ARE the DAP Days REALLY over, or not?

This YouTube video: https://youtu.be/bsc8H-ffzLY is a couple of years old, and I personally don’t agree with the slightly hyperbolic language, but I DO think it alludes to an interesting question I’ve been wondering about, especially in 2020. It appears we are seeing amazing industry advancement, and a healthy amount of brand competition to the consumer’s benefit, almost year over year, in the headphone space. I’d suggest that the DAP space is a lagging step-child in comparison. Do you agree, or am I wrong? More specifically, what would you like to see the major player vendors (or a wild, ambitious newcomer!) improve upon to take things to the next level, similar to what we’re seeing with headphones?

To provide some context, before I recently sold the Cayin N8 to focus on developing a desktop system, I found that while I loved the sound, it was still a bit clunky in the user interface. And it didn’t have native streaming with TIDAL/QOBUZ, which is (to me), a major miss in 2020. I’ve had A&K players in the past and they’re nice in their own right, but while the UI was “better”, their reliance on an Android platform always seemed like it would create a ceiling on any innovation they could provide (I work in tech, so maybe I’m both sensitive and biased to this idea). And I know many seem to be happy with their FiiOs players, as well as other players so… maybe I’m completely wrong! It just doesn’t FEEL like DAPs are taking it to the next level, besides just focusing on gradual improvements and discussions on “the latest DAC chip”, which doesn’t feel like any progress or innovation at all. Also, being fairly new here, I’ve noticed that “DAP talk” seems to be by far the topical area with the least amount of activity. Possibly supporting my point?

Anyway, was just wondering what the general feeling from others are here when it comes to the current market on DAPs. Are you “happy” with what’s available, or feel there’s much more innovation and general excitement this segment of the hobby can provide? And if excited about the near future, what has you feeling that way?

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hey Charles,

I know Darko´s series about this topic.
There is no black and white or right or wrong on this topic - in my opinion.

It depends on each specific usecase.
Some prefer mobile DAC/AMPs and some use dongles. The smallest number of people might use DAPs and so there is not much to gain for developers.
In these crazy times, people tend to stay at home and build a desktop system - this could be why there is not a lot happening in the DAP thread.
You coming from a N8(did love the N8 when auditioning it) and selling it for a desk build, might be a sign of the times.

I really am happy about the sub 400 budget (DX160s and others). They provide nice solutions for the ones, who try to keep their phones in the pocket and concentrate on music.

I always had the feeling, that the most high end DAPs are for the purists, who already have massive collections of DSD or Flac files and so don´t need the streaming clients.

I´d personally miss ROON, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon HD, Spotify and Audible from my tablets and mobile phones, with many old DAPs.
I´d love to see Smartwatch app support, the latest Bluetooth codecs, faster UI´s and open Android Market Place support on DAPs, but can understand the purists, as well. I even would be fine with a built in SIM card on DAPs.

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I own a AK240, Ive had it for a number of years. It kinda sets on my dresser, all alone not getting much use these days. Besides being what I consider heavy, I just can’t see dragging it along with my smartphone when I can listen to the same music on the smartphone although not the same quality of sound, but its still music. I guess I just need my smartphone more.

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it´s funny.

I carry in my backpack the Focal Elegia in it´s purse, the ifi xDSD in a PeliCase, 2 different Tin Hifi IEMs and the ES 100 plus 2 tablets(Android and iOS) and 2 mobile phones, like S10 and S8+(each with 256GB SD cards and Full Flat LTE data plans) with me.

What I got used to are these Galaxy Buds + - kill me. :hugs:Really have to train myself, to keep them in the small jeans pocket and use the over ear closed back.

So adding a DAP, would be a no brainer, if I had the funds for a decent one, which sounds as good as my xDSD for under 450. The HiBy R5 was not that DAP. The open Android Market support was cool, though sound …

so my hopes are now, simply being lucky and winning a decent DAP in the next weeks :wink: and add it to my “everyday” transported gems

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My issue with DAPs, especially higher end ones, is that you’re paying smartphone prices for devices that are not as capable as smartphones. DAPs are uniformly overpriced and underspecced. Many of them have weird quirks and OS limitations that would be unacceptable for other types of consumer electronics. Most people are better off buying the cheapest Android device they can with expandable storage and a USB-C port and using a good dongle with it.

My current portable devices of choice are the E1DA 9038S Gen 3 and the Qudelix 5K. My main phone is a Pixel 3, which I use for streaming. My other phone is a Redmi Note 4 which I use to store FLAC. I can use both phones with both devices, depending on whether I want to use the more powerful 9038S or the PEQ on the 5K. The 9038S can be used in conjunction with Wavelet if I really need both EQ and power.

