Even with the exponential growth of the wireless headphone and TWS earphone segments, Dongle DACs are finding favor with music listeners who don’t want to take the wireless plunge at this point, and have zero desire to purchase an expensive DAP when they already have a smartphone in their pocket.
That last aspect of the conversation is the greatest selling point for Dongle DACs; why spend additional money on a DAP when the savings from a high-quality Dongle DAC will give you a larger budget for a better set of headphones or IEMs?
What is a Dongle DAC?
A Dongle DAC is a small adapter that connects between a wireless device and wired headphones. Its purpose is to improve the digital audio quality of your smartphone or tablet and give users a higher quality headphone amplifier in the same package.
It accomplishes this by bypassing the DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) circuitry built into phones which are generally low quality. By offloading D/A processing, Dongle DACs offer a step-up in sonic performance and can also breathe new life into older devices.
- Related video: DAP, Dongle DAC or DAC-AMP: Which should you choose?
Is it worth it?
We think so. If you use Apple Music, TIDAL, Qobuz and others, you’re wasting your money if you’re not taking advantage of the lossless and high-res music files that they offer.
Why are you spending the money on a hi-res music streaming platform and better quality headphones unless you care about sound quality. A high-quality Dongle DAC can result in a huge uptick in performance and also expand your ability to use harder to drive headphones.
Dongle DACs can also work with laptops. Desktop audio anyone?
It is important to remember that not every Dongle DAC works with every phone so selecting the best option isn’t as simple as grabbing the best one and thinking that you just improved the sound of your headphones.
Apple users have a more limited pool of devices to choose from due to the more limited power available via the lightning port and the fact that Apple puts more restrictions on devices and demands licensing fees to be Apple certified.
Most devices will work with Android phones but even then some dongles trade battery life for features so it’s still important to find the best balance for your use case.
This is made more difficult by the myriad of devices available as trying to audition all of them can be overwhelming (believe me). We had nearly 30 different models at our booth at T.H.E. Show, and that barely scratches the surface. All of our picks work equally well with Android and Apple smartphones.
Smallest Dongle DAC
For those looking for the smallest dongle on the market, look no further than the DDHifi TC35 models. These are available in either Lightning or USB Type-C port and dispense with the cable altogether. We had these at T.H.E Show and most listeners were taken back not only by the size but also the sound quality and price of these tiny wonders.
At $42 USD, the TC35 is less expensive than the adapter cables for other dongles on our list. The base Lightning model (TC35i) supports 24-bit/48kHz playback while the TC35B model (USB Type C) supports 32-bit/384kHz. An upgraded Lightning model (TC35C) also supports 32-bit/384kHz and is available for $59.99.
These Dongle DACs don’t sport a lot of extra features; those looking for MQA support, balanced outputs, or LED indicators of file type will want to continue their search.
The reality is that the build quality on these Dongle DACs is superior to some more expensive options and they really do improve the sound quality of your smartphone and don’t take up a lot of space.
Pros: simple, affordable, great Build and sound quality
Cons: Not well known, outside of Head-Fi circles, no balanced output
Where to buy:
- TC35i (Lightning 2021) – $42 at Linsoul | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk
- TC35B (USB-C) – $42 at Linsoul | Audio46 | Amazon | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk
- TC35i (Lightning 2022) – $49.99 at Linsoul | Amazon
- TC35C (Upgraded Lightning) – $59.99 at Linsoul
Best Value Dongle DAC
Hidizs S9 Pro
The Swiss army knife in the category is the Hidizs S9 Pro which offers 32-bit/384kHz PCM playback, MQA support, DSD Support, Apple lossless support, both 3.5mm and 2.5mm outputs, and the logo doubles as an indicator of the sampling rate.
Build quality is first rate, and it comes with a pocket clip and both USB Type-C and Lightning cables. Amazon has the S9 Pro listed for $116.99 USD which makes it one of the best value Dongle DACs available. It is one of the most capable units anywhere near that price. If there is a drawback to the S9 Pro it is that it gets fairly hot during use and may struggle driving high impedance or low sensitivity headphones.
