Home » Headphone amp/DACs: The best way to enjoy lossless audio
Headphone

Headphone amp/DACs: The best way to enjoy lossless audio

Now that just about each main streaming music service — besides Spotify — provides lossless audio choices at CD-quality or higher, you could be questioning how one can hear that additional stage of sound high quality for your self. The dangerous information is that, irrespective of how superior your wi-fi headphones or true wi-fi earbuds could also be, lossless audio and Bluetooth stay essentially incompatible.

The solely strategy to hear true lossless audio out of your cellphone is through a wired connection. And in case your cellphone lacks a headphone jack — as most do lately — how do you get round this impediment? The reply: A dongle-sized transportable headphone amp/DAC (digital-to-analog converter). These tiny gadgets could not seem like a lot, however they’re filled with expertise and supply a greater audio expertise than you would possibly get with a easy $15 headphone dongle out of your favourite on-line retailer.

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Here are 5 headphone amp/DAC dongles we predict are value a have a look at. We examined every one utilizing a set of Sennheiser HD 560S open-back headphones, with a Google Pixel 5, and, when potential, an iPhone 11. As a music supply, we listened to Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music, with a mixture of lossless tracks — some at CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) and a few at hi-res high quality (24-bit/48kHz/96kHz/192kHz). We additionally listened to MQA tracks from Tidal on the entire gadgets besides the A&Ok USB-C Dual DAC. No DSD tracks have been used for this comparability.

All 5 gadgets carried out very nicely, delivering audio high quality that was noticeably higher than we might obtain with a easy adapter like Apple’s $8 Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle, which we used as a baseline. However, there have been some variations between every mannequin.

THX Onyx, $200

The energy participant

  • iOS, MacOS, PC, and Android
  • Headphone mic appropriate: Yes (besides iPhone)
  • Maximum output energy: 2Vrms
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz
  • DSD: Up to five.6Mhz
  • MQA appropriate: Yes

As the costliest headphone amp/DAC we tried, the THX Onyx has so much to reside as much as. It principally succeeds, particularly on the subject of energy, due to its Achromatic Audio Amplifier (AAA), which might output as much as 350 milliwatts when paired with a set of 32 ohms headphones. By distinction, the Questyle M12 outputs 26.71 milliwatts at 32 ohms. The Sennheiser HD 560S have a better impedance (120 ohms) than most headphones, and thus they require extra energy to drive them accurately, however the Onyx had no drawback in any respect.

I discovered that the Onyx was notably good at rendering MQA information, providing a barely smoother total sound than a number of the different MQA-capable DACs. It was additionally a stable performer for every kind of music, offering a wonderful tonal stability whereas enhancing the already vast soundstage of the Sennheiser HD 560S.

Like most DACs, the Onyx has a set of three LEDs on its slender metallic physique that provide you with a visible affirmation of the stream you’re enjoying: Purple for MQA, pink for DSD, gold for hi-res audio over 48kHz, and pink for audio with a sampling frequency of both 44.1 or 48kHz.

At 8 inches, the THX Onyx has the longest dimensions of the 5 fashions we checked out and it additionally has the biggest physique. It could be a bit cumbersome to take care of when on the street together with your cellphone — one thing that solely will get trickier if you have to use an adapter for the iPhone’s Lightning port. When not in use, the gentle and really versatile cable can fold in half, and magnets embedded into each the USB-C finish and the physique hold it from flopping about when not in use. It comes with its personal USB-A adapter, however you’ll want to purchase a Lightning adapter to be used with an iPhone or different Lightning gadgets.

Helm Bolt USB DAC, $99

No nonsense DAC

Helm Bolt USB DAC.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

  • iOS, MacOS, Windows, and Android
  • Headphone mic appropriate: Yes (besides iPhone)
  • Maximum output energy: 2Vrms
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz
  • DSD: Up to five.6Mhz
  • MQA appropriate: Yes

The Helm Bolt USB DAC is the bulldog of the group, with a really small physique that’s extraordinarily strong. Between its braided nylon cable, which is versatile however robust, and hard plastic shells used for each connector ends, I’m assured the Bolt will survive plenty of abuse. It’s additionally very mild, which retains it from exerting any pressure in your cellphone’s port or your headphone’s cable. Plus, of the 5 gadgets we tried, the Bolt’s headphone jack felt prefer it had the tightest match, with a really constructive click on whenever you insert a 3.5mm plug. The Bolt comes with its personal USB-A adapter, however you’ll want to purchase a Lightning adapter to make use of the DAC with an iOS system.

