Smartphones have come a long way, and they offer a convenient way to listen to music. But if you aren’t happy with your phone’s sound quality, then it may be time to invest in an external DAC.
When you play a song on your phone, you’re playing an encoded digital audio file—at it’s most simplistic a stream of ones and zeros. The thing is, your headphones aren’t capable of turning that stream into analog sound without the help of a, very appropriately named, Digital to Analog Converter (DAC).
DACs are built into most devices, and they transform digital signals into headphone-friendly analog signals. That being said, not all DACs are created equal, and cheap built-in DACs tend to produce low-quality sound. If you can’t figure out why your otherwise good wire headphones sound like garbage when you plug them into your phone, it’s most likely the phone’s cruddy built-in DAC.
Luckily, there are plenty of portable external DACs on the market. Some of them are expensive, some of them are affordable, but they’re all a significant upgrade from your built-in DAC. Just keep in mind that newer phones without a headphone jack won’t work with some DACs. If your phone lacks a jack, then you’ll need a model with a Micro-USB or USB-C jack.
Best for Most People: FiiO A1 Ultra-Portable DAC ($28)
If you’re looking for a cheap, ultra-portable DAC, then you should check out the FiiO A1. This tiny device has four built-in EQ modes, responsive volume controls, and a little pocket clip for on-the-go listening. Plus, it has a 13-hour battery life, and it can be charged while in use. It’s a great way to see if adding 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 convenient, high-quality alternative to bulky DACs. It produces rich sound without looking like you’re carrying around a power transformer, and it’s powered by your phone’s USB-C port, so you don’t have to worry about charging a battery.
If you want to use the NextDrive Spectra with an iPhone, then you have to get the USB-A model and a USB-A to Lightning adapter. Other models of the NextDrive Spectra don’t work with the iPhone, even with an adapter. Honestly, unless you’re sold on the form factor, iPhone users should check out the MFI-certified FiiO Q1 Mark II instead or the iPhone-friendly Audio-Technica Wireless DAC.
NextDrive Spectra Portable USB DAC - The World’s Smallest 32-bit DAC Headphone Amp for Truly Mastering Your Sound On-The-Go (Spectra USB Type-C)
Best for High-Impedance Headphones: FiiO A3 DAC ($56)
If you’re looking for a premium DAC at an affordable price, then you should check out the FiiO A3. This thing is like the FiiO A1’s big cousin. It has a satisfying volume knob, built-in gain and bass controls, and 16-hour battery life.
This DAC is especially useful for people who use high-impedance headphones ranging from 16 to 160 Ohms. If your expensive headphones don’t seem to get loud enough, then they’re probably high-impedance headphones, and they require an extra bit of power to work properly.
Best for Apple Users: FiiO Q1 Mark II Native DSD DAC ($100)
If you’re looking for a premium, Apple MFI-Certified DAC, then you should consider the FiiO Q1 Mark II. Everything about this DAC screams high-quality. It has a satisfying volume knob, two inputs (one of which is a balanced input to limit audio interference), gain and bass controls, and a solid metallic case. Plus, it has an 8-hour battery life.
This device is Apple MFI-Certified, so you can be sure that it’ll play nice with any Apple device. And like the FiiO A3, this DAC works well with high-impedance headphones ranging from 16 to 160 Ohms.
Best for Phones with Micro USB: FiiO E17K ALPEN 2 Micro-USB DAC ($120)
Going for that nerdy futuristic vibe? The Fiio E17K ALPEN 2 pairs the vibe of a Walkman with the technology of a modern portable DAC. Like other FiiO devices, the ALPEN 2 rocks a great volume knob (that doubles as a menu navigation tool), an 8-hour battery, and a premium-styled build. But it also as customizable EQ settings, a coaxial digital input, a dual-function line in/out port, and of course, a screen.
Before buying the ALPEN 2, keep in mind that its DAC features only work over Micro-USB connections. If you listen to music through the ALPEN 2’s standard audio inputs, then the device will only function as an amplifier.
Best Wireless Option: Audio-Technica Wireless DAC ($97)
DACs are seriously useful, but they aren’t always convenient. If you aren’t keen on cables, then you should check out the Audio-Technica wireless DAC. This device connects to your phone via Bluetooth without sacrificing any audio quality. It has a satisfying volume knob, built-in EQ functions, and a pocket clip for that retro vibe. Plus, it has an 8-hour battery life, so you shouldn’t have to worry about losing access to high-quality sound in the middle of your day.
Unlike some other DACs, the Audio-Technica works well with iPhones and high-impedance headphones. This is a great option for iPhone users that don’t want to use a USB adapter, or for anyone that wants to use headphones with an impedance range from 15 to 300 Ohms.