For music and other audio recordings to be available in digital format (as a downloadable or streamable file), it needs to be first converted from analog to digital. However, our hearing is not designed to perceive this format, so we need a DAC.
The DAC (or Digital to Analog Converter) is a tool used to convert the digital audio signal into an analog one, so we can hear it in a proper format. In most cases, the DAC is built into the device you’re using to listen to music (TV, laptop, phone, or tablet), but this version is not optimized for the best sound quality.
That’s why if you want the best DAC, you will need to purchase a separate device, specifically designed for this purpose. You can use it with your laptop, TV, home theater system, phone, and so on. Even if there is a built-in version, this will be bypassed, and the separate DAC will take over, creating a way better audio experience.
We reviewed some of the best products on the market and created a short guide to help you choose the best DAC for the money.
How to Choose the Best DAC?
DAC units are a bit more complex than, let’s say choosing a pair of headphones, which is why we put together these useful guidelines that tell you the main features to consider.
Inputs & Outputs
If you take a look at the products we reviewed below, you’ll notice most have several types of inputs (optical, coax, USB, and more). A good rule of thumb is to select a device with different input types because this means you can use it with a wide range of devices from mobile phones and tablets to TVs and even turntable units.
In terms of output, most support the classic 3.5mm jack output (for headphones), but modern devices also support BT connectivity.
Jitter is a type of distortion (or noise) that can be heard on top of the sound and makes the experience less enjoyable. This happens when the DAC is not equipped with the technology needed to decode the file being played or it doesn’t support the necessary filters to create the perfect audio quality.
The better the DAC, the lower the jitter, and the better the sound will be.
Supported Sound Formats
A DAC unit will not be able to do much with a highly compressed MP3 format because the compression destroys parts of the audio file. As such, if you want to make sure your money is well-spent, you need to get a device that can work with CD quality or higher.
This means that the device must support formats such as WAV, FLAC, ALAC (Mac), or PCM without loss or DSD.
Compact vs. Full-Size
Modern DAC units usually come in a compact format. Due to recent technological advancements, they still pack a variety of interesting features, but they don’t have that many available ports and connections.
On the other hand, a full-size device has enough space for a wide array of connections, chipsets, and advanced settings. Still, even though they are highly attractive in terms of possibilities, the price difference may pursue many audiophiles to stick with the compact versions.
11 Best DACs
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus
The Best Audiophile DAC
Cambridge Audio is one of the most well-known companies in the audio industries as they produce a wide array of high-end products. As such, you can trust that the DacMagic Plus device is going to be perfect for most audiophiles and even professional musicians. In fact, we consider this to be the best DAC under 500!
The device is equipped with Twin Wolfson 24-Bit DACs und uses AFT2 24-bit/384kHz upsampling & jitter reduction. It also features a BT wireless connection and selectable digital filters, which puts the customization controls in the hands of the user.
As a result, the sound will be impeccable, regardless of the format or device you use. You can use it with Blu-ray players, home theater systems, phones, laptops, and so on. Once the DacMagic Plus is hooked on the line, you no longer need to worry about sound quality!
- Twin Wolfson 24-Bit DACs
- AFT2 Upsampling
- Asynchronous USB Input
- It can be used as a digital preamplifier as well
- BT connectivity
- A bit pricey
- No remote control
- No indicator for volume level
CHORD Electronics Mojo
The Best DAC Amp Combo
Even though it fits in the palm of your hand, this device packs a lot of power and features. First, this is both a DAC and a headphone amp, which means you’ll get to make full use of those high-end cans you just bought!
Quick tip: if you don’t know if you need an amp for your headphones and a DAC unit, have a look at the instructions here.
This Mojo DAC was designed with portability in mind, so most users will hook it up with their phones, tablets, or laptops, and enjoy the result on their headphones (in-ear buds or studio headphones). The good news is that it works with all Operation Systems on the market so that you won’t have any installation issues. Not to mention that it will remember the settings you used last.
Furthermore, it plays almost any audio file as it supports up to 768kHz 32bit, and quad DSD 256.
The device is equipped with two 3.5mm analog ports, which means you can share the music with another person.
Finally, the LiPo battery offers about eight to ten hours of play time, and everything is wrapped in a solid aluminum frame.
