Chances are that in your pocket, right now, is a music player. Or in any case it is very close to you. That music player has access to the most unbelievable range of music. You also have with you a pretty decent compact camera. And a calculator. A computer for accessing the Internet. Oh, and a telephone.
Of course, they’re all the one device. Your phone does all those things, and it does most of them quite well.
Given all that, why would you need an extra device that concentrates on just one of those tasks? I’m talking about the delivery of music. And I’m suggesting that a dedicated digital audio player – a DAP – is a far better choice than your phone for a great listening experience.
Here are three good reasons why:
You are at the Addicted to Audio website because you appreciate fine music and want gear that will deliver it to audiophile standards. A high quality portable digital audio player incorporates a DAC of a quality similar to some of the finest home equipment on the market. At least one model goes so far as to include two separate high-quality DACs to give you a choice.
Our digital audio players also feature high performance headphone amplifiers. Because, let’s face it, it’s your choice of headphones or earphones that will have the greatest impact on the final quality of the sound. You don’t want that choice limited by having an underpowered device.
That multi-purpose device, your phone, simply doesn’t have all that’s required for a top-notch musical performance. For one thing, there’s a good chance it doesn’t even have a wired headphone output, but instead relies on a Bluetooth connection. And perhaps it just uses the basic SBC Bluetooth codec for music, and not one of the better standards. To use the higher standards requires them to be supported by both the phone and the headphones. And even the best of those improved codecs – aptX HD and LDAC – are still lossy.
Now, the fact is you can get an audiophile quality performance from your phone, but you’ll need some extra gear. Specifically, you’ll need a high-quality combination DAC and headphone amplifier to plug into your phone. But if you go for a high-performance unit with plenty of power for all manner of headphones, you’re talking about carrying around a largish extra gadget with you. And that largish gadget will be tethered to your phone by a cable. Look, I’ve enjoyed a lot of music that way, but only when I’ve been able to sit down at a coffee shop or such. It has never worked well while I’ve been on the move.
But how about the slim, cable-like DAC/Headphone amps? They aren’t bulky at all and some of them can provide an excellent performance. See, for example, our measurements of these ones from Astell&Kern and from Alo Audio. Just remember that you’re going to have to put your phone in your pocket upside down when you’re on the move, given that the Lightning or USB-C port is on the bottom of the phone.
Given all that, we prefer to have one single compact device for our music listening. And we let the phone do the other stuff it does best.
Pay enough for a premium phone, and it may have 256GB of storage, perhaps even 512GB. You can fit a lot of music in that amount of space. Except that, like the phone itself, that storage is for multiple purposes. The things most competing with your music collection for that space are photos and videos, both of which can quickly chew up many gigabytes of data.
There’s no such competition on a DAP. A few gigabytes of its capacity will be reserved for use by the system, and the rest will be available for storing your music. But that’s only the built-in storage. Most non-Apple DAPs also have a slot for a microSD memory card. These days, they usually support cards of at least 1TB in size. That’s a thousand gigabytes. And that makes a home for a lot of music.
I have a 1TB microSD card which I’ve loaded up with music and which I routinely use with the various digital audio players that cross my desk. I have on this card all the stereo digital audio I have in my collection. It amounts to 23,683 losslessly compressed FLAC files, several hundred of them in high resolution formats. I also have on this card 84 DSD tracks, some of them in DSD128 or DSD256 format. And there’s still more than 150GB of space remaining on it.
But what about streaming? You don’t need storage, do you, if you’re just going to stream your music?
Well, yes, so long as you have a reliable signal and sufficient data allowance, that’s quite right. And so long as the streaming service has the music that you want. It does have the particular version of the Schubert String Quintet that you prefer, right? And all the modern music that you enjoy is sufficiently popular to have made its way onto streaming services, right?
Me? I definitely use streaming, primarily TIDAL, but I prefer to have those tens of thousands of tracks available to me wherever I am, regardless of the state of 4G or 5G service.
Third, Audio Reliability
The problem with a multipurpose device is that it does multiple things at once. To be fair, modern phones have so much power that most of the time they can be serving up your music quite well while in the background they are attending to the various other things that they need to be doing all the time. Of course, you will probably have to go through and switch off notifications for a bunch of apps, otherwise your musical enjoyment will be interrupted by the notification noise whenever, for example, you receive an email or a text or a WhatsApp message or a Facebook Messenger message. And when you’ve finished listening, you can go switch the important notifications back on again, if you can be bothered.
There’s none of that with a digital audio player. It has only one job to do: deliver fine sound from your music files. Choose the right DAP and you’ll be endlessly rewarded with just that music.
Can I use my DAP to stream music from the Internet?
With most DAPs the answer is yes. They all connect wirelessly to your home network. If you’re out, you can set your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot and the DAP can use that to access the streaming service.
Not all DAPs support all streaming services out of the box. If you are keen on a particular service, you should check to make sure it is an available feature of any DAP that you’re considering purchasing, whether pre-installed or able to be installed via an APK.
What kind of control software does a DAP use?
Well, Apple DAPs – now reduced to just the iPod Touch – use iOS. All the rest seem to use some or other version of Android. With some DAPs this is very clear because they appear with the standard Android desktop and you can use them pretty much like a phone, installing apps from the Google Play Store. Others are heavily customised, hiding most Android stuff. In general, the user experience is better on the latter.
Why are some DAPs volume-limited?
European regulations limit the output volume on many music players quite severely. We can see the concern about children and teens intemperately subjecting themselves to long periods of high volume levels. But we would note that purchasers of products from Addicted To Audio are typically experienced, sensible listeners who would naturally be responsible for ensuring they don’t overdo the high volumes. And we note that some of the restrictions are so strong, they can make it virtually impossible to turn up some recordings enough to achieve a satisfactory playback level. (Unless you’re using super high sensitivity earphones, like the Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 IEMs.)