iPhones and Android-based smartphones came with 3.5mm headphone jacks.
Before the dark times. Before the Empire.
But then there was a great disturbance in the Force. Tens of millions of voices cried out in terror as their headphones became irrelevant.
With darkness descending across the galaxy, a lone Jedi Knight by the name of Obi-Wan Rankin stepped forward with a new weapon to confront this insidious evil and bring freedom and order to the Republic.
Begun the Dongle DAC Wars have…
Most consumers probably don’t know it, but a Dongle DAC might be in their future. With streaming approaching 83% of the market, people are increasingly using their smartphones, tablets, and laptops as their primary music source. The momentum can’t be stopped. The resurgence of vinyl gets most of us very excited, but let’s not kid ourselves – digital streaming is the present and future of music delivery.
Companies like Apple, Samsung, Google, LG – they want you to abandon a wired connection to your devices for the simple reason that they want you to buy wireless headphones from them as well. Their headphones.
But here’s the thing.
Bluetooth can’t deliver high-res audio. All Bluetooth audio codecs are lossy and until Bluetooth aptX Lossless becomes a mainstream product in Q3 2022 — you are losing sound quality with these types of headphones. We also don’t know how aptX Lossless is going to sound yet so it’s impossible to say that it is a success or failure.
Forget about high-res wireless streaming from your iPhone to your Apple AirPods Max headphones – your $530 headphones can’t offer that.
So what do you do if you want to use your fancy smartphone, tablet, or laptop as your primary digital streaming source with both headphones and your stereo at home – and benefit from lossless streams offered by Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify HiFi (when it launches this year)?
You add a Dongle DAC.
Sounds kinky I know.
Before you get all excited, there are a few things you need to know.
Dongle DACs are not wireless devices. They require a physical connection to your device to work.
Not every Dongle DAC will work with your specific mobile device because the manufacturer may not support products that use a lightning connector – a product like the brand-new Dongle DAC from Astell & Kern.
Some Dongle DACs like the AudioQuest DragonFly series have a USB connection on one end, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other. Connecting the otherwise superb sounding DragonFly Cobalt to your iPhone or iPad requires a USB to Lightning adapter.
You can plug a Dongle DAC with a USB connection directly into a USB 2.0 port on your laptop.
You will need a 3.5mm to RCA cable to connect your Dongle DAC to your stereo or active loudspeakers.
Most of the current Dongle DACs support high-res audio streaming with support for 24-bit/96kHz at a minimum. Some will even decode DSD and MQA – not that 99% of the people who currently stream even know what those two formats are.
Android-phone users are out of luck when it comes to hi-res streaming with a Dongle DAC because the Android OS will resample almost everything down to 48kHz. To get around this, you can download the USB Audio Player PRO app which loads in its own USB driver and bypasses Android’s system.
You can use any Android device, given that it runs Android 3.1 or higher, has USB host support and support for isochronous USB transfers in the kernel. You connect the Android device to the DAC using a USB OTG cable to trigger USB host mode.
Is it worth it?
We think so. If you use Tidal and Qobuz, you’re wasting your money if you’re not taking advantage of the lossless and high-res streaming that they both offer.
If you have invested in better quality headphones, most Dongle DACs double as headphone amplifiers as well. Some headphones can’t be driven properly by your mobile device and the step-up in sound quality is certainly audible.
Until we can buy a pair of HiFiMan, Grado, or Sony wireless headphones that can decode 24-bit/96kHz lossless…we’re sticking with a Dongle DAC.
What to Buy
With so much competition, manufacturers have been forced to keep the prices of Dongle DACs below $300 – which probably sounds like a very expensive accessory for a mobile device, but when you use it as part of your home stereo, portable audio set-up, or on your desktop – it’s actually a worthwhile investment.
