The Best Portable DAC Amps to Level Up the Sound of Your Phone, Tablet, or Laptop

All smartphones, tablets, and laptops have built-in amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters (DAC) . They’re essential components to delivering audio, after all, with the amplifier cranking up to the audio signal to usable levels and the DAC converting the digital format to analog before sending it out to headphones or speakers. Problem is. most of these devices don’t really use high-quality amps and DACs, which leaves the overall audio they produce plenty of room for improvement, especially when used with a wireless pair of headphones like most people normally do.

While this quality of audio is fine for most people, more discerning listeners, in recent years, have turned to standalone DAC amps. These devices, basically, reprocess audio coming from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop before sending them through to your wired headphones. Because they’re dedicated devices, they’re able to use bigger, better components, allowing them to to produce clearer, crisper, and more natural sound.

Portable headphone amps with DACs make it possible to listen to better audio on the go, especially when used with a quality pair of wired headphones. These portable devices can be as small as a USB dongle or as big as a smartphone. Regardless of the size, they’re compact enough to fit in a pocket, making it possible to bring them along while you go about your day.

These are the best portable DAC amps to elevate your on-the-go listening experience.

Helm Audio Bolt

Pros

  • Supports 32bit/384kHz, DSD256, and MQA files
  • Very small and portable
  • Unmatched price-to-performance ratio

Cons

  • Doesn’t sound good at high volumes
  • No settings adjustments

Size: 4 x 0.25 inches (length x width)
Connectivity: USB-C, 3.5mm
Additional adapters: None

This dongle-sized portable DAC amp produces punchy and crispy audio that’s leagues better than what you’ll normally get from your phone or laptop, all while coming in a budget price that makes it ideal for people looking for an entry-level option. Despite the price, it’s able to handle high-resolution 32bit/384kHz, DSD256, and MQA files without a hitch, making it a great device to use with lossless streaming services, with a light indicator changing colors to indicate the format that’s playing. It does struggle noticeably when you turn up the volume to the highest levels, but it performs wonderfully in every other listening situation. We also love the simplicity of the design, although this means users who like to fine tune their settings won’t have much of any choice as there’s practically zero user input.

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Audioengine DAC3

Pros

  • Physical volume buttons come in clutch
  • Compact dongle form factor
  • Uses up very little power

Cons

  • Maxes out at 24-bit/96kHz

Size: 1.9 x 0.6 x 0.4 inches (length x width x thickness)
Connectivity: USB-C, 3.5mm
Additional adapters: Lighting to USB-C

We didn’t think we’d be so thrilled to find volume controls on any device, but that’s seriously the first thing we noted with this portable DAC amp. Yes, it’s still dongle-sized like many portable options, but it allows you to adjust volume without having to fiddle with your audio source, which we really appreciate. This is the 2022 version of this model, by the way, so it’s got a new DAC chip, a USB-C connector, and a bunch of additional tweaks that weren’t present in the original DAC3 from 10 years ago. It also ships with a Lightning adapter, so you can use it with older iPhones.

The sound it produces has a very natural and detailed quality that makes it satisfying off the bat, creating a powerful soundstage that feels deep yet well-proportioned. It supports MQA, PCM, and DSD, which makes it great for streaming lossless recordings, while the volume buttons really come in clutch, allowing you to conveniently adjust sounds levels without any fuss. Do note, maximum audio quality is only 24-bit/96kHz, which is odd, considering the DAC chip supports up to 32-bit/768kHz. We’re told it’s for compatibility with older devices, though, which, we guess, is a fair enough excuse. Still, it produces incredible sound and that’s all that really matters.

Audioengine DAC3 32-Bit Portable DAC and Headphone...
  • SET YOUR MUSIC FREE: Hear the higher highs and lower lows found only in 24 and 32 bit formatted...

iFi Hip-DAC 3

Pros

  • Refined sound profile
  • Offers multiple physical controls
  • Built-in battery, so it won’t drain your phone

Cons

  • Larger size
  • No Lightning adapter incldued

Size: 4 x 2.8 x 0.6 inches (length x width x thickness)
Connectivity: USB-C, 3.5mm
Additional adapters: USB-C to USB-A

Yes, it looks like a whiskey flask. Seriously, it looks like you’re about to take a swig every time you whip it out. With a slim profile, though, it’s still very portable, with a size that can fit in most pockets on both your pants and jacket. It’s also very pretty, with a finish that changes appearance depending on the ambient lighting. Seriously, the pictures don’t do it justice. Because it’s bigger, they’re able to fit a bit more hardware on board. As such, you get a volume knob, a gain control button, and an IEM matching switch that, when turned on, prompts the DAC amp to automatically match the sensitivity of whatever headphones are plugged in to ensure the best sound. It also has an onboard 2250mAh battery, so it doesn’t have to draw power from your phone, complete with two USB-C ports, so you can charge it while listening to music at the same time.

