There are 2 common options for portable head-fi. You can either get a dedicated DAP (digital audio player) or external DAC (digital to analogue converter) to work with your smartphone. Both are excellent options with varying benefits. We explain each option, their benefits, we will go over what to consider for each route, and our top picks.
What is a Digital Audio Player (DAP)?
A DAP is a portable music player, think of the old iPod’s. Most people think these products are extincted, however new and improved audiophile quality DAPs are being manufactured and developed all the time. Some of the big players are FiiO, iBasso, Cayin Audio and Aune.
A basic DAP usually has storage space, a screen and a headphone jack out. You can then store all your large audio files on a DAP and play them through your own pair of headphones. DAPs are getting better by the minute, being Android OS driven, housing excellent DAC chips, and powerful headphone amplifiers on board.
Benefits of a dedicated DAP makes it simpler for you to control your library. Less messing around with the storage space on your phone. Having a separate device allows you to keep keep your mind on the music and not get interrupted with phone notifications. One difficulty when using a portable DAC with a phone (the other option), you aren’t 100% sure if your phone if processing the signal before sending it to the DAC. Using a DAP you are guaranteed to be listening to your music files and having the DAP convert the music (audio files) to their full potential straight to the headphones.
More advanced DAPs come with balanced headphone jacks (2.5mm, or 4.4mm), line out options for plugging into a stereo, DAC modes for connecting your DAP to a PC and using it as a stand alone DAC. And some can be used a Bluetooth receiver, so audio from a phone or laptop can be sent to it via Bluetooth.
What is a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC)?
A DAC fundmentally is a device that converts a digital signal (1s and 0s) to an analogue signal (so speaker or headphones can create sound). In this blog we discuss benefits and considerations of a ‘portable DAC’. This is a device that will be battery powered and connects to a phone via a USB cable. With a DAC and phone combo you would stack them together and connect them via a short USB cable.
An external DAC is great if you have all your music on your phone and want to have everything in one device, rather than switching all the time. Many people prefer the operating system of their phone or the music player app interface rather than ones from DAPs.
A DAC is more flexible in being able to using with different devices, PCs and laptops. Since they are dedicated stand-alone DACs they have shorter signal paths and allow for larger batteries, and better amplifier boards. They excel at what they were designed to do.
(Chord Mojo DAC connected to a phone via iPhone camera adapter)
Considerations for DAPs
- Storage space: Some DAPs require a micro-SD card for storage with little to no internal storage.
- User interface: DAPs vary in their user interface, some are better than others. The Android based Operating systems are generally the best.
- Headphone Outputs: You need to consider what kind of headphones you have, if you have balanced headphones make sure the DAP has the correct headphone jack output.
- Extras: Check if some useful features are built-in such as DAC mode, Bluetooth, or sleep-timer.
Considerations for DACs
- Portability: Consider the size and weight of the device, as you will need to pair with you phone when listening whilst mobile.
- Wires: See how the cables will stack up with your phone, what adapters you will need to buy.
- Volume control: Can the DAC volume be controlled with the smart phone or do you use controls on the DAC.
- Battery: Is the DAC battery powered? Meaning you’ll have to recharge it, or is is powered by the phone?
What are Rapallo’s Picks?
DAPs: See full DAP list here
This DAP is the new flagship device from FiiO. A massive touchscreen with an android operation system. It has TIDAL as an app and incredible hardware features. This is on the top of our list. Here’s what Deano has to say about the M11:
“When I first listened to the FiiO M11, I immediately noticed the well bodied and smooth vocals it portrays. The FiiO has a touch warmer than neutral signature, this translates to excellent body & weight throughout the tracks
The FiiO goes low down with good definition and speed, it has a finely tuned bass response, that has very nice texture. It however sits at a slightly higher of neutral position and that certainly adds a nice quality to the sound. emphasis is more on mid and upper bass, rather than sub-bass.
The dynamics of the M11 are very very good, and at many times I found myself toe tapping along to my tracks. The FiiO displays notes with a bit more warmth than what I’m used too from the FiiO X7 MKII and the X5 Generation III players, that to me can sound a little brittle, but that makes the M11 a very nice alternative if you own the other models
Mid’s are well constructed and have superb body for a seductive listen. I guess you can say that the FiiO at times even sounds romantic and sexy, where the focus is on body and emotion, rather than clinical accuracy & precision. Not that the M11 is missing detail though, quite the contrary, it manages a nice split between a lush and organic sound and a detailed and sharp sound.
The mid-range is impeccably rich and doesn’t come close to sounding dry or flat. and the higher notes decay perfectly.
Treble is where the M11 gets really interesting in my opinion. With a baseline sound that’s already warmish, highs often tend to fall slightly behind. Not the M11. Treble is fast and precise, just as I like it. It’s surprisingly clean of sibilance, with IEMs (in-ear monitors) that can produce an uncomfortable amount of treble the M11 tames them.
On the technical side, the M11 manages to bring out great resolution, texture and layering. It has a beautiful wide sound stage where musicians all find their spot with perfect imaging.
The band or musicians space isn’t overly large or huge, but it’s realistic and enables you for very good positioning
One thing worth noting is that the M11 does impressively scale up with higher resolution files. Especially 24/192 and DSD files sound a lot better. The M11 DSD up-scaling from PCM is phenomenal and switching on the fly between standard bit rate to global DSD functionality is superb you can clearly hear the difference.
The DSD global functionality also up-scales third party apps including Spotify and Tidal, and trust me even though I prefer Tidal the DSD global function makes Spotify sound pretty darn good”
This is a flagship reference DAP. The DAP to buy if money-is-no-object. It has insane features and specs for a digital audio player. You can choose between solid state and vacuum tube amplification! It features a full MQA decoder to unfold TIDAL masters and MQA files to their fullest potential. Supports the highest quality file types in DSD and PCM. In a delicious casing. Coming very soon to the showroom.
Cayin Audio | N8 Stainless Steel and Brass Black
Check out the FiiO M6 for an excellent budget option. I comes in an elegant small package. With impressive features for this price point. LDAC Bluetooth, and TIDAL built-in. A great entry level DAP that will last a long time.
Chord Electronics Mojo
The best mobile DAC you can get for under $1,000 NZD. Winning a lot of audio awards for it’s sound quality and design. We love the compact size of the Mojo and the deep file format functionality (DSD and up to 768kHz PCM). It is a serious consideration for the audiophile on the move.
FiiO Q5s Bluetooth DSD Capable DAC and Headphone Amplifier
Unique portable DAC worth considering. It comes packed with features, including Bluetooth LDAC for listening to hi-res wire-free. We have come to a stage in audio where Bluetooth is worth listening to. Dual AK4493EQ DAC chips for impressive balanced audio and incredible clarity. It has 3 different headphone jack outputs, the regular 3.5mm, and 2 balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm outputs. And to top it off, DSD512 decoding. A adept wired or wireless high-tech DAC.
Get in contact with the team at Rapallo. We are happy to hear your specific requirements to find the right portable head-fi system the works for you.
Sources: FiiO, iBasso, cayin audio, chord electronics, AUNE, moon audio.