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC ($329.95)
You can find our in-depth review of the DragonFly Cobalt here, but the important thing to know is that AudioQuest started this category with the original DragonFly USB DAC which was designed only for laptops and desktop computers. Gordon Rankin has created multiple generations of this groundbreaking product and there are 3 variants currently available; all 3 sound different and will work better in specific types of systems. The DragonFly Red ($199.95 at Amazon) is a brighter sounding Dongle DAC and certainly better for darker sounding systems. The Cobalt offers the most balanced sounding presentation of the 3 and we think it’s the Rolls Royce of the category so far.
- Best sound quality in the category
- 24-bit/96kHz high-res support
- Supports MQA
- Beautiful industrial design
- Headphone amplifier is powerful and noise-free
- Balanced sounding presentation
- Requires USB to Lightning Adapter
- Does not support 24-bit/192kHz or DSD
For more information: audioquest.com
Clarus CODA USB DAC ($299.99)
When we reviewed Clarus CODA, we were pleasantly surprised by its performance. The manufacturer makes some of the best power conditioners and cables in the industry, so we really shouldn’t be all that surprised by its initial offering which is a direct competitor to the DragonFly Cobalt. It is definitely more assertive sounding than the AQ DAC, which may not be a good thing if you’re using more neutral sounding loudspeakers or headphones.
- Powerful and incisive presentation
- Solid industrial design
- Can drive a lot of headphones
- Can decode 24-bit/192kHz high-res and DSD
- Excellent clarity
- External volume buttons can catch on pocket and pants material
- Not a good match for neutral sounding loudspeakers or headphones
- Treble can be a tad strident at higher volume levels
For more information: claruscable.com
Where to buy: $299.99 at Amazon
THX Onyx ($199.00)
The THX Onyx Dongle DAC might be slightly late to the party, but it needs to be considered the “Godzilla” of the category if we’re turning this into a battle for supremacy between it and the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt.
Staying true to its mission to empower high fidelity for entertainment, the company has unveiled the THX Onyx with improvements over traditional DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) amplifiers by including THX AAA™ amplifier technology onboard to ensure hi-resolution digital audio lossless playback.
THX Onyx has both THX AAA and ESS Pro DAC chips inside, as well as MQA support, creating the potential for a best-in-class portable DAC/Amplifier; PCM hi-res is supported up to 32-bit/768kHz. Not that you can find any music recorded like that. DSD support is also part of the package.
You can read our THX Onyx review here but make no mistake — this is one of the best so far.
- The most powerful Dongle DAC so far
- World-class transparency
- Really large soundstage
- Can drive any headphone we’ve tried so far
- More affordable than the DragonFly Cobalt
- Perhaps too clean and neutral sounding for some
- Weird maximum power level the first time you use it (turn everything down)
- Lacks emotional impact with some headphones
For more information: thx.com/onyx/
Earmen Sparrow ($199.95 USD)
Earmen is an offshoot of Auris Audio that has made some great tube amps for years now. The new lineup is dedicated to solid state devices with a focus on portable audio gear.
The Sparrow is small enough to forget you are carrying it but loaded with features including both 3.5mm standard and 2.5mm balanced outputs, 32/384 PCM, 64 and 128 DSD support, and full MQA support. Top that off with enough power to drive all but the most demanding headphones and you have a device that can cover nearly all possible scenarios for a very reasonable $199 USD.
If you want a version that doesn’t drain your smartphone battery, the Earmen Colibri will be out soon and offers just that.
Where to buy: $199 at Amazon
Questyle M12 ($139.00 USD)
Questyle has been a leading brand in the desktop audio and headphone space for almost a decade and their products manufactured in a very high-end facility in Shenzen can compete with anything made in N. America or Europe. The engineering on their products is excellent and they have a solid track record of creating audio components that are over-achievers for the money. If any brand was going to create a great Dongle DAC, these are the guys with design skills to do it.
You can read our very detailed review of the Questyle M12 here.
If you don’t need a balanced output, the Questyle M12 offers nearly exactly the same feature set at $139 retail and also offers 2 gain modes with auto-switching between depending on the impedance of what is plugged into it.