A small LED indicator provides you a visible affirmation of the supply sign — blue: Sample frequency of 48kHz or much less, pink: Sample frequency higher than 48kHz (hi-res audio), and magenta (purple) when enjoying MQA streams.

In phrases of sound high quality, the Bolt provided very comparable efficiency to the opposite gadgets on this checklist, with loads of quantity and nearly no discernible distortion.

Questyle M12 Portable Headphone Amp and DAC, $140

Maximum versatility

Questyle M12.
The Questyle M12 Portable Headphone Amp and DAC seen with an elective Lightning adapter cable. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

  • iOS, MacOS, Windows, and Android
  • Headphone mic appropriate: Yes (besides iPhone)
  • Maximum output energy: 2Vrms
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz
  • DSD: Up to 11.2Mhz
  • MQA appropriate: Yes

The Questyle M12 is the one DAC we tried that doesn’t have a built-in cable. This has two benefits. First, it implies that if a cable or connector occurs to interrupt, you’ll be able to merely purchase a brand new one as a substitute of changing the complete unit. Second, it enables you to select the particular connector sort on your system — whether or not that’s USB-C, USB-A, or Lighting, with out having to daisy-chain two units of plugs. This is unquestionably one thing to think about when you plan to make use of the DAC with a couple of system frequently. The all-metal physique may be very nicely constructed and solely provides a little bit of weight to the top of the cable. The M12 comes with two cables within the field: A USB-C to USB-C and a USB-C to USB-A, supplying you with the choice of cellular or pc use. You may purchase a separate USB-C to Lightning adapter (pictured above) to offer you iOS compatibility.

Questyle has included two sorts of LED indicators. A achieve indicator reveals whether or not the amp is ready to low (inexperienced) or excessive (pink) achieve — this could’t be adjusted because the achieve stage is computerized — a pleasant reminder that the amp is aware of the wants of your chosen headphones. While testing with the Sennheisers, that mild was all the time pink. Switching to a decrease impedance set of headphones just like the Sony WH-1000XM4, turned the sunshine inexperienced.

The second indicator is for stream identification, however in contrast to a number of the different DACs right here, the M12’s show discerns solely between distinct stream varieties (MQA, DSD, or PCM), and never the sampling frequency of the PCM sign. Green: PCM, pink: DSD, and magenta (purple) for MQA. The M12 does an excellent job of powering completely different sorts of headphones and sound high quality was wonderful from each my iPhone and Google Pixel. There was just one drawback I encountered: When I plugged the M12 into my Mac utilizing the USB-A adapter and listened through the Sennheisers, the DAC generated an audible popping sound. This didn’t occur after I used decrease impedance cans, so my guess is it has to do with the upper achieve the M12 makes use of when related to the Sennheisers. I’ve reached out to Questyle for its tackle the state of affairs and can replace this put up if/after I hear again.

Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC Cable, $149

The sound of metallic

Astell&Kern USB C Dual DAC Cable.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

  • MacOS, Windows, and Android (no iOS assist)
  • Headphone mic appropriate: No
  • Maximum output energy: 2Vrms
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz
  • DSD: Up to 11.2Mhz
  • MQA appropriate: No

In some methods, the Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC Cable is the least succesful system on this roundup. It doesn’t work with Lightning-based iOS gadgets in any respect (even with an adapter), it doesn’t assist microphone use (although audio continues to be nice in case your headphone cable has an inline mic), and it doesn’t assist MQA rendering. That makes it onerous to justify its $149 value. But the all-metal building of the Dual DAC Cable is undeniably cool, as is its A&Ok’s signature polygon styling.

The four-wire twisted cable seems a bit of fragile, however A&Ok claims that it will possibly face up to plenty of abuse. That’s a superb factor as a result of, at 0.9 ounces, the Dual DAC is the heaviest of the DACs on the checklist — the following runner-up is the THX Onyx at 0.6 ounces. With that a lot weight, there’s a good quantity of stress on the cable and the plug. I additionally observed that when inserting a 3.5mm headphone plug, the A&Ok doesn’t provide you with a click-fit. Instead, the jack depends on strain from the inner connectors to maintain the plug seated. That works nicely sufficient whenever you’re not transferring, nevertheless it doesn’t take a lot drive to drag the plug free from the jack.

