It seems as if consumer audio technology is booming exponentially faster than ever before. The tech wizardry packed into a simple smartphone is more advanced than anything NASA could have even dreamed of when shooting their first shuttles up in space only a few decades ago. It would be a funny thing to travel back forty years and trying to explain to a NASA scientist about the near-unlimited power of ones and zeros. And in this article, we’ll explain the best way to harness these ones and zeros in order to help a regular music lover (meaning, not only NASA physicists) drastically improve the quality of their existing computer (or handheld device) audio playback. How do you do that? You upgrade the device’s DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) with a better one - an external box that takes the digital music and transmits it as smooth, analogue sound, doing a much better job than the circuits in your device. And despite the potential to get jargon-heavy, we’re going to show you that it’s straightforward as connecting a USB cable…
 

How We Choose:

A simple DAC upgrade can do wonders for your audio playback, as for example, a 4K-capable TV might change your movie viewing experience. So why not take the jump? 

We’ve gathered some of the most exciting converters currently on the market, and the ones that made our list aren’t esoteric custom-made units reserved for millionaire superstars. We like and understand good tech, so we are, before anything else, rooting for smart functionality and best value for money. Budget does determine quality to some extent, and for the sake of simplicity we start from the top-notch examples and gradually descend the lower-priced ranges. But each pick represents the best spec and features for its price range and we’ve looked into build quality, internal components, external connectivity and more. 

We’ve dug deep into the subject of what makes the performance of certain DACs special, and we explain all the main features and the intricacy of DA conversion further below in our Buying Advice section.
 

Our DAC Picks:

1. Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2,195)

Benchmark DAC3Inputs: USB (B), Optical x 2, Coaxial x 2,
Outputs: XLR Balanced, RCA Unbalanced (Phono) x 2, Headphone 6.3mm Jack x 2
Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: ESS 9028PRO
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/192kHz
DSD Playback: Yes
What We Like: Superlative sound and functionality.
What We Don't: Can be very complicated.

Benchmark’s DAC1 and DAC2 have been pretty much the industry standard for DAC performance since they were released. The DAC3 was been eagerly awaited by anyone familiar with the company’s incredible audio conversion performance and this no doubt must have piled the pressure on the design team to deliver. Considering that the DAC market has turned into a right battlefield just in a matter of few years, the fact that Benchmark are back at the top means that they are still actively pushing the envelope.

The DAC3 (which we did a full review of here) features advanced harmonic filtering which is especially evident in its silky-sweet top end audio performance. The HGC - Hybrid Gain Control - really helps focus the sound. For anyone unfamiliar with Benchmark, it should be noted that DAC3 is optimised for a direct connection with power amps (or powered speakers) and this should not be taken for granted - a lot of effort has been poured into the gain stage optimisation of the balanced outputs and the the state-of-the art volume attenuation linked to that large volume knob. We could go on and on about this DAC’s merits but perhaps it is enough to say that it really stands on the shoulders of giants (DAC1/DAC2) and it truly deserves to be the beating heart of any audiophile or mastering engineer’s setup. It also works really well as a headphone amp.
See the Benchmark DAC3 HGC


2. Schiit Yggdrasil ($2,299)

Schiit YggdrasilInputs: USB (B), S/PDIF, Optical, Wordclock (BNC), AES/EBU
Outputs: Balanced Out (XLR), Unbalanced Out (RCA) x 2, 
Amplifier: No
Chip: Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ x 4 (2 per channel, hardware balanced Multibit ladder DAC)
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
DSD Playback: No 
What We Like: Incredible multibit ladder technology, completely modular, stunning design and audio performance.
What We Don’t: No headphone amp, no DSD.

Straight out of Valencia, California you have this proudly all-American made DA converter made by Schiit Audio. Just like Yggdrasil (meaning World Tree), most other Schiit devices derive their names from the Norse mythology, and they all have a slightly weapon-like looks, albeit of a very 21st-century kind. The audio quality is stunning, but such goodness comes at a price, and there’s hardly a better guarantee for quality than the fact that Yggdrasil is regularly sold out. New orders are shipped regularly, though, so we’d say go for it and wait for the moment when ‘Schiit happens’.

What separates this DAC from any other brand on this list is the choice of its DAC chipset technology. The vast majority of audio conversion hardware uses the so called delta-sigma DAC architecture. The Yggdrasil uses Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ chipsets using multibit ladder conversion, which in simple words does not distort the digital DNA of the digital audio, preserving detail accuracy down to a sample. As Schiit put it, they’ve taken the guesswork out. Connectivity is generous and very pro-level - you’ll find a high-end AES digital XLR, balanced XLR outputs, as well as all other common digital and analog connections, and the device’s internal components are fully upgradeable (the USB board, the analog output section, etc). One important feature - a headphone amplifier - is missing, which is to keep the DAC technology as discreet as possible. Ditto for the DSD, which we think is a bit of an issue.
See the Schiit Yggdrasil


3. Cambridge Audio Azur 851D ($2,273)

Cambridge - Azur 851DInputs: USB (B - audio), USB (A - external), AES/EBU, S/PDIF (3), Optical (4), IR Remitter In, Control Bus In, Remote, Wordclock (BNC)
Outputs: Balanced Out (XLR), Unbalanced Out (RCA), S/PDIF, Optical, Control Bus Out, Trigger Out, Headphone 1/4" Jack.
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Dual ADSP-BF532 
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/192kHz
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Incredible feature set and incredibly rich sound.
What We Don't: Despite its superb sound, we reckon it may still be overpriced for its performance. Amazon availability fluctuates.

The Azur 851D is one of Cambridge Audio’s flagship DACs and it is clearly destined as the heart of many a bespoke audiophile setup. It has a somewhat menacing, minimalistic front, with brushed metal and black LED screen. After a few moments, though, everything will make sense - there are a few very self explanatory buttons accessing the clearly visible screen options, and of course a large volume knob. 

This is one superbly specced DAC, featuring pretty much every connection one could think of, and there are a lot of them, allowing the integration of a plethora of devices. Up to ten, in fact, counting the option for wireless Bluetooth audio sources. The dual converter chips deliver an incredibly detailed sound guaranteed to shatter your perceived notion of what high-resolution audio performance means. The conversion is up to 32-bit/192kHz, and of course any file will be played. We have to point that anyone prepared to spend over $3K on a converter alone will of course check out the alternatives, and in our opinion this is the main problem for the Azur 851D - the heavy competition. Despite its incredible spec and sound, the booming demand for great DAC audio means that you could get the same or even better quality for slightly less. 
See the Cambridge Audio Azur 851D
 

4. Simaudio Neo 280D ($2,200)

SimAudio 280DInputs: USB (B), XLR AES/EBU, Optical x 2, Coaxial x 2, Phono In (RCA), Ethernet, SimLink, Remote
Outputs: XLR Balanced, RCA Unbalanced (Phono) x 2, SimLink
Headphone Amplifier: No
DAC Chip: Unknown
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD256/11.29MHz)
What We Like: Impressive specs, especially with the optional MiND.
What We Don't: Very little. 

With over thirty-five years of work in the high-end audio conversion market, the Canadian brand Simaudio is still going strong. MOON is a brand name, by the way, so be aware that they’re both part of the same company!

The Neo 280D is the company’s most affordable DAC out of the Neo range, and they are all fully-specced for even the most demanding custom installations. MOON’s ethos is really geared towards matching fully optimised hi-fidelity audio with simple user experience and not only does the Neo allows for Bluetooth streaming, but is also ready for the MiND (MOON intelligent Network Device) wireless platform and module (at an extra $600). If you were to become of Simaudio’s die hard customers, opting for the Neo DAC, MiND and even say their reference grade CD player, they can all be connected discreetly (via SimLink™, RS-232 and the IR ports), forming a fully integrated rig. For more conventional setups the Neo 280D again delivers on every front, with a full array of highly specced digital inputs and analog outputs - although no headphone amp. Although Simaudio do not specify the DAC chip, PCM file bitrates reach up to 384kHz and DSD file formats of up to 11.29mHz are supported - a real godsend for high-res audio addicts.
See the Simaudio Neo 280D
 

5. Mytek Brooklyn ($1,995)

Mytek BrooklynInputs: USB (B), XLR AES/EBU, Optical x 2, Coaxial x 2, Phono In (RCA), Wordclock In
Outputs: XLR Balanced, RCA Unbalanced (Phono) x 2, Headphone 1/4" Jack x 2, Wordclock Out
Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Unknown
Maximum Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD256/11.29MHz)
What We Like: Looks, functions, interface, the phono preamp, the sound.
What We Don't: No complaints, but there’s a lot of competition in this price bracket, so be aware of other options.

Mytek’s mastering grade DACs (as well as ADC and lots more) are well known amongst industry professionals and audio enthusiasts alike. Their Brooklyn DAC really grabs the attention with its super-snazzy front plate, which is adorned with scale-like 3d pattern and comes in either silver or black. A very helpful screen is taking care of easy selection of features - from input source, file and resolution selection, to headphone and main level attenuation. All of the Brooklyn’s numerous features are accessed by the four buttons on the front and controlled with the large multi-function alpha pot on the right. In addition, the Brooklyn comes with a remote and on top of that every function can be controlled from a computer via the ‘Mytek Control Panel’ app.

In terms of the audio quality, this DAC honestly speaks for itself, even with music files at ‘mere mortal’ 16/44.1 resolutions - delivering lots of transparency, detailed clarity and depth. It can reach staggeringly high bitrates (PCM 32/384kHz / DSD256) and features a built-in MQA decoder - a welcome feature for ultra-high res streaming of MQA files. If you like your vinyl records, the Brooklyn surprises even more with its audiophile grade preamp stage capable of accepting signals from both MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil) cartridges - we explain the importance of a great phono stage here. Overall, this is one seriously grown up DAC that deserves all of your attention.
See the Mytek Brooklyn DAC
 

6. TEAC NT-503 ($999)

TEAC NT-503Inputs: USB (B), S/PDIF, Optical, Wordclock (BNC), Ethernet
Outputs: Balanced Out (XLR), Unbalanced Out (RCA), Headphone 1/4" Jack, Bluetooth Interface.
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Dual Asahi Kasei AK4490 
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD256/11.29MHz)
What We Like: This hits hard for the money audio, Bluetooth wireless streaming.
What We Don't: Not as many input options as other similarly-priced units.

TEAC’s NT-503 is a perfect example of focusing on real smart, relevant features. The rather unusual (for a DAC) inclusion of an Ethernet port and a Bluetooth interface hints that TEAC have approached this as a sort of ultra-high-spec digital A/V hub. The NT-503 not only converts all your digital audio into a glorious analog sound, but is also capable of tapping into your Bluetooth wireless/home WiFi networks. This really frees up all options, allowing you to stream and remotely control high-resolution playlists wirelessly. Possibly because of the inclusion of wireless streaming, the NT-503 doesn’t offer a huge number of regular digital inputs - there is only one optical and one coaxial input. This makes it suitable for, let’s say, only ‘regular sized’ setups - such as a laptop storing high resolution music library, an HD TV, Blu-ray player and of course all the above mentioned wireless options. 

The main business here is down to the DA converters and they are superb - a pair of Asahi Kasei chips handling native conversion of up to 32-bit/384kHz! This makes the TEAC quite future proof, as not many media files currently exist in such staggeringly high resolution. Finally, we love balanced outputs (check our Buyer’s Guide below) and this formidable unit can connect to your amp/speakers through a pro-grade pair of XLRs. 
See the TEAC NT-503
 

7. Marantz HD-DAC1 ($799)

Marantz HD- DAC1Inputs: USB (B), Optical, Coaxial x 2, Aux In (3.5mm / 1/8")
Outputs: RCA Unbalanced (Phono) x 2 , Headphone 1/4" Jack.
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: CS4398
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD64/2.8MHz, DSD128/5.6MHz)
What We Like: Elegant design, a wealth of features, great sound, plenty of headphone gain.
What We Don't: Quite heavy for its size.

Marantz are well known experts in DA conversion. Their HD-DAC1 unit proves that the company never stopped. This is a very contemporary, smart-looking device that comes in two variants - black or brushed aluminum. It is surprisingly heavy, due to the oversized internal transformer, and believe us when we say this can only mean good things for audio performance. 

The HD-DAC1 has all the expected digital inputs present, and if the outputs do not offer balanced connections, you do get two pairs of RCAs - one with ‘fixed’ line level and one with ‘variable’ - linked to the volume control. Speaking of volume, a special mention is reserved for the headphone amp, which will drive virtually all headphone impedances (up to 600 ohms). The variable RCA output is plenty powerful too - it can be used directly with a powered pair of speakers, or straight into a stereo amp - no hifi preamp needed (If you’re planning to use such a device, use the HD-DAC1’s ‘fixed’ RCA outs for connection). This DAC may not be as good as a $3K job, but it will blow most of the competition (even up to $1,500) out of the water. This much air, depth and detail will give your headphones and speakers a new lease on life. Just make sure the rest of your gear is as good as it needs to be. 
See the Marantz HD- DAC1
 

8. CHORD Electronics Mojo ($529)

CHORD Electronics MojoInputs: USB (Mini-B), USB (Mini-B for charging), S/PDIF, Optical (1/8"),
Outputs: Mini-jack Out (3.5mm/1/8") (x2)  
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Xilinx Artix-7
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz (!)
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD256 / 11.29MHz)
What We Like: Stupendous specs, audio quality, clever ergonomics, quick charge, dual outs.
What We Don't: A bit spartan in looks, outside the spherical lights!

We are moving into handheld territory here with the superb, and let us say it again, truly superb CHORD Mojo (our full, in-depth review said as much, and more). The understated looks may fool you, until you note the price, which might give you an idea of the Mojo’s hidden talents. What we have here is a very powerful DAC aimed at handheld device audio playback, but equally at home when connected to a Mac or PC. In spite of its tiny size, the Mojo can take digital audio streams through several ports - a mini USB, S/PDIF and Optical 1/8” mini-jack. The analog outputs are 1/8" (3.5mm) mini-jacks and you have two paired outs, just in case you want to wow your date with your hi-res audio library. 

CHORD have implanted some cool features here - we like the led lights that change color depending on the file’s audio resolution. Which, by the way has a truly shocking (theoretical) capability courtesy of the Xilinx Artix-7 converter chipset. It manages bitrates of up to 32-bit/768kHz which is nearly twenty times the sampling density of a regular CD audio! Naturally this little wonder can play lossless formats of any denomination including DSD256 / 11.29MHz. And yeah, you can take it anywhere.
See the CHORD Electronics Mojo
 

9. iFi Micro iDSD Black Label ($500)

iFi Micro iDSDInputs: USB (A), S/PDIF
Outputs: RCA Unbalanced (Phono), Headphone 1/4" Jack, S/PDIF
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Burr-Brown Chipset (Model unknown)
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/768kHz
DSD Playback: Yes
What We Like: Goosebump-inducing sound, portable with up to twelve hours of playback.
What We Don't: Occasionally likes to disconnect itself (subject to a firmware update).

