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Tech Roundup: Choosing a DAC/Headphone amp in 2019

You love listening to music, and you refuse to ever compromise on quality. Whether you're in your living room or on the move, music must sound as close to the original as possible. A smartphone's headphone out, with its internal chip just won't cut it. That's why different makers in the audio industry have developed a new concept: the all-in-one mini-DAC and headphone amp. Aiming to reduce size as much as possible, they are portable and independant systems.

By ALBAN AMOUROUX | News | August 1, 2019
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Since the invention of the Walkman in 1979, until the early 2010s, headphones would plug in to the source through a 3,5mm jack. That paradigm applied to tape players, CD players, iPods alike. Any questions about the output quality from these sockets never really came into play. The most important thing was to choose a nice pair of headphones, and a quality player.

And then, Hi-Res audio came along. Digital players and smartphones acquired the capability to play these high-quality files. The continued use of the 3,5 mm output means its gain wasn't really up to par. The biggest culprit being the internal DAC, which is often of poor quality.

Headphones have also evolved; their quality has skyrocketed. Not all are made equal when plugged into a headphone out. Depending on the impedance, like a pair of speakers, the powered delivered by the headphone out varies for a perfect match. That is something basic headphone outputs can't do.

The external DAC/ Headphone amp therefore has both of these qualities: a quality converter, often compatible with Hi-Res and an amplifier to cover different impedances - different headphones. It's also portable, since when you couple it with a player or a smartphone the DAC/amp has a battery or uses its host's battery through USB.

1. Sound Blaster E1 : Ideal to replace low-power outputs

Characteristics :

Price : 29,99 €

Features: DAC 44,1 kHz/24 bits, 600 ohms compatible, mini-USB, double headphone output, 25 hours battery life, 25 g

Sound Blaster is known for its sound cards, speakers and other PC equipment. The brand is also involved in the world of headphone amps. The E1 model is an entry-level product at a very accessible price. It can work while connected to a PC as well as to a smartphone. It has two inputs: one through the internal DAC by USB, another while using the amplifier through the 3,5 mm jack rather than the DAC.

The E1 is undoubtedly convenient, with two headphone outs. One of the two also takes a mic input. Sound Blaster hasn't offered any comments on amplification, though they did specify impedance: Headphones up to 600 ohms should be no issue. Its small format is a big advantage, at only 25g on a scale.

THE GOOD
Small size
Two headphone outs
25 hours battery life


THE BAD
DAC capped at 44,1 kHz/24 bits
Made of plastic
Unknown power


2. FX-Audio UK-01 : A thin, multi-faceted DAC/ Headphone amp

Characteristics :

Price : 40 €

Features : 96 kHz/24 bits DAC, 132 MW @ 32 ohms, coaxial/optical input, USB-A, 1 headphone out, 110 g

The FX-Audio UK-01 is equipped with two distinct inputs: one digital coaxial/optical input, and a USB-A port. The latter must be connected in any case, since the UK-01 doesn't have a battery. Unfortunately, you'll have to connect to an Android phone or tablet, since FX-Audio has ignored the Apple ecosystem up until now. Along with a headphone output, there's a line out, both in the 3,5 mm mini-jack format.

The device's power, which is slightly above average, should handle a wide variety of headphones. Volume knobs are placed on either side of the USB port. The DAC can read Hi-Res files up to 96 kHz and in 24 bits. All of these features make for a versatile product, at home or on the go.



THE GOOD
96 kHz/24 bits Hi-Res
Digital optical/coaxial input
Thin and light


THE BAD
Apple incompatibility
Only one headphone output
No batteries


3. FiiO Q1 MKII: The democratisation of On-The-Go Hi-Res audio

Characteristics :

Price : 99 €

Features : 384 kHz/24 bits & DSD256 DAC, 190 MW, double headphone out, of which one is balanced, micro-USB, 20 hours battery life, 100g

Just below the 100 euro mark, some manufacturers truly work miracles. Proof is in the pudding: take a look at the Hi-Res capabilities of the second version of the FiiO Q1. Its Asahi Kasei DAC allows playback of PCM files up to 384 kHz and DSD256. Exceptional capabilities for this price point.

The FiiO Q1 MKII has two headphone outs - of which one balanced, 2,5mm TRRS output At 190 MW power, it can choose between hi or low modes depending on the headphone that's being used. The volume knob is easy to handle. The 1400 mAh battery recharges in 4 hours; the Q1 has a 20 hur battery life. The straps to fasten it to the back of a smartphone are included.

THE GOOD
384 kHz/24 bits DAC
Balanced headphone out
20 hours battery life


THE BAD
Nothing noteworthy for this price range


4. Bluewave Get : The portable Bluetooth DAC/Headphone Amp

Characteristics :

Price : 129 €

Features : 48 kHz/16 bits DAC, 125 MW, 1 headphone out, Bluetooth 5.0, aptX, aptX LL and aptX HD, 6 hours battery life, 30 g

The Canada-based Bluewave took the portable DAC market head on with an original solution: the Get is connected wirelessly to your smartphone, while headphones are connected by wire to the DAC. It has a single 3,5mm output, with 125 MW average power. The USB port is used to recharge as well as a USB DAC, capped at 44,1 kHz/16 bits. Bluetooth raises that cap to 48 kHz, but not any higher.

Bluetooth communication is handled on 5.0 with compatible devices. AptX, apX Low Latency et aptX HD codecs are supported. They allow the highest quality transmission possible for music. At 30g, the Bluewave is discreet, fitting in most pockets or clipped to your belt.

THE GOOD
Wireless DAC
Bluetooth aptX HD
30 g only


THE BAD
No Hi-Res
Limited autonomy


5. SMSL iQ : Extreme Hi-Res with a slim profile

Characteristics :

Price : 149 €

Features : 768 kHz/32 bits & DSD512, 91 MW @ 32 ohms, 2 headphone outs, of which one balanced TRRS, micro-USB, OLED display, 200 g

SMSL has a large swathe of small digital audio products. Among these, the iQ DAC/headphone amp, which takes from home Hi-Fi systems. The Xmos chip gives access to 768 kHz Hi-Res playback, or DSD512. In short, the SMSL iQ can play anything.

Its ultra-slim profile means it can attach to a smartphone without taking up too much space. But only with Android - iOs isn't supported. The double headphone out gives users a choice regarding unbalanced 3,5 mm and balanced 2,5 mm TRRS. In this case, power is practically doubled, although that doesn't reflect a very significant increase either. The iQ portable DAC is picky about which headphones you'll pair with it: preferably high quality, low impedance, balanced out models.

THE GOOD
768 kHz and DSD512 Hi-Res
OLED display
Ultra-slim profile


THE BAD
iOS incompatible
No battery
Low power


6. Audioquest DragonFly Red : the smallest Hi-Res DAC

Characteristics :

Price : 199 €

Features : 96 kHz/24 bits, 80 MW @ 32 ohms, 1 headphone out, USB-A, 45 g

Audioquest has produced this micro-DAC/headphone out for a few years already. The DragonFly red version (the most powerful) has become a model of its kind for practicality. Connected to a USB port, it delivers sound through a headphone out. And that's all. There are no settings, no other connections. The USB-A port is dedicated to connecting directly to a PC. For a smartphone or a tablet, you'll have to add an adapter according to what input is available.

Despite its unassuming size, the DragonFly Red is Hi-Res compatible up to 96 kHz/24 bits. Its output is higher than the Black model but it's limited to 80 MW. A good pair of low impedance cans should do the job. The DAC barely uses any power, therefore a battery would have been redundant: connecting through USB is enough, without simultaneously draining your phone's battery.

THE GOOD
96/24 Hi-Res
Tiny size
Low power usage


THE BAD
Requires an adapter
Low power
No balanced out


7. Beyerdynamic Impacto Essential : For listening to Beyerdynamic headphones on the go

Characteristics :

Price : 299 €

Features :384 kHz/32 bits & DSD128, 50 MW @ 32 ohms, 1 3,5 mm headphone out, USB-A, USB-C and micro-USB, 12 g

Beyerdynamic is one of the biggest headphone manufacturers, for private and professional use. The home electronics segment is made of three headphones, the T1, T5p and Amiron Home. You can bring these headphones outside with their dedicated DAC, the Impacto Essential.

