Are we approaching the saturation point with Dongle DACs? I’m getting the sense from both readers and industry insiders that the concept may have jumped the shark in some markets. Two manufacturers with a presence in the category told me over coffee at CanJam NYC 2023 that sales have peaked in some very “important” markets and that only companies with a very committed customer base will be fine long-term.
One of the manufacturers admitted that sales really fell off post-pandemic and that N. American listeners were more interested in wireless earbuds and headphones than Dongle DACs.
With more than 2 dozen Dongle DACs in my desk drawer and zero desire to invest in a DAP — Dongle DACs will continue to power my headphone/earbud ecosystem and get used with my MacBook Pro and powered loudspeakers.
So where does that leave a brand like iFi Audio?
Choice is a great thing, and iFi Audio have not released too many inferior products over the past few years. We absolutely loved the iFi Go Bar Dongle DAC which recently made our “2022 Best Dongle DAC” list. The brand new iFi Audio Go Link competes directly with the Helm Audio Bolt and that piqued my interest in a very big way.
If anyone can make a $60 Dongle DAC that doesn’t sound like every other product in the category under $100 — it is most certainly iFi Audio.
Its purpose is twofold. First, to enable wired headphones and earphones to connect to digital devices that don’t have a 3.5mm headphone output. Second, even if a device does have a headphone socket, the GO link delivers a big sonic upgrade.
This is because its DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) and headphone amp circuitry is superior to the audio tech contained within mobile devices and computers.
At one end of the GO link is a USB-C connector, at the other is the DAC and headphone amp circuitry, both housed in robust yet lightweight magnesium alloy enclosures.
A 6 cm length of flexible cable allows the DAC/amp section to be angled towards the listener and reducing stress on the USB port to which the GO link is connected. iFi hasn’t skimped on the quality of the cable, which uses silver-plated copper conductors with individual polymer insulation in a ‘twisted pair’ configuration.
This rotational twist helps to optimize inductance and capacitance and also aids noise rejection, ensuring the GO link’s sound isn’t affected by electromagnetic interference picked up from nearby electrical sources.
The GO link draws on the experience iFi has gained in developing a range of multi-award-winning DACs at a wide spread of prices. At its heart lies a power-efficient, high-performance DAC chip from ESS Technology’s Sabre HiFi series – the ES9219MQ/Q – benefiting from 32-bit HyperStream III architecture.
This combines with Quad DAC+ and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator technologies, plus iFi’s dedicated clock circuitry utilising a specialised crystal oscillator, to deliver ultra-low distortion, excellent clarity and impressive dynamic range.
iFi has taken full advantage of the DAC chip’s advanced specification, unlocking high-end features such as DRE (Dynamic Range Enhancement), plus technologies to minimise THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) and crosstalk.
Users can even select between different digital filters via downloadable firmware should they wish to do so, giving a degree of personal sonic tailoring according to taste.
Unlike other headphone dongles, the GO link doesn’t rely on the software-based volume controls in connected digital devices, which can adversely affect audio resolution.
Instead, adjusting the volume on the connected device controls the volume level in the GO link’s DAC, not in the phone, tablet or computer – this hardware-based analogue volume control is another feature that helps to deliver the GO link’s superior sonic performance.
The GO link’s hi-res capabilities are impressive given its price. PCM audio data is supported to 32-bit/384kHz, alongside DSD to 11.2MHz (DSD256) and MQA (the streaming technology used by Tidal’s HiFi Plus tier). An LED changes colour to indicate the incoming audio format – PCM, DSD or MQA – and the PCM/DSD sample rate.
But what about the headphone amplifier?
The GO link’s headphone amp feeds a gold-plated 3.5mm socket incorporating iFi’s noise-reducing S-Balanced configuration. This delivers a power output of 70mW/1.5V into 32 ohms, rising to 2V with higher impedance headphones – plenty to drive the kind of headphones and earphones with which the GO link is likely to be partnered whilst minimising drain on the connected device’s battery.
As well as powering headphones, the 3.5mm analogue output can be used to connect a preamp or integrated amp, or powered speakers.
Those familiar with iFi audio devices will know that the company uses discrete, high-grade components in its circuit designs, and the same is true of the GO link despite its small size and low price.
Devices such as TDK C0G multilayer ceramic capacitors and inductors from Taiyo Yuden and Murata deliver qualities such as low ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance) and high linearity, paying great dividends in terms of sound quality.
Adapters are included to convert the GO link’s USB-C connector to fit USB-A and Apple Lightning ports – whether you’re using the GO link with an Android or iOS device, a Windows PC or an Apple Mac, everything you need is in the box.
GO Big or Don’t GO at all?
The GO Link at 11 grams is relatively lightweight and I’ve yet to have any issues with it in my breast pocket while running at 5 a.m. along the beach here in New Jersey. The cable is too short to kink and appears well made; although I do think the braided cable on the iBasso DC03 was more substantial. The Helm Bolt’s cable is also more resistant to abuse.
My iPhone 12 is encased in an Otterbox waterproof shell but I had no issues using the supplied Apple Lightning adapter or the USB Type-A adapter with my iMac; iFi have iOS and Android users well supplied in this scenario.
