In the first installment of this blog I covered how to upgrade the headphones/earphones you are listening to. This by far gives you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of improving your experience. Next, lets look at what can power those new device if you now have an itch… or youd like to just try something better and see if it makes a difference to you.
DACs and AMPs and DAPs, Oh my!
In part 1 I was saying “Output hardware” because this may well be your phone, or a digital audio player, but it may also be something that doesn’t have your actual music on it. Lets cover a few ways you can improve the sound quality delivered to your new, fancy In-Ear Monitors or Headphones.
As a general rule the pipeline from music file to your ears is:
Any number of devices could do one or more pieces of this puzzle. Your iPhone has the files, a CPU that decodes them, a Digital-to-Analog-Concerter (henceforth referred to as DAC) as well as Amplifier all built in.
Or you can start upgrading the pieces:
Adding a DAC to your existing sound device.
If your existing device has music on it – your iPhone, Android device or (gasp) your Windows Phone – then you could bypass the not-so-great audio hardware and connect it to a Digital to Analog Converter + Amplifier combo.
For example, you could connect your iPhone, Android device or Windows phone to a Chord Mojo – which is basically a DAC+Amp (Digital to Analog Converter + Amplifier):
The Chord Mojo is a rechargeable device that allows you to connect to various digital outputs (USB, Optical, Coax) and converts the stream of audio bits into high-fidelity sound. Its very popular since it produces very high quality, great sounding music. In a lot of cases listeners believe that the Chord Mojo is one of the best, if not the best portable Digital-to-Audio converter+Amp. The only drawback is you need to carry and charge both the Mojo and the phone or other source device.
As you can see this becomes another device and connecting it can be tricky. The upside is you can connect the DAC to your computer and use it there to play music too. Theres a whole subculture of Audiophiles running around the globe with devices stacked with rubber bands for this exact purpose (Heres the first google image search page):
I have also done this – here is my CEntrace HiFi-M8 with my iPhone 5 back in the day with custom Entrance black rubber bands:
Once again, you should try audition these devices and see what you like, but a phone-stacked-with-a-DAC/AMP is certainly an option – I highly recommend the Chord Mojo.
If you’re looking for something a little less, um, clunky , you could opt for an all-in-one device that houses the music, DAC and Amp:
Choosing/Using a Digital Audio Player
You could decide to move the whole music delivery piece off your phone onto a purpose built Digital Audio Player. This is the route I took after lugging around my iPhone strapped to a DAC for a few years.
There are a variety of Digital Audio Players available these days, and they’re becoming more and more popular as folks realize that it costs a ton to store CD quality music on their iDevices and the quality is ok, but not great.
Once again there are several options available in terms of several dimensions. There are a ton of players available ranging from $4,000 down to $2, but how do you narrow it down? Some things may care about, and some you may not. Here is a list of things I have come across having played with a lot of different players and set them up in my Dapper app for OSX:
- How does it sound?
- Does it have an output impedance <1 Ohm?
- Does it support better than CD quality? (Hires Audio)
- Does it support balanced out?
- Dose it play the music format you have, and want to use in the future?
- Can you add external (MicroSD) storage, and how much? How many cards?
- How big/small is it?
- How big is the screen?
- How long does the battery last?
- Does it have a touch screen or other control mechanism?
- What button controls does it have for if the screen is off?
- Can you do searches? Scroll quickly through lists of music?
- How much storage does it contain?
- Does it connect well to your computer in order to transfer music? (Some players only support Media Transfer Protocol – M.T.P. – and this is is a problem for Macs. As an example, high end Astell and Kern players are a royal pain in the ass to copy music to from a Mac.)
- Does it support Playlists? (Can you transfer your playlists and play them on the device)
- Can the playlists play a list of music that happens to have some songs on one storage location and the next on another?
- Does it support WiFi? (For updates, or music services like Tidal, Apple Music, Pandora etc)
- Does it run Tidal, Apple Music, Pandora or whatever service you may want to run. (Some DAPs have Tidal built in only, some run Android)
- Can it be used with your computer just as a Digital to Analog Converter?
- Any reliability issues?
Unfortunately there are a ton of players and a ton of options, so finding one that suits you may well also become an Amazon.com excercise or if you are lucky you can find a place that also lets you audition players.
I highly recommend checking out http://www.head-fi.org for local events and information on choosing. I have personally tried and used all the DAPs shown above in the image.
If you chose a player and use a Mac be very careful of whether it’s Android based. A lot (not all) android players do not show up on a Mac as a disk, and you are forced to use the (absolutely horrible) Android File Transfer app on OSX. Some let you run other apps on the device that may help, but this is again a pain. I stropped using Astell and Kern devices despite their excellent audio quality and build quality because it was a horrendous pain to copy over new music.
Play with the ser Interface and make sure you can use it easily, do searches etc. A lot of DAPs have bad UI. My favorits so far is the Onkyo UI, followed by Astell and Kern and after that the new Android UI from FiiO. FiiO’s android UI is buggy, but the rest are simply sub par.
You’ll also hear sound signatures that differ between the players. FiiOs have nice powerful bass in general, whereas Astell and Kern devices to my ears sound “sparkly” and lack bottom end.
Players I bought and used personally after messing with all the players above:
- Astell and Kern AK100II and 120II: Excellent clarity, a little light in the bass, very good UI , DAC mode, and absolutely horrendous connectivity to Mac.
- FiiO X1II X3II and X5II: Excellent clarity, great bass, basic UI. DAC Mode. Excellent for Macs.
- FiiO X7, X5III: Excellent clarity, great bass, very good UI – but buggy. Dac Mode. Okay for Macs
- Onkyo DP-X1: Excellent clarity, great bass, excellent UI. No DAC. Difficult for Macs.
I ultimately am using an Onkyo DP-X1 and if I were to do it again I may go DP-X1A. I Also wrote software for the Mac to sync iTunes to your DAP to make it even easier.
Good luck… and sorry about your wallet!