Portable USB DAC or DAP: which should you choose?

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Portable USB DACs and DAPs are simple and practical solutions to enjoy high-quality sound on the go and at home. But which one should you choose? Is a DAP more powerful than a portable DAC? Discover the advantages and disadvantages of these two systems to choose the piece of equipment that is best suited to your needs and listening habits.

What is a portable DAC? 

Portable audio DACs provide the same digital-to-analog conversion features as their desktop counterparts, with one difference: they can be used with a smartphone for on the go listening. The associated smartphone then acts as a player – with files stored in the device’s memory or played via online music services – then sends the digital audio data to the DAC, which handles the conversion to analog. A portable DAC therefore allows you to bypass the smartphone’s audio section, which is often of lower quality. You will benefit from a more accurate conversion, support for Hi-Res files, as well as a more powerful and higher quality amplification section.

Why choose a portable DAC?

The audio section is often the poor relation on smartphones, even with the most high-end models. A portable DAC is the easiest way to enjoy high-quality sound while keeping the smartphone as a player. In addition, the quality of the headphone output on smartphones is often rather poor, with a considerable amount of distortion, especially in the lows. In contrast, the amplifier of a portable audio DAC has a very high-quality output stage, offering a much more balanced sound and more intensity. The results can be quite surprising for a device often not much bigger than a USB stick.

A portable USB DAC such as the Astell&Kern PEE51 bypasses the smartphone’s audio section to decode and amplify the signal in a more precise and musical way.

A portable audio DAC can also become a must-have for connecting wired headphones to a smartphone without a mini-jack output. You can use headphones or hi-fi in-ear monitors, which can easily outperform the best Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth IEMs. The latter are limited by Bluetooth transmission which generates compression, even with recent codecs. Moreover, the integrated amplifier in Bluetooth headphones and IEMs isn’t always hi-fi quality. A portable DAC guarantees that you can enjoy better music performance with a smartphone, whether the tracks are stored in the device’s memory or played from streaming services.

Which portable DAC should you choose?

Entrusting the decoding of audio files to a DAC associated with high-quality headphones transforms the listening experience. However, it is necessary to choose a DAC that is compatible with your smartphone or tablet. This compatibility mainly concerns the DAC’s connectors. Models with a USB-C port such as the Shanling UA1 USB-C are the most versatile and can be used with most smartphones, tablets and computers with a USB-C input.

Only slightly larger than a USB stick, the Shanling UA1 USB-C portable USB DAC is ideal for boosting the audio performance of a smartphone, tablet or computer equipped with a USB-C port.

With Apple devices, it is essential to opt for a Made For iPhone certified portable DAC and a USB to Lightning adapter. This is notably the case with the Audioquest DragonFly Red + Lightning vers USB kit, a must-have in this field. For even more simplicity, some manufacturers are offering versions of their most popular portable DACs with a Lightning port. The best models in this category are the Ikko Zerda ITM03 Type-C and Ikko Zerda ITM01 Lightning.

The Ikko Zerda ITM01 Lightning mini portable DAC is designed specifically to work with an iPhone or iPad equipped with a Lightning connector.

What is a DAP?

The digital audio player or DAP is the second solution to enjoy a high-quality listening experience on the go. As the successor to MP3 players, the audiophile DAP differs by adopting more high-end and more powerful components and a conversion stage adapted to high resolution files. The latter is paired with genuinely hi-fi headphone amplifiers, all in a device that is hardly any larger than a smartphone. Some digital audio players can only play files stored in their memory or on an SD card, while others are compatible with streaming services once they are connected to the WiFi.

A DAP like the iBasso DX300 differs from the classic MP3 player by the adoption of higher-end, more muscular components and a conversion stage adapted to high resolution files.

Why choose a DAP?

Using a DAP allows you to enjoy high-quality sound while on the go. Unlike portable USB DACs, DAPs have the advantage of working completely independently, with dedicated storage that doesn’t encroach on that of the smartphone. The choice of an audiophile digital audio player over a portable DAC can therefore be determined primarily by the amount of space needed to accommodate your entire music library. As it works independently, a DAP aslo doesn’t impact the battery life of the smartphone, unlike DACs which don’t always have their own battery.

The Astell&Kern KANN Alpha DAP can play music stored in its 64GB internal memory, on a micro SD card or from streaming services.

Which DAP should you choose?

