Soundphile Review’s best: headphones, DACs, amplifiers and DAPs

Best of Soundphile Review

Finding your way around all the gear that’s available on the market can be quite challenging: there are lots of different products that offer seemingly similar performance in the same price range, so understanding what’s the best option can be quite difficult. That’s true even when one has many reviews available, as having an eagle-eye view of the different ratings is not easy. Here you will find a quick guide to the gear I review indexed by type and with a brief summary of the main features.

Please note that these are the best options among those that I reviewed, so better options may exist out there – I just won’t comment on things I haven’t tried or I could not compare to the gear I own or tried in the past. This collection will keep on growing and changing based on the gear I try, so keep that in mind!

Best In-ear Headphones (IEM)

In-ear headphones, or In-Ear Monitors (hence IEM), are headphones that fit inside the ear canal. Among earphones, they are the ones that offer the best isolation, but they also require eartips to fit correctly into the ears and choosing the right tips is fundamental to have a good listening experience. Most of the time they are closed-back, although open-back IEMs exist. You can find all the reviews here: in-ear headphones reviews.

On top of reporting the rating, you will find information on the drivers the headphones use: dynamic drivers (DD), balanced armatures (BA), a mix of the two (H) or a planar driver (P).

Less than $100:

  • Tin Audio T3 (H, 9.6): the Tin Audio T3 are probably the best in-ear headphones you can buy right now under $100. They offer a neutral signature with a touch of brightness, complemented by great technical ability. They have more bass than the T2, so they are great from any perspective and for whatever genre you may want to listen to.
  • Tin Audio T2 (DD, 9.5): Tin Audio’s claim to fame is one of the best in-ear headphones under $100, and my personal favourite among those. It gets the second top spot not only because its value is stellar, but because it would be a great product even at three times its price. Its neutral tuning and wonderful technical ability make it a great choice for everyone.
  • 1More Triple Driver (H, 8.8): 1More’s most famous IEMs deserve the attention they got, as they offer relatively neutral tuning (with some added fun) coupled with good technical ability. This, together with the good build quality and the slew of accessories they come with, makes them especially likeable.
  • KZ AS10 (BA, 8.5): KZ’s top-of-the-line product is one that finally gets tuning right and offers a balanced sound signature (though not a neutral one) that has the classic “V” shape, but with a gentle enough approach to be good for most genres. It tops this with more-than-decent technical ability.
  • KZ AS06 (BA, 8,5): a scaled-down version of the AS10, the AS06 keep most of the good things of the pricier sibling and make little changes in tuning that may actually make them more interesting to many listeners.
  • RevoNext QT5 (H, 8.5): the Revonext QT5 are dirty cheap, yet they offer a lot. Their performance is worth more than their price would suggest, with a tuning that’s sure to offer fun and a good technical ability for the price.
  • TRN V80 (H, 8.2): TRN created a fun IEM that can be good for having fun while listening to music as well as listening critically to music. It has a V-shaped signature that makes music engaging and fun, but its balance makes it good for listening to whatever genre one likes.
  • RevoNext QT2 (H, 8.1): there are so many Andromeda clones out there it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them. The most famous ones are undoubtedly KZ’s ZS6 and the RevoNext QT2. The latter are the best clones I have tried so far, although they have a completely different sound signature than the original. Their V-shaped signature is fun and enjoyable, and it is coupled with good technical ability (especially instrument separation) that make them a great choice if you like this kind of signature.

Between $100 and $300:

