Getting your hands on the best portable DAC can make a major difference to the way you listen to music. That’s because all the music you have on your phone is stored digitally, but for your ears to understand it, it needs to be analogue. What that means is there’s an enormous amount of digital information to convert.
The best way to do this properly, is using one of the best portable DACs around – that stands for digital-to-analogue convertor. With one of these handy devices, the music you hear through your headphones will sound crisper, clearer, bassier and altogether better compared to if you leave this crucial converting process in the hands of the DAC chip in your phone, tablet or laptop.
Granted, it isn’t the most glamorous tech purchase you could make. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for it. New DACs are released all the time, large devices, smaller ones, those that are mains-powered and others that are battery-powered. You can get DACS for iPhones, as well as models with wired or wireless connectivity, too. In this guide we’re focusing on the best of the most portable headphone amps around. If you give any one of these fine items a listen, then we guarantee your ears will thank you.
Our top picks
What is the best portable DAC?
The original Chord Mojo DAC was at the top of our list for a long time, but that's since been replaced by the Chord Mojo DAC 2.
Replacing a product that’s borderline iconic can’t be easy - which is maybe why it’s taken Chord Electronics seven years to replace its original Mojo DAC / headphone amp.
It's very easy to use. Just hook a digital source into one end of Mojo 2 and some wired headphones into the other.
During testing, we found this to be a brilliantly accomplished device, able to deliver all the musicality, all the detail, all the refinement and all the excitement hidden in what previously sounded like quite humdrum digital audio files. In pure performance terms, the Chord Mojo 2 almost constitutes a bargain.
But there are several drawbacks, too. The Mojo 2 is bulky (the same size and weight as the original it's replacing) and it doesn't have wireless connectivity. What's more, its control interface can be confusing.
Read our full review: Chord Mojo 2 review
Don’t be fooled by the tiddly dimensions - the M-DAC nano is a powerful, pocketable piece of audio excellence.
A portable headphone DAC and amplifier at a reasonable price, it’ll boost the audio performance of any device with Bluetooth connectivity. It’s about as simple as a gadget like this can be: just connect the Audiolab to your smartphone or MP3 player wirelessly, plug a pair of wired headphones in and away you go.
In effect, your headphones have a wireless connection to your phone, with a dedicated volume wheel on the M-DAC nano. An ‘F’ button on the unit enables 32bit/384kHz upscaling, bringing critical clarity and depth to your source’s sound.
You’ll get eight hours of playback under regular circumstances, and a still-respectable six hours with upsampling turned on too, and the Audiolab will drive headphones as demanding as 3000ohms with 7.5mw of power. It supports Bluetooth 4.2 (with aptX, aptX Low Latency and AAC codecs covered), which is more than enough to squeeze extra performance from a portable player.
The headphone jack is going the way of the dodo. The headphone amplification of smartphones is improving at a pace best described as ‘glacial’. So the M-DAC nano makes an awful lot of sense.
After a portable DAC that looks as good as it can make your music sound? The iFi Hip-DAC is a great choice. With plenty of connectivity options and numerous codecs supported, it’ll make the best headphones sound even better - thanks in large part to its ‘bit-perfect’ digital-to-analogue conversion and nifty bass-boosting button.
Coming in at $149 / £149 / AU£249, the iFi Hip-DAC isn’t outrageously expensive for the specification it offers and it looks great too. Its luxurious petrol-blue and copper finish, alongside its - hey! - hip-flask design means it really is a DAC you want to show off, weirdly enough. And it’s small and slim enough to slip into your pocket with ease.
The lack of Bluetooth support is a bit of a shame, as is the fact Apple users need to buy an additional cable to be able to use it. But considered as a whole, the iFi Hip-DAC is a fantastic bit of audio kit.
Read more: iFi hip-dac review
At a trifling 8 x 22 x 42mm, the EarMen Sparrow is hardly a burden to carry about - but despite its negligible size, it’s full of the right stuff. It can handle most digital file types, from PCM and DSD to DXD and MQA, and it’s got both 3.5mm unbalanced and 2.5mm balanced headphone outputs. So good luck trying to find audio files or headphones it’s not compatible with.
And even though it’s hard to make a product of these dimensions seem like value for money, the glass-and-steel construction make it feel good too. Even the cables it’s supplied with look and feel quite expensively braided.
