The DAC/Amp is a popular choice because it is usually a compact device that can transform any of your existing devices such as smartphones and laptops, into audiophile machines.
However, users are often confused about whether they should get a portable DAC/Amp or a desktop DAC/Amp. Recent advancements have been blurring the lines between the two. Portable DAC/Amps have been catching up with desktop DAC/Amps in terms of driving power.
When compared to modern technology, portable DAC/Amps are similar to smartphones, while desktop DAC/Amps are similar to the older wired telephone. They both have similar functions, but portable DAC/Amps can do it in a smaller and lighter package. And if this trend is to be followed, then portable DAC/Amps will eventually take over desktop DAC/Amps.
However, things are not as simple as this analogy. Both portable and desktop DAC/Amps have their use cases as well as their pros and cons. These will be discussed in this article to help decide which device is best for you.
- Portable vs. Desktop Headphone DAC/Amp
- Recommended Portable Headphone DAC/Amps
- Desktop Headphone DAC/Amps Pros & Cons
- Recommended Desktop DAC/Amps
- Transportable DAC Headphone Amplifiers
- Recommended Transportable DAC/Amps
Portable vs. Desktop Headphone DAC/Amp
Portable Headphone DAC/Amp Pros & Cons
The main benefit of a portable headphone DAC/Amp is the ability to use it outside your desktop setup. Once you are done using your power-hungry headphones and need to head outside, you can take your DAC/Amp with you and use it with your IEMs to get a cleaner signal.
Their flexibility, due to the number of connectivity options they usually provide, makes them more usable in more situations. Portable DAC/Amps can also easily be used with transport devices such as DAPs and smartphones. DAC/Amps, such as the Chord Mojo and iFi’s offerings, have a digital input that can easily connect with most devices that support USB output. With the low gain setting, this can help create a much cleaner and better sounding output for your portable headphones or in-ear monitors.
Some models, such as the iFi iDSD Micro BL, can double as a desktop unit. Their built-in battery can be bypassed, which alleviates any concern for damaging the battery. Their power source is also usually through the USB connection, so any extra cables are not necessary, which makes the setup cleaner. Also, in terms of driving power, DAC/Amps, such as the iFi Micro BL, are already more than capable of powering more demanding headphones. Their flat form factor also fits well in any desktop setup.
Most portable DAC/Amps can connect with an external amplifier. So if you are completely happy with the performance of your DAC/Amp but require a bit more power for your more demanding headphones, then you can easily add a dedicated desktop headphone amplifier, which you can then remove when you need to take your DAC/Amp outside.
Some DAC/Amps, such as the iFi xCAN, can connect to devices wirelessly via Bluetooth, which helps make the portable setup cleaner as you no longer need cables or stacking kits for devices. Alternatively, several devices such as the Radsone ES100 MK2 and Fiio BTR5 are dedicated Bluetooth receiver DAC/Amps, which further decreases their size and makes them more portable.
While on the topic of sizes, portable DAC/Amps come in all sorts of form factors. Some DAC/Amps like the Dragonfly Cobalt are as small as a typical USB flash drive. Other DAC/Amps like the Ibasso DC01/DC02 are really small as they have the same size as the USB Type-C to 3.5mm converter that is included with most smartphones.
These small form factor DAC/Amps cannot compete with bigger portable DAC/Amps and desktop DAC/Amps in terms of the sound quality and power output. Nevertheless, it still provides options and convenience to the users. This setup is also a good alternative to DAPs.
Some of the entry-level models of portable DAC/Amps do not have the same amount of power as their desktop counterparts in the same price range. DAC/Amps like the Fiio Q1ii are packed with features such as a 2.5mm balanced output but may still have trouble driving some of the more demanding headphones.
Portable DAC/Amps, despite the name, are not always entirely portable. Some of the bigger and higher-end models can significantly add to the weight and bulk to your device. Smartphone users are going to be the ones who are going to feel the impact due to how restricted smartphones become when a large DAC/Amp is strapped.
Despite their sound benefits, some users are not willing to trade portability for sound quality. This is why devices such as DAPs are a common alternative over the much bulkier DAC/Amps.
