Portable DAC/Amps are great alternatives to DAPs. A lot of the midrange and higher-end portable DAC/Amps provide amazing driving power and could even rival their desktop DAC/Amp counterparts. They also do not suffer from the same software issues that plague most DAPs.
Additionally, most portable DAC/Amps can be seamlessly used in a desktop setup or with gaming consoles and other devices that support digital audio output. These devices also do not have the risk of getting their internal battery damaged since most of them can automatically stop charging once the battery is full.
In this article, we will be talking about some of the best sounding and best value portable DAC/Amps in the market. Additionally, we will also be talking about compact and ultra-portable solutions such as dongle sized and Bluetooth DAC/Amps.
Best Portable DAC/Amps
iFi Nano iDSD Black Label – Best Entry-Level (Sub 200 USD)
Our top entry-level portable DAC/Amp pick is the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label. It is not the most feature-packed in this list, but the combination of its simplistic design, excellent build quality, excellent sound quality, and power output makes this the top contender on this list.
The iFi Nano BL is the successor to the original iFi Nano iDSD. It features a new color scheme, more power output for driving high-impedance headphones, and the integration of iFi’s IEMATCH technology on both its 3.5mm outputs.
In terms of the build quality, the iFi Nano BL feels a lot better than most of the offerings in the budget and mid-range category. The metal build feels more premium than the generic feel of models like the FX Audio DAC X6 or Schiit Magni 3 (two units that were already known to have good build quality). The volume wheel, which also serves as the on and off switch, also feels premium and satisfying to use. Due to its form-factor, it can be easily used both as a portable and desktop DAC/Amp.
One downside of this design is the size of the unit. While it is small and portable, its smaller size (compared to other DAC/Amps) means that stacking it with larger devices such as modern smartphones may be a bit awkward.
Now, let us talk about the main attraction, the sound quality. The sound signature of the iFi Nano BL is generally neutral, with a slight hint of warmth. This type of sound signature is relatively safe and synergizes with a lot of headphones and IEMs. It is detailed enough without being too analytical.
The power output that the iFi Nano BL packs is also impressive. It can drive most headphones such as the 150-ohm Sennheiser HD660s and 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600. Like most portable DAC/Amps, it starts to struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms. This one, however, was still able to push enough details on the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600 during our test.
The final notable aspect of the iFi Nano BL is the IEMATCH option. This is technically the low gain option and is suitable for low-impedance headphones and IEMs. This incorporates iFi’s IEMATCH technology, which matches the impedance of headphones and IEMs, which effectively reduces or eliminates hiss on sensitive IEMs.
One final downside that consumers must take note of the iFi Nano BL is that it only has a digital input via USB. We would have preferred more options, but this is primarily designed to connect with smartphones, DAPs, and personal computers.
Overall, for those looking for a great sounding DAC/Amp that can be easily used as a portable and desktop unit, the iFi Nano BL is an excellent option that sits as the best in this price range.
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label
If you want a more feature-packed and better sounding version of the iFi Nano BL, then the iFi Micro Black Label is the perfect upgrade. Just like the iFi Nano BL, the iFi Micro is primarily designed to be a portable unit. However, it boasts a lot of features and has a high power output that can compete with its desktop counterparts.
In terms of power, it drives high-impedance headphones like the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800s and 600-ohm Beyerdynamic T1 very well. iFi claims that it can support headphones with 800 ohms, so technically, the iFi Micro BL can power almost anything under the sun.
Aside from its amazing power output, it also has a myriad of options that can help shape the sound. These features are the bass boost function and the 3D+ Holographic mode. The bass boost is very well implemented and can tighten up the low end of most headphones.
The 3D+ Holographic mode, on the other hand, is designed to simulate a “3D feel” by widening the soundstage. However, take note that some high-end open-back headphones like the Sennheiser HD800s already have a wide soundstage. So it becomes a hit or miss feature depending on the headphones you are using.
In terms of the sound quality and sound signature, the iFi Micro BL has a neutral and accurate sound. It is also extremely detailed, making it a good pair with headphones that have good image retrieval, such as the Beyerdynamic T1.
A possible downside with the Micro BL is, of course, its size and form factor. It is too big for portable use, but it won’t be a problem for users who plan to use this with their desktop setup. It is closer to a transportable DAC/Amp rather than a traditional portable DAC/Amp.
Overall, if you are looking for a high-end DAC/Amp that has lots of features and has an amazing sound quality, then we highly recommend the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label.
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.
Fiio Q1 Mk2
Another great entry-level DAC/Amp and a good alternative to the iFi Nano BL is the Fiio Q1 Mk2. The Fiio Q1 Mk2 is the successor to the original Fiio Q1. However, the Q1 Mk2 is almost a complete redesign and sports a sleeker and more modern look. Additionally, it now has a better build quality and has more features.
It even outshines the iFi Nano BL in terms of features, but unfortunately, it’s not competent enough in terms of sound quality. We’ll talk more about this later in the sound quality section.
In terms of the build quality, the Fiio Q1 Mk2 is one of the better-built ones in this price range. Fiio has been continuously stepping their game up and has consistently been providing better build on most of its products throughout every price range. The Q1 Mk2 is no exception and will hold up with day to day use.
There are two notable features that the Fiio Q1 Mk2 has, which is absent from its competitors. These are the bass boost option and the 2.5mm balanced output. The 2.5mm balanced output is significantly better and more powerful than the 3.5mm output. It, however, comes at a cost.
The added power on the balanced output means that sensitive IEMs such as the Campfire Audio Andromeda will produce a noticeable hiss. This is a tradeoff that you get, so you must decide if you want to use the Q1 Mk2 for IEMs or headphones.
