The removal of the headphone jack has made mobile music listening more complicated than it needs to be. Instead of plugging your headphones directly into your smartphone, you would need different dongles depending on your smartphone.
However, the rise of dongles has created a positive trend in the audiophile industry. Manufacturers are now making portable DAC/Amps that can make your smartphone a superior sounding device compared to any smartphone with a 3.5 mm jack released in the past.
If you want to turn your Android smartphone into a high-resolution music player, then this article is for you. We’ll walk you through some IEMs, portable DAC/Amps, and Android Apps to give you the best results.
Before thinking about the rest of your setup, we highly suggest deciding on what IEMs you will use with your smartphone. There are plenty of options depending on your budget and what kind of sound signature you prefer. Here are some options to get you started.
The KBear KS2 is an entry-level IEM with a dual hybrid driver configuration (1 BA + 1 DD). With its sub 20 USD price point and safe sound signature, you can’t go wrong here, especially if you are on a tight budget.
The KBear KS2 has a warm and fun-sounding sound. It has a V-Shaped signature where the bass and highs are boosted, and the mids are slightly recessed. This kind of sound signature works with a wide variety of genres.
Its bass response, in particular, is quite stellar. It is easily one of the best performers in its price range. It is punchy and detailed without bleeding into the midrange.
The mids are natural-sounding and are still quite detailed. This is despite the noticeable recession. The highs are smooth and are relaxing to listen to.
For an entry-level pair, it checks all of the right boxes. Of course, it won’t perform as well as higher-end models. But if you just want to upgrade from your stock earbuds, these should be an easy pickup. Head on to our full review to learn more.
If you want to take things to the next level, then we highly recommend the BGVP VG4. The VG 4 is part of BGVP’s ArtMagic Series. Its main feature is the dip switches that can alter the sound of the IEMs.
With the dip switches, you can enhance key frequencies such as the bass and the mids. This is quite useful since you can tailor the sound to your preferences without the need for an EQ.
But even without the switches, the VG4 is an already great-sounding pair. The stock signature (0 0 0 switch configuration) produces a neutral sound. Bass is quite punchy and has good body, mids are transparent and detailed, and highs are smooth.
And aside from its sound quality, the build quality is also well made. It is made of medical-grade resin, which is similar to the material used in most CIEMs. You can expect these IEMs to easily survive the challenges in your daily use. Head on to our full review to learn more.
The most important part of your signal chain is your DAC/Amp. Smartphones already have a built-in DAC/Amp. However, most smartphones (except for some LG Quad DAC models) have subpar internal audio components.
Therefore, to get the best experience, we highly recommend going for an external DAC/Amp. Here are some of the most popular options:
If you want a small dongle that has an excellent build and sound quality, then the ddHiFi TC25B and TC35B are hard to beat. The TC35B and TC25B boasts a unique design that eliminates the extra cable found on most dongles while making the overall form factor small. In fact, it might just be the smallest DAC/Amp in the market.
Both units don’t add too much bulk to your IEMs. You can leave it plugged into your IEM so you will never forget to bring it with you.
In terms of its build quality, the TC35B and TC25B boasts an all-metal build. It has a solid feel that truly inspires confidence in the product. You can use it without worrying that it will suddenly stop working or fall apart.
Both units look similar. The only differences are the writing on the bottom, the slightly more compact design of the TC25B, and of course, the inputs. The TC25B accepts 2.5mm inputs while the TC35B accepts 3.5mm inputs. However, the TC25B does not have a truly balanced circuit, which we will be discussing.
In terms of sound quality, both dongles feature the ALC5686 DAC chip from the company Thitronix. This gives both devices ample amplification power and detail in their sound quality. This is quite interesting to see given how small the two devices are.
Both DAC/Amps are leaning close to neutral, with slight hints of warmth. This is most evident with its rolled off highs and emphasis on the lows and mids.
They can extract an impressive amount of detail, given its small size. The bass and mids have a transparent presentation.