The iFi Micro iDSD is a small DAC, roughly as large as a smartphone. It’s designed with a more conventional layout than the Chord Mojo, and is reminiscent of a shrunken hifi component DAC, with a good-sized volume control and headphone out on the front, and inputs and outputs at rear. Again, this unit can be a part of a handheld DA conversion, or can connect to a computer. In the former scenario, the iFi is portable with up to twelve hours of playback and if your smartphone starts running out of battery power, the DAC can kick in a SmartPower USB option to charge your device.

Conversion is handled by the famed Burr-Brown brand of chipsets - up to a staggering 24-bit/768kHz, and as the iDSD part of its title suggests, the iFi can handle DSD, or any other file for that matter, with aplomb. 
See the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label
 

10. Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus ($350)

Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic PlusInputs: USB(B), USB (A - External), S/PDIF (x2), Optical(x2)
Outputs: Balanced Out (XLR), Unbalanced Out (RCA), Headphone 1/4" Jack, S/PDIF, Optical
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Dual Wolfson WM8740  
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz (384kHz up-sampling)
DSD Playback: Yes
What We Like: Good set of features, great quality.
What We Don't: Requires Cambridge Audio’s drivers for high res formats.

Having already looked into one of Cambridge Audio’s flagship-grade DACs (the Azur 851D), let’s see what this cheaper (but not necessarily cheap) unit has to offer. We’re pleased to say that many of the external features, such as the generous digital connectivity and balanced outs are also present here. Although the DACMagic uses a slightly cheaper DAC chipset (Dual Wolfson WM8740’s) they are still top-shelf quality hardware and do sound amazing. 

Even regular CD audio (16-bit/44.1kHz) files have this extra clarity to them and the DACMagic has an up-sampling feature which works quite well with lossy, compressed files like MP3s and AACs. It’s not going to trouble the big boys for true fidelity, but it still makes a big difference. And for its price range, the Cambridge DACMagic has a near-unbeatable conversion performance, and with its great connectivity it will be hard for you not to love it. 
See the Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus
 

11. TEAC HA-P50SE-R ($200)

TEAC DACInputs: USB (Micro B), USB (A), 3.5mm (1/8") stereo mini jack (combination optical digital input; automatic detection) 
Outputs: 3.5mm (1/8") stereo mini jack
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: Burr-Brown PCM5102
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/96kHz
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Very good sound for the price, solid and reliable. will drive any headphone pair.
What We Don't: TEAC’s driver/player may need to be installed, sometimes struggles to recognise certain high-res file formats.

This TEAC is similarly-sized to many other handheld DACs. We won’t dwell too much on features already explained from other DACs, but let’s see what makes the HA-P50SE unique. 

It can accept a 1/8" (3.5mm) jack as an input, which means that it has a built-in ADC (Analog to Digital Converter). That’s cool - certainly for the folks who require such a feature. The same input can also accept an optical digital input and is self-sensing, which means it can tell an audio mini-jack from a optical mini-jack (we explain the difference in our Buying Advice section below). We really like the flip-switch for source selection, as well as the low/high gain setting for the headphone amp. The TEAC HA-P50SE loves headphones - even with high impedances (up to 600 ohm) and we were impressed with the audio conversion of the Burr-Brown PCM5102 chipset present here. 
See the TEAC HA-P50SE-R
 

12. Musical Fidelity V90DAC ($299)

Musical Fidelity V90DACInputs: USB (B), S/PDIF(x2), Optical 
Outputs: RCA Unbalanced (phono) 
Amplifier: No
Chip: Burr-Brown PCM1795
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/96kHz 
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Very nice for the price, no-brainer upgrade for cheap Blu-ray players.
What We Don't: Lack of 192kHz and DSD file playback is a pity.

With this model, we’re back to the safety of home setups. A glance at the V90DAC’s specs reveals a sufficient number of digital inputs, and of course your money here is mainly spent on the Burr-Brown PCM1795 chipset, managing up to 32-bit/96kHz native conversion.

Indeed, this somewhat mysterious white box (as it may look to any friends who come over) does not even have a volume knob, which in turn - you guessed it right - means that it does not have an integrated preamp at all. To be used with the rest of your setup, this needs to be connected to a separate preamp (or of course directly into a stereo amp if you so desire). Maybe we’ve just cracked Musical Fidelity’s plot to get you hooked on their brand, as they in fact have a whole range of V90 products, including a suitable (and visually matching) analog preamp. Whether you choose to go for their brand or another, it is important to use analog connections - in this case the V90DAC’s RCA outs, to go into said preamp in order to take advantage of this DAC’s rich sound. This means also that you should avoid using a digital preamp (or any other digital device) after the DAC, as you’d be re-converting an already DA converted audio stream, which would render this DAC pointless. 
See the Musical Fidelity V90DAC
 

13. AudioQuest DragonFly Red ($199)

AudioQuest - DragonFly RedInputs: N/A
Outputs: Mini-jack (3.5mm/1/8")
Amplifier: Yes (digital control)
Chip: ESS Sabre 9016 DAC
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/96kHz
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Small size, audio quality, color-changing LEDs.
What We Don't: No hardware control, needs optional adapter for handhelds, easy to lose.

