Astell & Kern — the company best known for its high-end portable digital audio players — is making a USB-C DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that’s designed to help get better-sounding audio from modern smartphones and computers that may lack a 3.5mm headphone jack.
If you want to use any digital device with a 3.5mm headphone jack, you need a DAC. Older devices that had 3.5mm headphone jacks featured integrated DACs (some better than others, like LG’s famous Quad DAC system on its former flagships).
WTF is a DAC?
The digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is an essential component in any modern audio system. It’s the circuitry that converts the 0s and 1s of your digitally stored music into an electric signal that can be played back via headphones and speakers. The reason DACs matter is that the process of conversion is not straightforward. There are a bunch of errors and flaws to correct for, and a perfect translation is very difficult to achieve. The best DACs can scale in price up into the tens of thousands of dollars, but most of us will experience the cheapest varieties, which come integrated into our smartphones, laptops, and basically any digital device that produces sound. Wireless headphones each have their own built-in DAC, which means their sound quality isn’t dependent on the device that provides the music. The headphones do their own conversion.
But the death of the 3.5mm headphone jack on modern smartphones in favor of exclusively USB-C (or in Apple’s case, Lightning ports) has left a gap for audiophiles. Now if you want to use older headphones or sound setups, you’ll need a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack dongle — which, by default, is already technically a DAC. (In fact, some, like Apple’s $9 USB-C dongle, are apparently fairly decent.)
But the new Astell & Kern USB-C Dual DAC promises a higher-fidelity experience, offering two CS43198 DACs paired with an analog amplifier to offer a better sound experience, with support for 32bit/384kHz playback. And given the $150 price tag, it had better offer a better experience than Apple or Google’s sub-$10 dongles.
Astell & Kern says it’s drawing on its experience of creating portable media players to build the new USB-C DAC, and while the DAC itself doesn’t have an external power supply (instead drawing power from the phone or computer), the company says it can still drive a pair of “high impedance headphones with a 2Vrms (Condition No Load) output level.”
The new DAC should be compatible with “most” Android smartphones and tablets and both macOS and Windows 10 computers. But Astell & Kern says that iOS devices — even USB-C ones like Apple’s recent iPad Pro lineup — won’t be compatible.
The new Astell & Kern USB-C Dual DAC is available to preorder now from the company’s website ahead of a planned May release date.