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Android 5.0 Lollipop supports USB DAC audio devices, we go ears-on

Android 5.0 Lollipop supports USB DAC audio devices, we go ears-on

Inside each and every smartphone, there's a tiny piece of silicon dedicated to translating digital audio signals into analog ones. It is called a DAC (short for digital-to-analog converter) and it is usually embedded in the smartphone's system-on-chip. And just like every other element within a digital audio system, the DAC affects the quality of the outputted sound. This is why folks who value quality audio care about what DACs go into their hardware, while more and more smartphone makers are promoting the higher-grade dedicated DACs inside their handsets

This brings us to Android 5.0 Lollipop. One of the lesser-known features highlighted during Lollipop's announcement was the ability to connect an external digital-to-analog converter to an Android 5.0 smartphone over USB. This isn't functionality that the average Joe would care about. Audiophiles, musicians, and audio engineers, however, are likely curious to know how well it works since an external DAC is likely to perform better than an Android device's built-in one. Sure enough, we gave the feature a try on a handful of our Lollipop-flavored phones. Was the sound any better? Did the DAC work at all? Read on as we go through our findings.  

Firstly, we should highlight the hardware used for testing the Android 5.0 USB DAC support: 

  • The Audioengine D1 was our DAC of choice.
  • The DAC was paired with a set of Shure SE530 in-ear monitor earphones. 
  • To connect the DAC to our Android handsets, we used the DAC's stock, gold-plated USB type B cable. 
  • We had to couple the USB cable with a garden-variety USB on-the-go cable – the kind you get for 2 bucks on eBay. 

With all the gear on hand, our ears were ready to be treated to some tunes – several rock, jazz, and easy listening albums encoded in 16-bit, 44,100kHz FLAC format.

Unfortunately, our testing hit a snag right from the get-go. The Google Nexus 6, being the first Lollipop smartphone and all, was the first subject to have our DAC plugged into it, but the phone could not detect that we had connected an external USB device; The DAC's power LED didn't light up at all. We had no luck with the HTC One (M8) or the Sony Xperia Z3 either – all we got were error messages. Suspecting that the Audioengine DAC might be the culprit, we replaced it with a cheapo USB sound card, which worked perfectly with all three phones. We're assuming that the DAC did not power on because its power requirements were higher than what these phones could provide. 

The Samsung Galaxy S5, on the other hand, worked beautifully with our DAC, which was up and running only seconds after we plugged it into the smartphone's USB port. As expected, the sound produced by the external DAC was noticeably superior compared to what was coming out of the Galaxy S5's 3.5-millimeter port. The Audioengine D1 treated us to better vocal clarity, better dynamics, and clearer highs, although the DAC's built-in headphone amplifier is also to blame for the results, we suppose. 

Our Audioengine D1 worked flawlessly with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 as well. This time, however, we were finding it hard to hear a difference in sound quality between the phone's own output and the external DAC. The Note 4 sounds pretty darn good as it is.

Out of sheer curiosity, we also plugged the DAC into a phone still stuck with Android 4.4 KitKat – one of the LG G3 units we had laying around. Surprisingly, it worked without any issues. Even a Meizu MX4 with Android 4.3 on it recognized our external audio device in an instant. Looks like support for USB DAC devices has been present in Android for a while, and Lollipop is likely just refining and/or expanding the functionality. Nothing wrong with that, we suppose.

UPDATE: To clarify, Android 5.0 adds native support for USB DAC devices. Phones running KitKat may or may not support such devices, depending on whether the functionality has been added by the manufacturer.

So yeah, if you crave for better sound out of your Android smartphone or tablet, pairing it with a USB digital-to-analog converter is an option. Although not a universal one. It turns out that not all phones and DAC devices go hand in hand, as our testing demonstrates, although externally powered ones have higher odds at working well. Furthermore, the benefit of an external DAC might be insignificant if your earphones are easy to drive and if your Android device is already equipped with potent audio hardware. Still, if you don't mind having an external DAC sucking your Android phone or tablet's battery juice, feel free to use one whenever you feel like it. Who knows, your ears might actually appreciate the difference.

25 Comments
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posted on 26 Feb 2015, 01:56

1. sram145 (Posts: 127; Member since: 18 Dec 2014)


Can some one please suggest me a good smarphone with best audio quality thru headphones around 25000 INR/-. Thanks for your help.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 02:05 5

2. TyrionLannister (unregistered)


Galaxy alpha exynos would be the best bet in that price range. The wolfson DAC in it produces great sound.

However, if you have a big high impedence headphones, you'd be better with an HTC phone as they have higher output power, though slightly lower quality sound than the alpha.

I would go for the alpha. However, if you can't live with TouchWiz you may go towards HTC phones. The desire 820 has pretty good output.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 02:51 1

4. baghelvijay01 (Posts: 8; Member since: 09 Nov 2012)


I have galaxy grand 2 and its volume through earphone is quite low. I have skullcandy in ear earphones. Also the sound quality seems to be poor. Please suggest me some phone under 20k for above mentioned features. Also what about galaxy note 3 neo or samsung galaxy s4.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:10 8

5. ImQ009 (Posts: 41; Member since: 02 Dec 2012)


>uses skullcandy
>wants good audio quality

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:16

7. av911 (Posts: 197; Member since: 19 Nov 2012)


It ain't the phone. Spend money on better ear/headphones.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:41 1

8. TyrionLannister (unregistered)


LOL. You really use skullcandy.