The DragonFly by AudioQuest is a one-trick pony. The trick in question though is its killer audio conversion - so not necessarily a bad thing. This isn’t just about the numbers and specs (an ESS Sabre 9016 DAC capable of 32-bit/96kHz conversion), but in an audible kind of way. USB DAC sticks can come two or three for a penny and are the easiest way to ‘fix’ a broken laptop headphone output. The DragonFly is different though, and will really impress you. 

It has no inputs, other than the USB plug itself - just one 1/8" (3.5mm) mini-jack out, so make sure this suits your needs and setup. Virtually all its features, including preamp volume, are software controlled, and it’s good to know that AudioQuest are hard at work, having just announced some in-house designed software, as well as a range of accessories. We’d recommend their additional digital jitter filter - also in the form of a USB ‘key’ which can ‘extend’ the DragonFly DAC and arguably improve sound performance even further. 
See the AudioQuest DragonFly Red
 

14. Schiit Fulla 2 ($99)

Schiit Fulla 2Inputs: USB (mini-B), 
Outputs: Unbalanced Out x 2 - Variable (preamp out) (3.5mm / 1/8"), Fixed (3.5mm / 1/8")
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1662-based filter stage
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/96kHz
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Incredible value for money.
What We Don’t: Nothing not to like.

Having already introduced you to the ethos behind Schiit Audio’s products, we can simply add that if you are looking for the greatest DAC for around $100, you can stop and just click ‘buy’ on this one. The Schiit Fulla is in its second generation, having been recently upgraded, and despite its diminutive size and price is a real giant of a DAC. We said as much in our review.

Featuring some extremely well-matched components, the Fulla combines great DA conversion with ultra low noise and jitter values. The pearl of its crown is the very capable headphone preamp, which can drive any hungry high-end pair of cans (of up to 300 Ohms). The large high quality Alps RK9 volume pot is also linked to a pair of variable line output (mini-jack 3.5mm / 1/8") which can drive an active pair of speakers or standalone amplifier. To describe audio performance we might just say that the chipset can be found on DACs ten time this price. The Fulla 2 is plug ‘n’ play with Mac or Windows computers, as well as iOS and Android devices -  for handhelds though, it would require you to connect to a mains power source, so unfortunately, you can’t take it out for a walk unless you take a power bank charger with you. 
See the Schiit Fulla 2
 

15. Optoma NuForce uDAC5 ($199)

NuForce uDAC5Inputs: USB (B)
Outputs: RCA Unbalanced (phono), Optical, Mini-jack Headphone Out (3.5mm/1/8")
Amplifier: Yes
Chip: ESS SABRE
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
DSD Playback: Yes (DSD256 / 11.29MHz)
What We Like: Price, size, audio quality.
What We Don't: Minimal look, sound can sometimes be a little sterile.

We simply love the Optoma NuForce uDAC5. We’ve had one in the office for a while, and it never fails to impress. Yeah, there are other small DAC interfaces around, but this NuForce layout is just so clean and precise. Much like its audio conversion really. Relying on a slick ESS SABRE chipset for its impressive 24-bit/384kHz conversion (and DSD256) capability, the NuForce has quickly won an enviable reputation. Start playing DSD, and the light on the front switches to blue, like you’ve unlocked a secret mode. 

It has a great headphone amp included in it - but we need to say, if there’s a drawback, it is the same as its strength. The audio offers an analytical type of performance, and some may find the sound a bit cold rather than ‘sweet’, especially with certain music. But of course such subjective discussions are reserved for the $2K DACs, right? And the NuForce is a steal for the asking price. 
See the Optoma NuForce uDAC5
 

16. FiiO K1 ($40)

FiiO K1Inputs: USB (Mini-B)
Outputs: Mini-jack (3.5mm/1/8")
Amplifier: Yes (Digital Control)
Chip: Burr-Brown TI PCM5102
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/96kHz
DSD Playback: No
What We Like: Credit-card-sized expensive sound.
What We Don't: Pretty basic.

No, we’re not endorsed by FiiO, but the K1 is such a massive hit with smartphones, that we need it covered, along with its bigger brother above. There’s a  complete lack of hardware knobs or buttons but this actually fits K1’s purpose. It’s designed to deliver pocket-sized conversion that can kick your audio into the stratosphere, and for this amount of money, it does it really well.