- Portable & easy to use
- DAC and headphone amp in one device
- Two 3.5mm ports
- 8 to 10h battery time
- Works with most devices & audio files
- Solid aluminum frame
- Can’t wear it in your pocket
- Some users report hum while charging
- A bit expensive
The Best Portable DAC for Laptops, Headphones, and Phones
If you want to make sure you always have access to high-end sound, the iFi xDSD is a fantastic option!
Even though it’s so small that it fits in your pocket, the DAC packs a lot of features such as USB, S/PDIF Coax, and optical input. Also, the device comes with 3D and XBass technologies which focus on creating a deep and loud bass output, delivering a rich sound stage. Furthermore, iFi xDSD comes with a powerful amplifier which will help your headphones shine.
The DAC can be used as wireless (the battery delivers around 6 to 8h of playtime) or wired. And, due to the Burr-Brown chipset, the sound will be delivered just as the artist intended.
- Impressive sound quality
- Both DAC and amp
- High-end technologies that support native sound
- Portable and easy to use
- Works with a wide range of devices
- BT and wired connections
- Some Apple devices don’t connect well via BT
- A bit expensive
Sound BlasterX G6
The Best DAC For Gaming on PC & Console
Gaming systems and consoles can also benefit from the presence of a DAC on the line. This is especially useful if your sound card is basic, and the sound feels a bit empty and flat.
A DAC like the Sound BlasterX G6 enhances the audio quality but focuses on the areas that gamers enjoy most (powerful and deep bass, in-game voice communication, and/or a strong volume). Furthermore, there is a Scout Mode which enhances the cues that let players hear the enemies.
The DAC works with Dolby Digital formats and comes with Sound Blaster’s proprietary 7.1 virtual surround sound technology. You also get a headphone amp that amplifies each audio channel for that perfect in-game feeling.
Finally, the DAC is small in size and can be connected with any type of audio device.
- Great for enhancing the gaming experience
- Scout Mode that focuses on gaming sounds
- 7.1 virtual surround
- Small size and portable
- Xamp headphones amplifier
- Good quality for the price
- EQ and other settings only available on a PC
- No option to backup custom settings
AudioQuest – Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier
A Compact & Easy to Use Device
The Dragonfly Cobalt is a USB DAC device that supports a native resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz and comes with a chip that has a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter. As a result, de sound is more natural and has more details than when you’re not routing the audio through the Dragonfly.
Since it is compact and comes with USB and Lightning adapters, you can use it with any devices from PCs and Mac computers to headphones and entire audio systems. But most people love it because it can drive a wide array of low to high-efficiency headphones and works with any audio file.
Overall, the Dragonfly Cobalt DAC is perfect for anything from watching YouTube videos to enjoying good music on Spotify!
- Drives a wide array of headphones
- Works with Apple devices and computers
- It can be used with a mobile device
- Impressive audio quality
- Compact design for portability
- The volume is a bit loud
- A bit inconvenient to use with the adapter
- There may be some connectivity issues
The Best DAC for Studio Headphones
For those of you who are looking for a professional-level DAC, we recommend the Marantz device. In fact, this is a dedicated headphone amplifier with DAC mode that manages to make any studio headphones sound heavenly.
Furthermore, Marantz used some of their best audio technologies in this device. As such, you get native DSD2.8 and 5.6 support, noise isolation from the digital inputs, the possibility to use it with several types of powerful headphones, and more.
Not to mention, the device features several different types of inputs (coax, optical, and USB), can work with resolutions up to 192kHz/24bit, and if you connect it with a phono preamp, it will even help bring vinyl discs back to life (assuming you also have a turntable).
- Impressive design and quality
- Asynchronous USB input that supports 192 kHz / 24bits high-resolution audio
- Coax and optical inputs
- Powerful headphones amplifier
- Perfect for audiophiles and studio work
- AUX input is not very good
- Relays are a bit loud
- It can get hot
FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier
The Best DAC Under $100
Sleek and portable, the E10K DAC and amplifier features a PCM102 chip that can handle files up to 24-bit/96 kHz audio resolution. It also comes with a built-in linear filter which helps improve the quality and reduces distortions.
Even though it’s rather small in size, the device still can handle headphones, coax digital output, and one micro USB connection (which is also the charging port). It is mostly used with laptops, to boost and clear out headphone audio signal, but it works with other devices as well.
