You sit in an office every day. Maybe it’s an open floor plan, and you’re lounging against exposed brick, headphones plugged into your laptop as hipsters amble throughout this soulless startup at all hours. Perhaps yours is a different work life: Crammed into a cubicle, you play audio from work-sanctioned streaming services as you entrench yourself in a routine your inner child would smack you for even comprehending, let alone settling for. Maybe the coffee shop is your office, and you need to block out those stroller-derby playing vanity parents as you freelance for blogs and publications, all while slaving over a screenplay no one will ever see (even if they did, odds are the studio execs would’ve changed it seven times over to suit target demographics).
What’s the common thread here? No, it’s not the futility of life—it’s the audio! Ask yourself, would your life be better if that music sounded brighter, fuller, deeper, wider, and all-around better? It’s worth a shot, right?
Luckily, we at B&H have several devices on hand to help you take that shot! We speak, of course, of portable, pocket-sized DACs!
But what is a DAC?
“DAC” stands for “digital to analog converter;” this particular kind of DAC circumvents your computer’s (usually) inferior soundcard and handles the digital to analog conversion; in simplest terms, it turns the ones and zeros of the digital information into better sounding music than you’d get out of the computer’s headphone jack.
DACs come in many shapes and sizes, but for this roundup, we’re going to focus on relatively small units that could easily be confused for a USB thumb drive. You’ll find a headphone jack at one end, and at the other, you’ll see either a standard USB type-A connection, or a port for a corresponding USB cable.
Such connections make these suitable for use at the office. They also make excellent gifts for your fellow runners in the rat race. We’ll be listing four items here, some more wallet-friendly than others, but all worthwhile sonic investments for anybody navigating the existential pitfalls of workaday life.
Yet, even so, it delivers on quality, and to illustrate that, let me quote my friend and colleague Andrew Eisele, who regularly uses the K1 in conjunction with Spotify playlists to tune me out as I complain about my day. Sometimes, Andrew will give his DJ friends this DAC as a present. “If I see them working on a laptop using a regular headphone out,” he told me, I’ll purchase one and present it to them as a gift. They’re always amazed at how much better it sounds, even on a Mac.”
I asked him what, in general, he liked about this unit over others in its class.
“It’s small, portable, convenient, and it doesn’t need drivers,” he replied. “It sounds almost as good as similar ones that are two to three times the price. Comparing it to the built-in soundcard, it has tighter low-mids, and much smoother, cleaner highs. Just in general, it sounds better.”
Next up, we have the Audioengine D3. Like the previous entry, this DAC is bus-powered over USB, but the D3 utilizes two stages of redundant power regulation. The result? Lower noise and distortion, better sonic isolation, and other goodies that help this unit easily outperform your computer’s soundcard. Other features, like two master clocks used to minimize jitter, also ensure a sonically clean experience. The internal converter runs off an AK4396 DAC chip, while the headphone amp uses an LME49726 op amp, and is able to drive headphones with impedances as low as 12 Ohms.
You might not know what any of that means, but you’ll hear the difference when you plug it in. The soundstage of the mix will sound wider, the individual instruments will be more distinct, the frequency content will seem less muddy. This DAC comes with a carrying case so you can put it safely in a cardboard box with your other effects, should that ever become necessary. It also sports a 1/4" headphone adapter cable for use with studio-grade headphones.
If you need to hear every single detail of that maudlin Beirut song as you pine over the One Who Got Away, perhaps the AudioQuest DragonFly is a good bet for you. It utilizes a 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre Conversion chip to restore the rightful sizzle to your sound. Like other entries in the list, it can process 24-bit/96 kHz audio, but it sports esoteric features that make it attractive and interesting to people looking for more attractive, interesting things in their lives.
For instance, optional adapters let you use the DragonFly with iOS and Android devices. The DragonFly can also drive more than your headphones; with its analog volume set to maximum, the DragonFly can actually provide enough power to push sound to preamplifiers, integrated amplifiers, or receiver inputs. So, if you have a relatively nice stereo at home, and you like to listen to music on said stereo after a long day, and if you have music you’d like to stream from your phone to your stereo, but you don’t like the sound of your phone’s output, and you believe yourself to be deserving of something better—but not so deserving as to go out and buy yourself the Antelope Zodiac Platinum Upsampling Convertor with Atomic Clock, because then your spouse would surely commit you to a psych ward for spending the equivalent of a country home’s down payment on a piece of HIFI gear; if all that is true, you can up-scale the iPhone audio reasonably with this device.
We haven’t mentioned the Hybrid-PLL clocking system, the Asynchronous USB code to ensure low jitter, or the analog circuits, which are direct-coupled from the DAC chip’s output, and thus, keep the signal path pristine. Okay, now we have.
I have some experience with this unit. I used it as an intermediary device at my wedding, nestling it between my iPod’s playlist and the sound system my brother-in-law set up for the reception. Before using this DAC to help people dance, I tested it on some laptop-based audio-editing projects. I found the lows deeper, the highs brighter, and the soundstage wider than it would be going straight through my mac.
Like the previous item, this DAC’s chipset is an ESS Sabre 32-bit, but this item, boasting a heftier price-tag than the other DACs on this list, has a distinguished pedigree: Apogee is a brand that makes converters going beyond the realm of hi-fi and into the stratospheres of pro-audio. with the technology to fashion converters becoming easier to reproduce at lower prices, Apogee can offer its technologies in new markets, such as the burgeoning digital microphone industry, as well as consumer tech—like the Groove!
Indeed, the converters within the Groove are quite good, and this device actually uses eight of them—an eight-converter DAC chip in a quad sum arrangement, meaning each channel of your stereo music utilizes four DAC converters summed together to mitigate any potential noise issues. This also bolsters the over-all dynamic range of your headphones.
Constant current drive is on hand to deliver consistent power—and consequently, a consistent frequency response—to headphones of differing impedance values, making the DAC quite versatile. You know how the other devices can accommodate sample rates of up to 96 kHz? This one can go up to 192 kHz, so you listen to higher-quality PCM files, if you truly believe such PCM files will save you. It’s also powerful enough to drive powered monitors and preamps.
The form factor on this unit is similar to the first product we mentioned, the K1, in that it doesn’t have a USB connector on the interface itself, but utilizes a cable to connect to your computer. It’s also a class-compliant, plug-and-play device.
Okay, that’s all well and good. But how about the sound? How does it stack against the competition? The consensus around this particular office is that the Groove provides a noticeable sonic improvement over cheaper DACs, but not enough to make the cheaper DACs an unwise buy. The Groove, like all the DACs listed before it, is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll be paying.
These devices might not change your life, but they will change how you hear the music in your life; they will make your audio more immersive, more pristine, and more exciting. They also make good stocking-stuffers during the times we’re supposed to remember that family and friends are supposed to matter.
Here’s a question though—are there other comparable DACs do you think we’ve missed? If so, let us know in the comment section, but be sure you’re keeping your suggestions to this particular form factor. For a roundup of other types of consumer Headphone DACs, check out this article by my friend and colleague, Phillip Nichols.