The choice of DAP depends mainly on the type of audio files you want to listen to, as well as the headphones you would like to use with it. If you only want to listen to audio files from your personal collection, the choice of player should be based on its compatibility with these files: AAC, OGG, ALAC, WAV, FLAC, DSD, MQA, etc. It is also a good idea to take into account the maximum resolution at which the player is able to play these files. Currently, the most powerful DAPs such as the Shanling M6 Pro and FiiO M11 Plus are compatible with PCM streams up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD512, ensuring optimal playback of all your tracks.

The FiiO M11 Plus audiophile player ensures optimal playback of PCM files up to 32-bit/768kHz, as well as DSD512 and MQA files.

If you also want to enjoy online music services, you’ll have to opt for a WiFi-compatible digital audio player. The latter usually work with Android and allow you to download the apps for the main streaming services such as Spotify, Qobuz, Deezer, Apple Music and Napster. Tidal is also included, but make sure that you choose an MQA-compatible player if you wish to get the most out of this platform. Lastly, DAPs need to be connected via WiFi to access these services. For use on the go, you can download the tracks in offline mode beforehand or share your smartphone’s connection.

Portable USB DAC or DAP: which should you choose?

Although portable USB DACs and DAPs are intended for use on the go, these systems serve very different purposes. Portable DACs are the easiest and most intuitive way to improve the musical quality of your smartphone and connect wired headphones. They are perfect for playing Hi-Res music that is natively incompatible with your smartphone and efficiently power the associated headphones. However, it is advisable to opt for a model with a battery or for a very low-powered model like the Shanling UA1 USB-C so as not to impact the autonomy of the associated smartphone.

Ultra-compact and energy-efficient, the Shanling UA1 USB-C portable DAC is a simple, affordable and practical solution to optimize playback when using a smartphone and headphones.

The DAP is a more independent solution for listening to music while travelling. It has the advantage of not impacting the autonomy of the smartphone, nor its storage capacity, which makes it a preferred choice if you have a very large music library. Musical performance is globally the same as that offered by similarly priced portable USB DACs. However, DAP manufacturers design their devices with an operating system optimized for audio and only use components that work together seamlessly. This difference can lead to even greater accuracy depending on the player you choose.

Read: A comparison of the best DAPs

Which is the best portable USB DAC?

If you want to use an audiophile player to listen to music on the go, you can easily find the best model for your needs and budget in our comparison of the best DAPs. However, if you’re looking for an even simpler solution, the portable USB DAC is a must. That said, not all models are equal. To ensure that you make the right choice, here is a selection of the best portable USB DACs, sorted by price range.

The best portable audio DACs under €100

  • Shanling UA1 USB-C: 32-bit/384kHz and DSD 256, USB-C + USB-A adapter, 80mW into 32 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack output 
  • Ikko Zerda ITM03 Type-C: 32-bit/384kHz and DSD 256, USB-C, 1.05V, 3.5mm mini-jack and Toslink optical output 
  • Ikko ITM01 Lightning: 32-bit/384kHz and DSD 128, Lightning, 2V, 3.5mm mini-jack output 

The best portable audio DACs between €100 and €200

  • Astell&Kern PEE51: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, USB-C, 2Vrms, 3.5mm mini-jack output 
  • iFi Audio hip-dac: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, DXD384, MQA, USB-A, 400mW into 32 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack and 4.4mm output, integrated battery 

The best portable audio DACs between €200 and €300

  • EarMen Sparrow: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD, MQA, asynchronous USB, 110mW into 32 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack and 2.5mm outputs 
  • EarMen Tr-Amp: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD, MQA, asynchronous USB, 400mW into 16 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack and 6.35mm outputs 
  • Audioquest DragonFly Red: 24-bit/96kHz, DSD, MQA, asynchronous USB, 80mW into 32 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack output

The best portable audio DACs over €300

  • McIntosh MHA50: 32-bit/192kHz, DSD, 200mW, USB A and micro USB inputs, 3.5mm mini-jack output
  • Ifi Audio iDSD Diablo: 32-bit/768kHz and DSD512, USB A, optical and coaxial inputs, 611mW into 600 ohms, balanced and unbalanced outputs, integrated battery 
  • Chord Hugo 2: 32-bit/768kHz, DSD256, USB and S/PDIF inputs, 1050mW into 8 ohms, 3.5mm mini-jack and 6.35mm outputs, integrated battery 

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