This DAC proudly burrs with a Burr-Brown chip, the TI PCM5102, so you can expect crisp audio detail and transparency. The digitally controlled headphone preamp has a ton of talent - it can drive any earbuds and most headphones with ease - up to 100ohm impedances, in fact. Don’t expect major high-end goodness, but it certainly doesn’t do a bad job for what you get - and will be an immediate upgrade to your existing device.
See the FiiO K1
 

Specs Table:

Note that each DAC has a long list of inputs and outputs, and to save space, we've decided not to include them in this table. Check the individual items on the list for the full lowdown.

DAC Price Amp Chip DSD? Max Sampling
Benchmark DAC3 HGC $2,195 Yes ESS 9028PRO Yes 32-bit/192kHz
Schiit Yggdrasil $2,299 No AD5791BRUZ No 24-bit/192kHz
Cambridge Audio Azur 851D $2,273 Yes Dual ADSP-BF532  No 32-bit/192kHz
Simaudio Neo 280D $2,200 No Unknown Yes 32-bit/384kHz
Mytek Brooklyn $1,995 No Unknown Yes 32-bit/384kHz
TEAC NT-503 $999 Yes Dual Asahi Kasei AK4490  Yes 32-bit/384kHz
Marantz HD-DAC1 $799 Yes CS4398 Yes 24-bit/192kHz
CHORD Electronics Mojo $529 Yes Xilinx Artix-7 Yes 32-bit/768kHz
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label $500 Yes Burr-Brown Yes 24-bit/768kHz
Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus $350 Yes Dual Wolfson WM8740 Yes 24-bit/192kHz
TEAC HA-P50SE-R $200 Yes Burr-Brown PCM5102 No 24-bit/96kHz
Musical Fidelity V90DAC $299 No Burr-Brown PCM1795 No 32-bit/96kHz 
AudioQuest DragonFly Red $199 Yes ESS Sabre 9016 DAC No 32-bit/96kHz
Schiit Fulla 2 $99 Yes AKM AK4490 No 24-bit/96kHz
Optoma NuForce uDAC5 $199 Yes ESS SABRE Yes 24-bit/384kHz
FiiO K1 $40 Yes Burr-Brown TI PCM5102 No 24-bit/96kHz

Optoma NuForce uDAC5 | The Master Switch

Buying Advice:

What Is A DAC?

Until very recently, standalone external Digital-to-Analogue-Converters were, if not a thing of rarity, at least rather boutique hardware peripherals reserved for recording studios and diehard audio enthusiasts. Increasingly though, with audio-visual content being released in HD formats, upgrades to conversion hardware have become a necessary step for those unsatisfied with the often lacklustre audio playback quality of generic computer and handheld devices. 

Every digital device capable of an audio playback has a converter already. This is the chip on the computer (or phone) motherboard, placed internally next to the device’s audio output. In most cases, the original DACs are hardwired to a specific model’s motherboard and as such their quality is predetermined by the spec and price of the motherboard itself. Its job - and the job of any DAC - is to take the digital ones and zeros that make up your music, and turn them into analogue sound.

Most of them are (just about) OK, but the difference in audio quality when compared to pro-level, external DACs like the ones mentioned here is much like the difference between a local school’s basketball team versus any NBA championship finalist. Staggering, basically! 

Simply explained: by connecting an external DAC, you are entirely bypassing a mediocre quality computer audio chip with a champion-grade audio playback hardware. 

How Do They Work?

This subject can take forever to get just its surface scratched, so we’ll approach it simply, starting at the beginning, which is the making of a sound. 

Most sounds we hear in music or movie audio began as sounds in the analog domain - people speaking or clapping hands for instance. Such sounds were captured by recording techniques and digitized - the first point of entering the digital domain through analogue-to-digital conversion. 

Digitizing audio is bit like ‘freezing’ the audio picture - like ancient insects or leaves being perfectly encapsulated and preserved within a piece of amber. Characteristics such as bass, treble, loudness, stereo movement or any other parameter, which were present at the point of digitizing, are captured and preserved forever in the amber - aka, the digital domain. The quality of conversion (both for AD and DA) is measured as bitrate, and this represents the amount of data (or the detail of the recording) sampled or ‘captured’ per unit of time. The higher the bitrate, the denser the detail, which results in an improved perceived audio quality. A good AD conversion would be like a very high count megapixel camera, capturing an image with utmost detail. 

Digital-to-analogue conversion on the other hand, would be a bit like printing this high res image. If you have a great DAC, this would deliver a pro-grade print, with all the colors and fine details of the source preserved. A poor DAC, on the hand, would be like a cheap pixelated print job of an otherwise beautiful digital image. 

Bottom line: get a good DAC.

Cambridge Audio DACMagic | Derrick Noh

Types Of DACs

Standalone DACs can be USB boxes with a simple pair of analog outs, the USB connection streaming not only data, but also the voltage needed for the DAC circuit to function. There are also DACs needing mains power, so be aware of that.

DAC/Headphone Preamplifiers provide analog outputs for your speakers, as well as (mostly) separate output for your headphones. They often include a hardware volume control for the preamp, which can also be software controlled, allowing you to reduce or boost the nominal output fed to your cans.

Portable DACs connect to smartphones or tablets, normally through mini USB-C ports, and almost certainly include a headphone preamp. They can also double as a computer DAC.

DACs/Integrated Preamp/Power Amp. Such devices see the addition of a power amp section circuitry and allow the connection/driveability of passive speakers.

DACs only featuring Optical or SPDIF digital inputs are used for digital to analog audio conversion of say A/V Receivers, TV sets, Digi-boxes and similar.
 

Can They Really Improve Your Sound?

Short answer: Yes!

The quality of conversion depends almost entirely on the quality of the DAC chipset. Higher resolution files do sound better than lower ones (and much better than compressed ones), and the processing power of the DAC chip determines such audio characteristics as transient clarity, harmonics, depth, stereo width and more. 

The difference between, say, a $50 converter and a $500 will be as clear as night and day - even to untrained ears. The great thing about great DA converters is that your amazing speakers and headphones will sound even more amazing…

TEAC DAC | Barleyguy

How Do You Integrate Them Into Your System?

DACs are mostly USB-equipped boxes which, when connected, substitute for the existent internal headphone/line out. They are usually plug ‘n’ play-type devices, meaning that the operating system of your computer will immediately know that they are present, what they are (down to the brand/model) and what they do. You may find that you need to install drivers (audio settings control menu app) for some DACs.

Once connected, the DAC shows up in your playback options of your Settings/Preferences sound menu, and you would need to select it from the scroll-down menu to make it your prefered hardware output for playback. 

You’d need to unplug the physical connections from your existent output (e.g. headphones, powered speakers or an amp with passive speakers) and reconnect the leads to the outputs of the external DAC. 

DACs featuring a headphone amplifier with headphone control (a volume knob), offer extra flexibility. Some DACs require volume adjustments to be done from the playback device itself (via software control).

More advanced DACs will offer selectable digital input sources, allowing you to switch between a laptop (USB), a Blu-ray (or similar) player, connected through additional Optical or S/PDIF connections. In such cases, the DAC routes several digital only sources to one analog pair of outputs (the DAC’s outs) which feed the analog audio signal to your speakers. 

Benchmark DAC3 HGC | The Master Switch

Digital Signal Integrity Vs Over-Conversion 

When putting together more elaborate audio setups, note that every time an audio stream gets converted from digital to analog and back to digital, the signal deteriorates a little. For instance, let’s follow the signal path of a laptop sending an audio out from its minijack (that is, digital-to-analogue conversion) to the analog input of a A/V Receiver (analogue-to-digital conversion), which in turn goes to the A/V Receiver outs (digital-to-analogue conversion again) feeding the speakers. As you can see, the signal has undergone AD/DA conversion several times before reaching the speakers. 

In such cases of multiple conversion points, each converter may have drastically differing quality, resulting in a scenario quite like the classic “Chinese Whispers” game, in which a message is distorted by being passed around in a whisper. By the time it gets to you, the words “Quick brown fox” have become “Monocle pilchard ice cream Donald Trump.” Well, not that drastic, but same idea.

In such setups involving multiple sources, we recommend that wherever (and as long as) possible to keep the signal in the digital domain by means of using digital ports/cables, until the point of reaching Digital to Analog conversion. Thus, you’d not only avoid signal deterioration by over-converting, but would also take full advantage of your new super-converter’s talents, converting the pure DNA of the digital audio - as it was originally intended/digitized by the producers of the audio-visual content.
 

Digital Jitter Explained

Jitter is an often used term describing digital audio errors manifesting themselves as noise. A digital audio flow may see ones and zeros swap places by mistake - such as in, instead of 1010, a jitter may cause the number to be 1001. The result? Glitchy audio.

Low jitter levels result in a truer conversion, and DACs may often use a separate filter chipset for keeping the digital jitter count low.
 

What Is DSD Audio?

DSD file playability has become a criteria for a DAC’s quality - mainly for audiophiles with extremely high-resolution libraries. It’s definitely not something you have to use if you buy a DAC, but it sure is nice to have.

DSD stands for Direct Stream Digital, and is an audio protocol also known as 1-bit SACD bitstream - a file associated with Super Audio CDs. DSD files come in several ‘resolution densities’ and the highest resolution currently used commercially is the DSD256 (Quad-DSD), which samples audio of rates up to 11.2 MHz, which is four times the SACD rate. If this leaves you scratching your head, let’s say that the 256 number stands for hm...256 times the audio quality of a regular CD. Yeah, we all need time to even imagine that.

You need a specialised player to even get DSD working - iTunes ain’t gonna cut it. Try Audirvana Plus. If you do get it working, you’re in for a wild ride.

Schiit Yggdrasil | Schiit Audio

What Are Multibit DACs?

Most Digital to Analog Converters use a specific design architecture called Sigma-Delta. This DAC technology is recently being ‘upgraded’ by a new generation of DACs - the so called Multibit converters, popularised by Schiit Audio. A good example is the number two pick on our list: the Schiit Yggdragil.

Already widely used in cutting edge space, military and medical program digital technology, these types of hardware chipsets use bit-perfect precision that vastly outperforms the capabilities of a sigma-delta type converters (we know - that sounds technical, but all you need to be aware of is that they sound incredible).

Schiit are one of the companies using the technology, combined with another - ‘Closed Form’ digital filters, which manage to retain all original samples of the audio, minimizing or completely eliminating digital jitter.

Chord Mojo | Chord Electronics

DAC Connections Explained

Before we mark off the most common types of inputs and outputs found in commercial DACs, let’s mention balanced vs unbalanced connections. 

Balanced and unbalanced connections are often referred to as pro and semi-pro respectively, and can at times have a dramatic effect to audio performance, and this effect happens to take place after the sound has already been converted from digital to analog. 

To avoid a massively theory-heavy tangent, we could say that balanced outputs offer an impedance balancing (between the individual wires) of the connected cable, resulting in a better transference of the audio signal - in terms of signal to noise ratio. Balanced circuits may be indicated by a sign: +4dB, unbalanced ones, by: -10dB. 

In the real world, spaces with lots of wiring and/or light dimmers (commercial buildings, offices etc) are notorious for causing ground loops and hums to audio equipment. These are the cases where balanced outputs can come handy and act as effective hum-destroyers.   

The only types of connections qualifying as balanced are XLR outputs - which are the three-pin microphone type of cable connections. 

Another balanced output would be a 1/4" TRS jack - same as the larger type headphone jacks, and TRS standing for the type of jack tip ending - tip, ring, sleeve. 1/4" TRS jack audio outputs are mainly used in studio-grade audio converters.

Some DACs may feature a switch called Ground Loop lift. What is it for? This is an option which helps kill ground loop hum caused in audio (and USB) cables affected by other electrical sources. 

Most other DAC connections are quite self-explanatory. If they aren’t, here’s a little breakdown:

Connection Details

RCA Outs - Analog (unbalanced)

The most common type of hifi outputs - normally resembling a pair of white/red phono plugs.

Mini-jack (1/8" / 3.5mm) out - Analog 

The most common mini-jack connection as found on smartphones, laptops etc.

1/4" Jack (Balanced or Unbalanced) - Analog 

1/4" jack connections are uncommon in hifi products. They can be found in PA amps and recording studio equipment. Since they are smaller than XLR, 1/4" jacks can be used for balanced outputs on some devices.

XLR Out - Analog 

XLRs look like a three pin - within a circle - they use regular mic lead (cannon) connection plugs. You’ll find them mostly when balanced output circuit is present - in larger high end type DACs.

S/PDIF - Digital 

This stands for ‘Sony/Philips Digital InterFace’, and these digital connections have a slightly squarish look. Often called a ‘lightpipe’ connection, S/PDIF cables let out a bright red light at their end. Good for linking DVD/Blu-Ray players or similar.

Optical (TOSLINK) - Digital 

These look like a single RCA plug, but carry stereo digital audio.

Optical (3.5mm) - Digital 

Same as above but with an ending of the same size as a minijack (3.5mm) but carrying a stereo digital audio (as found on some Mac computers). 

AES / EBU (XLR) - Digital

AES/EBU is Audio Engineering Society’s digital protocol lead, transferring a stereo digital audio feed over a single XLR to XLR digital cable.

Wordclock / Clock Sync (BNC/Coaxial)

These connections use the so called BNC type plugs, also used for some aerial / antenna-type attachments. Wordclock keeps the ticking of digital ones-and-zeros between digital devices in sync. The first device is normally set as a master, syncing connected digital devices (set as slave devices) and keeping them jitter-free (no dropouts of digital data). 

USB (A, B, mini, C-type)

USB connections are the most common way of linking an external DAC to a computer. Depending on the size of the interface, different types of USB plugs may be present.

Thunderbolt (Rare)

Thunderbolt is the way to go (into the future). DACs featuring this connection are extremely rare at present, but the protocol has slowly began replacing USB or Firewire in recording studio-grade converters due to Thunderbolt’s increased bandwidth.

Firewire 

Firewire is now pretty much a legacy connection, quickly fading away. An extremely rare digital connections for standalone DACs.


Will I Ever Need An ADC?

Alright, we’ve kind of covered DA conversion and outputs, but would ever a DAC need an analog input

Nope. If they do, they’d be called AD/DA converters and these are an altogether different kettle of fish. Analog to Digital conversion is mostly needed in recording studios really. But perhaps not always. Just think of the (quite common) scenario of trying to digitize an old vinyl record or a tape cassette. You may say that some turntables come with a USB connection, and you’d be right - the AD conversion would take place exactly there. Very often though, these ADCs are of poorer quality than even those found in regular PC soundcards. 

So if you’re trying to digitize an old precious analog recording, you could do worse than find yourself a nice AD/DA conversion box which would allow you to digitize analog sound in a high-res digital audio and store it forever...a bit like an insect in an amber stone.

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