Okay, so I take it that you’ve just entered the audio hobby. All that mainstream stuff seems like sour cash grabs now and you’re fully embracing the true path: the audiophile way. In fact, you’ve gotten yourself an IEM or two, isn’t that right?
Your phone and laptop jacks sound “OK” but then you see one of those fancy DACs, all claiming to boost audio quality to the high heavens — oh, but the price is sky high as well. You then retreat to reality and see one of those dongle thingies.
So what are DAC dongles? Do they really improve sound quality? Is a dongle enough or do you actually need a desktop DAC?
In this article, we’ll be answering all these questions. So sit back and put your wallets at ease momentarily as we dive into the topic of DAC dongles.
What is a DAC?
A DAC stands for Digital-to-Analog Converter.
It turns digital signals into something your ears can hear. Your phone and computer have DACs – they’re just not that good. Getting an external DAC provides you with a chip that’s specialized for decoding audio, which is a definite step-up in terms of audio quality.
What is a DAC Dongle?
The problem with most desktop DAC setups is that they don’t have built-in headphone inputs. Often, you’d have to get a headphone amplifier to hook up with your DAC to be able to use it. Of course, there are DAC/Amp all-in-one solutions but there’s still the question of sensitivity pairing and portability.
A DAC/Amp commonly caters to powering beefier headphones, so powering sensitive IEMs may be problematic. Then there’s the issue of portability. Even though it’s one unit, you’ll still need to plug it into a wall socket.
A DAC dongle solves the issues mentioned above. It’s a mini DAC/Amp in a smaller form factor, allowing portability with decent amplification.
How a DAC Dongle Provides Amplification
Now you may be wondering how DAC dongles provide amplification, so let me explain.
The signal goes through the DAC’s decoder chip and then through its amplifier and output stage. The amount of amplification depends on the voltage rating your dongle can output per ohm.
Typical values are around 70-80mW at a 32ohm load, which should be enough to power most of your IEMs and some efficient headphones at a good volume. However, there are more powerful dongles that can go beyond this.
Using a dongle for the first time is magical.
You’ll notice, after plugging in a dongle to your phone or computer, that you no longer need as much volume to hear. Is it a placebo effect? No, it’s not. What you’re hearing is the dongle at work. Yes, you figured it out: amplification affects volume.
Amplifiers that come built-in your devices don’t have enough power to produce high-enough audio levels, resulting in low volume. A dongle’s amplifier produces stronger audio levels and this outputs louder volume.
It’s more than just volume though. Transducers need current to push and pull. Audio gear fed with insufficient current will most likely distort and this distortion can be easily heard on the bass region.
There’s this muddy and disgruntled sound that’s just frayed and unorganized. Good amplification ensures that there’s less distortion making playback more natural.
This is one of the more neglected parts of dongles and DAC units.
Your computer and phone’s circuitry is noisy due to all the components’ computing and buzzing, so the background isn’t completely clean and dark. A completely black background allows for more layering, details, and a more defined output.
I found this out by doing a USB passthrough of my Shanling UA1 with my digital audio player (DAP) and compared it with my laptop. The presentation is livelier, airier, and better resolving on my DAP than on my laptop. This is because both my dongle and DAP have clean backgrounds.
This also ensures that the noise floor isn’t audible. An audible noise floor produces a droning hiss that sounds like white noise. It’s like static and it messes up with music as it plays. Although often relegated to spec nerds, a clean and dark background is important.
How a DAC Dongle Affects the Sound Quality
Built-in DACs don’t give you much except for turning the volume lower or higher and being like “Oh yeah, now we’re talking.” DACs and dongles on the other hand provide a vast number of technical improvements, allowing you to better feel and enjoy music.
What changes in sound can you expect from a DAC dongle? Here are the improvements that you’ll notice.
1. Better Detail Retrieval
We’ve talked about volume but the second most notable thing you’ll pick up on is the details on your music. You’re going to be hearing things you’ve never picked up on before. A dongle will provide better detail retrieval, plus finer and more minute details in your music are rendered better.
