Don’t Buy a Digital Audio Player (DAP) – Use a Smartphone and a DAC/Amp Instead


A few months back, I published this video on YouTube about DACs and DAPs:

I’ve learned quite a bit since then, so this article serves to reflect my current and up to date thoughts and opinions on the subject.

Why Consider a DAP?

The goal is simple – have an all in one portable, with an integrated headphone jack, that sounds great, can stream digital audio, store all of your music for offline playback, and be somewhat future proof. Ultimately, that’s what a Digital Audio Player (DAPs) should be. I went down that rabbit hole and wasted my money so you don’t have to.

My First and Probably My Last DAP

It started with my purchasing of a mid tier unit on Amazon, the FiiO M11 Plus.

After using it for a few months, I ended up selling it on eBay, and here’s why:

  1. It’s basically a slow, sluggish, underpowered Android phone, without the ability to make calls.
  2. The audio isn’t any better than entry to mid level dongle DACs.
  3. It runs Android 10 without any upgrade in site. From the factory, the M11 Plus is already obsolete. It’s just a matter of time before your favorite music apps will no longer offer support for older Android versions.
  4. No way to get bit perfect audio out of mainstream audio apps like Apple Music or Qobuz on Android. You might get bit perfect audio with USB Audio Player PRO (UAPP), but I don’t believe that app was capable of detecting the internal DAC on the M11 Plus.
  5. No support for the newest bluetooth codecs like AptX Adaptive.
  6. No bass boost or built in EQ enhancements.

Comparisons to Other DAPs

Let’s take a look at one of the most expensive DAPs on the market, the Astell & Kern SP3000. Admittedly, I have not listened to it, but let’s assume it sounds great – just for the sake of argument. Why would I not buy one of these?

  1. Price is $3,699 as of March 1, 2023.
  2. No mention of which Android version is on the unit.
  3. As stated above music apps (except for maybe UAPP) are not bit perfect.
  4. Doesn’t support the latest bluetooth codecs like AptX Adaptive.
  5. Underpowered processor – the manufacturer’s website doesn’t even mention what the make and model of the processor is.
  6. 1080p display on a $3,700 unit.

What makes the SP3000 so expensive? Beats me, but if you look at other DAPs (at any and all price ranges), you’ll see they are all quite similar in terms of being underpowered / outdated smartphones without cellular capabilities.

One interesting contender is the FiiO M17, but it needs a cooling fan!?!?!? No thanks. Even if that things sounds amazing, it’s not a true portable. Not for me, nope. Here’s a YouTube video (not mine) discussing the M17.

The Rabbit Hole Splits – The Divide

  1. Would you rather have the most accurate, bit perfect, highest quality audio, and don’t mind wires?


  1. Would you prefer the best wireless audio possible?

If you answered “yes” to number one, then the answer is clear – use an iPhone. If you answer “yes” to number two, then Android is for you.

iOS / iPhones For Bit Perfect Wired Audio

Without a doubt, a modern day iPhone will have a better screen, run more apps, run faster, and generally be a more solid user experience over any DAP currently on the market. They will also sound better when paired with a high quality DAC because Apple devices can do one thing that no Android can do – output bit perfect audio over USB.

For this discussion, I’m specifically talking about Qobuz and Apple Music. Plexamp is kind of bit perfect (can’t find the blog article that talks about it, but I remember reading about it), and I believe Foobar2000 kind of is as well. Why does this matter? It means that when using USB and iOS, you get the purest, unaltered or resampled signal sent to your DAC – aka bit perfect.

On Android, no matter what, the audio is resampled. That means, you might hear a noticeable difference in quality when compared to an iPhone.

With regards to which DAC, in the YouTube video at the top of this post, I reference the Shanling UA5 and the AudioQuest Cobalt as portable options. While they are acceptable, neither is exceptional and I no longer recommend them.

Nowadays, when I use my iPhone for lossless bit perfect audio, I connect it directly to my desktop DAC / headphone amp which is the new RME ADI 2/4 Pro SE with a 4.4mm balanced headphone output. On the ADI 2/4, it has a Loudness setting which I have on 99.9% of the time. Then I’ll further adjust the bass and treble rotary knobs depending not the music I’m listening to. The ADI 2/4 sounds like heaven and blows away everything else I’ve tried. Truly amazing!

Away from my desk, I might use my iFi xDSD Gryphon which is the best portable DAC I’ve ever used. It has a bass boost setting which really adds some punch to the low end, as well as a presence expanding mode that I generally enjoy turned on. You’ll need the iPhone to USB adapter, and then a USB type A to USB type C cable. It sounds great, but can be a little clunky.

Regarding bluetooth on iOS devices, Apple only supports their own AAC codec. It’s good, not great, but good. However, if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, want bluetooth, then it’s really tough to beat the new AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds. They are fantastic! They’re so good in fact that you could probably just ignore everything else in this article and just buy a pair of those – it would certainly be less expensive. What’s neat, is that they also sound great on an Android which also supports AAC.

If you want advanced wireless options beyond AAC, then we need to talk about Android.

