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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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Alex Cavalli is to headphone amps what John Curl is to phono stages: not only the best-known designer of that type of product, but also the only one most audiophiles can readily name. Monoprice is to electronics companies what Amazon is to retailers: an often-resented competitor that consistently undercuts their price margins. When you combine the two, you get the Monoprice Monolith Liquid Platinum headphone amp by Alex Cavalli ($769.99 USD).

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Reviewers' ChoiceAs we watch an increasing number of companies throwing lots of money and metal into the design and manufacturing of headphone amps, it’s a good idea to consider what we really need in a headphone amp. What we don’t need is a powerful output stage or a big power supply, because headphones typically require only a few milliwatts of power -- roughly one-thousandth as much power as most speakers need. Nor do we need a heavy, elaborately machined metal chassis, because headphone amps needn’t be bulky. What we usually need is just a user-friendly design, a couple of inputs, and enough power to drive most headphones. The Schiit Fulla 2 desktop DAC-headphone amp ($99 USD) seems to be built with these goals -- and only these goals -- in mind.

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