Digital to Analog converters, or DACs, are seemingly overlooked pieces of equipment responsible for converting the digital signals that come via your favorite streaming service into something that can be played by an old-school amplifier, speaker set, or one-plug headset.
They were supposed to be a thing of the past. At least, if you had asked around in the prehistorical times of the early 2010s, most people would have pointed out that your laptop, PC, or smartphone has an internal DAC that would be more than enough to do the job. But with progress comes higher standards, and now most audiophiles would agree that “doing the job” is simply not enough if you are chasing high-fidelity, accurate sound reproduction.
Whether you are in the business of playing music for large amounts of people or simply like to ensure the best possible quality when chilling on your own, a DAC can be the magical piece of equipment that will bring harmony back to your life. Naturally, there is a wide variety of models and prices with wildly differing output qualities. Skip the trial-and-error and check out this list with the best 15 DACs available right now.
One of the most portable desktop DACs available, the Creative Sound Blaster offers immediate and audible improvements over any desktop’s soundcard. It adapts easily to both Hi-Fi earmuffs and home speaker systems, providing pleasant and well-balanced tunes.
This is achieved thanks to its built-in equalizer tool, which will help you regulate bass and make the most of all the different notes hiding beneath your soundtrack. Thanks to its own volume knob and integrated mic and headphone ports, it can quickly double as a great companion for a home recording session or into an immersion superpower while gaming.
Audioengine is now firmly established as a cult brand for many couch audiophiles, thanks to its overpowered headphones and incredibly expensive home speaker systems. While most of their offers meet the “state of the art” range, they are rarely friendly towards beginners, thanks to their price tags and complex specs.
This reputation makes their D1 DAC into a pleasant budget-friendly surprise. Its dual optical and USB input offers up to 24-bit/192 kHz conversions, which is more than enough for the home user. In addition, the device itself is small, light, and smooth. Its well-polished aluminum edges would never look odd in any living room. A good set of input and output jacks, as well as a 2-meter-long USB cable, are also included.
Established well within the range of household investments, the Cambridge DAC Magic 100 offers a dramatic improvement in the quality of your music and war movies reproduction. Its bulky and powerful system reduces sound distortion and broadens all scales, which will be invaluable for jazz and classical music fans alike.
The DAC MAGIC 100 supports a wide variety of audio files, from standard download mp3s to lossless studio quality files. Its panel includes a power and source button (it does not switch to sleep mode on its own) and the ability to display the incoming sample rate.
Sony may be a mainstream consumer-oriented brand, but its origin story draws back to the professional audio market – and we should never forget this.
Just in case you were running the risk of discarding them because of the sound quality offered by their smartphones, the UDA1 DAC is here to remind us of what they can truly do. With the ability to decode up to 32-bit/192kHz sampling, this DAC can be installed easily on any Mac computer as a “plug and play,” instantly turning any home session into a studio-worthy experience. On Windows computers, a quick driver installation will be required, but it shouldn’t hold you back for more than a few minutes.
If you need clear, crisp tones and decent distortion reduction on the go, the Meridian Explorer is a great portable option. The improvement in audio quality it offers will be noticeable even for most uneducated ears and will act as a great training device for those who are first testing the waters of Hi-Def audio.
It is just as big as any portable power bank, but its silver aluminum casing won’t let you mistake it for a cheap gadget. The LED display will let you quickly check out the sampling rate being offered now while the smartly placed output and input jacks will allow you to connect your headset without hassle or bulkiness. Finally, its ability to self-regulate its sampling rate and its accurate internal clock will prevent jitters or bumps on your track.
This is a small and unobtrusive option for your home’s studio or living room. Furthermore, it offers an impressive output among any device on its price range. DACs offering dual coaxial and optical digital output ports are hard to find for those willing to spend under $50, turning the Fiio D3 into a true gem.
Despite its wide array of options and possible settings, the D3 is nonetheless very easy to carry and to set up. It is even easier to adjust, thanks to its coaxial/optical switch, which will let you flip from one to the next seamlessly. The external power cable is included.
Giving your latest creation a human name is a surefire way of showing everyone that you are not pulling any punches and are aiming high. The Chord Hugo 2 clearly accomplishes this, but it also includes a colorful design that adds a little extra perkiness to its silver casing and road light-worthy bells.
The round buttons and clear lights will make it very easy to know exactly what are you converting and at what rate, and works exceptionally well with speakers and other open-audio systems. However, this DAC is clearly meant to be adaptable as it includes both 3.5 mm and 6.3 mm audio jack outputs along with a stereo RCA connection.
Remember when taking music with you on the road meant relying on one of those dreadful Bluetooth speaker sets? You may be able to drive back those terrible tin-tinged memories thanks to the Shure SHA900, which offers a potent amplifier, a 4-band parametric equalizer, and full Mac, PC, and ioS compatibility in a tiny high-end package.
Standing at barely 5.3 inches long and 5.8 inches wide, the SHA900 will instantly improve your output on the go, wherever you go, alongside completely new expectation for what a Phone DAC is meant to accomplish. It works with good, long-lasting included lithium-ion batteries.
