smartphones have come a long way and provide a convenient way to listen to music. However, if you are not satisfied with the sound quality of your phone, it may be time to invest in an external DAC.
When you play a song on your phone, you play a coded digital audio file. easiest is a stream of ones and zeros. The thing is, your headphones can not turn that stream into analog sound without the help of a digital-to-analog converter (DAC).
DACs are built into most devices and convert digital signals into headphone-friendly analog signals. Apart from that, not all DACs are the same and cheap built-in DACs tend to produce a low quality sound. If you can not figure out why your otherwise good cable headphones sound like garbage when plugged into your phone, this is most likely the phone's built-in DAC.
Fortunately, there are many portable external DACs on the market. Some of them are expensive, others affordable, but all are a major upgrade to your built-in DAC. Note, however, that newer phones without a headphone jack will not work with some DACs. If your phone is missing a jack, you will need a model with a microUSB or USB-C jack.
Best for most people: FiiO A1
Ultra-Portable DAC ($ 28)
If you are looking for a cheap, ultra-portable DAC, you should take a look at the FiiO A1 Four built-in EQ modes, responsive volume controls and a small pocket clip to listen in. It also has a 13-hour battery life and can be charged during operation, which is a great way to see if you can add a DAC to your setup without breaking the bank.
Best for phones with USB-C: NextDrive Spectra USB-C-DAC ($ 127)
The NextDrive Spectra is a practical and high quality alternative to bulky DACs. It produces rich sound without giving you the impression of carrying a transformer around you, and it's powered by your phone's USB-C port, so you do not have to worry about charging a battery.
If you want to use the NextDrive Spectra with an iPhone, then you need to purchase the USB-A model and a USB A-to-Lightning adapter. Other NextDrive Spectra models will not work with the iPhone, not even with an adapter. To be honest, iPhone users should, unless they have acquired the form factor, try out the MFI-certified FiiO Q1 Mark II or the iPhone-friendly Audio-Technica Wireless DAC instead.
Ideal for high-impedance headphones: FiiO A3 DAC ($ 56)
If you are looking for a premium DAC at an affordable price you should take a look at the FiiO A3. This thing is like the big cousin of FiiO A1. It has a satisfactory volume control, built-in gain and bass controls and a battery life of 16 hours.
This DAC is particularly suitable for users of high-impedance headphones with 16 to 160 ohms. If your expensive headphones do not seem to be loud enough, they are probably high-impedance headphones that require extra power to function properly.
Best suited for Apple users: FiiO Q1 Mark II Native DSD DAC ($ 100)
If you are looking for a first-rate, from Apple MFI you should consider the FiiO Q1 Mark II. Everything about this DAC screams high quality. It has a satisfactory volume control, two inputs (one of which is a balanced input for limiting audio interference), gain and bass controls, and a solid metal case. It also has a battery life of 8 hours.
This device is certified by Apple MFI, so you can be sure that it works well with any Apple device. And like the FiiO A3, this DAC works well with high-impedance headphones from 16 to 160 ohms.
Best for Micro USB phones: FiiO E17K ALPINE 2 Micro USB DAC (120 USD)
Want this futuristic nerd Look like? The Fiio E17K ALPINE 2 combines the atmosphere of a walkman with the technology of a modern portable DAC. Like other FiiO devices, the ALPEN 2 has a large volume control (which also acts as a menu navigation tool), an 8-hour rechargeable battery and high quality workmanship. But there are also customizable EQ settings, a coaxial digital input, a two-function line-in / out connector and, of course, a screen.
Before purchasing the ALPEN 2 you should keep in mind that its DAC features only work over micro -USB connections. When listening to music through the standard audio inputs of the ALPEN 2, the unit acts only as an amplifier.
Best Wireless Option: Audio-Technica Wireless DAC ($ 97)
DACs are very useful, but not always practical. If you are not interested in cables, you should try the Audio-Technica Wireless DAC. This device connects to your phone via Bluetooth without affecting the audio quality. It has a satisfactory volume control, built-in EQ functions and a pocket clip for a retro mood. Plus it has a battery life of 8 hours, so you do not have to worry about losing access to high-quality sound in the middle of the day.
Unlike some other DACs, the Audio-Technica works well with iPhones and high-impedance headphones. This is a great option for iPhone users who do not want to use a USB adapter, or anyone who wants to use headphones with an impedance range of 15 to 300 ohms.