If you're determined to listen to high-resolution audio on your phone using high-end earphones, you'll want a DAC — and Astell & Kern thinks it has one of the better options. The company has introduced its third USB DAC, the AK HC3, and this one may finally nail enough features to satisfy most users. It promises very high-quality 32-bit, 384kHz audio like its HC2 predecessor, but you can finally use your headset's microphone. You won't have to choose between pristine sound and making phone calls.
The AK HC3 also uses ESS' newer ES9219MQ dual DAC. A built-in LED even shows if you're using a high-res audio format. The USB-C connection supports Macs, Windows PCs, Android phones and many tablets (including recent iPads), but there's an included Lightning adapter in the box for your iPhone. Android users get a dedicated app to fine-tune the output.
Astell & Kern will sell the AK HC3 for $229, with pre-orders starting January 20th and a release estimated for February 13th. This isn't the absolute highest-quality DAC (Fiio's Q3 can manage 768kHz), but it's better than many mobile options and is relatively easy to carry.
There are two similarly new headphone amps if you're more interested in quality than size. The Acro CA1000T is a second-gen "carriable" model that uses ESS' new high-end ES9039MPRO dual DAC and a triple amp system that lets you switch between dual vacuum tubes, normal amping and a hybrid that combines both technologies. It arrives alongside the HC3, although the $2,299 price will limit it to well-heeled audiophiles.
The AK PA10 portable, meanwhile, is Astell & Kern's first device with a Class-A amp. The choice promises the "best" linear output and a warm, natural sound for 12 hours of battery-powered use. It also won't be cheap when it arrives on February 13th for $599, but it may be worth considering if you want a balance between portability and raw technical prowess.