It supports hi-res PCM and DXD audio at sample rates up to 384kHz, DSD up to 12.4 MHz, and full MQA decoding, with two light indicators changing colors to show the format and sample rate. Sound quality exhibits plenty of detail and clarity, so you get an overall more refined soundstage that really brings out the multiple layers to every song you play through it.

iFi hip-dac3 - Portable Hi-Res DAC/Headphone Amp -...
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AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt

Pros

  • Improves clarity and resolution significantly
  • Extensive file support

Cons

  • Uses a USB-A plug, so you need to use the included USB-C adapter for modern phones and tablets
  • Adapter has looser fit than we’d like

Size: 2.24 x 0.75 inches (length x width x thickness)
Connectivity: USB-A, 3.5mm
Additional adapters: USB-A to USB-C

The most expensive of AudioQuest’s Dragonfly line of portable DAC amps, this device features a 2.1-volt headphone output, bit-perfect digital volume control, and an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip. It produces a sound that really beefs up clarity and sonic precision while providing a very wide soundstage, allowing you to hear songs you’ve played through numerous times in a whole new way. Seriously, everything sounds incredibly clean whenever it goes through this DAC amp. Do note, it plays music exactly as it’s recorded, so it works best with high-fidelity files, really exposing any inherent shortcomings with lower-quality recordings. The only downside here is the fact that it still uses USB-A at a time when every new phone has USB-C, requiring you to use an including adapter (which we’ve accidentally disconnected multiple times) to listen to music on the go.

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog...
  • Native Resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz

Astell & Kern AK HC4

Pros

  • Wider, deeper sound with a more powerful impact
  • Supports 32bit/384kHz and DSD256
  • Supports both UAC 1.0 and 2.0 for gaming

Cons

  • No MQA support

Size: 2.5 x 1.2 x 0.6 inches (length x width x thickness)
Connectivity: USB-C, 3.5mm. 4.4mm
Additional adapters: USB-C to Lightning

Styled to look like a slightly larger thumb drive, this portable DAC amp combines a 3.5mm and 4.4mm headphone jack in a single package, making it a great option for folks who want to take their 4.4mm headphones on the go. It can handle DSD256 files and sample rates up to 32-bit/384kHz, although there’s no support for MQA files, which seems like a glaring omission, especially since this is still a relatively new release from late last year. As far as sound quality goes, it produces an incredible soundstage that’s perceptibly wider, deeper, and filled with more details that really expose all the different layers of nuance ingrained in each song. It also feels bolder, with plenty more zeal, in the middle frequencies, making the sound feel more energetic and impactful. The DAC also supports both UAC 1.0 and UAC 2.0 for use with your gaming headphones, so it will work with all your consoles and gaming devices.

Buy Now – $220

Earmen Angel

Pros

  • Offers both 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs
  • Best vocals reproduction of all the portable DAC amps we’ve tried
  • Fully-balanced amp with no changes to the audio signal from the DAC to the output

Cons

  • Heavy and bulky

Size: 6 x 2.6 x 1.05 inches (length x width x thickness)
Connectivity: USB-C, 3.5mm. 4.4mm

If you want a portable DAC amp with a lot more room to customize the listening, you’ll have to go the more expensive end of the scale. One of our favorites in this category right now is this pricey option from Earmen. There are two outputs, one for 3.5mm and 4.4mm, each able to deliver up to 8.5 Vrms power output, so you get enough power to drive most kinds of full-size audiophile headphones. It also offers a toggle switch for pre-out and direct, a gain button, and a handy volume knob, so you get a bit more useful options for on-the-go listening.

The device can decode 768kHz/32-bit PCM, DSD256. and MQA files, so you can throw your most high-res tracks its way, along with your favorite lossless streaming platforms. As far as sound quality goes, you get what you expect from a $400 DAC amp. It ratchets up the detail and clarity on every single piece music of we tried, with vocals particularly shining through in a stellar manner. Upbeat tracks feel dynamic and impactful, especially with a thump-heavy low-end that feels tight but unrestrained.

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Chord Mojo 2

Pros

  • Incredible sound
  • Enough power to drive two headphones at once
  • Good options for customization

Cons

  • Bulky for a portable DAC
  • Color interface is unintuitive

Size: 2.5 x 1.2 x 0.6 inches (length x width)
Connectivity: USB-C, coaxial, optical, microUSB, 3.5mm (2x)

We’ll be honest, we weren’t sure if we wanted to consider this portable DAC amp all that portable. We mean, it’s palm-sized, so you can definitely take it on-the-go, but it may be at the upper end of actual portability. At any rate, many consider the Mojo 2 to be the gold standard in the category. Listening to it once is enough to convince you why with its ability to open up the soundstage, while adding extra depth and dimension like no other in the category. Everything sounds natural, crisp, and lively, with a lot more resolution on each layer of sound. Suffice to say, it drives the sound quality up to heights we didn’t think was possible on a portable DAC.

The biggest downside, of course, is the size, which makes it more useful as a desktop DAC amp, rather than one you can use comfortably when you’re walking around on foot. We mean….it’s not exactly comfortable to squeeze into a pants pocket. The control interface is also far from intuitive, but it’s really about the sound in this case and it definitely brings that to a whole other level.

Chord Electronics MOJO 2 Portable DAC Headphone...
  • 1x Micro USB 768kHz/32-bit Capable Input