Most audiophiles who are into IEMs most likely also own Digital Audio Players or DAPs. Some might even consider these as mandatory devices in your audiophile collection. However, given the price of DAPs, most users ask if they are necessary to fully enjoy their IEMs.
In this article, we will help you with your purchase decisions by talking about our experience with DAPs.
We will also be giving some good budget-friendly DAPs for those who wish to improve the sound quality of their IEMs but do not have enough budget for high-end DAPs.
What are IEMs?
Before we dwell deeper into this topic, let us first define what In-ear monitors are. In-ear monitors/IEMs are devices that are traditionally used by musicians, music producers, and other creative professionals to monitor audio. But during recent years, IEMs have evolved into devices that also appeal to casual music listeners and audiophiles.
The modern IEM was first developed by Alex Van Halen’s (Drummer of the legendary rock band, Van Halen) drum tech Jerry Harvey who later founded his own company JH Audio. Their innovation was so revolutionary that it completely changed the game for musicians and audio professionals. This concept gave birth to Ultimate Ears as well as countless other brands.
There are now lots of different IEM manufacturers in the market. Make sure to check out our IEM reviews if you want to learn more about IEM models.
What is a DAP?
A DAP (Digital Audio Player) is a device that is specifically made to play and store high-resolution music files. This device is the equivalent of a modern-day iPod. But unlike iPods, most DAPs offer support for lossless or high-resolution files such as FLAC, DSD, and WAV.
DAPs also have dedicated high-quality DACs and other components, which makes sound production better. High-resolution files can take a lot of storage. This is another reason why people tend to purchase DAPs. The music files compete with the storage that is supposed to be for the apps and other files that you want to install on your mobile phones.
Modern DAPs are compatible with headphones, in-ear monitors, and external DAC/AMPs. Most DAPs also have more outputs such as unbalanced 3.5mm, balanced 2.5 mm, balanced 4.4mm pentaconn, and line output. They can also connect to WiFi and Bluetooth devices which is convenient to have for an easier way of listening to music.
Streaming apps such as Spotify, YouTube Music, Tidal, and Deezer can be downloaded on most modern DAPs. This allows for more convenient access to music. Tidal includes a subscription choice for MQA, which requires devices that support MQA files.
There are DAPs that have support for MQA, such as Astell & Kern SP2000, Fiio M11 Pro, and Sony Walkman NW ZX507.
DAP Benefits for IEMs
The main reason why enthusiasts use DAPs and not just regular smartphones are because of their sound quality. DAPs have high-quality DACs and Amps that help bring the full potential of IEMs. They are able to pack all of these components into one cohesive package.
Some DAPs are designed to work well with sensitive IEMs, such as the Campfire Audio Andromeda. These kinds of IEMs would often hiss when paired with a smartphone dongle or other lower-quality sources.
Additionally, most DAPs have different sound signatures. Some DAPs have a bright signature, while others are warm. Some are more fun and lively sounding, while others are more analytical. And what this means is that, to some extent, DAPs can influence the sound of your IEMs.
Of course, DAPs won’t magically alter the sound of your IEMs. These changes are subtle but are noticeable. We have tested different IEMs, such as the Fostex TE100 with different DAPs such as the Astell & Kern SP2000 and Fiio M11. And the results were very obvious even with less trained ears.
Downsides of DAPs
Despite the benefits of DAPs, these devices also have their fair share of issues that should be considered. DAPs aren’t as advanced as smartphones, so you cannot expect the same performance out of these devices. Also, some users find the idea of carrying two devices to be tiresome.
After all. The whole point of using IEMs is that they are light and easy to carry around. Pairing them with a heavy and bulk DAP sort of defeats the purpose.
Additionally, DAPs can be very expensive. Most midrange DAPs can cost as much as an entry-level smartphone. That is mostly because of how complex the components are inside.
Price is one of the most common factors that discourage new users from purchasing a DAP. That is why we will be discussing some great alternatives that can also make your IEMs sound great.
The most common alternative to DAPs is a portable DAC/Amp. These devices have similar components to DAPs. And in most cases, DAC/Amps can match the performance of DAPs at a much lower price.
Some beginners may be confused as to why we are recommending portable DAC/Amps since IEMs do not require too much power in order to operate.
To clarify things, not all DAC/Amps are specifically made for high impedance headphones. Most offer a dedicated mode for IEMs.
The iFi Nano iDSD Black Label that we have reviewed, for instance, features an IEMatch mode. This not only helps with sensitive IEMs but also ensures that you are not feeding too much power into your IEMs.
DAC/Amps should also come in handy with more power-hungry IEMs. Newer planar magnetic and dynamic driver IEMs such as the ones we have reviewed require plenty of power to shine. You can check out our reviews of the KBear Believe and Moondrop SSP/SSR to learn more.
The main disadvantage of portable DAC/Amps is that they are not as portable as DAPs. That may sound ironic, especially given their name. But in our experience, having a portable DAC/Amp strapped on our smartphone wasn’t very practical to use outside.
Another alternative to DAPs that has been getting lots of traction these days is dongles. Most might be familiar with dongles since most smartphones come with one. However, the ones we are talking about are audiophile grade-dongles.
These have the same size and design as regular smartphone dongles. But the key difference is that they have a more advanced DAC and headphone amplifier inside them. Most of the ones we checked out have DACs from reputable brands such as ESS Sabre and AKM.
Given the size of dongles, most of these will not be able to compete with DAPs or portable DAC/Amps. They won’t have as much power to drive demanding IEMs and won’t have the same detail retrieval and technicalities as DAPs. But if portability is a high priority, dongles are your best bet for IEMs.
If you wish to learn more about dongles, we highly recommend checking out some of the dongles that we have reviewed.
Do I Need a DAP?
Now that we have finally talked about DAPs and other high-resolution alternatives, it is time to finally answer the main question. Do you actually need a DAP to get the most out of your IEMs? The answer will highly depend on your current setup.
If you have entry-level IEMs, we suggest temporarily skipping DAPs. Most budget IEMs are designed for smartphone use and do not greatly benefit from having a higher-quality source.
Of course, any IEM (including entry-level IEMs) will sound better with a good DAP. But we recommend saving up for an IEM upgrade before considering a DAP.
If you own high-end IEMs, then we certainly recommend getting a high-quality DAP. But this will still depend on your use case. If you find the notion of carrying another device that is thicker and generally slower than your smartphone, then we highly suggest checking out alternative options.
At the end of the day, most IEMs are efficient devices. And while DAPs have their benefits, we think that you should not be pressured to get one in order to enjoy your IEMs.