Are you unsure what a DAC is or whether you should buy one? If you’re new to the audiophile scene, you’ve certainly heard about digital signal processors (DACs) and may be wondering if you need one. Alternatively, you may have already decided that a DAC is something you want to add to your collection, and you’re simply trying to figure out which USB DAC is best for your listening experience.
A digital-to-analog converter is one of the most underappreciated pieces of technology (or DAC). I’ll be delving into the world of USB DACs in this article. We’ll go through what a digital audio converter (DAC) is, how it might affect the quality of your music and recordings, and, of course, some of the best models money can buy. Let’s get into the reviews without further ado!
Table of Contents
- Chord Electronics Qutest Digital to Analog Converter (DAC)
The Qutest’s main function is to serve as the digital-to-analog bridge between your digital source and amplifier because it lacks Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated headphone amplifier. And it performs the task admirably. At this pricing, it is the product that less competitive competitors look up to. The multi-award-winning DAC has a neutral tonal balance and produces a clear, succinct, and crisp sound.
While talking about digital-to-analog converters, the brand name Chord keeps popping up with great analog sound. They are without a doubt the most recognizable DAC producer, frequently praised for their excellent sound and unique designs, which culminate in their flagship DAC, the five-figure Chord DAVE. Chord is favored among audiophiles since they handle everything in-house. They have DAC design and programming in their blood.
Until the Qutest truly starts to sing, it will take some running in time, as with all decent hi-fi equipment. Yet when it does, you’re in for a treat because songs have a wonderful sense of scope and are rich with warmth and texture with usb input.
The Qutest features Chord’s recognizable color-coding buttons that let you know which source is being used. These buttons glow white for USB-Type-B, which can accept 32-bit/768kHz PCM/DSD512, yellow for the first BNC coaxial and red for the second (24-bit/384kHz), green for the optical (24-bit/192kHz/DSD64), and red for the second BNC coaxial.
Just a reliable DAC, no more Bluetooth, internal batteries, or headphone amplifiers. Finally, Chord has a cost-effective DAC for your home. This is the Best USB DAC in 2023.
Chord Hugo 2 Transportable DAC Headphone Amplifier
- Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA
- Play time: In excess of seven (7) hours
- PCM support: 44.1k Hz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 192kHz,...
When you’re looking for a good DAC, you’re likely to come across Chord’s Hugo 2; it’s heavily advertised, owing to the fact that it’s one of the best desktop dac in its class. Hugo 2 by Chord is fantastic. It’s a high-end portable DAC with aptX Bluetooth and a seven-hour battery life that produces stunning audio. It supports extremely high sample rates and bit depths (up to 32 bits/768kHz), as well as complete DSD capabilities up to DSD512.
Hugo 2 DAC is powered by Chord’s unique and custom-coded Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA chipset, one of the most powerful in this price range. It has a total playtime of more than seven hours and requires around eight hours of charging to recharge.
Oh, and the built-in amplifier is capable of driving any but the most demanding headphones. While the company’s slightly cheaper Mojo, seen below, may provide greater value, there’s a reason why this has become a firm favorite among audiophiles. This DAC is one of our favorites, and it’s an obvious choice for our top high-end option with great sample rate support for audio quality.
The RME ADI-2 DAC, which is listed above, is the best-sounding DAC on this list. It isn’t as good as the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt when it comes to portable DACs. We’d be insane to place anything else at the top because it does so many things so brilliantly. Chord makes numerous fantastic DACs, including the Dave and the brand-new Qutest, but the Hugo 2 outperforms them all in terms of features, design, sound quality, and affordability.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t get much better than this, most people are hesitant to attempt Hugo 2 due to its exorbitant pricing. I recommend it to those who demand nothing less than perfection, including studio engineers, professional producers, and those willing to pay a little sum for absolute, unrivaled excellence.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
- Native Resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz
- DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for...
