My Essential PH-1 has no headphone jack. While this is less than ideal, it doesn’t bother me much, because I don’t use wired headphones that often. At worst, it’s a minor inconvenience on the rare occasion where I might want/need to plug in to some kind of audio system, but I don’t have the dongle with me. But now, for the audiophiles, there are better dongles available!
I did not intend to research the topic of high quality DAC dongles, but it’s a rabbit hole I’ve now fell into accidentally, twice. Personally, the most in-depth dongle research I’ve conducted was to compare the sound quality of my Essential’s dongle (which is a nice braided cloth cable) with the headphone jack built in to my Macbook Pro, when plugged in to my cheap but awesome VJJB K4s earbuds. The MBP headphone jack sounds slightly better.
But, a video editor friend of mine posted on facebook that he hates that the new iPad Pro, while it switched from Apple’s proprietary Lightning port to a standard USB-C port, also ditched the headphone jack. He and I agree that on a device the size of a tablet, even one like the new iPad Pro and its skinny bezels, there’s no excuse for ditching the headphone jack. He really despised the idea of having to use a dongle to plug his assorted fancy headphones into a hypothetical iPad Pro he’s not actually planning to buy.
Being as I’ve never met a random gadget-related complaint that I can resist following up on, I searched for USB-C DACs. I knew there were assorted flash drive-sized USB-A DACs on the market that some people plug in to their phones with USB-C adapters, but I wanted to see if there was something that was natively USB-C.
I did a quick search on Amazon, and found some generic dongles that claimed to have fancy DACs in them like this, but the reviews indicated that at best maybe it was a little cleaner sounding than the typical dongles that ship with phones.
Then, for friggin $150, I found the Nextdrive Spectra portable DAC, which is about the size of a giganto headphone jack dongle, or a really small USB power bank with a cord on the end of it. It comes in different versions for the different USB plugs, including USB-C.
Apparently, this thing is pretty awesome, but may have some trouble driving the highest-impedance fancy headphones out there. Using it with a phone looks...not completely totally awkward?
Then, while browsing the Essential phone subreddit, I found a thread comparing the different phone makers’ dongles and how well they work with the Essential. Someone mentioned that they use the Sonata HD DAC Cable II, which upon further googling turned out to be the thing at the top of this post, which is the exact same form factor as any of the dongles provided with phones. Supposedly, it is a noticeable improvement in sound quality over the typical dongle. It might not be as good as the Nextdrive Spectra, but it’s also a much more manageable size, and only 30 bucks.
So there you have it, people who care more about wired headphones than me: your dongle options are improving, supposedly, according to some shit I read online and have no personal experience with!