In addition to being a private violin teacher and having a degree in music from USC, Alecia started writing music-related articles and product reviews six years ago and has enjoyed this experience greatly. She likes to learn new instruments and write new compositions in her free time.
Marcus has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Thanks to his knowledge, he actively helps musicians with technical problems, improving their audio quality and promoting their tracks so that thousands of listeners can enjoy really good music.
Last updated: September 16, 2023
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Just a few things in life can sweep us away into another time as music does. The nostalgia that it can bring is pretty tough to state. But if you can take full advantage of this power, you will have to invest in quality listening equipment.
If you have a pair of good-quality headphones, you need to upgrade your DAC. It is a device that helps you convert the digital signal to analog. The sole purpose of a DAC is to convert the binary signal from your computer or any other smart device into an analog signal that your headphones can interpret.
Therefore, the quality of the DAC device you are using is critical. And this is where this guide comes in. We have listed down some of the best DAC devices on the market and reviewed them in detail for your convenience.
So, scroll down to read all the details you need to find the best DAC device money can buy.
RME ADI-2 comes with a half 19-inch format factor that makes it compact. The company offers a great reference class conversion from SPDIF optical, SPDIF coaxial, and USB to mini-TRS, TRS, XLR, and RCA. This is a versatile DAC that provides both unbalanced and balanced analog I/Os, noiseless IEM output, powerful headphone output, hardware output 4-stage level control, SteadyClock FS, power supply external operation, and signal processing based on DSP.
It is developed by highly qualified and experienced RME engineers. They use the latest ADI-2 during the manufacture of the RME DAC that uses ESS’s ES9028Q2M for a specific circuit variant. This variant permits the chip to deliver professional-level performance. Additionally, this is an ideal converter for those who like in-ear-monitors for receiving the dynamic range of playback.
In our opinion, the RME ADI-2 is the most useful converter equipped with innovative features that make it the perfect centerpiece. It consists of compliant class USB compatibility with rates above 768 kHz, plus DSD playback.
The audio reference of this RME ADI-2 comes with a true dual-channel Full Duplex. This full-duplex mode makes it different from other available DAC. The mode offers an input S/PDIF signal, which can proceed via USB. It delivers complete DSP processing and signature transparent sound with crossfeed, 5-band parametric EQ, loudness, treble, bass, etc.
Furthermore, RME ADI-2 is the best DAC for PC because it works perfectly with desktops. When AutoDark mode becomes activated, the standby button, volume knob, function keys, and the display go off within 10 seconds of no operation.
What are our favorite features?
Comes with the latest MRC remote controller
More versatile DAC with less noise level
Consists of innovative features with professional quality
Gustard DAC-X16 is manufactured with multiple supported technologies. The company uses 2 ESS that upgraded the SABRE series double-channel fever audio, including DA chip ES9068AS. This chip comes with inbuilt Rendere hardware that performs plenty of renderer functions. It can directly process I2S and SPDIF input, a 1st-stage digital audio signal in decoded form.
In addition, this DA chip helps minimize interference of the external control signals when this Gustard DAC-X16 starts working. For that reason, you can experience the ideal playback sound quality. This decoder comes with Bluetooth connectivity that is perfect for your home. It is also accessible in black and white colors.
The company uses a CSR8675 chip that supports 5.0, APTX, SBC, AAC, and LDAC. Moreover, it is laid on a solid foundation that provides outstanding sound quality. You can also say that this is a completely balanced decoder. It supports multiple interfaces, including USB, 12S, COAX, OPT, BT, and AES as input. Plus, it offers 2 output modes like single-ended RCA output and XLR balanced input.
The company uses programmable CPLD chips during the construction of digital integrated circuits. This digital IC is constructed with clock management, Dop demodulation, the Depop PCM/DSD switch, digital 2nd-PLL shaping, and additional exclusive technologies. This combination makes the Gustard DAC-X16 different from other competitors’ DAC.
It doesn’t come with an HDMI interface. If the company also introduces the HDMI port, it will become a far better DAC than others. Apart from this, it offers an outstanding sound quality. The good thing is you can adjust the brightness according to our requirements.
