TOP 15 BEST DACS IN 2017 – COMPLETE GUIDE

TOP 15 BEST DACS IN 2017 - COMPLETE GUIDE

If you are completely crossing over to the dark side of the audiophile world, an amp and a hi-fi headphone will not be enough. You will start looking for an external Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) to get down to the last detail of the Prelude or Muy Tranquilo. An external DAC seemed pointless just a decade ago but it’s all the rage now. And for good reason. It can by-pass the less talented internal DAC of your playback device and bring the full worth of the technologically-forward recorded audio. Since, you will be indulging here, we researched and reviewed the 15 best DACs in the market. These are spread across a wide price range and include both desktop and portable types.

What is a DAC? Why is it useful?

A Digital-to-Analogue Converter is a device is that decodes digital data into analogue signals. Music is stored in devices like PCs, smartphones or storage devices like CD in the encoded form of 0s and 1s. But human ears process them in the form of analogue waves. Amplifiers also work on analogue signals as input. So smart devices like PC, smartphones etc. have a DAC on-board to convert digital to analog.

But the internal DACs in these devices cannot effectively produce all the details that a dedicated external DAC can glean. Since the internal DAC is just one of the components of the laptop/smartphone, it might not be an optimum circuit. A badly-designed circuit induces noise into the playback.

An internal DAC may also have jitters. These are deviations in the uniform digital signal caused by inaccuracy of the clock that triggers a digital circuit. In a dedicated DAC, the digital clock would be much more hi-fidelity and hence more accurate. This reduces any distortion in the signal or blanketing of otherwise beautiful details.

External DACs automatically bypass the substandard DACs on your device.

What are the main types of DAC?

There are different types of DACs based on their connection options and size:

Portable USB DAC:  These are as big as a USB stick. This can be simply connected to the computer’s USB port for power. Or they may have a built-in battery source that allows you to function without a power cord. These are usually used with headphone or headphone amplifiers. Eg: DragonFly USB DAC.

Desktop USB DAC: This is a small DAC, at the maximum, the size of a Walkman. They usually have to connect to a USB port on the PC for power or have batteries. You can connect a PC, a CD player etc. to a headphone, a speaker system or an amplifier via these. They may also have some controls and line-level audio outs. Eg: Chord Hugo 2.

Phone DAC: These are small, flat DACs that can be easily bundled with your Apple or Android phones. These are mostly portable with a battery power source. They are slightly more capable than the portable USB stick DACs. Eg: Oppo HA-2

Hi-Fi DAC: These are full-fledged DACs possibly with in-built amplifier with multiple connection options. Apart from a puny headphone, they can support speaker systems, premium home audio systems and hi-fi home theater systems. Eg: Benchmark DAC3 HGC

Thing to know before you buy a DAC

There are certain things to understand before investing in the best DACs:

Audio Source: Only a mystery that exists can be solved. In formats like MP3, the audio is compressed so that it takes up less memory space. DAC can only work on the limited details that can be decoded from the MP3. In fact, DACs would expose the shortcomings of the audio. External DACs must be treated to at least CD quality audio. It’s best to use FLAC and WA or uncompressed audio.  If you stream the audio from an online service, you can set it to the best audio formats.

Playback accessory: From the type of DACs, you can tell that not all DACs can support all devices. If you use a headphone mainly, it’s best to work with USB stick DAC. In case you have a full-fledged system, go for hi-fi DACs.

Cables: You will end up using an amplifier with a DAC. So you will have an audio source, DAC, amp and a listening device in tow. Use high quality cables to avoid any distortion or loss in quality from the cable.

Sampling rate and bit depth: Sampling rate is the number of samples taken per second from an analogue signal to convert into a digital signal. Your DAC should be capable of decoding at at least twice the maximum frequency of the audio source for proper reconstruction of the audio. Bit depth gives you an idea of the resolution of the audio. Your DAC should be capable of decoding high bit depth.

What are the features of high quality DACs?

The market of DACs is booming so we had many options to choose from. We present the 10 best DACs based on:

Audio capability: These were tried and tested by the users on various audio sources for jitter-free reconstruction. Their high maximum sampling rate and bitrate capability ensured they can handle whatever source audio you throw at them. A thoughtfully designed DAC circuit will take away any buzz from your playback device and allow you to revel in the details of the song.

Power sources: For those of us who want portability, we included DACs with battery and AC power sources. For those who use DACs only in the sanctity of their home or studios will have access to AC power. We have selected desktop and hi-fi DACs for them.

Build: We checked that these best DACs are up for the abuse of an audiophile. The portable DACs will take a lot more ill-use with being carried around in cluttered bags. We checked that the best DACs could stand that kind of treatment.

Price: We covered a huge range price-wise. We compared the DACs of different price-points based on the value they bring for the money. Whatever your budget be, we want you to have the best for your money.

