Beginner's Guide

How to turn your Smartphone into a Hi-Res audio player

So in today's video, we're talking about a very very important subject, one that I think is relevant to almost everyone watching the headphone zones YouTube channel - which is how do you turn your smartphone into a Hi-Res audio player, allowing you to listen to music in high resolution here in India.


Hi guys this is Raghav here from headphone zone. So in today's video, we're talking about a very very important subject, one that I think is relevant to almost everyone watching the headphone zones YouTube channel - which is how do you turn your smartphone into a Hi-Res audio player, allowing you to listen to music in high resolution here in India.

Hi-Res Audio

All right the first thing you should know about high-resolution music is that what is high-resolution music and it's a little hard to explain without getting technical but listening to music in high resolution is the equivalent of watching a movie in 1080P or full HD and 4K and then listening to music in low resolution is like going back to 140p or standard definition. One of the easiest way to explain it is listening to music in high resolution or lossless is to be listening to music as intended by the artist and that's saying a lot ladies and gentlemen. You do not want to be doing a disservice to the music that is being streamed on your phone by listening to it in bad quality but how do you get high-resolution music?

Music Streaming and Audio Quality

Most of you are streaming music on YouTube or Gaana or Saavn or Spotify. Now even Spotify Premium is streaming music at 1/8 the sound quality of a music CD and the sound quality and the level of resolution of a music CD is what we typically call lossless quality. Which means that your mobile phone or your streaming service is listening to it at the same resolution and bitrate as a music CD. Spotify is 1/8th that of a music CD and YouTube music is 1/16th that of a music CD. So I want you to imagine all the details and resolution that you have lost in the music that the artist put in there but you're not able to listen to it because you're listening to music at low resolution. To listen to music at high resolution there are two ways of doing this - the first is that you're gonna have to use high resolution or lossless audio files, these are typically in WAV or FLAC format or DSD format and they are available all over the internet but the most convenient way of doing it is to simply use a streaming service that allows you to stream music in high resolution. Now globally some of the most popular streaming services to listen to high-resolution music are Tidal and Qubuz, these
are not very easily available here in India but what is very easily available and which gives you music at the highest qualities out there is Apple Music. Apple Music last year rolled out their high-resolution music plan and it allows all Apple Music subscribers at no additional charge to listen to music in high resolution simply by going on to settings and enabling it. That's right it's that easy. Now Apple Music is also very very affordable in India, unlike a lot of other streaming services. Apple Music is only 99 rupees per month so my recommendation to anybody who's starting off in the hobby of listening to high-resolution music on really cool headphones and earphones, you should get yourself an apple music subscription and listen to music in high resolution. It doesn't get cheaper than that, it does not get more convenient than that.

Using a DAC

Now using Apple Music on your phone gets a little bit more complicated. You'll find that the app itself is available on both Android and iOS and it works flawlessly on both so if you're someone who's using your smartphone to listen to music Apple Music, irrespective of your device, it works perfectly fine. This gives you music again like I said at CD quality or higher than CD quality, so you should absolutely stop using Spotify to listen to music in high quality. The problem itself is to do with your smartphone. One - now the music you're listening to on Apple Music like every other digital file is stored in zeros and ones, this digital information needs to reach your ears as a sound wave, in analog format, so now at some point of time between the software and your ears the digital information needs to convert to analog and that's where a DAC - a digital to analog converter comes in. Most phones or laptops have an inbuilt DAC, so you plug your headphones in via the 3.5 mm device and you're good to go. The problem is that the inbuilt DAC on your smartphone and laptop is almost always woefully inadequate in being able to play music in high quality. You'll find that they're using really really cheap off-the-shelf DAC chips that sound pretty ordinary. They get the job done with low res music but when listening to high-quality music on some really nice headphones or earphones you need to get yourself a dedicated external DAC for it to sound good. Plugging in a DAC into your laptop is pretty simple, and straightforward. You simply plug it into the USB port and you're good to go.

Hi-Res on Android & iOS

Now here's where things get a little tricky. To use your DAC along with an iOS device you need a DAC which has a lightning connector like my iFi Audio Go Link. It comes with a very nice lightning cable and connector which immediately plugs into your lightning port and now you're using your iPhone like a Hi-Res audio player. You simply connect your headphones or IEMs to the 3.5 mm output on your DAC and you're good to go there's really nothing much else to it. As soon as you open Apple Music and hit play the audio output will now be routed through the 3.5 mm output on your dongle DAC. This is now playing music at the highest resolutions that's available on Apple Music at a minimum of CD quality and going beyond into the high resolution that are several times more detailed than CD quality. Using it along with Android is also pretty straightforward you simply plug this in Via USB-C and some of the newer Android smartphones immediately detect it and now when you open the Apple Music app and hit play it's again exceeding the audio output via the 3.5 mm jack of your dongle DAC and it sounds perfect and good to go. Some of the older Android devices though will need a little bit of work before you're able to do, its because they don't automatically detect the DAC once you plug it in. The first thing you should do to troubleshoot is to go open your OTG settings and simply enable OTG USB output, this will now allow the dongle DAC to be recognized as this external device plugged in via the USB port and this should solve it in most cases. Now in the few cases that this does not solve it you're going to have to go and debug the USB settings from developer mode. That's a little complicated, look up a blog post or a YouTube video on how to do that on your Android phone and that should almost always solve it. In the one out of 100 cases that your phone doesn't detect the dongle DAC right off the bat, the third thing that you should know about listening to high-resolution music on your Android device is that the older Android operating systems no matter what sample rate and bit rate that your file was streaming on, would automatically convert everything to 48 kilohertz because somebody on the Android team didn't think it was important to listen to music at a quality higher than 48 kilohertz and therefore you found that if you were having a high-resolution file or streaming music at a high resolution that is beyond 48 kilohertz Android would simply as an operating system downsample it to 48 kilohertz but not anymore. Over the last couple of months, in the last couple of updates that Android has been rolling out on most smartphones out there, you now have the operating system detecting the sample rate of the file and not downsampling it anymore to 48 kilohertz. It works just like it would on an iOS device so if you're using Apple Music on Android it sounds perfect.

