With Apple’s press release this week confirming the deletion of the 3.5mm analog jack on the iPhone 7, it is an eventuality that iPhone users will have to change their hifi hardware in the near future. The good news is that some of us audiophile geeks have long ago bypassed said jack by using the Lightning output with an adaptor cable and an external DAC/headphone amp such as the Audioquest Dragonfly, so in that sense Apple is trying to get ahead of the curve. We could discuss the hardware options ad infinitum, but there has been enough coverage about those workarounds. Additionally, there will be a wave of discussions over the next few days covering the brand spanking new AirPod ear buds or the new Lightning connector, but what I haven’t seen is much reference to the iPhone’s software options for hi-res music playback. We’ll be comparing three apps, all using the same hardware setup, i.e. Lightning jack to iPhone CCK adapter to Dragonfly Red to MrSpeakers Ether Flows. Let’s take a look.
There are a blooming number of options lately in the App Store; most of these don’t interest me because of in-app purchases or the initial cost of the app (let’s get past the fact that their relative cost is pennies on the dollar compared to the rest of my equipment, it’s the principle that matters.) By far the most popular and well-known is the Onkyo HF Player, and it’s the one I’ve been using most lately. The app is $9.99 USD, so I guess in the grand scheme of things that’s pretty reasonable given how much I use it compared to all the other junk apps on my phone and the amount of money invested in my other head-phi gear.
I automatically eliminated any selection that cost more than $9.99 and then tried the top three downloads. There’s the Onkyo HF player, which has also gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews online. There has been a recent burst of other available apps; the other two that I have tried are relative newcomers, ELECOM and Kalliopeia.
All three of these apps have almost identical interfaces. They all sync with iTunes and will play any of your files. There’s a separate tab at the top right to switch to HD files, which need to be downloaded to the phone’s hard drive, unlike the synced iTunes files. It’s pretty easy to drag and drop hi res files through the iTunes app. It’s not iTunes per se; one has to hardwire the phone to the computer, open iTunes, sync the device, and open the device’s app list to drop music files into the corresponding app icon. The files show up as “documents and data” under the data bar at the bottom of the iTunes screen.
I actually had some difficulty getting the file transfers to occur with the Kalliopea and the ELECOM program; it took a few tries of getting it right before the files started showing up under the “HD” column. Once the files show up, there’s the standard “Songs/Albums/Artists/Genres” tabs at the bottom for arranging how you please. all three played PCM up to 384 kHz; the Kalliopeia does DSD 5.6 and DSD to PCM over DoP; the Onkyo does DSD up to 11.2 (wow! :0), while the ELECOM does not support DSD.
All three sound equally good; any aural differences are so subtle as for me to not be able to discern. There are only a few other minor changes between the three. Onkyo distances itself from the other two by one significant sonic bonus; a 16,000 band equalizer with custom artist support. The Onkyo also has specific plugins for its proprietary headphones and IEMs. Probably the biggest bummer comparing all three apps is that they don’t talk to each other, i.e. when you drop an HD file onto the Onkyo or Kalliopeia it won’t show up in the other HD folder. With files of this size that can turn into a major problem, and probably is a deal-killer for me in terms of keeping more than one app.
On the face of it, the Onkyo HF Player is the most easily recommended; the sound is great, it supports the highest DSD, and although the download and interfaces are ostensibly the same on all three, it seemed to work the most smoothly. This is an app you’ll definitely need to check out if you’re wanting to play hi-res files on the new iPhone 7 with Lightning and exernal DAC/HPAs.