One of the most interesting aspects of our participation in the T.H.E. Show 2022 was the interest in Dongle DACs that we had on display at our media table; younger show attendees and older audiophiles came with their own headphones to try with the 2 dozen Dongle DACs we had available and with the headphones that we had courtesy of Audeze, HiFiMAN, and Ultimate Ears. As popular as the AudioQuest DragonFly Series has been over the past 6 years, there was far more interest in the bespoke ddHiFi TC44C Dongle DAC and new models from Questyle and Apogee.
Portable DACs and headphone amplifiers have become a commodity in the world of personal audio; there are so many products currently available that we plan on spending the rest of the summer updating our “Best Dongle DAC” Buying Guide and publishing another 10 reviews before Labor Day.
Do you remember when every high-end loudspeaker company tried to make their own headphones when the luxury headphone market took off — very few actually succeeded at becoming relevant in the space.
It is starting to feel like that when it comes to Dongle DACs. Competition is a good thing when it forces brands to innovate and also lower prices, but a market flooded with inferior products doesn’t really help drive interest in the category.
Is anyone doing something really different?
A tiny Chinese shop in Guangzhou that specializes in all of the little parts that you need to make portable audio less frustrating is doing just that and their Dongle DACs are proving to be quite impressive.
ddHiFi was created by Demond Ding; Demond spent time as a designer at OPPO and FiiO before deciding that the time was right to start his own business to support the growing personal audio category.
Demond anticipated the need for these with Sony using the 4.4mm connector and the rest of the market focused on the 2.5mm balanced connector.
The company also produces a balanced to single-ended adapter so you can use 2.5mm cables on IEMs and be able to add an adapter for use with 3.5mm sources rather than having to change cables.
When smartphone manufacturers started deleting the headphone jack, ddHiFi saw an opportunity and has been manufacturing dongles of all shapes and sizes for several years; the TC35B (USB) and TC35i (Lightning) are two of the smallest Dongle DACs on the market.
All of them are built to last a lifetime; they refuse to use plastic in any of their components or adapters and build the shells out of aluminum, steel, brass, and the finishes are brightly polished and hard anodized.
The ddHiFi TC44C is their newest model and is a hanging style dongle with an aluminum shell and brass rear face. The front face has a lanyard loop that doubles as a protective lip around the outer edge of the 4.4mm jack. It is roughly 1.5″ long x 1″ wide, and 0.5″ thick and even with the high quality materials, it weighs in at less than 13 grams.
The nose has both 3.5mm and 4.4mm ports while the tail has a single USB Type-C port. Cables for USB Type C and Lightning sources are available so the TC44C works equally well with iPads and Android devices. It worked well with macOS and Windows as well in my testing, so with the right cable, this may be the only dongle you need.
It is worth noting that the USB Type-C to USB Type-C cable is directional and the dongle will not work if the cable is reversed. Both housings on the cable have arrows that should point the direction of data flow (toward the dongle).
There is a Windows driver for the TC44C that allows Windows to take full advantage of the TC44C; so although it will show up in Windows without installing the driver, getting full resolution out of the dongle requires the use of the driver.
Internally, The TC44C uses a Savitech (best I can tell) USB bridge and the Cirrus Logic 43131 system on a chip handles the DAC, amplifier, and filtering. The TC44C supports balanced output, and uses one 43131 per channel.
Using a system that combines the DAC and amplifier allows ddHiFi to pack audio chips onto a single board just slightly under 1 inch square that sits above the headphone jacks while the USB port and support chips sit on a second board at the rear.
The TC44C supports PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD up to 256. MQA is not supported. The LED at the bottom of the 4.4mm port turns blue for PCM and green for DSD and shows around the 4.4mm port even when a cable is plugged into the port.
I spent a few weeks using the TC44C extensively and found it paired best with either IEMs or high sensitivity headphones.
It worked well with the Campfire Audio Cascades, Sennheiser HD700, and Grado 325i but reached its realistic limits with the Beyerdynamic DT-880 or Sennheiser HD6xx; it had enough headroom for those two at normal listening levels for me, but those who listen at higher volumes may find it limited in that regard.
When paired with highly sensitive IEMs, the gain is low enough on the 3.5mm output that I had no issues with hiss.
The TC44C does a good job of reproducing what it is fed and the resolution is quite good. I do find the Cirrus Logic DACs to have a slight warmth and thickening to the sound so they come across as a bit less clinical and more organic than either of the other two big DAC families (AKM and ESS).
In some ways, the TC44C could pass as an AKM chipset because of how it smoothes out the rough edges at either extreme but the warmth and note weight in the lower midrange are a tip-off that this is a Cirrus Logic chip.
This makes the ddHiFi TC44C a good choice for listeners with a music collection that contains a lot of poorly recorded music; it is a very forgiving DAC that makes almost everything quite listenable.
I’m a big DAP fan and user but sometimes it just isn’t practical to carry something that size. If you commute to work or travel for work, you probably don’t want to schlep a heavy DAP with you and having a pair of IEMs and a TC44C for your smartphone is a really easy carry.
I keep mine with me at the office because it makes a good loaner when a co-worker needs one; it pairs well with a lot of different earphones and sources and when source files are of questionable quality, it is forgiving enough that most listeners who are not accustomed to using a Dongle DAC think that their music sounds much better than usual.
The size and weight of the ddHiFi TC44C are a huge win because it is one of the easiest Dongle DACs to take with you. That is a huge selling point for those people who don’t understand why they need to attach another device to their smartphone to achieve better sound quality.
At $120 for the USB version and $140 for the Lightning, the TC44C is in a very competitive bracket, but remains one of my favorite recommendations for people new to audio as it is a good combination of build quality, sound quality, price, and durability.
Where to buy: