These days, 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 try 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 drastically improve the quality of their audio playback. You do it by upgrading the device's DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter), which takes the digital signal and turns it into sound you can actually hear. And to complete your system, check out our lists of the Best Headphone Amps and Best Stereo Amps.


Table of Contents



Best Overall DAC

1. RME ADI-2 DAC ($1,099)

RME AD Converter ADI2DAC Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Unknown
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz
What We Like: Outstanding sound quality and interface.
What We Don't: Horrendously complex menu system, no Bluetooth.

With their ADI-2 DAC, Germany's RME cements their place as the best DAC-maker on the planet. The ADI-2 is an absolutely gorgeous machine, with a terrific display that gives you full control over your sound. The audio quality is intricate and detailed, relying on RME's SteadyClock system to reduce unwanted noise. Honestly, for this price, we don't think you’ll find a better DAC - definitely not one as enjoyable as this. The ADI-2 may not have Bluetooth, like the Chord Electronics Hugo 2, but this German-made wonder is a fantastic wired solution. While we still found ourselves turning to the Hugo 2 for most listening, the ADI-2 has a huge amount of charm to it. The only thing we didn't like was the fiendishly complicated menu system, which relies on a multitude of unintuitive controls to navigate.

Regardless, this is a minor set-back in comparison to all the pros of the ADI-2. Although RME aren't a household name in audio yet, they've released some solid products that come highly recommended. But if you want fine-grained control, with a near-professional piece of equipment, check out the Benchmark DAC3 HGC, below. Since we wrote our review, RME has released a slightly upgraded ADI-2 DAC under the same name, with programmable buttons on the remote and an upgraded DAC chip, for the same price. It really is a giant-slayer...Read our in-depth review
See the RME ADI-2 DAC
 

Best High-End DAC

2. Chord Electronics Hugo 2 ($2,495)

Chord Electronics Hugo 2Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Xilinx Artix 7
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz
What We Like: Amazing design and features.
What We Don’t: Doesn’t sound quite as good as the less-expensive DACs.

The Chord Hugo 2 is outstanding. It's a high-end, portable DAC with aptX Bluetooth and a seven hour battery life that delivers magnificent sound. It can handle huge sample rates and bit depth (up to 32-bit/768kHz) as well as full DSD functionality, up to DSD512. Oh, and the built-in amp can generate enough power to handle all but the most demanding headphones. While there is an argument that the company's slightly cheaper Mojo, below, offers better value, there's a reason why this has become a firm favorite among audiophiles. We love this DAC, and it's an easy pick for our top high-end option.

It isn't the best-sounding DAC on this list - that would be the RME ADI-2 DAC, above. It's not the best portable DAC, like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt. But it does so many things so well that we'd be insane to put anything else at the top. Chord make several excellent DACs - including the Dave, and the brand-new Qutest - but for sheer range of features, design, sound quality, and value, the Hugo 2 just crushes it.Chord make other terrific high-end DACs, including the $7,000 Hugo TT 2, but the Hugo 2 is the top choice for our money. And there's more: as we prepared to publish our latest update, Chord announced the release of a streaming accessory, the 2Go (of course), that turns the Chord into a full music streamer with Wi-Fi connectivity...Read our in-depth review
See the Chord Electronics Hugo 2
 

Best Budget DAC

3. Schiit Modi 3 ($99)

Schiit Modi 3Amplifier: No
Chip: AKM AK4490
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
What We Like: Super-clean operation for under $100.
What We Don't: Not a particularly exciting DAC.

Schiit's Modi line remains a DAC classic - especially when paired with the amazing Magni 3 amp. This latest update distills all the wizardry of the previous Modi variations into a single sub-$100 DAC. It's not a huge update on the Modi 2, but it doesn't need to be - it already does what it's supposed to extremely well. The audio it delivers is crisp and clean, and operation is beautifully straightforward. It's not one of the most exciting DACs - we think models from Meridian Audio may be more pricey, but also feel a little more dynamic. But it is an incredible DAC for the price, and if you're on a budget, it's a great choice.

