switch on the back
- Does not perform as well as its equally priced sibling
Schiit accomplished something remarkable with the Magnius: they made a measurement-chaser of an amp sound much closer to the sound of amps that aren’t chasing measurements but excellent sound than any others in this price range. They also offered a fully balanced design with 5 watts of power per channel in an under $200 package. The problem? Passion for Sound said it well in his Asgard 3 review: the Magnius still sounds like you’re listening to a recording while the Asgard 3 sounds like you’re listening to music.
Those who want measurement excellence first, sound quality a close second, and need lots of power.
- Class A/B
- Built like a tank
- PSU integrated into chassis
- Modular construction with options for DAC modules or phono input
- Best sounding <$200 amp right now
- Best sounding <$200 amp right now
- Yes, I wrote that twice
- Power switch on back
- Runs hot
- Indicator notch on volume knob is hard to see
- Weight distribution is asymmetric. Pushing the headphone plug in can rotate the amp around the left side.
I mean, I buried the lead in the ‘Pros’ list. To my ear this is the best sounding <$200 amp out there. I’m flabbergasted by how much sonic performance Schiit wrings out of this beast and then still sells it for $199. It is not an exaggeration to say that it can throw punches with some $500 amps. Is it as good all around as those $500 amps? No. But there are individual aspects of its sound, like spatial performance or timbre or impact, where it challenges that same feature in those $500 amps. It is also very headphone-agnostic. It sounds great whether you plug in a low-impedance IEM, high-impedance dynamic, or large planar headphone. The sound is a little warmer and thicker than neutral, but that does not mean it sacrifices detail or other technical aspects of performance.
People who love listening to music through headphones and have $200 for an amp.
SONIC PERFORMANCE RANKING
My posts get long – LOL. So, this time I’ll take a “a picture is worth a thousand words” approach and use a visual ranking. This image conveys my ranking, as well as my subjective opinion on the magnitude of the differences, of the sonic performance of these amps. Note that this ranking is a comparison within this grouping and not with all headphone amps in existence. Also note that the distances between just mentioned have no official scale but are at least close to something approximating scale. Also, these positions are what I think as of this writing. As my tastes change I reserve the right to move these around a bit.
The Zen CAN was arguably the hardest to position because condensing its performance into some sort of “overall” metric is tough. It sounds very different with low-impedance loads than with high-impedance loads. Yet even with low-impedance loads its quality is quite good above ~100Hz and falls back in this pack under that same frequency. It’s above 100Hz, low-impedance performance is slightly superior to the Magnius but in overall performance I have to drop it below the Magnius. With appropriate load and above 100Hz the Zen CAN has more natural timbre than Magnius. The Zen CAN generally sounded more lifelike while they Magnius sounded sterile and flat at times. But, the Zen CAN absolutely cannot compete with the Magnius’s bass performance. For me that’s such an important aspect of sound that I had to drop the Zen CAN overall in the rankings. The advantage the Magnius has over Zen CAN in this one area is much bigger than the advantage the Zen CAN has over Magnius in any other area. I also thought long and hard about whether I should rank the CAN above or below the GMR, but given that Zen CAN’s performance is so conditional I would recommend the GMR over the Zen CAN for general use. Simply put the GMR will match better with a wider range of headphones than Zen CAN will.
The Atom gained more of my respect in this showdown. In particular, its spatial performance belies its price. That staging is relatively wide and coherent with solid imaging and separation. It doesn’t touch Asgard (none of them do), but it’s closer to the GMR, Magnius, and Zen CAN than the price difference might lead you to believe. It lags behind those others in things like detail retrieval and dynamic impact, though. However, Atom might be a better performer in the bass regions that Zen CAN yet, regardless of load type. I’ll give the Atom the unofficial tag of “Lightweight Champion” of this grouping.
The Liquid Spark was not as consistently good as Atom with any one aspect of the sound but there were some headphones – again Beyer DT880 – where it climbed in the ranking because of how well it synergized. I think the Atom is technically superior more often than the Spark, but the Spark has some undeniable magic with certain cans. It also still has a unique sound to it that may attract some.
The Geshelli GMR gets my “Middleweight Champion” tag in this grouping. It’s an excellent all-arounder and is ‘middleweight’ because its price is the median of this grouping. I thought its timbre and detail retrieval were very close to the more expensive Magnius but could not quite match the soundstage width, imaging, or impact that Magnius brought.
The two amps I haven’t commented on individually yet are the L30 and Asgard 3. They both essentially break anything resembling a unifying price/performance metric in this grouping, and they do it in opposite directions. The L30 lags behind the rest of this grouping in subjective sonic performance to my ear. It’s too smooth, too afraid to offend, and rolls off the bass too much. The Asgard 3 is just a stunner. I eventually had to stop switching to it because every time I did I didn’t want to leave it. If I started a track on the Asgard 3, everything else was a letdown in comparison. It started putting so much distance between itself and the rest of the pack that I eventually just said, “Ok, you’re the clear winner. I’ll pay attention to these others now.” In my Magnius review, I remarked that it took awhile to separate the Magnius from the Asgard. I’m not contradicting that here. As listening time went on – this ‘shoutout’ went on beyond the time I spent specifically reviewing Magnius – it simply became clear that the Asgard 3 was on another level from the rest of these amps. The detail, speed and control, soundstage width, imaging and separation, and timbre, which is just about all aspects of the sound, were better on Asgard 3 than any of these other amps. With the disclaimer that I have not heard every amp in the category and with the further statement I’m happy to be wrong because it means we all win, I’ll say this: the Schiit Asgard 3 is the best sounding headphone amplifier you can buy for $300, and they sell it for $200. Schiit caught lightning in a bottle with Asgard 3. “Heavyweight Champion” of this grouping, if that wasn’t clear, lol.
This price category is tough with recommendations, to be completely honest. At the true entry level, between the Atom and the Liquid Spark here (probably throw in the newer Schiit Magni models too, which are not here) it’s a tough call. The Atom is probably better with more headphones than Spark, but you can’t really go wrong with any of these entry-level units anymore. The performance jump up to the Asgard 3 is big, though; like really Really REALLY big. If you live in a country where Schiit is easy to obtain (which unfortunately has to be said because as of this writing Schiit’s international distribution is ), it’s hard for me to truly recommend any of the amps that hang out around $150. For my money it’s grab a $99 amp (really, just pick one), or save for Asgard 3. That does not mean that those middle-priced units are bad or are not worth their asking price. The GMR is a solid performer, but the gap between the Atom/Spark and the GMR is smaller than the gap between the GMR and Asgard 3.
Am I a Schiit shill? No. Am I an Asgard 3 shill? Yes. I’ll wear that label until someone launches a product that beats it at this price. I’m ‘shilling’ it because I truly believe it’s the best option under 200USD. I actually look forward to the day when that’s no longer true because that product, whatever it is, will be some kind of monster.
OK, that’s it. Thanks again for reading everyone and enjoy the music!