With many modern smartphones today lacking a 3.5mm headphone jack, it's becoming difficult for audiophiles to use them as source devices for lossless wired listening. While many will be quick to suggest using a dedicated high-resolution audio player or a DAC-amplifier setup using a computer, these can be expensive. Fortunately, budding audiophiles on a budget do have some worthwhile options to consider, including good portable DAC-amplifiers such as the iBasso DC03.
Priced at Rs. 4,999, the iBasso DC03 is a compact but full-fledged DAC-amplifier, meant to be used with smartphones or computers. You can connect 3.5mm earphones or headphones to this device, which serves as a bridge between the source and output devices, just like the slightly more affordable Shanling UA1. Is the iBasso DC03 a good choice for your budget audiophile setup? Find out in this review.
Like the Shanling UA1, the iBasso DC03's biggest asset is its size. The core device is just a small dongle with a cable attached that leads to a USB Type-C plug. Even if you attach the included USB Type-C to Type-A adapter, the DC03 is still a very small device and will easily fit in your pocket alongside your smartphone. It also weighs just 11g. The attached USB cable is clear and braided, while the DAC itself is completely metal with a reflective finish. The iBasso DC03 is also available in black, but I quite liked the silver of my review unit.
There's really nothing much that a user has to do in order to use the iBasso DC03 – you just plug it into an Android smartphone with a USB Type-C port, and it's ready to go (you might have to manually direct audio output to USB through the phone's settings, though). If you want to connect the DC03 to a laptop or desktop computer, there's the aforementioned USB Type-A adapter. I didn't need to do any additional setup when using it with my MacBook Air or OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren Edition; just plugging it in had it working.
While one side of the iBasso DC03 has the USB Type-C cable coming out of it, the other side has a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can thus use it as a way to plug your own wired headphones into a smartphone that doesn't have a 3.5mm headphone jack instead of using a basic conversion dongle, or to improve sound quality with superior digital-to-analogue conversion than most portable devices provide on their own.
Indeed, on paper, the iBasso DC03 is a very good DAC-amplifier, with dual Cirrus Logic CS43131 digital-analogue converter chips and support for up to DSD256x and 32-bit / 384kHz resolution audio files. The device has a rated frequency response range of 20-40,000Hz, and draws power for itself and the connected earphones or headphones through the USB connection.
Although a bit more expensive than the Shanling UA1 at Rs. 4,999, the iBasso DC03 is a bit more capable in terms of specifications. The device has dual Cirrus Logic CS43131 DAC chips, which is impressive given its small size, and this results in more refinement and nuance in the output. Of course, you'll need a good source device and high-quality audio, as well as decent earphones or headphones to complete the path, but the iBasso DC03 is forgiving when it comes to the quality of the other components in the chain.
I heard a noticeable improvement in detail over the Shanling UA1, as well as smoother, more consistent sound output across resolutions, file formats, and music genres. Furthermore, the iBasso DC03 is a bit more flexible in terms of the kind of headphones and earphones it can work with. While there's no recommended impedance range, it should be able to easily drive most entry-level and mid-range headphones and earphones with ease.
You might even be able to get decent results out of some high-end open-back headphones, but this should be a limited use case rather than part of a regular setup. The size and connectivity of the iBasso DC03 means that it's easy to use with smartphones and entry-level audiophile wired earphones such as the KZ ZSN Pro X or the Moondrop Spaceship, which I used this DAC-amplifier with for much of my review.
While the iBasso DC03 does provide a decent amplification boost, it isn't quite as pronounced as with the Shanling UA1. However, the gain feels gentler and more refined, allowing for more detail with less of the typical shrillness that tends to sneak in with a big amplification increase.
Listening to a high-resolution version of Life On The Nickel by Foster The People, the iBasso DC03 and Moondrop Spaceship kept pace with the quick beats of the track, offering an excellent soundstage and beautifully detailed imaging. This level of detail was particularly noticeable in the faintest aspects in other tracks as well; the subtle synthesiser elements in State Of The Art by Gotye as well as the auto-tuned vocals were beautifully reproduced.
With the more expensive and much more capable Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear headphones, a high-resolution version of You Rock My World by Michael Jackson sounded driven, tight, and spacious, offering a refined level of aggression that brought out the best in the headphones. Where the iBasso DC03 outperforms competition in its price segment is its ability to suitably drive both budget and mid-range headphones and earphones equally well.
The iBasso DC03 comes from a well-established line of products that have long been considered the best compact budget DAC-amplifiers you can buy, and it lives up to expectations. This is a capable DAC-amplifier that punches well above its weight, and is priced at a reasonable Rs. 4,999 in India. When paired with good headphones or earphones, the iBasso DC03 serves as an excellent bridge between source and output devices, adding detail, as well as subtle and careful gain.
While the Shanling UA1 is a fair bit more affordable than the iBasso DC03, the latter offers a bit more by way of detail and refinement, making it well worth the extra Rs. 1,000 for budding audiophiles. Combined with good budget earphones, the iBasso DC03 offers a better listening experience than most wireless audio products, with most high-resolution and compressed audio formats.
Price: Rs. 4,999
Ratings (out of 10):
Value For Money: 8