It does start rolling off in the upper treble. What this does is it helps reduce any harshness that you might encounter from bright sounding IEMs. This was evident in IEMs such as the Moondrop SSR, where the highly energetic upper mids and treble were kept under control.
As mentioned earlier, the TC25B does not have a fully balanced circuit. This means that it will not give the same benefits as the balanced outputs of DAPs. You won’t get a more detailed sound or more a more powerful output. However, this is still the most convenient way of using your 2.5mm IEMs since you don’t have to convert them first to 3.5mm.
Overall, if you want the smallest DAC/Amp in the market but still want good quality audio, then make sure to check out the ddHiFI Tc25B and TC35B. You can learn more about the TC35B and TC25B in our full reviews.
Lotoo Paw S1
Lotoo is no stranger to high-end audio. They are responsible for creating some of the best high-end players, such as the Lotoo Paw Gold Touch. And this time around, they are planning to make a device as small as a flash drive but with the driving power and sound signature of their flagship players. This device is the Lotoo Paw S1.
Since its release, the Lotoo Paw S1 has been regarded as the “DAP Killer.” This is because of its build quality, driving power, and 4.4 mm balanced output. This is an interesting addition since we don’t normally see the 4.4 mm balanced output on portable DAC/Amps, especially with smaller ones.
The Paw S1 features a USB Type-C connection, which makes it quite easy to connect with smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Additionally, the USB Type-C cable can be removed, which means it can easily be replaced in case the cable becomes faulty.
The Paw S1 has a small OLED screen that is used for displaying information such as bitrate. And unlike other dongle sized DAC/Amps, the Paw S1 features buttons that can be used for controlling the volume as well as the built-in EQ.
The Lotoo Paw S1 has very good driving power and easily outperforms most of the portable dongle sized DAC/Amps. It even outperforms entry-level sub 200 USD DAPs such as the Sony NW A55 and Sony NW A105. Additionally, the Paw S1 also has a low noise floor, meaning you won’t hear any noticeable hiss even with more sensitive IEMs.
One potential downside to the Paw S1 is it does not have its own power supply. This means that it can quickly drain the battery of your smartphone. But overall, if you are looking for the best sounding dongle sized DAC/Amp, then the Lotoo Paw S1 should be on the top of your list.
The Chord Mojo has been one of the most popular portable DAC/Amps. Unlike a lot of the models in this list, the Mojo was first released in 2015. But despite its age, it remains one of the best sounding portable DAC/Amps and still remains competitive with newer offerings.
Just like its main rival, the iFi Micro BL, one of the major features of the Mojo is its driving power. Chord claims it can power headphones with an impedance of 800 ohms. This is, again, more than enough for most headphones.
The Mojo features a good amount of options for connecting with other sources such as a smartphone and a DAP. It even supports optical, a feature that more DAPs and DAC/Amps aren’t supporting anymore.
One of the downsides of the Mojo is the fact that the controls aren’t intuitive. The volume control utilizes buttons instead of a volume wheel, which makes volume adjustment on a desktop setup a bit of a hassle.
As for the sound quality, the Mojo has a different presentation from the iFi Micro BL, and it will purely depend on your personal preference. The Mojo has a warm sound signature, which can help tame the high-end of peaky headphones. This, however, means that details in the higher frequencies may be lost.
The Mojo is also noticeably less airy compared to the Micro BL. The soundstage also does not feel as wide as the Micro BL. Again, this does not mean that the Mojo sounds bad. Some users may prefer its sound signature over the Micro BL.
What cannot be denied, however, is the difference in the number of features in the Chord Mojo and iFi Micro BL. The sound shaping features of the Micro BL are absent on the Mojo.
But one feature that the Mojo has that most of its competitors don’t is its ability to connect to the Chord Poly. This essentially turns the Chord Mojo into a wireless streaming device, which can make your overall setup cleaner.
Overall, the Mojo is a solid portable device that can also double as a desktop DAC/Amp. Despite losing, in some areas to the iFi Micro BL, the Chord Mojo is still a strong contender. If you prefer more fun and less detailed sound, and if you don’t mind the unique control scheme, the Chord Mojo is a good fit.
