It would seem that iFi and Chord Electronics were ahead of the game when they released their respective Nano iDSD and Hugo hi-res portable DACs last season. Japan and latterly the US and Europe are seeing new, hi-res portable DAC/amps appear on the market on an almost weekly basis. Sony and Denon have both launched outside Japan and Pioneer and Audio Technica recently did the same in the home market, you can be sure they will be here soon. These devices all look to have been inspired by the iFi iDSD and/or Chord Hugo, that is compact headphone amps with highly specified DACs onboard. The ability to convert DSD natively seems to be a base requirement in these highly featured and rather attractive boxes of tricks.
There are now two apps available that can deliver DSD over PCM (DoP) from a smartphone, Onkyo’s HF and the DSD only Hibiki. Both are currently limited to Apple iOS devices but as the iPhone is so popular this seems not to be a barrier to the demand for serious DACs to which they can be (literally) attached. These converters can all cope with DSD up to 128 (5.6MHz) and the likes of the iFi Nano iDSD doubles that sample rate to 256 (it’s Micro iDSD doubling it again!). On the PCM side the spec goes up to 32-bit/384kHz thanks to the latest converter chips.
Does this mean you can get genuine high resolution from a phone? As with all matters audio the numbers are not an actual indication of the sound quality available, specs do not equal high resolution per se but they probably mean that players with lower numbers will be at a commercial disadvantage. And this is a young market, the people who buy portable headphone amp/DACs are the audiophiles of tomorrow, the people that the high end and beyond are depending on to keep them in business in the years to come.
There are alternatives to this approach of course. Neil Young’s crowd sourced Pono player has just come on the market offering high res PCM up to 192kHz, it’s not a headphone amp/DAC like the above units but competes in the same portable audio arena. Whether its yellow Toblerone styling will put it in contention remains to be seen but I’d hazard that the combination of looks and spec could make this difficult. However, it’s always possible that the backing of an actual bona fide rock star will bring his variation on the high res audio theme to a market that is not interested in getting great sound from their phones.
Audio Technica AT-PHA100
There are already a few standalone hi-res portables on the market, Astell & Kern, Fiio and Sony are all addressing this sector with beautifully crafted players for a wide range prices. The Sony NWZ-A15 Walkman (£170) is attractively prices and offers 16GB of memory with the ability to play PCM at up to 24/192. The Astell & Kern makes three players all of which can convert up to DSD128 as well as 24/192 while Fiio’s £100 X1 has similar spec to the Sony.
What makes the DAC/amps a bit more interesting is that they are not limited to use on the move, they are equally at home attached to a computer at one end and a serious system at the other. They offer state of the art conversion technology for reasonable prices. Battery power can also be beneficial when it’s rechargeable lithium-ion as is usually the case, this may not be as the ‘stiff’ as the mains it is very clean indeed. Which is why a habitual speaker user like yours truly has requested an iFi Micro iDSD to assess, I have to say it intrigues me. Watch this space.