The average person doesn’t know what a DAC is. And yet, it’s almost certain that they’ve used not one, but dozens, of DACs throughout their lifetime.
Audio went digital and now pretty much everything we listen to is stored as a bunch of 0s and 1s. CDs, MP3s, WAV, FLAC and almost every audio format you can think of is digital these days. But as we all know, our ears can’t process a bunch of 0 and 1 bits as sound.
To create audible sound that reaches our ears, we need to convert the digital file back into analog sound waves. That’s exactly what a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is responsible for, and our computers, smartphones, televisions and other sound-emitting devices all have one built-in.
So what’s the problem? Why would I want an external DAC?
Built-in DACs typically aren’t very good. They don’t decode digital audio with high precision, suffer from electronic interference and output a noisy signal.
This is all acceptable until we start hooking these things up to audiophile speakers or headphones. Imperfections are easily picked up. The analog signal also lacks the detail and openness that a quality DAC brings, meaning you can’t realize your gear’s full potential.
That clears up what exactly a DAC does and why it’s worth upgrading. Now let’s take a look at the best DACs you can buy right now.
If you ask anyone about the best sounding DACs for around $100, two models invariably come up: the Schiit Modi 3+ and Topping E30. These affordable plain old DACs offer some of the best sound performance for the price. The Modi 3+ is the fourth and most recent release in the Modi series, and with each release Schiit have made incremental improvements.
The Schiit Modi 2 was not a great performer in sound measurement tests. It had lower output, higher noise and jitter and inferior linearity when compared to the likes of its main competitor at the time, the Topping D30. However, Schiit gave the Modi 3 the AKM AK4490 chip which resolved those issues. They didn’t just resolve them, the Modi 3 became the best sounding standalone DAC for the price.
The latest Schiit Modi 3+ doesn’t have as dramatic an improvement over the Modi 3, but it adds Schiit’s in-house-developed Unison USB input that was previously reserved for their premium DACs. They also made some tweaks that result in even better performance. While it isn’t worth upgrading a Modi 3 to the 3+, new DAC buyers will struggle to find a better affordable DAC on the market.
The Modi 3+’s aluminum box is slick but unremarkable in design. There’s not a lot going on at the front other than a switch to select your input source and the laser-engraved logo. But California-based Schiit’s focus has always been on what lies under the hood.
It’s a truly great sounding delta-sigma DAC. It walks all over a Macbook Pro’s built in DAC and has superior detail retrieval, a more open soundstage and plenty more finesse.
There are only the standard pair of left/right RCA jacks for output. There’s no 1/8″/3.5mm jack since this does not feature a built-in headphone amp. Headphone users will need to hook it up with one – and if you don’t have one already, Schiit recommend the Magni Heresy or Magni 3+ which are both designed to stack with the Modi 3+.
2. Topping E30
An excellent alternative to the Modi 3+ with DSD support
Type: Entry-level audiophile | Headphone Amp: No | Chip: AK4493 | Inputs: Coaxial, Optical, USB Type-B | Outputs: RCA phono | Max. Sample Rate Support: 32bit/768kHz, DSD512 | MQA: No | Dimensions: 4.92 x 3.94 x 1.26 inches
Chinese manufacturer Topping have become synonymous with excellent value for money, and the Topping E30 is yet another plain old DAC that boasts excellent spec for the price. Belonging in the same same price range as the Modi 3+, they naturally draw a lot of comparison.
Like the Schiit Modi 3+, the design is fairly unremarkable. There’s not much going on besides the gold plated connectors and metal switches (which are rather satisfying to flip). It does, however, feature a handy orange LED display on the front which tells you the sampling rate and volume/output level.
The Topping E30 has dramatically improved performance over its predecessor, the Topping D30, thanks to its excellent Asahi Kasei AK4493 digital converter chip. Sound is very detailed and rather neutral without any significant coloring. Unlike the Modi 3+ which has no filters, the E30 offers six anti-aliasing filter options which work above the audio band. These are surprisingly good, helping you to get the perfect level of attenuation and roll-off.
