The smartphone industry has taken off in the past 10 years. The modern smartphone has been able to combine the functions of stand-alone devices such as music players, cameras, and portable game consoles all into one pocketable device. This smartphone revolution drove several products into extinction including the mp3 player.
The recent popularity of high-resolution audio has however brought back interest on the concept of a standalone music player or Digital Audio Player (DAP).
The removal of the headphone jack from most smartphones has also paved the way for the resurgence of the standalone music player.
Removing the headphone jack did not standardize Bluetooth headphones nor did it create a new standard via USB Type C or Lightning. As a result, users with high- quality headphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) that utilized the 3.5 mm connection wanted a better device for music. The result is the modern standalone music player is the Digital Audio Player, known for short as a DAP. It is designed with the purist in mind and offers several advantages over the modern-day smartphone in terms of music playback.
In this article, we will take a look at some of the most common questions asked with DAPs as well as some useful information to help users decide whether or not owning a DAP is worth it.
What Is A DAP?
A DAP (Digital Audio Player) is a standalone device that is designed for music playback. Modern DAPs are considered to be the evolutions of past stand-alone music players such as the Sony Walkman and iPod. Unlike its predecessors, the modern-day DAP is built around the idea of high-resolution audio and compatibility with other portable audio gear such as headphones, in-ear monitors, and external DAC/Amps.
Some of the common features found in DAPs include a dedicated high-quality DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) and amplifier chip, multiple outputs such as unbalanced 3.5mm, balanced 2.5 mm, balanced 4.4 mm pentaconn, and line output.
A DAP is primarily designed for high-resolution music playback. Most DAPs can natively support lossless codecs such as FLAC (free lossless audio codec), DSD, WAV, etc. And of course, it also supports more common lossy codecs such as MP3’s.
What Are The Advantages Of A DAP Over A Smartphone?
DAPs are built specifically for music playback and its features are going to be superior to that of a smartphone. The audio hardware is technically superior in terms of quality (and sometimes quantity as some DAPs feature multiple DAC chips). These DAC chips can natively decode higher bitrate files as well as support high-resolution audio.
The output section is also more versatile as most DAPs offer more than 1 kind of output for headphones (balanced and unbalanced). This output section is also cleaner and free from electronic noise.
DAPs also have a better battery life compared to most smartphones. Non-Android based daps can last more than 10 hours. Sony’s offerings (NW and WM series for example) can last up to a week of regular use.
Android-based DAPs have less battery life as the operating system is more demanding (8 to 10 hours in most cases) but is still a solid improvement over most smartphones). This is because radio signals such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are not continuously used and the overall screen time is less compared to a smartphone since there are fewer interactions.
For streaming services like Tidal, more DAPs such as Fiio’s M11 and Astell & Kern’s SP1000 are supporting MQA which is a codec designed for high-resolution music. This was a feature that was previously exclusive to portable and desktop DAC’s or DAC/Amps such as the iFi Micro IDSD Black Label.
In terms of the amplifier portion, DAPs can power more demanding headphones. Also, DAPs have a quieter noise floor which is important for sensitive in- ear-monitors such as the Campfire Audio Andromeda.
DAPs have another advantage when it comes to storage. Lossless files such as WAV and FLAC tend to consume more storage than your traditional MP3 files (with DSD consuming even more) so having more storage options is always a good thing.
Most DAPs also have dedicated buttons for play, pause, and skip tracks. This offers more convenience and would result in even less screen on time that saves more battery. Volume control is also more accurate since there are more volume steps.
Most DAPs can also be used as DAC’s for your smartphone or personal computer. If you do not have a desktop DAC or if you just want to boost the sound quality of your other devices that support USB, then this is a great feature to have.
And finally, with a DAP, you don’t get the typical drawbacks that hurt the music listening experience such as music stopping whenever you get a phone call or whenever a video from your social media feed pops up.
Disadvantages Of A DAP vs. Smartphone?
Despite the promising features that DAPs provide, there are several disadvantages that may break the overall experience. The primary deal-breaker for a lot of DAPs is the software experience. Modern users have been spoiled by the lightning-fast performance of modern smartphones and are expecting to get the same kind of treatment with daps.
The thing is, most DAPs are underpowered when compared to smartphones. Mid to high tier smartphones have been getting 6 to 8 gigabytes of RAM and multiple core processors which directly translates to being able to quickly open applications and keep them running in the background along with other applications.
The specs on DAPs, on the other hand, can’t even come close to those figures. This makes sense because DAPs aren’t doing the things that smartphones do. However, this becomes a problem when you consider that daps are now adapting to the Android operating system.
DAPs with lower technical specifications struggle with Android. The UI is noticeably slower compared to a smartphone. Launching 3rd party applications such as Spotify and Tidal also takes longer than usual.
In terms of the bugs, they are harder to fix since the developers originally designed these applications for smartphones. This article is an example of a bug in Spotify that has plagued some DAPs that are running Android 5.1.
Examples of DAPs that exhibit these kinds of problems include the Cayin N5ii, Fiio X5iii, and Fiio M6.
More modern DAPs such as the Fiio M11 and Hiby R6 Pro address these issues by running a more modern version of Android as well as having better technical specifications. There are however still some compromises.
One example of these compromises can be found in Fiio’s implementation of Android with their M series of DAPs. These DAPs are running a heavily customized version of Android 7.0 that does not feature the Google Playstore. This becomes a problem when installing applications that use the Google Playstore for purchase verification such as USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP).