Finally, due to the selectable bass boost and low-pass filter, the user gets to customize the sound according to their preferences.
- Portable & durable
- USB, coax, and headphone connections
- Easy to use with a laptop
- Can be customized
- Drives high impedance headphones
- Several built-in filters
- Great performance for the price
- The sound quality is not audiophile-grade
- It can overheat
- Some durability issues
Professional Sound Delivery
Yamaha is well-known on the market when it comes to professional audio products, so the A-S801BL DAC and amplifier doesn’t need much of an introduction.
If you want a professional device and you have the budget, this is one of the DAC units to consider. The device supports a wide range of audio sources such as TV, Blue-ray, headphones, smartphones, and so on due to the multiple types of input it supports.
Furthermore, the A-S801BL features gold plated inputs and speaker terminals that ensure high conductivity and prevent signal loss. As a result, the sound will be booming, rich, and filled with details you may have never noticed before.
Finally, the A-S801BL is built using only the best quality materials and comes packed in a beautifully crafted aluminum chassis that gives the design a sense of timeless finesse and elegance.
- Beautiful design
- High-res audio quality
- Multiple types of input
- Works great for professional settings
- Impressive customization settings
- Gold plated inputs
- A bit high priced
- Plastic knobs
- No indication of the volume level
Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC
Great DAC for PC (Easy to Use and Affordable)
While it may be a bit difficult to define the best USB DAC, the D1 from Audioengine is perfect for using with a computer. Of course, it works with other devices as well (TV, gaming console, tablet, phone, and so on), but its build and features make it perfect for PC use.
It’s also a headphone amplifier, which is why most users enjoy connecting their cans (in-ear or over the ear) to it. Due to the USB and optical inputs, you can use the D1 to stream bit-perfect 24/96 HD audio.
Finally, the DAC is incredibly easy to use regardless of the operating system because it doesn’t need a driver. It’s just a plug and play system that works the moment you finished connecting the wires.
- Works with any computer
- Plug and play system
- High-performance audio
- Up to 24-bits digital audio processing
- Compact and convenient
- No markers on the volume knob
- No SPDIF input
- The USB connection is easy to disturb with movement
Sennheiser GSX 1000
For Perfect Integration with a Gaming System
When you say Sennheiser, you think about high-end headphones that deliver incredible sound quality.
Well, they are indeed some of the best on the market when it comes to headphones (from regular to studio quality), but they also produce accessories such as the GSX 1000, which is an amp and a DAC meshed together.
Designed with gamers in mind, the device features the 7.1 Sennheiser Binaural Rendering Engine, which is a system specially created to enhance the audio experience in games and movies. The sound is rich, immersive, and fully staged with the user in the middle of it all.
Furthermore, the GSX 1000 offers separate controls for audio and communication (while in the game) and lets you adjust how loud you hear your voice in the headphones. There are also different EQ pre-settings that let you customize the experience quickly and swiftly.
We should also mention that the controls are available on a LED-lit touch display that activates when you hover the hand over it. Also, the frame is solid, and all the materials used to build this DAC are of premium quality.
- Gorgeous modern design
- Special sound technology for immersive sound
- Solid frame
- LED touch control panel
- Various EQ settings
- Perfect for gaming systems
- No optical output
- A bit expensive
The Best Budget DAC
As you can see from the products we reviewed above, most DAC units go over the $100 threshold. But what is there to do when the budget is tight, but you still want to enjoy good sound quality?
Luckily, there are some low-cost DAC units on the market, such as the D3 from FiiO. The device works with any playback source that supports an optical Toslink or coaxial digital audio output and delivers up to 192KHz/24bit audio signal resolution.
It is compact and easy to install and doesn’t require too much attention afterward. This is the ideal device if you want something to enhance your PC, TV, home theater system, or any other audio sources and then forget about it.
- Great value for the price
- Compact in size
- Easy to install
- Coaxial/optical switch
- A USB port for charging
- A bit of a finicky build
- No on/off switch
- No volume controls
DAC units can make a huge difference in the way you listen to your favorite tunes or how you enjoy games and movies. Still, if you want a high-end unit, you must be prepared to loosen the budget a little bit more than usual.
Of course, there are some low-cost units as well, but it all depends on the type of results you want to obtain. With these devices, you truly get what you pay for!