An Amp/DAC is 2 combined into one. This is what I personally prefer, but your mileage may vary.
A DAC is simply a Digital to Analog Converter. I tend to think some people carelessly call an Amp/DAC a DAC out of habit, but not all DACs are Amp/DACs. Some are just DACs. There’s an important distinction.
That said, there hasn’t been a product I’ve received from any one company that I’ve absolutely hated. They all sound great! There also isn’t a whole heap of difference between them, despite what some audiophile snobs may tell you.
Sure, there are subtle differences; one may sound a bit grainier than the other, one may sound warmer, one colder, etc. etc.
Here’s a great explanation I recently received from Stephen Mejias of Audioquest:
We design all of our products to have as little impact as possible on the overall sound of a system, but DACs do tend to have some character of their own. That said, and though I haven’t actually heard the SHP9500, I wouldn’t expect the DragonFly Black to impart additional sibilance on any partnering headphone. As you suspect, however, it would reveal more of the headphones’ inherent quality. So, if the headphones are tuned to exaggerate detail, the DAC might very well make that obvious – hopefully while also being forgiving enough to remain listenable and pleasurable. Stephen Mejias, Audioquest
It’s important to keep in mind that these difference are pretty marginal, and probably won’t be caught by anyone except people like me who have many on hand to vigorously go back and forth with!
What does vary a lot more?
Raw specifications and power output, which are of paramount importance in my mind.
Why is that?
It’s because headphone Impedance and Sensitivity ratings are different from headphone to headphone.
If you are unfamiliar with these terms, don’t fret! Here are a couple of great articles I wrote on the matter.
Some headphones will work better with certain Amps simply because the Amp in question provides plenty of Power for the headphones’ Impedance level.
Other factors like Output Impedance, Total Harmonic Distortion, Signal To Noise Ratio, etc. are all important as well, but not as much as the Raw Power Output (in my opinion anyway). What is Output Impedance?
With that in mind, what are some good criteria you should look out for when deciding on the best portable headphone amps & DACs?
Let’s take a look:
Power Output. It’s important to know how much power is supplied into various Impedance loads. If you have a 300 Ohm headphone like the HD 600, you’ll want to make sure to purchase an Amp that outputs enough power into that load.
Features. We’re looking at portable options, but do you need some extra features with your purchase? Definitely something to keep in mind.
Phone Compatibility. Do you intend to use it with your phone? If so, you’ll want a combo Amp/DAC since there’s only one piece of equipment to worry about. Buying an Amp and DAC separately makes for a much more difficult time.
Versatility. Many of these Amps and DACs have the ability to be used in more than one scenario. The E10K is a great example and we’ll discuss in in a bit. Are you looking for something bare bones or more flexible? This will help in deciding what you ultimately go with.
With that, what does Portable actually mean?
I actually looked up the term out of curiosity.
Portable – Adjective.
Able to be easily carried or moved, especially because being of a lighter and smaller version than usual.
synonyms: transportable, moveable, mobile, transferable, easily carried, easy to carry.
Using that definition yields some nice results. Let’s get into some of them!
I will categorize this starting with Entry Level and moving into High End gear. There’s something for everyone on this list! I’ll also divide them into just Amps, as well as Amp/DAC Combos. I’ve left out just DACs because I doubt you’ll want to lug around both an Amp and a DAC. Gotta keep it portable!
Finally, we’ll also take a look at some good options with your phone, so sit tight and enjoy. I’ll try to keep things simple and concise today. If you have a suggestion, please comment below or contact me!
By the time you’re finished reading this, you should have a clear idea of what you’re after 🙂
If you just need an amp to pair with your phone, I really like the A3. It has a similar character to the E10K but actually sounds cleaner. It’s a very transparent, neutral signature with lots of crispness and air. Even turned up very loud results in no distortion, which is impressive for a unit in this price range.
The A3 comes with a 3.5mm Interconnect and pairs with a phone quite well. It can also be used with your PC via your PC’s internal DAC. I’m running a Lenovo X1 Extreme at the moment, and the pairing sounded fantastic. Your mileage may vary depending on the quality of your Computers Soundcard. What is a Soundcard?
Starting things out is the wonderful FiiO Q1 MK II, which I dogged quite a bit at first. Initially the power output seemed extraordinarily low, but after having spent quite a bit of time with the unit I really grew fond of it.
