The “Apple effect” can be as helpful as it is infuriating. A good technology can exist for years, and many won’t care until it gets the Cupertino seal of approval. To that end, a lot of people are about to start caring about “high resolution” audio as the company launched its upgraded music service to the masses.
But as many were quick to point out, some of Apple’s own products don’t necessarily support the higher sample rate and bit-depths on offer. No worries, there’s a dongle for that. (And there are options for Android and the desktop, too.)
As hinted, it's not just Apple in on the hi-resolution game: Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer have been doing it for a while, and Spotify is planning on introducing its own version soon. The products in this guide will play nice with any of these services, aside from Tidal's MQA, which is a little more specific (and we have options for that as well).
Why do I need new hardware to listen to music?
The short answer is, you don’t. You can play “hi-res” audio files on most phones and PCs, you just might not be getting the full experience. If your device’s audio interface tops out at 44.1 or 48kHz (which is fairly common and covers the vast majority of music online) then that’s the experience you’ll get. If you want to enjoy music at a higher sample rate and bit-depth (aka resolution), you’ll need an interface that supports it and wired headphones.
It’s worth pointing out that “lossless” and “hi-res” are related terms, but not the same thing and will vary from service to service. Apple uses ALAC encoding which is compressed, but without “loss” to the quality (unlike the ubiquitous .aac or .mp3 file formats). CDs were generally mastered to at least 16-bit / 44.1kHz which is the benchmark that Apple is using for its definition of lossless. In audio circles, a general consensus is that hi-res is anything with a sample rate above 44.1kHz. Increasingly, though, the term is being used for anything 96kHz and above.
This, of course, isn’t only about Apple’s new streaming formats. External DACs and audio interfaces are a great way to upgrade your listening experience generally. Especially if you want to get into the world of more exotic (read: pricey) headphones, as they often even require a DAC to provide enough clean signal to drive them. For audiophile headphones, a phone or laptop’s built-in sound chip often doesn’t have the oomph needed.
Okay, but can’t I just use the headphone adapter for my phone?
No. Well, yes, but see above. A Lightning or USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter often is an audio interface and most of the ones you’re buying for $7 (or that come free in the box) do not support hi-res audio beyond 48kHz / 24-bit. Android is a little more complicated, as some adapters are “passive” and really just connect you to the phone’s internal DAC like old school headphones. Others (active ones) have a DAC built-in and good luck finding out what your specific phone and the in-box adapter delivers. (Hint: connect it to a PC and see if it comes up as an audio interface. You might find some details there if it does).
What is a “DAC,” though?
A DAC takes the digital (D) music from your phone or computer and converts (C) it into analog (A) sound you can hear. All phones and PCs have them, but since handsets moved to USB-C, Lightning or Bluetooth for music, the task of converting that signal was generally outsourced to either your adapter or your wireless headphones.
DACs can be used with phones, laptops and desktops but tend to be much simpler than a regular external audio interface. One basic distinction is that DACs are usually for listening only whereas an audio interface might have ports to plug in microphones and instruments (but an external audio interface is also technically a DAC).
The benefit of DACs is that they tend to be lightweight, making them more suitable for mobile use, although it still gets a little tricky with the iPhone as you still might need to add another dongle to make it play nice with Lightning. Also, not all DACs support all the higher audio resolutions. Most require external power or an onboard battery, though some can use the power from whatever you plug them into — in which case expect a hit to your battery life. Below are some of our picks for a variety of scenarios.
Best for Android users looking for a simple, affordable option: Ugreen USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter
Okay, you were expecting serious outboard gear and we start by showing you a basic adapter? Yes, because this one supports 96kHz audio (24-bit) and is about as straightforward as you can get. Simply plug into your USB-C device (or USB-A with an… adapter), connect your headphones and away you go. There are no buttons, no controls, nothing to charge.
While this dongle doesn’t support 192kHz, the move up to 96kHz is still firmly in the “hi-res” audio category, and its super low profile and ease of use make it a great option for those that want an audio quality bump without going full-bore external DAC.
Of course, this dongle is best suited to devices with a USB-C port such as the iPad Pro, MacBook or most Android phones. As noted earlier, it’s possible your Android already supports hi-res audio and a simple passive dongle is all you need, but given the price and quality of this one, at least you know what you’re getting, as the specific details of audio support for every Android phone out there are often hard to find.
The downside is that this adapter won’t do much to help drive higher impedance headphones, so it’s less suited to audiophiles who really need more power to drive their favorite cans. I used this on both an Android phone and an iMac and it worked just fine, although with Apple computers you need to head to the Audio/MIDI settings first to make sure you’re getting the highest quality available.
Best for streamlined desktop use with high-end headphones: Apogee Groove
Apogee gear is usually found in the studio. The Groove takes the company’s decades of audio experience and squeezes it into a highly portable DAC that’s perfect for those who want a lightweight option for their desktop or laptop. We’re stepping up the sound quality here with support for 192 kHz (24-bit), which will cover everything from Apple’s new lossless service.
Connecting your iPhone to the Groove is a little more complicated. It works just fine, but you’ll need something like the Apple Camera kit, as it needs external power. In short, it gets a bit “dongly” but it works if you want something for your desktop first, that can do double duty on iPhone. Android support is a little hit and miss, though you would still need a way to feed it power while in use.