TOP 15 BEST DACS IN 2017 – COMPLETE CHART

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NameFeaturesPriceRating

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NameMaterial/FeaturesPriceRating
 1. Yamaha A-S801BL Natural Sound Integrated Stereo AmplifierGold plated analog inputs including Phono$$$4.8
 2. CHORD Electronics Mojo, ultimate DAC/Headphone Amplifiertwo 3.5mm analogue outputs$$$ 4.7
 3. OPPO HA-2 Portable Headphone Amplifier & DACUSB DAC for Apple/Android/PC/Mac$$$ 4.7
 4. TEAC NT-503 Dual-Monaural USB DAC/Network Player (Black)Audio Playback from PC via USB Cable$$$ 4.6
 5. AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier2.1v Output Drives Almost Any Headphones$$$4.6
 6. FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier (Black)Handle PCM files up to 24-bit/96 kHz $$4.5
 7. Audioengine D1 24-bit Digital-to-Analog ConverterUSB and optical S/PDIF inputs$$$ 4.5
 8. Chord Electronics “CHORD Hugo 2” HUGO2-SLV (SILVER)Requires Windows OS only$$$ 4.4
 9. FiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter Switch selectable coaxial or optical input$$ 4.3
 10. Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS v2 USB DAC and Headphone Amp Delivers up to 10 times more power$$4.3
 11. Marantz HD- DAC1High Definition USB DAC / Headphone AmpDSD Playback (2.8MHz/5.6MHz)$$$ 4.2
 12. Meridian – Explorer2 USB DACExtended-range 0-100dB volume control$$$ 4.1
 13. FiiO K1 Portable Headphone Amplifier and USB DACDrive ability: 16 to 100Ohms (recommended)$$ 4.0
14. Sony UDA1/B Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC AudioCompatible with iTunes, Windows Media player, Media Go$$$4.0
15. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB Audio System with Phono PreampHeadphone and microphone jacks$$3.9

1. Yamaha A-S801BL Natural Sound Integrated Stereo Amplifier

The Yamaha A-S801 DACis an audiophile’s dream. It’s a popular opinion that the audio market has gone down in quality to save memoryYamaha A-S801BL Natural Sound Integrated Stereo Amplifier space and bucks. But Yamaha is trying to cling hard to the vintage standards of audio quality and bargain for money. This is an integrated amplifier with a DAC and a roof-hitting performance.  Its elegant body hides support for both current and bygone technology. It bangs huge for the bucks too. Altogether, there can’t be a better choice for the top spot on the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Yamaha A-S801DAC has the traditional Yamaha design which evokes memory of sweet warm music. It is an anti-resonance, double-chassis design with a brushed aluminum faceplate. The back side is littered with multiple ports and the front has numerous controls and knobs. It measures 17.125” x 6” x 15.25”. It packs both an amplifier and a dedicated DAC that can beat any PC-boarded DAC in a heartbeat. It comes with a Yamaha-universal remote which can also be used with Yamaha CD players.

This is a versatile DAC that uses the ESS Technology 32-bit ES9010K2M chip. This can decode PCM file up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD files up to DSD128. Based on the technology currently in the market, this is enough to decode any digital audio file.  You can connect the digital sources via a USB type B connector, an RCA connector or an optical Toslink connector. The cherry on the cake is that you can use the A-S801 wirelessly from your playback device using Yamaha’s YBA 11 Bluetooth wireless connector with Apt-X support. There’s a USB port and a USB-to-coaxial cable which can supply power to the YBA 11 from the S801 directly, so you don’t need to power it separately.

This Yamaha DAC has bass and treble volume apart from overall volume. There’s a loudness control that maintains the level of bass and treble even as the volume reduces. A balance control helps decide how the bass, mids and treble interact.  A switch on the DAC allows you to bypass the headphone connection to use the speakers or turn off the speakers and route sound to the headphone. Yamaha offers two options to achieve maximum signal purity here. In one mode, power to all the unused audio inputs is turned off. The other mode bypasses everything but the CD input and switches off the power to all other inputs.

The A-S801 DAC have three line inputs, one CD input and one Tuner input. A single line-level output is presented to connected subwoofer, no hassles here. It even has a moving –magnet phono input for vinyl playback. It can even be connected to a tape deck. One reason the S801 handles 4Ohm connections so well is its dual heat sink at one per channel. You can connect two different speaker systems to it at a time and have the, play in different rooms. With a selector dial, you can pick the system you want to play at a time or play both.