2. Better Resolution
There’s also the resolution. This refers to the clarity of notes in your music. You may notice the edge of vocals have contour to their sound and guitar strings take on a more defined nature. It’s like changing the video quality of your YouTube video from 360p to 720p – a definitive leap of difference.
3. Better Layering
Layering refers to the spatial rendering of sound. Good layering avoids congestion and allows each instrument to perform without clashing. Elements are rendered with good distinction from each other.
4. Improved Sound Imaging
A dongle also improves sound imaging or how an instrument is placed in the soundscape. Good imaging lets you discern the position of instruments and vocals in a song allowing you to better immerse yourself in the music you’re listening to.
5. Better Soundstage
Now, for my favorite one: the staging. This refers to the atmosphere and presentation of a song. It may sound like something recorded in a studio, a concert hall, or a small room.
Staging is mostly the perception of air and the approximate distance of the performance to the listener. There’s width, depth, and height. A good soundstage doesn’t need to be massively huge in all three of these aspects though – it just needs to be able to present vocals and instruments naturally.
A wide stage feels nice to hear as the sense of layering is better. The headroom is also better but depth and height are equally as important, allowing more realism to ground the music.
There’s no way to audition a DAC dongle and most of the decision-making is done through evaluating chip brands and output power. Luckily, blind buys aren’t that devastating compared to IEMs and headphones.
There are four main manufacturers of DAC chips, offering their own unique sonic signatures.
I find ESS Sabre chips provide a neutral-bright presentation that’s often associated with being analytical. Clarity is outstanding here but at the cost of some digital glare in some cases.
AKM chips provide a neutral and warmer presentation to the sound. Music comes across as full-bodied and a little rounded on the edges. It tends to sound more mellow and relaxed. A lot of people like this kind of musicality and dub it the “AKM Velvet Sound”.
Cirrus Logic chips provide a neutral presentation that’s analog in nature. It has a nice balance of warmth, weight, and texture to the sound.
They have a natural smoothness to their sound that makes vocal performances enjoyable but comes at the expense of impact and dynamics. I think they aren’t as used in dongles as ESS Sabre chips, and I never quite understood why.
Burr Brown chips are not unlike AKM chips with their signature. They sound warm and have a good inclination for musicality but without sacrificing dynamics and energy. They’re scarce in the dongle scene though and I find more Burr Brown chips mostly in desktop setups.
What Makes Each DAC Dongle Different
Having the same chip among dongles is common but the same chip doesn’t make for a similar sound. Implementation is always different. The software programming, the DAC architecture, the amp design, and the output stage are all different.
While having a DAC dongle can improve your overall listening experience, there are some cons to using one.
The trade-off for portability is battery drain. Because your dongle can’t sustain itself, it needs to siphon power from a source like your phone or laptop. Battery drain doesn’t bother me though except for when I really need the extra charge.
Newer dongles have developed a standby mode that allows them to stop using the battery when no music is being played, which is a nice touch.
Overall, your battery drain will depend on each dongle unit, with more units more demanding than others. I find battery drain really isn’t that pressing and it doesn’t chop off your battery that fast unless you’re listening for 3 hours straight.
Things to Look For When Purchasing a DAC Dongle
In this day and age, DAC dongles have improved a lot. You don’t have to settle for basic features anymore, so what are the things you should look for?
If you can find a dongle with two DAC chips, choose that over something with one. Pick a dongle with a balanced input aside from a single-ended one. A balanced input allows you to plug a balanced cable and utilize more voltage on that channel.
Good thermals might be something to deliberate about but I don’t know any dongle that gets to an extremely uncomfortable temperature. Every dongle should get a little warm after use, so I guess in the end, it’s a matter of just getting used to some mild warming on the shells.
Is a DAC dongle enough? Sure it is. Although it’s not going to be gunning down desktop DAC capabilities, its novelties lie in its convenience.
Portability is important especially if you want to keep listening to your files or stream while on the go. You can’t exactly bring a 10-inch DAC and Amp stack with a dedicated power supply and all the cables to match to a coffee shop – but you can always bring a DAC dongle.
Just grab it from your pocket, plug and play. It’s ridiculously simple, it makes me giggle.
Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)