The Modi does have an upgraded version available, the Modi Multibit, which adds additional inputs and a fantastic digital filter. It's more expensive, though, at $249, so be aware of that before you buy. Regarding the vanilla Modi, we think it's a good-if-unspectacular DAC that can form the unassuming backbone of any decent hi-fi or headphone system. It replaces the old Fulla 2 on this list - that model is still available, but we think the Modi 3 does a slightly better job as a DAC.
See the Schiit Modi 3
 

Best Portable DAC

4. AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt ($300)

AudioQuest Dragonfly CobaltAmplifier: Yes
Chip: ESS ES9038Q2M
MQA Playback: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/96kHz
What We Like: Superb sound, convenience, and appealing looks.
What We Don’t: Quite expensive, owners of the AudioQuest DragonFly Red need not apply.

If you’re looking for a portable DAC, the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt should be your first choice. It’s nothing more than a simple USB stick with a 3.5 mm headphone output, but what it does is nothing short of extraordinary. The DragonFly Cobalt delivers lively, exciting sound, and its internal DAC can handle a variety of file formats, including MQA from Tidal. It remains the single most convenient headphone amp we’ve ever tested, and has the added benefit of looking really cool.

The DragonFly Cobalt is an upgrade of the AudioQuest DragonFly Red, and it must be said that if you own the original, you don’t need to upgrade. The Red costs $200, which is $100 less expensive than the Cobalt, making it much more budget-friendly. However, price aside, we think the DragonFly Cobalt is an absolutely superb update that offers genuine benefits. If you want a portable headphone amp, this will easily beat models from iBasso and Audiolab, mentioned below. The DragonFly Cobalt is light, powerful, and delivers killer sound. Bear in mind that it only delivers file sizes up to 24-bit/96kHz, which is a deliberate choice on AudioQuest’s part. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but worth bearing in mind before you purchase…Read our in-depth review
See the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt


Best DAC for MQA

5. Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ ($2,195)

Mytek BrooklynHeadphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Sabre 9028 Pro
MQA Playback: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
What We Like: An excellent upgrade on the original Brooklyn, with genuine improvements.
What We Don't: Huge number of options - potentially too many for some.

The original Brooklyn DAC has been discontinued, but fortunately, the geniuses at Mytek have a replacement ready – and it’s not just a cosmetic upgrade, even. The DAC+, which cost a couple hundred dollars more than the original (so don’t be afraid to jump on eBay or the like if you’re okay with an older model) offers an upgraded chipset, an improved final stage, and a retuned headphone amp. It remains one of the best DACs available today, easily in our top five. It’s not quite as sleek or as powerful as something like the Chord Hugo 2, or as intricate as the Benchmark DAC3HGC, but it’s still a beast.

One of the things that has stayed the same is the deep interface which, while complex, is still quite intuitive to use. It should be said that while this doesn’t change one of our criticisms of the original – but for most people, the number of options and the professional level information given might just be overkill – there’s no question that the sound quality, build and overall design is just absolutely spectacular. Brooklyn wins again.
See the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+
 

Best of the Rest

6. Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2,199)

Benchmark DAC3Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: ESS 9028PRO
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/192kHz
What We Like: Superlative sound and functionality.
What We Don't: Can be very complicated.

Benchmark's DAC1 and DAC2 have been the industry standard for DAC performance since they were released. The DAC3 was eagerly awaited by anyone familiar with the company's incredible audio conversion performance, and this surely must have piled the pressure onto the design team to deliver. I's not quite as fun to use as the Hugo 2 or the RME ADI-2 DAC, and doesn't offer features like Bluetooth. However, it's far more affordable, and the sound is just unbelievable.

The DAC3 features advanced harmonic filtering, which is especially evident in its silky-sweet top-end audio performance. The Hybrid Gain Control (HGC) truly 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. 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 state-of-the art volume attenuation. We could go on about this DAC's merits, but perhaps it's enough to say that it really stands on the shoulders of giants - the extraordinary DAC1 and DAC2 - and deserves to be the beating heart of any setup...Read our in-depth review
See the Benchmark DAC3 HGC
 

7. Marantz HD-DAC1 ($799)

Marantz HD- DAC1Amplifier: Yes
Chip: CS4398
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
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 pick that offers huge value-for-money, far more so than units like the Schiit. The Yggdrasil does offer more features, and was high on this list previously, but we’ve had a think about it, and the Marantz deserves to place higher.