Once you’re set up, just plug in your headphones and you’re away. The rubberized base of the Groove stops it from shifting around on your desk, and the large buttons make controlling volume a breeze, with LED feedback to show you volume levels.
Audio sounds dynamic, with a generous bump in gain over whatever you’re plugging it into likely offers. The frequency response is flat meaning you get out exactly what you put in audio-wise, making this a great choice if the connectivity (and price) matches your specific use case.
Best for power and portability: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt
Bar the Ugreen dongle, the Dragonfly is easily the smallest, most portable device on this list. And better yet, it almost certainly works with your phone, PC or laptop and won’t require a dedicated power supply (despite the lack of a built-in battery). You’ll still need an adapter for phones (USB-A to Lightning or USB-A to USB-C for Android) but otherwise, it’s plug and play. There’s no volume control, just one 3.5mm headphone jack and a color-changing LED (to tell you what sample rate the track you’re listening to is using).
At $300, it’s a pricey proposition, but the cable spaghetti of some devices or the sheer heft of others, means the Dragonfly’s small footprint and rugged simplicity make it refreshingly discreet and simple. AudioQuest also offers two cheaper models, starting at $100 that are likely more than good enough for most people.
Don’t let the Dragonfly’s size and lack of controls fool you, the Cobalt throws out some serious, high quality sound. According to AudioQuest, the maximum resolution has been intentionally limited to 96kHz for the “optimal” experience, and that’s plenty enough to cover what you’ll get from most music services.
The output from the in-built headphone amp will make your phone’s audio feel positively wimpy by comparison, and the powerful internal sound processing chip delivers great quality audio with a wide soundstage across a range of genres and formats.
One extra trick up the Dragonfly’s sleeve is native support for Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) files. This is the preferred format of Tidal, so if that’s your service of choice, the Dragonfly is ideal.
Best for super high resolution: Fiio Q3
Fiio has been a popular name in the portable DAC scene for a while now, and for good reason. The products deliver solid audio quality, support all manner of resolutions and are compatible with a wide range of devices. The Q3 is bigger than the previous options on this list (it’s about 1cm shorter than an iPhone 4), but remains fully portable. There are even some goofy silicone bands so you can strap it to your phone, rather than have a flappy, heavy appendage.
For users on the go, the Q3’s built-in battery (good for about eight hours) means you won’t need to drain the power on whatever you’re plugging it into. It also means mobile users won’t need a dreaded second cable. Throw in support for three different size headphone jacks (sadly, ¼-inch isn’t one of them) and you have a DAC that will serve you souped-up sounds wherever you are and whatever you’re listening to.
There isn’t a display, which you might expect for something this size, but there is an LED that changes color when you’re listening to something higher than 48kHz, so you can tell which tracks in your streaming service’s library really are higher-res. The dedicated volume control doubles as a power knob and there’s also a “bass boost” switch just like the good old days. On top of the USB-C input, there’s also the option for analog audio sources via the 3.5mm port.
Even if you’re not listening to high sample rate music, the Q3 sounds fantastic. The difference in volume, punch and dynamic range that comes through in songs that sounded flat and dense when listening directly through a phone or laptop was remarkable. Throw in support for all the hertz and bit-depths that you’ll likely ever need and what’s not to like? Especially as the Q3 comes in cheaper than some of the less capable options in this guide (the slight extra heft will be a key factor here).
Best for high resolution / fans of Tidal: iFi Hip Dac
If this were a spec race, it’d be a photo finish between Fiio’s Q3 and iFi’s Hip Dac. Like the Q3, the Hip Dac blows right past support for 192kHz right up to 384kHz. It also offers balanced output via 4.4mm headphones which is rare to find on consumer headphones, but some higher-end cans offer it for those who want to eliminate any potential interference. There’s also an internal battery, bass boost and a very similar form-factor to the Q3.
For anyone interested in either of these two it might come down to a single feature. Be that the highest sample rate it can support (Q3 wins) or its ability to decode Tidal’s MQA files (in which case, you want the Hip Dac).
The sound out of this thing takes on the Q3 blow for blow and even the same knurled volume control is here. But let’s be honest, the fact it looks like (and was named after) a hip flask is clearly also a major selling point. Though it's worth mentioning the Hip Dac takes a female USB cable, supplied in the box. But this does mean you'll need to use the Camera Kit to get into the iPhone, whereas the Q3 works with one single provided cable.
Regardless, it’s another robust option that will more than cover most bases for most people. As with the Q3, the internal battery means you won’t need to feed it power while in use (estimated eight hours) and connecting it to your phone or computer is the same; as long as you can pipe a USB cable into it, you’re good to go.
Best for desktop warriors: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Only looking for a desktop option? Then a good old fashioned audio interface might be the best choice for you. Focusrite’s Scarlett series has near-legendary status at this point and an eye-wateringly high review ratio on Amazon for a good reason: It does what it does very very well.
Most current laptops and desktops can probably handle at least 96kHz audio, but with the Scarlett you can be sure you are getting the full 192kHz when available and the dedicated audio processors and headphone amps will do a much better job of it.
The main benefit here is the general upgrade you will be giving to your PC. Not only will your listening experience be enhanced, but you’ll be able to plug in microphones and instruments if streaming or recording are your thing, all in one device and all for about the same price as some of the more mobile-oriented devices on this list.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at