My experience with these devices may involve more cables and adapters but it is much less frustrating on a moment to moment basis than dealing with the sluggish UI and questionable thermal performance of most DAPs I’ve used would be.

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yes, yes and yes - thank you LoL

my around 4 year old S8+ runs like on it´s first day. Would bet there are not many DAPs that fast, with the battery Power, a big 1440p display and all the modern BT codecs, Dual BT … in a package around 200gramms, in a grippy Alcantara case. The same goes for my old S10, which even supports HDR Netflix…
USB Audio Pro Player App running Qobuz, Tidal, … on all Androids

BUT - I won´t use the wired OTG orgy with IEMs in my jacket-pocket… While walking… Been there and it´s grotesk. Had even a 3meter over ear headphone cable wrapped around my neck and plugged in. :face_with_hand_over_mouth:
I also don´t get it(in fact I do), why the OTG cable has to go in on one side and the headphone out is on the other side on most mobile DAC/AMPs. So how should one transport a stack in it´s jacket, without braking ports or cables over longtime?
There are some DAPs, with all connections on top - which I´d prefer.
So one could hold the device on the bottom and have it connected to be powered on top and the headphone cable is is also plugged in on the top.

The general ease of use is the Benefit of every DAP.
Lucky me - I use public transport maybe once or twice a year and love our cars audio systems.

Where would I use a DAP? everwhere at home, in the garden… it would be so nice, not to carry around the stack - to be honest.
Adapting 3.5 balanced out to 2.5 or XLR / Pentacon - have all these standard and custom adapters - which maybe have cost me half a decent DAP. Using 3 different OTG cables(out of 5 or 6 I bought over the time) and 2 different apple camera connection kits for almost 100 bucks…

I would have been there in the over 500-600 bucks market
if I would have not bought the 450 bucks ifi xDSD … I could easily grab a DX 220 or N6ii and add later some modules …

So it´s again, not a clear yes or no, for me, if DAP days are over

Some smart grown ups or more dedicated to highest fidelity folks will see the benefits of a DAP, which is similar or higher priced, compared to modern TOTL mobile phones or tablets.

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As with all such things, it depends on the person and their use case(s).

I tend to use DAPs more as transportable devices than for on-the-go listening. And in those cases, with the headphones I tend to use, dongle DAC/amps just don’t cut it (quantitatively, qualitatively nor for simplicity and convenience).

I used to use DAPs with IEMs when flying, but qualitatively the high environmental noise-floor leads to an experience that isn’t sufficiently better than simply using a Bluetooth ANC IEM or headphone via my normal phone to be worth it.

The only dongles I can be bothered with these days are the $9 Apple USB-C or Lightning to 3.5mm adapters. In the rare cases I’ve been able to hear a clear and meaningful difference comparing those to other dongles (be it AudioQuest, E1DA, NextDrive, Qudelix etc.) that difference is immediately lost due environmental noise anyway … so for my uses they’ve become a complete waste of time. And, again, dongles don’t cut it for the headphones I use for transportable listening.

Otherwise it’s a DAP or the Hugo 2, depending on how long I’m going to be away from my main rig, and what I’m going to be doing, coupled with whatever headphones I fancy for the trip.

Other than always wanting more storage capacity, there’s not much “innovation” I want on a DAP. I am not always in a situation where streaming is an option at all*, so the more of my library I can have on hand, without having to carry/swap cards, the better.


*Using the “offline” or “downloaded” option for most streaming clients isn’t a solution, either. Excepting Apple Music, every single one of them has fucked me at the last moment, by deciding that they want to re-authorize the library (requiring an internet connection) before they’ll play. So, if I’m going to use local storage at all, I’ll use my own files that don’t need periodic license refreshes to play.

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DAPs reflect the limits of mobile audio technology and the copyright strategies in the 1990s. They, along with Apple’s original iTunes, retained the notion of ownership and the pay-per-track, pay-per-album model. Until the web took over in the late 1990s, PC and information devices were their own little kingdoms that required fully independent maintenance. OS updates, software, and media shifted to the web as soon as the bandwidth became available.

DAPs followed the model of LP, CD, cassette ownership – they were also essential when digital storage cost a fortune. It wasn’t until the record industry accepted reality (circa 2015 to 2016) with low-cost unlimited content plans that one could get away from local content and abandon the ownership model.

Note that it would be possible today to extract fantastic audio copies from the analog output of the modern streaming services and break copyright laws. This isn’t common because it’s not cost effective when an unlimited content subscription is $10 to $20 per month.

The market has shifted such that any phone, PC, tablet or iPod duplicates DAP functionality with a dongle and external amp. One can easily carry essential content and access methods (WiFi or cellular) for unlimited content. So, I do not see a bright future for DAPs. I see a future dominated by phones, tablets, and lower-cost data storage platforms such as the iPod Touch (certainly nothing more expensive).

