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The Best Portable Headphone Amps & DACs

This list has shrunk considerably over the years. Why is that?

by Stuart Charles Black
FiiO BTR3K vs. BTR5

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Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!

Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music (NOT gear) all over again, so…

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

I’m Here to Help!!

I’m going to list out the DACS I think you should focus on and then give an explanation of why I chose so few towards the end.

I’ll also include my Criteria for choosing as well as mention my main specs to focus on with each recommendation.


#4

Hidizs S9 Pro

Price: Check Amazon! | Check Hidizs! | Official Review: Here!

Hidizs S9 Pro Review

  • Connection(s): USB Type-C.
  • Bluetooth: No.
  • Line Out: Yes. This simply means you can hook it up to separate speakers like the Presonus Eris e3.5.
  • Balanced: Yes, 2.5mm.
  • DSD: Yes, up to 512.
  • Support: 32-bit/768kHz.

Starting things off is a DAC that I’ve come to absolutely adore if only for the simple fact that it’s a much better value than both the DragonFly Red and Cobalt – the former of which I recommended for quite a few years on this blog, and the latter of which I NEVER recommended. 

Why?

Because it was overpriced when it came out and is still overpriced now.

The S9 Pro essentially gives you the same 9038Q2M DAC chip found in the Cobalt for 1/3 of the price.

Read that again:

The S9 Pro essentially gives you the same 9038Q2M DAC chip found in the Cobalt for 1/3 of the price. 

And as much as I loved the DragonFly Red, I think it’s overpriced in today’s climate whereas a few years ago, it wasn’t.

The DragonFly Red doesn’t have a balanced jack and that’s typically how I listen nowadays.

You probably will, too.

Remember, we’re always looking for the best value when it comes to DACS.

The S9 Pro is just that – a fantastic value.

It feels very light but happens to be incredibly durable.

If you’re so inclined, it supports up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD512.

Power Output

  • Single-Ended: Up to 100mW+100mW@ 32 Ohm – 3.5mm SE 
  • Balanced: Up to 200mW+200mW@32 Ohm Balanced – 2.5mm

#3

iFi hip-dac

Price: Check Amazon! | Check B&H! | Official Review: Here! | hip-dac 2 Review: Here!

iFi hip-dac 2 Review

  • Connection(s): USB Type-C (charging), USB Type-A (listening).
  • Bluetooth: No.
  • Line Out: Yes.
  • Balanced: Yes, 4.4mm.
  • DSD: Yes, up to 256.
  • Support: 32-bit/384kHz.

There are 5 reasons why I’m recommending the hip-dac:

  1. It has a gain switch and bass boost and some folks absolutely need those things.
  2. iFi products are built incredibly well and I’ve never once had a single issue with any of them.
  3. It’s very portable and you probably won’t mind attaching it to your phone.
  4. It has a balanced 4.4mm option.
  5. It’s priced right, and under no circumstance would I recommend you spend roughly $50 more for the upgraded hip-dac 2.

Just don’t do it. They are the same exact thing.

The build, buttons, and connections, down to the tiny text on the underside. It’s all 100% identical.

In fact, I’m fully convinced iFi colored it orange and called it a day.

Power Output

  • 2.0V/400mW @ 16 Ohm. This is around 135mW, so plenty.

#2

iFi Go Link

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

iFi Go Link Review

  • Connection(s): USB Type-C, USB Type-C to Type-A adapter (PC/Laptop), Type-C to Lightning adapter (Phone)
  • Bluetooth: No.
  • Line Out: Yes.
  • Balanced: No.
  • DSD: Yes, up to 256.
  • Support: 384kHz, MQA.

After a long time of not recommending anything new, iFi finally delivered a great product at an even better price point.

The Go Link is the perfect dongle for those starting out and comes with a super convenient Type-C to Lightning adapter for Apple iPhone users.

I was up and running in 4.256 seconds with my iPhone 11 and can’t recommend it enough. 

It utilizes the Sabre DAC chip (an admitted favorite of mine) and while power output could use a bit of a boost, it works well for most headphones I have lying around. 

Power Output

  • ≥1.5V/70mW @ 32Ω; ≥2V/14mW @300Ω

#1

FiiO BTR5

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

FiiO BTR3K vs. BTR5

  • Connection(s): USB Type-C.
  • Bluetooth: Yes.
  • Line Out: Yes.
  • Balanced: Yes, 2.5mm.
  • DSD: Yes, up to 256.
  • Support: 32-bit/384kHz.

The BTR5 is what you’ll want to consider first for the perfect portable solution.

It’s an incredibly well-built Bluetooth DAC with plenty of power at a perfect price point. 