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 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. Schiit Yggdrasil ($2,499)

Schiit YggdrasilAmplifier: No
Chip: Analog Devices AD5791BRUZ x 4 (2 per channel, hardware balanced Multibit ladder DAC)
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
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: a proudly all-American made DAC 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. Other DACs like the Hugo and the DAC3 HGC offer more for the money, we think, but this is still a terrific piece of gear.
See the Schiit Yggdrasil
 

9. Auralic Altair G1 ($2,699)

Auralic Altair G1Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Unknown
MQA Playback: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
What We Like: A huge range of features, including full wireless streaming.
What We Don't: This DAC is in need of an update.

There’s a lot of crossover between DACs, amps, and music streamers, and that’s especially true when considering the Auralic Altair G1. While it is first and foremost a DAC— and a very good one— it’s also headphone amp, as well as a dedicated wireless streamer and Roon endpoint. That makes it ideal for those who are looking for more all-in-one solution. However, even if you intend to only use it for its DAC capabilities, you’ll be in good hands. It has comprehensive file handling, with both MQA and DSD capabilities, and the ability to take files up to 32-bit/384kHz.

The problem is, the Altair G1 is just not quite as good as the competition. We wouldn’t choose it over, for example, the Chord Electronics Hugo 2, especially since there are now accessory products that allow that DAC to stream. And we think the RME ADI-2 DAC has it beaten on sound quality. It also seems as if the Altair has been somewhat left behind by Auralic; the company is now focusing largely on wireless streaming transport like the Aries G2.1, or massively-expensive streaming DACs like the Vega G2.1. The Altair is a solid product, but there are better options available.
See the Auralic Altair G1


10. NAIM DAC V1 ($2,490)

Naim DAC-V1Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: SHARC DSP
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/384kHz
What We Like: A solid DAC with a good range of features.
What We Don’t: Sound can be a touch harsh.

As much as we love NAIM, we’re not sure this is a top five DAC. It gets a lot of things right, but it’s not quite perfect: for one thing, the sound quality can be just a touch harsh in the upper registers – nothing terrible, but just enough that it lacks the subtlety and confidence of other DACs.

All the same, this is still an excellent alternative to models like the Hugo 2 and the Benchmark, and it does offer a good range of features – as well as pairing very well with other NAIM amplifiers. You get up to 24-bit/384kHz through the USB connection, as well as full DSD functionality and circuitry that packs in a 4-bit SHARC DSP chip. It’s also one of the few DACs to come with a remote, although the one included here is much better than the example that comes with the Benchmark DAC3 HGC. We think there’s further room for improvement on the audio side of things, but it shouldn’t take much for NAIM to shoot into the upper reaches here. We look forward to the V2! 
See the NAIM DAC V1


11. SMSL M300 ($240)

SMSL M300Amplifier: No
Chip: AKM AK-4497
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz
What We Like: Lively design, good range of file sizes for the price.
What We Don't: Sound is nothing particularly special.

In recent months, several TMS readers got in touch to ask us why we haven’t included any SMS products on this list. Honestly, we just hadn’t had a chance to hear them. We’ve now rectified that and we think the M300 is worthy of a place on this list.

While it may not have the sound quality of similarly priced DACs, like the Audiolab M-DAC Nano, the M300 more than makes up for it in other ways. We absolutely adore the design, which feels colorful and energetic. The M300 is easy-to-use, with a clear display and controls. We also appreciated the range of file sizes it takes, ranging from PCM files up to 32-bit/768kHz, to DSD512. We struggle to imagine an audio file that you couldn’t play through this DAC. It also comes with balanced XLR outputs, which is almost unheard of in this price range. It’s not in the top ten, but it’s an excellent alternative.
See the SMSL M300
 

12. Chord Electronics Mojo ($499)

CHORD Electronics MojoAmplifier: Yes
Chip: Xilinx Artix-7
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/768kHz (!)
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!