Pros:

  • Integrated amp with DAC
  • Tons of input and output options
  • Affordable for the features
  • Has a remote
  • Can power two speakers systems at a time

Cons:

  • Fixed LPF at subwoofer out

2. CHORD Electronics Mojo, ultimate DAC/Headphone Amplifier

The Chord Electronics Mojo DAC sports an eye-popping spec that’s wrapped in an equally astonishing price. This is a desktop DAC that hasCHORD Electronics Mojo, ultimate DACHeadphone Amplifier the high-end performance that Chord promises with quality fare like Hugo 2. And yet it is the very epitome of convenience and affordability.  With proprietary technology, it cuts no corner and brings the most powerful processors on board. The fact that it packs an amp only makes a stronger case for it to be on the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Chord Electronics Mojo DAC is an integrated amp and DAC.  It is roughly the size of a deck of playing. It does not defy its absolute price with its simple black contours and three oversized ball buttons. But it’s sturdily built without being too heavy. The buttons are LED-lit and convey different information based on the color of the LED. These are for volume up/down and power. The aluminum casing is done entirely in black. The metal gets slightly hot while charging.

Mojo DAC auto senses the audio sample rate.  It can play any audio file up to a whopping 768kHz 32 bit and quad DSD 256. This will satisfy even the most stubborn audiophile. This is simply a plug-and-play device. When switched off and on again, it remembers the last saved settings. On one side of the DAC you have two micro USB ports, one of which is dedicated to charging. These are flanked by a coaxial input and an optical S/PDIF input. There are two headphone outputs on another side.

The Mojo DAC works on battery power. It needs to be charged for 10 hours before the first use. But afterwards charging period is down to 4 hours. It lasts through 10 hours per battery charge. A micro-USB port is provided for charging the device. The color of the power button indicates the audio bitrate and the type of audio being played. Volume adjustments are shown by a fading of the LED light on the volume buttons. An important fact about this Chord DAC is that it can decode for line level equipment like powered speakers, mixers etc. For this you have to bypass the headphone preamp. This can be done by pressing the two volume buttons simultaneously, the color changes to blue. It’s best not to use this mode with headphones.

The Chord Mojo DAC is such an excellent bargain only because of its flawless audio. It somehow makes all the pricier fare much less attractive. It provides deep insights into the old favorites and makes you look at them in a new light. You also get the real energy of the song pulsating through it without any boost. The presentation is meaty without the amp adding any characteristic to the audio. The volume range is more than sufficient with no external amp required.

Pros:

  • Integrated amp and DAC
  • Conveniently small and lightweight
  • 768kHz 32 bit sampling
  • Can bypass headphones to connect to speakers

Cons:

  • Gets warm upon charging

3. OPPO HA-2 Portable Headphone Amplifier & DAC

Oppo has been all about overcoming the glass roof in the smartphone domain. Their expertise in audio(Read PM3 headphones) andOPPO HA-2 Portable Headphone Amplifier & DAC smartphones bled over to the HA-2, a marvelous portable DAC. Modeled just like a suave and slim phone, this is an affordable device with audio you can’t fault. Given the fast charging feature and high-resolution accurate audio, wild horses couldn’t have kept it out of the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Oppo HA-2 DAC is an integrated amplifier. It is built for stacking with your phone although it is compatible with PCs, laptops, MP3 players like iPod as well. It measures 5.375” x 2.7” x 0.5”, so roughly the size of a smartphone. We were little baffled by the leather wrap tightly stuck to 3/4th of its surface. But we quickly figured it to be a wise design decision. It avoids scratches when HA-2 is stacked with the phones and it also protects the DAC.  The HA-2 has a cool silver-finish aluminum chassis.

The impeccable detailing of this DAC’s body makes it stylish and convenient. Gripping it by the leather wrap, you can see the beveled edges, the rounded corners and the discretely-placed buttons. One side has the headphones out and the analog 3.5mm line in ports. The other end has a USB and a micro-USB port along with a 3-point slider to choose between these connections. You can use either USB port when HA-2 functions as DAC+Amp or the 3.5mm when only as an Amp. There are bass and gain switches on one edge along with power-indicating LEDs.

This DAC packs an ESS Sabre32 reference ES29018-K2M DAC chip and an AB amplifier.  PCM sampling frequencies range from 44kHz to 384kHz at 16/24/32-bit. HA-2 maintains steely integrity while revealing the intricacies of every song. Ha-2 is staunchly neutral in its presentation. It broadens the perception of sound over the affordable DACs. Sound going through the HA-2 somehow sounds more emotional and intense. With bass boost, things never get out of hand. It is still a revelation only with stronger low-end.

The Oppo HA-2 DAC charges off the micro-USB port. With DAC+amp on, it coughs out 7 hours battery life per charge. With the proprietary VOOC fast charging technology, it charges fully in 90 mins. The USB port also allows it to work as a battery bank and allows it to receive digital data from Apple devices without a separate adapter. Out on the top right corner, the HA-2 DAC has a volume potentiometer. It has a tacky surface but it difficult to turn accidentally. It also serves as the power switch with a click ‘feel’ as feedback.  All necessary cables and chargers are included.