Between the Topping E30 and Schiit Modi 3+, performance is almost identical. The Modi 3+ features more attractive casing that looks especially good when stacked with the Schiit Magni Heresy/Magni 3+. But the E30 gets the handy screen, and it can natively decode DSD, unlike the Modi 3+, giving it a fairly obvious advantage to those who plan to playback DSD.
Note that like the Modi 3+, the Topping E30 is a straightforward DAC meaning you’ll need an amplifier – be it a headphones amplifier or a stereo amplifier for speakers. The Topping L30 headphone amplifier is designed to be the perfect partner, but you can pair it with anything.
3. iFi Zen DAC v2
The best affordable DAC/headphone amp combo
Type: Entry-level audiophile | Headphone Amp: Yes | Chip: Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC by Burr Brown | Inputs: USB | Outputs: RCA phono, 1/4 inch headphone jack, Pentaconn balanced | Max. Sample Rate Support: 384kHz/32-bit, DSD256 | MQA: Yes | Dimensions: 10.83 x 7.28 x 2.36 inches
iFi are a British manufacturer who are right up there with Schiit and JDS Labs when it comes to producing affordable DACs and headphone amps that sound better than their price would suggest.
New for 2021, iFi have updated the hugely popular Zen DAC which delivered great transparency, clarity and power at an affordable price. The Zen DAC V2 features an XMOS 16-Core chip to process audio data, instead of an 8-Core chip found in the original. It’s also an MQA Decoder and not just an MQA Renderer like its predecessor.
Other than that, not much has changed. It still sports the matte-black and silver casing and features two Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs which is unusual for equipment around its price. It retains the excellent TrueBass control, which alters bass at in the analog domain instead of just performing typical DSP.
Unlike the Schiit Modi 3+ and Topping E30, the iFi Zen DAC is a DAC/headphone amp so you don’t need to worry about buying a separate headphone amp. However, it doesn’t include a 5V power supply which you might want to get if you to get clean power at high volumes without resorting to increasing the gain. Drawing power from USB is fine, but slightly underpowered if you drive low-efficiency headphones like the Hifiman HE5 or Beyerdynamic DT 880.
FiiO is another Chinese brand that has gained a big reputation in a short timespan. The FiiO E10K, now available for less than $100 is one of the cheapest decent DACs featuring an integrated headphone amplifier. The K3 is its successor, and it’s another bargain for what it is.
The FiiO K3 is tiny, much smaller than its pictures would have you believe. It’s perhaps surprising that a DAC this small is not recommended for use with iPhone or Android devices, and rather designed to be for used with your desktop or laptop.
Within the box lies a AKM AK4452 DAC, minimal jitter XMOS XUF208 USB chip, 2x OPA926 driver OP Amps and a TI OPA1612 low-pass filter OP AMP. It can decode up to PCM384kHz/32-bit and offers native DSD256 support.
For such a cheap DAC and amplifier combo, the K3 has a couple of nice features. First up is the UAC 1.0/UAC 2.0 switch. In UAC 1.0 mode, the K3 is a plug and play, 96k/24-bit DAC without the need for additional drivers. Switching to UAC 2.0 will unlock 384k/32bit and DSD256 support, although a driver must be installed. Secondly, there is a bass boost which is far superior to that of the E10K and good enough to not just be a simple gimmick.
Overall this is a terrific budget option and definitely worth considering over the Schiit Modi 3+ or Topping E30 which would require buying a separate amplifier. It’s worth noting that the built-in headphone amplifier on the K3 is only designed for use with cans with an impedance of up to 150 Ω. So those with power-hungry headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 990 or Sennheiser HD 650s should consider something else.
Audioengine are well-known for their excellent powered desktop speakers and their desktop DAC does not disappoint. For its price, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better value DAC that integrates a headphone amplifier (although the FiiO K3 below will have something to say).
Roughly the size of two decks of playing cards, the Audioengine D1, though compact, is not designed to be portable. Although possible to pair it with your phone, this is definitely better suited to replacing your computer’s internal soundcard.
In terms of inputs, the Audioengine D1 features a USB Type-B port (which is also where it draws power from) and TOSLINK optical port. For outputs, it has a standard 1/8″ (3.5mm) jack and RCA L/R phono outs – useful if you’re planning to directly hook it up to your powered bookshelf speakers or receiver.
There’s also a volume control at the front, although it would be nice if it had a marker to indicate the current volume level.
Based on the high-performance AK4396 DAC, the D1 is capable of processing digital audio up to 24-bits and any sample rate up to 192kHz. The resulting sound is warm and rich with punch bass. The soundstage isn’t as big and open as that of the Chord Mojo or Schiit Modi 3+, but then again it’s less expensive.
There isn’t much wrong with the D1, but the FiiO K3 has a higher spec and more features. Given the price, the K3 offers better value for money as a DAC/headphone amplifier. It also marks the current volume level, which Audioengine apparently forgot about.
6. Marantz HD-DAC1
Stunning design, incredible build quality and great sound for your home
Type: Home | Headphone Amp: Yes | Chip: CS4398 | Inputs: 2x optical, coaxial, USB Type-B | Outputs: 2x RCA phono, 3.5mm | Max. Sample Rate Support: 24bit/192kHz | MQA: No | Dimensions: 10.6 x 9.8 x 3.5 inches
The Marantz HD-DAC1 is an award winning DAC that sounds as good as it looks.
While this list of the best DACs doesn’t include studio or ultra high-end DACs that cost thousands of dollars, the build quality of the Marantz HD-DAC1 has many of those beat. The sub-$1000 Marantz HD-DAC1 somehow even manages to make the the $4000 Auralic Vega G1 look like a toy. This is the kind of DAC you want sitting right bang in the middle of your sound system.
The HD-DAC1 features plenty of inputs – coaxial, optical and USB. For output, there’s a headphone jack and fixed and variable RCA connections. Connections aren’t quite as extensive as the cheaper Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, but this is easily the better sounding DAC and it also features a remote.
The tried and tested CS4398 chip is a highly regarded DAC that Marantz have built the HD-DAC1 around. The sound that comes from this DAC is seriously impressive. It has a great soundstage with detailed imaging; mids are smooth and the bottom end is well-rounded.
This is easily one of our favorite Home DACs. Sure, the jump in sound quality from the Schiit Modi 3+ or Topping E30 won’t justify the additional cost for some, but this one is beautifully built and input switching is a highly overlooked feature.
7. Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus
Type: Home | Headphone Amp: Yes | Chip: Dual Wolfson WM8740 | Inputs: 2x optical, 2x coaxial, USB Type-B | Outputs: RCA phono, Balanced XLR, 3.5mm, coaxial and optical (for relay only) | Max. Sample Rate Support: 24bit/192kHz | MQA: No | Dimensions: 7.5 x 8.5 x 2 inches
Although it’s showing signs of age, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is still the same capable DAC/preamp combo it was five years ago.
It’s definitely designed to be part of a more complicated audio setup. Inputs and outputs are numerous. It can take digital audio signals from multiple sources (S/PDIF, TOSLINK and USB Type-B) and makes it easy to switch between them. Cambridge Audio also offer a separate USB port for the BT100 Bluetooth receiver (sold separately) for wireless streaming from Bluetooth devices.
Besides the 6.3mm jack and L/R RCA outputs, there’s also an XLR3 balanced output which is a bonus for those with professional setups.
A nice touch is the addition of LED lights which indicate the incoming sample rate. This includes all the supported incoming frequencies, from 44.1kHz to 192kHz.
The ADSP21261 DSP digital filter internally upsamples any connected source to a fixed 24-bit/384kHz and has improved jitter reduction. While sound lacks the dynamic power and there is a slight edge in the treble frequencies compared to the more expensive DACs we’ve covered, the average listener will be blown away by its sonic punch and excellent sound separation.
Without crossing into recording studio territory, the German-made RME ADI-2 is the best sounding DA converter for home and hi-fi users. Period.