One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because of it’s value. We’re getting a really nice bundle here; It comes with a short 3.5mm Interconnect, a short 2.5mm Interconnect for the balanced jack, an Apple Lightning Cable for your iPhone, a standard Micro USB Cable for your PC, 4 Rubber Bands, a high quality Soft Mesh Carrying Bag, and of course a user guide and warranty card.
All for around $100. Can’t beat it!
Another reason I really love this amp is because of it’s fantastic sound. It’s a warm, smooth, and detailed signature that really makes recordings sound stunning, especially through Tidal or Spotify.
It’s a sleek, elegant, and streamlined design that really looks quite beautiful in person. *British Accent* It’s quite lovely, mate! Add to that it’s durability; holding it in your hand feels good and right. For a budget unit, this thing really feels quite substantial.
What’s even better is the gain switch and bass boost on the back. If your headphones happen to need a bit more juice, the Q1’s got you covered. If you need a bit more bass, just tick the switch and enjoy. There’s a nice tasteful amount here and it’s not overdone like your Mom’s Meatloaf. 😛
On the front, we’ve got a standard 3.5mm headphone jack as well as a 2.5mm balanced one as well. If you have balanced headphones or you’re into mods, the 2.5mm jack provides more power to your headphones.
The Amp/DAC is also DSD compatible if you so happen to have some files lying around. I’ve talked at length about why this phenomena is overrated so I’ll spare you this time around.
Cambridge Audio wrote a great article on it as well:
There are some important details worth knowing when making a comparison between DSD and a FLAC file, for example. The first is that DSD is not magically better than its rivals. A ‘standard’ DSD file- often referred to as DSD64 is roughly equivalent to a sample rate of 24/88.2kHz. ‘Double DSD’ or DSD128 samples that single bit of information 5.6 million times a second to give you a signal equivalent to 24/176.2kHz. Again, this is a sample rate that can be reproduced by formats that are not DSD. Higher rates exist but they are very, very rare. If anyone says that DSD is ‘better’ than other formats, the numbers don’t necessarily support that. Cambridge Audio
All in all, the Q1 is a fantastic entry level option with loads of versatility and some nice on-board features. For the price it really is a steal.
The E10K is very highly regarded and has been around for a number of years.
It’s the one Amp/DAC that you can’t go wrong with, similar to something like an HD650 on the headphone side of things.
In addition to being highly versatile, it’s also extremely portable.
In fact, I carry this thing around in my laptop bag without a second thought; it’s lightweight, durable, and extremely compact. I never have to worry about having enough room.
Heck, I could even put it in my pocket if I needed to. It fits in the palm of your hand!
Keep in mind it does run off of bus power and does NOT have an internal battery. Technically you can use it with your phone, but you’ll need some sort of adapter and it tends to draw power from your phone’s battery fairly quickly.
That said, I love this thing on the go because I can quickly and easily get set up with my laptop pretty much anywhere. It comes with adhesive rubber feet as well, so I never have to worry about it moving around when it’s on my desk.
The K3 is similar but it’s more elegant this time around. Instead of the industrial looking shape of the E10K, we have a beautifully rounded off modern looking Amp/DAC that looks a lot more attractive on all fronts.
The K3 is still highly portable, but weighs a tad more and seems more durable in your hand.
Like the E10K, it’s got a bass boost and gain switch, but this time both are on the front. The K3 also supports Optical output, balanced input as well as DSD, and lights up different colors according to source file.
If you’d like a complete rundown of these 2, check out my FiiO K3 vs. E10K comparison. The differences, while interesting, are beyond the scope of this article 🙂
For now, just know that both of these will sound fantastic with your headphones, but the K3 gets my vote. It’s tremendous value and true upgrade from the E10K cannot be overstated.
I’m not sure there’s an amp I would recommend more than the xCAN.
The reason for this is simple: it’s just about the most intuitive piece of equipment I’ve ever used.
Pairing this with a phone is a breeze, as it’s actually a Bluetooth Amp! Just hold the big button in the middle until it turns on, and wait. When it cycles to blue, let go (green is for wired connection).
Now you’re in Bluetooth mode, and your phone should recognize the Amp. Once it does, pair it up and you’re ready to go.
What I love about the xCAN is all the features you’re getting. In addition to being highly portable, it’s also very versatile.
We’ve got an xBass switch, a 3D+ Soundstage enhancement feature, but there’s also the additional XBass section II on the back; it adds just Bass, just Presence, or both.
What’s even cooler is that you don’t have to use it wireless. You can also use it as a desktop amp with your laptop or paired up with a separate DAC.
I find that both work wonderfully well, and the sound coming out of this thing is marvelous. It’s detailed and crisp with a hint of warm.
