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Any music lover that wants to get the most quality and fidelity from their tracks must consider getting one of these magical devices called Digital Audio Converters or DACs. The reason is simple. They have the ability to tremendously improve the sound quality and take you to a new level to enjoy your music like it was intended from the studio. A DAC is an external box which takes your digital music and transforms it into analog sound which is supposedly much smoother and pleasant sounding. This is still a subject for debate but most audiophiles prefer to use DACs claiming they can uncover some subtle layers and textures from a mix and a much more detailed and better-defined picture of your song is created. Check out my other articles about the best smartphone microphone and best CB antenna.
DAC devices can get very expensive but if you don’t like the idea of throwing thousands of dollars, you can get cheaper ones that still bring to life your music library with minimal differences compared to the more expensive options. Audiophiles are going to condemn me for this statement but here’s the truth: if you aren’t really a trained professional or an avid listener carefully nitpicking over every tiny detail in the sound you can’t easily tell the difference from a $150 and a $500 DAC. There are obviously many other factors that come into play but this is not the moment to get lost in too many details.
The purpose of this article is to give casual listeners and those with a passion for audio quality a selection of the best DACs which are truly worth their money. They fit lower and medium budgets nicely and many of them are extremely portable for getting a superior sound experience everywhere you go. Nowadays this technology has become much more accessible and even if you aren’t a die-hard audiophile you probably still have an interest in hearing your music in higher definition and choosing from the best is the right solution.
Best DAC for the Money
After discontinuing the excellent E10, Fiio decided it was time for an upgrade and the result is the E10K, a very potent USB DAC for a reasonable price. Affordability doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise of quality and it’s clear that the E10K offers a very decent audio output.
If you are looking to purchase a DAC, you’re most likely interested the most in the sound quality and this one won’t disappoint. The E10K has less floor noise than the previous model and a much bigger sound stage. More detail can be heard from bass to mids to highs.
The sound is overall much cleaner and more dynamic with a better resolution. I’ve noticed especially in the mids and treble section a significant improvement. The depth of the music can be explored more easily with extra layers of detail.
An important feature of the E10K is the Bass Boost which brings a new level of impact to the table. It’s a bit more nuanced and slightly tighter now which gives your music a very warm atmosphere and a fun sound. The sound quality will still depend on the drivers of your headphones but there’s definitely a more extended bass with some terrific rumble.
As a flexible external sound card for a PC, the E10K by Fiio is very promising in terms of audio quality but the design and the ease of use are also aspects worth considering. The small build is very convenient, this gadget is surprisingly lightweight and fits easily in the palm of your hand.
Using the E10K couldn’t be simpler as the controls are very intuitive and precise. The volume dial felt truly analog. On the front, you can find the headphone output and on the back, there are enough practical connectivity options such as the Micro-USB port and the digital Coaxial and Analog Line out. The latter are useful ports in case you want to bypass the device’s output amp.
At this price, the Fiio E10K is a great solution for those who want the best sound quality for the money spent. More advanced users should probably check out some of the more expensive DACs but for those looking for a solid little gadget that brings your music to life with a much more defined sound for cheap, then you’ve pretty much found the best solution.
- Standard Micro USB port for power
- 200 mW output
- 24-bit/96 kHz rate
- ≥108 dB ratio
- 1x Coaxial digital output and stereo PCM format
- 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency report
Best DAC Amp Combo
AudioQuest is one of the first to gain recognition in the premium cable industry and after this success, they’ve decided to try their hand at signal sources. As such, the Dragonfly USB headphone amplifier/DAC was born and now the third generation – the Black – is continuing the dynasty of products that strive for pleasing music lovers everywhere with those particular details that are capable of striking a real audible difference.
The Dragonfly Black is more portable than its predecessors in terms of compatibility rather than dimensions which stayed the same. Because of the new Microchip micro controller which draws considerably less power than the previous version, this makes it more fitting to be used with iOS or Android devices. According to AudioQuest, this move should keep the battery from draining so quick as it happened in the past devices.
Featuring analog volume control and LEDs that correspond to the file size playback, the Dragonfly Black stays true to AudioQuest’s typical design choices. Speaking of playback, this is where the weak point of the Black comes into play. The DAC is limited to 96kHz playback so that even if you play higher file sizes they will be downsampled.
AudioQuest outfitted this Dragonfly with a leatherette pouch for protection against scratches on the zinc alloy casing. For the USB end, you also get a plastic cap. The finish of the casing is once again soft matte but for distinguishing the Dragonfly Black from the older version they inscribed the DragonFly lettering in gold as opposed to white.