Another issue that Android DAPs face is future-proofing through software updates. Since Android DAPs were designed with a specific version of Android in mind, it is very rare for them to receive further updates for new versions of Android. Also, software updates are entirely going to depend on the manufacturer.
Some manufacturers such as Fiio have been known to leave their products hanging with bugs. There is also a case with the Astell & Kern AK Jr. where the laggy UI was never fixed and was instead replaced by another product- the Astell & Kern AK70.
Non-Android based operating systems, on the other hand, handles some aspects such as the user interface much better.
Sony’s proprietary operating system found in the NW A55, NW ZX300, WM1A, and many others are well optimized which makes them fast and free from crashes.
There will however still be cases of non-Android DAPs that have an odd user interface experience such as the DAC/Amp and DAP hybrid TEAC HA P90SD. So the experience that you get with non-Android DAPs will be entirely dependent on the product and manufacturer.
The last disadvantage is going to be based purely on the user’s preference. It is the issue with carrying two devices. Most mid-tier to flagship tier DAPs have a bulky design that is not pocket-friendly. Due to this fact, some people may end up preferring an all in one device over a standalone device.
Does a DAP Sound Better Than A Smartphone?
There’s no denying that a DAP is already the superior device when it comes to music playback. But the big question is, do these specifications make them sound better than a smartphone?
Depending on the model of the said smartphone and DAP, the difference in sound can either be noticeable or negligible. Budget DAPs ($100 USD or less such as the Fiio M3k) do not have the high-end audio components of mid and high-end tier DAPs meaning they won’t sound too different from smartphones.
Mid-tier and flagship DAPs on the other which feature high-quality DAC chips are going to present more obvious differences such as a change in the overall sound signature (smartphones tend to be warm and consumer-oriented in general), more clarity, detail, and soundstage (or what others refer to as a 3D-like experience).
The difference isn’t going to be as apparent as changing headphones or IEM’s. Those are still going to be responsible for the majority of the sound quality that you get. Nevertheless, DAPs still play a pivotal role in whether or not your headphones or IEM’s are going to sound at their best.
Should I Get A Portable DAC/Amp Or A DAP?
In theory, a portable DAC/Amp such as a Chord Mojo or iFi Micro iDSD can rival or even surpass a mid-fi digital audio player in terms of sound quality. However, if you plan to use this with your smartphone as a portable setup, you must consider this setup’s downsides.
Stacking a DAC/Amp with your smartphone not only introduces additional weight and thickness, but it also limits the functions of your smartphone. Simple tasks such as browsing through your social media become more challenging since the additional weight makes handling the device awkward.
Using this setup for your regular commute can be challenging since most of these setups are pocketable. And also, most smartphones do not feature media control buttons which makes pausing and changing tracks more difficult.
Despite those drawbacks, smartphones offer superior speed and versatility when compared to DAPs. With most modern smartphones, it is very rare to have UI related issues, especially in popular music applications. Also, applications like Hiby Music (free), UAPP, Power Amp, and Neutron offer features such as Equalizer and external DAC/Amp support that can help turn your smartphone into a DAP alternative.
If you dislike the performance and UI issues that a lot of DAPs suffer from, and if you have no problems with carrying a slightly bulkier setup, then going with the DAC/Amp route is a better idea.
Android DAP vs. Non-Android DAP
A lot of newer DAPs such as the Hiby R5, R6/Pro, Fiio M11, M11 Pro, and M15 have been utilizing the Android operating system. As a result, installing 3rd party applications such as music players that help change the overall experience and streaming apps have been made possible. There are however some drawbacks with the Android operating system.
The first drawback is the shorter battery life. Compared to DAPs that have proprietary operating systems, Android daps are not as efficient. They can only give you about 8 to 10 hours of battery life as compared to non-Android daps which can go even beyond 10 hours. Sony’s offerings, for example, can last you up to a week of use.
There are more things that Android DAPs need to process which results in more battery drainage. This is not the fault of DAP manufacturers since the Android operating system is primarily designed for smartphones.
The advantage of having an Android DAP is that you get the flexibility that Android provides. You are not stuck with the default player that your dap provides in case it is lacking some features. You are free to install applications as long as your device supports it. Some daps that feature a complete version of Android also allows you to customize several aspects such as the look of your home screen and other menus.
Most Android DAPs are also equipped with Wi-Fi that gives you access to streaming apps such as Spotify and Tidal. With an Android DAP, you are almost getting a smartphone experience without the drawbacks of a smartphone.
If you value battery life and reliability over customization and streaming, then a non-Android based DAP will suit you better, Otherwise, if you can’t live without Android features, Android daps will suit you better,
Should I Buy A DAP or Quality IEM?
Investing in a DAP first has its benefits. If you have a mid-tier or flagship DAP, then you can be sure that whatever you plug into it is going to sound at its best. However, you may be limiting your choices in the possible headphones or IEM that you get when you go this route.
If you have a bright sounding DAP, then you may tell yourself that you should avoid bright sounding headphones or IEMs because they may sound harsh or too detailed. If you avoid gears that possibly don’t synergize well with the dap that you already have, then you may be missing out on some great sounding headphones or IEMs.
Also, if you invest in a DAP first then pair them with something like these budget-fi KZ’s IEMs, then you are really not getting the most out of your DAP. If you do not pair your source with a headphone or IEM of an equal tier, then you are not maximizing your DAP’s full potential.
Investing on a good pair of headphones or IEMs on the other hand not only gives you the freedom to choose a suitable DAP, but it also ensures that you are going to be maximizing the dap’s full potential. After all, the majority of the sound quality that you get will still depend on the headphones or IEMs.
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