A good digital to analog converter – commonly known as DAC – can drastically improve the quality of the sound from the audio playback. When there are many models and brands available in the market, many are just average systems that fails to produce the sound you are looking for or simply lack in features. But if you are using the best DACs listed in this article, you can get the best quality sound from your digital device.
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Why Do You Need DAC?
DAC is a digital-to-audio converter that is part of all modern tech devices like smartphones, tablets, PCs, HD-TVs, and laptops. In fact, it is the basic part of every digital device that allows you to listen to the music or sound. You can hear the sound only after the DAC convert the digital signal into analog, which is tangible to our ears.
So why do you need an external DAC when every device already has one? Well – because high-quality DACs do a better job compared to built-in DACs. External DACs offer you a completely different listening experience – a better and improved version of the sound.
This is why – if you are a music enthusiast and you want only the best possible sound experience, external DACs are the must-have for you. The modern DACs also have more than one input, which means you can attach multiple digital sources, something which is not possible with built-in DAC.
How to Choose the Best DACs?
You can always improve the sound quality of the digital signal by using more powerful DAC, one that comes with more features and uses better technology. Fortunately, we have a lot of good options available in the market today. You can find super expensive custom made DACs used by top musicians and rock stars, as well as cost-effective and smart compact DACs for personal use.
No matter how advanced or how basic the DAC is – there are few must check features before buying one.
- Budget: DACs are available in different price ranges based on the quality and features, so you must first decide about the money you want to spend on this device.
- Use: Second, how do you intend to use your DAC? Do you want it to use with your smartphones? Or a computer? Or with headphones? Or want to use a DAC with multiple devices? Based on your use, you can find different models for different uses.
- Wireless: You can find both wireless and cable DACs.
- Built-Quality and Size: Based on your use and budget, you can find DACs in different sizes and built quality.
- External Connectivity: You can find DACs that allows you to connect with one digital device as well as other models that allow multiple connections.
What are the Different Types of DACs?
You can find a wide range of DACs when it comes to sizes, shapes, and types. Each model has a different level of functionality, features, and input options.
- One of the most common types used as external DAC is Compact Portable USB DAC. These are actually compact headphone amplifiers that are used with headphones, but you can also connect them to a stereo system. These are very small in size, affordable, portable, and require no external power supply as they use computer’s USB port power. Some also use built-in batteries if you want them to use with phones instead of a computer.
- Another popular type of external DAC is Wireless DAC. These DACs connect to the source of the digital signal and broadcast it to the wireless receiver where the digital signal is converted to analog signal. If you intend to work away from the computer or any other source of the digital sound, or don’t like a lot of wires around your workspace, wireless DACs are better but they are not as affordable as USB DACs.
Note: Make sure to compare the broadcast range with the distance you want to cover. Some wireless DACs can send signals to 100 feet.
- Desktop USB DAC is another common type which is similar to portable USB DACs with one major difference. Unlike portable DACs, these models need external AC power. They are also bigger in size and come with more features, while some models also allow you to connect more than one devices.
- In addition, there are some other types with limited applications which include DACs designed for iPhone and other Apple products, Headphone DACs, and Component Hi-Fi DACs. The latter are the largest and often the most expensive DACs that can connect to your home audio system.
How to Get the Most out of the Best DACs?
Buying the best DAC does not guarantee best results unless you know how to make the most out of them. Keep in mind – DACs are just one part of the music playback chain that consists of several components, like a computer, phone, stereo system, headphones, etc. This is why the quality of the sound depends on a lot of other factors as well. Here are some tips to get the best result out of the DAC:
- Make sure to use the music files in the highest resolution available. There are several online tools available like Spotify that can allow you to save the music files in higher resolution.
- Make sure the quality of the audio components is compatible with the quality of the DAC you are buying. Entry level DAC will not work with high-end and expensive amps, while an expensive component DAC will fail to deliver if used with low-quality audio components.
Best DACs (Digital Analog Converters)
Here are the brief reviews, reasoning, and evidence why the following 5 products are currently the best available on the market.
AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC [Under $200]
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AudioQuest is one of the most recognized manufacturers of audio/video accessories based in California, USA. They are known for their high-end digital-to-audio converters designed for optimum performance. In fact, AudioQuest is the company that introduced compact USB DACs back in 2012.
One of their most popular models is DargonFly RED USB DAC, which is an upgrade to their previous model, the DragonFly Black. To be honest, it is not among the affordable USB DACs in the market, but when it comes to value for your money, it might be difficult to find a similar device.
These are made to give a boost to your headphones. With 2.1v output, it can work with any headphone you own. You can also use an adapter to use it with smartphones, both Apple, and Android. In addition, it can play anything for a low-resolution MP3 to the high-resolution music up to 24-bit/96kHz.