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Unless I decide to go very upscale, I will continue to use my LG v35 ThinQ phone as my portable audio player. All of the higher end LG phones from the G20 forward have the “Quad DAC” implemented.

It provides support for 32 bit 192khz files and has an amp that will automatically step up the gain for headphones over 50 ohms. Unfortunately you can’t easily manually override this gain so if you have some 30 or 40 ohm headphones that are hard to drive then you might be out of luck. The phone works great with my ATH M50s, Mitchell and Johnson JP1 and Massdrop HDXXXs. One of the few phones that continue to support both additional SD card storage and a headphone jack. I have 512gb of flac file storage on the SD card.

Older generation LG phones can be picked up quite reasonably, used and refurbished. I have seen the V20s and V30s as low as $100 but between $120 and $150 is more common.

I like the phone as you can also use it as a fully capable android device. Use any streaming service you want. There are many great audio players to choose from. If you want EQ, you can use it. I have added a Google Fi, data only SIM to it for internet access when I have no WIFI.

For a good explanation of the DAC capabilities, the chipsets and the implementation differences between models, see https://www.androidauthority.com/lg-quad-dac-1115577/.

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I’ve been eyeing that unit, how do you like it?

Agree with a lot you noted. I can access Tidal and Qobuz from my smartphone and listen to music via my JH Audio IEMs till I’m saturated or play music that I’ve stored on the phone.

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I love the convenience of DAPs. I purchased the N8 Charles mentioned (from Charles) and it’s been a complete revelation for my use cases, doubling as my transportable and my mini desktop setup.

I still have my dongles, but I rarely use them. Prior to the N8, I’ve gone through so many dongles, stacks, and wires (and the relative inconvenience that they bring) that I could have bought the N8 at retail twice over (or the N8 and a ZMF Verite). Lesson learned.

Re streaming options on DAPs: I prefer they don’t have it. @MartinTransporter mentioned “purists”; and @generic mentioned “sense of ownership.” While I don’t consider myself a purist, there’s definitely something to be said about having an optional device that is dedicated to playing your personal music collection. In parallel, and you may say I’m impractical, but I’m not the only one (sorry, John Lennon) who might purchase digital copies of movies to “own” while already being a subscriber to most major streaming companies (HBO, Disney+, Netflix, et al). I think there’s a major market for impractical people like me, and companies know it.

Streaming is still great for discovery, mobile and even home use case of course. And for extreme mobile solutions, I have my phone + BT buds for that. With the advent of LDAC et al., and factoring in environmental noise as Ian mentioned, it’s all one could ever need on quick runs around town.

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I agree with @phillyphil about having a separate device that is just music.

The two DAPs I own are low end, being the Shanling M2X and the M0, both serving different purposes.

The M0 is tiny and is great as either a portable player or BT receiver that I can clip on to the collar of my shirt etc. much like a BTR5 or similar but with onboard storage.

The M2X lives in my bag with the Starfield and whatever other IEMs I am listening to at the time. I use it daily to drive IEMs and it also comes in handy as a DAC/Amp for my work laptop when on the move (as does the M0). It can stream Tidal & Spotify and is also decent at receiving BT and DLNA streaming when moving around the house.

Yes, I could do all of this with my phone and a dongle, but both of these DAPs are non Android for a reason. Due to my job, my phone is constantly receiving messages, emails, calls etc. and there are plenty of times when I want to both save the battery of my phone and disconnect from the whole world. There are times when I just don’t want to be connected to the rest of the world.

As I said, neither are high quality DAPs but I don’t really need anything more than they give me. I don’t really follow DAPs as I have what I need, so upgrades in technology of DAPs don’t really interest me much. Once I am ready to upgrade a DAP, they only thing I will look for is better audio quality, the rest… I don’t really need anything else.

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Thank you everyone! I’ve been saving for a DAP and giving thought to some of these very same issues. My plan is to get an AK SR25. I keep thinking, though, that the same investment would get me a Bifrost 2 for my desktop setup, which should be all the DAC I’d ever need. Then again, I suppose the same could be said about the AK DAP (until the battery conks out). And then I see an authority on another forum state that his Modius and THX 789 are superior to any DAP he’s heard… What to think?

I agree with @generic about DAPs being anachronistic. I think there’s also some confusion about what a DAP should do and, by extension, a few unreasonable expectations by customers and manufacturers alike about the features their DAPs should have. Too many seem to want Swiss army knives. (Take a look at some of the threads on headfi; in doing research, I was astonished at the number of questions fielded by the reps of AK or Cayin, to mention just two of the more attentive, patient reps). Can this $500 DAP drive super-sensitive BA IEMs with no noise? Will it also allow me to deafen myself with my Susvara? Can I sideload a dating app? What price bananas? Why can’t I get a stable wi-fi connection in my dungeon? Are you my angel?

