If this cheap USB-C DAC doesn't get you into hi-res audio on iPhone, nothing will

Astell & Kern HC3 on a white coffee table, connected to an iPhone XR
(Image credit: Future)

Want to know a secret? I used to hide niche music genres in my features to spot plagiarists. Type my choice keywords ("ruckus skiffle", "kawai metal", "farmcore", you get the idea) into Google and if another long-form article contained my lifted eccentric genres, I soon aired the author on it. 

OK, Spotify's Niche Mixes nixed my technique to a degree – dozens of us might now be writing about pagode, goblincore and funeral doom – but the product I'm about to discuss is wasted on Spotify's lossy OGG Vorbis ouevre anyway. Buy one, and you'll be heading into uncharted musical territory too. And I wish you a glorious journey. 

The little beauty in the photo above offers inexpensive access to Apple Music Classical, Tidal's top-tier MQA offerings and frankly, any hi-res file you can squirrel into your computer or 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. Only now I've got one – and I don't want to let it go. And at just £199 in the UK (complete with Lightning adapter), it's another way to buy into hi-res audio without the high prices.

Please don't stop the music 

Astell & Kern HC3 DAC with Audeze Euclid headphones and an iPhone XR

Such a svelte and unassuming setup, but oh-so talented…  (Image credit: Future)

Sometimes, even the best portable DACs can seem a bit boxish and unwieldy. Nobody wants an un-sexy audio setup sticking out of their pocket. Not so here. This is Astell & Kern, the brutalist, stylish, nonchalant audio specialist best-known for making some of the best MP3 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, which deliver support for audio files up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256, and full MQA rendering, aka Tidal’s HiFi Plus. 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 does drain a bit of juice from my iPhone across the course of a day, to the point I reach 20% on my commute home. Honestly? I'm OK with that. The musical journey was worth it. 

As well as allowing hi-res playback from portable devices and PCs, 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 me that the call function won't work – but I don't want to make calls when enjoying hi-res audio as good as this, anyway. 

The 3.5-mm plug for earphones can take three- or four-pole jacks. I test it with my cheap and cheerful Sivga Oriole over-ears and 'my' reference high-end Audeze Euclid in-ears (I say 'my'. Truth is, the person who owns them has yet to ask for their return). 

I listen to the overture of Dvořák's Rusalka on Apple Music Classical (which, don't want to toot my horn but, I recently performed in) and the delicacy of the strings is quite startling. There's space around the notes of the oboe; the pensive musical passages greet my ears with greater urgency. I find myself wishing I'd had this glorious little setup to hand in the five minutes before the show started each night, when I checked a few notes, rather than my poor iPhone's lowly onboard speakers. 

OK, when lined up against very cheap options such as the iFi Uno, 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're considering a better streaming service than Spotify Free. And you can take your pick of the free trials there. 

Anyway, I'm off to enjoy my imported crunkcore playlist on Apple Music… 

Becky Scarrott
Audio Editor

Becky became Audio Editor at TechRadar in 2024, but joined the team in 2022 as Senior Staff Writer, focusing on all things hi-fi. Before this, 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.