If you asked the average person on the street about the status of the Apple iPod, most would probably reply that Apple killed it off many years ago; the reality is that Apple pulled the plug on everything but the iPod Touch (which will run out soon) earlier this week. It has also been a week of news in regard to DAPs from brands like FiiO which just announced that they were discontinuing all models below $600 USD.
FiiO’s announcement may seem less relevant, but remember that it was the X1; a budget DAP that put FiiO on the map to begin with, so abandoning the segment is a big deal.
I recently recorded a video chat with Brian Mitchell to discuss DAPs, dongles, and DAC/Amps and how the market is shifting and some of this will sound familiar if you’ve watched that.
Between 2012-2017, DAPs made their mark in the portable audio category delivering better sound quality than any smartphone, superior battery life, greater storage capacity, and had superior interfaces than many of the first music apps.
Fast forward to 2022, and there have been some interesting changes in the world of smartphones; the 3.5mm jack has been deleted to improve the waterproof nature of the device, battery life has improved enormously, and the ability to stream from the cloud takes up far less storage space.
When one can access Apple Music, Spotify, Qobuz, TIDAL, and Amazon Music on the same device which gives you access to millions of songs — it’s an entirely new experience.
Another change has been the maturation of applications; Hiby, Apple Music, USB Audio Player Pro, Neutron, Poweramp, and others now offer the same functionality of the software used on DAPs
There is also no denying that dongles killed the market for DAPs. When smartphones and dongles can offer sound quality similar to the best DAPs, deliver better connectivity options (how many DAPs have 5G?), and more freedom of choice between streaming services, it is pretty easy to see the reasons for the shift.
Add to that, one less brick to carry around, and the cost of a good dongle being $150-$300 and it strengthens the case even further.
But there is still a market for DAPs. It isn’t as large as it once was and because of that prices have jumped. To compete with the phone/dongle combination, DAPs must offer the same operating system flexibility and application choices phone users have; meaning most DAPs now sport the same processors, memory, and operating systems as phones.
The heart of most DAPs today can be thought of as a flagship phone minus the 5G connectivity. That explains a big chunk of the cost and a lot of the reason the iPod just got retired.
Add to that the need for a DAP to differentiate itself with features dongles can’t provide like increased amplifier output, larger internal memory, the ability to add a micro-SD, the ability to accept coaxial and optical inputs — and we see why prices now start in the $600-800 range and run into the $3,000+ range at the top end.
The new generation of DAPs have become desktop replacements; packing all of the capabilities and power of a Chromebook, desktop DAC, and headphone amplifier and somehow finding a way to make it all battery powered and last an entire day between recharges.
Think about how far we’ve come in a decade.
The current crop of ultra high-end DAPs are technological marvels when you look at what they can do and music listeners are better off for it.
The original DAP is dead. Long live the new DAP.