Pros:

  • Amplifier with integrated DAC
  • Clever and convenient design
  • Neutral, highly resolving
  • Intense audio
  • Acts as a battery bank

Cons:

  • Very slight hiss with highly sensitive headphones

4. TEAC NT-503 Dual-Monaural USB DAC/Network Player 

The Teac NT-503 DAC is a network-driven version of the UD-503 DAC. This is a highly professional DAC and amplifier that goes in oneTEAC NT-503 Dual-Monaural USB DACNetwork Player permanent place of your audio sanctum. It allows a number of sources and puts its powerful magic to work on all platforms. The Bluetooth connectivity and Ethernet port connection only makes it an audiophile’s dream. Its remote controlled convenience is not lost on us. This cloud music player is the next big thing on the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Teac NT-503 DAC is a component DAC, its sophistication packed in a simple package. Its brushed aluminum chassis evokes strong conviction in its durability. You have a choice of silver and black colors. The sideplates jut forward for gripping when you hold them. The front has controls and an LCD display. The back side carries the array of ports. This looks much like the UD-503 model, the only difference being a network drive, a USB A port and a Bluetooth AptX receiver on the back side.

This DAC allows 32-bit/384kHz PCM playback on PC, 6MHz DSD and 24-bit/192kHz WAV/FLAC Streaming Playback on LAN Connection, 11.2MHz DSD Native Playback and 6MHz DSD and 24-bit/192kHz WAV/FLAC Playback from USB Flash Memory. With Bluetooth Apt-X connection, the quality is similar to uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz.  This is a digital DAC with no analog inputs. It packs the network drive with Micrel KSZ8081 transceiver.  This comes with a remote control but you can also use an iPhone/Android TEAC AVR app to control this DAC.

The TEAC NT-503 DAC has a volume pot and an input selector knob prominently on first.  The latter works with a menu button to select input options. A deceptive 3.5mm jack out front is for the S/PDIF optical or electrical connection. The LCD display shows the selected options. There’s a USB port to connect a USB stick to read audio files in it. There’s a 6.3mm studio jack for headphones. The USB port for connection to PC, coaxial port, optical port and the Bluetooth antenna are mounted at the back.

The NT-503 DAC is a legendary in the airy quality it brings to the audio. With a whole new spattering of details, it sounds more dynamic and rich than the untouched tracks. The amplifier can blow out your hearing before reaching the peak level. The ability to use them with Bluetooth on is a blessing for those who cannot be confined to their seats but still like audiophile quality music.

Pros:

  • Integrated DAC network player with Ethernet port
  • Bluetooth-enabled
  • LCD with all digital inputs
  • Affordable for the features

Cons:

  • No analog inputs, purely digital

5. AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier

The AudioQuest DragonFly DAC line made the DAC seem less dorky and formidable. This is simply a USB stick that can connect toAudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DACHeadphone Amplifier smartphones or PCs alike with a simple USB port or USB adapter. It brings home excellent decoding capability that will make a marked difference to the any audio you have heard without a DAC. This is a nifty buy for folks on a small budget or one still crossing the bridge to audiophile territory. It flies right into the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red has a gutsy metal design holding its prized DAC and amplifier. It may look quite similar to DragonFly Black, its more affordable brother, but it packs more fuel under the hood. This is barely the size of an old-fashioned pen drive with a cap. The cap opens to show a USB port that can be plugged into a laptop, PC or a smartphone. You can use a USB-micro-USB/lightning port cable for connection. A headphone jack adorns the back. The DragonFly Black uses the same design.

The Red DAC carries the 9016 32-bit ESS Sabre chip while Black DAC carries the 9010. Both have an integrated amplifier. But as an additional perk, the Red has an ESS amp with a digital volume control. The Red DAC can also pump higher power into the output headphones at 2.1V as opposed to Black DAC’s 1.2V. AudioQuest initially designed a DAC that pulled too much power hence could only be used with PCs. But these two DACs consume 77% less power than those models and can be driven by a smartphone. It drains the battery only a reasonable amount.

This DAC shines as both a DAC and an amp. Even with a mid-fi headphone, you can hear the audio open up due to better bass and treble extension. Assuming you were listening to only amped audio or direct source audio, the audio from this DAC will seem like a revelation.  DragonFly Red supports a maximum resolution of 24-bit/96kHz. This is one area where they could have added more capability. The Red adds both depth and width to the soundstage whereas the Black DAC makes it wide. Red DAC pumps a full-bodied 3-dimensional audio with excellent natural detailing. The Red is worth every penny over the Black DAC. But DragonFly Black is a worthy investment if it lies in your budget.

