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.
Last update on 2022-01-25 // The links above are affiliate // Images from Amazon
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.
Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100
The Best DAC For Music Lovers on a Budget
The DACMagic 100 from Cambridge Audio is an excellent solution for audiophiles and/or music lovers looking to make the jump into the 21st century. Seriously speaking, if you’re trying to ditch that old CD player of yours and embrace Tidal, Spotify and/or high-quality MP3/FLAC technology, the DACMagic 100 is going to lead the way in the world of digitalized music.
Truth be told, this heavy-duty (as in built like a tank) DAC will deliver an amazing amount of natural detail as it plays absolutely brilliantly, and it will give your music more separation, clarity, and upfrontness; actually, we guarantee that you’ll be blown away.
This DAC is a game-changer in the industry due to its incredibly affordable price, as it sounds like a $500 piece of gear, yet it costs less than half of that. Connectivity-wise, you’ll get dual coaxial sockets, an optical input and one USB input, and you can hook it to your amp via phono outputs. Keep in mind that the USB socket is asynchronous for improved sound quality and more efficient data transfer.
Moreover, the DAC will take care of all major sample rates, ranging from 16-24bit, and 32kHz all the way up to 192kHz, and you’ll also have 24-bit/192kHz capability over USB. Finally, let’s talk a little shop: this amazing DAC uses a Wolfson chip, the 8742 respectively, which is the exact same unit you’ll find in the more expensive DACs which are (at least) double the price, and bottom line, if you’re looking for a tool to boost your computer or whatever digital device sound-quality, the DACMagic 100 comes highly recommended, especially if this is your “first time”.
- Amazing value for money
- Solid connectivity options
- Supports 24-bit/192kHz
- Asynchronous USB Input
- Nice design
- Open and detailed sound
- None at this price
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
iFi Hip-dac Portable DAC Headphone Amp
The Best Portable DAC/Headphone Amp
Here comes another budget option for our readers, this time a portable headphone amp that can also be used as a DAC. The iFi Hip-dac is even more affordable than the Cambridge reviewed previously, but it serves a completely different purpose: if you’re a melomaniac who wants to get the most out of his music while on the go, the iFi Hip-dac is an absolute must, especially if you’re using “non-stock” headphones.
See, this little fella offers over 6 hours of autonomy due to its built-in battery and can drive in ear/over the ear headphones of up to 400 mW max power. Besides making your music sound way better via its ‘bit-perfect’ digital-to-analogue conversion and cool bass-boosting feature, especially from streaming platforms like Tidal or Spotify (high-res stuff), this tiny DAC also looks amazing.
So, if you’re using a pair of premium (and power-hungry) headphones while on the go, the iFi Hip-dac is going to be your best friend, as it’s small enough to fit any pocket, it’s light and well built, and, first and foremost, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Moreover, the DAC thing is taken care of by a top-notch Burr-Brown chip, and you get both balanced and unbalanced outputs, plus support for PCM, DSD, MQA . If you don’t know what we’re talking about, then you’re definitely not iFi’s target audience.
Bottom line, this tiny DAC is compatible with digital-audio formats up to 384kHz/32-bit PCM and 12.3MHz DSD as well as MQA, it sounds open, super clean and liquid-smooth, it’s built with pro-quality components, it’s rock solid and the ideal choice for music lovers looking to get the most out of their smartphone/headphones. If you fall into this category, the iFi is a no-brainer.
- Good detail and accuracy
- Wide soundstage
- Burr-Brown chip
- X-bass feature works well
- 8-12 hours battery
- Balanced output
- Lacks Bluetooth support
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 $100 DAC Out There
For our audiophile readers, if we have one, the Schiit Modi 3 is the equivalent of freshly baked bread. Or, to put it more succinctly, this tiny gadget makes for a plain old-school desktop DAC, built to be a very balanced performer that offers a lot of music for the money asked.
Being an entry-level desktop DAC, the Mike Moffet designed Schiit Modi 3 retails usually for a tad less than 100 bucks, and yet offers S/PDIF COAX and TOSLINK inputs, which means it can be paired with audiophile-grade gear like CD players/transporters or other AV devices, including consoles.
Under the hood, you’ll find an Asahi Kasei Microdevices AK4490 DAC chip, and even if there’s no DSD support, which is to be expected from an entry-level/budget-friendly DAC, PCM is supported to a 24 bit / 192 kHz max, and yes, that’s not bad, because realistically speaking, regardless of what you read on AV Forums, the music industry is not going to accept higher sample rates than 192 kHz any time soon.
Design-wise, the Modi 3 looks very neat and clean, being made of solid aluminum, with the back panel harboring the usual trio of inputs: coaxial, optical and USB. Speaking of sound quality, because that’s why we’re spending money on DACs, the Modi 3 will give you a run for your money and then some, as it offers well organized and smooth sound, being pleasant to listen for extended periods of time, and truth be told, it sounds better than most $100 DACs out there, though this may be regarded as a matter of personal preference.
Bottom line, this is an excellent sounding DAC, a real bargain at $99, and it may very well be described as the entry-level reference DAC of all times.
- Spectacular sound
- Exceptional soundstage
- Tight bass
- Zero hiss/hum
- Well built
- Amazing value for money
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
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
Magical Music Maker Bluetooth DAC Amp With LDAC
Next in line, we have the FiiO BTR5, a very avantgarde headphone amp that features TOTL Bluetooth, i.e. this is the best thing that ever happened to music aficionados on the go. To be more precise, this baby makes for a wireless DAC/Amp dongle featuring LDAC/HWA decoding, BT5.0, and 9 hours battery life.
If you’re not amazed just yet, keep reading: the BTR5 costs around $100, give or take a little, looks just as good as a high-end smartphone with curved glass panels on the back and front, offers DAP level SQ, features a cool OLED screen, a 2.5 mm balanced output, and, most importantly, Dual ESS 9218P, and CSR8675 chipsets.
On top of that, you’ll get Bluetooth 5.0, XMOS XUF208 for USB-C connection, NFC quick connection, smart APP control panel, and even onboard EQ options. Basically, this is everything you’d ever ask from a Bluetooth receiver. To make a long story short, the BTR5 is the answer to the eternal question about “can we get affordable high-quality wireless HiFi”, and before you ask, the answer is a definite YES.
PS: did we mention this portable BT DAC can power a pair of Sennheiser HD600 without breaking a sweat? To put it more succinctly for our audiophile readers, this is the BTR1, BTR3, ES100 and Dragonfly Red all rolled into one. ‘Nuff said.
- Minimalist design
- No hissing
- Dual DAC setup
- NFC pairing
- Native DSD support
- OLED display
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!