If you want the kind of tactile, pocketable, hip flask-esque audio-enhancing accessory others will pass around and giggle over (but that's deadly serious in the sound department), look no further.
Classy and refined audio
Looks stunning next to your smartphone
Useful gain and XBass features
Volume is easy to tweak accidentally
Rival options sound marginally more punchy
Why you can trust TechRadar
iFi hip-dac 3: Two-minute review
USB-C ports and Titanium finishes are just so hot right now – and nothing is more desirable than this cheeky little audio accessory next to your shiny new iPhone 15. Even if you don't have Apple's freshest-baked iPhone (or a smartphone toting a USB-C port) your music al-desko from your laptop or tablet is about to get a whole lot better.
iFi hip-dac 3's bid to enter our best portable DACs buying guide is a strong one: no sooner had Apple's quartet of iPhone 15 handsets rolled out in late September 2023 – a clutch of devices that finally ditched Apple's proprietary Lightning port in favor of USB-C as you doubtless know – a range of some of the best USB-C-toting DACs also arrived, wanting to turn your new iPhone into a hi-res audio music player.
But none of those looks more resplendent next to your iPhone 15 Pro or iPhone 15 Pro Max in Natural Titanium than iFi's hip flask-esque hip-dac 3. If Apple were ever to make a DAC, I wager Tim Cook's engineers would seek to deviate from the ice-white AirPods aesthetic in favor of this gorgeous hue. It is referred to by its UK makers as 'Titanium Shadow', because it was purported to "change tone in different lights, with hints of bronze and vintage gold." And this is true, reader; while photographing the thing I struggled to capture its occasionally buttery hues, but these are quite beautiful.
And it's not all TikTok-able looks! Merely a trifle it is not, this thing comes from strong stock. Allow your eyes to feast upon original 2019 hip-dac in 'Petrol Blue', plus the hip-dac 2 (which I helped review for TechRadar's sister publication, What Hi-Fi?) the color of which looks for all the world like a good single malt but is actually called 'Sunset Orange'. As the name suggests, hip-dac 3 is the third in a lineup of excellent hip-prefixed DACs. And this iteration is by far the best.
What are you getting for the 2023 update, aside from my favorite finish yet? There are now two USB-C ports in its base; the right-hand side for charging (it glows different colors to denote current onboard battery capacity), and the other for audio, thus maintaining a dedicated audio input for the purest signal path, which also means you can use the hip-dac 3 while connected to the mains – and that is rare against the competition. For clarity, the previous two hip-dac generations used USB-A for audio, and in the first-gen model, it was quite a deeply recessed male USB so not all spare cables played nice with it.
There is an additional switch on the back of hip-dac 3’s casework now too, which grants you iFi’s IEMatch technology. It's a proprietary circuit designed to optimize the amp’s output to better suit high-sensitivity 3.5mm or 4.4 mm-ended headphones and earphones. Simply plug in your pickier 3.5mm or 4.4mm IEMs, flick the switch to 3.5mm or 4.4mm and you're away – particularly useful for some of the best wired headphones we've tested.
Ultimately, a standalone portable DAC's viability lies in whether it can make its supplementary presence worth it; you don't expressly need it (your iPhone has a tiny DAC in it, after all) but oh, once you've heard it, you'll struggle to go back to listening without it for detail, neutrality and clarity…
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Price and release date
- Released October 6, 2023
- Priced: $199 / £199 / AU$349
The iFi hip-dac 3 is selling for $199 in the US (thus making it the same price as the Helm Audio Bolt) which means it slips into iFi's considerable DAC lineup somewhere above the cheaper iFi Uno (yours for around $79 / £79 / AU$119) and below the flagship iFi xDSD Gryphon ($599 / £599 / AU$899).
It's worth mentioning that the inaugural February 2020 hip-dac retailed for $149 / £149 / AU$249 at launch, (and the hip-dac 2 cost $189 / £189 /AU$279) so there is an ongoing increase at play here – although it's a more palatable $20 / £20 hike rather than the $40 / £40 surcharge between the first and second iterations.
Now, in 2023 the market does not want for reasonably affordable USB DAC/headphone amps – everyone from Chord to Astell & Kern has something for you. None are built quite like this though and honestly, few sound like it either.
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Features
- Dual USB-C ports plus 3.5mm and 4.4mm balanced headphone outs
- 384kHz PCM, DSD256 and MQA compatibility
- IEMatch vastly reduces background hiss
Let's get granular (gran-u-lar! I wanna get granular…): hi-res PCM and DXD audio data is supported at sample rates up to 384kHz here, alongside DSD from 2.8MHz to 12.4MHz (DSD64, 128 and 256, aka a sample rate that's 256 times as high as a regular CD). Full decoding of MQA is also supported by the iFi hip-dac 3, performing the full ‘three unfold’ decoding process (as opposed to just the final unfold in the manner of an MQA ‘renderer’ – and yes, there is still plenty of MQA content available on Tidal).