  • BGVP DM7 (BA, 9.5): the DM7 are currently among the best earphones you can buy below $300. That’s because they offer a well balanced response with good technical ability – in a better fashion than most earphones in this price range.
  • BGVP DM6 (BA, 9.3): BGVP took the IEM scene by storm with their DM6. These earphones offer a neutral(ish) response with just a hint of brightness that is easily likeable; they are complete in that they offer deep bass and extended treble, with very good detail and great quality (e.g. great speed and control) coupled with superb technical ability.
  • Tin HiFi P1 (P, 9): if we were to judge earphones by tuning alone, the P1 would be solidly on top. Alas the way they present soundstage and imaging has a few quirks that makes music appear odd, so they make the P1 quite polarising. They’re still among the best earphones you can buy right now and probably the best bet if you care for tuning first and foremost.
  • CCA C16 (BA, 9): KZ’s sister company, CCA, placed a big bet on >$100 earphones purely made with balanced armatures, and they won. The C16, their current top-of-the-line earphones, offer neutral-ish tuning with exceptional technical ability for their price. They’re a great choice for rock and other mid-centric genres (that also like a touch of brightness).
  • BGVP DMG (H, 8.8): the DMG are more fun than the DM6, as they have a slightly V-shaped signature (though truly balanced!), but they couple that with a remarkable technical ability that makes them noteworthy. The great build quality and acoustic filter system lead to an IEM that is easy to like inside and outside.
  • RHA T20i (DD, 8.7): RHA’s second product in the “T” line is nothing short of a masterpiece. It has a filter system much like the DMG, though the difference between the filters it is way more noticeable. Its tuning privileges bass, but let not that trick you into thinking the rest of the spectrum receives less care. They’re very well balanced and offer extreme clarity – and that latter feature is what made them famous!
  • Shozy x Neo CP (BA, 8.5): if you look for a neutral(ish) sound signature and superb passive noise isolation, look no further. The Shozy x Neo CP are as good as earplugs, but they also offer great sound that’s detailed and accurate. Their weird shape requires some adjusting to, but the reward is worth it.

More than $300:

  • IMR Acoustics R1 (DD + ceramic plate, 9.5): despite their controversial story, due to the previous venture of the founder (Trinity Audio), the R1 are incredibly good headphones. They have a very balanced tuning with a touch of brightness, with deep lows and very detailed highs. Their technical ability is outstanding
  • Fearless Audio S8 Pro (BA, 9): the Fearless Audio S8 Pro earn their “Pro” moniker thanks to an incredibly balanced and almost neutral signature, accompanied by a highly competent technical ability. Large soundstage, good imaging and superb instrument separation are among the strong points of the S8 Pro, together with their good comfort and the excellent isolation.
  • Toneking T88K (BA, 9): the Toneking T88K are more mid-forward than most other earphones in this list. Their peculiar tuning works well for a variety of genres and is never fatiguing or boring. Their technical ability is remarkable indeed. They may not be incredibly comfortable, but this is a minor flaw.
  • Fearless Audio S6 RUI (BA, 8.6): the S6 RUI are a scaled-down version of the S8 Pro which keeps most of the good things, such as very good technical ability, but adds a bit of fun in the tuning in the form of bass and a touch of brightness.
  • PMV Crescent 8BA (BA, 8.2): these earphones are unique not only in terms of design, but also in how they sound. The PMV Crescent 8BA are really one of a kind, with an odd (and warm) tuning and an imaging ability that’s really immersive. It has its flaws, though, and it’s not for everyone.

Best Earbuds

Earbuds are, in a sense, the opposite of in-ear headphones: while they are earphones and have similar pros and cons due to this, they do not go directly in the ear canal and do not offer any seal. This makes them more open-sounding, but also has the drawback of providing no isolation nor prevention of sound leaking to the outside.

  • Venture Electronics Zen 2.0 (9.5): VE’s top product is one that achieved a great reputation among earbud lovers due to its technical ability and pleasantly warm frequency response. It is a testament to VE’s commitment to earbuds and one of my favourite headphones in general – it ticks all the right boxes, all while keeping price in the affordable range.
  • Venture Electronics Asura 2.0s (9.1): the Asura 2.0s are a better version of the Asura 2.0 with more low-end punch and consequent better balance. They’re still bright earbuds that count on technical ability to stand out from the crowd. Their most noticeable feature is their speed and impact: transients are physical and really satisfying. Their balance, despite some brightness, makes them great all-rounders.
  • Venture Electronics Monk Plus (8.8): the Monk Plus are one of the few products that got to reach cult status among audio aficionados. They got to win this remarkable achievement with a deceptively simple tactic: by providing great sound quality at just $5. The Monk Plus are actually quite good even when compared to $40 or even $50 earbuds, so they don’t fit in here just because they are cheap. They are a great introduction to better-quality headphones or a great addition to any established collection. One thing’s for sure: the quality/price ratio is the highest among all of the products listed here!
  • MEMT T5 (7): these earphones are a hybrid between earbuds and in-ear headphones: they go inside the ear canal, but they don’t require eartips and do not provide any seal. They are modelled after the Apple EarPods. Unlike their original inspiration, though, they have some decent features that make them a good choice for anyone looking for this specific form factor. The fact that they seem to be among the only earbuds with this form factor that have good acoustic properties is the reason why they are featured here.

