Ifi Go Link DAC/amp review: a $59 on-ramp to lossless, hi-res audio

“The Ifi Go Link is a very affordable way to explore hi-res, lossless audio.”

Pros

  • Affordably priced
  • Wide support for formats
  • Clear, detailed sound
  • Adapters for PC and iPhone
  • Tidal MQA-compatible

Cons

  • Slightly cold tone
  • Non-replaceable cable
  • No EQ enhancements

Hi-res and lossless audio have been big buzzwords over the past few years as streaming services and audio gear manufacturers have been looking for ways to entice music fans with promises of a better listening experience. Those aren’t empty promises. With the right combination of hardware and software, you really can get much better audio quality than by listening to Spotify Free on a set of AirPods.

But it’s also a slippery slope, with extra expenses that can easily scare someone who’s unsure about the benefits. For those folks, Ifi’s $59 Go Link headphone DAC/amp is the perfect on-ramp to the world of lossless and hi-res audio.

Wired? Really?

Ifi Go Link headphone amp/DAC with adapters.Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Before I get into the Go Link itself, here’s a quick primer on the state of wireless audio in 2023. While it’s true that we’re slowly beginning to see products on both the smartphone and wireless earbuds/headphones side of the audio equation that support a truly lossless, CD-quality sound experience (like the Nura True Pro), the vast majority who listen using wireless headphones are hearing “lossy” audio.

Lossy means that some of the information from a studio recording has been discarded in order to make a song file small enough to be reliably streamed over a Bluetooth connection. When you include the lossy compression that may have already happened to a song before it ever reaches your phone (e.g., when streaming using a low-quality option like Spotify Free), the sound that finally reaches your ears has been altered considerably.

Getting a high-quality source of music can be solved with a subscription to one of the many services that offer lossless audio, like Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal, Qobuz, etc. Getting around the limitations of Bluetooth is harder, which is why a wired connection is preferred. It’s a lot less convenient, no doubt about it, but if you want to experience the best possible audio quality, there’s no substitute for a direct connection.

Your universal headphone jack

Ifi Go Link headphone amp/DAC plugged into an Asus Zenfone 9.Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

If you’re staring at your phone right now and wondering how, exactly, you’re supposed to use a set of wired headphones when there’s no jack to plug them into, we’ve just arrived at the first benefit of the Ifi Go Link.

Going wired means you need a headphone jack, and the Go Link can (with some help from the included adapters) turn any USB-C, USB-A, or Apple Lightning port into a 3.5mm headphone jack that will work with 99.9% of the wired headphones and earbuds that you already own or might consider buying in the future.

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Tiny, yet tough

Close-up of the Ifi Go Link's cable and USB-C plug.Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The Go Link is incredibly light at just 0.4 ounces, and small enough even with one of the optional adapters to fit in that weird fifth jeans pocket that no one uses. The two main components (plug and jack portions) are encased in metal bodies and are linked by a short, braided cable.

The cable’s main purpose is to keep your phone and the Go Link from damage that might be caused by strain. If the device was a single metal housing that stuck straight out from your phone like a USB memory stick, it could easily snap if you accidentally tugged on your headphone cable. That braided cable doesn’t look especially robust, but it’s held in place by a rigid set of connectors at both ends. After some assertive (but not aggressive) experimental tugging, I’m fairly confident it will stand up to most daily use.

Still, no matter how robust it might be, it’s a permanent link between your source device and your headphones. Should it be damaged, you’ll have to shell out for a new unit. That’s where more expensive DAC/amps have an edge: they typically place all of the critical components in a tough metal case and use a series of inexpensive plug-in cables to give you compatibility with your various devices. The odds of killing what’s inside the metal case are far lower than damaging a cable.

All of the formats

Ifi Go Link headphone amp/DAC plugged into an iPhone 14 and Sennheiser HD 560S - with magenta LED indicating MQA playback.A magenta LED indicates the DAC is decoding an MQA stream. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) like the Go Link doesn’t decode audio files like FLAC, MP3, AAC, ALAC, etc. — that job is undertaken by your favorite audio player app or streaming music service app. Once those files have been decoded, they’re still in a digital format known as pulse-coded-modulation (PCM), and they can run the gamut in terms of resolution and sample frequency. This is where the Go Link is different from those cheap, $10 headphone jack adapters you may have seen on Amazon. Those devices often max out at 16-bit/48kHz, and there’s normally no support for DSD (a less common, but favorite format of many audiophiles) or MQA (the format used by Tidal’s Masters audio tracks).

The Go Link, by contrast, can handle PCM audio up to 24-bit/384kHz, as well as three of the most common DSD sample rates (64, 128, and 256), and it can perform the “final unfold” needed to deliver MQA streams at their full quality when using an app like Tidal.

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Is your head spinning? Suffice it to say, all of this means that no matter what you choose to listen to — even if it’s a rarely used audiophile format — the Go Link has you covered. Better yet, a color-coded LED on the main body of the dongle confirms the kind of format the DAC is working with, which takes the guesswork out of whether your favorite app is delivering the audio quality you’re expecting or not.

It’s also an amp

Ifi Go Link headphone amp/DAC plugged into an Asus Zenfone 9 and Sennheiser HD 560S.A green LED means the Go Link is processing PCM between 44.1 and 96kHz. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

As I said earlier, you can plug just about any set of wired earbuds and headphones into the Ifi Go Link, thanks to its 3.5mm headphone jack. And yet, there’s a lot more to getting good sound from your headphones than just being able to physically plug them in. A basic set of wired buds that came packaged with your phone won’t need much in the way of amplification — they’re designed to work with a tiny amount of power. But if you want to use a full-size set of headphones or even a high-quality set of in-ear monitors (IEMs), you need more than just a tiny amount of juice. This is especially true if your headphones use high-impedance drivers.

The Go Link can’t compete with a dedicated, standalone headphone amp, but it provides reliable and distortion-free power that can drive most sets of headphones up to 600 ohms of impedance, with plenty of volume. The one caveat is that the device it’s plugged into has to support that power demand, and not all of them do — more on that in a moment.

So, how does it sound?

Questyle M15, Ifi Go Bar, Helm Audio Bolt, Ifi Go Link, and Apple 3.5mm adapter.Questyle M15 (from left), Ifi Go Bar, Helm Audio Bolt, Ifi Go Link, and Apple lightning-to-3.5mm adapter Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

This little device is truly impressive for the price. A lot will depend on your headphones and your chosen music source, but the Ifi Go Link has the potential to let you hear detail and nuance that a basic headphone adapter (or even the jack built into your laptop) can’t match.

Using Sennheiser’s great, entry-level HD 560S wired, open-back headphones ($200) as my audiophile option and a set of $100 1More Triple Driver earbuds, I auditioned the Go Link on an iPhone 14, an Asus Zenfone 9, a Xiaomi 12 Pro, and a MacBook Air. I then compared its performance to Apple’s $10 lightning-to-headphone adapter and the built-in headphone jack on the MacBook Air, as well as to several more expensive headphone DAC/amps: the $329 Ifi Go Bar, $120 Helm Audio Bolt, and a $269 Questyle M15.

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All of these scenarios were fueled by two music sources: hi-res, lossless audio tracks from Amazon Music Unlimited, and a variety of MQA tracks from Tidal HiFi.

Overall, both sets of headphones performed better using the Go Link than Apple’s $10 lightning-to-headphone adapter or the built-in headphone jack on the MacBook Air.

The Triple Drivers only saw a moderate increase in areas like detail and dynamic range, but with the Sennheisers, the difference was stark.

Being able to hear the extra nuance that a great source and a great set of headphones can deliver relies on clean and powerful amplification, something that Apple’s audio options struggled to produce. The HD 560S, at 300 ohms, are considered high-impedance cans. Generally speaking, the higher the impedance, the more voltage that needs to be supplied by the amplifier.

Using the Go Link on the iPhone 14 gave the HD 560S that extra push they need to reach their potential, but even then, it felt like the minimum level of volume needed for these cans. Unfortunately, that’s a function of the iPhone’s lightning connector — iOS will only permit an external device to draw a certain amount of power. On the MacBook Air, the Go Link could avail itself of much more juice, and the result was a giant leap over the laptop’s headphone jack.

In switching the Go Link to the Android phones, I found the same thing to be true — these devices seem to give the Go Link more of what it needs to amplify the signal going to the headphones, and on tracks like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Tin Pan Alley, it felt like more and more detail emerged as I ramped up the volume — all without a hint of distortion.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Ifi Go Link is how well it compares to much more expensive options. It was impossible to tell the difference between the Go Link and the Helm Bolt Audio. Both the Ifi Go Bar and Questyle M15 offered improvements in tone — going back-and-forth between them and the Go Link reveals the Go Link’s tendency to be a bit cold. But unless you have a very developed ear and a very high-performance set of headphones, I don’t think these DAC/amps provide anywhere close to the increased audio quality that their high prices suggest.

The Ifi Go Bar includes two enhanced EQ modes: extra bass and a soundstage expander. They’re nice touches if your streaming app has no tone controls of its own (I’m looking at you, Amazon Music), but again, probably not worth the extra cash.

If you’re ready to explore the world of lossless, hi-res audio, I can’t think of a better, more affordable way to do so than with the Ifi Go Link.

Editors’ Recommendations

Categories: GAMING
Source: newstars.edu.vn

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