While my pick of the 3 best wireless DACs can level up the quality of music from your phone, they cannot support these kinds of hi-res figures over Bluetooth.
On either side of the hip-dac 3's rotary volume control you'll find a pair of LEDs that change color to indicate the format and sample rate of the incoming audio, with seven different colors: yellow for PCM 44.1/48kHz, white for higher-res PCM files up to 3384kHz, teal for DSD 64/128, red for DSD 256, lime green for MQA, blue for MQA Studio, purple for original sample rate files (MQB).
Yes, this DAC wants to get overtly specific about your file (more specific than most rivals), although teal and lime are pretty similar, and of course, it's tough to keep that information in your noggin at all times.
Another point of note is that hip-dac 3’s USB-C audio input is asynchronous, meaning the data rate is regulated solely by the hip-dac 3’s specialized audio clock circuitry for accurate, jitter-free data transfer from the source device.
Including a separate USB-C port (I mentioned above but just to reiterate: you get two USB-C ports here) for charging maintains a dedicated audio input – ergo, you can still use the hip-dac 3 while charging it.
Why is the Southport UK firm's IEMatch tech a great feature? It reduces background hiss and enhances detail and dynamic range while increasing the useable range of the volume control, that's why.
You still get the fan-favorite XBass button too. All in all, it's hard to know what else iFi could've been thrown into the hip-dac 3 to make me like it more.
Features score: 5 / 5
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Sound quality
- Excellent detail and insight
- Extra clarity through the leading edges of notes
- Spacious and refined across the frequencies
If you're considering this DAC, I urge you to subscribe to one of the best music streaming services. Then, simply by plugging the iFi hip-dac 3 into your phone and tapping up the service’s app (I might nudge you to Qobuz or Apple Music – and away from Spotify here) means you'll hear that hi-res file as fully as possible.
And you're in for a treat at this level. A 24bit/96kHz FLAC file of Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer has oodles of funk and showcases Gabriel's textured and smiling vocal with surgical skill, which is nonetheless given extra space to shine in an expansive mix. The playlist continues to Solsbury Hill where guitars, strings, shakers and the driving beat are beautifully relayed with admirable timing and cohesion, but never losing focus – that is, never losing the brilliance of Peter Gabriel.
The age-old debate of refinement, detail and clarity over oomph, zealousness and fun once again comes into play here – an argument I like to call 'hi-fi, or fun?' although that's the issue at its most simplistic and something we could all muse on at length. What you need to know is that the iFi hip-dac 3 falls into the former camp, but I do not mention it to do this DAC down – it'll depend on what you prioritize. I favor the detail and extra insight here. I like that in Stormzy's Angel in the Marble the intentionally heavy bassline is held back just enough to allow me to detect a trilling female vocalist sample in the mix. I like that I hear everything, in its place, at the right time, even if I sacrifice an iota of dynamic oomph.
Supplementary vocals, gunshots and the fizzing of sparkling liquid being poured are expertly layered and accurately placed throughout Freddie Gibbs' Toe Tag – and despite my observation, this is a rousing performance and one that can go loud even with my multi-driver Campfire Audio IEMs.
Do I like this DAC for this money? I do. I really do.
Sound quality score: 5 / 5
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Design
- Dedicated USB-C charging port provides battery life info
- Short USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to USB-A cables provided, no Lightning adapter
- Exposed volume knob can mean accidental tweaks
The hip-dac 3 is a well-made little thing – which is hardly surprising considering the quality of its older siblings. Several important but less headline-grabbing changes have been made to this update's innards too, including circuitry enhancements and new metal film capacitors. In addition, the DAC section features an upgraded version of iFi’s GMT (Global Master Timing) circuitry, including a new crystal oscillator to further reduce phase noise, all contributing to its purer, crisper sound.
Other than these changes, the hip-dac 3 retains all the features that made the hip-dac 2 a winning portable USB DAC/headphone amp and one I still love.
The hip-dac 3's sleek, robust aluminum enclosure measures just 10.2 x 7x 1.4cm so it'll slip easily into a pocket or bag – but do accept that it'll probably have your colleagues thinking you're not averse to a wee dram at your desk.
According to iFi, the hip-dac 3’s battery will extend to 10 hours of playing time, but this will depend on your listening volume level and how demanding your headphones are; I got just over 8 hours from it, from full to red-flashing-light flat. A lovely touch here is the LED under the USB-C charging port, which changes color depending on battery status: glowing white for more than 75 percent, green for more than 25 percent, red for over 10 percent, and flashing red when you’re in dire need of juice.
