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There are many ways to improve the experience of enjoying digital music, but one of the best (and easiest) is to listen through a dedicated DAC (Digital Analog Converter). This component is required to turn any digital audio file into sounds you can hear. Your computer, phone, tablet, CD player, Bluetooth headphones, powered speakers, and TV all have a DAC built into them, but there are a couple of reasons it’s worth getting standalone hardware for serious music listening.
The first is that the DAC built into most portable devices is one piece of a more complicated gadget, so quality is sacrificed in service of saving space and making sure every piece works pretty well together. In some cases that means optimizing for common use cases (streaming lossy (compressed)) music, instead of supporting high resolution (better than CD-quality) audio formats. If you listen to music on your phone or computer, and don’t use a standalone DAC, you’re getting a degraded experience.
The second is that a DAC is a necessary component in a home audio system if you listen to anything other than records. Using one between your source (a phone, computer, etc.) and amplifier will feed the amp a better-sounding audio file to play through your speakers. A DAC uses chips specifically designed for one task without the contraints tech companies have when designing their headsets.
Consider this: Your phone and computer both have built-in speakers, but it’s still worth connecting them to an external pair to hear your music better. Getting a good DAC will make your library of digital music (streamed or local) sound a lot clearer. You should be able to hear nuances (background instruments, individual voices in a harmony, and even errors) you may have missed otherwise. In many cases you may not immediately hear a difference, but once your ears are used to hearing music through a DAC you’ll be surprised at how much worse music sounds without one.
The quality of your audio file and your choice of headphones, speakers, and amplifier will have a big impact on what you hear, but getting a standalone DAC will be an audio upgrade to your entire digital music library.
What Are The Best Digital Analog Converters?
There are many factors to consider when choosing the right DAC for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Size: The DACs in this guide span a wide range of sizes, from pocket-friendly to desk ready. Think about the device you’re most likely to listen to music on (smartphone, computer, home theater system) before making your choice.
Maximum Audio Resolution: All of the DACs we recommend can play high resolution (at least 96kHz/24-bit) music files with no compression or loss of quality. If you subscribe to an audiophile streaming service like TIDAL, you’ll notice a big bump in audio fidelity. Some also support a technology called upsamping, which increases the resolution of a compressed audio file to try and make it sound better.
Inputs and Outputs: Our DAC picks all have USB ports on them, so they can be connected to your computer (or in some cases smartphone). Some have additional inputs like RCA (red and white) so you can connect a CD player, smartphone, tablet, or TV through them. Almost all of the DACs we’ve chosen have an integrated a headphone amp, so you can plug your cans directly into them. If you use a DAC without a headphone amp, you’ll need to get one separately (we’ve got you covered there, too).
1. AudioQuest Dragonfly Black
AudioQuest’s Dragonfly Black was my first standalone DAC, and it helped me to understand why this piece of audio gear is so important. At 2.44-inches long and .15 pounds, this flash drive-sized DAC is our smallest recommendation by far. It can play music files up to 96kHz/24-Bits without compression, and will downsample (compress) higher resolution files. This DAC is powered by a 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre chip
In terms of inputs, the Dragonfly Black is totally streamlined: The USB-A connector on one end can be plugged directly into a computer (PC or Mac), or connected to smartphone (iOS and Android) with the right adapter. There’s a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the other end, so you don’t have to fuss with any additional hardware.
Don’t let its friendly look and small size fool you, AudioQuest did a lot of work to make sure this DAC makes a big improvement to how music sounds. In my experience (listening over several months using different equipment and audio files), the biggest change was bass sounding tighter (easier to hear without feeling smoothed over), and better-sounding vocals.
Portability is the Dragonfly Black’s greatest asset, but it’s also its biggest downside. There isn’t room for any extra features like a volume knob, or additional inputs. If you find yourself traveling often, or want a discrete DAC to use at work (like I do), the Dragonfly Black is your best choice.
2. Fiio Q5S
Fiio is best-known for its line of high-resolution audio players, but its Q5S is a fully-loaded designed to work with wired and wireless audio gear. At 6.69-inches long and .44 pounds the Q5S can fit easily in the front pocket of a backpack or laptop bag. It can play music files up to 768kHz/32-bits in USB mode and 192kHz/32-bits if you use any of its other inputs without downsampling.
This DAC can also play DSD (Direct Stream Digital) files, the highest quality digital audio format available right now. This functionality is enabled by the pair of AKM AK4493EN chips inside, which FiiO says create a “pleasant yet detailed” sound profile. This DAC will sound great out of the box, but there’s also a Bass button to add more low-end frequencies if necessary.