Weighing in at 11 pounds, the Marantz HD-DAC1 offers a whole lot of power and truly superb sound. This is a full-size desktop appliance, however, as it’s just over 10 inches long. Its faux-wood casing provides it with a retro appeal that will be almost as pleasant as the sound it produces.
Input selection and volume knobs offer superior adaptability for this high-end device. Combine them with its USB and 6.3mm headphone outputs, and its dual optical/coaxial input, and the result is one DAC to play all your files, with the option to adjust the bass and tones quickly. As a final bonus, its double clock offers great protection against jitters.
You can always trust Yamaha to understand the needs of audiophiles, music producers, and music makers alike. Their A-S801 Integrated Sound Amplifier is the home fan’s dream, as well as a worthy investment for those setting up their home recording studio for the first time.
Sound quality and complexity have been privileged in every aspect, but especially over memory size. The elegant design evokes some of the brand’s classic pieces and is clearly meant to bring us back to the days before digital audio and bitrate compression were the norm. A dual USB port, USB-type B and a USB-to-coaxial cable can be mixed and matched seamlessly to offer supreme versatility without sacrificing power. A CD input and a Tuner input ensure that no audio form is left behind, while its separate volume, treble, and bass knobs are a micromanager’s dream.
The sound engineers at OPPO are evidently experts at headphones and Hi-Fi speakers. The HA-2 is their attempt to reverse-engineer this expertise into a superb DAC and amplifier, which seeks to bring smartphone music to altogether new heights.
Thanks to its proprietary chip and AB amplifier, this DAC offers PCM sampling frequencies ranging from 44 kHz to 384 kHz at 16, 24, and 32-bit qualities. In addition, the internal battery can be charged with a standard micro-USB cable and will yield 7 hours of uninterrupted music after a full charge.
Most devices that offer an integrated DAC and amplifier have a tendency to sacrifice power on one side for versatility on the other. Not the MOJO by Chord Electronics. This sturdy and compact DAC is barely as big as a deck of poker cards, but it can deal with any audio file up to 32-bit, 728kHz quality, which is almost as much as the human ear can handle this side of the profession.
The LED lights-based display can convey an astonishing amount of information despite its minimalism. Just make sure to notice the color-coding to know exactly what you’re looking at. This also allows the MOJO to save up energy, offering up to 10 hours of battery life per charge. That’s not bad at all for a Micro-USB powered battery.
Have you ever needed to hide supreme sound inside a pencil case or a carry-on? The Dragonfly Red USB DAC brings a whole new level of portability thanks to its minimalist features and ease of use.
We’re pretty sure that you have owned larger memory sticks than this DAC, despite the rather impressive sound output it offers. With the ability to handle files of up to 24 bits or 96 kHz. It features digital volume control and an ESS amp, all optimized to consume only the amount of energy it can get from the average smartphone.
A budget-friendly and portable alternative to the Magic 100 featured above, the Cambridge Magic X2 offers sampling of up to 192 kHz/24-bits in less than 100 grams worth of equipment. The minimalist design doesn’t offer a lot of information on display – this is meant to be an on-the-go DAC device, so it offers just two oversized volume controls. However, these are easy to reach and offer good grip, allowing you to completely isolate yourself inside the world of good music even if holding yourself up inside a crowded bus.
The Magic X2 offers enough muscle to handle high-impedance headphones and normal headsets alike, offering good tonal balance either way. Although not strictly plug-and-play, first time setup is quick and intuitive.
A perfectly professional option that is still within the price range of a home user, the TEAC NT-503 offers a wide variety of sources and outputs, alongside enough specs to handle them all.
Full LAN and Wi-Fi connectivity mean that the maximum performance will be affected by the speed of your internet. However, when plugged directly into the PC, it can offer up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM playback. Highly accurate volume knobs and input selectors ensure that anything going through this device will be immediately infused with an airy, pleasant quality alongside a rich sound. The lack of analog inputs is almost impossible to notice unless you are truly on a mission.
Digital to Analog Converters 101
If you are new to the audio gear world, navigating the many features of all DAC models may be confusing at first. Here’s a quick rundown on available models and technologies to help you choose the right type of DAC.
Digital to Analog Converters come in four different sizes, all offering different portability options. The smallest available DACs are usually USB-type systems, which act as a “plug and play” replacement for your laptop’s sound card, and are usually no larger than a flash drive. Smartphone and tablet users can find equivalent improvements with a flat, small phone DAC instead.
If you are looking to power up your system a little bit more, you can opt for a Desktop USB DAC. These are slightly bigger but provide better and more accurate conversion for a desktop computer’s more powerful soundcard. While still portable, most of these need batteries or an external power source.
If you’d rather privilege power over portability, a Hi-Fi DAC may be the way to go. You won’t be able to sneak one of these in your purse or messenger bag, but they will offer support for complex speaker systems, amplifiers, and home theater systems. If what you are looking for is an opportunity to turn a home movie screening into a full Dolby surround experience, then Hi-Fi DACs are what you should aim for.