Entering The Parallel Audiophile Universe, Part II

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Decisions, Decisions…

As I mentioned in Part I of this series on high-end portable audio, I had to make a decision early on in my headphone journey whether my hi-res rig would consist of a standalone DAP (Digital Audio Player) or a “stack,” pairing my smartphone with a portable DAC/headphone amp. In the event that my reasoning might be useful to any of you who are making a similar decision, here’s the pros and cons list explaining why I opted for the DAP. (Of course, you could make a compelling argument the other way, too, depending on your own needs.) We’re going to get pretty down in the weeds here, so feel free to skip this list if you’re just not interested…

iPhone vs. Standalone DAP For Hi-Res Music On The Go – Pros And Cons

(1) My iPhone 6 boasts 64 gigabytes of storage, but by the time you factor in all the space taken up by Apple’s iOS operating system, my photos, videos and apps (that is, *cough* games) that’s a lot less than 64 gigs of memory remaining for hi-res music files. Granted, FLAC and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files don’t take up that much space, but if you have any interest in dabbling in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) super hi-res music, watch out. My copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on DSD, for example, consumes nearly 1.7 gigabytes! Most DAP’s, on the other hand, use cheap, removable media (typically Micro SD cards) for storage. My iBasso DX80 has 2 micro SD slots. I currently have a 32 gigabyte card in each slot, but the player theoretically supports 2 terabytes of storage (if/when 1 terabyte cards hit the market).

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It’s still astonishing to me that a teeny-weenie flash card like that will hold 32 gigabytes of data. Geez!

(2) I decided that I wanted my portable player to be populated with only the highest quality lossless files I could muster. I know that’s a little weird, but if I was going to go to all the trouble of assembling a good portable rig, I didn’t want to be playing crappy, compressed iTunes Store and MP3 content on it. And yes, my iPhone already has a lot of meh-quality music files on it. (Okay, granted: good hardware should make even the nastiest compressed files on my phone sound better, but why bother?) With my DAP, I’ve had a lot of fun (seriously!) ripping my CD collection to lossless FLAC files – more about you can do that on a Mac next time.

(3) As mentioned last time, I had been looking at buying into the Indiegogo campaign for the CEntrance DACPortable DAC/amp combo, which I’m guessing – given CEntrance’s stellar high-end audio track record – will sound great when it’s finally released… soon, they say. But did I really want to have to use earphones plugged into a DAC/amp dongle that in turn is tethered to my iPhone via a proprietary Lightning-to-USB cable, just to listen to hi-res music on the go? And did I want to be schlepping all that stuff around in my already overstuffed pockets, not to mention having to make sure that the DAC/amp was also charged up and ready? Nah… not for me. (All that said, this gadget from Arcam does look kind of interesting…)  😉

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(4) Did I really need a “stack” capable of driving low sensitivity, high-impedance, full size “cans” (headphones to you newbies)? Probably not, since most of my mobile listening takes place out of the house, such as during my work lunch break, where full size phones would be cumbersome to both carry and wear. So, for my purposes, the better-than-cell-phone output juice of a decent DAP would probably suffice for the in-ear monitors (IEM’s) I was likely to be using.

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(5) I weighed the pros and cons of using the iPhone itself as a hi-res music device. On the one hand, the iOS interface is silky smooth and mature, while a survey of Head-fi discussions on DAP’s (even some of the most expensive ones) makes it plain that a significant number of DAP’s suffer from glitchy (often Android-based) firmware that is, to put it kindly, “a work in progress.”

(6) On the other hand, the iPhone’s native Music player app doesn’t handle hi resolution files at all, so you need an alternative app like HF Player from Onkyo (which recognizes hi-res files and external DAC’s via a $10 upgrade to the free version). Furthermore, most dedicated DAP’s simply mount their storage cards on your computer desktop as removable media (as you would with a USB thumb drive). With the iPhone, though, the ability to mount, say, an iPod on your desktop as removable storage vanished many moons ago, so you’re stuck with wrangling iTunes to manage transferring your hi-res files whether or not you love (or loathe) iTunes.

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iTunes copies some hi-resolution music files onto my iPhone for use with HF Player…
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The paid version of Onkyo’s HF Player with some hi-res Diana Krall tunes from HDTracks.com all cued up and ready to play on my iPhone.

Ta-Da! (We Have A Winner.)

As you already know, I chose a DAP over the iPhone + DAC/amp “stack” solution. I originally thought I’d get into a look at the iBasso DX80 in this post, but instead I’ll devote my next post to a thorough look at this DAP. It’ll be beyond riveting, trust me.

Until then, be kind and enjoy your music!

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