Pros: Solid build, supports both balanced and single-ended, good format support
Cons: Can get hot during use, may not drive high-impedance headphones well
Where to buy: $116.99 at Amazon | Linsoul | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk
Best Dongle DAC Under $150
For those wishing to power their over-ears with a dongle, the Questyle M12 is our top pick in the $150 USD price bracket. The M12 auto-detects the headphone plugged in and adjusts accordingly; it will work just fine with IEMs like the UE Live, high-sensitivity over-ear headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X, and even powered loudspeakers.
One quirk is that the Questyle M12 will not be visible to the phone until a headphone is plugged into the dongle. This prevents wasting power when playback isn’t possible but it does take some getting used to. The $139 USD price is a true bargain considering the power, sonic performance, and format support.
Pros: Build quality, format support, sound quality, power
Cons: Unit doesn’t power on until headphone is plugged in, no balanced output, price
Where to buy: $139 at questyleshop.com
Best Audiophile Dongle DAC
Questyle has a long track record of success in the DAP and desktop amplifier categories and the M15 offers some interesting trickle down technology from its lineup. High-end Dongle DACs are starting to offer sonic performance that rivals many of the DAPs currently available; the issue is these rather powerful options also come with heat and battery issues, and not every smartphone will work with them.
The Apogee Groove ($249) is a fantastic option but only for Android users. Apple iPhone owners won’t have much success with it.
Similarly, the Cayin RU6 is a superb ladder DAC but it also suffers from some heat build-up and signal cut-out issues with Apple iPhones. If you use a Samsung smartphone — this could be your audio nirvana when streaming.
The best universal audiophile high-end Dongle DAC is the Questyle M15; which is the big brother to the M12 and offers both balanced and single-ended outputs, excellent industrial design with its clear top exposing the internals, and it works equally well with both Android and Apple devices (a huge plus).
File format support includes 32-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD, and MQA-encoded files. Like its little brother, the M15 uses current mode amplification and adjusts to the headphones or earphones being used. The M15 offers a very low noise floor, a high level of resolution, detail, and can drive a wide range of headphones and IEMs.
The $269 USD asking price makes it more expensive than the aforementioned Cayin and Apogee Dongle DACs but we think the sound and build quality, along with its ability to work with Apple and Android devices makes it the clear choice.
Pros: Good power, balanced output is able to drive most headphones, format support, build quality, sound quality
Cons: higher battery drain than some, some heat build-up, price
Where to buy: $269 at Amazon
iFi Go bar
The iFi Go bar earns an honorable mention in the category because it offers so much flexibility, a wide range of connectivity options, and excellent format support. Bassheads might select the iFi Go bar for its xBass boost and xSpace setting that increases the spaciousness of the sound, but the $329 price is a rather significant premium over the M15 which offers the same level of sonic performance.
Where to buy: $329 at Amazon | Crutchfield
November 6, 2022 at 7:50 pm
Uh, you missed the Apple Lightning DAC. It is by far the smallest and best bang for the buck. While it can’t do dog level, high end DAC numbers, it’s performance measurements are great. About $9. Buy two in case you loose one. I never have though.
USB C version is also excellent too.
November 10, 2022 at 4:43 pm
No we didn’t miss it as it is not compatible with non-Apple products due to the Lightning only connector. All of our picks work equally well on Android and Apple devices and we ruled out several devices for failure to work with Apple products so only fair to rule that one out based on its lack of support for anything other than Apple products.
March 24, 2023 at 1:13 pm
Will, what’s your recommendation for best dongle DAC for iOS? I find that it’s not worth running balanced on them as they cut out at high volumes due to the available power via Lightning, and even unbalanced at high volumes. I’m using an S9 Pro and a ddHiFi TC44B.