Android is Best for Bluetooth Wireless Audio

As great as iPhones are for wired, bit perfect audio, the inverse is true of Androids. With the exception of one specific app, USB Audio Player Pro, any and all Android phones and DAPs resample their audio internally or over USB. This affects and hampers overall audio quality. Where Android shines though, is in bluetooth audio.

It’s important to understand that bluetooth compresses and resamples audio, so we know it’s not bit perfect. Bit perfect audio transmission is on the horizon for bluetooth, but it’s just not possible with today’s technology. However, there are a few types of bluetooth codecs that that sound pretty darn good.

If you want the highest quality bluetooth audio, you’ll need an Android device that supports AAC, LDAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX LL, and aptX Adaptive. Not all Android devices support every one of these codecs, but many do. LDAC and aptX Adaptive both sound better than AAC – objectively and subjectively.

Even though I’m an avid iPhone user, I still purchased an Android for bluetooth audio. Here are some of the specifications that I was looking for:

  1. The device has to support aptX Adaptive. You can look on aptX website and search for devices that support this particular codec. Here’s the link.
  2. MicroSD card slot.
  3. Android 12 or higher.
  4. Be readily available at BestBuy or Amazon.
  5. Cost less than $300.

I ended up with a Motorola 5G Stylus 2022 256GB phone for $250 at Best Buy. It ticks all of the above boxes and is much more responsive than any DAP on the market. Here’s how I set it up:

  1. Installed a 1TB MicroSD card.
  2. Universal Android Debloater (UAD) to remove all the preinstalled unwanted apps.
  3. Qobuz and Apple Music for streaming.
  4. Foobar2000 for my losslessly ripped CDs
  5. WiiM Home app for controlling my WiiM Pro music streamer.
  6. Purchased the premium version of Bluetooth Codec Changer to easily change codecs and enable advanced bluetooth settings.
  7. Put the phone in airplane mode as to not utilize the cellular features in any way.

A Note About aptX Adaptive vs LDAC

There’s a lot of misinformation online about codecs. It seems that a lot of people just quote manufactures talking points without understanding what exactly they are talking about or doing any research. It’s unfortunate, but true.

I fell for this marketing misinformation and believed that aptX Adaptive was the best (currently) codec available. Here’s a prime example of some of this nonsense. In the linked Digital Trends article, they write:

LDAC and aptX Adaptive both meet that criteria, with a top quality of 24-bit/96kHz. Whether you’ll be able to hear that difference or not is highly debatable, but if you’re listening to 24-bit/96kHz or better audio and want to preserve as much of that signal as possible, LDAC and aptX Adaptive are the way to go.

Winner: Two-way tie between LDAC and aptX Adaptive

Sure, that might be theoretical, but in practice any and all current aptX Adaptive connections are capped at 48khz. It turns out that Qualcomm is working on something called aptX Lossless, but it’s too new to find in any mainstream devices. For now, LDAC is the highest fidelity bluetooth codec available.

An important point is that smartphones manufacturers like Samsung and Google have no intentions on supporting Qualcomm’s proprietary codecs. That means no aptX on your device. Do your research!

Which Portable DAC Should You Choose?

You could have the best smartphone, highest quality wireless codecs, and the fanciest headphones, but if your DAC isn’t pushing out high quality audio, then nothing else matters.

As mentioned earlier, for home, I use an RME ADI 2/4 Pro SE balanced DAC. It’s everything:

  1. Preamplifier for my home stereo.
  2. Parametric graphic equalizer.
  3. Balanced headphone amplifier.
  4. DAC

I love the RME ADI 2/4! However, it’s not portable.

I’ve gone through quite a few portable DACs in the last year. Some I’ve sold, and some I’ve returned because they were utter garbage. All of them pale in comparison to the RME unit, but you trade quality for portability. That being said, there is one portable DAC / headphone amp that I am rather happy with, and that is the iFi xDSD Gryphon. The iFi xDSD Gryphon beats the living daylights out of any other portable DAC or DAP I’ve tried.

When connected via USB to an iPhone, I set the digital filter to BP (bit perfect), enable bass boost and presence settings, then enjoy the music.

When using Android and playing audio over bluetooth, make sure you’ve got your phone set to the highest quality LDAC bluetooth setting possible. This is because the xDSD Gryphon defaults to aptX Adaptive which is capped at 48khz. You’ll need to tweak the settings in the phone to enable LDAC at 96khz. I use a paid app called Bluetooth Codec Changer to accomplish this.

Since bluetooth is resampling the audio, I change the Gryphon’s digital filter mode to GTO to improve the sound quality (at least to my ears). Here’s a technical paper on the GTO filer published by ifi.

Honorable Mention for DAC / Headphones – Focal Bathys

The Focal Bathys are the best set of bluetooth headphones that I’ve ever used. When wired to an iPhone, you can put them in DAC mode and have bit perfect audio sent to them. Often though, I’d rather go wireless.

The Focal Bathys headphones support aptX Adaptive as well as AAC. One bluetooth, these headphones will sound better with Android because it has support for the more advanced codec.


The only advantage to a DAP is that they have an integrated headphone jack. Other than that, they are slow and obsolete Android devices with marginal integrated DACs.

When using a separate DAC like the iFi xDSD Gryphon, your audio will sound much better than an all in one DAP. The downside is you’ll have to have a second piece of gear with you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *