Looking to upgrade to DAC + new Headphones for iPhone. Recommendations please :)

I’ve finally got Roon working with my VPN and have been listening to it whilst out and about and think it’s time to upgrade the sound quality.
Currently using a pair of Sennheiser HD25-1 II straight into the iPhone. The head phones are great but I like them more for music production as they can be a bit too accurate and cold. Also, it gets physically tiring wearing them for too long as they are quite tight.

I would really like:

  • something that is louder than the iPhone (for some tracks, max volume is really quite quiet)
    (the next two are less important but would be nice)
  • Something that I can plug straight into the iPhone (no connection kit)
  • Something that has a battery and possibly charges the phone too


  • Pairs nicely with the above DAC
  • Doesn’t bleed too much (I hate being ‘that’ person on train!)
  • I don’t like trying to define sound as everyone has their own view but I’l try: Has a nice rounded sound. Good bass, warm mids (I listen to lot of genres from Rock to Electronic)

Ideally I don’t want to a fortune. I would just like a noticeable upgrade, and some more volume.
Any recommendations?

I won’t touch the headphones part, since that is ultimately a subjective decision. All I will say there is I prefer IEMs over headphones for use outside of home. Better passive isolation, you are never “that guy”, and IEMs require very little power to drive.

On the external portable AMP part, there are many options. Chord Mojo, the various Fiio and iFi devices, etc. Personally, I’d lean towards the Mojo, as it’s not terrible expensive and well regarded. (I’be never used one, but I do have a Hugo 2 that is my “transportable” headphone rig around the house using the 2Go module.) The Hugo 2 is a lot more expensive and way too large to use as a truly portable device when out and about.

Hi @cwichura,
Thanks for the feedback. The Mojo and Fiio seem interesting. Although I did read the Fiio are quiet, not sure about the Mojo.
As for IEMs. I hadn’t thought of them. I had assumed they were not as good quality as larger more traditional ones… Do you use IEMs? Any recommendations to look into?

Hi @Jim_F,
Thanks for the feedback.
I’d never considered noise cancelling headphones… My concern with them is that they would significantly affect the sound. Do you find that?

Yes, I’ve had my Gorrila Ears GX-8 customs for almost ten years now. Gorrila Ears exited the CIEM market several years ago to go back to focus on the parent company’s main business, which is hearing aides, so not an option any more, unfortunately. But they still sound amazing, and have held up well. Only had to change out the headphone cord once (no matter what, they will always eventually short, so when you buy IEMs, make sure they have detachable cords).

My preference for IEMs is to have customs made. The fit will be perfect, and far more comfortable than IEMs with interchangeable nibs. Customs will cost you more, however. Figure $80-100 (US) for the audiologist visit to have the impressions made, and then anywhere from $400-$1800 for the CIEMs themselves. There are a number of CIEM vendors, Google is probably your best friend as I’ve not researched them since I had my GX-8s made…

(FWIW, my GX-8 was around $1200USD when I had them made. With eight drivers, they have a very flat response. Which is my preference – I’d prefer to tweak via EQ (if necessary) than try to dial out a pre-baked-in tonal profile. They also provide about 27db passive noise isolation.)

As to your question about IEMs holding up against “traditional” headphones. Good IEMs easily hold their own. My “traditional” is a Focal Stellia, which sounds better, but is also nearly 3x the cost. The Stellia isn’t 3x better sound quality, however. And despite being pretty comfortable, fall WAY short of my CIEMs. I can and have worn the CIEMs for 12 hours straight (international flights between the US and Asia), where the Stellia start to get uncomfortable after 4-5 hours of continuous use.

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Audeze is known for big planar cans that need a “real” amp, I use the LCD-4z with a Chord Hugo2/2go.
But they also have a DAC/amp cable that plugs into an iPhone Lighting jack.
I have used the closed-back EL-8 cans, good isolation but not up to the level of their open-back cans — in any case, it’s discontinued. They also have sone sorta-kinda IEMS, they don’t isolate like most IEMS because they are planar but they sound great. I couldn’t get used to the in-ear feel and gave them to my son, but no complaint on the sound. The LCDi3 include the Lighting cable DAC/amp. You may or may not like the feel, but they have a return policy, I think.

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Mu setup for the iPhone is:

Meze Audio 99 Neo (Headphones)
Nextdrive Spectra (DAC + amp)
Chord Mojo (DAC + amp)

The Mojo has been a recent addition. It sounds a bit better than the Spectra, but honestly on the go the Spectra is much more convenient. It is extremely small and light, with a very sleek design and it does not need to be charged, as it uses the iPhone battery. This is the opposite to what you asked, but with my current iPhone 11 Pro Max battery is not a problem. With my previous iPhone 6S it was draining very quickly…
Both DACs need the Camera Connection Kit unfortunately. There are very few DACs with lightning connector and at the end I gave up and resigned myself to the CCK.
The battery side is not to be underestimated. With the Mojo, it happens to me very often that it stops playing because it runs out of power as I forgot to charge it. I use it at my desk in the office, so I just charge it and continue listening, but on the move this is not always possible.

The headphones to me are fantastic. A real bargain, the sound is a bit on the warm side, always detailed and they do not bleed much. They are relatively light and very comfortable to wear for long time.
They are very easy to drive and with both DACs the max volume you can reach is way too high, so it should be enough for you! This is especially true with the Mojo, which has its own battery, But even the Spectra does its job.

Wait, this is my dream as well! How have you done it? I have setup a VPN that works pretty well, but I cannot see my Roon Core from a vpn connection.

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I use Isine 20s with a Chord Mojo, bought as a bundle 2 and a half years back. A neat combination that may fits your portability criteria, but I use them mainly around the house. There is definitely more bleeding though, compared to most normal IEMs, and fit may not be great for every ear - but it comes with some gizmo’s to improve the latter. There are also pre-defined DSP profiles for various Audeze headsets in Roon, which can be a handy starting point.

The LCDi3 referred to above by @AndersVinberg above should be an interesting one to audition as a successor that can also be used wire-free.

I have the previous iDSD and it’s swiss army DAC! Transportable yes, battery powered AND can charge your phone, gain settings to handle sensitive IEMs (I have JH Audio 13 Pros), xBass, etc. Only the lightning to usb is needed since the iDSD has female USB input.

There is also the xdsd that you may want to have a look at.

If you want to go something smaller, the Dragonfly Cobalt is a great choice.
A used Mojo is also a good choice if you don’t want to spend money on a new one.

The xdsd was my alternative to the Mojo. I doubted a lot between the two, the xdsd has a balanced output and a few more features, but at the end I went for the Mojo, given the unique approach to the conversion it uses.
If it was the right decision, I don’t know, but probably the differences are not that big…

Google Zorloo Ztella , popped up on what hi fi , looks like USB C to 3.5 jack DAC

No idea how good but looks pretty simple !

Similar concept to the Nextdrive Spectra X, even if even smaller. On iPhone you need an adapter in any case.
The Nextdrive Spectra sound really good, from my experience.

I’m surprised nobody mentioned AudioQuest Dragonfly before.
It matches your requests for a) power portability b) amount of the compartments c)easiness of use.
And since you’re going to use it mainly with an iPhone, it’s good to know that it supports MQA encoding which could be convenient for you using both Roon and obviously Tidal.


Thanks everyone for all you input! Lots of options here now…
:slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile:

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