Bluetooth headphones and wireless earbuds are dominating a significant portion of the market today. You see them everywhere, from casual streetwear, sportswear, and gaming accessories. Even many of the top audio brands, like Sennheiser, Shure, and Audio-Technica have all embraced wireless without alienating some of their devoted audiophile customers. With the influence Bluetooth has on the market, there are still those who refuse to ditch the cable. Although there will always be a place for cables to obtain quality sound, most smart devices have already abandoned their headphone jacks, leaving those listeners to resort to USB Type C or lightning headphones (of which there are few of), purchase a DAP (which aren’t always affordable) or purchase an adapter.
Advantages For DAC Dongles
There are plenty of reasons to go wireless, but it all comes down to resolution. With Bluetooth, you’re relying on the CODEC and streaming quality for your audio, while an adapter can decode and output a much more pure signal. Some DAC dongles even have special attributes like higher bit rates and MQA support. Different DAC adapters can significantly change the sound of your headphones or IEMs depending on which ones you choose, like widening soundstage or emphasizing detail. You also have potable amplifiers like the iFi Hip-DAC, and Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt, but they require even more adapters in order to work with your phone, and sometimes they might not even be compatible with certain devices. Plus, dongles are much more convenient than carrying around another big rectangle when you’re on the go. You won’t get as many features, but the sound quality should receive a similar enhancement.
When I first started using the Helm Audio Bolt I immediately noticed the expanded soundstage and revealed detail. In some IEMs, I noticed the sound was a bit more floaty in the image and the crisper midrange tonality. As a sonic enhancer, the Bolt gives you everything you’d need for only $109, supporting MQA, and PCM files that include sampling rates up to 385kHz, and DSD files up to 5.6MHz. The Bolt also features THX certification, with ultra-low harmonic crosstalk and crossover distortion that isolate the DAC from the USB port.
I’ve been a fan of Ikko’s output of affordable IEMs this year and there’s no better compliment to them than the Zerda ITM01. They’ve released other DAC dongles and other type C adapters before, but in my opinion, the Zerda ITM01 was the strongest of the bunch. Not only does it have a cable that can be switched out from type c to lightning, but it also has a remote for playback and volume control. This is great for those who are looking for a great IEM but prefer a cable with a remote.
Now it won’t matter, because you get one supplied by the Zerda ITM01. Of course, the most important factor is sound, to which the Zerda produces a good sense of fidelity. Vocals appeared a lot more clearly due to the more forward midrange, and the bass features better accentuation with smoother textures and impact. You just get a better sense of definition across the frequency spectrum, minus some sharp treble. The chipset used here is an ESS9298 that’s able to decode 16bit/384kHz PCM and DSD with a customized anti-interference magnet that helps to eliminate noise. Lastly, you get three different modes with the Zerda, music, game, and movie. However, sticking with music mode gives you the best potential detail in the sound signature.
This type C DAC dongle is made by one of the best amplifier manufacturers in the market. Questlye’s CMA400i and CMA Twelve have proved to be some of the most notable models for audiophiles today, granting a fantastic sound that can drive your headphones with plenty of input options. The M12 obviously won’t have the same notoriety, but the Questlye name itself can still hold some assumptions that translate to any product they produce. For this DAC dongle, you can expect increased depth to the sound signature, with an expanded soundstage that makes the imaging less solidified.
Some listeners might not be a fan of the M12’s more reference-level response, as it doesn’t exactly highlight any texture or emphasize tone. However, the M12 keeps a certain level of accuracy in the way it helps shape the sound signature which sets it apart from other DAC dongles. The ESS chipset inside can decode up to 32bit/384kHz as well as DSD256, and can also support MQA. Its type C cable is completely detachable as well.
Another very notable brand, but this time from the world of DAPs. Astell & Kern is one of the best to do it in the realm of digital audio players, and earlier this year they released the PEE51 type C DAC dongle for $149. This has one of my favorite designs for a DAC dongle, consisting of a sleek black chassis and a braided cable. Like the Questyle M12, there’s a focus on accuracy with the PEE51, and while the soundstage doesn’t receive any significant change there are a lot more rich details showcased here. You get a more intimate warmth with the PEE15 while including a cleaner bass and a quicker transient response. It’s a combination of reference level accuracy and lively tonality. The PEE51 uses a dual-DAC chipset that are Cirrus Logic CS43198 MasterHiFi DACs, supporting DSD256 and 32bit/384kHz resolution.
Shanling is known for many different types of audio products, like IEMs, DAPs, and portable DAC/Amps. The UA2 is their type C dongle model, which is one of the few that features both a 3.5mm connector and a balanced 2.5 connector. With the balanced connection, you get a much better soundstage, with a bigger and consistent sense of spatial imaging. You get a bit more depth here in the low end especially. The sound signature here is a great combination of articulation and texture, wonderfully layering all the sound elements in a lush and natural timbre. Inside of the device is an ESS ES9038Q2M DAC Chip which achieves a sample rate of 768kHz at 32bits using DSD512. The Ricore amp also showcases a powerful gain that features zero delays and virtually no background noise.