This is a superb DAC. The looks may seem gimmicky, 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. It doesn’t quite have the oomph of its bigger brother, the Hugo 2, but it’s a terrific budget option.

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 number including DSD256 / 11.29MHz. And yeah, you can take it anywhere. By the way: there's now even an add-on, called the Poly, which functions as a portable music player with SD card slot. Seriously, just buy this thing already...Read our in-depth review
See the Chord Electronics Mojo


13. Parasound NewClassic 200 ($895)

Parasound NewClassicHeadphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Burr Brown PCM1798
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
What We Like: Smooth and engaging sound with super-clean background.
What We Don't: No DSD playback functionality, slightly older conversion chip.

We were already familiar with Parasound's excellent stereo amps, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear their DACs, too. The NewClassic 200 lacks a couple of key features, like DSD playback – something that cheaper DACs, like the $599 Chord Mojo, manage just fine - but it definitely deserves to be on this list. While it might not accept super-high resolution audio, it has several nifty features. Chief among these is the fact that it can act as a dedicated preamplifier with full subwoofer control. That's relatively rare among DACs and helps the NewClassic 200 earn its place.

Ultimately, the sound quality isn't going to beat models like the RME ADI-2 DAC or the NAD Electronics M-51, and the lack of DSD could be a real sticking point. We also aren't wild about how the incorporated Burr Brown PCM1978 chip is simply ripped from old the Halo P5 preamp - we feel like there should be an upgraded version here. However, it was a genuine pleasure to hear this, and we think it's going to be on the list for quite a while. Well played, Parasound.
See the Parasound NewClassic 200
 

14. iFi Audio hip-dac ($149)

ifi hip-dacHeadphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Burr-Brown True Native
MQA Playback: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
What We Like: Great sound in a tiny package.
What We Don't: Lights on the DAC can be confusing.

In the few years that The Master Switch has existed, it feels as if iFi Audio have gone through about eight redesigns of their products. We think they have a winner here, though. The hip-dac is a tiny little converter, shaped like a hip flask, and designed to work with your phone inside a pocket. Right out the gate, there’s a lot to love about the hip-dac. The balanced, dual-mono circuitry results in smooth and engaging sound quality, and the ability to transmit high-res audio files like MQA is a big winner. We don’t think it’s the best portable DAC option available—the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt has much better audio quality and is simpler to use, even if it’s more expensive. But it’s a viable alternative.

There are some puzzling elements, however. The indicator LEDs on the hip-dac do not change for 88.2 or 96kHz PCM, which makes it tricky to gauge if you’re getting the true benefit of your high resolution files. We also feel as if there should be Bluetooth here. While it’s not technically a negative, as plugging a DAC into a phone is no hardship, the hip-dac is much bigger than competing products like the Zorloo Ztella.
See the iFi Audio hip-dac
 

15. Hidizs S8 ($89)

Hidizs S8Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: CS43131
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384 kHz
What We Like: Superb design, affordable price.
What We Don't: Sound is good, but not great.

Hidizs are mostly known for making digital audio players, but the S8 is an excellent side venture for them. This DAC is designed to be used with a smartphone, making it a great option for anyone looking to boost their audio quality on the go. We adore the design, which beats competitors from iBasso and Audiolab into the ground. It’s sleek, with silver housing and prominent volume buttons, and looks terrific. We also think the price is attractive for all budgets.

That being said, the S8’s sound occasionally fell short for us. It was fine, but when pushed with complicated metal or dance tracks, it struggled under the weight of the music. The CS43131 DAC chip can’t quite keep up. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it does mean that the S8 isn’t the first choice for those looking for a portable DAC. However, its affordability and slick design earns it a spot on this list.
See the Hidizs S8
 

16. Audiolab M-DAC Nano ($199)

Audiolab M-DAC NanoAmplifier: Yes
Chip: Unknown
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
What We Like: A great portable DAC with solid sound.
What We Don't: No DSD functionality, minimal specs available.

Audiolab’s M-DAC Nano is a combo headphone amp-DAC that weighs just under an ounce, and delivers an impressive 32-bit/384kHz bit depth and sample rate. That means great sound in a setup that’s ideal for mobile listening. It’s one of the smallest DACs we’ve ever encountered, and definitely the smallest on this list.

