But as many were quick to point out, some of Apple’s own products don’t necessarily support the higher sample rate and bit-depths on offer. No worries, there’s a dongle for that. (And there are options for Android and the desktop, too.)
The “Apple effect” can be as helpful as it is infuriating. A good technology can exist for years, and many won’t care until it gets the Cupertino seal of approval. To that end, a lot of people are about to start caring about “high resolution” audio as the company just launched its upgraded music service to the masses.
As hinted, it’s not just Apple in on the hi-resolution game: Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer have been doing it for a while, and Spotify is planning on introducing its own version soon. The products in this guide will play nice with any of these services, aside from Tidal’s MQA, which is a little more specific (and we have options for that as well).
Why do I need new hardware to listen to music?
The short answer is, you don’t. You can play “hi-res” audio files on most phones and PCs, you just might not be getting the full experience. If your device’s audio interface tops out at 44.1 or 48kHz (which is fairly common and covers the vast majority of music online) then that’s the experience you’ll get. If you want to enjoy music at a higher sample rate and bit-depth (aka resolution), you’ll need an interface that supports it and wired headphones.
It’s worth pointing out that “lossless” and “hi-res” are related terms, but not the same thing and will vary from service to service. Apple uses ALAC encoding which is compressed, but without “loss” to the quality (unlike the ubiquitous .aac or .mp3 file formats). CDs were generally mastered to at least 16-bit / 44.1kHz which is the benchmark that Apple is using for its definition of lossless. In audio circles, a general consensus is that hi-res is anything with a sample rate above 44.1kHz. Increasingly, though, the term is being used for anything 96kHz and above.
This, of course, isn’t only about Apple’s new streaming formats. External DACs and audio interfaces are a great way to upgrade your listening experience generally. Especially if you want to get into the world of more exotic (read: pricey) headphones, as they often even require a DAC to provide enough clean signal to drive them. For audiophile headphones, a phone or laptop’s built-in sound chip often doesn’t have the oomph needed.
Okay, but can’t I just use the headphone adapter for my phone?
No. Well, yes, but see above. A Lightning or USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter often is an audio interface and most of the ones you’re buying for $7 (or that come free in the box) do not support hi-res audio beyond 48kHz / 24-bit. Android is a little more complicated, as some adapters are “passive” and really just connect you to the phone’s internal DAC like old school headphones. Others (active ones) have a DAC built-in and good luck finding out what your specific phone and the in-box adapter delivers. (Hint: connect it to a PC and see if it comes up as an audio interface. You might find some details there if it does).
What is a “DAC,” though?
A DAC takes the digital (D) music from your phone or computer and converts (C) it into analog (A) sound you can hear. All phones and PCs have them, but since handsets moved to USB-C, Lightning or Bluetooth for music, the task of converting that signal was generally outsourced to either your adapter or your wireless headphones.
DACs can be used with phones, laptops and desktops but tend to be much simpler than a regular external audio interface. One basic distinction is that DACs are usually for listening only whereas an audio interface might have ports to plug in microphones and instruments (but an external audio interface is also technically a DAC). The benefit of DACs is that they tend to be lightweight, making them more suitable for mobile use, although it still gets a little tricky with the iPhone as you still might need to add another dongle to make it play nice with Lightning. Also, not all DACs support all the higher audio resolutions. Most require external power or an onboard battery, though some can use the power from whatever you plug them into — in which case expect a hit to your battery life. Below are some of our picks for a variety of scenarios.
Price: $10 Max resolution: 24-bit / 96kHz
Okay, you were expecting serious outboard gear and we start by showing you a basic adapter? Yes, because this one supports 96kHz audio (24-bit) and is about as straightforward as you can get. Simply plug into your USB-C device (or USB-A with an… adapter), connect your headphones and away you go. There are no buttons, no controls, nothing to charge. While this dongle doesn’t support 192kHz, the move up to 96kHz is still firmly in the “hi-res” audio category, and its super low profile and ease of use make it a great option for those that want an audio bump without going full-bore external DAC.
Of course, this dongle is best suited to devices with a USB-C port such as the iPad Pro, MacBook or most Android phones. As noted earlier, it’s possible your Android already supports hi-res audio and a simple passive dongle is all you need, but given the price and quality of this one, at least you know what you’re getting, as the specific details of audio support for every Android phone out there are often hard to find. The downside is that this adapter won’t do much to help drive headphones with higher impedance, so it’s less suited to audiophiles who really need more power to drive their favorite cans. I used this on both an Android phone and an iMac and it worked just fine, although with Apple computers you need to head to the Audio/MIDI settings first to make sure you’re getting the highest quality available.
Price: $199 Max resolution: 24-bit / 192kHz
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