External (portable) DAC/AMP vs DAP?

I have always had this die hard assumption that external DAC/AMPs are better than those built into devices, which is why they exist. But DAP seems to be the trend now and recent DAPs seem very well made. I’ve dug around and saw that people mainly choose DAPs for battery life, or something separate from your phone. That I fully understand, but right now I have a backup Android phone that I could use as a player (with SD card support).

My main purpose this time is to look for 4.4mm output (my first entry into balanced), and right now I’m looking between the iFi hip-dac, Fiio M11 and Sony ZX507. Now I know these are all priced differently, but price aside, I would like to know how these 3 kinda “compares” on the DAC/AMP side of things. And if DAPs are on par, if not better than external DAC/AMPs in general.

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So imo the best bang for the buck will be the dac/amp combos, as you will pay extra for the other actual separate device of the dap, so if you aren’t opposed to strapping something to your phone imo.

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For pure audio quality I think a separate amp/dac would be slightly better, usually. But you should also think about your use case. Are you looking to use this device while walking or moving around a lot? Or is this to carry out to the yard or balcony and be relatively still but away from your primary listening spot? A DAP will be much easier to manage on the go. An amp/dac tethered to the phone will be more cumbersome to slide in and out of pockets or hold onto, plus the connecting OTG cable can get jostled and disconnect.

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Awesome. No worries there, I never really use my portable rig on the go, except long travels. I find it a hassle, I prefer to just use bluetooth. That said, I’m also not looking for a desk setup because I don’t like the idea of being tied to a desk (gives me a claustrophobic feeling), I like the freedom of portable, but just at home.

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Nice. DAPs cost so much more I always wondered if I’m getting more. I guess I am in terms of other features, but I don’t think I need them.

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Ok, cool. Among dac/amps, the Hip-Dac gives the most robust physical connection in the price range. iFi makes other more expensive models like the iDSD Black Label that will give the same recessed USB port, too. The Hip-Dac does color the sound quite a bit though. This coloration can be good or bad depending on the headphones you use. I gave it a thorough review here:

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Nice review! Sad to hear that it doesn’t pair well with the 6XX, I was getting it for my 660! Right now my 660 is the only headphones I have that can run balanced (iSINE 20 on the way). Would you say the colouration isn’t as noticeable for casual listening? (As in without comparing side by side.)

I already have the nano iDSD BL and I’m quite happy with it. Well I don’t have anything else to compare it to so I wouldn’t know. Now that I think about it, I’ve always felt that my 660 sounded warmer than what I expected/read.

I haven’t heard the BL myself. If I understand @M0N correctly, though the BL and other iFi models are maybe warmer than neutral but not nearly to the level of the Hip-Dac. I don’t think the Hip-Dac’s coloration is subtle. It seems designed with the idea that it would most often be pushing IEM’s with forward treble, so they warmed its signature and rolled off the highs.

I am curious what your goal is here. Your Nano BL should take care of your mobile needs as you’ve described. Are you looking for a different sound? If so, what kind of sound are you after or what’s lacking in your current setup?

My goal is to get into balanced. I have never really liked the tiny 2.5mm connectors which is why I’m looking for 4.4mm, which doesn’t seem to have a lot of choices at the moment. Not to mention that the 660 already comes with a 4.4mm cable.

I mean the ifi idsd nano can already run balanced, you just need a 3.5mm balanced adapter

That is true, but I don’t even wanna know where to get the cable/adapter. I’ve tried in the past but pretty much gave up on it.

Speaking of the nano iDSD balanced, I’ve read somewhere before that it’s not exactly balanced? I don’t know the technical side of things, but I’ve settled on the conclusion that it’s more of a “gimmick” than the more “typical” balanced.

It is correct that it’s not full balanced, but it still works and I don’t know if I would say it’s a gimmick. Just wondering, why do you want to go balanced?

I’d be lying if I said I want better sound. I guess in this hobby we all want an excuse for something new. Something that we THINK will make a difference. That sweet sweet guilty pleasure. In my case my next step is to try out balanced.

Gotcha, well there aren’t a whole ton of 4.4 mm portables, perhaps like a fiio q5s or something. The biggest adopters of 4.4 have actually been daps tho

Yea seems to be the case for now. Thanks though!

Yeah from what I have gathered, a really good single ended is just as good as a good balanced. So it isn’t necessarily an upgrade in sound. But I get that you want to try something new, that’s great!
I am not sure if you have mentioned this yet, but what would your budget be for this portable or mostly portable setup?

Ah, budget. If I have to put a figure I would say $300-400. But usually how I buy things is that I find something that I really like, even if it’s way out of my budget, set it as a goal, and save towards that goal instead of settling for something less. So in a way you can say that I don’t have a budget.

Ah, okay. That makes sense.
And you said that you really want something that has balanced? How do you feel about a 1/4 inch output that is not balanced? Those are usually extremely durable.

Yeah, at least balanced is something “new” for me to try, or as an excuse, own.

I used to want a 1/4 inch, I wanted the XD-05! That was the goal back then. But I didn’t have any headphones with 1/4 inch at the time, so I went with the nano iDSD BL. Now I don’t have a reason for the XD-05, except for power. Though the XD-05 Plus silver looks really sweeeet.

Oh, well you can always get 1/4 inch adapters. That’s how they are meant to be used anyways.
I mean, if you want something twice as powerful almost as the XD-05 and an upgrade from the nano and don’t mind 1/4 inch adapters, there’s always the Micro IDSD BL. 4 watts at 16 ohms can power almost anything.
If you are looking for balanced to try, the HiP DAC has been getting great reviews so far. I hear it is even more colored and fun sounding than the BL. It might be worth a try.

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