Clarity, depth and realism is second to none on the ADI-2. Noise is non-existent. To make sure you get the sound you want, RME also incorporated a five-band EQ which allows you to fine tune the bass, mids and treble.
The average person will find the ADI-2’s extensive customization daunting, but tinkerer’s will love it. A color LED screen makes sure you can keep track of all the changes you make.
It should go without saying that a DAC of this caliber supports DSD playback and audio files up to 768kHz. It also boasts a healthy number of outputs, with two phone jacks at the front, a line output and two balanced XLR outputs at the back. The built-in headphone amplifier has most standalone headphone amps beat, making it the perfect driver for super high-end cans like the HIFIMAN HE6se.
Chord is a brand name that just keep on coming up when digital-to-analog converters are being discussed. There is no doubt that they are the most iconic DAC manufacturer, often noted for their superb sound and quirky designs which culminate in their flagship DAC, the 5-figure Chord DAVE. Audiophiles love Chord because they do everything in-house. Designing and programming DACs is in their blood.
Released in 2018, the Qutest finally brings the Chord’s circuitry magic down to a (comparatively) affordable price. It is based off the successful Hugo 2, which sounded great but was rather awkwardly designed as a portable DAC featuring an internal battery and bluetooth.
The Qutest strips the Hugo 2 to a plain old DAC that does one job – perfectly convert a digital signal to an analogue one. No more bluetooth, internal battery or headphone amplifier, just a good old DAC. Finally, an affordable DAC from Chord for your home.
As great as it is, the RME ADI-2 is just a better buy right now. But the brand Chord carries a lot of weight, so the Qutest still has something special about it.
Comparable to the Chord Mojo in both price and spec, the iFi xDSD is another brilliant sounding portable high resolution audio DAC and headphone amp.
Released in 2018, iFi have given the xDSD aptX/AAC bluetooth which the previous iDSD lineup didn’t feature. Granted these bluetooth codecs are lossy, but when you want to use it as an external DAC for your smartphone it makes for a much nicer, wire-free setup.
If you go USB, however, file format support is extensive. It can support PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz, 2xDSD (705/352kHz) and has no problem playing MQA files. There’s also a S/PDIF coaxial/optical input, though it will limit things to 192kHz/24bit.
The xDSD has a 2,200mAh battery that can delivery around 8 hours of continuous use. The built-in headphone amp’s output power and <1 Ohm output impedance might not be as impressive as that of the Chord Mojo but nevertheless it has no issue powering low-efficiency cans.
Sound is simply fantastic. Tight bass, solid high end extension that isn’t overly bright and pin-point perfect mids. The XBass+ and 3D+ also gives you the ability to boost bass and open up the soundstage at the push of a button. Enabling these led to some listening fatigue for myself but I can see them enhancing the auditory experience in some circumstances.
Overall the xDSD is a great value for a portable bluetooth DAC. While the Chord Mojo has a slightly superior DAC chip and better instrument separation, making it bluetooth compatible is only possible if you purchase the Chord Poly accessory. Looking at it this way, the xDSD is hard to beat.
When you run your headphones through the DragonFly Red DAC, you begin to wonder why other DACs are so big in the first place.
Indistinguishable from a thumb drive, this DAC from AudioQuest is incredibly compact. There’s only one 3.5mm headphone output which keeps things dead simple. Just stick it in your computer’s USB port or your phone (using a relevant USB adaptor) and plug your headphones into the other end.
The 2.1-volt output of the DragonFly Red’s ESS Sabre 9601 headphone amp means it is capable of driving a wide range of cans, including those power-hungry, low-efficiency models.
Although the 32-bit ESS 9016 DAC chip is intentionally limited to 24-bit/96kHz resolution in order to make sure everything is plug ‘n’ play without the need for additional drivers, audio is detailed, warm and balanced. The chip can decode a wide range of formats, including native support for Tidal’s MQA codec.
It’s worth mentioning that AudioQuest also offer the DragonFly Black and DragonFly Cobalt, but the Red definitely hits the sweet price/performance spot. Overall, it’s a fantastic DAC for those after a compact and fuss-free setup.