Dongle DACs can be a huge draw on the battery of your device, and that was the case with the GO Link and my iPhone 12; my longest listening session was 90 minutes listening to Qobuz as I walked from my home to Asbury Park and back. The battery was still in the 50% range when I turned the iPhone off and removed the FiiO FH5s earbuds. The louder you listen, the faster it drains.
Big Cans or Little Earbuds?
The iFi GO Link is designed for both IEMs and headphones, but it didn’t make sense to use it with $800+ headphones like the Meze Audio 109 Pro because my gut told me that it would be underpowered and how many consumers are going to drive such demanding headphones with a $60 Dongle DAC?
With that in mind, I decided to limit my options to the Meze Audio 99 Classics, Grado SR80x, Campfire Audio Holocene, FiiO FH5s, and Periodic Audio Titanium Earbuds.
The tonal balance and presentation of the GO Link is certainly more neutral sounding than the Helm Bolt and with overly bright sounding headphones and earbuds, poor recordings lacked body in the upper bass through the midrange.
Clarity and detail were excellent for such an inexpensive Dongle DAC, but I found myself using the darker sounding 99 Classics a lot more than usual which created a better sense of balance.
Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” off the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge session can be somewhat unforgiving and strident on bright sources and headphones; the GO Link managed to keep the top end under control on the 99 Classics, FH5s, and Periodic IEMs and whilst the tonal balance could have been warmer, most tracks were very clear, detailed, and extremely spacious sounding.
The bass response with most tracks was surprisingly well defined and quick, but one will not be overwhelmed with the quantity of bass.
Listening to “Green Onions” off the 2023 Remaster (Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Qobuz, 16-bit/44.1kHz), there was a noticeable softening of bass notes which took some pep out of my step with this iconic track.
Steve Cropper’s guitar work had more than enough energy and edge, however, and the Hammond M3 was front and center with sufficient body, but the extreme low end was a tad loose.
The iFi GO Link can be very revealing with forward sounding earbuds and I found myself reaching for the volume slider with the Holocene on a regular basis.
Darker sounding IEMs and headphones are a much better option with the GO Link unless you prefer a livelier presentation and overly bright sounding recordings are not part of your daily listening habits.
Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” felt very focused through the Meze 99 Classics and extremely spacious; piano notes could have used slightly more body, but I rather liked the how the GO Link gave horns just enough presence without becoming strident sounding at elevated volume levels.
Does the iFi GO Link have enough juice to drive the 99 Classics?
Most of my listening was done in the 50 to 60% range and that certainly felt adequate with most tracks. Pushing the volume higher certainly made some tracks more engaging, but I also started to hear some distortion around 80% that was less than pleasant.
Keep it down with the GO Link.
Minus the slightly cool tonal balance and distortion when the volume is pushed way too hard with specific headphones, the iFi GO Link Dongle DAC does a lot of things very well. iFi have not skimped on the build quality and the unit performed without issue with a myriad of headphones and earbuds. The battery life could be stronger, but most of my listening was with the over-ear Meze 99 Classics which required more power to truly sing.
From a cost perspective, this is definitely one of the top options below $100 right now and a very competent performer with the right pair of headphones or IEMs.
Where to buy: $59 at Amazon
- The iFi Go bar Dongle DAC costs a lot more. Is it worth it?
- Our picks for Best Dongle DACs — and we tested a lot of them.
March 11, 2023 at 5:38 pm
People still use wired headphones? OK, I admit I do still use a pair of wired IEMs if watching a YouTube video on my laptop and I don’t want to disturb my wife. I also admit I am not a headphone power-user as I prefer listening via my loudspeakers. But for music and podcast listening during workouts or walks I use wireless IEMs.
Ian, would you be so heavily invested in wired headphone listening if you were not a reviewer? Just curious.
March 11, 2023 at 6:16 pm
Yes. I’m not a huge wireless headphone fan. I like the Bathys and B&W Px7 S2, but 90% of my headphone collection is wired. I grew up wearing headphones because my father worked in radio and the bug never left. I do love loudspeakers more, though. I’ve owned more than 30 pairs of high-end loudspeakers since my Bar Mitzvah in 1983. That would make me 53. Today is my birthday and I’m enjoying the B&W 703 S3 very much right now.
I do think the high-end headphone revolution is our best shot at getting new blood interested in high-end audio and I embrace it.
March 12, 2023 at 4:06 pm
Happy Birthday, Ian!
March 12, 2023 at 4:08 pm
Thank you David. Much appreciated.
March 12, 2023 at 7:56 am
I’ve bought that in Jan 2023 but it’s failed to decode MQA from Android Tidal app for master quality songs (no magenta lights can show). Already raised a ticket to iFi and they admitted that it’s an issue on Android and will fix it at next firmware version update.
Still, the current v1.69 or previous v1.66 all tried but still failed. No further updates from iFi when will next firmware will be released and can really fix that issue. Really disappointed since I mainly bought this to use it for my Android phone and Tidal and now it just stays here with no use!
March 11, 2023 at 11:35 pm
Tried this dongle with 5 different headphones (Grados, Sennheiser, Sony, etc) & I was very disappointed. Bought new connector cables and still rubbish sound. Waste of money.