Best of all though, is the fact the difference the Sparrow can make to your smartphone-derived sound is out of all proportion to its, um, proportions. Detail levels, the definition of the soundstage, the extension and control of bass sounds... heck, even something as fundamental as volume gets a boost.
The EarMen Sparrow, then, is further proof - as if any were really needed - that it's not the size of your DAC that counts...
Yes, we’re stretching the limits of the word ‘portable’ here, but because the 25 x 72 x 166mm iFi is a) battery-powered, b) weighs 330g and c) is supplied with a nice little carry-case for it, the iDSD Diablo qualifies for a place on this list. Which is just as well, because it’s one of the best-sounding DACs around - at any price.
No matter if you want to put an intense rocket up the sound of your smartphone, your laptop or an entire music or home theatre system, the iDSD Diablo is talented enough to make your hair stand on end. Its powers of analysis - the way it peers deep into a recording and returns with every scrap of information - are staggering, and it has the sort of dynamic headroom that can make the distance between ‘very quiet’ and ‘very loud’ very wide indeed. It’s controlled, it’s insightful, it’s tonally impeccable and, above all else, it’s musical. No recording is too dense, too complex or too tricky to wrong-foot it.
In fact, the iFi iDSD Diablo could well be all the DAC you’ll ever need. Which, when you have another glance at that price-tag, is probably just as well.
Much like the Chord Mojo we’ve already discussed, the EarMen TR-Amp is a cuspy product. Its dimensions (30 x 66 x 129mm) and weight (240g) mean it’s far from big or heavy in and of itself, but there’s no denying it’s bigger and heavier than almost any smartphone you care to mention. Which means you might think twice about whether it’s suitable for your ‘portable’ purposes. But then you hear what it can do, and all the digital audio file types it can do it with, and those considerations become quite a lot less compelling.
At one end of the boxy little frame, a couple of USB-C inputs deal with data and charging - and they can be used simultaneously (the battery’s good for around 10 hours of playback). There’s also a pair of RCA outputs, allowing for connection into a static system. At the other end there’s a big volume control, and 6.3mm and 2.5mm headphones outputs (which can also be used simultaneously).
And in between, the TR-Amp takes your digital audio information and spruces it up considerably. Where rhythmic expression, dynamic headroom and soundstage definition are concerned (just for starters), the EarMen outperforms your smartphone (and that’s any smartphone) comfortably. As long as you can accommodate it, the TR-Amp will do nothing but pamper you.
As one of the biggest names around where portable music players are concerned, Astell & Kern has already demonstrated just how profoundly it knows its way around a DAC. And for its first stand-alone, off-board DAC, the company has (in relative terms) knocked it out of the park.
The USB-C Dual DAC is basically two little blocks (a USB-C plug and a DAC) joined by a flexible, braided length of cable. Lined up against any of the other DACs here (even the EarMen Sparrow) it’s tiny, and it weighs around 25g. But A&K has found room for two DAC chipsets capable of handling audio files of up to 32bit / 385kHz resolution, as well as headphone amplification.
Make the connection between phone and headphones using the A&K, and stand by to be impressed. Your music gains attack and control, enjoys far greater detail levels... heck, it’s even across-the-board louder.
And while it’s not a wireless solution à la Audiolab, the USB-C configuration means you can even with it with those smartphones too fashionable to have a headphone socket. Well, not Apple of course - but then Apple always was determined to make things difficult.
Don’t let the picture fool you: the iFi Go Blu is actually minuscule. At 54 x 34 x 13mm and 26g, it’s small and light enough to forget all about. Unless you’re paying attention to the music it’s serving you, of course, in which case it becomes impossible to ignore.
iFi products show up in this list time and time again, and with good reason - the company is an absolute master at taking digital audio information and converting it to analogue information, intact and in full. And even when it’s doing so in an enclosure barely larger than a DAC chipset, it finds room to separate Bluetooth connectivity, DAC and headphone amplification into separate, discrete blocks - and the sonic results are startling.
Attach your Go Blu to your smartphone wirelessly. Attach your favourite headphones. Play one of your favourite songs. And then revel in the wide-open nature of the iFi’s sound, its rock-solid soundstaging, its lavish detail retrieval and its outright punch. Small package + good thing.
If you don’t have much money to spend on your first headphone setup, the iFi Zen DAC is the perfect starting point.
