Best Portable DAC with AMP – Q1 2017 Edition (Enjoy HiFi Audio at Home or On the Go)
I’m on a hunt for the best portable DAC with headphone AMP available on the market. I scoured the internet for recommendations and most sought products. I’m going to share to you 10 of what I think are the best portable DAC AMPs that are currently available on the market. DAC with headphone AMP comes in many form; we have the desktop type (the bulky and big) and the portables that are small enough to carry around. I’ll discuss the desktop type DAC AMPs on a separate article, for now let’s just focus on the portable ones. Why portable DAC AMP? I like portable DAC AMP primarily because they are easy to carry around and most can be paired with modern day devices; like laptops, Ultrabooks, tablets and smartphones.
Why a DAC with AMP and not a DAC only or an AMP only?
Let me just make this clear, the portable device that I’m going to list here are all DAC with headphone amplifier. There are portable devices that are DAC only and some AMP only. Getting a DAC only would mean better audio quality, but it may not be powerful enough to drive a headphone; thus it needs to be connected to an amp. On the other hand, and AMP only (or amplifier only) doesn’t have a built-in DAC. It only handles the analog signal, and it will rely on the DAC as its source. No problem if the source has a good DAC, like a HiFi portable digital audio player. But if the source doesn’t have a good DAC, you will only get a bad (or not so good) audio output that is will be amplified. In my opinion, getting a portable DAC AMP combo is the more ideal solution. It’s also the popular nowadays.
Why You Need a portable DAC/AMP?
The answer is obvious, to hear and enjoy better audio quality. Aside from that, there are other reasons why you may want to get a portable DAC with AMP. Your player or source may not be able to processes or decoded higher audio formats like DSD. You need an external DAC AMP that could process those types of audio files. Or you need an external solution to drive your headphone(s) properly. But usually, we buy portable DAC AMP because the built-in DAC on our device sucks and/or the amp section is not powerful enough.
Without further delays, I have listed below the 10 best portable DAC with headphone AMP that you may want to consider. These are all great sounding DAC AMPs but they vary on the set of features, connectivity options and prices. They also vary on the sound quality or signature, meaning they don’t sound alike as they use different components inside. Also, these are my personal top pick portable DAC AMPs; I’m sure there are others that are good as well, but were not included in the list. Audio is subjective, so what sounds good to me may not be good for you. Go ahead and check them out below. I’ve listed them according to price, from lowest to highest.
10 Best Portable DAC with AMP
Creative Sound Blaster E5 DAC AMP
First on my list of best portable DAC AMP is the Creative Sound Blaster E5, it’s also the cheapest in this list, currently with a retail price of around $190-ish. We previously reviewed Sound Blaster E5 here and I think it’s somewhat a jack of all trades portable DAC AMP. Why? Because it has lots of features that you don’t normally see on a DAC AMP. The Sound Blaster E5 features wireless connectivity options – Bluetooth and NCF, it also features a built-in microphone and has two 3.5mm headphone out.
The Sound Blaster E5 can handle 24-bit/192kHz audio format, SBX effect, Low and High gain switch, comes with an internal battery that can be charged via PC/MAC or external USB power adapter. For input options, you got USB Type-A and micro USB, 3.5mm line in, 3.5mm mic in and optical input and output. For the set of features it has, the Sound Blaster E5 offers real value; but just like any “jack of all trades”, it’s also master of none. Mic is not the best, and while it does produce a good audio quality, it just can’t compete with the higher end DAC/AMPs.
Denon DA-10 Portable DAC AMP
Up next is the Denon DA-10 portable USB DAC with headphone amp. It’s not a new product and it has been in the market for more than a couple of years already. Currently it retails for around $190 and I think it’s still a good portable DAC AMP despite its age on the market. At the heart of the Denon DA-10 DAC AMP is a Burr-Brown PCM-1795 32-bit high resolution DAC chip that can handle 24-bit/192kHz and supports DSD audio format up to 2.8 and 5.6 MHz DSD files.