The 5 Ps.

It also provides a 2.5mm balanced option. There isn’t much more to say.

Let’s take a look at the power numbers:

  • Single-ended: 80mW into 32 Ohms and 90mW into 16 Ohm Single-ended.
  • Balanced: 240mW into both 16 and 32 Ohm.

I’ve never had an issue powering or driving any of the headphones I have here (Balanced or Unbalanced), so don’t overthink it!

 


With that in mind, what are some good criteria you should look out for when deciding on the best portable headphone amps & DACs?

Criteria

Power Output

It’s important to know how much power is supplied to various Impedance loads.

If you have a 300 Ohm headphone like the HD600, you’ll want to make sure to purchase an Amp that outputs enough power into that load.

That said, all of the above options supply plenty and I’ve never had an issue with them.

Features & Versatility

We’re looking at portable options, but do you need some extra features with your purchase?

Things like bass boost, gain, Bluetooth, line-out functionality, etc.

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.

A Bluetooth DAC provides extra convenience, hence why the BTR5 is first on the list.

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.

So what’s my recommendation today?

Recommendation & Final Word

FiiO BTR3K vs. BTR5

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

It perfectly fits the description of what we’re looking for.

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?

 

Video Discussion

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My Reasoning & Philosophy

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

In fact,

There are way too many at this point.

I’m almost completely done with them at this point, and I tell you why.

I’ve demoed 60+, and the differences, while generally apparent, are incredibly subtle.

So if you’re reading this, you’re in the right place.

The DACS listed in this article are the only ones you’ll need to consider.

Think of DACS like pencils – there are millions of pencils in the world, but they all serve one purpose and one purpose only: to write sh** on paper.

OK, fine. 2 purposes. To write and erase. Writing is the main one though.

DAC/Amps are very similar in that they also serve 2 main purposes.

  1. They provide a digital-to-analog conversion.
  2. The amp portion amplifies the sound so you can hear it.

That’s it.

Are some pencils better than others? Yeah, probably.

Are some DACS better than others?

That’s highly debatable.

99% of the differences you hear from track to track have everything to do with the way it was recorded, mixed, and mastered, and very little to do with the DAC.

Those are basic sound engineering principles that will never change.

Headphones also play an important role, but I’d say the song itself is the main indicator of how music will sound to you.

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?

Output Impedance and Power Output are of paramount importance.

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 headphone’s 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?

Closing Thoughts

iFi Go Bar Review

This article used to be littered with options, but over the years I’ve whittled it down more and more.

Why?

Because my extensive experience with DACS has taught me that they are almost irrelevant to your musical experience.

They’re just a tool used to complete a task.

In this case, convert digital information into the analog sound that your brain comprehends. 

Nothing more, nothing less.

I also started noticing an alarming trend in wildly varying price points for an array of different DACS: They all sounded roughly the same.

That’s right you heard me correctly.

$329 Go Bar? Yup, sounds the same as something in the $100 range. You’re basically paying for the “newness factor” or “Shiny object” which quickly fades when another DAC comes out.

The cycle then repeats.

In other words, their “unique sound signature” as people like to put it, had absolutely no effect on how my music sounded.

And I listen to A LOT of music.

This is why I’d rather you just save money and get the one with the best overall value – i.e. the most sensible price point for the features you’re receiving.

Right now that’s the BTR5 until something better and cheaper comes along.

I sincerely hope you’ll keep these things in mind the next time a new DAC comes out.

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!!

If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.

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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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18 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
Hennie July 24, 2022 - 11:19 am

Hey Stu. What are your thoughts on the following setup: smartphone – Fiio Ka1 – Topping NX7 – Hifiman Arya. Sound quality wise, is the Ka1 the weak link in this setup, or is it up to the task.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black July 26, 2022 - 3:25 pm

Hey Hennie! Haven’t heard the Ka1 or NX7. Arya isn’t terribly hard to drive. Do you know the output power on those dacs?

Reply
M September 27, 2022 - 4:24 pm

Any thoughts on the Hidizs DH80s? Really curious on your take since that offers more power in the off chance you need to power something less efficient.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black September 28, 2022 - 4:04 pm

Haven’t heard that one, but I will reach out to them about it!

Reply
Rodo November 13, 2022 - 11:26 am

Hello,
I’ve recently bought HD660s headphones and listen to music on my laptop.
I would preferably buy a portable dac/amp such as iFi Hip-dac 2, but I wonder whether FiiO K5Pro or FiiO K7 would be much better choice in terms of sound quality and sound features. What are your thought.

Reply
Stuart Charles Black November 15, 2022 - 3:35 pm

Hey man!