That being said: it would have been nice to see DSD functionality. It’s not a dealbreaker, but at this price, it's something we've come to expect. It’s strange to see it missing here. We’re also a little confused as to why Audiolab don’t give any info on the DAC chip - again, not a dealbreaker, but puzzling. Still, there’s no question that this DAC deserves to be on this list. It’s the smallest DAC here, and while a touch expensive, offers a hell of a lot for the price.
See the Audiolab M-DAC Nano
 

17. iBasso DC01 ($50)

iBasso DC01Headphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: AK4493EQ
MQA Playback: No
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384 kHz
What We Like: One of the best ways to upgrade your phone sound.
What We Don't: Awkward shape, no iPhone connectivity.

The iBasso DC01 is a simple dongle designed to connect to your phone. As long as your phone is of the Android variety, of course - iPhone users need not apply. While that does rule out a significant portion of the market, it doesn’t mean that the DC01 is a bad DAC. On the contrary, it’s a very good one, and dramatically upgrades the sound of just about any compatible smartphone. It even offers a tiny USB connector for use with a laptop or PC. It’s lightweight build makes it easy to throw into your pocket, and we appreciate the affordable price. This model is the single cheapest DAC on our list.

Sadly, we just can’t get past the lack of iPhone connectivity, and we aren’t wild about the shape. The triangular design means that, while the DC01 is light, it often makes its presence known in annoying ways. It’s the kind of product that we think will do extremely well with a slight redesign, and perhaps a nod towards those who don’t use Android phones. For now, consider it a cheaper alternative to the Audiolab and Hidizs DACs above.
See the iBasso DC01
 

18. Zorloo Ztella ($99)

Zorloo ZtellaHeadphone Amplifier: Yes
DAC Chip: Unknown
MQA Playback: Yes
Max Sampling Rate: 32-bit/384kHz
What We Like: Probably the smallest portable DAC we’ve ever used.
What We Don't: Audio issues, and tricky for those with Android phones.

Please don’t ask us how to pronounce the word Ztella. We don’t know. What we do know is that this little DAC from Zortoo is arguably the tiniest of its kind we’ve ever seen. It’s smaller than the Audiolab M-DAC Nano and iBasso DC01, and unlike those two portable DACs, it’s perfectly capable of handling MQA files (with a few caveats— see below). As it is little more than a short cable, it’s easy to carry around with you, and requires no controls to set up and use. Just plug-in, and go.

Well, sort of. While it works out the box for iPhones, the Zorloo Ztella requires an additional app on android if you plan on listening to MQA, which is a little frustrating. And despite its tiny size, we don’t think the timing or clarity on the Ztella is anywhere near as good as that on the M-DAC Nano or iBasso DC01. Given that the DC01 is almost half the price, that’s a big problem. If you’re looking for an unobtrusive portable DAC that can fire and forget, and you own an iPhone, then the Ztella may be worth looking at.
See the Zorloo Ztella
 

New DACs Coming Soon

Schiit Audio are never ones to rest on their laurels. They recently released a new DAC that is a larger version of the Modi, currently in our top three DACs available. It’s called the Modius, and it’s going for $199. Most of the differences are internal: there’s a new DAC section, upgraded output stages, and new USB inputs. Crucially, it’s the same size as other Schiit products like the Lyr am, which means you can now stack them as you would the Magni and Modi amps. We haven’t heard the Modius yet, but Schiit have an excellent track record. We will update when we have a chance to listen.

The Rupert Neve Fidelice DAC is also worth looking out for. At $5,000, it represents the upper limit of what most sane people would consider spending on a DAC, but we’ve heard it and we find it fantastic. When it is eventually released, it may topple the Auralic DAC for best high-end model. Check back soon for more information!
 