Best Full-size Headphones

There are many ways one could divide the general full-size headphones category: closed or open back, on or over ear, dynamic or planar or electrostatic, wired or wireless… I will divide the headphones in two main categories, wired and wireless, and the former will be further divided in open back and closed back. The type of driver will also be reported similarly to IEMs (DD: dynamic driver; P: planar driver).

Closed back:

  • Meze 99 Classics (DD, 9.5): Meze’s 99 Classics are true to their name, with a design that’s a mix of classic and new and that’s sure to impress. Their warm, enveloping tuning is perfectly matched to the looks and it comes with great technical ability.
  • 1More Triple Driver Over Ear (DD, 8): 1More’s over-ear model takes almost everything good from the in-ear units and brings it to the larger form factor, though it also adds something to have a more V-shaped tuning. Comfort may be a bit of an issue for some, but soundwise they’re great!

Open back:

  • Massdrop x AKG K7XX (DD, 9.5): the K7XX are famous for their wide soundstage and that’s in fact their strongest point. They have a warm, pleasant tuning that’s enjoyable with many different genres, and they add good comfort to that. They’re really, really good for their price!
  • Hyland Headphones Saturn One (DD, 8.8): the Saturn One are really special: every unit is unique, as they are handmade in England. They offer great technical ability which really stands out in their price range, plus an enjoyable tuning which delivers deep lows and emphasised highs.

Best Portable DAC/Amplifier

Portable DAC and amplifiers:

  • RHA Dacamp L1 (9.5): this Swiss army knife of audiophilia is truly a wonder of technology. In its small, aluminium-clad body are solid DAC and amp that can power most headphones on the market to good listening volume, with the only possible exception of high impedance (600 Ω) headphones. The RHA Dacamp L1 has it all: great build quality, single-ended and balanced outputs, multiple inputs (line-in, USB, optical), great battery life and an equaliser. Its only “flaw” is the price being a bit high.
  • Topping NX4 DSD (9): the NX4 DSD has quickly become one of the most recommended portable DAC/amps and that’s because of a few factors: it’s well-built, it offers lots of power (even more than the Dacamp L1!), has great measurements and is truly affordable. There’s nothing more one could ask from a product, though the NX4 DSD has also a few flaws that prevent it from being on top of this list.

The following portable amplifiers do not integrate a DAC and therefore need a source (be it a DAP, a smartphone or a portable DAC):

  • Head ‘n’ HiFi Objective2 (10): a true legend among audiophiles, Nwavguy’s design set the new standard for amplifiers. Not only is it powerful and neutral, but it is portable too thanks to the presence of two (replaceable!) 9 V batteries inside. Truly a must-have and a paragon for any current and future amplifier.
  • Venture Electronics RunAbout 2.0bl (10): one of the few amplifiers on the market that feature 2.5 mm balanced input and output. The RunAbout 2.0bl gets everything right and its only fault is the large size; everything else from build quality to sound quality is stellar. It’s transparent (or neutral, if you wish) and provides lots of power, so you can drive practically every headphone without feeling the need for more.
  • iFi xCAN (9): this portable marvel has it all: Bluetooth, balanced input and output, large power (1 W!) and good battery life. It works as a standalone device, but only through Bluetooth; the only thing it does not have is in fact the ability to be used through USB (and that’s why it is first and foremost an amplifier).
  • Topping NX1s (8): the NX1s sits at the bottom of Topping’s offering, but it has some pretty good qualities that make it a good choice if you are looking for a small, compact amplifier for strictly portable use.

Mobile DACs offer an incredibly compact form factor that allows them to be used together with mobile phones or DAPs:

  • Audirect Beam (9): the Beam is a small marvel, combining a small and extremely portable form factor with good sound quality and physical controls. It may not be perfect, but it’s almost a must-have.
  • Venture Electronics Odyssey (9): USB-C audio is surely a mess, but the Venture Electronics Odyssey tries to bring order (and quality) there with an insightful form factor that’s convenient both with phones and with notebook PCs.

