Although high resolution audio is nothing new to the market, the fact that now music streaming services are starting to embrace dare I risk saying, ‘studio quality’ is certainly something to be pleased about with their new lossless audio boasts. This is based on the notion that you can listen to what the original artist intended without the audio being tampered with or downgraded in the process. These excitement levels are slightly tempered though by the audio hardware compatibility on the various devices you may use for these services whether it is your computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone and their own capability at playing back these files in their true form.
Smartphones in particular have been acceptable for most music listening, but there have always been limitations. LG for example was known for its flagship smartphone devices sporting some of the finest audio output of the era, but this increased quality hit battery life hard. A more recent phenomenon is of course the move away from the traditional 3.5mm headphone port. This has forced us to either use Bluetooth wireless audio, which don’t get me wrong certainly has its place for convenience, but for the wired ‘premium’ experience to preserve the audio quality – well you are forced to plug your smartphone or computer into an often cheap USB-C 3.5mm adapter.
These USB-C adapters bring back the 3.5mm port you lost for wired headphones or for connecting to a set of speakers, but they also include their own DAC. A DAC is a chip that converts the digital signal of the audio to analog and on these cheaper adapters the results are reasonable, but still below the ideal especially when we are talking about lossless audio quality where you really desire premium results. This is where the iFi Audio hip-dac2 can help save the day…
I blame music streaming services
Ever since I replaced my CD collection with music streaming services, I have loved the convenience and huge library that Spotify and others provided. Regardless, I had a little niggle at the back of my mind where I knew the quality of the music I was listening to was compromised due to the audio compression used.
In more recent years, the compression of the music became less aggressive and far closer to those original CDs I enjoyed so much back in the day, but still I knew that the compression would always take something away from the original audio data. In truth, detecting those losses is not always easy however music services marketing hard for your attention have now all (well mostly) started pushing a lossless music offering that can equal and even ‘better’ those spinning CD discs sporting even higher definition content. Blimey! For lovers of music, this is a special time indeed, however to fully embrace it there is a hardware challenge ahead.
Lossless is still file compression, but crucially without any loss of the audio detail from the source and that’s the key bit here. OK sounds perfect doesn’t it, however to take full advantage you need to ensure your music playback devices are not just capable, but will produce dazzling results to take full advantage of this new found audio freedom. A cheap DAC may be passable for a compressed audio format, at least in the logic of it all – but now, with music streaming services in particular pushing well beyond the audio formats that had previously dominated for so long – to reap the full benefit of it all we need to also look beyond the standard hardware that litter the ebays and Amazons of the world.
Hardware in a teeny tiny living space
Amusingly as the name of the product suggests, the hip-dac2 is like carrying around a hip flask due to its relatively compact size and striking shape. For portability, the hip-dac2 with its internal battery providing its own power is a wonderful form factor for placing in your pocket or bag. It also looks the part, with its striking orange coloured aluminium casing and yet is surprisingly lightweight given how premium it looks and feels.
On the top of the unit is a standard headphone port for 3.5mm connections, also handy of course for plugging into external speakers. There is also a ‘balanced’ port for 4.4mm headphone connections for those who can take advantage of such a connection. Essentially this port is designed for less noise and interference.
Also visible from this angle is a button to push the amplification even further where some headphones may need that extra kick and another slightly larger button to add additional bass if you find your headphones are lacking that extra deep boom you are craving. A large and also very satisfying to utilise wheel that turns the device on and off as well as setting the volume level which sits in the middle.
A nice bonus are also the dual LED lights either side of the dial, that not only indicates the device is on, but also the quality and format of the audio that it is being received from your music playback device. You will need to memorise this for it to be truly useful, but a nice feature nevertheless.
A few cables are included with the hip-dac2, including standard USB (USB-A) for connecting to older devices like your computer or laptop that might not have USB-C, USB-C for newer computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones and another for charging.
Battery life is rated at around 8 to 12 hours of playing time, although this will greatly depend on how loudly you whack up the volume etc.
The dazzling audio quality
I have used the iFi Audio hip-dac2 on a number of different devices to see how versatile this device truly is. I started with the MacBook Air with Apple’s M1 chip inside from 2020…
There is a headphone port on the side of the MacBook Air, however in my setup when connected to a home theatre system I was receiving a fair bit of interference which was very off putting and the output frequency is limited. Connecting the hip-dac2 to one of the USB-C ports and then playing from my current music service of choice ‘Apple Music’ was an absolute revelation.