Chord Electronics claim that the Mojo is the ultimate portable DAC. And it’s difficult to argue with that statement.
Despite its small size and and funky ball-shaped buttons that give it a playful look, the made-in-Britain Chord Mojo is a beast. The mighty powerful Xilinx Artix-7 coverter chipset manages to play almost any audio file that you throw at it, up to 768kHz 32bit, and quad DSD 256.
Like all of Chord’s DACs, the Mojo features a Field Gate Programmable Array (FPGA) chip that is programmed in-house to perform filtering, decoding and volume control. The resulting sound is magical. Dynamic, controlled and without trying to sound too cliché, full of soul.
The Mojo features three inputs – Micro USB, 3.5mm Coaxial and optical 1/8” mini-jack. You can use it as a perfectly capable desktop DAC, or connect it up to your iPhone or Android phone and use it on the go. With a battery life of 8 hours and a pair of 1/8″ (3.5mm) mini-jack outputs, it’s perfect for your daily commute and those occasions you want to share your library with someone special.
A best-selling DAC for a while now, Chord have added a couple of optional accessories. Notably, the Chord Poly which snaps onto the side of the Mojo and transforms it into a very capable wireless music player. Not only can it load files from a Micro SD card, but you can stream audio from connected devices over WiFi, bluetooth, AirPlay and DLNA.
For years, Creative has been the face of mass produced sound cards. Many audiophiles associate them with junk. However, the reality is their newer offerings have been getting better and better and the Sound BlasterX G6 is a very capable DAC with DSP.
This DAC will appeal to gamers because it supports Dolby Digital decoding and 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound. You can activate SBX mode to further process the audio to give it spatial audio enhancements while enabling Scout mode will also enhance audio cues more.
Even if you don’t take advantage of these filters and bypass this extra processing to use it as a pure stereo 130dB dynamic range (DNR) DAC/amplifier, the G6 sounds great. With enough power to run 600 ohm cans, it’s a perfect fit for gamers who own an expensive pair of cans and like listening to music as much as playing games.
Slightly disappointing is the lack of inputs and outputs. You only have one optical line in, an optical line out and 1/8″/3.5mm audio jack. There’s also a microphone jack, although whether the G6’s ADC is any better than your computer’s ADC is anyone’s guess.
Keep in mind this is also one of the cheapest DACs on this list, even compared to ‘budget’ ones like the Schiit Modi 3 and Topping D30 which would require a headphone amp to be purchased separately. Overall the Sound BlasterX G6 offers a good combination of hardware and software control for the money.
Costing more than the Sound BlasterX G6, the Sennheiser GSX 1000 has a few unique tricks of its own.
Most obvious is the intuitive LED touch panel and aluminum volume ring that makes it easy to adjust things like the EQ or microphone’s sidetone.
More interesting, however, is the Sennheiser Binaural Rendering Engine. This 7.1 Virtual Surround Algorithm was developed with gamers in mind and is designed to enhance spatial audio in games. There haven’t been enough comparisons between the GSX 1000’s and Creative Sound BlasterX G6’s DSPs to give an objective conclusion on which is a superior DSP, however.
However, when we disable DSP and use the GSX 1000 as a simple DAC for stereo listening, it falls short of the cheaper Sound BlasterX G6. A big part of that can be put down to its cheap Conexact CX20745 DAC which is often placed in cheap sound cards and tablets.
Sound is muddy with inferior instrument separation. The headphone amp is also lacks power, and can only drive cans or headsets with an impedance of 150 Ω or below. Overall, this is not a good choice for listening to music, but its DSP might be tempting for gamers.
DAC Buying FAQs
Should I buy a standalone DAC or DAC/Headphone Amp?
If you’re using headphones, you’ll need a headphone amp. You can buy a dedicated headphone amp, but many DACs integrate one.
A DAC/Headphone amp is more convenient, but a standalone DAC gives you the flexibility to hand pick the headphone amp. Be aware that some of the cheaper DAC/Headphone amp combos feature low output power amps which aren’t powerful enough to drive high impedance, low efficiency cans.