DACs Comparison Table

DAC Price Amp Chip MQA? Max Sampling DSD?
RME ADI-2 DAC $1,099 Yes AK4490EQ No 32-bit/768kHz Yes
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 $2,495 Yes Xilinx Artix 7 No 32-bit/768kHz Yes
Schiit Modi 3 $99 No AKM AK4490 No 32-bit/384kHz No
AQ DragonFly Cobalt $300 Yes ESS ES9038Q2M Yes 24-bit/96kHz No
Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ $2,195 Yes Sabre 9028 Pro Yes 32-bit/384kHz Yes
Benchmark DAC3 HGC $2,199 Yes ESS 9028PRO No 32-bit/192kHz Yes
Marantz HD-DAC1 $799 Yes CS4398 No 24-bit/192kHz Yes
Schiit Yggdrasil $2,449 No AD5791BRUZ No 24-bit/192kHz No
Auralic Altair G1 $2,699 Yes Unknown Yes 32-bit/384kHz Yes
NAIM DAC V1 $2,490 Yes SHARC DSP No 24-bit/384kHz Yes
SMSL M300 $240 Yes AKM Ak-4497 No 32-bit/768kHz Yes
Chord Electronics Mojo $499 Yes Xilinx Artix-7 No 32-bit/768kHz Yes
Parasound NewClassic 200 $895 Yes Burr-Brown PCM1978 No 32-bit/192kHz Yes
iFi Audio hip-dac $149 Yes Burr-Brown True Native Yes 32-bit/384kHz Yes
Hidizs S8 $89 Yes CS43131 No 32-bit/384kHz Yes
Audiolab M-DAC Nano $199 Yes Unknown No 32-bit/384kHz No
iBasso DC01 $50 Yes AK4493EQ No 32-bit/384kHz Yes
Zorloo Ztella $99 Yes Unknown Yes 32-bit/384kHz No

Chord, iFi, Optoma DACs | The Master Switch

DACs Buying Advice

What Is a DAC?

Until very recently, standalone external Digital-to-Analog-Converters were, if not a thing of rarity, at least rather boutique hardware peripherals reserved for recording studios and die-hard 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 lackluster audio playback quality of generic computer and handheld devices. 

Every digital device capable of audio playback (through headphones or speakers, for example) 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 analog 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. By connecting an external DAC, you are entirely bypassing a mediocre quality computer audio chip with a champion-grade audio playback hardware. 

The Chord Mojo is a phenomenal portable DAC | The Master Switch

But how do they actually work? 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 are captured by recording techniques and digitized - the first point of entering the digital domain through analog-to-digital conversion. Digitizing audio is bit like ‘freezing’ the audio picture - like ancient insects or leaves being perfectly 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 - the digital domain. The quality of any conversion 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 analog-to-digital conversion would be like a very high count megapixel camera, capturing an image with utmost detail. 

Digital-to-analog 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. 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…bottom line: get a good DAC.

Parasound DAC | The Master Switch

DAC Types Explained

Standalone DACs can be USB-enabled 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. A good example of this: the Schiit Yggdrasil, which needs a separate amplifier to work.

DAC/Headphone amplifiers 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. Most of the DACs on this list actually sport headphone amps, and we’ve indicated where this is in fact the case.

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. For a good portable DAC, try the Chord Electronics Mojo - it’s amazing. By the way, 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.

Mytek-Brooklyn  | The Master Switch

DAC Setup Explained

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. 

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC | The Master Switch

Sample Rate vs. Bit Depth 

While perusing our list of DACs above, you’ve probably wondered about the two sets of numbers – the ones reading 32-bit/192kHz or 24-bit/96kHz. Those numbers indicate bit depth and sample rate, and they are a numerical measure of how much information the DAC can transmit. Let’s break this down. 

We’ve actually got a full explainer of how this all works, going into serious detail. However, we can summarize a few of the basics here – enough for you to understand what you’re looking at. Sample rate is the number of times per second a recording (a song, for example) records something from the incoming audio. Recording software and hardware doesn’t actually record a continuous stream of information, but rather, ‘looks at’ or ‘samples’ the incoming signal. The more times it does this, the better the quality will be. In addition, each one of those samples has a certain amount of information – the bit depth. The higher the bit depth, the more information in each sample, and the higher the… Well, you get the idea. Every song recorded will have a bit depth and sample rate, and the numbers given for each DAC above is actually the highest bit depth and sample rate  it can handle. Very obviously, you want it to be as high as possible. For reference, the Chord Hugo 2 is the DAC with the highest combined bit depth / sample rate, at 32-bit/768kHz.

