3 Sound Tips for Portable Headphone Amps and DACs

3 Sound Tips for Portable Headphone Amps and DACs

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One major High End Audio category that has been growing exponentially the past 5 years is the High End Portable Headphone Amplifer DAC category.  Much of this portable headphone setup category growth can be attributed to the invention of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.  Almost everyone has one, two or all three of these Apple products and its only going to increase.  One major question Drew is asked each week and many times each day via email or phone is, “How can I listen to my headphones at work with the BEST sound from my media player, ipad, iPhone, laptop computer, desktop computer, portable headphone amp/dac, etc?”  Well, the first thing Drew explains is that High End Headphones and their portable amplifiers or amplifier/dac need the Apple Authenticity Chip to pull the digital signal from the iPod, iPhone, iPad.  The Silver Dragon USB Cable that Moon Audio makes helps the MUSIC sound even better as well.

Silver Dragon USB Cable

Silver Dragon USB Cable

Here are a few dialogues below that Drew Baird, P.E., President of Moon-Audio.com has recently answered from actual customers….

Customer: I have a Cowon J3 and Pico Amp/USB Dac.  Would adding a different portable headphone amp dac to the Cowon J3 improve the sound on my portable headphone setup? I also have MP3 downloads and I am converting them to higher res formats but they sound terrible. I want my music to sound the best but I am having troubles with this and you come highly recommended for high end audio advice.  I hope you can help me.

Drew Baird, P.E.: The first issue is the Cowon J3 does not have a digital output.  You cannot output digital to an outboard DAC or DAC/Amp such as the Pico.  If you want to take your high end headphone setup to the next performance level you will either have to go with an iPod/iTouch scenario along with maybe a Fostex HP-P1 headphone amp/dac or team up an iPod with the Cypher Labs Algorhythm Solo -dB DAC and then a separate high end portable amplifier for the ultimate stack up. You can also get an all in one solution such as the ColorFly C4.   Otherwise, you are going to have to continue to output an analog output from the headphone jack on the Cowon J3 which will not improve your sound.

As far as the comments of MP-3′s sounding like Flac, you cannot take an MP3 and convert it up to a higher resolution format. You can only take a High Res format and compress it to an MP3 or similar. In order to improve your audio files, always buy the full CD and rip your cd to different formats or buy High Res files from places like HDTracks.com. I don’t buy MP3′s from iTunes for exactly this reason as MP3’s are compressed and I want the best sound wherever I listen to my music so I always have the original music files stored where I need them. I buy CD’s, rip them to Wav and put the CD in storage for backup reasons.

To explain a bit more, when you rip the CD, rip it to the WAV format as Wav is a perfect copy of a cd audio file.  A Wav is also a digital file and not an analog file. All files utilized by portable media players use digital files. Flac has slight compression and ability to tag with Meta data.  Because I want the absolute closest sound to the original recording, I always rip in Wav format but this requires me to use another program other than iTunes to do file management.  iTunes will not add album artwork to the Wav file;  therefore, I use J-River or Media Monkey for file management and for loading my iPod, iPad, etc.

Customer:  Fantastic information on the file formats, Drew.  From what I am gathering from you is it that WAV files allow for the most information from the original source and that is why you rip to WAV?  I was merely converting mp3 files that were already ripped…waste of space and no gain in audio.  Just curious…can you notice quality difference listening to the WAV or do you prefer to convert later on to FLAC or OGG?  Just curious what your ears hear the best?  Secondly, thank you for the clarification on my Cowon J3.  That iPod sure has a lock on the optical output I can see but it sounds as though I can escape the Ipod notion and get the Colorfly C4 which is an audio player like my Cowon J3 except it has everything I need without having to get an external amp/dac?  Will the Colorfly sound as good as my J3 and can I still use the Colorfly for usb DAC purposes on my computer?

Drew Baird, P.E.: iPod’s do not output optical digital. They output digital via USB and require a Dac down stream that has an Apple authenticity chip to be able to pull the digital signal.  I recommend devices such as the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -dB or the Fostex HP-P1 as they both have the Apple Chip and can pull the digital signal for you. The problem with devices like the iPod or Cowon J3 is that they are required to do so many functions that they don’t excel in any one area other than file management; therefore, the internal amps and dac sections are mediocre. Because of this, the amps just don’t have the ability to drive headphones of higher caliber or heavier loads to peak performance and portable amps or portable dacs are a way to take the high end audio setup up in performance several notches.  Moon Audio sells a ton of the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -R, Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo -dB and the Fostex HP-P1 each month.  I have received hundreds of emails in positive feedback from these high end portable amp/dac recommendations.

If you are not an Apple person, then without a doubt the Colorfly C4, Astell & Kern AK100, AK120, AK240 for all in one solutions these are your choices.  These  portable dac amplifiers have everything inside one portable media player.  🙂

Customer:  I am extremely intrigued by this Colorfly Drew.  Is the DAC chip in the Colorfly better than the ES9018?  What about the Astell & Kern devices?  What are the differences between the Ak-100 and Ak-120? Thank you for everything, Drew….you have been wonderfully helpful and I value your time.

Drew Baird, P.E.: Both DAC chips have their positives and negatives but the circuitry in the Colorfly is far better.  The interface is a little more basic on the Colorfly but the sound is fantastic.  As far as the Astell & Kern’s, the Ak100 has less storage, 32GB (even though you can add up to 2 more micro sd cards for a total of 96GB per player) and only one dac chip.  The Astell & Kern AK-120 has a Wolfson 8740 Dual Dac or 2 built in dac chips and comes with 64GB yet the AK120 supports up to 192GB per player.

Customer: Thank you, Drew. Much appreciated and I have a big decision to make either to buy the Colorfly, the Astell & Kern AK100, AK120 and lots of cables.  Decisions, decisions, but fun and exciting ones I might add as well!

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Written by Drew Baird

4 Comments

    1. Drew Baird

      The Chord Hugo does not have an Apple Authenticity chip in it. An Apple Authenticity chip tells an Apple iDevice to release a digital signal form the device to the dac. Thus a Lightning to USB Micro cable by itself will not do as you want. There are several solutions. The first and the easiest is that the Hugo uses Bluetooth as an input selection. Thus you can connect the Hugo to the iTouch via Bluetooth to stream music wirelessly. The next option is to purchase an Apple Camera Connection Kit or CCK. This is a Lightning to Female USB cable. Connect this to your iTouch and then add a USB A Male to USB B Micro male cable between the CCK and the Chord. The CCK will tell the iTouch to release digital to the Hugo. The Best sounding option is to add a Cypher Labs Solo either R or DB to the mix. This is both a Dac and a Apple to SPDIF digital conversion device. In this case you wont use the Dac as the Dac in the Hugo is far superior. You will use the Solo’s Coax Digital output. The Solo has an Apple Chip and will tell the iTouch to output digital to it. Then you connect a Black Dragon Mini Coax Digital cable between the Solo and the Hugo to send a digital signal to the Chord. Overkill? Maybe but it is the best sounding approach.

  1. dave

    Would the Cowon J3 benefit at all from just an headphone amp, forgetting the digital side? I could use the amp/DAC for my computer/tablet (digital) and the amp alone for the analog from the J3. The OPPE HA-2 amp/DAC has analog inouts as well.

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