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Audio Files: For the Lack of a Jack

The headphone jack is rapidly disappearing from new phones—but there are still ways to get audiophile-grade sound on the go

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iFi's Hip-DAC
iFi’s Hip-DAC

I got a shock when I visited a T-Mobile store last May after losing my smartphone. I asked for the latest Samsung Galaxy S-series model—but as I spun the new S20 in my hand, I realized that Samsung had finally eliminated the headphone jack from its top phones, just as Apple had done way back in 2016. As a professional headphone reviewer, I was as reluctant to give up the headphone jack as a trumpet player would be to give up their favorite horn. Still, as I handed over my credit card to buy the older S10 model, I realized it would probably be the last phone with a headphone jack I’d ever own.

Within a couple of years, headphone jacks may disappear entirely from phones. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced to endure low-quality sound from cheap Bluetooth earbuds. There are plenty of ways to use traditional wired headphones even if your phone lacks a jack—and there are also ways to get much better sound from Bluetooth.

FiiO's i1 dongle
FiiO’s i1 dongle

The simple way: A dongle

A headphone dongle is a short cable with a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) headphone jack on one end and an Apple Lightning, USB-C, or micro-USB connector on the other. Just plug the headphones into the dongle’s headphone jack, plug the other end into the phone, and it’ll work like a phone with a built-in headphone jack—except you’ll have to remember to bring the dongle with you.

Some phones that lack a headphone jack include a headphone dongle, but even if yours doesn’t, they’re typically inexpensive, often under $10. I’ve tested models from Apple and FiiO; the former performed almost exactly like the headphone jacks on the old iPhones did, and the latter offered a little extra power.


The step up: A DAC-amp

The headphone dongles I mentioned above combine a digital-to-analog converter and a headphone amp—known as a DAC-amp for short. But they’re built for a minimum level of performance. DAC-amps that headphone enthusiasts use are larger, capable of processing high-resolution audio, and powerful enough to drive audiophile headphones to loud volumes.

There are countless DAC-amps on the market now. One that’s regarded as a great bargain is the AudioQuest DragonFly Black ($99). Stepping up to the DragonFly Red ($199) gets you more power plus the ability to handle higher-resolution files. I also like the iFi Hip-DAC ($150), which is larger—about the size of a skinny cigarette pack—but about six times as powerful as the DragonFly Red, and thus capable of powering more demanding headphones.

Astell&Kern's A&Ultima SP2000 music player
Astell&Kern’s A&Ultima SP2000 music player

Skip the phone: Music players


For years, the most devoted headphone enthusiasts have used portable music players instead of their phones. While the cheapest of these players are no more sophisticated than the MP3 players of a decade ago, most are essentially Android phones with the phone part subtracted and a much more powerful headphone amp added, along with the ability to process high-resolution audio. Many of them can access streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon, and TuneIn Radio through WiFi.

The biggest names in high-quality portable music players are Astell&Kern, Calyx, FiiO, and Sony. Prices run from $59 for the FiiO M3K to $3,499 for the Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP2000. The differences boil down to more powerful amps, more digital storage, and more sophisticated digital-to-analog converters.

Better Bluetooth: Audiophile-quality adapters


Bluetooth isn’t necessarily bad, and it can be great—especially with one of the more advanced audio coding technologies, such as aptX HD or LDAC, which are included in most of the better Android phones (but not in iPhones). These technologies stream about two or three times as much data as standard Bluetooth, for clearer, more detailed and natural sound.

Bluewave's Get Bluetooth adapter
Bluewave’s Get Bluetooth adapter

HiFiMan’s Bluemini Bluetooth adapter snaps onto the bottom of its Deva headphones ($299, Bluemini included) or its HE-R10P headphones ($5,400, Bluemini optional). It incorporates aptX HD and LDAC, as well as the AAC coding technology included in Apple phones. The Bluemini works only with HiFiMan headphones, but the Bluewave Get ($129) Bluetooth adapter works with any wired headphones, and it includes aptX HD. It has more than twice as much power as the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, so it can handle all but the most demanding headphones. And Shure has just begun offering a True Wireless Secure Fit Adapter ($179) that converts any of its Sound Isolating earphones to Bluetooth; it doesn’t include aptX HD or LDAC, but it does have standard aptX and AAC.

The best news is that headphone manufacturers are in the same boat as jazz lovers. We all have to face the demise of headphone jacks on phones, so in the next year you can expect to see many headphone companies debut creative ways to get their classic products working smoothly with the latest phones.

Audio Files: True Wireless Earphones


Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.