I’m active on Facebook groups for years, and the question in the title is posted quite often. In this article (which isn’t obviously a review), I’ll try to help you choose the best possible option.
At first, a few words about my experience with mobile stuff, using different phones, files, streaming services, and so on.
Before the pandemic, my listening place was public transport, where I did spend about 3-4 hours per day. That’s a lot of time, isn’t it? So, I had a lot of time to test different options and decide which one is the most comfortable in various situations. I had DAPs like Shanling N3ii, FiiO X7 MK2, FiiO M11, iBasso DX160, but I also used to have the Cayin N3 Pro for a moment. In terms of mobile DACs, the list will be a little longer. As far as I remember, I started my mobile audio journey with the iBasso D-Zero MK2, and through my hands went several other DACs, like DACAMP L1, Topping NX4DSD, iFi Hip DAC, and all others I’ve reviewed in the past months.
I use even DACs like iFi iDSD Signature as the true mobile DAC, placed in my coat’s pocket. As the last part – mobile DACs with BT connection, so FiiO Q5s, FiiO BTR5, and Oriolus 1795. Maybe it’s not that many, but the differences in the sizes, connections are significant.
Keep in mind that the whole text is pretty subjective.
The essential advantages of using DAP
The most important thing – we’re not draining our phone’s battery when we want to listen to music. Besides that, it’s a totally separate device. Nothing but music, and that’s great for people who like tidiness in their devices and phones. For example, my dad has two individual laptops and a console. Not because he prefers playing on the TV or something. He has a computer for music-making, second for mailing, watching movies in the journey, and general daily use. And console, for gaming. And the same thing applies to mobile music. He could be using his phone with some portable DAC, but he prefers the separate DAP, just not to keep the music on the phone. I don’t get it at all, but okay, some people live that way.
The crucial disadvantages of using DAP
Changing songs, looking for an album, band, genre, or downloading a new album are always irritating for me on DAPs without the Android. If you do listen to specific music groups, it shouldn’t be problematic. The only thing you’d have to do is buying a micro SD Card, ripping your files on it, and that’s it. If you like new things, use Tidal as a daily driver for music – look for the DAP with Android. That’s a great opportunity for phone + DAC, but you have to take out the DAP if you want to change the song.
Another important thing is that the DAPs are worse in terms of quality/price because they have to have many more things, like the screen, separate software, wifi, etc.
The essential advantages of using mobile DACs with built-in battery
Well, say hello to the kings of value in the portable segment. The miniaturization isn’t that important there. We don’t have extra screens, CPUs – pure audio experience. And there’s a lot of models to choose from on the market. You’re looking for a lot of power, great bass, and warm sound? xDuoo XD-05 Plus. Power isn’t that necessary, but you want natural sound with a wide soundstage? EarMen TR-Amp. I could mention way more companies with many options, but that isn’t the point right now. If you do own an iPhone – you’re in the best possible place. These times, all you need is the USB-C->Lightning cable.
The crucial disadvantages of using mobile DACs with built-in battery
But if you have an Android phone, that’s harder. I’ve tried many USB-C to USB-C cables, and all that are longer than 0,7m are just bad. Some don’t work with anything but power, others break after a week, and the only suitable option is the short interconnect cable, but then you have a sandwich with your phone, and that isn’t the smallest option. As I mentioned before, miniaturization isn’t that important with these devices, but that’s not always good. A few days ago, my friend said that “he isn’t an audiophile enough to keep the XD-05 Plus in his pocket”. I get his point. I also don’t prefer to use huge DACs, but only during the summer because I don’t have space to hold them. During the winter – huge pockets in the coat let me feel comfortable with that.
The essential advantages of using BT DACs
Small DACs like FiiO BTR5, Qudelix 5K, Shanling Up4 are a golden mean between comfort and quality. You can keep them in the same case where you have the earphones, and they don’t disappoint in the matter of sound. The BT options are truly competitive, especially the bigger ones, like FiiO Q5s, Oriolus 1795. But again, we’re losing a little of portability compared to the smallest ones, but hey, no cables, except the earphone one, and the sound experiences are lovely. The only thing that can give us more comfort is using TWS earphones, but the quality goes down quickly.
Oh, and some of the small ones provide microphones so you can talk with people using them.
The crucial disadvantages of using portable BT DACs
The only problems I’ve noticed is the delicate battery drain, and for some, as mentioned at the beginning, playing music from the phone, and that’s almost it. Maybe the small choice on the market. But that’s for Android phone users. If you do have the iPhone – go for something else. The audio codecs on Android provide way better quality. LHDC, LDAC, even AptX are way better than the only available option on the iOS – AAC.
That’s the end, but I hope this article will help some of you in the matter of choice from all available options. If you’d ask me – there’s no best option, all of them are good, and I’m swapping them to match my taste – during the winter, the only thing that matters is the sound quality. But if that would be summer now, I’d rather use some small Bluetooth DAC.