Why does my DAC sound different between my computer and iPhone?

Forgive my ignorance here, but I’m confused why my DAC sounds quite different when I change it from my computer (Mac Mini Late 2012) to my iPhone 8. Specifically, my Mac Mini is substantially brighter but distorts when pushed with bass. The iPhone, on the other hand, has a rolled off high-end but is substantially more controlled with bass.

If I’m using Roon’s Exclusive mode for my DAC, which I am on both the Mac Mini and iPhone, shouldn’t they sound exactly the same, since they’re both being processed exclusively by the DAC? Am I missing something here?

I’m using iFi Nano iDSD Black Label.

Any help would be hugely appreciated.

Thanks for reading!


The short answer: source matters

I’d make argument that the iPhone with direct connection to DAC will be a better source than your Mac. At least that is what I have found in my testing. I have tested many sources feeding a variety of DACs and have found that laptops/computers are less than ideal, unless power supplies are modded/upgraded. That’s why so many of us are moving towards dedicated streamers, that act as a bridge between core and DAC. Its a slippery slope though…if you are happy with your iPhone as source, you won’t get much better without spending hundreds if not thousands to feed your iFi Nano iDSD BL.

Hi Nicholas,

Is the iFi DAC driving headphone direclty or feeding an integrated amp or powererd speakers? What’s your overall chain.


Your candor is appreciated. Thx.

Thanks for your message! I really appreciate it!

I’m concerned with the idea that source matters. If I plug my DAC into a friend’s computer, say, the exact same song will sound different due to the different specs of the computer? What exactly is altering the sound?

Also, and again forgive my ignorance, but what is a streamer and how does it work?

All of this is very important to me, so thank you. I’m getting ready to upgrade my whole DAC/headphone/speaker system and it’s quite disconcerting to think that the quality of my setup is being somewhat determined by my Mac Mini.

Thanks for the reply!

The iFi DAC is driving the headphone directly. The chain is from Mac Mini to iFi DAC to headphones. I have no speakers connected to it.

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Thanks Nicholas.

That actually makes things more difficult for me to think what it could be - there’s no ground / leakage ‘loops’ involved, with just a USB input into the iFi and headphones output.

Is your Mac Mini also your Roon Server (Core) or just running in Roon Bridge mode only?

Thanks for the reply!

The Mac Mini is definitely the Roon Server. It’s the only computer I have.

What’s even more disconcerting is that the overall sound of the DAC connected to my Mac Mini is very similar to Mac Mini’s OS built-in sound. Even though I have Roon set to exclusive mode with the DAC, I’ve occasionally wondered if it’s working properly, or if it is still in some way passing through the OS Mixer.

To give this some more context, If I run Roon through my iPhone with my DAC attached the sound is definitely different than simply using the iPhone’s headphone jack. In other words, the DAC is definitely making a substantial difference on the iPhone, just not the Mac Mini.

Thanks for your help!

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Can you share a screenshot of your signal path when your source is your Mac Mini?

Like this:

Also, do you have ‘fixed volume’ selected?

Also enable ‘force max volume at playback startup’

Sure no problems!

The first one is of my everyday System Output.

The second one is for my DAC.

I apologise for the lines on the images.

Yes. I have both Fixed Volume and Force Max Volume At Playback Start on.

I’m not sure if the problem is on Roon’s end, since Tidal sounds identical.

Thanks again for your help!

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Have you played MQA (via Roon’s Tidal) to your nano BL?

Do you get the ‘magenta’ LED on your DAC when you play MQA from Roon?

Yes I’ve played MQA files, but I’ve never been able to get the magenta LED. For some reason my nano BL is always green, except when it’s charging (blue) or low battery (red).

A while ago I installed the latest update on iFi’s website, but it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.

Hmmm. The reason I bring up MQA is it can be a useful bit perfect testing tool - it needs to be bit perfect to the DAC, to work. So I thought maybe your chain isn’t playing bit perfectly.

But of course, it could be your MQA settings in Roon.

The nano BL only works in ‘renderer only’ mode for MQA. Do you have the right option selected in Roon settings?

Can you share a screenshot?

Try a different USB cable also? Maybe?

When I had the micro iDSD BL I didn’t hear such the difference you’re describing when it was just driving headphones. Which makes me think maybe something might be wrong, somewhere in the chain but it’s hard to pin point though, if playback is bit perfect and there’s no ground loops involved.

Thanks again for the help!

Here are three images of the setup. Something is clearly happening inside Roon, but the IFI DAC is still green.

I’ve been using the cable the DAC came with. I don’t think I have a spare, but I’ll get back to you.
I have to head off to work now. If you don’t mind, I’ll let you know how things went later.

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Hello again!

I wasn’t able to find a similar cable to the one I’m already using for the DAC. Could this be the reason why the sound of the DAC on my Mac Mini is quite different to my iPhone?

What would you like me to do from here?


If it was the cable, you’d probably have very obvious dropouts or no audio at all. I’m not really sure what’s going on now.

I definitely can’t think of any other reason/s why the differences in SQ are as large as you described.

Hopefully someone else can jump in with better advice.

No problems at all, thank you very much for all of your help so far.

If you wouldn’t mind, could you please answer a couple of questions for me?

For example, I want to upgrade my headphones, DAC and speakers sometime in the next month or so. If I buy a fancy desktop DAC, like the Questyle CMA600i, will my cheap and very old Mac Mini that I’ll be plugging the DAC into be augmenting its sound in any way, like what I’ve experienced with the iFi nano BL?

Also, a previous commenter mentioned something about a dedicated streamer. What is that and how does it work?