In terms of the design and form factor of portable DAC/Amps, there isn’t a standard. The varying sizes of the different models mean you have to experiment with the size that perfectly fits your setup. Also, for volume control, some brands like to utilize a volume wheel while some might prefer utilizing buttons. The latter becomes a problem when using them in a desktop setup. One example of this is the Chord Mojo.
In a desktop setting where you will frequently be adjusting your volume on the fly can be a bit more challenging with devices such as the Mojo.
Some portable DAC/Amps have very limited output options. Products like the iFI iDSD Nano Black Label only have a 3.5mm line out option, which can be challenging if you want to use it with a speaker setup. This is especially apparent with portable DAC/Amps that were primarily designed to be portable, which then limits the number of available output options.
Another downside that some of the more powerful portable DAC/Amps exhibits are their heat output. The Chord Mojo, for example, generates a lot of heat while being used. Accessories such as a leather case further worsen this issue.
This is not an isolated case to the Chord Mojo. Their compact form factor can cause issues such as these. Stacking with other devices that can also get hot, such as DAPs can be troublesome for most users.
Recommended Portable Headphone DAC/Amps
Traditional Form Factor
Bluetooth Receiver DAC/Amp
- Radsone ES100
- Fiio BTR3
- Fiio BTR5
- Ibasso DC01 (2.5mm balanced)/DC02 (3.5mm Single Ended)
- Shanling UP4
Small Form Factor DAC/Amp
USB Type-C DAC/Amp
Desktop Headphone DAC/Amps Pros & Cons
The main benefit of getting a desktop DAC/Amp is the ability to power headphones with a higher impedance as well as increasing the overall quality of your source’s sound. Most desktop headphone amplifiers can power even the most demanding headphones. DAC/Amp combos also have an internal DAC chip that already has good synergy with the headphone amplifier.
The quality is going to differ from model to model based on the DAC chips used, but generally, mid to high tier DAC/Amps can sound significantly better and have more power than their portable counterparts. The bigger chassis that desktop DAC/Amps mean that they have more quality components inside. Smaller portable DAC/Amps tend to compromise the components used in favor of having a smaller size. And that usually leads to a compromise in sound quality.
Desktop DAC/Amps also typically feature more output options that can easily help you connect to external speakers such as bookshelf speakers or monitor speakers. They can also help you connect to other headphone amplifiers if you want to further tailor the sound to your liking. This is a feature that is sometimes omitted in smaller DAC/Amps due to their size and form factor.
Desktop Headphone DAC/Amps have enough power to drive more demanding headphones. Most entry-level DAC/Amps have significantly higher driving capabilities compared to their portable counterparts. Again, their sizes limit the choice of components that can be used. There are powerful portable DAC/Amps, but those are significantly more expensive than their desktop counterparts.
Desktop DAC/Amps can be safely used in extended sessions since they do not have a built-in battery. Portable DAC/Amps, on the other hand, can encounter some issues, especially if you forget to bypass their battery or change the power source.
With the ability to drive and unlock the full capabilities of more demanding headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800s, desktop DAC/Amps are usually attributed to having better sound characteristics such as wider and deeper soundstage, more accuracy, better detail retrieval, etc. Portable DAC/Amps that cannot deliver enough power would give these kinds of headphones, a congested and overall inaccurate sound.
Most desktop DAC/Amps are not USB powered and require an external power source. This is a minor problem for people who wish to have a cleaner setup by having fewer cables present since most portable DAC/Amps can easily be powered by one USB cable.
Portable DAC/Amps have more variety in the features that they offer. Bluetooth, for example, is not usually explored in desktop DAC/Amps. There are a few models that have this feature, but it is not a common trend for desktop DAC/Amps.
Smartphones and most consumer portable electronic devices are usually not equipped with high-quality components. Aside from the LG V Series, there aren’t many consumer products that are built for audiophiles.
Desktop devices, on the other hand, such as Windows-based personal computers had been getting better audio components over the years. Modern high-end gaming motherboards, for example, are now capable of driving power-hungry headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800s.
In professional studios or home studios, producers usually already have an audio interface or digital mixer that pretty much does the same thing as desktop DAC/Amps. The Universal Audio Apollo’s Twin audio interface, for example, is known to already have a DAC/Amp that drives headphones such as the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro.
