Astell & Kern has released a portable DAC for use with, for example, a smartphone or tablet with USB-C connection.
The market for external portable DACs is “booming. This is partly due to the fact that smartphone manufacturers are dropping the time-honored headphone minijack in favor of yet another half millimeter thinner phone.
Because Bluetooth never achieves the sound quality that can be realized with a wire, there is a group of enthusiasts who embrace the portable DACs. And there is also a group of users who simply do not want to end up with empty Bluetooth headphones while on the road. For them, too, a DAC is indispensable.
The new AK from Astell & Kern is a typical portable DAC: compact and can be plugged into any USB-C connection via a short cable. This makes the AK suitable not only for smartphones, but for any tablet, computer, laptop, etc. equipped with USB-C. However, with one particular restriction that may have a (negative) impact on its success: the DAC is not compatible with iPhones and iPads.
According to Astell & Kern, this has to do with the fact that iOS/iPadOS would not be able to handle dual DAC chips as used in this dongle, while also the power consumption would be too high. The latter in particular sounds somewhat worrisome, as something like a Ztella works effortlessly on all of these devices.
Internally, a dual-DAC circuit is thus used, based on a set of Cirrus Logic CS43198. Under the line, this yields a maximum achievable sound quality of 384 kHz / 32 bit, with DSD up to DSD256 also supported.
The Astell & Kern AK USB-C-DAC costs $149 USD. So no drama, but only useful if you use an Android phone in terms of mobile listening. And then probably preferably one with a reasonably sturdy battery. The AK will be available from April this year.