It has two 3,5 mm mono outputs, one for each ear. On the other side, three adapter cables are included in USB-A, USB-C and micro-USB to cover all usage cases. Its power is relatively low, though tailored for the brand's three headphones. A nice touch: the essential play/pause/next/previous and volume buttons. It's a shame that this is a Beyerdynamic headphone exclusive.

THE GOOD
384 kHz/32 bits Hi-Res
Media buttons
12 g only


THE BAD
no iOS connector
Low power
Exclusive to Beyerdynamic headphones


8. miniDSP HA-DSP : personalize your DAC thanks to the internal DSP

Characteristics :

Price: 399 €

Features : 192 kHz/24 bits & DSD128, 100 MW @ 32 ohms, 1 headphone out, USB-A and micro USB, 1 digital/analog input, 10 hours battery life, 230 g

Aptly named, miniDSP is a brand well known for its DSPs - audio processing systems that integrate into Hi-Fi or home cinema systems to perform equalization, filtering etc. miniDSP offers a DAC/headphone amp with integrated DSP which makes it unique. Settings are modified through the PC and then saved on the DAC. They can be recalled through a button on the front face. The same can be done via the android app. The HA-DSP has two USB ports that can be selected thru a switch. There's also an analog/optical input. Weight is a factor here, the biggest culprit being the 3300 mAh battery, with 10 hours of life. All it's missing is a balanced headphone out.

THE GOOD
Hi-Res 24/192 and DSD
intégrated DSP with presets
two USB ports


THE BAD
Limited Hi-Res
Weight
No balanced headphone out


9. iFi Audio xDSD : King of headphone amps?

Characteristics :

Price : 449 €

Features: 768 kHz/24 bits & DSD512, 270 MW @ 50 ohms, 1 balanced/unbalanced headphone output, USB-A, optical/analog input, 10 hours battery life, 127 g

iFi Audio's high-end product line of DACs and headphone amps is called xDSD. Its name references its ability to read very high resolution files, up to DSD512. For PCM files, it goes up to 768 kHz at 24 bits. It receives audio signals through the USB-A port, through a hybrid analog/digital input and even through Bluetooth. The second mini-USB port is only used for power and recharging the internal 2 200 mAh battery.

The headphone out is also hybrid. It can deliver a balanced or imbalanced signal, nut only through its 3,5 mm output. It has a lot of power under the hood, with 210 MW @ 50 ohms, and 500 MW at 16 ohms. This makes the xDSD extremely flexible and capable of powering practically any modern pair of headphones.

THE GOOD
Hi-Res 768 kHz/24 bits and DSD512
Powerful amplification
10 hour battery life


THE BAD
Balanced out on 3,5 mm output
No support for 32 bits


10. Chord Mojo : King Of The Hill for Headphone Amps

Characteristics :

Price : 549 €

Features : 768 kHz/32 bits DAC & DSD256, 720 MW @ 8 ohms, double headphone out, micro-USB, 1 coaxial input, 1 optical input, 10 hours battery life, 170 g

Despite the fact that it's been out for three years, the Chord Mojo DAC still holds up today. It can read very high resolution files, up to 768 kHz PCM and up to DSD256 through its USB port. The latter is flanked by two separate digital inputs, one coaxial and one optical. Recharging the battery is possible during playback thanks to the second USB port which is connected to the 2200 mAh battery.

The design is still as quirky as always, with large spherical buttons that light up depending on the sample rate of the file being played back. The metal case seems sturdy enough. Finally, the headphone amp is stable up to 4 ohms with two headphone outputs available. It delivers up to 720 MW @ 8 ohms and 35 MW @ 600 ohms. It's perfect for any headphone on the market.

THE GOOD
768 kHz/32 bits Hi-Res and DSD256
Very powerful
Digital inputs


THE BAD
No balanced headphone out
Cheesy button colors



CONCLUSION

Enjoy your music in the garden, during your transit to work or on holidays - but without sacrificing sound quality. That is the DAC/Headphone amp's objective, as the middle man between the smartphone's USB port and your favorite pair of cans. The objective is to draw the best from the audio stream being played, whether that be a WAV, FLAC, DSD or Qobuz Sublime + during streaming. These portable DACs are relatively compact and more or less Hi-Res. Prices start very low, offering infinitely better quality than the 3,5 mm output on most smartphones. The most important thing will be to select a DAC/Headphone amp that delivers the right amount of power needed by your headphones for optimal performance.

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