Another great offering from iFi is the xDSD. It serves as a good middle ground between the iFi Nano BL and the iFi Micro BL. It has the bass boost and 3D+ Holographic modes found on the more expensive iFi Micro BL but has the compact and portable form factor of the more budget-friendly iFi Nano BL.
But additionally, the xDSD has a unique feature that gives it the edge over the iFi Nano and Micro BL. That feature is its Bluetooth functionality. This makes the xDSD more versatile than the other two since you can easily connect it to different devices such as smartphones, laptops, and DAPs that support Bluetooth. This also makes it more convenient to use outside since you won’t have to mess around with OTG cables or IC cables.
Additionally, the xDSD has more inputs than the iFi Nano BL. It has support for digital audio input via USB/USB OTG as well as coaxial/optical input. Its 3.5mm output also serves as a 2V line-level output.
Like most of the portable DAC/Amps on this list, the iFi xDSD does not have a screen. Instead, it resorts to using different lights to show the bitrate of the files and the battery level of the device.
The one downside that this unit has is the paint used for the finish of the XDSD is not as good as the other two. As a result, the paint chips quicker. We highly recommend getting a custom leather case to protect the finish of this unit. Overall, if you are looking for a great sounding and feature-packed portable DAC/Amp, then the iFi xDSD is a great option.
Aside from your IEM and DAC/Amp, you also have to consider the software side of things. The app that you will be using to playback your music will determine how good your experience will be.
USB Audio Player Pro UAPP
The Android platform was not specifically designed for high-resolution audio listening. As a result, you will run into issues when listening to lossless files. Typically, you wouldn’t normally be able to play files over 48 kHz 24 bit.
One of the most popular ones is USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP). This app boasts a well-designed user interface, great sound reproduction, and lots of features.
Some of the highlights are the parametric EQ, bit-perfect mode, and MQA support. This app also allows easy communication with external DAC/Amps and also bypasses the Android sampling rate limit using a special audio driver.
Additionally, you can use UAPP to stream Tidal and Qobuz. You won’t be able to download songs, unlike in their respective official apps. However, you will be able to bypass the Android sampling rate limit that is normally not possible in their respective native applications. You can also use this app when on Android-based DAPs such as Fiio’s offerings, iBasso’s offerings, or Hiby’s offerings.
Overall, for just a small fee, you are getting lots of audiophile related features. This app easily transforms your smartphone into a high-resolution music player.
Hiby Music and Fiio Music
If you do not want to spend an extra fee on your music listening app, then we highly recommend Hiby Music and Fiio Music. Both of these apps were developed as the native app for their respective DAPs. However, these both work well for smartphones.
Both apps have a smooth performing and clean looking UI. Both are also regularly updated, which eliminates bugs and adds compatibility with newer products. These apps also feature native compatibility with their respective products (DAPs and DAC/Amps).
Hiby Music has one unique feature that isn’t available in other apps. It has a special EQ called MSEB. This feature allows the emulation of common sound signatures such as dark sounding, warm, etc. This is a great feature that helps you better understand the different sound signatures.
Of course, both apps will be missing some features. However, both are free to try and can be used together. So if you need a free app and you don’t have too many demanding requirements, Fiio Music and Hiby Music should get the job done.
If you do not want to deal with storing local music files, then streaming is a viable option. There are no rules when it comes to choosing your streaming service. Each streaming service has its unique selling points.
Some services such as Spotify, YouTube Music, and Apple Music only offer 320 kbps, which is a lossy compression. Other services such as Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music, Mora Qualitas (Japan), and Deezer offer higher quality lossless files (FLAC or MQA).
However, at the end of the day, we highly suggest basing your decision on the quality of the library a service offers. Having lossless streaming will be useless if the music that you want to listen to is not there. All of these services have a one-month free trial, so we highly suggest checking all of them out first.
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s