How to use a portable DAC to improve your phone’s audio

The latest big move for music streaming services has been expanding catalogs to include lossless audio. While it’s still unclear when Spotify will launch its lossless service, between Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited, Deezer, and Qobuz just to name a few, there’s no shortage of streaming services to get high quality music from in the here-and- now. There’s just one issue with that: you might not have what you need to actually listen to any of those lossless tracks.

Until the big streaming services pushed their way into lossless audio, it was possible to make the most of your subscription with almost any earbuds. However, even the lowest quality lossless music pushes most Bluetooth codecs to their limit. If you want to get the most for your money, you need a wired connection.


Can I listen to lossless audio with a headphone jack adapter?

WIth a headphone adapater —a USB-C or Lightning-to-3.5mm jack — your only limit is the native bitrate of your phone’s Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC for short). For most Androids and iPhones, audio quality maxes out 24-bit / 48kHz. That’s a far cry from what you can get out of an external DAC, it’s still much better than what Bluetooth connections can achieve.

To start, the first thing you’ll need is a 3.5mm adapter. If you use an Android phone, make you buy an adapater with a high-res DAC; these tend to support 24-bit/96kHz audio. iPhones ship with a 24-bit / 96kHz adapter in the box.

If you’re looking at super high-res audio (up to 32-bit / 384kHz), you’ll want to pick up a good portable DAC. iFi Hip-DAC is a solid and relatively inexpensive choice for Android and iPhone. Astell & Kern PEE51 is also a great choice for Android users that’s much more portable.

Once you’ve got that covered, you just need a wired pair of earbuds or headphones. You could spend all day researching things like open-back vs closed-back headphones, or in-ear monitors with multiple drivers, but most of that just comes down to personal preference. Something more important to keep an eye out for is the impedance (measured in ohms). The more ohms they’re rated for the more difficult it is to drive the headphones, and the amplifiers in phones aren’t particularly powerful, so music volume will start to drop once you get above about 60ohms.

Once you handle the hardware, all that’s left is the software. As we covered up top, Spotify isn’t quite ready for lossless yet, and YouTube music hasn’t even feigned interest in high-quality audio. There are still plenty of options if you’d like to dip your toes into the hi-fi world, though. You can get lossless tracks from Apple Music for $10/month, Amazon Music unlimited for just $8/month if you have Prime. Qobuz is our favorite, but it’s also the most expensive; It starts at $130/year or $13/month. Deezer and Tidal also brag about their audio quality, but Deezer is limited to CD-quality files, and to get the most out of Tidal you need specialty hardware to decode their MQA files, so that doesn’t make either service the best choice in this case.

Android’s built-in USB audio routing isn’t as seamless as plugging in headphones, but it’s better than nothing. Some phones will ask what type of audio device you’re plugged into (earbuds, car, etc) and pump all audio out through them without issue. Other phones may not play through your wired buds unless you open your music app before plugging in. In my experience, any issues I had stemmed from that and could be resolved by just unplugging the USB cable and putting it right back in.

If you use an iPhone things are a bit easier. Most DACs work seamlessly, but you’llneed to tweak the settings in Apple Music or Qobuz to stream high-res audio.

How does Bluetooth audio compare with wired headphones?

The main limitation of Bluetooth audio is the bitrate (how much data it can transfer per second). While Sony’s LDAC and Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless codecs have the highest bitrates available, they just barely have the bandwidth to play lossless CD-quality music (16bits @ 44.1kHz). Other codecs are “lossy”, meaning that parts of your audio are compressed and lost in order to get the file from your phone to your earbuds. Bluetooth is getting better and better, but it looks like it might be a while before it can handle the same high-res files you can listen to over a wire.

While jumping from 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/48kHz may not appear to be a big bump at first glance, that extra bit-depth and faster sample rate come out to nearly twice as much data per second. The audiophile world is chock-full of diminishing returns by just trying to make big numbers even bigger, but this improvement is very noticeable. Changing over to high-res files leads to things like a fuller sound and a bigger soundstage, and can let you hear details you may not have noticed in tracks you’ve been listening to for years.

On top of that, Bluetooth buds that can handle lossless music can get pretty pricey, even before features like active noise-cancelling are added in. Alternatively, good headphone adapters start under $10, and a pair of decent starter in-ear monitors come in around the $20 mark. While wired buds don’t have the same convenience as Bluetooth, they are more than make up for it with better audio quality, lower latency while gaming, and a much lower price tag. So, while Bluetooth buds still clearly have a place, and they’re getting better and better over time, if you want to step up your music quality, you can do better for less money if you’re willing to deal with wires again.

Looking for more Android Police recommendations? Check out our picks for the best budget phones, or take a look at our picks for the best wireless headphones if you don’t want to go back to wired buds to step up your audio quality.


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