This works very well as long as the headphone you are using doesn’t have a low impedance and a low sensitivity as this sets the gain too low and there is no manual override so the usable volume range is insufficient. The Fostex T50Rp is a great example of headphones that don’t work well with the M12.
For more information:
Hiby FC3 ($69 USD)
Those wishing to spend a bit less will want to look at the Hiby FC3. Here again, we have many important features that consumers might want in a tiny package; there is support for 32/384 PCM, DSD128, and MQA.
The Hiby FC3 is barely the size of a small package of chewing gum and its metal construction is a sign of quality. The 70mW of power and low battery consumption makes it a steal at $69.
It’s not really designed for larger planar magnetic headphones but it works rather well with high-sensitivity IEMs and you’re good to go with its 3.5mm headphone jack. It does require the USB-C to Lightning adapter cable to work with your iPhone; that accessory will run you an additional $19.95.
Where to buy: $69 at Amazon
Helm Bolt DAC ($99.99)
One of the most surprising Dongle DACs we’ve heard so far is the Helm Bolt DAC, review here. This MQA-certified DAC/Headphone amp is one smooth sounding customer and very affordable as well.
The Helm Bolt is a DAC for your high-res FLAC or WAV files, and it will improve audio quality while streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and others. This tiny DAC supports playback of PCM files with sampling rates up to 384kHz, or DSD files with sampling frequencies up to 5.6MHz.
Not only is it THX-certified, but it also supports MQA and is designed with a USB-C input and 3.5mm headphone output. iOs requires a Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.
- $99 asking price is a bargain
- Excellent resolution
- Midrange and detail are excellent
- Supports up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD high-res digital playback
- USB-C Input and 3.5mm Headphone Output
- iPhones require a Lighting to USB Camera Adapter
- Bass could have more impact
For more information: helmaudio.com
Where to buy: $99 at Amazon
iBasso DC03 ($69.00)
The iBasso DC03 is one the most affordable Dongle DACs available and there is a lot to like for the money. For such a small headphone amplifier, it has a lot of gain and you may want to keep the volume levels a tad lower than normal. You can find our in-depth review here.
- A lot of gain
- Lightweight and easy to carry
- Supports high-res digital playback
- Works better with more neutral sounding headphones
- Warm midrange
- Too much gain with some headphones
- Treble can be too rolled-off sounding with some headphones
- Bass is a tad wooly sounding
Where to buy: $69 at Audio46
Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifiers
The biggest issue with Dongle DACs is their limited power that makes them incompatible with specific headphones. Consumers often don’t read the fine print and just assume that any Dongle DAC or portable headphone amplifier is the right one for their headphones or IEMs.
That is not the case. Both in terms of their power and their sonic presentation.
The portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier category has some excellent options right now and we’ve spent enough time with 2 new models to recommend them. They offer a lot more flexibility and power for a wider range of headphones.
iFi Hip-Dac2 ($189 USD)
Those looking for a true pocket rocket have a couple of great options in the iFi Hip-Dac2 and the FiiO Q3, which retail for under $200. The Hip-DAC-2 uses a Burr-brown DAC chip and XMOS combination to offer MQA support even though the TI chips don’t natively support it.
The Hip-Dac2 offers both standard and balanced outputs with good output power and the xBass feature allows users who want more low end punch to add some without muddying up the signature. It’s one of the few bass boost circuits on headphone amplifiers that we don’t dislike.
Where to buy: $189 at Amazon
FiiO Q3 ($159 USD)
The FiiO Q3 uses an AKM DAC and THX amp circuit and offers fantastic specifications for only $159. It does not support MQA (which some people will applaud) but offers 32/768 PCM and DSD512 support.
We’re not in love with the FiiO Bass boost option but it does offer more punch for those who want it. Two gain modes offer more flexibility, and the ability to disable charging while using the Q3 as a desktop component helps preserve the battery for those times when it is needed.
Where to buy: $149.99 at Amazon