The Best Portable Headphone Amp With Built-In DAC

With a few exceptions, all of these DAC/amp combos sound really similar, so if you are concerned about audio quality, most any of these models will work just fine. What differentiates them is the combination of features, ease of use, and price. But really, excluding a few duds, if you prefer any of these designs over our picks, and you need a DAC/amp, that’s fine—they sound pretty much the same.

If you can find a good price and the device meets your needs, any of the following four models would be a safe buy:

Apogee Groove: During our blind tests, the Groove sounded a bit softer in the mids and a tad more coarse in the highs, but still quite good. It offers a lightweight, easy-to-use design plus its own digital volume control. The Groove works with Mac and PC as well as with iOS and Android, but it drains power from mobile devices.

AudioQuest DragonFly Black: The sound of the DragonFly Black was nearly identical to that of the DragonFly Red—which is to say, great. We heard lots of detail and sparkle on the highs, agile lows, and even, spacious sound in the mids. But the DragonFly Black has a medium output level (1.2 volts), so it’s less able to grow with your headphone collection.

FiiO Q1 Mark II: Landing in the middle of the pack, the Q1 Mark II sounded perfectly acceptable to us. It had a little too much low end that made male vocals sound slightly recessed, and it didn’t quite have the sparkle and life in the highs that our top picks exhibited—when we really paid attention and scrutinized the sound.

Sony PHA-1A: The sound quality on the PHA-1A consistently ranked near the top of our lists, but it was ever so slightly more 2D sounding than our top picks, with a bit of midrange coloration. Ultimately, it was the PHA-1A’s larger, heavier build and shorter battery life that nudged this model out of the winner’s circle.

We also encountered a few DAC/amps that our panelists didn’t like, and we recommend skipping them, even if they’re available at a discount:

Creative Sound Blaster E5: This model consistently ended up toward the bottom of our panel’s blind-test rankings. While the overall sound wasn’t objectionable, our panelists liked most everything else we heard better. Brent described the sound as “somewhat dull, crude, and edgy when compared to the others,” and John and Lauren agreed. Lauren also found it to have lower-end bloat and a more 2D sound quality than most of the other DACs.

FiiO i1: Since the i1 was made for Lightning iOS devices, our panel blind-tested this model against Apple devices. Surprisingly, the MacBook Pro and iPad Mini, through their built-in headphone jacks, and the iPhone 7, through the included headphone dongle, sounded nearly identical with the volume matched. We were able to hear a distinct difference between the i1 and the Apple devices, but our panel felt it was a lateral move: The i1 definitely sounded flatter, both in the frequency-response sense and in the spatial sense. The Apple devices were slightly more boosted in the lows and highs, but that made them sound more 3D. We all agreed that the i1 changed the sound, but we didn’t think that change improved the sound.

JDS Labs C5D: The C5D truly surprised—and disappointed—our panel. JDS has a fantastic reputation, but the C5D was noticeably muddier, bassier, blurrier, boomier, and noisier than any of the other DAC/amps we tested, even though we tested it with its tone switch set to the neutral position. It’s the only model that our blind panel singled out as actively disliking.

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