DAP as a full-fledged audiophile source

Koscso Ferenc
6 min readJan 8, 2024

Over the past months I have had the opportunity to try out various so-called DAPs, i.e. portable audiophile players, combined with headphone amplifiers and D/A converters, ranging from Lotoo Mjölnir to various Fiio products.

A streamer/local file player, headphone amp, DAC, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify client combo in one — that’s the DAP.

They all work very well for me as a full-fledged desktop device.

I don’t really understand why they haven’t become more popular as desktop devices.

Here’s the Fiio M15s (or M17) for example.

Apart from the fact that you need an extension (4.4mm Pentacon to XLR) cable for the symmetrical line-level XLR output. I don’t see why anyone would need anything more than this, as a system source, even in a system costing up to 8–10k Euro overall?

They can do everything a streamer-based system should be able to do, and you don’t need a computer to use them for the majority of use cases.

1100–1200 Euro is the list price, but you could buy almost any other Q or M series Fiio, or Lotoo, Hiby, iBasso, Astell and Kern, Cayin, Shanling, etc. Prices are between 400 Euro and 8000 Euro.

So for roughly 1000 Euro, the M15s price can be considered as lower mid-range.

What do you get for that (leaving out the headphone amp functionality, focusing only on the streamer/DAC part):

- A complete computer, with a high quality and highly readable 5.5 inches (ca. 14 cm) 720p resolution display (5.9 inch (ca. 15 cm) and higher HD resolution for M17), a mature,

- well functioning operating system (Android 10 optimized for audio),

  • serious computing power, the M15s can even do PCM — DSD conversion from hardware in real time.
  • 10 hours of real-time battery life either as a headphone amplifier or with line output and DSD256 playback (with PCM — DSD real-time conversion enabled, the battery life is about 8 hours)
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking, the latter also essential for remote control
  • Proprietary playback software, which disables all unnecessary functionality in the operating system, can play files up to 384 kHz/32 bits and DSD256, and which can skip the built-in conversion and can play everything even on operating system level bit-perfectly.
  • Decodes MQA up to 384 kHz/24 bit
  • Roon endpoint operation with stable wifi connection
  • Tidal client
  • Spotify client
  • Qobuz client
  • YouTube playback for music and video
  • Amazon Premium client
  • Apple Music client with bit perfect playback
  • Virtually any Android-based audio application can be downloaded and used on it
  • High quality digital EQ available with the latest firmware
  • Built-in fast 64 GB (up to 256 GB in some devices) internal SSD storage
  • Micro SD slot that handles up to 2 TB of Class 10 cards
  • Ability to share music on both the internal and SD card over the network
  • Plays all known formats, including .wav, .flac, .dsf
  • Dual femtosecond precision clock generator, a product of the Japanese manufacturer NDK, which works with the FPGA to serve the DAC chip,
  • the FPGA is connected to the chip with an extremely short I2S connection
  • Graphene and metal-based internal sandwich structure for good thermal conductivity, vibration damping and much needed internal shielding
  • ESS Sabre 8 channel 9038Pro chip with true symmetrical output (dual 9038Pro for M17)
  • OPA927 operational amplifiers (THX 788+ for M17) with real symmetrical output, the 4.4 Pentaconn connector can be switched to line-level symmetrical output via software.
  • Analogue volume control, even when used as line output — Panasonic foil capacitors
  • Thanks to the five gain settings (also when using line-level output), any active speaker or power amp can be driven directly without preamp, even with long XLR cables.
  • SPDIF input, which also works in DoP mode, and SPDIF output, which can output up to 384 kHz and DSD128 to an external DAC.
  • With USB C connection, it can function as an external DAC alongside computers, Windows, Mac and Linux compatible
  • Copy to internal storage via USB C connection from Windows or Mac
  • Remote control via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
  • Connect to and playback from NAS via Wi-Fi

When using it, you don’t need any of the following accessories, compared to a standard desktop system:

  • -A computer (only if you want to use it as a Roon endpoint), as it provides full local player and streaming player functionality
  • Expensive power cable (can be charged with a mobile phone charger via USB C and can be used from a battery)
  • Expensive Ethernet infrastructure, stacked switches, linear power supplies (even with the wifi of a Telekom optical router as a Roon endpoint, high resolution is foolproof)
  • Expensive Ethernet cables
  • Expensive USB cable
  • Expensive interconnect cable between streamer and DAC
  • No external clock generator needed
  • Doesn’t need a stand, its sound is not sensitive to what you put it on.

What you need:

If it is to be used as a desktop device then you need a Pentaconn to XLR break-out cable, as an extra cost, but this can be made by the more skilled users for a few Euros parts cost or usually can be purchased from the DAP manufacturer for a very few bucks.

The reliability of Wi-Fi is a real surprise. It even plays DSD256 files over Wi-Fi flawlessly without any hang-ups as a Roon endpoint. Whether it’s a Wi-Fi router provided by your ISP or even iPhone Wi-Fi sharing.

It connects to the internet using Wi-Fi and uses batteries, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a NAS or Roon Core. You don’t need stacked Ethernet switches to get good sound.

If you don’t want to use computers for your music listening pleasure, but still want to use a streamer/DAC, it’s a good choice. It’s affordable, works well, and has a good display.

I was talking to somebody about this at the HIFI Expo, and he asked me if the sound of these devices is not dynamically poor? Somehow, many people have the idea that dynamics require a big, hot and heavy equipment. It is important to note that none of the ones I tried proved to be dynamics deficient. I’m driving active speakers with them, either through a preamp or directly.

So, if you want to listen to high quality digital music, take a look at the DAP market, Fiio, Lotoo, Hiby, iBasso, Astell and Kern, Shanling seem to make quite excellent reliable and very practical devices that are worth serious consideration as desktop devices.

I’m sure many of you are asking yourself:

  • how does it sound?
  • Is it good enough for my system?
  • Can it compete with the usual, larger, more power-hungry devices?


Obviously, the answer depends on your system and expectations beyond subjectivity.

If someone is looking for a streamer or DAC, feel free to think about DAPs, you might find a solution among them.

Let’s not forget the headphone part, either.

Headphones can be a very useful tool. A good headphone amplifier and a good pair of headphones will help you understand how your room/soundboard/listening position works as an acoustic system.

Even mid-priced headphones (say from 300 Euros and upwards) generally have a correct tonality. By using them, it is easy to check how much of what you hear, is due to your acoustic environment and how much is due to the device or recording you are trying out or judging its usability in your system.

DAPs, although we consider them to be mobile devices, are full-fledged desktop playback devices that can be portable, even if they are mostly and definitively considered portable.

Perhaps their only compromise from a desktop perspective is that they do not have large connectors. Small surface mount components, advanced technology from the mobile phone industry, allow efficient power consumption. So neither high-powered supplies nor the resulting large physical dimensions are needed.

The DAPs’ limitations are more in their portability, no one is likely to go exercising with a Fiio M17.



Koscso Ferenc

Solutions for Broadcast and Streaming System Integration, VR/AR/AI, Pro AV, High-End Audio, Inventor of My Reel Club Project