Unlike the opposite DACs, the Dual DAC doesn’t provide you with any sort of visible suggestions by way of its LED — which is both on or off. There’s no manner to make certain if the dongle is receiving a lossy sign or a hi-res file at 24-bit/192kHz.

Despite these shortcomings, the Dual DAC is the one DAC on our checklist that doesn’t use DAC chips from ESS. Instead, it makes use of two Cirrus Logic DACs in parallel — one DAC performing the left channel conversion, whereas the second manages the suitable channel. For purists, this association is like catnip, providing higher precision, stability, and cleaner amplification. There’s little doubt about it — the Dual DAC sounds nice, with spectacular precision by way of midranges and excessive frequencies alike, with quick and punchy bass response. Once once more, there was no drawback when utilizing it to energy the extra demanding Sennheisers and different headphones have been equally well-served by the Dual DAC.

Zorloo Ztella MQA Version, $99

Tiny however mighty

Zorloo Ztella MQA version.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

  • iOS, MacOS, PC, and Android
  • Headphone mic appropriate: Yes (besides iPhone)
  • Maximum output energy: 2Vrms
  • PCM: Up to 32-bit/384kHz
  • DSD: Up to five.6Mhz
  • MQA appropriate: Yes

I’ve bought no concept how Zorloo managed to squeeze DAC and amplification into the tiny Ztella, however by some means this little shrimp of a cable possesses lots of the identical traits because the far bulkier fashions on this checklist. At simply over 0.1 ounces, you could as nicely say it weighs nothing in any respect. For that motive alone, it’s value your consideration. We examined the MQA model, however when you don’t want this characteristic, Zorloo additionally makes a non-MQA model that prices much less however is in each different manner similar. It ships with a USB-A adapter, however you may as well purchase it as a bundle from the Zorloo web site with a Lightning adapter for just a few {dollars} extra.

The LED indicator is embedded within the USB-C connector the place it’s simple to see so long as it’s going through up, and it makes use of an identical coloration sample as the opposite DACs: Blue for idle or PCM audio that has a sampling frequency of 48kHz or much less, pink for sampling frequencies of higher than 48kHz, and magenta (purple) for MQA content material.

My solely critique of the Ztella is that it won’t be as nicely constructed as the opposite gadgets on this checklist. After just a few weeks of use, the metallic collar on the headphone jack got here free, and I needed to begin twisting the headphone plug inside the barrel of the jack in an effort to hold sound going to each left and proper audio system.

But when the celebs (and electrical contacts) align, the Ztella punches nicely above its diminutive dimension, with tons of energy and superb sound high quality.

Research and shopping for ideas

What’s the distinction between a DAC, an amp, and a headphone adapter?

A DAC performs the conversion of a digital audio sign (which is principally simply ones and zeroes) into an analog sign that you could hear by way of headphones or audio system. All audio that comes out of a tool like a smartphone, pill, or pc should undergo a DAC earlier than you’ll be able to hear it. DACs can fluctuate of their capabilities and the standard of their conversions, which makes the DAC a key part within the sound you hear when enjoying digital audio.

An amplifier (amp) takes an analog audio sign and boosts its energy to match the wants of your headphones or audio system. If an amp is simply too weak on your chosen gear, the quantity shall be decrease than you anticipate and the sound that you simply do hear gained’t be particularly top quality. Many audio fans take nice care to make use of an amp that may present a powerful and correct sign to their headphones or audio system.

Headphone adapters for telephones that don’t have their very own headphone jack use a DAC to transform the digital audio sign from a cellphone’s USB-C, Lightning, or one other sort of port, into an analog sign that’s made out there by way of the adapter’s headphone jack. Generally talking, these adapters don’t present a lot in the way in which of amplification, making them a poor selection for some headphones, and their DAC could be restricted to particular digital bit depths and frequencies. This prevents them from providing the complete high quality of some digital audio information.

Why ought to I purchase a conveyable headphone amp/DAC as a substitute of a headphone adapter?

Portable headphone amp/DACs are designed to supply each high-quality and versatile digital-to-analog conversion in addition to a number of ranges of achieve (amplification) to accommodate the facility necessities of all kinds of headphones. While these gadgets could not supply a noticeable distinction when utilizing a cheap set of wired earbuds, these with high-quality headphones or in-ear screens (IEMs) ought to discover a substantial enchancment in sound high quality.