The other notable addition is the bass boost option. Like the Fiio E10K, this effectively tightens up the low-end reproduction of most headphones. The effect is not too exaggerated and won’t make the sound muddy. This is again, however, hit or miss, and not all headphones/IEMs will benefit from this.
In terms of the sound signature and sound quality, the Q1 Mk2 is more on the “fun and natural” side rather than the analytical side. As a result, it is less refined and detailed compared to its competitors, such as the iFi Nano BL. It isn’t a bad sound as most people will still be able to enjoy it.
Overall, at a lower price, the Fiio Q1 Mk2 delivers features that are not available to most of its competition in this price range. While it isn’t technically on par with the iFi Nano BL in terms of sound quality, it still holds its own and is an excellent alternative for a lower price.
The Fiio Q1 Mk2 is a great and feature-packed option and is a great choice, especially for beginners. But as stated earlier, it isn’t competitive enough in terms of its sound quality. However, Fiio is looking to change this with yet another redesign and is looking to take over the sub 200 USD market with the release of the Fiio Q3.
The Fiio Q3 is the sequel to the Fiio Q1 MkII and offers many new features that can also be seen with their recent DAPs. Like the M11, M11 Pro, and M15, the Fiio Q3 offers three outputs. It features a 3.5 mm SE output as well as a 2.5 mm and 4.4 mm balanced output. This is one of the first portable DAC/Amps that gives you versatile and future-proof options in case you want to upgrade to balanced cables in the future.
Additionally, the Q3 features THX AAA amplifier technology, as seen on the Fiio M11 Pro and Fiio M15. It also features an AK4462 DAC chip, one of AK’s premium models in Velvet Series.
In terms of its design, the Q3 remains similar to the Q1’s design. It is very similar to a desktop DAC/Amp but has a slim form factor that is easy to carry around. Additionally, it has a similar size to modern DAPs and smartphones, making it easy to stack with different kinds of transports.
In terms of its sound quality, the Q3 easily outperforms the Q1 Mk2. It is smoother and is able to render notes more effortlessly than its predecessor. Additionally, it has more driving power, which makes it a better fit for harder to drive headphones.
The only thing missing from this unit is the interchangeable amp modules found on the Fiio Q5S. Of course, that feature is reserved for the higher-end model. Overall, if you are looking for a better sounding and more versatile upgrade to the Fiio Q1, then the Q3 is a no brainer.
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.
Dongles and Bluetooth Receivers
Sometimes, people just want a simple setup. They just want to plug their headphones or IEMs directly with their smartphones. But unfortunately, most dongles won’t provide the same satisfying sound quality that DAPs and DAC/Amps have.
But luckily, audiophile companies are developing innovative solutions to bring high-quality sound at a portable and affordable price. And one of the best solutions that we have tried is the ddHiFi TC25B and TC35B.
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 its 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. I never felt as if the lows were too thin or the mids were off. It always sounded good with the test IEMs that we used (KBear Diamond, BGVP VG4, and BQEYZ Spring 2.).
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 review.
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 Fiio BTR5 is an upgrade to the Fiio BTR3 and is the definitive version of Fiio’s portable Bluetooth DAC/Amps. If you loved the Fiio BTR3 but wish it had more features and had better sound quality, then you will love the Fiio BTR5.
The Fiio BTR5 follows the same concept in terms of the design and form factor of the BTR3. It is, however, better-built, larger, and overall more premium feeling than the BTR3. It also now supports a 2.5mm balanced output, which makes it more comparable to the Radsone ES100.
The BTR5 also sports dual ES9218P DAC chips (one for each output) compared to the single AK4376A DAC chip of the BTR3. This higher-end chip gives the BTR5 a better sound quality compared to the BTR3. It generally sounds more dynamic compared to the BTR3. The BTR5 also has more power compared to the BTR3.
Other features of the BTR5 include a small OLED screen that can be used to apply EQ through the device itself. The BTR3 required a smartphone app to do this. The USB DAC functionality of the BTR5 is also better compared to the BTR3. It has a separate XMOS xUF208 decoder chip that supports 384K 32 bit/DSD 256. This is more comparable to other portable and desktop DAC/Amps.
Overall, the Fiio BTR5 is an upgrade to the BTR3. If you want a small form-factor DAC/Amp that has a seamless and near-perfect Bluetooth connection, then the BTR5 is the perfect device for you in the midrange price range.
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt
The Dragonfly series from Audioquest has always been a unique DAC/Amp in the market. Their small size makes them one of the most portable options as they are only as big as a typical USB flash drive. Their latest entry, the Cobalt, further improves on this concept by featuring a more powerful output that can drive higher-impedance headphones.
The build quality and form factor of the Dragonfly Cobalt is perfect for travelers. The included DragonTail adapter makes the Cobalt readily usable with smartphones and laptops that only support USB Type-C. The chassis also gives off that premium-feel that perfectly reflects its price tag.
The main pitch of the Dragonfly Cobalt is its ability to make devices sound good instantly. In that regard, it definitely and surprisingly does so. Despite its small form factor, it surely packs a punch. It delivers a sound that rivals most desktop and portable DAC/Amps. The sound that it provides is also very clean and prevents any leak from the source device or the power supply. That is impressive, especially for the size of the Dragonfly Cobalt.
However, this falls behind the other two products when it comes to features and sound quality. The feature set of the Dragonfly Cobalt is very limited due to its size. It doesn’t pack as much input and output options as both the iFi Micro BL and Chord Mojo. It also lacks a dedicated volume knob, which means you will most likely rely on the digital volume control found on your source. It may also struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms, unlike the other two, which can power almost anything you throw at it.
But overall, if you are looking for an extremely compact device that can plug into almost any device and can make almost any headphone and IEM sing, then the Dragonfly Cobalt is the perfect device for you.
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