Can You Use A DAC With An iPhone?

Modern iPhones have industry-leading audio quality output, but it still leaves much to be desired for the discerning ear. We spend so much on high-quality albums, but our main listening device, our phone, limits the audio quality to far below what it should be – what’s the point? This leads many to wonder if it is possible to improve the playback quality of music from their phone. One way of doing that could be by using an external DAC, but can you really use a DAC with an iPhone?

You can use an external DAC with an iPhone, and a good one will significantly improve an iPhone’s audio quality. Be sure to use a high-quality Lightning to USB adapter if your DAC hasn’t a Lightning connector as standard. For maximum audio quality, you should opt for an MQA-supporting DAC that has a sample rate indicator.

Using a DAC with an iPhone can seem complicated, and not every DAC is ideal for this purpose. There are excellent mobile DAC’s that work well with an iPhone, but there are some steps to follow to set it up correctly. Let’s look at why using a DAC with an iPhone improves the sound and the best way to set it up correctly.

Using a DAC from AudioQuest with an iPhone
Portable DAC from AudioQuest is being used with an iPhone.

Why an external DAC for iPhone is a great idea

In general, every digital device that produces a sound has a built-in DAC. The problem is that they are usually not that great. Using a better external DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) bypasses the internal one. It is, therefore, the best way to improve the audio quality from a digital device that is only capable of lower sample rate playback.

Most DAC’s are used for digital stereo systems and computers. Still, for many of us, our primary listening device is our phone. The phones that we use, especially modern iPhones, are meant to have very good quality playback, but the truth is, they simply do not.

This does have to do with the DAC used by iPhone, but that isn’t the only thing limiting the audio output quality…

iPhones limitations

So, all iPhones have built-in DAC’s. They will be located in the phone itself and in the Lightning to 3.5mm adaptor that some iPhones were shipped with (nowadays, you have to buy it separately). Are you using the wired earphones with a lightning connector? That has a DAC built-in as well.

These internal (and external) original DAC’s isn’t the best for bringing out the most of your audio files.

But the limitation in sound quality also comes down to the technical limitations of the Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter that most iPhone users that fancy a wired pair of headphones use.

The problem is that the dongle limits audio quality to 48kH, which is not ideal for the best possible experience.

Using high-quality, DAC-ready Lighting compatible headphones is a way around this. Still, there are very few of these headphones available, and even fewer capable of producing more than 24-bit/48kH audio anyway.

So, even though all iPhones are capable of useful audio playback right out of the box, they, unfortunately, aren’t great. To get the best sound quality out of your iPhone, you will need to invest in an external DAC.

Which DAC’s Work With An iPhone?

There are so many mobile DAC’s available now, and many of them claim to be the best on the market, but which external mobile DAC is the best to use with an iPhone specifically?

DragonFly Cobalt - A portable DAC

The best external mobile DAC to use with an iPhone is the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt!

This DAC has more than enough power to amp up the audio quality to audiophile levels (24-bit/96kH). It is small and compact, it requires no additional power, and it is MQA-ready which means that it can stream high bitrate audio.

The DragonFly Cobalt is the top model from AudioQuest, but if you’re unable to pay the price for it, AudioQuest has some really good alternatives. You should definitely check out the DragonFly Red and DragonFly Black, which may be a better option for you.

But the DragonFly is not only great for phone users listening with headphones. You can just as well use it with other devices, such as your laptop or desktop. Then, it also functions as a preamp for a maximized audio experience with a lot cleaner and richer sound.

Check out the current price on the official AudioQuest Amazon Store!

There are many other DAC’s that will work well for an iPhone, such as the Chord Audio Mojo, the Fiio Q5S, and the iFi Micro iDSD Signature. All of these are good for use with an iPhone, but the problem for many users is the size. It’s usually too bulky for most people on the go. The very portable form factor of the DragonFly makes it the perfect match for a modern iPhone.

There are, in fact, some good enough DAC’s that are even more compact and easier to carry than the DragonFly, such as FiiO i1. Even though it may not be as great sounding as the DragonFly, it’s extremely convenient for the casual iPhone user. It’s tiny and doesn’t require a dongle to fit. Apart from the lower audio quality and the smaller range of headphones to use with it, one major drawback is that it only sports a lightning connector. That means you don’t have the opportunity to use FiiO i1 with another device, such as a computer or an Android device.