Can I exploit a conveyable headphone amp/DAC on my pc?

Yes. If your pc has USB-C ports, you’ll be able to in all probability plug the headphone amp/DAC in and use it immediately. Most transportable headphone amps/DAC additionally include a small adapter that lets them be plugged into an ordinary USB-A port too.

Do transportable headphone amp/DAC must be plugged into an influence supply?

Dongle-style transportable headphone amp/DACs are designed to drag energy from their host system (a cellphone, pill, or pc) they usually don’t want a separate supply of energy. However, different kinds of transportable headphone amp/DAC, which are usually bigger in dimension, must be plugged into an influence supply, or they might have inside rechargeable batteries that must be sometimes recharged earlier than they can be utilized.

Do all transportable headphone amp/DACs work on all telephones and computer systems?

No. Some of those gadgets are solely appropriate with particular sorts of telephones or computer systems. For occasion, the Astell&Kern USB-C Dual DAC Cable listed above will not be appropriate with Lightning-port merchandise like iPhones and older iPads (even when you use a Lightning-to-USB-C adapter), nevertheless it does work with USB-C and USB-A-equipped Macs and iPads. Definitely test the compatibility of a conveyable headphone amp/DAC earlier than shopping for it to verify it really works together with your merchandise.

Can I nonetheless use my headphones’ microphone if I exploit a conveyable headphone amp/DAC?

It relies upon. Most transportable headphone amp/DACs assist this characteristic when related on to a cellphone or pc with out utilizing an adapter. However, this characteristic can cease working when an adapter is used, e.g. a USB-C-to-Lightning adapter for iPhones. Again, test the specs of the transportable headphone amp/DAC to make certain it can assist your wants.

Will a conveyable headphone amp/DAC let me play each sort of digital audio?

The software program in your cellphone or pc is answerable for changing all kinds of compressed digital codecs like MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and many others., into pulse-code modulation (PCM) — an uncompressed digital sign that’s understood and processed by all DACs. PCM indicators can have a bit-depth of as much as 64-bit, and a sampling frequency of as much as 384kHz, although nearly all of digital music makes use of a most of 24-bit/192kHz, which is taken into account hi-res audio. All of the transportable headphone amp/DACs we examined above are appropriate with all of those PCM bit-depths and frequencies. In different phrases, these gadgets will work for the overwhelming majority of the digital music you’ll doubtless encounter.

However, there are two sorts of digital audio that don’t get transformed into PCM earlier than arriving on the DAC: DSD and MQA. A conveyable headphone amp/DAC should particularly assist these codecs in an effort to play them.

DSD (direct stream digital) is a high-resolution format that makes use of a 1-bit depth however is available in as many as 5 sampling frequencies, from 2.8 MHz to 45.2 MHz. You gained’t discover DSD on any streaming service, however music lovers proceed to amass DSD audio information as downloads and by ripping tracks from SACDs and DVD-audio discs. All of the transportable headphone amp/DACs we tried assist DSD at 2.8 and 5.6MHz, however solely the Questyle M12 and A&Ok USB-C Dual DAC assist DSD at as much as 11.2MHz.

MQA is a proprietary digital audio format that may ship each CD-quality and hi-res audio as a single file. Any music playback app that helps MQA will allow you to hear the CD-quality stage, however to get the complete hi-res stage of high quality, you want a DAC that helps MQA rendering. Of the transportable headphone amp/DACs we examined, solely the A&Ok USB-C Dual DAC doesn’t assist MQA. You can entry the MQA format through Nugs.internet and Tidal HiFi, which makes use of the format for its Master audio tracks, nevertheless it’s additionally out there as a obtain or on bodily media.

Always test the specs to verify the codecs that matter to you might be included.

Does it make sense to purchase a conveyable headphone amp/DAC if I’m simply listening to lossy digital audio like MP3s or streaming from Spotify?

Yes, however the main profit would be the enchancment of amplification. Portable headphone amp/DACs can ship a cleaner, extra highly effective sign to your headphones and that may enhance the standard of something you take heed to, from zoom calls to podcasts. Only you’ll be able to resolve if that justifies the funding.

Editors’ Recommendations