I fear a trend towards demands for ever more features at the expense of good sound, at least in DAPs that cost less than a grand. I see plenty of complaints about the poor value for money when it comes to DAPs and how shite they often are. Clearly, smartphones have raised expectations about what a pocket-sized device should be able to do. Smartphones, though, are a different beast in that they benefit from subsidization through cellular data contracts or else they take advantage of vast economies of scale. How many units does Astell and Kern shift in a year? Or Sony, for that matter?

Clearly the totl DAPs can be chock full of fancy features. But there’s no consensus about what a $1000 DAP should do, much less a $500 one. That’s partly a function of the pace of technological change, I suspect, and the shift in the way we access and listen to music, as has been noted above. And it’s partly about marketing and the growing alphanumeric soup of specs people think they want. Compare the specs for the AK SR25 with the Schiit Bifrost 2.

I’d be delighted to see a company make a device in a couple of price ranges (say $300 and $700) that either plays native content or that streams music and that does either of these things with an emphasis on reliability, stability, and sound quality. I’ve seen complaints of wi-fi dropouts with the AK SR25; that won’t be an issue for my intended use, fortunately, which makes the decision a bit easier.

Still, I can’t help but remember my first experience of a “modern” DAP at CanJam in 2017. I was taken aback at how utterly craptastic many of them were - heavy, cumbersome, slow, laggy, and with counter-intuitive interfaces. It was like I’d gone back in time. Some sounded awful. And then, beyond the world of DAPs, the sight of so many people clutching their elastic-banded stacks of clunky devices, with so tangles of dongles and cables, would have been absurdly amusing were it not for my shame at being scorned for my newbie faux pas of test-driving fancy IEMs with my proletarian iPhone. What a rube! They were right of course. My pricey IEMs do deserve better. But then should I get a Mojo or an xDSD instead? Ugh.

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I really liked my A&ultima SP1000M and InEar Prophile 8 IEMs when I traveled a lot internationally pre-COVID. My travel collection does not all exist on streaming services anyway, and even if it did, I could not rely on streaming while roaming abroad, or on flaky hotel WiFi, not to mention mountain lodges without any data service or, of course, airplanes. Now that I’m mostly stuck at home or places reachable by car, the Hugo 2+2go+big headphones I use working in my backyard are easy to bring along, and sound even better.

In general, I reject the assumption that streaming is as practical as people make it to be. I stream at home all the time, where I have a solid (actually, dual WAN) data link. But the low latency of a local library on flash/SSD is unbeatable for ease of use.

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DAP’s were no longer a viable option to me when I realize this one thing: the DAP is only good for as long as app makers are willing to support the platform. When they move on, your platform is pretty much dead in the water. So I go with phones …reluctantly.

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I seriously couldn’t do without my Dap. I have no interest in using my phone. Having a dedicated device specifically for music really suits my needs. Though I can understand that for a lot of people they are redundant due to the Mobile phone. It’s also the only source when listening to music. I am predominantly an iem user so that is also a big reason for it. Each to their own as they say. Congrats on the N8 by the way. Lovely Dap. But I also need to be able to stream as well as listening to my own Flacs. Enjoy.

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I am confused by this. If the DAP is purely a music player, and it works, why would it need support?

If you grab an MP3 player from almost 20 years ago, it will still work fine as long as the battery has not died (permanently).

Obviously this is a different story if you want an Android platform that runs the latest in apps. In that case, you are depending upon updates to the OS, just like any other android device (i.e: phone).

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That is indeed what most DAPs have morphed into: music-friendly partial phones.

DAPs are a way to avoid carrying and maintaining a rubber band stack of a phone plus an external mobile amp and DAC. It comes down to whether one prefers an all-in-one or separates. The all-in-one may or may not sound better than separates due to integration and custom engineering, and may or may not be more convenient, secure, reliable and durable than separates. However, an all-in-one is guaranteed to fail when its weakest link cannot be updated. With separates, one can buy another unit to replace a failing link.

Choose you own path.

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That product is known as the iPod Touch. I’ve stuck with the platform due to its low cost ($200 to $300), as mobile devices are often abused and generally last just a few years with heavy use. With rechargeable batteries and facing environmental hazards, all mobile devices are inherently disposable.

Despite its snobby attitude, Apple does have best-in-class reliability and stability. The output quality is very decent on the most recent generation, and it’ll run IEMs without issue. You’ll be operating at the CD audio level out of the box, but that’s a bloody good standard.

As discussed above, DAPs are indeed anachronistic. They were a transitional concept in the early digital age. One may wish to freeze at that point, or freeze with LPs or freeze with cassettes or freeze with CD players or freeze at another point in history. It’s just a hobby.

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