Pros:

  • Integrated DAC and amp
  • Pint-sized convenience
  • Can be powered by smartphone
  • Affordable
  • Marked better performance over normal PCs

Cons:

  • Maximum PCM could be better

6. FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier 

The Fiio DAC amps have been the bread and butter of the audiophiles given their affordable prices. They have ton of options to choose fromFiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier varying by features and prices. The E10K Olympus 2 is an upgraded version of FiiO’s immensely popular E10K. It has achieved technical finesse over the warm and energetic audio of the E10. The controls are better placed and you have a pricetag that won’t burn your pockets. What more could you ask of one of the best DACs?

Design and Features

The FiiO E10K is a desktop DAC integrated with an amplifier. We are not sure where FiiO takes the budget cut because this is a solid product. It has a brushed all-aluminum body and chassis. Altogether it measures 3.11” x 1.93” x 0.83”. It weighs only 78g as compared to the Oppo HA-2’s 175g. It is quite durable and can stand the abuse of being chucked into your everyday bag just like the E10 DAC.

This DAC looks like a little liquor flask with the volume potentiometer placed appropriately. On the same side there’s a bass slider switch and a headphone out. The other side has a coaxial out, a 3.5mm line out, a gain switch and a micro-USB port. All the ports are gold plated for seamless connection. The bass slider gives the bass leg up when you are feeling blue. The gain switch works with a low-pass filter. The micro USB connection is how the DAC connects to the PC and also draws power from it.

This FiiO DAC uses a PCM102 chip from Texas instruments. The Wolfson DAC chip that was the mainstay of E10 and gave it the warm audio, was chucked. The newer chip sounds more accurate with a tighter response. E10K is capable of handling 24-bit/96kHz PCM. It’s more than enough for the price unless you are a purist, in which case be ready to shell out more bucks. It can easily power up headphones up to 250Ohms.

The E10K DAC brings over the same warm sound signature as E10 DAC. But this time there’s no background hiss. With a mid-fi headphone it is positively silent compared to the E10. The audio sounds much more transparent with details shining through compared to the slightly veiled performance of the E10. The Bass boost is also not as aggressive as it used to be. The rise of bass is more subtle and does not trample the frequencies.

Pros:

  • Highly affordable
  • Lightweight and sturdy
  • All essential functionality covered
  • Outperforms more expensive DACs

Cons:

  • Maximum PCM could be better

7. Audioengine D1 24-bit Digital-to-Analog Converter

Audioengine D1 DAC is a surprisingly affordable USB DAC amp from a manufacturer with ridiculously expensive and awesome headphones.Audioengine D1 24-bit Digital-to-Analog Converter It’s unique combination of features and power source makes it a convenient design for laptops, headphones and speakers. Its small size is only the tip of its sonic iceberg. This is a well-rounded buy for the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Audioengine D1 DAC integrates a quality amp, making it a one-stop device for the couch audiophile. Its nice brushed aluminum body is capable of withstanding the neglect dealt to desktop accessories. It only measures 3.5” x 4.1” and weighs around 450g. It can be simply connected to your playback device via a USB cable for the power. There are no batteries or separate power cables involved.

This DAC supports up to a 24-bit/96kHz with its USB input and 24-bit/192kHz via the optical input. The front side has an output headphone port. But that’s not all, they also have an RCA outputs on the back side. You can connect a pair of speakers to the headphone amp. If you connect the headphones, the speakers automatically mute. The optical digital output can be hooked up to any output device with an optical input.  The D1 connects to the PC/laptop with no driver required. It is plug-and-play except that you have to change the output audio device setting.

A 2m USB cable is supplied with the D1 DAC for connection. The accompanying microfiber drawstring bag makes it easy to carry. The Audioengine D1 brings the richness into audio that you would expect from a decent amp. The details revealed by the DAC are just the cherry on the cake. A dynamic openness takes the audio up a notch from the audiophile headphone level. The bass extends deep with the external DAC and adds punch the lower frequencies.

There’s no apparent hiss from the circuit of D1 DAC even with hi-fi headphones on. You might get more of a kick from a higher-end DAC like the Chord Mojo.

Pros:

  • Integrated DAC and amp
  • USB powered
  • Decently warm and detailed audio
  • Nice pick of inputs and outputs

Cons:

  • Some people prefer a longer cable than the one supplied

8. Chord Electronics “CHORD Hugo 2”

Yes, that’s “Chord Hugo 2”, DAC that earns its own double quotes. This is one of the more inexpensive DACs in this list. This merrily coloredChord Electronics “CHORD Hugo 2” DAC goes about its business with its tremendous talents.  With its phenomenal detailing and seamless connectivity, it can vindicate every penny of its price. It earns its place in our best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Chord Hugo 2 DAC in its silver model presents the brightly colored LEDs much better than the black version. Its aircraft grade aluminum chassis is irrefutably reliable. It is thinner than its predecessor, the Hugo at 5.1” x 3.9” x 0.8”. It weighs around 450g. It’s portable if you want to take your audio mania around. Since this is a desktop amplifier, it comes with a remote control.