This DAC and amp combo has enough power to drive power-hungry headphones while also working with sensitive in-ear monitors, making it extremely versatile. The iFi Zen DAC has more features than you would think for the price including support for MQA, DSD256, PCM384, DXD384. There’s also balanced inputs, outputs, and the ability to bypass the amp if you want to use it solely as a DAC. While you may not use all of these features, it’s nice future-proofing as you mature during your audio journey.
Looking at the specs on paper, you’d expect the iFi Zen DAC to cost $500 or more but it retails for $129 / £129 (about AU$250) making it one of the best audio bargains today. Whether you’re just dabbling in headphone audio or if you simply want a somewhat-portable DAC/amp to take on the go, the iFi Zen DAC is an excellent choice.
Read more: iFi Zen Dac
Audioquest basically invented the USB DAC with the original Dragonfly back in 2012, but until now the device's power demands limited it to desktop use, thanks to the iPhone's 100mAh limit on power draw through its lightning port.
But Dragonfly's latest devices completely change that. By using an all-new USB microcontroller, Audioquest's Dragonfly Red/Black's DACs now consume closer to 25mA, and can now be used happily with any iOS device - though you will need to shell out for an Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter (opens in new tab).
This makes the Dragonfly a pretty compelling iPhone DAC. With a total size smaller than most USB sticks the Dragonfly fits easily into a pocket alongside an iPhone.
Dragonfly Red is the more premium offering. It contains a better DAC chip, and outputs 2.1 volts of power as opposed to the Black's 1.2 volts. That mean the Red is a better choice for driving high-impedance headphones.
With my headphones plugged directly into my iPhone I was comfortable listening to music with the volume set halfway, but with the Red I could listen at just a quarter and with the Black this was strangely reduced to just one volume bar.
In effect this means that you have a lot less control over the listenable volumes – turning the Black up just one volume notch meant that music was too loud, and turning it down one muted the iPhone completely.
Both versions, however, added a good amount of heft to the bass without sacrificing the clarity of mid frequencies. A play through of Daft Punk's Get Lucky didn't shimmer in the same way without the DAC than with it.
Whether you'll want to pay extra for the Red version depends entirely on how difficult your headphones are to drive – there's far more of a difference with power-hungry over-ears than budget in-ears.
Neither the Dragonfly Red or Black can match the sophistication of the Chord Mojo, but their budget price and much more practical form-factor make for a far better portable listening experience.
Why should I use a DAC?
The advantages of using an external DAC
The best portable DACs take the bits and bytes stored in a digital music file and convert it into something a headphone or speaker (analogue devices) can play back.
The thinking behind DACs and amps is that, when you press play on your phone or speaker, the sound that comes out often isn't as the artist intended. We've found it should often be clearer, crisper or offer up more bass.
Of course you could just get used to how your phone plays music. But if you're an audiophile that just won't do. So, if your music isn't sounding quite as spectacular as it should – and the only thing you've changed recently is the source – it's likely that your new device (a new laptop, desktop, phone or tablet) has a poor quality DAC built-in.
So, to be clear, there's a DAC in your phone or other device. But that doesn't mean you don't need another.
The first advantage of using an external DAC rather than the DAC that comes built into your device, is that an external system will usually be better than the one.
Simply put, external DACs will usually perform much better than those that come built in to your smartphone or equivalent playback device – usually because that aspect of the hardware usually isn't the priority in all-round media devices like phones or tablets.
The second reason to shell out for a better system is the fact that some of the more premium headphones on the market are 'high-impedance' headphones, which require more power through the headphone jack on your music source in order to work properly. (Impedance, for the record, is measured in a unit called ohms, and less than 50 ohms is considered to be low-impedance.)
The general consensus is that the harder a pair of headphones is to drive, the better they will eventually sound when paired with the right equipment.
An external DAC helps with these headphones as it can work as a headphone amp to provide the extra power needed to drive a high-impedance pair of 'phones.
Do DACs work with iPhone?
It's worth bearing in mind that some portable DACs won't work with iPhones – you may find that when you plug them in, you get an error message that says "the attached accessory uses too much power". If that's the case, you'll need to purchase a Lightning-USB 3 adaptor, and plug it into an outlet while using the DAC to give it the power it needs.
Alternatively, some DACs, like the Audioquest's Dragonfly Red, can be used with an iPhone without being plugged into an outlet - but you will still need an Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter (opens in new tab).