Portable DAC vs Dongle

When it comes to high-quality sources, there are several options in the market. There are DAPs, DAC/Amps, standalone DAC and Amp stacks, and more. But the two most popular options for users on the go are portable DAC/Amps and dongles. 

A portable DAC is a smaller, lighter version of a desktop DAC. These DACs are ideal for powering high-impedance headphones on mobile devices. A Dongle is a type of portable DAC that is even smaller, similar to the size of a flash drive. Dongles are popular as many newer cell phones now lack a headphone jack.

Portable DAC/Amp vs. Dongle cover photo
Dongle DAC (left) vs Portable DAC (right)

Some people refuse to settle for stock earbuds that come with their phones. IEMs that we use for our mobile devices usually come with unbalanced 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm, and 4.4mm cables. This makes the dongles necessary for a simple portable setup. 

This type of DAC, however, is not as powerful as desktop and portable DAC/AMPs. They also can’t provide the best sound quality improvements, unlike the portable and desktop DACs. 

Dongles have been receiving lots of attention lately. Larger companies such as Lotoo and Astell & Kern are entering the game. Newer iterations are now also introducing unique additions such as balanced outputs and more amplification power. 

With the fastly evolving audiophile market, beginners may be confused about what to buy. In this article, we will be helping you out by talking about the unique qualities of these two devices. We will also be recommending what each device is best used for. 

Portable DAC vs. Dongle

What is a DAC?

Tribit + FX Audio DAC

You may hear the term DAC all the time in the audiophile community. However, a lot of newbies do not realize the various types of DACs. So before we discuss these types of DACs, let us first define them. 

An important component that converts digital signals into analog signals is in any device that can produce sound. This component is called the Digital-to-Analog Converter or DAC. This component is essential in the sound production of our devices. Without this, music files stored on our devices will not be heard.

Outboard DACs can be purchased to improve the sound quality of your device. They also remove the sound interference that is inside your device. External DACs also use higher quality DAC chips.

DACs come in different varieties for their purpose. The most common DACs are found on computer setups; the standalone DAC, and the DAC/amp combo. On the other hand, portable DACs and dongles (type-c and lightning) are DACs that are meant to be used outside your PC setup. These dongles and portable DACs are typically used with mobile devices like your phone.

What is a Portable DAC?

iFi Nano BL Inputs

A portable DAC is a smaller and more lightweight version of the desktop DAC that is often designed for mobile devices. Smartphones alone can not satisfy the sound quality needs of some audiophiles. This is why people tend to purchase portable DACs. This device is also a great alternative to DAPs, which costs more.

Portable DACs are very convenient to have because it supports several connectivity options. You can also use portable DACs on DAPs for an even better experience. However, carrying too many devices may sometimes cause a hassle to some.  Although this can be the case, some people still prefer doing this to maximize the performance of their devices.

If you are troubled by the thought of carrying too many devices on your hand, there are portable DACs that have Bluetooth connectivity, such as the iFi xCAN and xDSD. This way, you will no longer have to use cables to connect each device.

Other than Bluetooth-supported DACs, there are also tiny portable DACs in the size of USB flash drives. However, this kind of DACs is not as powerful as the larger portable DACs.  This will also require an adapter for its connectivity. There is also only a single output, the headphone jack.

If you want to own a DAC that you can use both on and outside your desktop setup, there are higher-end portable DACs that can power headphones with high impedance. This kind of portable DAC can almost compete with desktop DAC/AMP. 

What is a Dongle?

ddhifi tc44b 4.4mm and 2.5mm balanced outputs
ddHiFi TC44B

Read our ddHiFi TC44B Review

A Dongle is another type of DAC that is also portable. It comes in a type c and lightning adapter. This is common nowadays due to mobile phones ditching the headphone jack. 

Some people refuse to settle for stock earbuds that come with their phones. IEMs that we use for our mobile devices usually come with unbalanced 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm, and 4.4mm cables. This makes the dongles necessary for a simple portable setup. 

This type of DAC, however, is not as powerful as desktop and portable DAC/AMPs. They also can’t provide the best sound quality improvements, unlike the portable and desktop DACs. 

These Dongles are usually in the form of cable. However, ddHiFi released dongles in which cable wires were eliminated. Their TC35B and TC25B are so small and are less annoying to add to your mobile music players due to the new design and the absence of cables.

Beam 2SE with Fostex TE100
Audirect Beam 2SE with Fostex TE100

Read our Audirect Beam 2SE Review

However, in terms of sound quality, they are not the best. Dongles like Hilidac Audirect Beam 2SE USB Type-c DAC and ddHiFi TC44B can perform better compared to the two dongles mentioned. In fact, the Audirect Beam 2SE supports MQA files. You will be able to enjoy listening to the Tidal music streaming app on your mobile phone. 

Portable DAC and Dongle Similarities 

Both of these devices are called DACs because they have a common function and purpose. This is to improve the sound quality of music files stored on our desktops, phones, and/or DAPs. With these two devices, you will be able to enjoy improved sound quality on your mobile music players. 

The portable DAC and Dongles are portable devices that are small enough to fit in our pockets.  This gave people who are on a tight budget to still experience better sound quality. Compared to DAPs, these DACs are way cheaper. You can also use both of these DACs for your DAPs if you already own one.

Portable DAC and Dongle Difference?

iFi Nano BL stacked with smartphone

These devices have the same function, but one can perform better than the other. Compared to dongles, portable DACs are definitely better in terms of sound quality. The size of dongles is so far from the portable DACs, which means that it lacks some of the components that are on the portable DACs. 

This is the reason why portable DACs can power high impedance headphones like Sennheiser HD660s and HD600. Some portable DACs also support Bluetooth connectivity, which dongles lack. It will defeat its purpose as a dongle if that’s the case.

tc44b hd660s

The convenience of carrying a small DAC is also a great advantage of dongles to portable DACs.  You can leave the dongles like the ddHiFi TC35B and TC25B plugged on your phones or DAPs even when not in use. 

Which Should You Buy?

In terms of performance, the portable DAC is certainly better compared to a dongle. It has better power out and has more overall impact on the sound quality. However, the convenience of owning a dongle is also a great thing to have. 

But on the flipside, dongles are way more portable than portable DAC/Amps. They may not sound as good as portable DAC/Amps but are enough to satisfy users who are out on a walk or users who are traveling. 

To sum it all up, go for portable DAC/Amps if you prioritize sound quality and go for a dongle if you prioritize portability. 

Pros and Cons of Portable DAC/Amp 

Pros 

  • Can power high impedance headphones
  • Portable
  • Good value
  • Better performance

Cons

  • Heavy and Bulky to have when connected to the phone
  • Quite costly compared to dongles

Pros and Cons of Dongles

Pros

  • Portability 
  • Some support MQA files
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Fewer components 
  • Sound quality is not as good as portable DACs

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