What makes it special?
Minimize external signal interference
High-resolution decoder and awesome Bluetooth DAC
Constructs with exclusive technologies for brilliant sound quality
S.M.S.L M400 is constructed with an aluminum frame. The top of this DAC is made with glossy acrylic material. On the backside of the S.M.S.L M400, you will see a rich collection of digital inputs. These include HDMI, coaxial, optical, USB, and a Bluetooth antenna.
The company uses the flagship AK4499 DAC chip that delivers the audio industry’s greatest performance. The input USB uses the XMOS XU216 second generation that includes both native DSD and PCM with the highest sample rates and bt rates.
You can also record with this S.M.S.L M400 DAC. When analog sound is converted into a digital signal, blurring time occurs. Consequently, it supports MQA decoding that eliminates distortion and generates an accurate 3D field of sound.
It comes with Bluetooth compatibility, so you can connect your devices. It supports upgraded Bluetooth, including AAC, SBC, HD, and APTX. This supporting rate is the audio industry’s highest specification with 192 kHz or 24-bit UAT format. In addition, this is the best DAC for money, so suitable for both personal and studio usage.
Sometimes you can experience background noise and some cracking distortion. However, it’s our mistake in some cases, but this S.M.S.L M400 does not sound appropriate in most cases. Hence, the company uses the clock system with dual ultra-low Accusilicon phase for noise cancellation. Moreover, the dynamic range is more than 131dB, and the DNR value is above 131 dB.
What stands out?
Best high-performance Bluetooth DAC
Also supports 32-bit and native DSD
Comes with an HDMI interface
Flagship chips give you great sound quality
What cons did we manage to find?
Low sound quality due to crack distortion and background noise
Many users use digital devices or computers as their main music source, the Cambridge DecMagic100 is the best option to upgrade that. It will take sound from your desktop system and provide it to the amp with no loss of details like clarity and depth. You will get a premium audio system experience.
The company used a WM8742 by Wolfson DAC during its construction. The Cambridge DecMagic100 accepts playback of more than 24 bits or 192 kHz. And this profile of playback is categorized under the high-resolution and high-end digital files of audio.
Cambridge DecMagic100 is the best digital audio device. Many devices like PCs, TVs, and Blu-Ray players, have inbuilt DACs, but sometimes those devices could produce good sound quality. In addition, this product bypasses all the inferior processors and decodes the audio files digitally to provide a premium quality sound.
This is a full-featured DAC compared to other available converters on the market. It features audio USB input, optical input, and two coaxial inputs. You can connect more than four devices simultaneously with the Cambridge DecMagic100. You can easily control all the devices with the front panel. Another benefit of using this product is that we don’t need to worry about cables after connecting devices.
Cambridge DecMagic100 is a great DAC. It comes with a USB input that can handle more than 192kHz, plus two inputs, including S/P DIF and Toslink optical. However, it comes with only RCA as an output. The USB connection is asynchronous and offers a little jitter performance. Plus, the USB installation also needs some troubleshooting sometimes.
Why did it make our list?
Incredible selection due to great connectivity options.
Equipped with time filtration for astonishing audio.
Anagram technologies improve sound quality.
Reduces sound distortion due to 192kHz or 24-bit support
The company Audioengine has introduced an interesting way to people who like to listen to music since 2005. Audioengine D1 is one of the most popular devices that give you an inspiring experience related to music
Audioengine D1 comes with optical and USB audio inputs for all sources, including tablets, phones, and computers. It also supports line output as RCA, components related to an audiophile, and a compact front panel with volume control. In our opinion, Audioengine D1 is one of the great high-performance headphones. The company uses high-resolution audio ESS ES9018 for this DAC, driver ES9601C for headphones, and a USB CT7601 audio bridge.
The best thing about this product is that you can control volume accurately. This is because of its excellent front panel and inside construction. As a result, you will get a fully balanced and high-quality sound as an output. We got the perfect DAC because it is compatible with all platforms.