The audio quality of this DAC is great, the Black keeps the Dragonfly legacy sound going adding lots of dynamic impetus and rhythmic intelligence. The sound is clearer, tighter quite imposing when compared to the previous Dragonfly. You can feel the power of the drums as they thump along with agility as intended. There’s enough space to keep many instruments together in harmony, guitars, pianos, and chimes distinguishing themselves in the mix. The strings can soar with dynamic finesse and the sound can have overall much more depth.
The Dragonfly Black is committed to bringing a better sound quality in a truly impressive package and maintaining a reasonable price. AudioQuest created a very solid DAC that’s definitely recommended for the well-defined sonic experience it creates.
- Plays most music files
- Compatible with Mac and Windows, as well as iOS & Android mobile devices
- Drives headphones directly
- Fixed output feeds preamp or AV receiver
- Asynchronous transfer
- Medium output (1.2 volts) drives a vast range of headphones
- Analog volume control
Best Optical DAC
Audioengine’s D1 is a high-quality headphone amplifier that works with many devices and enables the true potential of your speakers as it enhances the audio signal and delivers superb sound quality. It can connect conveniently to many kinds of devices with a USB port or Optical output without the need for downloading special software so the D1 is also very quick to set up.
Improving the sound of your music is this DAC’s specialty. It can send audio through USB or optical and virtually bypass the soundcard of your computer or the output of your headphones. Versatility is definitely one of the greatest strengths of the D1 as it can increase the quality of your tunes from a TV, DVD player or CD player besides the music from your computer. The fact that it’s USB powered means that D1 is also a portable device. Coupled with its small build, this makes for a convenient solution to listen to high-definition music when traveling.
Audioengine designed this model with the computer audiophile in mind. The D1 is capable of processing digital audio at bit depths up to 24 bits. The sample rate of 192KHz is also fairly decent. What comes as a surprise for this price range is the very low distortion and a considerably high signal-to-noise ratio. This level of sound quality is typically found in more expensive DACs so this is great news for the more demanding music enthusiasts who are on a budget.
Setting up the Audioengine D1 is almost too easy. Basically, just plug and play. Like I’ve said in the beginning, you won’t need to mess around with any complicated software as the PC should automatically recognize the device and you can enjoy crystal clear sound in no time. Its outputs allow for establishing connections with a very wide range of audio systems and powered speakers.
Apart from the noticeable improvement in audio quality, you might also appreciate the D1’s visual aesthetic appeal. Wrapped in a rounded anodized aluminum case, this DAC reflects the commitment of Audioengine’s designers to offering true audio fidelity in a stylish package.
The difference in audio quality when using the Audioengine D1 DAC is remarkable. Even if you aren’t a very pretentious audiophile, you can definitely appreciate the more delicate textures and the powerful clarity of your tunes with the help of this sleek device. Given this price, this is hands down one of the best choices out there for a DAC.
- USB and Optical AKM4396
- Asynchronous dual clock
- Input bit depth of 16 bit / 24 bit
- Analog RCA L/R stereo/Analog 3.5mm mini-jack stereo outs
- Full-scale output level: 2.0V RMS
- 2 ohms impendance
Best USB DAC
AudioQuest’s Dragonfly represented the response of the company to the growing popularity of computer audio back in 2012. The Red unit is basically the 4th version of the original Dragonfly DAC. It comes with many advanced features for improving the sound quality and amplifying headphones and with an affordable price tag.
The Red Dragonfly is geared at sophisticated listeners and brings some considerable performance for its little size. The extra portable design is very convenient and in the looks department, the glossy red finish of the gadget has a unique appeal. The only small issue with it would be the proneness to chipping. For ensuring more safety when transporting the DAC, Audioquest included a handy pouch.
Audio quality is an essential aspect for any DAC so let’s see if the Dragonfly Red is worth the money in this regard. One of the most noticeable things about the sound of this one is the sonic weight as the bass has been thoroughly extended overall. Each individual note is more defined and has a greater texture and these elements make a huge contribution to the music listening experience.
The sound can be heard more solidly, it has better depth giving off something like a three-dimensional vibe to the notes. If you’re a fan of a more natural and expressive sound, the Dragonfly Red is a very good option as it offers excellent low-level dynamics.
The performance of this DAC is certainly impressive as it can make quite a difference even to low-res streams like ones from Spotify. The detail and overall dynamics are significantly boosted. Interestingly, the Red Dragonfly can also work with smartphones such as iPhones or Android devices.