The Denon DA-10 also features the company’s advanced AL32 processing DAC master clock design with low jitter clock. It has both an analog and digital inputs, gain switch and it’s powered by a 3200 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
xDuoo XD-05 Portable DAC AMP
Just above the $200 margin, is the xDuoo XD-05 portable DAC with AMP. This one is beefier featuring AKM AK4490 DAC chip, paired with BUF634 amp. The xDuoo XD-05 supports up to 32bit/384kHz PCM signal and native DSD decoding up to DSD 256 when connected to a Windows or MAC OS PC/laptop via USB. When connected to other devices, it can support up to 24bit/192kHz and up to DSD 128. What’s unique about the XD-05 is that it features an OLED display that displays real-time information about the playback.
The xDuoo XD-05 also features Cirrus Logic CS8422 chip for optical and coaxial input, and an XMOS XS1-U8A-64 for its USB input. It has 4 PCM and 3 DSD digital filters; 3 gain levels and a bass boost switch. As for connectivity options, it has aux in/out, USB input, coaxial and optical input, and a 6.35mm (1/4″) headphone out on the front section. The XD-05 is powered by a built-in 4000 mAh rechargeable lithium polymer battery, which should give a decent amount of playback time.
Peachtree Audio SHIFT DAC AMP
Moving up to the $250-ish, is the Peachtree Audio SHIFT portable DAC with AMP. The Peachtree Shift is powered by ESS SABRE32 ES9010-K2M DAC chip that could support up to 32bit/384kHz USB input and supports both PCM and DSD decoding up to 5.6MHz DSD (DSD128). The Shift has both USB-A and mini USB inputs, but you have to take note on the compatibility. It’s primarily compatible with iPod Touch (5th gen), iPhone 5c/5s/6/6 Plus and Windows or Mac OS PC. BUT it is not compatible with an Android device.
Aside from the USB inputs, the Peachtree Shift portable DAC AMP has one 3.5mm headphone out, Hi/Lo gain switch, headphone/fixed line output; and a couple of other switches for input source and on/off charge. The Shift is powered by a 4100mAh battery that is capable of up to 8 hours of audio playback. This is pretty a straight forward portable DAC AMP with no other bells and whistles.
OPPO HA-2SE DAC AMP
Up next, just below the $300 mark price range is the OPPO HA-2SE portable DAC AMP. This is actually the second generation or “SE” probably stands for special edition. If you have more budget to spare, this is one portable DAC AMP you might want to consider. The HA-2SE features a better ESS SABRE32 ES9028-Q2M reference DAC chip (compared to the Shift), and is paired with a hybrid class AB amplifier. It supports both PCM and DSD with up to 32-bit/384kHz for PCM and up to 11.2896 MHz (DSD256, native mode only).
The OPPO HA-2SE portable DAC AMP has two types of input, a 3.5mm analog input (that also serves as the line out) and the digital inputs (USB-A and micro USB). It also features a Hi/Lo gain switch and a bass boost. The HA-2SE is powered by a 3000mAh lithium polymer rechargeable battery that can last up to 13 hours of music playback via analog or 7 hours for digital via USB. It only takes around 1.5 hours to charge the device, thanks to the VOOC rapid charging technology from OPPO. On top of that, it can also serves as a mobile power bank for charging your phone. The HA-2SE portable DAC AMP is compatible with Windows and Mac PC, and portable device like iPhone, iPad, iPod as well as Android devices.
SONY PHA-2A DAC AMP
We are almost crossing the $500 margin, the Sony PHA-2A portable DAC with headphone amp features not only a standard 3.5mm single ended headphone out, but it also has a balanced output as well. But the unique thing about its balanced output is that it’s using a 4.4mm balance terminal. That’s a pretty uncommon connector, and as far as I know, only the Sony MDRZ1R Signature series uses this type of connector.(sad…)
The Sony PHA-2A portable DAC AMP features an ES9018K2M SABRE32 reference DAC chip from ESS technology, paired with an TPA6120 headphone amplifier. It supports PCM format up to 32bit/192kHz and up to DSD 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. Battery life will only last up to 5 hours if you are using digital and the balanced connection. Charging time is up to 8 hours via PC or up to 5 hours using an AC-UD20 wall charger.
