Dongle DACs. Their job is to externally execute 1) an audio stream’s conversion from digital to analogue and then 2) that analogue signal’s headphone amplification. Many dongle DACs sound better than a laptop or smartphone’s 3.5mm headphone socket. Why? The silicon found in dongle DACs tends to be more audiophile-centric than the chips used by Apple and co. inside their laptops and smartphones.
Many flagship smartphones have severed ties with wired headphones, ditching the headphone socket to push their users towards Bluetooth or dongles. iPhone users who still haven’t gone wireless will be accustomed to Apple’s own Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle DAC. It sounds good (but not great), especially when used with headphones that demand more power or audible refinement than an Apple Earpod. (Even the €10 VE Monk Plus sound better than the earbuds that ship with most smartphones).
More advanced dongle DACs – like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt and THX Onyx use individual chips for each audio stage: one chip for the D/A conversion, another for the headphone amplification. Others – like the HELM Bolt – use a single chip to take care of both stages. ESS Labs’ chips are popular with many hardware manufacturers but we also see some companies – like Astell & Kern – hitting up Cirrus Logic. Each of the aforementioned dongle DACs has already enjoyed coverage from on these pages. Three of my favourites were recently singled out for some extended video coverage recently:
And there’s nothing like a YouTube comments section to bring the whataboutery to the surface. “What about DAC X?” “What do you think of DAC Y?” “How does DAC A compare to DAC X?” It’s great that this publication’s YouTube audience is so engaged but viewer numbers are now too large for everyone to understand that I have access only to a small slice of gear coming to market and time for even less. Even if this were not the case and I had a door to a magic closet featuring every piece of head/hi-fi gear ever made, I’d still need to be über-selective when choosing what to feature in a video and what to leave out. Why? Each component comparison (A vs. B) takes days – sometimes weeks – to get right.
Some commenters expressed their frustration at the absence of a Lightning-terminated dongle DAC in the video. Alas, Lightning dongle DACs work only with iPhones and iPads, are far fewer in number than their USB-C counterparts and cannot be adapted for use with USB-C devices like a MacBook or USB-A devices like a Raspberry Pi, which is fundamental to my enthusiasm for dongle DACs; USB-C dongle DACs can be used outside of the house with headphones but also inside the house as part of a loudspeaker system.
However, in listing 5 more dongle DACs worthy of your further investigation, I have included one Lightning DAC and another that comes in both USB-C and Lightning variants.
iBasso DC03 (US$69)
Dual Cirrus Logic CS43131 DAC/amp chips
Output voltage: 2Vrms(300 Ohms), 1.61Vrms(32 Ohms)
Output power: 80mW @ 32 Ohms
Signal to Noise ratio: 127dB
3.5mm Headphone Output
Further information: iBasso DE
IKKO Zerda ITM03 (US$99)
USB-C or Lightning
Fully shielded design
Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC/amp chip (32-bit/384kHz, DSD128)
3.5mm analogue or mini-TOSLINK digital output (32-bit/192kHz)
16 Ohms – 600 Ohms Impedance adaptive
THD+N < 0.0015%
Further information: IKKO Audio
Zorloo Ztella (US$99, $109 for MQA version)
ESS Sabre 9270C DAC/amp for standard version (32bit/384kHz, DSD128) or 9281CPRO DAC/amp for MQA version
SNR @ 120dB
THD+N @ 0.0006%
<2 ohm output impedance
Adaptive output: 1V for <150 Ohms, 2V for >= 150 Ohms
Further information: Zorloo
ALO Audio Pilot (US$129)
ESS Sabre 9281CPRO (32bit/384kHz, DSD 128, MQA)
THD+N @ 0.0006%
< 2 Ohm output impedance
Further information: ALO Audio
Maktar Spectra X2 (US$199)
ESS Sabre 9118 DAC/amp (32bit/384kHz, DSD 128)
Further information: Maktar