Small USB DAC amplifiers called “stick type DAC” or “dongle DAC” are now attracting a lot of attention.
A few years ago, the headphone output was removed from the iPhone, and when some Android smartphones followed suit, low-priced models at the level of genuine accessories attracted attention. After that, the mainstream shifted to Bluetooth wireless products such as TWS (completely wireless earphones).
However, in recent years, not only downloads but also streaming music/video distribution has been enhanced, and an environment where music can be enjoyed with higher quality sound than ever before is required. When it comes to sound quality, unfortunately, wired earphones still have an advantage over wireless in the current situation. In addition, many people are concerned about wireless delays and sound interruptions, and the fact that stick-type DACs have met these needs has become a point of increased attention.
In fact, the latest stick-type DACs have quite good sound quality. High-end models are equivalent to a dedicated DAP (digital audio player)! ? That’s what I feel. Nevertheless, many of them are small in size, and since they become part of the cable, they hardly get in the way. Furthermore, from low-priced models to high-priced models that are particular about sound quality, products with a wide range of price ranges and functionality are available, which is also part of the excitement of this product genre. People who want to use their own wired earphones or want a product that is as compact as possible (thin enough to feel like a part of a cable) should choose a low-priced model, while those who want a sound quality that can replace a single DAP should choose a high-end model. There are products that meet various needs.
The other day, when I appeared at an event held at a consumer electronics retail store, I arranged stick-type DACs side by side in my booth so that I could listen to them for comparison. It never happened. In addition to convenience and good sound, the ability to meet a wide range of needs can be said to be a feature of the latest stick-type DACs.
Of course, the stick type also has disadvantages. First, it drains your smartphone’s battery. Of course, stick-type DACs also care about the amount of power they consume, so they don’t put an excessive burden on smartphones, but it’s also true that the battery life (of smartphones) will decrease. However, in the current situation where large-capacity mobile batteries are available at a reasonable price, it seems that people do not care much about battery consumption at the previous event.
Another issue is the price. Among the expensive models, there are some that you can get a standalone DAP with Android OS if you put out another 10,000 to 20,000 yen. In this area, preference is divided between convenience and sound quality.
So, in this article, I would like to introduce mainly the latest products from among the many stick-type DACs. By the way, we used Xiaomi “Mi 11 Lite 5G” and Apple “iPhone SE (2nd generation)” as smartphones for playback.
1. Astell&Kern “AK HC2”
A model that makes use of the technology unique to popular DAP manufacturers. Equipped with a dual DAC configuration that uses two Cirrus Logic DAC “CS43198” independently for the left and right, for a total of two, it is internally equivalent to a DAP, allowing you to enjoy high-quality sound and up to 384kHz/32bit. It also supports high-spec high-resolution sound sources such as linear PCM and DSD up to 11.2MHz. Headphone output is 4.4mm balanced only. Android smartphones also have an “AK HC” app that allows you to finely adjust the volume.
sound quality impression
It certainly sounds like the DAP quality that the manufacturer claims. Tonal characteristics such as high frequencies with a firm edge and a sense of speed, slender midrange, and solid and extruded low frequencies share the same image as the company’s DAP. The female vocal sounds a little husky and mature. I especially enjoyed working with Sarah Ólainn. As for the male vocals, I felt that Earth, Wind & Fire songs were very attractive due to the good groove feeling and the good matching of the band balance that felt the center of gravity was low. The driving force was sufficient, and the Audio Technica headphone “ATH-ADX5000” was sounding well.
Size: 22.8 x 60 x 12.1mm (excluding cable)
Weight: Approx. 29g
Input terminal: USB Type-C (USB Type-C to Lightning conversion connector included)
Output terminal: 4.4mm Balance
compatible Sampling rate: PCM 384kHz/32bit, DSD256 (11.2MHz/1bit)
2. Audirect “ATOM MINI”
One that features a compact and lightweight body with an integrated cable that weighs only 8g and is easy to handle. In terms of style, it is a cable type equivalent to the genuine one, but the ESS company’s “ES9280AC PRO” is selected for the DAC chip, and the output of the headphone amplifier is also carefully selected to achieve exceptional sound. In terms of specs, it has quite high specs such as supporting linear PCM up to 768kHz/32bit and DSD sound source up to 22.4MHz. There are two types, Type-C model and Lightning model, depending on the type of smartphone terminal.
sound quality impression
Clear sound with little distortion. The timbre is very natural and pleasant to listen to. It is also a good impression that the vocals feel like a real singing voice. On the other hand, the resolution is not so high and the sound field spread is not so large, so it may be “not good enough” to play back high-resolution sound sources, but the distribution service system and CD quality are not so good. It is an image that can be enjoyed without color. Considering the price, it has sufficient quality, and on the contrary, this sound is very attractive for this size.
input terminal: USB Type-C / Lightning (depending on model)
Output terminal: 3.5mm single-ended
Sampling rate: PCM 768kHz/32bit, DSD512 (22.4MHz/1bit)
3. iBasso Audio “DC05”