Auralic Altair G1 | The Master Switch

MQA Explained

Spend any length of time in the world of good audio and you’ll come across the term MQA. It stands for Master Quality Authenticated, a file type that’s unique to the Tidal streaming service. Essentially, it allows you to stream a high-resolution file over the Internet, without using huge bandwidth or sacrificing quality. The mathematics behind how Tidal accomplishes this are quite technical and a bit beyond our scope. What you need to understand is that the source file (which is obviously quite large) is ‘folded’ by various pieces of software, packing it down into a small enough file to be transmitted over a regular Wi-Fi connection.

The idea is that an MQA file on Tidal will sound a lot better than other, similar high resolution files on services like Spotify. Our take – and bear in mind that we listen to a lot of music on Tidal - is that it’s pretty good, but not revolutionary. The quality is certainly there, but you often have to work quite hard to spot the difference between an MQA file and a regular 32-bit/384kHz PCM file. Cue our comments section lighting up with people accusing us of being deaf…

If you do want to take full advantage of MQA, you need a DAC that’s capable of decoding it. There’s no point in Tidal folding up that audio file if there’s nothing on your end to unfold it. If you do play an MQA file through a DAC that can’t decode it, then you’ll just get a regular resolution file. If you want to take advantage of MQA, then we suggest investing in something like the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+. If the $2,000+ cost of that one makes you cringe, then we suggest something like the Zorloo Ztella, which costs a little under $99.

iFi Audio hip-dac | The Master Switch

DSD Explained

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 specialized 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. You’ll find a much more detailed explainer of this particular file format here.

All lined-up and ready to go... | 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-analog conversion) to the analog input of a A/V Receiver (analog-to-digital conversion), which in turn goes to the A/V Receiver outs (digital-to-analog 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.

The Benchmark DAC3 HGC sounds great, but can be intimidating | The Master Switch

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. Now, the key thing to remember here is: don’t let jitter freak you out. It’s actually irrelevant in almost all scenarios. You can usually ignore it completely, even if it is good knowledge to have. Just in case.

Chord Hugo 2 DAC | The Master Switch

Multibit DACs Explained

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, popularized by Schiit Audio. A good example is Schiit Modi, which has a $249 multibit variant available (we've named the $99 basic version as our favorite on the list).

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.

RME ADI-2 DAC | The Master Switch

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. 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. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is a good example of this. At over $2,000, we would hope it would be balanced.

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. The third pin, by the way, is a grounding pin, similar to grounded wall outlets in your house.

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.

Auralic Altair G1 | The Master Switch

ADCs Explained

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.

Back To Our DAC Picks Back To Our Comparison Table

Best Headphone Amps of 2020

You wouldn't expect headphones to need any special equipment to work. They are just about as simple as audio equipment gets.

Best Stereo Amps of 2020

An amp should be the center of your hi-fi world. It should be the focus point for all your efforts, the piece of equipment that can make or break your sound. Everything flows into it, and everything flows out of it...

Best Bookshelf Speakers of 2020

Ever since the glory days, when hi-fi systems were integrated and even color-matched to the furniture, bookshelf speakers have been the beating heart of the party...

Best High-End Headphones of 2020

Sometimes, you need to take a step back, look at how you’re listening to music, and improve it. Sometimes, you just need to break the bank.

Best Floorstanding Speakers of 2020

Floorstanding speakers have one of the most recognizable profiles of all speaker types. They're designed to slot in next to bookcases and TV cabinets, and their shape has two major advantages...

Best Phono Preamps of 2020

If you’re reading this, you are at the very least intrigued about great-sounding vinyl playback. That’s not an easy thing to get right: record players are very much like fine musical instruments, so you need a damn good preamp.

Chord Mojo Review

Chord Electronics, the purveyors of handmade British hi-fi have been - since the eighties, no less - making waves with their innovative DACs and headphone amplifiers. The Mojo is one of them.