Have you ever thought to yourself, “my smartphone’s built-in audio components seem to be of a middling quality, I should buy a portable DAC”? If no, congratulations: you’re a rational and well-adjusted human being. You may also be well-adjusted and think the former portion of that sentence, but I hope your smartphone cost under $200 and takes photos of a decidedly potato visual quality. That is to say: unless you’ve gone out of your way to buy a cheap smartphone, there is basically no reason you should be contemplating carrying freaking audio enhancement accessories with you. Let us dive once more into the world of audiophilistic mythos and discover why you don’t need to go spend money on more things you really don’t need.
Portable DACs and amplifiers are a wonderful new business for the digital hi-fi industry, and one that’s even had a high-profile product: Neil Young’s utter failure (also known as the Pono Player). The Pono Player has been thoroughly ridiculed quite publicly already, so let’s not waste our time there. But why would someone think a product like Pono might be a good idea?
You see, the digital hi-fi business has a bit of a problem: everyone already carries a very powerful portable music player. That is, a smartphone. As such, these companies have begun attempting to convince existing audiophiles that there’s no way a wimpy little smartphone could possibly be up to the task of providing high-quality listening experiences, and that instead they must invest in a costly secondary DAC/amplifier or player should they want to experience real portable audio. Are there nuggets of truth hiding in what is, frankly, a large pile of pseudoscience manure? Should you consider purchasing such a product?
Unless you consider in-ear headphones literal devil worship and refuse to give up your high-impedance Sony DJ cans even when venturing outside, the answer is a resounding “no.” While fringe cases for portable amplifiers do exist, the portable DAC is a bunch of silly nonsense brought to you by the same sort of people who are trying to bring the vacuum tube back. The same people who convinced your dad or uncle that the only way music could sound really great was by investing in ever-more vertically-stacked metal black boxes full of various tubes and circuits and capacitors. Well, until Bose showed up and basically took an all-in-one dump on that entire business model (Bose is rightly criticized for many reasons, but they really did put an ax through the head of the home hi-fi business model).
Anyway, question one, of course, is: Will I be able to hear a difference when using a portable DAC/amp versus my smartphone? Yep: you won’t have to turn the volume slider up as high. And that’s probably about it. Unless you’re using a pair of headphones clearly not meant for portable listening (large, high-impedance over-ear DJ/producer headphones), there really is no point to a portable DAC/amp. A portable amplifier likely will produce more power than the one built into your smartphone. It likely will not produce any other noticeable results. You see, your smartphone is an extremely powerful computer, and part of that computer are a number of sub-components that handle digital to analog output signal and subsequent amplification of that signal on its way out the 3.5mm stereo [headphone] jack. These components live on a PCB with other mission-critical parts and must be well-isolated and very precise instruments that consume a minimum of power. The notion that you could provide noticeably “better” conversion of zeroes and ones to analog signal than an iPhone 6s is basically not an argument worth having. Audiophiles will cry foul (“of course the DAC can be better, why else would I have spent $500 on this brushed aluminum witchcraft box that serves solely to validate my personal beliefs?”), but this is the truth. Portable DACs are basically snake oil.
The amplifier end of the equation is worth asterisking. Again, if you wear obscenely large headphones that require a lot of power to drive, like Sony’s legendary MDR7506s, a portable amplifier will likely provide more power than most smartphones. And note that I even said “most” – iPhones have fairly powerful amplifiers, and there’s even a growing number of Android phones trying to get audiophile street cred like LG’s V10. I have an iPad Air 2 that drives all of my high-impedance headphones easily (Blue’s Lola are my current favs). Unless you’re consistently maxing the volume on your smartphone when using headphones, you don’t need a portable DAC/amp. If you do? You’re probably just better off buying different headphones better suited to mobile listening.
Honestly, wearing over-ears while out in public is just ridiculous. You do you, but with the massive improvements that have come to in-ear headphones in the last 15 years, unless your sole interest is in driving bass or you are literally a professional DJ, just buy some damn earbuds. RHA’s MA750i are an excellent choice. But there are literally dozens of great IEM brands out there now making brilliant products for mobile listening. If you’re really against in-ear headphones and absolutely must use a high-impedance headphone while mobile? Blue’s Mo-Fis literally have an amplifier built into the headphone.
So, why are portable DACs and amps a business, and why do people buy them? The latter is the simple nature of the hi-fi world, it’s a business built on convincing customers they need ever-more and ever-more-expensive gear and products to achieve listening nirvana. You’ll never convince people down that rabbit hole to take stock in reality – that’s something they’ll need to find out for themselves. As to the business itself? Why aren’t all these DAC/amp peddlers building headphones or smartphones when those are so clearly the nexuses of improvement for portable audio quality?
Margins suck, the markets are saturated, and making meaningfully better headphones or smartphones isn’t easy. (Making a truly “better” smartphone profitably at this point is all but impossible for companies that don’t have billions in the bank already.) With the enormous number of cheap, good headphones coming out of China (and I don’t mean Chinese brands, I mean lean startups that use Chinese manufacturing) and the upper ranges of the market completely owned by established brands with proven engineering or marketing budgets [COUGH BEATS COUGH], there’s not a lot of chance for success or attention these days. The portable DAC and amp business is a much smaller one, and one that audio giants like Sennheiser, B&O, and others are just now starting to explore. Because such products are “premium enthusiast” gear, prices are essentially whatever makers of the products think they can get away with. And given that telling the difference between many of the products in the category is all but impossible for most of us, a lot of it comes down to whose knobs are the smoothest and whose aluminum the most brushed, polished, or anodized.
So, in short: your iPhone or Galaxy device are excellent portable music players with audio components so advanced that if you took them in a time machine back 20 years ago, you would be dubbed a wizard. Or a witch. Buy some good headphones and get on with enjoying your music. And for god’s sake, it doesn’t need to be in FLAC.