Is a 32-bit/384kHz DAC always better than a 24-bit/192kHz one?
No! People buying their first DAC often look at the max bit depth and sampling rate and assume the higher the better. But all this describes is the maximum bit depth and sample rate the DAC can handle/process.
But the reality is barely anyone has access to music files with such high sample rates and bit depth. A standard CD is 16-bit/44.1kHz. A recording studio will typically record at no higher than 24-bit/96kHz (sometimes 24-bit/192kHz). Even then, it will make its way to the consumer with a lower sample rate and bit-depth. You get the point.
So we don’t really care about our DAC being able to theoretically ‘handle’ these uncompressed audio files. Instead, we should be concerned about how well a DAC translates a digital file (of any size; lossless or lossy) into an analogue signal that is rich in auditory depth, clarity, precision and so on.
I’m a desktop computer user. Should I buy an external DAC or just upgrade my sound card?
DACs have the advantage of being isolated from your computer’s components which are a source of interference. They are also separate from your computer and can be used with other sound sources like your iPhone or laptop.
However, today’s sound cards feature much better DACs than they did before and are better shielded from electrical noise. Not to mention, they typically cost less. So the answer is, it depends.
I want a wireless solution. How does the DAC fit into things?
‘Going wireless’ is quite confusing in the context of DACs.
Many people think they can pair their DAC with their new Bluetooth headphones or speakers. But a DAC has no role to play in this. Your Bluetooth headphones and speakers can only make use of a digital Bluetooth codec such as aptX and use their built-in DACs to produce sound. The analog signal coming out of a DAC is worth nothing for them.
So when we talk about wireless in the context of DACs, we are actually talking about using Bluetooth/WiFi as an input source, as opposed to USB/SPDIF/optical. If this is desired we have two options. We can purchase a DAC that features a Bluetooth receiver, or use a separate bluetooth/WiFi receiver. For the latter, the digital stream would need to be relayed to the DAC over a digital cable.
However, we’d recommend sticking to a wired input for your DAC. Bluetooth can’t handle lossless audio transmission, so you can forget about CD quality audio. And you definitely won’t be to use high-resolution audio formats.
Simply put, a high end DAC is overkill for processing lossy, low resolution Bluetooth codecs. It’s a big reason why most DACs don’t feature Bluetooth to begin with.
What is MQA and does my DAC support it?
Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is an audio codec using lossy compression intended for hi-fi digital audio streamed over the internet. It’s designed to sound better than the audio on other streaming services like Spotify (which uses 320kbps OGG VORBIS at its ‘very high’ quality setting).
The streaming service Tidal provides MQA audio to subscribers of its Masters plan. For this very reason, it is becoming increasingly popular among audiophiles who want to stream music.
However, most DACs do not have native MQA support. In this list, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and the iFi xDSD are the only ones that can fully render the format. Playing such files through DACs without full support will playback partial MQA, which technically won’t sound as good.
Are Portable DACs inferior to larger ones?
No, DAC chips are inherently small and manufacturers don’t have to compromise the circuitry in order to fit them into a small chassis. That’s why some of the best sounding D/A converters like the Chord Hugo 2 are tiny.
However, larger ones typically offer more connections and can house more powerful headphone amps.
What is the best input to pick?
You will have a different set of digital inputs depending on your DAC. It doesn’t really matter what input you pick. However, TOSLINK Optical and S/PDIF typically have lower bandwidth limits so USB should be used for audio with super high sample rate and bit depth.
How important is the DAC chip itself?
Every DAC has an actual DAC chip that does the digital-to-analogue conversion. Each chip processes the digital input differently and the output will be slightly different, resulting in different sound qualities. Some of them aren’t capable of processing higher sample rate audio.
However, the chip itself is actually just one part of the DAC. The analogue stage of the DAC that follows is just as, if not more important, than the chip itself. Here’s a good video that explains things:
That wraps up this DAC buyer’s guide. Hopefully my review of the best DACs right now will help you narrow down your search. In any case, please leave feedback and suggestions by posting a comment below!