The Hugo 2 DAC borrows its ball button design from the Mojo. These are powered by color-changing LEDs too. Each sphere has a set of colors to indicate some parameter. The power button goes through five shade of color to indicate battery status. The input selector LED has 6 shades to display you current input method. On the top, there’s the kind of volume control that would look at home in an alien spaceship. While the quirky design is a sign of the wealth-reduction caused by the Hugo 2, it might be hard for some people to remember the color play.

This Chord DAC uses an FPGA array for DAC operation unlike bought-off chips in other manufacturers’ DACs. It goes up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM and up to DSD512 on the USB input. Digital audio can be decoded up to 24-bit/192kHz and digital coaxial port can decode up to 24-bit/385kHz. It has all important input and output connections that for out popular devices.  You get both 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs. A stereo RCA connection can be used to connect to amplifiers. Battery life peaks at 7 hours per charge.

The Hugo 2 DAC outshines almost every other DAC we have covered up till now. True to its price, it brings the extra dynamic punch, extra emotion and body to the music. Even its AptX Bluetooth connection sounds better than the usual fare. It needs to be paired with the best quality audio and hi-fi headphones.

Pros:

  • Quirky lighted design
  • Exceptional dynamism and open soundstage
  • AptX Bluetooth connection

Cons:

  • Battery life could be better

9. FiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter 

FiiO D3 DAC is an unbelievably inexpensive device for the people on a shoestring budget. If you have a horrible PC DAC chip, this would be aFiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter huge upgrade in terms of audio. You can start educating yourself with this DAC as you travel into the domain of audiophile audio. This launches straight into the best DACs list.

Design and Features

The FiiO D3 DAC is a desktop DAC for your home studio or audio den. It looks a little better than a DIY project but it’s a sturdy item.  It barely weighs 50g. It measures 2.42” x 1.933” x 0.83”, almost the size of a matchbox with limbs. It has digital coaxial and digital optical input ports. A coaxial/optical switch helps to switch between the input modes. The outputs include RCA out and a headphone out.

This DAC supports up to 24-bit/192kHz audio input. It comes with an external power cable since it requires a separate power source. There are no other accessories since you would prefer using your own cables. The output volume is low so you will have to use an amplifier in tow with these. We recommend one of FiiO’s own amps since they will be best matched, eg: the E9 amp. It is powered by a USB port from the laptop.

The D3 DAC brings a warm laidback sound signature as opposed to the bright vigorous audio of many high-end DACs. This is not the purists’ type of DAC. It does make a conspicuous difference over the on-board DAC of the PCs. We couldn’t spot any hiss with our mid-fi headphones. The midrange improves significantly meanwhile bass gets better extension into the subbass if you use quality source audio.

Pros:

  • No-frills DAC
  • 24-bit/192kHz
  • Coaxial optical digital input
  • RCA and headphone output
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • None

10. Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS v2 USB DAC and Headphone Amp 

Cambridge Audio has outdone itself in bringing value for money with the DacMagic XS V2. This is a DAC that would give the DragonFly Red aCambridge Audio DacMagic XS v2 USB DAC and Headphone Amp run for the money. Slick, portable, impressive audio all point toward the DacMagic XS v2 being one of the best DACs. So pop it in your pocket and get quality audio on the move.

Design and Features

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS v2 DAC is smaller than a traditional matchbox, except it looks much classier and has more fire under the hood. The lightweight brushed aluminum chassis rakes up a weight of only 100g. The DAC itself measures 2” x 1.2” x 0.4”. Its silver beveled edges reduce the chances of any edge damage cause by dropping it. The design is pretty straightforward with two oversized volume buttons on the top face. There’s a micro-USB port on one side and a headphone out on the other side. There’s an indicator LED for the sampling rate indication.

The XS DAC packs the ESS Sabre ES9023 24-bit DAC chip. With a USB 2.0 connection, you may reach up to 24-bit/192kHz sampling. Most importantly this chip is also capable of amplification, so this becomes a one-stop sound improvement device between your PC and your headphones. It can drive the high-impedance headphones with ease. Given that DragonFly can only handle sampling rate up to 96kHz, the DacMagic DAC is a killer deal at its price. It requires a minor setup procedure. You have to download a certain driver from the manufacturer’s website for DacMagic to function properly. It comes with a 4” long USB-micro USB cable and a pouch to carry it around.