The original Dragonfly was a very compelling device when it first launched and those same qualities which greatly contributed to its popularity are once again found in the Red but with some welcomed improvements. The sound is very clear and detailed and with such a compact design Audioquest made no compromises in creating an ideal device for upgrading the audio quality of your music. For these reasons, it’s a highly recommended DAC.
- USB Stick-Sized Digital-to-Analog Converter
- Compatible with most desktop and mobile systems
- Drives headphones directly
- Fixed output which feeds preamp or AV receiver
- Asynchronous transfer for integrity
- High output (2.1 volts)
- Digital volume control
Best HiFi DAC
Chord Electronics is a company with a great deal of experience in designing high-quality DACs and their best portable solution is the Mojo. A budget-friendly device equipped with powerful programmable processors, this intriguingly designed DAC offers solid sonic fidelity for its price.
The Mojo feels very sturdy, not too light and not too heavy either. Its rectangular black box appearance has three colorful opaque balls that act as buttons and complete the overall design. A rechargeable battery powers this device and when it fully charges the Mojo, it allows for approximately ten hours of continuous music playback.
Near the USB ports, there are special connections for inputting digital audio streams, namely an optical and a 3.5 mm coaxial. The headphone outputs can be found on the opposite side of the unit.
One of the best aspects about the Chord Mojo is its versatility. It plays well with a vast selection of devices from Macs and PCs to iOS or Android smartphones. For PCs, it should be automatically recognized but for Macs, you need to go into Sound Preferences and select the Mojo as your default audio playback device.
How well does the Chord Mojo manage to perform in the sound quality department? Pretty well actually as it turns out. One of the most striking details you will notice is its ability to play files with huge audio resolution bitrate of up to 768kHz. This is something great in this price range and it’s a major selling point.
With the Mojo you get a particularly improved sense of dynamics, the fine details of the mix can be appreciated better thanks to the clarity and depth offered by this DAC. The soundstage is very wide, nothing feels crammed, the instruments and voices have a very distinct and vibrant sound. A full bass extending all the way to sub areas redefines your listening experiences making them much more enjoyable.
The all-important mid-range will remain true to the audio source material as the Mojo shines through virtually any genre of music. The outstanding audio quality provided by the Chord Mojo is definitely its main selling point but if we also take into account all of its features, the connections, and the versatility, this is a perfect choice for any audiophile. Considering its price bracket, the Mojo is absolutely recommended as a solid investment for a DAC.
- Micro USB In
- Separate Micro USB Charging
- Coax Input via Jack, Optical Input
- 2x Headphone Outs
- Line Level Mode (3v RMS)
- Supports 800Ω Headphones
- DSD 256 (4x) via DoP
- Aluminium Chassis
Best Budget Cheap DAC
The E17K Alpen 2 is taking the legacy of the Alpen 1 further which was an outstanding DAC from all points of view. It was very balanced feature-wise and came with a more than reasonable price. The new model is now taking those qualities that made the Alpen 1 successful to new levels of performance.
Similarly to the original, the Alpen 2 is dressed in a stylish metal and plastic casing. It’s built with a thin piece of aluminum and on the side, you can find a scroll wheel. What’s a bit strange is the choice of material for this wheel as it’s made of plastic instead of metal like in past devices. It’s strong enough but still not as sturdy as metal.
The design is overall less bulky than the Alpen 1 or at least that’s the initial impression due to the thinness of the device. The weight is still pretty much the same. In the buttons and inputs department, it’s very obvious that Fiio’s engineers tried to find the combos that work best. The 3.5mm plug is tightly fit but simple to use at the same time without putting too much force.
Alpen 2’s sleek design is indeed very appealing but the sound quality is where this device’s potential truly shows. The overall sound is much warmer with a solid soundstage. In the mid-range, the timbre sounds great and the E17K is very capable of taking instruments and make them sound much more defined. A big contributor to the naturalness of the mids is the soundstage which is a bit unexpected for a Fiio DAC. The vocals are distinctly placed in the front and you can clearly hear the instruments dancing across the stage.
Concerning the bass, the Alpen 2 doesn’t go overboard keeping just the right level of tightness so for those who prefer it to be fun and plentiful this is great news. Without altering any EQ settings, the E17K sounds pretty balanced and makes it a very flexible choice for a DAC/Amp to be paired with IEMs and headphones. Coupled with the smooth and clear treble compared with the older model, it’s safe to say that the Alpen 2 is a worthy upgrade for any serious audiophile.
