I used a portable DAC for the first time and now I won’t travel without it

 IFi Go Link connected to headphones and phone.
IFi Go Link connected to headphones and phone.

When it comes to listening to music, there isn’t a wrong way. But that said … some ways are more right than others. But here’s the problem — your smartphone is probably limiting what you can do.

When the average person listens to music nowadays, they’re most likely using a smartphone and Bluetooth wireless earbuds. That means everything is transmitted digitally over the air and you’re limited by what Bluetooth can manage. One of those limitations? You can’t listen to lossless audio.

Enter the portable DAC. This dongle allows you to plug in wired headphones and listen to lossless audio from music streaming services or locally stored files. I just tried one for the first time and despite having some great wireless earbuds, now that I’ve gone with a DAC I may never go back.

What is lossless audio and why does it matter?

Ask an audiophile and they’ll tell you one of those “more right” ways to listen to music is lossless audio. Lossless audio is an audio format that doesn’t sacrifice any detail. Compared to an MP3, which is often compressed at around 320 kbps, a lossless file is at a bit rate of 1411 kbps, meaning over four times the data can be transferred in the same time on a lossless track.

In short, lossless will give you better audio quality if everything else is equal. So if you want the optimal listening experience in terms of audio fidelity, you’ll want lossless audio.

The easiest way to get started with lossless is to sign up for a music streaming service that offers it — I used Tidal HiFi Plus, but Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited offer it too. Then once you’re signed up, you’ll need to get a portable DAC.

iFi Go Link — this is the portable DAC to get

iFi Go Link connected to headphones and phone
iFi Go Link connected to headphones and phone

To put the boost in audio quality a portable DAC offers to the test, I decided to pit it against a pair of Sony WF-1000XM5 earbuds that Sony was kind enough to send me for another project. These wireless earbuds are the cream of the crop — our experts rate them the best wireless earbuds out there.

iFi Go Link: $59 @ Amazon
If you want to give your sound a serious upgrade for listening on the go, this is the audio accessory you need. Made from high-quality gold and silver plated components, this USB-C to 3.5mm portable DAC allows you to hi-fi audio up to 32-bit/384kHz. And with it's small size, you can easily carry it anywhere.View Deal

And to be fair, they sound great. I put on the album “Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa and the sound was excellent. Natural sound with the bass pronounced but not too heavy.

But then I plugged in the iFi Go Link and my Sony MDR-7506 headphones and wow. The soundstage was impressive and the depth of the sound was incredible. Tidal puts out the audio for this album at Max settings — 24-bit/48kHz FLAC — and it honestly even puts my Sonos speakers to shame when I listen.

The best part about this portable DAC though is the price tag. Yes, the sound is incredible but there are better options (more on that shortly). But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option than the Go Link for just $59 at Amazon. Add in a pair of $130 headphones (you can often find the Sony MDR-7506 that I used for closer to $90-$100) and you have sound that outdoes top-of-the-line $250 wireless earbuds for as little as $150. And some audiophiles will tell you that you don’t even necessarily need headphones that cost as much as the MD-7506.

Splurge for the iFi Go Bar if you want a luxury upgrade

Some audiophiles though will tell you that to truly experience what a DAC can give you, you need to spend a bit more to get a bit more power.

iFi Go Bar: $329 @ Amazon
If you need an upgrade over the Go Link then the Go Bar is the portable DAC for you. This model adds a 4.4mm output to the 3.5mm output on the Go Link, giving you more options for listening on the go. Plus with proprietary XBass & XSpace technology and a top-of-the-line 32-bit Cirrus Logic chipset, the sound quality is unparalleled.View Deal

If you want a luxury upgrade for your portable DAC, the Go Bar that iFi sent me to test will certainly get the job done. Even with the same Sony wired headphones and listening to the same track, I could tell that the processing power of the Go Bar and the XBass+ and XSpace digital filters allow you to fine-tune your sound quality a bit more. I could tell that the bass was less muddy, while still keeping the sound quality I loved about the Go Link.

Personally, I’d go with the Go Link unless you really have the headphones to justify the splurge. The Go Bar is not cheap — the Go Bar is $329 at Amazon right now versus the $59 Go Link. For the price difference, I think the Go Link is better bang for your buck, even though the Go Bar is excellent.

More from Tom's Guide