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The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs

by Stuart Charles Black
FiiO BTR3K vs. BTR5

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Originally posted 9/17/19.

Updates:

  • 10/2/19. Added some phone images of xCAN and xDSD. You like!
  • 12/7/19. Added the Topping NX4 and CEntrance DACport HD. 12/14/19. Added link to CEntrance Review.
  • 3/1/2020. Added link to Cobalt Shootout here and below. Find out if it’s worth $300!
  • 5/28/21. Replaced A3 with BTR3K.
  • 12/23/21. Added DAC, made a note about 3K, added/updated links to various articles.
  • 1/5/22. Zen CAN/xDSD replacement, 3K update, added links to reviews.
  • 2/14/22. Removed E10K/K3, HA-2 (discontinued & now overpriced) as well as the DACPort HD as it’s not really necessary. I want to simplify this list and keep it truly portable (i.e. dacs that can easily connect to a phone). The E10K/K3 are more desktop-oriented and thus don’t really belong here.
  • 3/16/22. Link fixes/article revisit.
  • 3/28/22. Q1 update.

Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!

Before we get into the Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs, grab some snacks, kick back and relax because…

I’m Here to Help!!

Video Discussion

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Table of Contents

Click to navigate the article!

Introduction
Criteria
Entry Level: Combo All In One
Entry Level: Amp/DAC Combo
Mid-Tier: Amp/DAC Combo
High End: Amp/DAC Combo
Recommendation & Final Word

Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!

Introduction

Even just a few years back, there weren’t nearly as many Amps & DACs as there are today.

Without getting too philosophical about it, let’s just say I don’t approve. Lol.

That said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with each and every Amp, Amp/DAC, and DAC that I’ve received for demo from various companies.

It’s been a heck of a good experience so far, and I’ve learned a lot about the hobby!

But what are all these terms?

In short:

  • An Amp is just that. It’s an Amplifier without an internal DAC. What is a USB DAC?
  • The 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 company that I’ve absolutely hated. Update: The SoundBlaster G3 was pretty awful, but for the most part, 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 differences 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 are of paramount importance in my mind.

Why is that?

It’s because headphone Impedance and Sensitivity ratings are different from headphone to headphone.

I’ll tell you at tooth hurty.

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:

Criteria

  • 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 it 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 🙂


Entry Level

Portable Bluetooth all in one combo

FiiO BTR3K or BTR5

BTR5 Price: Check Amazon! | Check Apos! | Check B&H! | Official Comparison: Here!

If you’re having issues pairing, press the – and + volume buttons on the side simultaneously until the indicator light stops flashing. Restart it and then try to make the connection again. This essentially clears pairing information and acts as a refresh/reboot – something I’ve done before but completely forgot about. xD

For more info, check the Go Blu article or keep reading as I talk a bit about the Go Blu here as well 🙂

FiiO BTR3K vs. BTR5

Whether or not you go with the BTR5 over the 3K depends entirely on how much power you need.

If you have really efficient headphones or IEMs and don’t plan on ever upgrading, the BTR3K will be perfectly fine.

If you plan on using low Sensitivity and/or higher impedance cans, the BTR5 provides more power. For sound differences, check out the BTR3K vs. BTR5 article.

Both of these are getting quite a bit of use on my desktop as of late, but if I had to choose between them knowing what I know, I’d likely just bypass the 3K and get a BTR5 because I prefer having plenty of extra headroom and you likely will also.

Both can easily pair with your phone via Bluetooth for on-the-go listening as well.

Moving on…


Amp/DAC Combo

FiiO Q1 MK II

Price: Check Amazon! | Official Review: Here!

The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs

Nice Package.

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 and found that even despite somewhat underwhelming on-paper-statistics, the unit performs admirably and pairs well with many headphones.

One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is its 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.

Another reason I really love this amp is because of its fantastic sound. It’s a warm, smooth, and detailed signature that can make recordings sound stunning, especially through Tidal or Spotify. Read: Tidal vs. Spotify [Definitive Guide]

The sleek, elegant, and streamlined design really looks quite beautiful in person. *British Accent* It’s quite lovely, mate! Add to that its 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. 😛

Front Panel

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 do happen to have some files lying around. I’ve talked at length about why this phenomenon 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 onboard features. For the price, it really is a steal.

2022 Update

The FiiO Q1 has increased in price and looks to be discontinued. If you go this route, look to the Q3!

With that, let’s get into our next option!

iFi Go Blu

Portable Bluetooth all in one combo

Price: Check Amazon! | Check Apos Audio! | Official Review: Here!

iFi Go Blu Review

I rarely change my recommendations for Amps & DACS anymore, but I really think the Go Blu is a worthy entry into the portable Bluetooth line even though I think the BTR5 is an overall better value.

It seems to aim to compete with the BTR3K/BTR5 demographic but adds a couple of nifty features that come standard with most iFi products; the XBass and XSpace options. It also has more power than the 3K so if you have more demanding headphones like a 400se, I’d look to the Go Blu.

I’m listening to the 400se now with the 3K and it’s simply not powerful enough.

The Go Blu also seems more reliable/stable than the BTR3K with regard to phone pairing.

I mention this issue in the review, and it speaks to the value of holding onto products that companies send for more than that initial honeymoon phase.