The DacMagic XS v2 DAC is simply fantastic in its audio presentation. We weren’t expecting the weighty low-end, the precise detailing and a pleasant tonal balance. It can beat the internal DACs of stalwarts like Apple Macbook Pro and glide into hitherto unseen details.  The output of DacMagic is hi-fidelity audio which when combined with hi-fi headphones. There’s no jitter or perceptible hiss from the DAC circuit. It is delicate and aggressive as the song demands. The higher-priced DragonFly Red sounds only a tad clear and kickier.  The amplifier provides enough volume range to cause damage to ears, so a separate amp is out of question.

Pros:

  • Integrated amp and DAC
  • Lightweight, portable design
  • Excellent precision and tonal balance
  • Big bang for the bucks
  • Can drive high impedance headphones

Cons:

  • None

11. Marantz HD-DAC1 Digital-to-Analog Converter

The Marantz HD-DAC1 DAC is a beautiful piece of architecture which combines it with powerful audio. That’s style and substance in oneMarantz HD-DAC1 Digital-to-Analog Converter package. The latest chipset ties the best detailing and precision technology into a relatively small budget in neat bow. Its amp capability checks off all the requirements to be on our best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Marantz always brings a retro touch to its audio gear. The same trend has been annealed with a cool minimalism of the current age in the HD-DAC1 DAC. It is a 10” x 10” x 4” component DAC that weighs around 11 pounds. The front side sports a nifty round LED screen flanked by knobs of input selector and volume. The USB and 6.3mm headphone output ports are right up front. The backside is littered with tons of connecting options. A remote control allows you to sit on the couch and order HD-DAC1 around. At the back of this DAC, we find the two optical inputs, one coaxial input and one USB type B input. The analog inputs possible are 3.5mm socket and two RCA inputs. One RCA output can power integrated amps or passive loudspeakers and the other can connect to power amp or active speakers.

This Marantz DAC uses a CS4398 chip that allows files up to 24-bit/192kHz to be played and also supports DSD 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. It also packs a jitter reduction system and a double clock for double the accuracy of the clock signal. It can easily support headphones that go ninja style with 600Ohm impedance. It comes packed with a bunch of quality digital cables that will nicely complement all possible setups of this DAC.

The HD-DAC1 DAC is a high-precision device that simply exposes all the details of the digital tracks right down to the last note. It starts off cold but with a period of burn-in, you will gradually accept the prowess of the Marantz. It requires the best headphones and quality source to realize its full potential. It is not very brash on the headphones per se, but you will hear all their shortcomings. This is a DAC built for the serious connoisseurs who want to experiment with the audio. The soundstage is expansive and the natural tone of audio is faithfully reproduced.

Pros:

  • Integrated amp and DAC
  • Jitter reduction with double clock
  • Highly accurate and neutral
  • Beautiful design

Cons:

  • Complex audio could have sounded a bit more effortless

12. Meridian – Explorer USB DAC

The Meridian Explorer DAC is an excellent companion to go explore the audiophile world of pure and clear music. This plays into the newMeridian – Explorer USB DAC USB DAC market that brings home portability and power in one package. It is an elegant DAC for those who want a no-hassle upgrade on their laptop/PC sound system. It explored itself right into our best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Meridian Explorer DAC is a petite silver tube that fits right into your grip as you move it around. It is longer than the simple DragonFly or the DacMagic XS, but it is still portable. It can fit in your pocket or in the bag. The silver aluminum casing is capable of taking a hit or two. The top side has the branding and three LED lights. The latter indicate the sampling rate being played at the moment. Once side carries the mini-USB input from the laptop or PC. The other side has the audio out.

This DAC is an asynchronous USB device so it can use its own clock for controlling the data transfer and decoding. This is useful in avoiding jitters. Explorer also takes extra steps to ensure no jitter creeps in with two master USB clocks. It supports a native playback of 192kHz sampling source audio. The output is through a headphone jack on the other side. There’s one more port which works as either an analog or digital optical output port. You can connect an amp to this port. It requires a simple driver installation on the windows devices while an Apple device is just plug-and-play.

The Meridian DAC brings out the dynamic intricacies that make a song feel real. It might not have the textbook accuracy of high-end DACs like the Marant H1-DAC, but it imparts a richness to the texture of the overall music. The bass carries a weight lent by proper extension into sub bass with this DAC. The bass is controlled and supports the airiness of mids. It is smooth and laidback compared to the popular USB DACs, so you don’t have to court listening fatigue just to get better audio.

Pros:

  • Integrated DAC and amplifier
  • Portable USB device
  • Two master clocks
  • Rich, dynamic audio

Cons:

  • Needs more refinement to stand out from the crowd

13. FiiO K1 Portable Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC

The FiiO K1 DAC is a dynamite device. It is tiny and way more affordable than the DragonFly. It plugs right in and start working its magic onFiiO K1 Portable Headphone Amplifier and USB DAC the audio that has been woefully treated by your PC’s DAC.  Being able to run speakers is its superpower. This entry level DAC is definitely worth a place in the best DACs club.

