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How To Get Digital Audio Output From Your iPhone

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Introduction

Update April 21st, 2017
I would personally suggest a DAC that officially supports iOS devices such as the Chord Mojo, Chord Hugo or the great ifi Audio iDSD (will do a review on this soon – waiting to get my hands on one) to stay out of connection troubles. However, I have tested the SMSL M8 and it works with an iPhone 5c…go figure.

Update November 21st, 2016
Since there have been numerous connection problems and compatibility issues with iOS versions, I’d currently treat this as an experiment. If you are using your iPhone at home, I personally recommend streaming using AirPlay. Or take a look at one of the Raspberry PI setups

Apple’s iPhone is pretty well known to offer excellent sound quality through its analog outputs that is head and shoulders above the competition. Apple has been using Wolfson chipsets from the very beginning but later moved to Cirrus Logic chipsets – pretty good choices for a mobile device. The sound quality as actually more than decent at full volume level. A simply 3.5mm to RCA cable is all it takes to hook up your iDevice to your stereo system.

Why use an external DAC?

My plan is to use my favorite apps including Spotify and Qobuz with the hope of the sound quality being good enough for my main rig. Of course being an audiophile, I kept wondering whether I could outperform Apple’s built-in DAC chip.

With the advent of iOS 7, Apple has officially announced support for streaming digital audio. That’s great news because it means you can practically take any iDevice running iOS 7 or later – this includes iPads, iPhones or iPod Touches – and connect an external DAC (digital-to-audio converter) with USB input. There’s a limitation of bitrate however so you are not going to be able to play high-resolution 24bit tracks directly.

What You Need

Self-powered USB DAC with optional USB hub

A self-powered USB DAC is an ideal starting point. Self-powered means your DAC won’t draw additional power from the USB port. This is important because Apple intentionally limits the power consumption by software to about 5mA. If however your DAC does rely on USB power or if it declares itself as more power-hungry than Apple allows upon connecting, you are going to need a powered USB hub. Apple will alert you so don’t worry – you can’t break anything.

I personally use a cheap powered USB hub from SIGMA which unfortunately is no longer available. You can typically find USB hubs for less than $20 on Amazon.com. Of course this means you have to manage yet another device but it’s a minor pain compared to larger music server projects.

Next, you need an adapter for your iOS device that provides a USB output. Here’s where things differ slightly depending on your iOS device generation:

iPhone with 30-PIN connector:

You are going to need Apple’s 30-pin Camera Connection Kit (CCK) adapter (part number MC531ZM/A) and take the USB output to your DAC. More on that below.

iPhone with Apple Lightning connector:

Newer generation iOS devices including the iPhone 6 require Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (part number MD821ZM). Again, connect your DAC from the USB output of the adapter.

1.5ft USB 2.0 cable

Just about any standard USB cable will do the job. Nothing fancy needed here. Use what you have or purchase on from Amazon.com

How To Set It Up

First, connect Apple’s dongle to your iDevice and plug the USB cable into the provided USB port. Hook up the other end of the USB cable to your powered USB hub’s input. Finally, take the USB connection from your DAC to one of the ports of your USB hub – I use the first port for simplicity. You should now be able to play back music from your iPhone through your external DAC.

My Personal Setup

I use my company’s iPhone 4S hooked up to a JDS Labs ODAC
for experimenting purposes. As you can see, Apple’s CCK output goes straight into my USB hub’s input port. My external DAC does not have its own power source so the wiring is a bit messy.

iphone Camera Connection Kit (CCK)Figure 1: iPhone 4s using CCK hooked up to my external DAC (not shown in picture)

Results

I can hear a small audible improvement with lossless tracks, maybe a bit more air around the instruments. It’s hard to say because the volume levels need to be matched precisely. At the end of the day audio is subjective anyway and while your external DAC may be technically superior to what Apple offers, you may or may not hear sonic improvements on your setup. But for music afficionados seeking the best possible performance, I definitely recommend going with an external DAC as above. At least give it a try.

A problem with USB audio however is the actual clock reconstruction method leading to higher levels of jitter. Taking a digital signal to an external DAC can also introduce all sorts of nasty noise problems that can interfere with the audio signal.

Is this for you? I haven’t played with the setup long enough to draw final conclusions but I’d recommend going the extra mile with an external DAC only if you are traveling and want to squeeze out a tiny bit of extra performance for your mobile listening enjoyment. For stationary listening, pick a network music player such as the excellent Pioneer N50 or a more recent Marantz player. These already come with built-in support for your iDevices. I would peronally rather use my iPhone or iPad as a remote control device than becoming the sole source of music.

  • Mike June 21, 2015, 02:45

    Thanks for this informative article. Will I be able to connect the fiio e17 or fiio e18 to an iPhone 5s using the cable above to actually use the DAC versus just connecting the headphone line out to the line in on the Fiio e18 ?

    Reply
    • Michael June 21, 2015, 17:41

      Yes, that should definitely work although I haven’t tried it specifically with the Fiio E18.

      Reply
    • Hosea October 12, 2016, 19:22

      I tried 3 different ways to get audio from my iphone 6 to my Fiio E17k DAC. The only successful method was the Apple lightning to usb3 camera adapter which also has a lightning port for power supply to charge iphone and DAC, It also works without power supply connected.

      Reply
      • bsd107 October 19, 2016, 07:07

        I could not get this to work with the Apple “Lightning to USB Camera Adapter” (USB 2.0) due to the “device uses too much power” warning. With the Apple Lightning to USB 3.0 Camera Adapter, my DAC was recognized and I could choose it by name, but the digital audio never actually made it out to the DAC, My audio apps (NePLAYER, iAudioGate, TEAC Player) acted as if an external DAC was connected, but no sound came out. Others have had this same issue. Very frustrating.

        Tried on iPhone 7, iPad Air 2 and iPhone 5S, all running iOS 10.0.2, and all with identical results. DAC is Sony MDR-1ADAC (using it’s USB PC DAC connector).

        Reply
  • Pascal July 23, 2015, 20:59

    The Lightning to camera adapter does not work with the iPhone 6. Any other suggestion to connect the iPhone 6 to external self-powered USB DAC?

    Reply
    • Michael July 26, 2015, 17:18

      What DAC are you using? What are the symptoms when you connect the iPhone 6 to your DAC?

      Reply
      • Pascal December 4, 2015, 17:37

        I’m getting “iPhone does not support this accessory” when I plug the Lightning to camera adapter to the phone.

        Reply
      • Pascal December 4, 2015, 17:39

        I’m trying to connect to a Benchmark USB DAC1.

        Reply
        • Borkman September 28, 2016, 22:56

          You need to get the powered usb3 adapter for the iPad
          Look at the iPad accessories you will see it

          Reply
  • Daniel October 28, 2015, 15:24

    Hey!
    I recently encountered same problem after updating iOS to 9.1 from 9.01, 9.,02; I used iPhone 6 Plus with Cayin C5 Dac, through directly connecting micro usb to Apple CCK usb, and it was just fine, sometimes it used to say about power and stuff but music kept rolling on. So, now, it doesn’t notice my dac at all! I’m really angry.

    Reply
  • Stefan November 28, 2015, 11:47

    Hi,
    great article. I have a new iphone 6S which does not work with my external DAC. Iphone 5s was just fine. The message is “iphone does not support this accessory”. I have searched for info but this site is the first mentioning the problem (Daniel).

    /Stefan

    Reply
  • Jonny Hotchkiss January 3, 2016, 13:37

    rollback to 9.0.2 whilst it’s still signed, avoid 9.1

    Reply
  • Arthur January 10, 2016, 15:35

    Hi, why would you need the CCK to get the audio signal out to the DAC?

    If it’s just the USB plug that you’re after, many 30 pins cables currently offer a male USB plug to enter into the wall-220V plug/trafo.

    And why would 9.1 be a problem compared with 9.02?

    knd rgArts

    Reply
  • Jeremy March 5, 2016, 02:43

    I cannot get digital output from my lighting port on my iPhone 5S under iOS 9.2.1. I have a powered USB hub, which is powered by a 12V DC supply. The iPhone is connected to the CCK, which goes to 1 port on the usb hub, My DAC (Schiit Modi 2) goes to another USB port on the powered hub. The output of the DAC goes to an auxiliary line level input on an amp. Sound still comes out of the iphone speaker, not the speakers getting signal from the DAC.
    It’s like the phone does not see anything on the lightning port. I am really disappointed. Anything I can do to resolve this?

    Reply
  • Sebastien April 18, 2016, 09:22

    I just discovered hi res audio a few weeks ago. I had always thought that like with cd players, a $30 cd reader would sound the same as a $2000 cd reader.

    So far ive bought the fiio a3 which has a 3.5 input and output.
    Deffinately sounds better than iPhone 6s alone, but supposedly shouldnt sound better since the 3.5 jack is only 16 bit, same as DAC in phone. Hence the USB output that can do 24bit sound.
    Also tried the fiio k1 which sounds great as well and is a lot lighter 1/10 the weight and 1/4 the size and has a clip but a USB input. I think im going to return it because when I play music from my pc I use wifi or BT, so I need the DAC built into the wifi or BT reciever. Its great if you are going to play music from your pc by wire converting the 3.5 output to rca for the speakers.

    I also tried brainwavz AP001. Its not a DAC, but it does amplify and balance the sound from your iPhone and its not just bass. Its a definite improvement but not the same as DAT. With DAT I hear new things in my music that I didnt before.
    Of the 3 amplifiers ive tried the brainwavz is the only one that is easily poratable and works from a 3.5 jack.
    Will keep on looking though and write again when I find a good model.
    BTW rummor has it that the iPhone 7 has no audio jack, so by fall this might all be a moot point. It also suggests that either apple will build HD sound into the 7 or that BT will soon be able to transmit in HD. Wifi can already accomodete the broader bandwidth.

    Seb

    Reply
  • Dave May 8, 2016, 14:16

    Did this work? I think the e17 will try to pull power over the usb so would require a powered hub

    Reply
  • Rudy May 19, 2016, 09:45

    I also cannot use my Fiio K1 from my lighting port on my iPhone 5S under iOS 9.3.2. I bought original Lightning to USB camera.
    On Iphone 6 was just fine with the same iOS 9.3.2…
    Anything I can do to resolve this?
    Can anyone help me so that I can use K1 Fiio on my iPhone 5S?

    Reply
  • GB May 21, 2016, 01:13

    Question: Why not use a Lightning-to-USB cable directly from the i-device to the DAC?

    Why is there a need for a Lightening-to-USB-Camera-Adapter (or Camera Connection Kit (CCK) adapter (part number MC531ZM/A))?

    Doesn’t the “dock-to-USB” cable naturally provide a digital stream via the USB plug to the DAC?

    Reply
    • Erik October 25, 2016, 18:48

      Seems thay if the device is not an MFI device, the phone wont recognize it. My iphone 7 plus wont work with my ministreamer using only the lightning to USB adapter. neither directly nor through a powered hub. I’ll get one of these camera kits and see if that does the job.

      Reply
      • Erik October 27, 2016, 19:54

        And that doesn’t work either. I got the camera adapter, and the iphone recognizes it and says “ministreamer” on the screen, but so sound will be transmitted. No sound comes out of the iphone speakers, and it seems like it thinks it is working, but it doesn’t.

        Reply
        • bsd107 November 1, 2016, 22:31

          I have the same exact issue with a Sony MDR-1ADAC. The Apple device correctly identifies the device as “MDR-1ADAC”, and acts like music is playing to the device, but no sounds is actually output. Other iOS sound apps (e.g. NePLAYER, KORG iAudioGate) also recognize the DAC and enable setting output frequency. But, again, no sound actually gets sent out.

          This happens on iPhone 7+, iPad Air 2, and iPhone 5S. All running iOS 10.0.1, 10.0.2, 10.0.3, and 10.1.x

          This may be an iOS10 issue (I don’t earlier iOS devices with a Lightning port to test.). And with Apple’s focus on selling wireless EarPods and wireless Beats, I wonder if they’ll ever fix this.

          Reply
  • Sebastian July 8, 2016, 16:07

    That’s exactly what I was asking myself.

    Reply
  • Gisle Faugstad September 23, 2016, 15:27

    Buy an OPPO HA-2. Unfortunately you have to buy a brand new Ligtning to USB-A cable, due to the lousy quality that OPPO has included with their fabolously well sounding product (DAC, head-phone amp & Power Bank.

    Reply
  • Chris January 31, 2017, 01:59

    I have been using my iPhone 6s with the lightning to USB connector kit to hook into my Burson HA 160D DAC via a Schiit Wyred. This set up has worked great until I upgraded from iOS 9 to iOS 10. As soon as I did that no more USB audio out of the 6s. The iPhone can see the DAC but that’s it. Anyone else have this problem? Any work arounds? I assume this is an iOS 10 issue. I still have a iPhone 5 and iPad mini with iOS 9 and they work fine.
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Todd March 13, 2017, 23:42

    There is a video by PureMix about using an old iPod to digi out to AES of the D-Box (which is also accessible with Spidf). I am finding that this is not OK any more with Apple products and I hope to hear from the D-box manufacturer, Dangerous Music it find out wassup here. I have the iPhone 7 and imagine that the new port config should be easier to access digital. I will get back, but thought this might be an angle for those with skills.

    Reply

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