You Can Take it With You: A Survey of Portable USB Headphone Amp/DACs
I think portable amps/DACs and the hype that often surrounds them on message boards and review sites are a huge pain in the ass. Some of them are good, a lot of them suck. And as I've progressed through this hobby, I've strayed away from them.
But sometimes life happens. And you find yourself away from your home rig, or your home rig is gone, period...as is your home. And you need to listen to "Don't Think Twice" by Dylan over and over, but the soundcard in your laptop isn't cutting it even though your JH13s otherwise sound awesome. Or you find yourself without power or worse after a hurricane and the only thing that can ease your mind is some tunes from your battery-operated portable rig. Then you realize, yeah, portable amps/DACs have a place in this world because right now I could really use one.
And so life has happened to me over these last several months, and these are some of the portable amp/DACs Tyll boxed up and shipped over to me to listen to. I'm not going to get into every last detail of the tech and sound signature of these things. My goal here is just to communicate how well these things accomplish the elusive goal of rendering satisfying musical sound in a small package, especially at a given price. Because sometimes a portable amp is all you've got.
The devices surveyed in this article all share certain characteristics: they all are combined USB DACs and headphone amplifiers; I consider them all portable (some more than others); I used the JHAudio JH13 as my reference headphone; and none of them have ever been in my kitchen. From there, the feature sets vary widely; from the barest essentials to the ability to play hi-rez files to multiple gain settings. We'll focus on the shared features here.
I'll tackle these devices in order of MSRP, from lowest to highest.