Any gripes? A tiny one: I love the exposed power/volume knob, which rotates silently and like a warm knife through butter, but it is very easy to whack the volume up inadvertently in my pocket – and there's no way to set the volume and hold it there. It's more an observation rather than a complaint, really… especially because its amp stage is capable of offering up to 400mW into a 32-ohm load for compatibility with a wide array of headphones, while the balanced output's 6.3V into 600 ohms basically means even high-impedance options can be used without issue.
In summary, the iFi hip-dac 3 is a thing of beauty and a musical companion I soon never left behind.
Design score: 5 / 5
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Usability and setup
- Make sure it's charged. Switch it on
- Plug one end into your smartphone or laptop
- Plug some headphones into the other end
- Consider Power Match, IEMatch and XBass. Enjoy
I charged the hip-dac 3 for around two hours upon receiving it, by plugging a cable into its dedicated USB-C (5V only) charging port. Then, I switched it on by turning its rotary power and volume knob clockwise. The lights come on, the DAC is home.
Now, connect to a sound source by USB-C – the one on the adjacent to the charging port. Next, go to the top end of the hip-dac 3 and hook up some 4.4mm balanced or 3.5mm unbalanced headphones using the correct port.
Now, you can play music, noting the LED indicator silently judging your file choices and their resolution. As well as adjusting the volume, you can now deploy the XBass and/or PowerMatch buttons next to the LEDs (the latter increases gain for larger cans, or reduces it for IEMs) and finally, head to the back of the unit to consider IEMatch, selecting 3.5mm or 4.4mm if your listening gear is of the more delicate in-ear variety.
That's all folks. It's more whistles and bells than you'll get with a dongle DAC and all in all, it's a lovely little proposition for the money.
Usability and setup score: 5 / 5
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Value
- Affordable considering the features
- Excellent sound-per-pound value
Considering the build quality and extra features plus the fact that it's still a fair chunk of aluminum, despite its pocketable dimensions, you're getting a lot of product for the money here. And the sound is as detailed as this money can buy, by quite a margin.
Of course, iFi can sell you something cheaper still if you'd prefer, see the iFi Uno. Given this cheaper DAC's five-star review, that could put the cat among the pigeons somewhat. The entry-level unit boasts different connectivity options and even 'EQ' filters for different content, including ‘game’, ‘movie’ and ‘music’. For me, the iFi hip-dac 3 outdoes it easily when hooked up to my MacBook Pro, but at more than double the price, so that was to be expected.
Value score: 5 / 5
Should you buy the iFi hip-dac 3?
Buy it if...
You're hip to a high-end meets novelty vibe
It’s hard to know how the iFi hip-dac 3 could be any more… hip.
You pay for a top-tier music streaming service
The highest of hi-res audio files can be happily dealt with here.
You own some quality wired headphones
The iFi hip-dac 3 will showcase their talents far more readily than your smartphone or laptop alone.
Don't buy it if...
You're off the sauce
How to put this? You probably don't want to be reminded of a quick nip of the hard stuff.
Your smartphone doesn’t have a USB-C socket
Not unless you want to pay for an adapter, anyway.
You use a streaming service’s free tier
The iFi hip-dac 3's talents will be unable to fully unfurl before your very ears.
iFi hip-dac 3 review: Also consider
Helm Audio Bolt
Want to get rid of the bulk? Here's an option that looks for all the world like a USB-C to 3.5mm headphones adapter, but with all of the audio prowess built in – and we mean 32bit/384kHz, DSD256 and MQA stuff without alarms. No gain function to optimise playback for your chosen in-ears or XBass whistles and bells, mind. Read our Helm Audio Bolt review for more.
The iFi Uno is less than half the price of the hip-dac 3 and is similarly shaped, if less finessed in appearance. It is an enjoyable and vigorous a listen in its own way too – although it sounds much less convincing (erring on the edgy) at higher volumes. Still, a fantastic entry-level buy. See our full iFi Uno review for more details.
How I tested the iFi hip-dac 3
- Used for over two weeks
- Connected to an Apple MacBook Pro and an iPhone 12 Pro smartphone
- Wired to Sennheiser IE600 (with custom Sennheiser ear tips), Campfire Audio Solaris Stellar Horizon and Audeze Euclid IEMs
OK: the more your source of music has to work in order to reach your ears, the less effective it is – I don’t make the rules, it is what it is. Thus, when unplugging headphones as capable as those listed above from the headphone socket of my laptop (or the Lightning port of my iPhone 12 Pro, where an additional adaptor purchase is required) and listening again using the iFi hip-dac 3's simple setup, the differences in quality are night and day – like removing a muffling veil from your music, or liberating a track from a tunnel.
And I challenged my listening with the Edifier Stax Spirit S3 wireless headphones too – as an aural challenge only loosely related to this review. Even these detailed planar magnetic cans (emphatically some of the best wireless headphones in their category) struggle to match the performance of good wired headphones when the iFi hip-dac 3 is also plugged into my MacBook Pro as a music source.
First reviewed in December 2023
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.