How Can I Make My iPhone Sound Better?

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Q Apple regularly gets flack for not offering Hi-res versions of its iTunes music catalog. I also hear that the quality of the DACs in the latest iPhones (Android phones, too) is not the greatest. Is there any device I can add to my iPhone that will coax the last bit of sound quality out of it?—Scott Oakley, Pine, AZ

A Yes, there are plenty of options for improving the sound quality of your iPhone or Android phone. Each one involves adding an external DAC/amplifier to the phone, however, typically connected by a cable or adapter.

Two Sound & Vision Top Picks that I can personally recommend are AudioQuest’s DragonFly Red and Black DAC/amps . Both DragonFlys are about the size of a USB memory stick, making them the most compact options listed here. At $199 for the Red and $99 for the Black, they are also affordable. Linking a DragonFly to your iPhone requires an Apple Lightning to USB adapter ($38). Android phone users will need to add AudioQuest’s DragonTail USB adapter ($19). What does the extra $100 you’ll pay for the Red get you? Higher output power, mainly, which will make it compatible with a wider range of headphones, including high-impedance models.

Other DAC/amplifier options you should check out include the Oppo Digital HA-2SE ($299) and iFi iDSD BL ($549). Both models are compatible with high-res PCM and DSD files and can drive high-impedance headphones. Unlike the AudioQuest DACs, which suck power from your phone, both the Oppo and iFi have a rechargeable battery and can also be used to charge a portable device. Other than price, the downsides to both are their bulk — the Oppo (shown above) is about the size of an average iPhone, and the iFi is even larger.

If, like me, you own an iPhone 6 or 6s, you should also consider the Arcam MusicBOOST . The MusicBOOST, which is only compatible with the iPhone 6 or 6s, is different from the DAC/amps listed above in that it serves as a protective sleeve, reducing complexity and bulk. It’s also rechargeable, and can be used as a power source to charge your iPhone. The MusicBOOST’s Burr-Brown DAC definitely improved my iPhone’s audio performance, and at $30 it’s priced about the same as a decent regular iPhone case.

ednaz's picture

iFi has a Nano iDSD that's quite a bit smaller than the model in the article, and quite a bit less expensive, even in the black version. The black versions aren't just a different color, they do a bunch of tweaks internally. I own the iDSD BL mentioned above and it's really excellent. Better than a couple regular dacs that I had in some rooms of my house. I've heard (but only for a little bit) the Nano Black and I think it's over 90% of the sound quality of its big brother, at less than half the price. Small, too.

mlknez's picture

The better choice is to get a phone with a good quality DAC built in, Such as the LG V30 with a Sabre ES9218P DAC

drny's picture

I would venture to guess that most I phone users stream their music content (not download a hi-res audio file). That being the case any DAC will be at the mercy of the quality of both the actual stream bit and the intermediary source. I would go with Al Griffin last suggestion on using Arcam Music Boost. The Dragon Fly DACs are great with laptop/desktop not so much with smartphones.

cawgijoe1's picture

I have the Dragonfly Red and have used it with downloaded music as well as Apple Music and now Tidal (cd quality) here at work. The Red makes a huge quality difference with downloaded music and also a significant improvement with streamed music here at work. I use it everyday and it's been one of the best purchases I have ever made.

ednaz's picture

Not everyone can enjoy streaming. Other than with really bargain headphones or IEMs, streaming quality music makes me feel like I'm chewing on aluminum foil. I put 16/44 files on my phone and tablets, and whatever high def resolution I've got on my laptops. (Also have a high end portable player... but I use an external dac even with that, much of the time.)

My dac choices are based on working with any of the three different platforms I use for mobile music. Getting a phone with a great dac will work for a lot of people. My experience with my pricey DAP, though, won't take me there. Swiss army knives are awesome, but if you're a sushi chef, not so much. Someday my hearing may stop being like it is now (I can still hear CRTs if an office is using one) and my life will be simpler, and cheaper. Until just recently I travel so much that headphones and mobile DACs are my primary listening mode. I've not paid much attention to my home systems.

boulderskies's picture

Thanks Al and everyone else...I probably should provide a bit more detail about my specific situation: I have a pair of Jaybird X3 bluetooth earbuds (most excellent!) that I use with an iPhone 6. Music source is strictly iTunes downloaded songs with a few hi-res tracks from HDTRACKS. By the way, the difference in sound quality is very very subtle. So, my usage is very mobile: phone in my pocket, earbuds in my ears. Therefore the Arcam solution would be about the best but for $30 I really do wonder if its even worth it. I wish this thing wasnt so subjective; ie: if someone could say definitively "oh yeah, the LG phone is MUCH better than the iPhone, or the Arcam is WAY better than the iPhone."

vasanth's picture

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