- Micro USB input
- (3.5 mm) stereo combo in and out jack
- Digital volume control
- 10 dB bass
- Frequency Response: 20 to 20,000 Hz
- Crosstalk: > 75 dB (1 kHz)
- Headphone Impedance: 16 to 150 ohms
- 15 hours, 1500 mAh battery
Schiit Audio is a company that prides itself on creating authentic audio products that are actually manufactured in the USA. Their range of DACs is quite broad and contains budget friendly options starting with the Modi 2. In this review, we’ll take a look at the Modi 2, a very cost-effective option for significantly improving the audio quality of your music library.
The Uber version costs a bit more than the basic Modi 2 but considering the more digital inputs that it can handle (optical, coaxial besides USB) I’d say it’s worth the extra money. When paired with a decent amp such as the Magni 2 from the same company, the jump in sound quality is quite noticeable.
Schiit designed this DAC very elegantly, the silver case is made of brushed aluminum that catches the eye. The front plate looks a bit austere and it gives off that classic DAC feel. On it, you can find a small selector button and the LED display used for showing which inputs are selected. Something that could be considered a small issue is that you can’t disable the LEDs and they’re a bit too bright especially in a very dark room.
In terms of sound, there’s more audio dimensionality, every sound feels much more defined, the instruments more distinctively sounding with less congestion. Capable of a decent output of up to 24bit/192kHz, the Modi 2 is sure to please lots of audio enthusiasts. The sound is smoother thanks to the high sample rate and pulling more information towards your speakers translates into a more dynamic range.
Modi 2 is very focused in the middle range and keeps the highs clearer allowing for definition in the sound. An important aspect is the boosting of the soundstage as each instrument in the mix is brought to life separately having its own ”voice” so to speak. Those inclined to listen to a more natural sound will love this DAC as it provides powerful enhancement without exaggerated warmth or coloration.
Schiit Audio delivers an extremely enjoyable sonic experience through this device. Considering the price, this represents a ton of value in such a small package. If you want better audio quality without spending a fortune on a DAC, this is an excellent option all-around.
- D/A Conversion IC: AKM AK4490
- Single ended RCA out
- Impedance of 75 ohms on output
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz, +/-0.1dB
- Maximum Output: 1.5V RMS
- S/N: >104dB
- Crosstalk: -80dB, 20-20kHz
Best Portable DAC
The Groove is a highly portable USB DAC made by Apogee which looks very promising in terms of audio quality if we look at its price. Using cutting edge technology, Apogee’s products are very well liked in the recording studios and the same quality appreciated by industry professionals you can now enjoy in the Groove, which is geared more towards casual listeners on the go.
The design is nothing too fancy, Apogee prefers keeping things simple and that’s a good thing. Sheltered in a black aluminum casing, the Groove feels sturdy enough as well as the chunky rubber buttons on the top which are used to control the volume. Portability is one of its main strong points and that’s emphasized by the Groove’s feather-like weight – only 9g. Thanks to a rubber pad on the bottom of the device, you can rest assured that your DAC will adhere well to any surface.
Connectivity-wise, the Groove features two ports, a 3.5mm output for your headphones and micro-USB type-B to link the DAC to a PC using the included cable. For Windows, you will be required to install drivers from the manufacturer’s website, but if you have a Mac you can simply plug and play.
The performance of the Groove is insured by the Quad Sum DAC design that delivers 24-bit audio in a quality resolution of up to 192kHz. For lower distortion and a better frequency response, Apogee incorporated a Constant Current Drive output stage for automatically correcting non-linearities of any kind of connected headphones.
The Groove does a good job in the sound quality department, which is basically its essential function. It conjures up an honest representation of the music you’re playing and uncovers plenty of details you can’t detect by just using a laptop’s own headphone output.
One of the most striking aspects is the fuller definition and transparency of the sound. Even when you raise the volume, the listening experience is still very smooth without any straining or hard edges. Apogee’s technology keeps things fun, delivering enough punch to maintain the listener engaged. The deep bass in particular although it feels strong, it still won’t overpower other elements in the mix.
Coupled with a decent pair of headphones, the Apogee Groove is an outstanding option for enjoying your tunes as they were meant to. This DAC provides a huge step up from the audio quality of a laptop at an affordable cost and for this reason, this is especially recommended for the traveling audiophiles.
- USB 2.0, 24 bit / 192kHz audio
- Constant Current Drive
- Quad Sum DAC
- Asynchronous clocking
- Multicolor LEDs for status and level indication
- Buttons for adjusting volume level
- Premium aluminum build quality
Best Audiophile DAC
Meridian’s Explorer 2 is a tiny and performant DAC ideal for enjoying your music in superior quality. One of the reasons for which this device is highly appreciated in the audiophiles community is the Master Quality Authenticated or MQA support. You can access hi-res MQA songs using Tidal streaming.
The build of the Explorer 2 gives a more mature feel as it looks more functional as opposed to its peers USB stick design. The cigarette shape offers quite a lightweight impression and the aluminum shell is coated with a rubber strip on its bottom for preventing the DAC from slipping. Meridian included a 3.5mm output to pair the DAC with your headphones and for connecting it to the PC you’ve got a USB type-B port.
Meridian added three LED displays which light up according to the kind of files it’s playing. There’s one for 44kHz/48kHz files, another for 88kHz or 96kHz files and the last one is for files with resolutions of either 176kHz or 192kHz.
The sonic presentation of the Explorer 2 is very agreeable as the sound is clean and balanced with a dash of refinement and enough smoothness for an enjoyable listening experience. Despite Meridian’s ambition to offer better audio quality than its competitors, there’s still a way to go before it can reach with the Explorer 2 the detail and subtle dynamics of the Dragonfly Red.
This DAC excels at the sound clarity and has a very powerful momentum but lacks the precision of others like the Dragonfly Red which has better timing when following each thread in the mix. In the end, it’s a matter of preference, the Explorer 2 resembles more the Dragonfly Black with its cleaner output but not as interesting rhythmically.
All in all, the Meridian Explorer 2 remains a decent option, perhaps it’s not for everybody as not anyone needs the accessibility to MQA files but if this looks like something you’d like then it’s certainly one of the best DAC’s out there. It offers solid performance, it has a very elegant design and the sound quality is crystal clear.
- 1 x USB2 B input
- 3.5mm line out, 3.5mm headphone jack output
- 3 LEDs for showing connection and stream rate
- Dual Tile XMOS DSP
- Can easily upgrade the software
- Analogue volume control for headphone output
- USB nominal 5V at <500mA
Best DAC for iPhone
Oppo Digital has been making waves with its original HA-2 DAC/Amp combo when it first came out. It offered a very great sound quality and thanks to its slim profile and the high compatibility with many devices including Android smartphones, it was a perfect match for many audio enthusiasts. Keeping the same stylish design but bringing some nice improvements hardware-wise, the SE version of the HA-2 seems very promising.
The Oppo HA-2 SE offers support for PCM files up to 384 kHz and covers plenty of bases when it comes to connectivity. It has a micro USB input to link PCs and Android devices, a USB type-A to play nice with Apple products, and for everything else, there’s the 3.5mm input. Oppo offers a big battery (3000mAh) which will take approximately 90 minutes to charge and provides seven hours of listening for digital sources and somewhere around 13 hours with analog.
Similarly to the older model, this DAC has a ’high gain’ mode. Using a switch placed on the right-hand side you can enable the HA-2 SE to drive more power for those headphones that require it. The main difference between the basic version and this one is not only in the words ’SE’ and the slightly higher price. Oppo integrated the new ESS Sabre 9028 chip and made some changes to smaller components claiming that it will reduce the noise floor.
These improvements reflect a much more expressive and open sound. The SE builds on the original’s dynamic and detailed sound and it’s as if it takes it to the extreme in terms of articulation and tightness. Both the highs and lows benefit from the HA-2 SE’s presentation, the audio delivery being much more precise.
Uniting smooth textures with dynamic fluctuations, the Oppo creates a perfect setting for many musical genres and is especially great at distinguishing vocals making them sound more bold and sincere like they truly emanate the feelings behind. Considering the neutral tonal balance, and the crisp timing, this DAC can give a very pleasant natural vibe to your tracks. The bass has a good depth and its suppleness is accentuated quite well by the HA-2 SE.
It’s hard to find the best value DAC in this day and age, but Oppo has proven once again that it doesn’t take big budgets to get professional level sound quality. The HA-2 SE adds more flavor to the music while keeping it true to the original mastering. Definitely a recommended choice at this price.
- Frequency response range of 20 Hz – 200 kHz
- Headphone impedance range of 16 Ohm – 300 Ohm
- 3.5 mm stereo headphone and 3.5 mm stereo line-out jacks
- ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9028-Q2M Chip
- Stereo PCM, Stereo DSD (DoP v1.1 or native) input
- 3000 mAh Li-pol battery