Chord Mojo DAC AMP
Next there’s everyone’s favorite, the Mojo DAC AMP from Chord Electronics. Some consider this as the little brother or baby brother of the Chord Hugo; offering better value thanks to its more affordable price, without sacrificing audio quality. Since it was released, this quickly became one of the most (if not the most) popular portable DAC AMP on the market. It features Chord’s custom FPGA DAC that supports audio format up to 32-bit 768kHz and even DSD 256.
The Chord Mojo has USB input, coaxial input, optical input and two 3.5mm headphone out, so that you can share with your friends and listen at the same time. It’s also compatible with smartphones (both Android and iPhone), and of course Mac and PC as well. The Mojo is powered by a Li-Po battery that offers music playback up to 10 hours, and its body is made from a small single solid aluminum block that measures 82mm x 60mm x 22mm only.
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC AMP
Just above the Mojo’s price is the new iFi Micro iDSD Black Label, which is basically the “2nd generation” or an improved version of the Micro iDSD portable DAC AMP. This elongated device currently retails for around $550 USD and it also loaded with lots of features just like its predecessor. The iDSD Black Label features dual Burr-Brown DSD 1793 DAC chips from Texas Instruments, supporting the typical PCM audio formats and up to DSD512. This portable DAC AMP can really support lots of audio formats natively.
The iFi Micro iDSD Black Label features SPDIF Coaxial in, optical input, USB input and 3.5mm analog input. It also features RCA out, coaxial out, and a 6.3mm headphone out in front. It also has an improved Xbass (bass boost) and 3D+ holographic effect. It’s also noteworthy to mention that the Micro iDSD BL features a switch where you can adjust the power output to better match your headphone, earphone or even a very sensitive IEM/CIEM. It’s powered by a large 4800mAh battery that is said to last up to 12 hours of music playback, and can also charge your smartphones.
Sony PHA-3 DAC AMP
Just below the $1000 margin, is the Sony PHA-3 portable DAC AMP. It’s basically like the bigger brother of the PHA-2A and it has been in the market for more than a couple of years. Sony didn’t made it clear as to what specific DAC chip and AMP chip they used in this device (they’re always like that); but it supports both PCM and DSD formats, from 24-bit/48kHz, 32-bit/384kHz and all the way up to DSD 2.8 and 5.6MHz. It has a frequency response of 10Hz to 100,000 and has an impedance output from 8 to 600Ω.
The Sony PHA-3 has various input options; micro USB, USB-A, optical in and 3.5mm analog input. As for its output, it has the standard 3.5mm headphone out, plus a 3-pole balanced output (both left and right). This is a little bit uncommon nowadays, since most use a single balanced output or the smaller 2.5mm 4-pole balanced out. But if you need a separate output for left and right, you may want to check the PHA-3.
CHORD Hugo DAC AMP
Finally, the big brother of the Mojo, the Chord Hugo portable DAC AMP, one of the best there is; currently priced at around $1,500. This one is not a cheap portable device, but it’s definitely one of the best in its class. It features the company’s “bespoke FPGA DAC technology to deliver class-leading sound quality”. It supports both PCM and DSD audio formats (384kHz and DSD 128) and offers several inputs, namely; Bluetooth with A2DP aptX, 2x micro USB, optical, and coaxial. You can connect almost any source to the Chord Hugo, from smartphones, tablets, laptop and definitely PC/Mac.
The Chord Hugo comes with various outputs as well; a 6.35mm headphone out, two 3.5mm headphone out, RCA analog out, and coaxial and optical outputs. It is powered by two rechargeable custom Enix Energies 3.7v 9.6Wh Li-Ion 2600mAh batteries and can provide up to 10-12 hours of music playback. This one is a little bit bigger compared to most DAC AMPs here, but it is still considered as a portable DAC AMP.
Update: Chord Hugo 2 is now official and will be available in the following weeks to come.
There you have it guys! Remember, audio is subjective, if ever there is a chance you can audition these portable DAC AMPs much better. Also check out our best portable DAPs (digital audio players) and the best open back headphones on the market. Good luck and happy listening!