The Q5S can be connected to a computer (PC or Mac) or Phone (iOS and Android) via USB, but it also features an optical audio input, line (AUX) in and outputs, Bluetooth, and a headphone jack. You can switch between inputs by pressings a button one the side of the device. A set of LEDs on the side will light up to indicate which one is active.
This is the only DAC in our guide that allows you to stream music through it wirelessly to your audio system or headphones without an optional accessory. This versatility makes it a great pick if you want one DAC you can use everywhere you want. We mean that literally because the Q5S has a 3,700mAh (milliamp) battery, so it can run without being connected to an external power source.
If you primarily listen to digital music, and want a DAC that can keep up with an active lifestyle, FiiO’s Q5S is your best bet.
3. Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus
Cambridge Audios’ DacMagic Plus is a high-end desktop DAC with a modern, minimalist look.
It’s 7.52-inches long, weighs 2.64 pounds, and needs to be plugged into a power source at all time, so you probably won’t move it around too much. It can play audio files up to 192kHz/24-Bits without compression, and has a pair of Wolfsun 24-bit chips under the hood. Cambridge Audio says its DAC upsamples (bumps up the resolution of compressed files) to present audio files in the best way possible using a custom technology called ATF2. Native high-resolution music will sound better, but some albums aren’t available in that format.
Cambridge Audio outfitted the DacMagic Plus with a wide array of I/O (inputs/outputs). It has a pair of coaxial inputs, two optical audio inputs, an optical output, one coaxial output, a set of balanced audio (XLR) outputs, RCA outputs, and headphone jack. You can switch between these inputs by pressing the “source” button next to the power button on the front of the DAC. A set of labeled LEDs make it easy to see your current input and the resolution of the audio file you’re playing. You can connect your devices to it through Bluetooth to improve the quality of the audio files you stream wirelessly, but that requires Cambridge Audio’s BT100 adapter.
The DacMagic Plus’s mix of I/O make it a good fit for a wide range of applications. It’s great if your digital music listening happens on a computer, but you can use its balanced outputs to connect it to a high-end set of speakers. If you don’t mind its slightly large size, this DAC is a great choice.
4. Schiit Bifrost 2
Schiit Audio has made a name for itself by creating custom, high-end audio components that allow it to control exactly how its audio gear sounds. The Bifrost 2 is its latest DAC, and continues this effort. I personally use a Schiit DAC and headphone amplifier, and I’ll never go back to listening to music through my computer’s headphone jack.
The Bifrost 2 is 12-inches long and weighs 7 pounds, which makes it the biggest and heaviest DAC we recommend by a wide margin. Its frame is made out of aluminum, which adds heft, but makes it feel a lot sturdier. It can play 192kHz/24-bit music files without compression using a custom-made Unision™ USB chip that has a microprocessor dedicated to make sure the digital audio signal sounds clean (free of distortion, compression, or distortion). The actual digital to analog conversion is handled by a pair of AD5781 chips.
On the I/O side Schiit stuck to the (high-end) basics: The Bifrost 2 has an optical input, one coaxial input, a pair of RCA outputs, and a set of Balanced (XLR) outputs. There’s no support for Bluetooth audio streaming, but Schiit does include a remote (made out of milled aluminium), which allows you to change its inputs and adjust your volume wirelessly. Three LEDs on the front will show you which input is currently selected, and a button next to them lets you switch between them manually.
The Bifrost 2 is the only DAC in this guide without an integrated headphone amp, but don’t worry, Schiit makes those too. I paired the original Bifrost with the company’s Valhalla 2, and my music sounded fantastic. Audiophiles use the word “warmth” to describe audio gear with tubes in it, but my description is that it makes music sound more pleasant to the ear.
It’s not a matter of which frequencies (bass, midrange, or treble) are highlighted, music just sounds more smooth. The tubes you use (along with your headphones and music) will impact the exact sound of a Bifrost 2 and Valhalla 2 pairing, but using the stock set should produce excellent sounding results.
The final reason we recommend the Bifrost 2 is that it’s upgradable. Schiit releases new components when they’re ready, and you can swap out the USB port of this DAC down the road if you’d like. Upgrades are handled by Schiit (you can opt to do them yourself, but it’s a highly technical endeavor), and the company’s ordering system reduces the amount of time your gear stays out of your home. I’ve upgraded my gear with Schiit before, and it was a quick, pleasant experience.
If you want a well-made (in America!) DAC with custom components designed to make your music sound as good as possible, it’s hard to argue with Schiit’s Bifrost 2.