Get an ATH-M50x.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:47

9. sram145 (Posts: 127; Member since: 18 Dec 2014)


Thanks for the suggestion. I am planning to purchase sennheiser hd 598 which is a 50 ohms imp. Samsung alpha comes with only 32 gb and i am afraid that it might impact my long term usage. i plan to use the device with mostly flac or 320kbps audio files so 64 gb card becomes my necessity. Samsung note 3 neo is a better choice? I heard it also comes up exynos.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:51

10. Industriality (Posts: 131; Member since: 08 Sep 2014)


Exynos with wolsfon or any HTC flagship with their proprietary amps.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:57 2

12. TyrionLannister (unregistered)


Yeah, but note 3 neo has an older DAC compared to the brand new wolfson chip on the Exynos 5430 on Alpha. So it'll not be as good.

Have you tried ATH M50x. They're amazing.

Make an informed decision.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 04:05

13. sram145 (Posts: 127; Member since: 18 Dec 2014)


Oh. I see. i will check the alpha version which got a very good price cut in India. Thank you.

I was doing my research on head-fi.org for the headphones and i am currently using hd 439(closed one) and wanted to upgrade it to open type model. So hd 538 suits me better . I also heard about ATH M50x and its really have so many good reviews but i wanted to try open type model and hd 558/hd 598 makes to my purchase list.

Thank you for you time :)

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 04:09

14. sram145 (Posts: 127; Member since: 18 Dec 2014)


Please dont take other's rude comments as personal. But i would agree with their solution on selecting a good pair of cans instead of a new mobile. Head over to head-fi.org and do a research on headphones on ur budget. Sennheiser, beyer dynamic and audio technica are few great companies you can consider.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 07:17

17. baghelvijay01 (Posts: 8; Member since: 09 Nov 2012)


actually iam not an audiophile and i dont have enough budget to buy audiophile grade earphones. Rather than quality i had issues with the amplification i.e. volume on the galaxy grand 2. I am having sony Walkman mp3 player and it has no issue like with same pair of earphones. Even galaxy tab2 sounds much louder with same pair of earphones.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 07:29

18. TyrionLannister (unregistered)


Buy an Exynos or HTC phone. Try Alpha. It costs like 26k INR ( 420$) in India and has terrific audio quality.

If you don't have a very high budget for earphones, try klipsh s4i.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 09:52

20. baghelvijay01 (Posts: 8; Member since: 09 Nov 2012)


Thank you very much for ur suggestion.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 02:27

3. e8ght (Posts: 21; Member since: 25 May 2013)


Isn't this already available in Kitkat?...my Z2(4.4) already have this feature.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:15

6. av911 (Posts: 197; Member since: 19 Nov 2012)


It's hit or miss pre-Lollipop.

Here's a whole thread about it:
http://www.head-fi.org/t/595071/android-phones-and-usb-dacs

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 03:55 2

11. Tsepz_GP (Posts: 999; Member since: 12 Apr 2012)


Samsung phones supported this long before Lollipop. :)

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 04:32

15. Wiencon (Posts: 1972; Member since: 06 Aug 2014)


iPhones supported this from 2G or even before. Hell, first iPods with 30-pin connector supported it.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 05:30

16. mixedfish (Posts: 1292; Member since: 17 Nov 2013)


"Support" is one thing, implementation is another.

You don't know what Android is doing to the signal, which is why Sony has a 'hi-res USB' option on their phones.

I've tried this, and running USB through Android drivers vs Sony's drivers is a big difference.

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 08:25

19. RandomUsername (Posts: 808; Member since: 29 Oct 2013)


Sony too :)

posted on 26 Feb 2015, 09:55

21. baghelvijay01 (Posts: 8; Member since: 09 Nov 2012)


Are there any good pair of earphones under ₹3k

posted on 02 Mar 2015, 17:32 1

22. cskippy (Posts: 1; Member since: 02 Mar 2015)


So I have a Galaxy S5 with Lollipop. I was able to get my Ciunas USB Dac working no problem on 4.4.4. However, since the upgrade to 5.0, I my phone doesn't recognize my Dac? Any thoughts? I have tried using a power USB hub in between the phone and Dac to no effect.

posted on 30 Apr 2015, 11:14

24. coolbobo (Posts: 1; Member since: 30 Apr 2015)


Got the S6 edge under Touchwiz and the USB audio doesn't work either.
After upgrading my OnePlus One from kitkat 4.4.4 to Lolllipop 5 the USB audio ceased working. Must be a bug?

posted on 16 Apr 2015, 02:10

23. Pepito (Posts: 1; Member since: 16 Apr 2015)


Sony has dropped the ball with this Android 5 release. Now the USB audio out hi-res option is gone from the audio settings of my Xperia Z2. This sucks big time.
My preferred streaming service, Qobuz, uses the phone internal player (Walkman), and now I can't stand listening to resampled (44k>48k) Qobuz.

posted on 27 Mar 2016, 00:11

25. rushm3 (Posts: 1; Member since: 26 Mar 2016)


1) Any user testament to the Droid Turbo 2 working (or not working) with the D1?

2) Anyone know if Spotify will output digital audio from Android or if I have to have files stored on my phone to take advantage of an external DAC?

3) Are there any audiophile Micro-USB to USB B-type cables out there?

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