In these cases, adding a DAC/Amp may be a bit redundant. Depending on your headphone collection and preferred sound signature, these internal components may already be enough. In cases like these, portable DAC/Amps become a better fit because of their versatility and ability to connect to other portable devices that don’t have many alternatives for a higher quality sound such as smartphones and tablets.
Recommended Desktop DAC/Amps
- Mayflower Electronics Objective 2
- FX Audio DAC X6
- Topping DX3 Pro
- JDS Labs Objective 2
- Sennheiser GSX 1200 Pro Gaming
- JDS Labs Element
- JDS Labs Atom
Transportable DAC Headphone Amplifiers
For users that are not satisfied with either of the two options, there is a third option called the transportable DAC/Amp. These combine the best features of portable and desktop DAC/Amps. It can match the power outputs of desktop amplifiers while retaining its ability to be somewhat portable.
It cannot be used on the move, but it can be used with multiple types of setups, whether it is a desktop setup at your home or any kind of indoor set up while you are outside.
Transportable DAC/Amps usually beat even the higher tier portable DAC/Amps, both in terms of power and sound quality. The Chord Hugo 2, for example, has a more accurate sound and better technicalities compared to its portable sibling, the Chord Mojo. Some even praise it to be close to its higher-end desktop sibling, the Chord Dave.
Unlike portable DAC/Amps, these are designed for the more power-hungry headphones. This means that they are optimized to bring the most accurate sound out of those headphones. Headphones like the Beyerdynamic T1 sound their best when paired with sources that have a good amount of detail retrieval and accuracy.
Transportable DAC/Amps give you the ability to take your setup anywhere without compromising sound quality. If you plan to use your higher-end headphones in areas outside your desktop setup (when you are traveling or auditioning gear in a store, for example), then you can easily do so with a transportable DAC/Amp. You wouldn’t encounter the usual downsides of portable DAC/Amps, and you do not need an outlet to power your desktop DAC/Amp,
Transportable DAC/Amps are not for everyone. As stated earlier, it cannot be used while on the move. It is too big to fit inside your pocket and usually requires its dedicated case. Bringing transportable DAC/Amps means you have a specific purpose for them (such as the ones discussed in the pros section).
If you think you won’t find yourself in these kinds of situations, then desktop DAC/Amps are a better fit. Some people already do not enjoy carrying a portable DAC/Amp due to its size and the added weight that they bring to the setup. Transportable DAC/Amps are going to be even worse. They are typically almost as big as some of the desktop DAC/Amps which you definitely won’t like if you are aiming for an easy to carry setup.
Also, as stated in the pros section of desktop DAC/Amps, you do not have to worry about the battery inside of them. Having a battery that you do not use with transportable DAC/Amps may eventually become a liability. Lithium-Ion batteries degrade over time, and bad habits such as incorrect consumption and charging patterns speed up this degradation. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to own or plan to use strictly in a desktop environment, either a portable DAC/Amp or a transportable DAC/Amp.
In terms of driving power and sound quality, most transportable DAC/Amps are essentially similar to desktop DAC/Amps. Both will probably be similar in terms of performance (power output and sound quality) in their respective price brackets. You are therefore paying more for a product that is essentially similar to a desktop DAC/Amp, especially if you do not even plan to transport your setup.
Recommended Transportable DAC/Amps
If you can only purchase a single device, the choice between portable and desktop DAC/Amps should be based on your use case. If you need an all-rounder that can power both your higher impedance headphones and your IEMs and you also need a unit that can be used with your smartphone when you are outside, then a portable DAC/Amp will likely fit you better.
If you need a unit that stays on your desk and can be connected to other output devices such as to monitor speakers and you are primarily going to use this with harder to drive headphones, then you are better off with a desktop DAC/Amp.
And if you need a unit that primarily stays on your desk and powers all your high impedance headphones but can be occasionally relocated to a different setup, then a transportable DAC/Amp is for you. You will be able to bring your DAC/Amp to other areas without the usual downsides, such as the compromise in the sound quality of most portable DAC/Amps. You get the best as well as the downsides of both worlds with this setup.
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