Unless you've been marooned on a remote Caribbean island willingly or otherwise for the past few weeks (I'm jealous, by the way), you'll have noticed that Apple's latest clutch of iPhones has landed. Furthermore, our iPhone 15 review 15 is in and it's resoundingly good news.
The headline-grabber is iPhone's new USB-C port, garnering a collective "Finally, one charger to rule them all!" response across your global TR team.
For the quality-conscious music lover though, there's another bonus on offer. And that, friends, is access to hi-res audio (see Apple Music's top tier Hi-Res Lossless offering, available at no extra cost to regular Apple Music subscribers) without a fiddly, clunky white Apple adapter hooked up to one of the best portable DACs – and from there on to some of the best wired headphones.
With your new iPhone, a simple USB-C DAC can go straight into the iPhone 15 (or iPhone 15 Pro; iPhone 15 Pro Max), and on to your chosen wired listening gear, thus giving you a digital-to-analog conversion far superior to that afforded by the tiny DAC squirrelled away in your shiny new handset.
And the best part is, USB-C DACs don't cost much at all! Check out the three options I've selected, and get ready for clean hi-res audio on the fly from your iPhone 15. If you love music, you'll be glad of these little beauties – I promise you.
iFi GO Link
British audio specialist iFi has been on a mission to shrink traditional hi-fi separates for some time and its December 2022-issue affordable GO Link portable DAC is no exception, measuring the size of a regular USB stick.
This dongle-style headphone amp and DAC connects via USB-C with a 3.5mm headphone input at the other end and as well as levelling up your sonics to permit hi-res audio, the device doubles as a 3.5mm adaptor, making it particularly handy for those with tabets that aren’t blessed with a headphone output (tenth-generation iPad we're staring at you).
Inside the GO Link's lightweight magnesium alloy case there’s a DAC chip from ESS Technology’s Sabre HiFi series, Quad DAC+ and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator tech, along with iFi’s dedicated clock circuitry for reduced distortion and enhanced dynamic range.
But perhaps even more remarkable is the GO Link’s decidedly diminutive price tag, with the unit costing a mere £59 / $59 / AU$87. An ideal stocking filler for the budding audiophile and iPhone 15 owner in your life? I'll say.
You might mistake the KA13 for a lighter until you see its USB-C port, but since iPhone 15's USB-C port is what we're focusing on here (and how it grants you much easier access to hi-res audio) the KA13 could soon be an ideal companion for your commute.
Using dual CS43131 32-bit DACs and 8262 Op-Amps, FiiO's KA13 delivers full support for 32-bit/384kHz and native DSD256 hi-res audio files, making it suitable for wide range of sources aside from your new iPhone too, including Android, PCs and more.
Despite the KA13's portable size (a mere 56.3 x 22 x 10.5mm), FiiO's engineers have managed to fit both single-ended (3.5 mm) and balanced (4.4 mm) headphone outputs into its slender frame too, so you connect it to any cans or IEMs you want, really.
The FiiO KA13 also features a 'Desktop Mode' which can be manually selected to increase the power output to an impressive 550mW and the sleek metallic chassis features an ambient light window which changes colour to easily show the type and resolution of the audio file being played: PCM ≤48kHz will display light blue, PCM >48kHz will display yellow and DSD displays green. I personally love a visual representation of the file I'm streaming – and it's a perk more readily seen on much larger DACs.
And again, it's affordable! The FiiO KA13 will be available from October – so enough time to get used to your shiny new iPhone 15 handset – priced $79, £69, €74 (which is around AU$123) – but you can also scroll down for the best deals in your region, at the end of this mini roundup.
Astell & Kern HC3
Earlier in the year, when the iPhone 15 was just a glint in Tim Cook's eye, I wrote a feature entitled 'If this cheap USB-C DAC doesn't get you into hi-res audio on iPhone, nothing will'. This is that DAC.
This little bobby dazzler offers access to Apple Music Classical and frankly, any hi-res file you can squirrel away in your iPhone. It could have you signing up for a Qobuz trial (one of the pioneers of hi-res streaming), just to see what your newly souped-up iPhone system can do with it.
We did cover the Astell & Kern HC3 USB-C DAC upon its release as straight news too, if you want cold, hard specs. What I'd like you to know is that once I got hold of one, I never let it go.
And at just £199 in the UK, it's another way to buy into hi-res audio without the high prices. Nobody wants an un-sexy audio setup sticking out of their pocket and that is not what you'll get here. This is Astell & Kern, the brutalist, unapologetic audio star best-known for making some of the best hi-res audio players on the planet – see the its A&ultima SP2000T and A&norma SR25 MKII for reference. With A&K, style is a given.
The svelte unit boasts a pair of highly-regarded quad DAC ESS ES9219MQ chips, delivering support for audio files up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256, and full MQA rendering. The "final fold" of the MQA rendering makes the LED light glow magenta so you know you're getting the goods, plus it boasts a reassuringly wide frequency response of 20Hz to 70kHz.
There's no onboard battery and it will drain your iPhone 15's battery across the course of a day, but honestly? The musical clarity on your journey home will be worth it.
As well as allowing hi-res playback, the HC3's USP is its built-in microphone connectivity, promising crystal clear talkback for online gaming. Note that it doesn't contain a mic, it just has a mic input. When using my iPhone, A&K also warns that the call function won't work – but who's taking calls when the hi-res audio is this good?
OK, when lined up against seriously wallet-friendly options such as the two products listed above (or the iFi Uno for example), the HC3 is not ridiculously cheap, but I want you to know that it is emphatically worth it if you're wondering what portable hi-res audio can do for you – particularly if you've just treated yourself to a new iPhone 15.
You might also like
Sign up for Black Friday email alerts!
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.
Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.