What makes it stand out from the rest is the 3D+ feature; it really opens up headphones that don’t have good Soundstage. The HD600’s narrow image comes to mind as an example of something that really benefits from the 3D+ switch.
I find this helps tremendously with Jazz in particular, as it spaces out the instruments beautifully while adding a crispness that the 600’s sometimes lack. It just makes them sound better, which is something I was completely taken aback by.
Could it be the best portable option on this list?
It’s certainly a strong possibility my friend.
The DragonFly Red is hands down the easiest recommendation I have ever made on this site, to be sure. It’s the size of a Flash Drive and powers 300 Ohm headphones with ease. There really isn’t much more to say than that, but I’ll humor you. 🙂
Plug it into your laptop, fire up Tidal and be taken away. The sound coming out of this thing is indeed an upgrade from your PC’s internal DAC, and it’s pretty incredible.
Soundstage enhancement is one of the most notable improvements this things will provide, in addition to stunning clarity, detail, and depth.
The funniest part about it is that I nearly always underestimate this thing after some time away from it. As soon as I plug one in again, I discover all over again why I recommend it so much.
It just makes music sound better and more lively. More focused. More present and intimate. It’s hard to explain, but there is a difference. At times it can be subtle and other times very noticeable.
As far as convenience and portability? It’s tops on this list I think.
The Amp/DAC itself supports up to 24-bit/96kHz files, and displays a color for each.
Green = 44.1kHz
Blue = 48kHz
Amber = 88.2kHz
Magenta = 96kHz
The only other feature is that once you plug it in, you’re PC or laptop’s volume controls take over. Simple and effective!
The xDSD is another great offering from iFi, this time as an Amp/DAC combo and also with Bluetooth capability, as long as your phone supports aptX (most do).
I would liken the sound coming out of it to something like a Chord Mojo, but maybe a tad more clinical and less warm.
Like the xCAN, this puppy is packed with power and has loads of features. I was shocked at how easy it was to set up for console gaming. I didn’t even have to go into settings. I simply plugged the big blue USB cable from my PS4 into the back of the xDSD. Then I plugged an optical cable the same way using the supplied adapter that comes with the unit (just plug the adapter into the S/PDIF on the back, and then plug the optical cable into the adapter).
Once I turned the PS4 on sound was already coming through the headphones and I didn’t even make it past the start menu. Normally I have to mess around with a bunch of stuff inside the dashboard with other amps.
Not so with the xDSD. It’s true plug and play!
We’ve also got the same xBass and 3D+ feature similar to the xCAN, and both provide the same sorts of effects.
The xDSD is truly a wonderful piece of equipment and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Even despite people hating on this one lately, it’s still the best sound I’ve personally heard from an Amp/DAC, and rivals a lot of stuff in much higher price brackets.
I actually preferred the sound of the Mojo pitted against a Hugo 2 as well. It was warmer and more musical vs. the kind of cold and sterile sound of it’s more expensive brother. Related:Chord Mojo vs. Hugo 2
Aside from that, the experience of the Mojo was truly breathtaking for me.
I talk about my freest real light bulb moment as an audiophile a lot, when I first heard a HIFIMAN HE400i through a Bryston BHA-1 playing back a lossless file of Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
That was the first time when I thought to myself, “Wow, there really is something to this audiophile stuff.”
Listening with the Mojo, a MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Closed Back, and On Again by Honors through Tidal yielded that same type of result.
The sound was so intimate and engaging, that it kind of felt like the vocalist was singing right in front of me. It was truly mesmerizing. The Mojo provides this overwhelming sense of detail and warmth that’s really hard to put into words.
The Soundstage was especially noteworthy, as if I had never actually experienced it in full. You could literally pick out every individual sound, as if it was breathing and had a life of it’s own. The transients on the Mojo cannot be overstated. Attack, sustain, and decay all border on mind blowing. It’s truly a wonder to listen to this DAC, and I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to a duel. 😛
Anyways, that’s enough talk. It’s time for the final exercise.
Raiden, take Solidus dow… I’m sorry I got carried away 😀
If I had to choose one Amp/DAC on this list for portability, it would most certainly be the DragonFly Red.
It fits the description of what we’re looking for to a T.
It can be used on your desktop or with a phone, it’s the most portable Amp/DAC on this list, it’s sound is phenomenal, it’s super easy to use, and it’s priced well. Audioquest has since come out with an updated Cobalt version, and I will update this article once I receive the unit from them.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.