What Else Do I Need To Use A DAC With An iPhone?

Unfortunately, using an external mobile DAC with a modern iPhone is not a simple plug-and-play affair. As I mentioned earlier, to use most of these devices with your iPhone, you will need some additional hardware.

It’s not that complicated, though. You will have to get a Lightning to USB adapter to plug the DAC into your iPhone. We recommend the camera adapter that Apple produces, as it is capable of the best quality bitrates and transfer speeds.

When you have this, it actually is a plug-and-play affair, to be honest. Of course, you need a pair of headphones to use with it, but that’s quite obvious, right?

What’s not that obvious, though, is that you have to buy a DAC that actually works great with your pair of headphones. Headphones differ in efficiency, which makes them more or less easy to drive. Go for DragonFly Cobalt or DragonFly Red. You don’t have to worry about which headphones you choose as they easily can drive even the lowest-efficiency models, from impedances of 10ohm and higher. But if you opt for another model, be sure to check the compatibility with your headphones or the ones you would like to buy.

Using the USB adapter will allow you to plug your iPhone directly into the input of the DAC and your headphones into the output of the DAC.

By getting a DAC and the Apple Camera Adapter, you will be able to listen to a lot cleaner and richer sound. The DragonFly Cobalt will strip away fuzz and fog that you might not even have noticed before, making it a more pleasant listening experience.

Even if you’re not listening to the highest quality streaming service or uncompressed audio files, you are going to hear a difference.

How To Connect An iPhone To A DAC

Using a DAC with an iPhone is actually very simple. Let’s take a look at precisely how to use a DAC with an iPhone, step by step.

  • Step 1 – Connect a Lightning to USB converter, preferably the USB camera adapter from Apple, to the lightning connector on your iPhone.
  • Step 2 – Connect the Lightning to USB adapter to the input of the DAC using the USB connection.
  • Step 3 – Connect your headphones to the output of the external DAC. Headphones with an impedance of fewer than 250 Ohms are best when using an external mobile DAC.
  • Step 4 – Enjoy the high-quality audio playback from your iPhone!

That’s it, not really rocket science, right? That being said, there are a few things to remember when trying to get the best possible sound quality from your iPhone.

How to maximize audio quality from your iPhone

The native music player app that comes with iPhone, as well as iTunes and Apple Music, do not support high-quality audio files at the moment, which means that you will have to make use of an app that does support at least FLAC files.

The best example of a high-quality audio app is Vox: MP3 & FLAC Music Player. This app is powerful enough to run high-bit rate audio files at high-quality levels. The app is perfect for use with a DAC to maximize audio quality.

Suppose you aren’t the person who rip your CD collection or download music albums in high-quality audio files. In that case, this app might not be of interest to you. Like most of us nowadays, the chances are that you are using streaming services via your iPhone.

But did you know that there can be significant differences between the multiple streaming services out there? Some may not deliver the best possible audio quality.

Others, such as Tidal and Amazon Music HD, give you superior quality with a CD-quality bitrate. The best thing is that most of the streaming services offer a free trial so that you can test it out and choose the right one for you.

So, with the use of an app that supports high-quality music files or is capable of streaming high-quality audio, a DAC and headphone amp that supports MQA, and a good Lighting to USB adapter, you will be all set to enjoy audiophile-level music quality from your iPhone.

Conclusion

So, It is indeed possible to use an external DAC with an iPhone, and I recommend it if you would like a better listening experience. Even though iPhones already have a DAC built-in, you will get better quality from a dedicated external DAC.

You simply have to use the right DAC, either one that fits directly into your iPhone or using a Lightning to USB adapter. You will also have to consider which headphones you will use with it, as some headphones are harder to drive for a lot of mobile DAC’s.

Using an external mobile DAC is the best way to listen to audiophile quality music from your iPhone. This technology makes great audio quality possible no matter where you are.

I would say that an external mobile DAC is a must-have for every modern audiophile!