Not only was the interference completely gone, but the leap in sound quality was pretty spectacular. The reproduction of the music left me stunned as the entire range of the source material expressed itself in such a way I actually sat back in awe. Whether you are looking at the low, mid or high frequencies – the iFi Audio hip-dac2 represented the original source material as you would hope and actually beyond what I was expecting. Yes this is a £179.99 piece of kit, so you of course need results to justify the cost, but it certainly met them.
As impressive as this was though, the next obvious step to take was to use the hip-dac2 with my Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G) with a set of wired headphones…
I have a nice set of Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, which can be used wirelessly or wired. Wirelessly, they support higher than CD quality – the truth is though due to the bandwidth limitations of Bluetooth you are again falling foul of audio compression techniques that culls information from the original source. Therefore, back to a solid wired connection we go. The Sony headphones actually do a fantastic job of using Bluetooth (especially with Sony’s LDAC format) to wirelessly send music, but even so the hip-dac2 is geared towards the audiophile. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be an audiophile to appreciate the hip-dac2, just someone like myself who is looking for a solution without compromise. I wasn’t left disappointed and although the difference certainly wasn’t as night and day as my MacBook Air test from earlier, the difference was still very noticeable.
The circuitry incorporates a range of high-quality components, carefully selected for their performance in an audio context, including a custom iFi OV op-amp, TDK C0G class 1 ceramic capacitors, a precision low-noise power supply IC from Texas Instruments and a high-quality analogue volume pot. The amp stage can deliver 400mW into a 32-ohm headphone load, ensuring compatibility with a wide range of headphone and earphone types with power to spare. Even high-impedance headphones are handled with ease thanks to output voltage of 6.3V into 600 ohms (from the balanced output).iFi Audio website
The key aspect here is that you are hearing the full signal of the original source and you aren’t being short changed in any way by the DAC you have connected. There are some annoying nuances here unfortunately you may still have to navigate, such as with the iPhone or iPad you will need an adapter and on Android not all devices output the full range and can be limited to 24-bit / 48kHz – but this at least wasn’t an issue on my Samsung flagship model.
No matter what you throw at it, the iFi Audio hip-dac2 sparkles in the right way and certainly doesn’t exaggerate to give the false impression that this is somehow better – it just represents the original source pristinely. The range of detail, clarity and the sheer clout it provides left me experimenting for hours upon hours with different file formats. Even those compressed lossy formats sounded fantastic, so if you have a selection of old MP3 files knocking around don’t be shy to try them out as they will still sound noticeably better if you have been relying on whatever audio DAC came with your computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet.
Not quite in charge
Unfortunately, for all the splendour this device encompasses – the hip-dac2 does lack in one particular area. When connecting to a smartphone, you will be utilising for example in my case the USB-C port. Although the hip-dac2 uses its own internal battery for powering itself, you will want to ensure your smartphone has plenty of charge too as there is no pass-through of power to your phone to keep this charged up for the day ahead.
It isn’t the end of the world, but a notable ommision that when using the hip-dac2 portably along with your smartphone – you can’t charge your smartphone and listen to music at the same time unless you use a wireless charging solution instead. This hurts the portability aspect of the hip-dac2 a little.
More formats never hertz
The iFi Audio hip-dac2 supports a wide range of audio formats including the most recognisable PCM and then a selection of others including DSD, DXD and MQA. DSD and and DXD will take you right into the audiophile territory, so these supported formats are a must and very welcome for those with a high res collection.
MQA is also supported and streaming services including Tidal utilises it pretty aggressively. A format that pushes to give you higher than CD quality without the larger file sizes this would usually entail. The iFi Audio hip-dac2 supports this format in full, as it can ‘unfold’ as they call it the file so you hear the full quality it can provide.
|Digital Inputs||USB 3.0 Type ‘A’|
|Power Output (@1% THD)||Balanced|
|Battery||Lithium-polymer 2200mAh||Approx. 8 hours|
|Power System||Charging via USB-C, BC V1.2 compliant up|
to 1000mA charging current and 6.3 volts
|Power (max)||<2W idle, 4W max|
|Dimensions||102 x 70 x 14mm|
4.0″ x 2.8″ x 0.6″
|Weight||125g (0.28 lbs)|
Hungry for high quality, extremely detailed music reproduction? Well then the iFi Audio hip-dac2 is the scrumptious offering worthy of your consideration. With support for smartphones, tablets, computers and laptops while offering more audio formats than you can ever want.
The audio quality is sublime and the difference over the more typical methods you may use is night and day in many areas. If you are an avid music listener and are looking for the premium experience without breaking your bank account in the process, the iFi Audio hip-dac2 is an ideal portable companion. It really is quality without the compromise for those who wish to experience the new streaming services that offer high resolution music and for individuals who are looking to take full advantage of what this offers.
iFi Audio provided a sample unit for this review.