Being at home during the Covid-19 pandemic creates a number of challenges- staying on top of remote-work opportunities, connecting to loved ones while social distancing, keeping up inventories of food and supplies, supporting children educationally, and emotionally, and managing your entertainment sphere. With more time at home, people have increasingly invested more time in shared fun, including Netflix nights and board-game parties.
If you need alone-time, chances are you pull out your phone to surf YouTube videos, play online games, or take in your music playlists. In those instances, most cell phone users plug headphones or earphones straight into the headphone socket of their phone, or they stream the audio to their wireless headsets or earbuds.
However, if you use a set of mid-range or audiophile wired headphones or in-ear monitors and your phone hosts a newer USB-standard connection, you can do better. Outputting the sound from your phone through a dedicated, add-on digital-to-analog-converter and headphone amplifier will give your soundtrack, music, or sound effects the punch and texture that most phones by themselves cannot replicate.
A Technology Primer
Digital-to-analogue-converters, or DACs, and amplifiers are already built into digital devices, including tablets, computers, soundbars, and smartphones, along with processors, video cards, and other essential components. Because DACs function to convert digital data streams to analog signals, they are essential to your getting music from digital music formats: MP3, AAC, and FLAC.
In contrast, a vinyl version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” played on a turntable through an integrated amplifier using RCA cables, sounds lovely on home speakers without having to go through this conversion process – the source and playback pieces are all purely analog.
Because smartphones have built-in DACs and amplifiers, they do not need standalone units to generate music or gaming sounds. However, DACs and amps in most phones are neither high-quality nor well-implemented units, with few exceptions; certainly, they do not get the spotlight as they fight to share the stage with other, more promoted components in the multitasking smartphone. Instead, high-end manufacturers focus screen resolution, processing power, and camera capability – or they punch out suspect technologies, such as foldable smartphones.
As a consequence, the DAC suffers from timing errors when converting to analog, and the amplifier produces weak power output, both of which can lead to low-resolution, fatiguing sound, especially when connected to higher-resolution headphones or earphones.
An Audio Medley
Good external DACs and headphone amplifiers, as well as integrated units, are designed and built by companies whose primary focus is the business of sound. As with any audiophile component, they span a range of prices, from under $100 to more than $120,000, and sizes – some are as tiny as a computer thumb drive.
Most importantly, they offer to vary sonic characteristics: from dynamic to silky, from incisive to euphonic, from Thor’s Thunder to Pavlova’s Pirouette.
They also sport varying power and hookup options. Portable units have batteries and can be charged via USB or wall socket. Some carry no batteries and work only out of a wall or USB port. The connection can be a sticking point, which you would need to do research for your particular phone. Generally, for Android phones connect digitally using an OTG USB cable or micro-USB adaptor, and for iPhones use a Lightning to USB Camera Adaptor. Finally, newer units have Bluetooth capability which eliminates their needing to be connected physically to the phone.
A Final Checkbox
By connecting your smartphone to an external sound source when playing games, listening to music, or watching movies on your smartphone, you will experience a far richer aural experience. However, if you use stock earbuds or earphones, do upgrading those alongside your DAC/headphone amplifier.