The performance is also better than most of the USB DACs. The sound quality is better than the previous model, as it offers more sophisticated listening experience. With a bass extension, you can experience texture and solidity that makes each sound three-dimensional. Overall, it might be a good option for those who like a super quality sound with transparency, detail, and perfect tone.
- Produces solid, subtle, and sophisticated sound
- Compatible with multiple devices including computer and smartphones
- Improves the sound quality of your headphone drastically
- The maximum sampling rate is 24-bit/96kHz which is pretty high for USB DACs
- Price is higher
FiiO D3 (D03K) DAC [Under $100]
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Second on our list is the D3 (D03K) DAC by FiiO, a well-known Chinese manufacturer of high-end audio equipment. The FiiO D3 (D03K) is a powerful amplifier available for an extremely affordable price.
It works with 1.6v output and acts as an amplifier as well as a DAC. It works with almost all common sample rates from 24-bit/32kHz to 24-bit/ 192kHz. It is a better option for those who want to use a DAC with speakers instead of headphones.
You can use both coaxial and optical digital output as it works with wide range of music sources that include digital TV, HD-DVD players, game consoles, AV receivers, and other digital media players.
The performance is also great for the price value as it features WM8805 ultra-low jitter digital receiver. It comes with a USB AC Power Adapter as it needs an external power source. It is also a very simple and straightforward device that can be installed and used with ease.
- Works with a wide range of devices
- Very easy to setup and use
- Converts high-resolution music into analog up to 24-bit/192Khz
- You have to buy cables and accessories separately as it comes with only adapter and converter
Marantaz HD-DAC1 [Under $1000]
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The third on our list is a feature-filled model from Marantaz, a Japan-based company that manufactures high-end audio devices. The HD-DAC1 is one of their most popular DAC models that can also be used as an amplifier.
It makes to our list for various reasons. First, it is a very well-built product that has a smart and pleasant looking design. It uses an oversized internal transformer for better audio performance that makes it slightly heavier for its size. You can use multiple and all common types of digital inputs with this device. You can also use the two pairs of RCAs that make it good for both headphone and external stereo systems.
The sound quality is also exceptional as you can feel more depth, air, and detail in each sound note. Some other notable features include DSD playback, hi-resolution audio support, dual clock headphone power (800mW/32 ohm) and double bottom plate that make it sturdy and durable.
- Ability to convert a wide range of resolutions
- Allows multiple inputs and output connections that enable you to work with any digital audio source
- Supports maximum sampling rate of 24-bit/192kHz
- It weighs 11 pounds which makes it difficult to move it around
Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 Black [Under $200]
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Next on our list is another top model from a London based manufacturer of audio equipment – Cambridge Audio. The Audio DacMagic 100 is one of their latest DAC models that can also be used as an amplifier.
This is also among the most affordable models from Cambridge, but this doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on quality or features. It offers you multiple digital connectivity and outputs. It comes with high-quality hardware, produces amazing sound, and uses Dual Wolfson WM8740’s DAC chipset.
It works with a wide range of resolutions that include even the regular CD audio of 16-bit/44.1kHz and the maximum sampling rate of 24-bit/192kHz. In addition, it also has an up-sampling feature that enables it to work with 385 kHz resolution. This means you can use it with compressed files like AACs and MP3s.
- It can work with any device which has a digital audio output
- Multiple inputs that include 1 USB, 2 coaxial digital, and 1 optical input
- Extremely lightweight for its size and weighs only 1.1 pounds
- You need Cambridge Audio’s drivers if you want to play high resolution formats
Meridian Director USB DAC [Under $500]
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Last on our list is the high-end handmade USB DAC from Meridian, a UK based international manufacturer known for their well-designed and high-performance audio components. The black Meridian Director USB DAC comes with very eye-catching and discreet design with a high-level of detail.
Unlike other similar USB DACs, it has a cylindrical design which makes it look unique. It is portable and lightweight that does not need any external power supply as the USB socket powers the device. Even though it is small portable USB designed to work with laptops and computers, it can work with high-resolution music with an upper limit of 24-bit/192kHz.
It also has a 3.5mm socket on the rear which works as coaxial and optical input. This means you have a wide range of input options even for a USB DAC which is a rare feature in USB DACs. The package also contains relevant adapters. The sound quality is also good if not exceptional. It offers you natural, sharp, and clear sound and does a great job in converting a wide range of digital music files into pleasingly solid sound.
- Works with both headphones and stereo systems
- Does not need an external power supply
- Easily work with different resolutions and quality
- Costs higher
All of the products listed in our article are the best DACs available in the market and you can choose the one according to your liking. If you are looking for a USB DAC, the first and the last option by AudioQuest and Meridian are the good options. But if you are looking for multi-purpose and more powerful DACs, the other three options are great.
If we have to choose one for you, we will choose the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100. It is not only affordable but works with all types of digital audio sources and easily convert different resolutions into a super quality sound.