- Plays All Music Files: MP3 to MQA and Hi-Res
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt should be your first choice if you’re looking for a portable DAC. It’s only a simple USB stick with a 3.5 mm headphone output, but what it can achieve is nothing short of amazing. The DragonFly Cobalt has a vibrant, energetic sound, and its inbuilt DAC can play a wide range of file types, including Tidal’s MQA. It’s still the most convenient headphone amp we’ve ever tried, and it also happens to look really great.
The Dragonfly Cobalt is a USB DAC with a chip that contains a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter and supports native resolutions up to 24-bit / 96kHz. As a result, the sound is more natural and detailed than it is when the audio is not routed via the Dragonfly.
It can be used with a wide range of devices, from PCs and Mac laptops to headphones and whole audio systems, thanks to its small size and inclusion of USB and Lightning adapters. However, most people like it since it can drive a wide range of headphones, from low-efficiency to high-efficiency, and it works with any audio file.
Overall, the Dragonfly Cobalt DAC is ideal for anything from watching YouTube videos to listening to excellent music on Spotify!
Topping E30 USB DAC AK4493 Chip
The Topping E30 is yet another basic DAC that offers good specs for the price. Chinese manufacturer Topping has come to be associated with excellent value. Thanks to the superior Asahi Kasei AK4493 digital converter chip in the Topping E30, performance over the Topping D30 has increased significantly. There is minimal coloring and the sound is quite detailed and neutral.
Amplification is required, whether it be a headphone amplifier or a stereo amplifier for speakers because the E30 is a simple DAC. Although the Topping L30 headphone amplifier is made to be the ideal companion, you can use it with any other device.
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus 200M Stereo Digital to Analogue Converter DAC Preamp
- ✓ AMAZING SOUND CONVERSION. DacMagic 200M performs the...
- ✓ ARTIST APPROVED AUDIO. DacMagic 200M is Cambridge Audio’s first...
- ✓ POWERFUL PROCESSING. Inside is a pair of extremely high-quality ESS...
The DacMagic 200M is a no-brainer if you’re searching for a DAC that packs all sorts of essential functionality into an appealing and acoustically astute package, especially at this pricing. It’s well-equipped enough to fit into any hi-fi or desktop setup with ease. A variety of digital inputs accommodate a variety of sources, and aptX Bluetooth is also included.
Add in balanced and unbalanced outputs, as well as a headphone output and high-resolution audio support, and you’ve pretty much covered all the basics. It has that distinct ‘Cambridge’ sound, which consists of a full, silky tone paired with an open, expressive, and authoritative delivery. At your peril, ignore this gifted all-rounder.
Cambridge Audio is most renowned for its stereo amplifiers, but they also create some superb DACs. The new DacMagic 200M is suitable for those who desire high-end sound without paying high-end rates. The sound quality is excellent: clear and realistic, with no noise and precise time. We believe it compares favorably to considerably more expensive DACs, such as the RME ADI-2 DAC FS mentioned above. There are convenient sample rate indicators, and the 200M is quite easy to operate. It’s one of the most straightforward desktop DACs on the market. In a matter of minutes, you’ll be up and running. As a result, it’s a good option for individuals who want superb sound without the hassle.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is plagued by two flaws. Both aren’t deal breakers, but they’re worth considering. To begin with, despite how simple the DAC is to use, it has a really bland look with little refinement or flare. The iFi Audio Zen DAC, seen below, is somewhat less expensive but appears to be far more fascinating. Second, the three filters available make absolutely no audible change to the sound—at least none that we could detect. There is also no explanation from the firm as to what they do, and the handbook makes no mention of them. We would have preferred to see them removed, possibly with a price drop. Overall, the DacMagic 200M has a lot to offer, but it isn’t the greatest we’ve seen.
iFi Zen DAC V2
- ✅ UPGRADE YOUR SYSTEM - With this state-of-the-art compact Digital...
- ✅ EASY CONNECTIVITY - Connect via USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible) input from...
