Traveling Companions: Headphone Amps from FiiO, iFi, and Miniwatt

As you might have gathered from the headphone roundup we did a couple of weeks back, there's probably never been a better time to be into personal audio. With a whole new breed of enthusiast listeners out there, rabidly interested in headphones and the accessories that make 'em a better experience and willing and able to upgrade given the relatively low cost of admission, a host of audio firms new and old have been churning out new and innovative 'phones and accessories so quickly that it's been a little difficult to keep up. Taking a look at the landscape of affordable (let's say under $500), you'll find that afistful of new headphone amps and DACs are bringing once-esoteric features to the masses, at down-to-earth prices.

These new devices - from budget hi-fi mainstay FiiO, no-expenses-spared high-end firm AMR, and the retro tube-amp folks at Miniwatt - bring down the cost of entry to 24/96 playback, high-voltage power supplies, crossfeed, and actually useful EQ - features reserved 'til just recently for high-end offerings - to very reasonable levels.

Whatever your headphone and format preferences (and pretty much whatever features you feel that you need), you're likely to find audio satisfaction with one (or two) of these little boxes.

While only the FiiO offerings are explicitly "portable" devices (with the E07K even appropriate for use by those employing Android phones as high-rez audio players - a growth category among personal audio and headphone enthusiasts), any of these units can fill multiple roles for the casual or serious headphone or desktop listener looking to get better sound out of a desktop or laptop machine at home, in the office, or on the road. Need a high-powered amplifier to drive those studio headphones in your hotel room? Want a S/PDIF bridge to shuttle your FLACs over to your esoteric (and strictly non-USB) high-end DAC? Want more control over your stereo image with expander and crossfeed controls. Need a little more low-end thump in your life?

Among these five devices you're sure to find one (or two) that check all the boxes for you. Read on for the results of our listening, and get ready to expand your sonic horizons this summer - without having to open your wallet too wide.