Why? Because over time you really get a feel for how something truly performs. Is it primed for the long haul? Is the longevity factor worth the initial investment?

My issues with the BTR3K would seem to indicate yes and no, as in, it can be hit and miss. It’s a great example of why I generally shy away from recommending DACS below $100. The E10K is one of the only outliers in that regard, but the 3K at around $70 is really cutting it close.

In other words, most DACS below that price are never going to be worth your time, and thus why I nearly always start my recommendations over $100.

Even so, the BTR3K is still working fine, but it’s finicky and temperamental. If you can handle doing a reset every now and then, are okay with fiddling around for a few minutes to get it to stop being a drama queen, and don’t plan to power more demanding headphones, I think it’s a good investment.

Onwards…


What about mid-tier combos?

Mid-Tier

Amp/DAC Combo

Audioquest DragonFly Red

Price: Check Amazon! | Check B&H! | Check eBay! | Official Review: Here!

The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs

Lego men discuss the wonders of a good DAC.

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 Spotify, 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. I talk more about its DAC chip, and what makes it so special, here.

Soundstage enhancement is one of the most notable improvements this thing will provide, in addition to stunning clarity, detail, width, 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 it into my laptop, 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.

The DragonFly Red is one of the very few DACS that I feel can contribute to a rather significant difference in the way music sounds which is again, why I tend to recommend it a lot.

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! If you want to pair it with your phone you’ll need an OTG cable for Android (Here, here, and micro here) or Lightning to USB for Apple.

DON’T OVERTHINK IT!!


Topping NX4

Price: Check Amazon! | Check Apos Audio! | Check Drop! | Official Review: Here!

Topping NX4 vs. FiiO Q1 MK II

Seems appropriate.

This is a fantastic little Amp/DAC combo, similar to the now-discontinued HA-2. It’s got a bass boost, gain switch, line out, but is also DSD compatible.

Think of the sound as very crisp and neutral sounding, with plenty of snap and clarity. With an Output Impedance of less than 0.4, it pairs extremely well with pretty much anything!

I demoed one with an HD600, Creative Aurvana Live, and Philips SHP9500.

If you’re the type of person who desires the cleanest and most honest representation of the music, the NX4 is what you’ll want to consider first from this list.

A step up from these?


High End

Amp/DAC Combo

iFi xDSD Gryphon

Price: Check Amazon! | Official Review: Here!

iFi xDSD Gryphon Review

In an effort to simplify things, I’ve removed both the xCAN and xDSD, as the Gryphon is both of those in one. It is more expensive as it essentially combines the prices ($300 + $300) of both, but it’s incredibly versatile and could be your go-to all-in-one solution.

It’s a Bluetooth Amp/DAC combo that comes with 3 cables: A USB Type-A to Type-C for your laptop, A lighting to USB for Apple, and USB OTG for Android).

The Gryphon can be used with a phone, on your desktop, with a console, with a separate pair of speakers, as just an amp from a separate DAC (balanced or unbalanced), as just a DAC into a separate amp, and it’s got plenty of onboard features for discerning snobs.

Use it balanced with headphones or single-ended as well.

The sound of the Gryphon is typical iFi: Detailed with a hint of warmth which is standard for the Burr Brown chip.

I think features wise it’s definitely the most valuable on this list and should be considered if you’re looking for a product that ticks all the boxes.


Chord Mojo

Price: Check Amazon! | Official Review: Here!

The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs

As seen with the homies.

Last on the list is the Mojo.

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 its 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 first real light bulb moment a lot; That is, the moment 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 crap.”

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.

Soundstage

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 its 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 😀

So what’s my recommendation today?

Recommendation & Final Word

If I had to choose one Amp/DAC on this list for portability, it would most certainly be the BTR5.

It fits the description of what we’re looking for to a T.

It can be used on your desktop or with a phone via wire or Bluetooth, it’s the most portable Amp/DAC on this list, its sound is phenomenal, it’s super easy to use, and it’s priced well.

Interested in my top portable option?

 

Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

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Which of these are you most likely to go with? Do you have any to add or take away from this list? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!

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4 comments

Just Steve December 29, 2021 - 6:18 pm

I’ve hit your site a couple times after seeing your YT videos. Currently wondering if I should get a FiiO K3 or an ifi Zen DAC v1 from ebay. I doubt there’s a right answer for me, both should be a DAC upgrade and let me get better headphones.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black December 29, 2021 - 6:25 pm

Hey Steve! Yeah, the differences there will be fairly marginal. Both do balanced but the K3 is 2.5mm vs. 4.4 for Zen so almost a wash as well.

FWIW, I use the Zen pretty much every day whereas I don’t use the K3 nearly as often. I’d go with a Zen and if you do any console gaming, get the V2.

Hope that helps! Let me know.

Reply
Mac April 13, 2022 - 3:10 am

Hey Stu ! Thanks for this I went with the Dragonfly Red. I’ve literally had it for two hours. It sounds great, that said I do feel like I need to adjust a bit like my ears aren’t used to hearing this much on my phone. LOL! Thanks agian!

Reply
Stuart Charles Black April 13, 2022 - 4:11 pm

Haha my pleasure man! Yeap, that’s exactly what happens with the DragonFly. Very eye-opening indeed like a cold shower!! It’s good you like!

Reply

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