- ✅ HIGH RESOLUTION AUDIO - Hear familiar songs in a whole new light with...
iFi is a British company that ranks with Schiit and JDS Labs in terms of manufacturing inexpensive DACs and headphone amplifiers that sound better than their pricing suggests.
The extremely acclaimed Zen DAC, which provides remarkable transparency, clarity, and power at an inexpensive price, has been revised by iFi in 2021. Instead of the original’s 8-Core chip, the Zen DAC V2 uses an XMOS 16-Core semiconductor to process audio data. It’s not simply a MQA Renderer like its predecessor, but also a MQA Decoder.
Aside from that, little has changed. It still has the matte black and silver housing with two Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs, which is uncommon for equipment at this price point. It keeps the outstanding TrueBass control, which modifies bass in the analog realm rather than using standard DSP.
The iFi Zen DAC, unlike the Schiit Modi 3+ and Topping E30, is a DAC/headphone amp, so you won’t need to buy a separate headphone amp. It does not, however, come with a 5V power supply, which you may want to purchase if you want to get clean power at high volume control without boosting the gain. When driving low-efficiency headphones like the Hifiman HE5 or Beyerdynamic DT 880, using power through USB is alright, but it’s a little underpowered.
FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier
- Easy to Operate Design: The refined E10K-TC is tiny enough to carry with...
- Impeccable XMOS Decoding: The E10K-TC comes with the flagship XMOS XUF208...
- Quality Chips to Delight your Ears: The DAC is the PCM5102, with...
The e10 USB DAC headphone amplifier is a USB C DAC by FiiO. I loved it a lot since it has a lot of fantastic characteristics, such as outstanding, solid build, a lot of versatility, and a lot of punch for a small DAC unit.
The LMH6643 buffer in the E10K DAC delivers excellent transient response; its performance is comparable to some of the most expensive DAC models on the market, with the main difference and biggest benefit being that it is incredibly affordable.
For many individuals, FiiO’s E10K is their preferred DAC for a variety of reasons. It sounds fantastic, it’s compact, and it comes with a lot of useful functions for the price. Despite being a low-cost digital-to-analog converter, it may easily match the performance of its more expensive competitors.
It’s suitable for both recreational and serious listening, as well as a variety of studio applications (track engineering, producing, mixing, etc.). There are no significant disadvantages or negatives to be concerned about, therefore I strongly advise you to give it a try.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I buy a standalone DAC or DAC/Headphone Amp?
A headphone amp is required if you’re wearing headphones. Although many DACs have one built in, you can purchase a separate headphone amp. Although a DAC/Headphone amp is more practical, a standalone DAC allows you to choose the headphone amp at your discretion. Be mindful that some of the less expensive DAC/Headphone amp combinations use amps with low output power, which are incapable of driving cans with high impedance and low efficiency.
Is a 32-bit/384kHz DAC always better than a 24-bit/192kHz one?
Individuals who are purchasing their first DAC frequently consider the maximum bit depth and sampling rate and believe the bigger the number, the better. Yet all that is being described here is the highest bit depth and sampling rate the DAC is capable of handling.
In practice, however, very few people have access to music files with such high sample rates and bit depth. CDs are typically 16-bit/44.1kHz. Typically, a recording studio will only record at 24-bit/96kHz (sometimes 24-bit/192kHz). Even then, it will still reach the user with a lesser bit-depth and sample rate. You see what I mean.
So, it doesn’t really matter to us whether or not our DAC can ‘handle’ these uncompressed audio files in practice. Instead, we should focus on how well a DAC converts a digital file (of any size; lossless or lossy) into an analogue signal that is rich in sonic dimension, clarity, precision, and other qualities.
How important is the DAC chip itself?
The real DAC chip included in every DAC performs the digital-to-analog conversion. Different sound characteristics emerge from the diverse ways that each chip processes the digital input and produces slightly different results. Some of them can’t handle audio with higher sampling rates. The chip itself, however, is merely a component of the DAC. The DAC’s analogue stage comes next, and it is equally as significant as the chip itself, if not more so.