Best Desktop DAC

Desktop DACs are meant to be used on a desk or in any other place where they have access to mains power – they are meant to be used in homes, offices or other indoors and they are not portable. Some of them also have an amplification stage, so you’ll find an “amp” beside the rating if that’s the case. Here’s a selection of desktop DACs:

  • Topping DX7 (amp, 9): the DX7 and its successor the DX7s are versatile all-in-one devices with just one flaw: the high output impedance of both the single-ended and the balanced outputs. Yes, they feature single-ended and balanced outputs both for headphones and for other devices (line out), and can act as a preamp. It’s really well-thought and well put together. It’s not by chance that I keep using it daily!
  • iFi micro iDSD Black Label (9): due to its size and weight, the micro iDSD Black Label is not really portable – it’s more like “transportable”. And it’s probably the most powerful transportable amplifier you will find, with 4 W output, but it’s not just that. In addition to lots of power, the micro iDSD BL has lots of different options such as an integrated IEMatch, filtering system, polarity match (if you believe in those things…) and usage as preamplifier to control powered speakers using its volume knob. It also comes with a few effects of its own, 3D+ and XBass+.
  • Topping D30 (8.8): this entry-level DAC is an all-time favourite of a lot of audiophiles due to its great value. It is dead neutral, it supports a lot of formats and it’s affordable. That says it all, I think?

Best Desktop Headphone Amplifier

Headphone amplifiers take the analogue signal produced by DACs or DAPs and amplify it, as the name says, so that they can drive headphones. We have – once again – two large families: solid state amplifiers and tube (or valve) amplifiers. There are then a few situations where the two categories mix up, by they are mostly made of products which use tubes for preamplification.

Here are the solid state amplifiers:

  • iFi micro iCAN SE (9): the micro iCAN SE offers a good amount of power in a small package. That’s enough for most people, but this amplifier takes it to the next level by also offering analogue equalization to boost either bass or soundstage width.
  • Topping A30 (8.5): the Topping A30 is among the best amplifiers in the affordable section as it offers enough power and a dead neutral response with little money. The “Topping stack”, made of the A30 and D30, is a great introductory choice for beginners and people who want great performance at an affordable price.

These are the tube amplifiers:

  • Little Dot MKIII SE (9.5): a true powerhouse, the Little Dot MKIII SE is a hybrid amplifier which uses tubes for the preamplification stage and then uses discrete solid-state components for amplification. It’s capable of outputting 2 W and offers balanced input and output, which make it really flexible and capable of driving even the most demanding headphones.
  • APPJ PA1502A (8.5): this little device is famous for being affordable yet offering large value, as it has a balanced stock tuning accompanied by 1 W power output. The APPJ PA1502A is a pure tube amplifier, so it doesn’t work well with planars but does a wonderful job with high-impedance dynamic drivers.

Best DAP

There are a few DAPs out there, with a variety of firmware options: we ca divide them in two groups, the Android-based DAPs and the custom firmware DAPs.

The following are custom firmware-based DAPs:

  • Shanling M2X (8.5): Shanling’s latest pocketable device does everything well and offers practically anything one could ask for. Its firmware is easy to navigate and to use, with plenty of options, and the sound is transparent and with good enough power output.
  • Aune M1s (8): despite its age, the M1s is still a very compelling device due to its incredibly fast rendering of sound. It’s neutral, but everything sounds different on the M1s due to it delivering a lot of speed (and a good amount of power, too). It’s easy to use and battery life is decently long. That’s about as good as you can get.
  • xDuoo X3-II (7.5): this entry-level device is nice to use, but it’s not super powerful nor does it offer too many options. It’s good enough for basic use, though!
  • xDuoo X10T II (8): this one is a bit of an outlier, as it requires the use of an external DAC and amplfier. It is basically just a digital transport, so it can’t work on its own. This lends it a lot of flexibility, so the user can choose what to use for their amplification needs – no need to bypass internal DAC and amp if the player has none, right?