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.
Wireless streaming definitely has some advantages. The ability to access Spotify, Qobuz, and Tidal in dozens of countries around the globe has completely changed how we listen, expanded our access to millions of songs, and connected artists with their fan base like never before.
That artists have not benefitted financially to the extent that they should have is another topic for another day.
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.
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 ($299.95)
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)
We reviewed the CODA back in January and 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
Helm Bolt DAC ($99.99)
One of the most surprising Dongle DACs we’ve heard so far. Look for our in-depth review in April. This MQA-certified DAC/Headphone amp is one smooth sounding customer and very affordable as well.
- $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
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