Yeah, my top 2 for desktop entry-level/mid-level are FiiO K5 Pro or ATOM. So if you think you’ll be doing a lot of listening at your desk, I’d look at those first.

Keep me posted!

_Stu

Reply
Jeff July 14, 2023 - 2:20 am

Hi Stuart, great reviews and I really appreciate them. My question, and I don’t have much technical knowledge when it comes to this subject, ..I recently ordered a HD600, stepping up from a ATH-M50. I’m in need of an amp/dac combo that’s portable. Mainly because I don’t always have a powerpoint near me in the house. What is you’re best recommendation (on a ‘budget’) for a portable amp/dac that, if it has the option of a balanced connection, can power the headphone without using the balanced option (yet). I’m in Australia and the Hidizs S9 Pro doesn’t seem very available here. Also, I mainly use it to listen music on my iPad, but might connect it to my old Pioneer AVR in the future as my cd player and turntable are all hooked in to this as well.

Thanks in advance and keep up the good work!

Reply
Stuart Charles Black July 24, 2023 - 4:47 pm

Jeff,

Thank you for your kind words! I would say the FiiO BTR5 is pretty great as it’s powerful enough unbalanced but you sill have the option for a balanced connection later. You can also use it via Bluetooth if you want.

Keep me posted with questions.

Cheers,

-Stu

Reply
Bogdan February 3, 2024 - 8:07 am

Hi Stuart

Amazing review and thanks for it!

I saw in your presentation about Hidizs S9 Pro, mentioning something about Presonus Eris e3.5..
My question :D, its Hidizs S9 Pro powerful enough to use it for Presonus Eris e3.5 and also for MEZE 99 classics?
I have a pair of Presonus Eris e3.5 bot no amplification added and I would like to buy in the future a pair of Meze 99 Classics, which also needs a DAC, its Hidizs S9 Pro enough for both? 😀

Thanks again and good day,
Bogdan

Reply
Stuart Charles Black February 3, 2024 - 7:50 pm

Bogdan,

Thank you for the kind words! Yeah, S9 Pro is just fine!

As for amplification, yeah, you could do that. Since you have the 99 Classics which don’t need much, I think it’s perfectly fine.

One option that’s tempting for me to recommend to you is the JDS ATOM Amp + ATOM DAC which acts as both a preamp and headphone amp. The difference here is you just press a button to switch + it’s made for desktop while the S9 is more of a portable DAC.

That said, do you plan on buying more headphones? i.e. have you gone down the rabbit hole yet? If you haven’t, maybe I should spare you. xD

-Stu

Reply
Bogdan February 5, 2024 - 8:50 am

Thanks Stu for your fast answer 🙂

Initially I was thinking about Focusrite Scarlett Solo 4th Gen, but after I ve got the 99 classics I figure out that I could also take take them with me and listen on my phone, but for that I need a portable DAC and when I saw on your review that S9 works with both Presonous and 99 classics, I said perfect! 😀
But yeah, the JDS ATOM Amp + ATOM DAC doesn’t sound bad, unfortunately aren’t too portable 😀

Regarding more headphones, I have also a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBK and switched to 99 classics (another world) :O

Best
Bogdan

Reply
Stuart Charles Black February 5, 2024 - 1:20 pm

Bogdan,

No problem! Yeah man, if you need portable + desktop, S9 Pro is great and I love it. Do keep in mind it is pretty light. You may be taken aback by this as I was, but it’s a great product and I’ve had no issues with it. It also drives the K702 easily so you won’t have to worry if you ever upgrade to less efficient/higher impedance headphones. I forgot to ask this, but what phone are you using?

-Stu

Reply
Bogdan February 6, 2024 - 8:35 am

Stu,

I m using right now an Iphone 13, but I m thinking to switch to an Google phone or Samsung galaxy 😀

Best
Bogdan

Reply
Stuart Charles Black February 6, 2024 - 1:07 pm

Got it. That’s the one thing. Yesterday I tried using the Go Link’s USB-C to lightning adapter with the S9 Pro and my iPhone 11 and it didn’t work for whatever reason.

Today I tested some other DACS I have here including the Go Bar, BTR15, and DragonFly Red.

They all work perfectly fine with the same iPhone and either USB-C to USB-C with the USB-C to lightning adapter, or a USB-C to lightning cable. The only explanation I have is that Hidizs made the S9 Pro proprietary which is hugely irritating. They could have at least included their own version of the USB-C to lightning adapter in the package.

Because of that, you may want to bypass the S9 unless of course you get a new phone as you mentioned. Just make sure it has USB-C. I think most do nowadays.

-Stu

Reply

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