Using a Bluetooth DAC

If you're someone who's wanting to use a Bluetooth dongle DAC and some of these are now becoming quite popular you connect these to your smartphones via Bluetooth and it works wirelessly and then you plug in your headphones and IEMs into the 3.5 mm or balanced output port on the Bluetooth DAC just like this Astell&Kern XB10 that I have with me in my hand. Now using a Bluetooth DAC is the most convenient and easiest way of listening to music on the go because you'll find that now you don't have things which are attached to your phone but now you have another device that you can maybe carry in your pocket or clip onto your shirt that your headphones are plugged into, so it certainly is very convenient to use on the go. The problem is that Bluetooth adds another layer of limitation to listening to music in a higher resolution because Bluetooth itself cannot transmit high-resolution music very well. Different Bluetooth codecs allow for different bandwidths. If you're on iOS the only Bluetooth codec that the iPhone supports is AAC. Now unfortunately AAC is not going to have the bandwidth to be able to stream high-resolution music wirelessly, so you typically find that this is to be avoided. You don't want to be listening to music on Bluetooth on your iPhone and if you had the choice you should stick to using a wired connection to your lightning port but if you're on Android the chances are that some of the newer Android phones support much better Bluetooth codecs like Qualcomms aptX HD or even LDAC. aptX HD and LDAC come very very close to listening to music at CD quality with virtually no loss in compression or quality and therefore you find that Bluetooth connection gives you much better sound quality than it would on an AAC codec or below. So if you're someone who's listening to music and you want the convenience of Bluetooth and Android operating system with aptX HD or LDAC as Bluetooth codec is the way to go.

Do you need a DAC for Spotify, YouTube or Gaana

All right one of the most common questions we get asked a lot that I should talk about is if you are listening to music on Spotify or YouTube music or Ghana or Saavn or any of these streaming services that don't have high-resolution music do you still need a DAC and will a DAC make a difference? It's a very interesting question and the answer is that a good DAC will make a big difference to the sound quality only because the inbuilt DAC on most phones is really really bad. It's not going to be able to do a good job of taking the information that you are streaming and being able to portray a lifelike perception of music in sound through your headphones or IEMs. A good DAC is simply purpose-made to do that and do a good job of it, so the music will sound more lifelike more livelier, the bass will sound more tighter and believable, the sound stage will sound a little bit wider, and all the instruments will sound more musical with a good DAC but feeding more information to the DAC is simply like giving your full HD TV a Blu- ray disc instead of using a low-quality CD. It has more information and therefore the impact is even clearer, even nicer. So if you are going to be using good headphones and good IEMs paired along with a good DAC, I highly recommend that at some point of time, you consider upgrading yourselves from a streaming service which has lossy music to a high-resolution streaming service and the reason that a lot of people don't do this is because they think it's expensive. Now of course, if you're on the free plan for YouTube or on the free plan for Spotify, you're not going to get lossless music for free but at 99 rupees per month Apple Music, I still believe is very very affordable. You will get a year's worth of subscription for 1,200 rupees, that's cheaper than the cheapest in-ear monitors we have at headphone zone, so if that's any reason for you to get yourself an apple music subscription I highly recommend that you consider getting yourself one and you'd find that for a very small price you're going to be able to make a big impact for the kind of music that you're listening to. So in short yes a good DAC will still make a lot of difference to the music you're listening to on any other streaming service but why would you do that just get yourself Apple Music and boom you're good to go.

DACs to Consider

All right ladies and gentlemen this is one of my favorite DACs that I use on the go everywhere with my laptop and my smartphone. This is the Chord Electronics Mojo 2. it's not cheap, it's at 45,000 rupees but I simply don't listen to music without using this. The DAC has forever changed the way I listen to music on my smartphone and you don't need to get something this expensive you'll find for under 1,000 rupees you have DACs like the Venture Electronics Abigail or Avani and you'll find that it's still a lot better than the inbuilt 3.5 mm output on your phone or your laptop. So even though you may not want to spend a lot of money getting a DAC, it is going to make a big difference to the way that you listen to music. Now. of course getting better and better DACs like the Chord Mojo 2 will make a big difference to the music that you listen to and you need to pair it along with the right headphones or in-ear monitors for you to be able to experience what these DACs are really capable of but to be able to use your smartphone, a device that is just bring such convenience to our lives to listen to music with the world's catalog of unlimited music available at us fingertips. To really stream you'll find that the DAC is really the first roadblock your music is going to hit, if you're going to be listening to music on high resolution I almost always recommend that you get one and we do a separate video talking about the best portable DACs at every price point so you'll make sure that you can watch that video to understand the right one for you whatever be your budget but once you start listening to high-resolution music, a DAC is the next step to be able to enjoy music like no other smartphone is capable of like a high-res audio player and therefore I highly recommend that you get yourself one