Design and Features

The FiiO K1 DAC looks like a fortified thumb drive. It measures 1.96” x 0.8” x 0.314”. In short, it’s smaller than the DragonFly and that’s saying something. It has an aluminum body that won’t give up easily. The grey finish does not chip like DragonFly’s fiery red exterior. It weighs only 11g so it could be hard to keep track of. It has a plastic clip at the back attach it to your shirt pocket.to  It has a micro-USB input port and a headphone out port.  There’s a small blue LED next to the headphone port to indicate a power on status.

The K1 DAC banks on the Texas instrument PCM5102 DAC chip and the TPA613321 amplifier module. The DAC chip can handle up to 24-bit/96kHz sampling, so essentially the same spec as the 5 times as costly DragonFly Red. It can be simply attached to the USB port of your device and engaged in decoding and amplifying.  It becomes a single hub from which all your headphone audiophile needs will be satisfied.  It may or may not work with smartphone devices based on the smartphone type. It can easily amp the headphone sound up to 100Ohms.

This FiiO DAC is widely different from the DragonFly Red in its sound signature. While DragonFly goes bright and neutral, the K1 is laidback and edges on warm. It has that slight emphasis on bass which makes any song sound full-bodied and enjoyable even if it’s not. That doesn’t mean the sound signature is not accurate, just that the richness comes from a slight looseness of bass here. It is decently detailed and certainly an upgrade on PC DAC. It is a non-fatiguing sound with smooth treble.  This is a quiet DAC with the slight circuit noise audible only with sensitive headphones.

Pros:

  • USB stick-sized
  • Integrated amp and DAC
  • Enjoyable audio, decent details
  • Very inexpensive

Cons:

  • Slightly off the neutral balance

14. Sony UDA1/B Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio

Sony’s legacy is audio is so monumental that it ends up finding a place in most top lists. The Sony UDA1 DAC brings Sony up on this bestSony UDA1B Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio DACs list. This component DAC is affordable and a complete solution for your home audiophile needs.  With a computer and a pair of speakers, these will induct you right into the clan of audiophiles.

Design and Features

Sony UDA1 DAC goes with a simple but bold design. We checked out the silver model in brushed aluminum. There’s just a hint of gloss on the knobs out front. It is a hardy device that can stand the test of being mishandled on the computer desk.  The front has volume knob and a power button. There are the USB and headphone output port. An array of LEDS reflects the inputs being used.  The USB port out front can act as a charging outlet. It can also be used to play music off a flash drive. You can feed in audio files into this DAC through coaxial, optical, a USB 2.0 input and a line-level input.

The UDA1 DAC can decode files up to 32-bit/192kHz sampling. It can also accept DSD files. It uses a PCM1795 chip for DAC operation.  But the front USB port can only play up to 44.1kHz files off a flash drive.  It combines this with amplification capabilities ensuring you don’t need a separate amp with this. This is an affordable setup for high-end audio.  With Mac devices, this a plug and play, Windows may require drivers.

The Sony UDA1 DAC can perform with most high impedance headphones except just the most high-end stuff like Planar Magnetic headphones.  It is a great middle-of-the-road option for the serious audio-experimenters.  It has a nice spattering of details throughout the frequency response. It hugs the neutral audio signature. It can really bring out the difference with low and mid-res audio. With high-res audio you might not find much of a difference with and without this DAC.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Integrated DAC with amp
  • Stylish design with good assortment of inputs/outputs

Cons:

  • Detailing is only decent, not capable of hi-res detail resolution

15. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB Audio System with Phono Preamp

The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi DAC has their trademark classiness where they try to as many features as possible into a small budget. ThisCreative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB Audio System with Phono Preamp is a portable desktop DAC that supports a number of source connections and revolutionizes your audio is a 2-digit budget. It makes an appropriate close to our best DACs list.

Design and Features

The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi DAC is a full-fledged sound card that takes over the reins from your PC’s sound card. It is a nifty little black box with a volume knob in the front. A headphone out and mic out adorn the front side. The headphone port has its own amplifier so you don’t need another device in tow to enjoy those high-end cans. The back side have the RCA input/output ports, optical input/output and the micro-USB port.

This DAC is integrated with the X-Fi and EAX technology. It also packs Creative THX-certified equalizer suite. This DAC can easily drive studio-level powerful headphones with considerable ease. It is tonally balanced and takes the edge off any overwhelming bass. It is far cry from the sound card performance of PCs in terms of audio quality. It is not just an audio enhancer for music, it will totally transform your movie-watching and gaming audio experience.

Pros:

  • Affordable sound card
  • Number of connection options
  • Portable

Cons:

  • Little light on bass
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