The Audioengine D1 device is portable, so you can conveniently carry it with you. Plus, you can easily move from one place to another. A combination of portability and multiple platform compatibility increases its performance. It is equipped with various powerful planar magnetic, IEM, audiophile-grade headphones with an open-back design.
You will love this high-end playback system for listening to our favorite music. You can directly connect it to your tablet or phone without any extra power source. This unit also consists of USB, audio optical input, and a variant RCA output. Another good thing is that this is ideal for game lovers because you can connect a gaming console with it.
Fiio BTR5-2021 is the best DAC and Bluetooth receiver capable of asynchronous audio decoding. This is constructed under audio USB class 2.0, so it can decode sampling at more than 384 kHz rate and native DSD. Additionally, it comes with two modes of USB DAC with driverless USB that is categorized as USB 1.0. But, USB 2.0 performs well than USB 1.0. Thus, you can connect your old USB 1.0 supported devices too.
The company uses premium quality DAC chips in it to enhance its performance. So, you can say that the ES9219C is the core chip in the Bluetooth receiver. This chip also increases the performance of decoding.
Fiio BTR5-2021 is a headphone amp that provides a wide range of connectivity. It is compatible with multiple devices. It is equipped with dual outputs and a type C USB connector, which gives a pure sound experience. Additionally, this wireless Bluetooth device supports multiple high-resolution formats, including aptX, SBC, AAc, aptX low latency, and aptX HD. The LDAC of this Bluetooth amp is more than 96kHz. Plus, you can connect it to your headphones with a wire. There is an AUX port that is also available, so you can connect it to your car to enjoy great sound quality music.
The company uses FPGA for clock management of the Fiio BTR5-2021 receiver precisely. This technique makes it unique as compared to other available wireless receivers. An FPGA transmits and receives both USB and Bluetooth audio signals digitally, plus does clock management. For that reason, the value of jitter dropped and signals became more stable to deliver improved sound quality.
Another good feature is that it comes with a 550mAh battery and lasts for 9 hours, plus it only requires 1.5 hours for fully charging. Apart from the battery, it also supports above to MQA 16 times decoding along with applicable apps of music. you will enjoy master-level and high-resolution sound quality. it is available in four single colors, so you can also choose the matching color with your smart gears. However, the coverage range should be a little bit wide, so users can connect their devices from some distance for enjoying premium quality music.
Why is it special?
Comes with upgraded Bluetooth that supports high-resolution formats
Also supports MQA for outstanding sound quality
Made with double crystal oscillators for precise audio reproduction
Uses less power and delivers noiseless sound
What are the flaws?
Cover a limited range, and then the connection becomes disconnected
Things to Consider
As mentioned above, different kinds of DACs available on the market. Moreover, these devices vary in terms of performance and price. Therefore, you need to buy the best option based on your needs, preferences, and budget. And this guide will help you in making the right decision.
What is a DAC?
DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter
Trusted SourceDigital-to-analog converter - WikipediaDACs are commonly used in music players to convert digital data streams into analog audio signals. They are also used in televisions and mobile phones to convert digital video data into analog video signals.
, and its only purpose is to convert binary signals in 1s and 0s into analog signals. Listening equipment like headphones, etc., doesn’t understand binary or digital signals.
These signals have to be converted into analog, so your listening devices can interpret them. And this is where a DAC comes into play. Now there are different types of DACs available on the market, and the quality of the output.
These DACs vary in terms of prices, features, and form factors. However, the best quality DACs can significantly improve your overall listening experience.
Features to Consider Before Buying a DAC
Different types of DAC devices are meant for different purposes. Therefore, you can choose budget DAC devices or premium quality options based on your needs.
Some people use DACs for their home studio or just for recreational purposes, while professionals use them for listening and knowing how all their notes are working in the final piece for recording or live performances.
Here are some important features that you must consider before buying a DAC that is just the right option for your purpose.
There are three different types of DACs; these are standalone DACs, headphone amplifiers, and portable DACs.
They are small USB boxes that come with a simple pair of analog outs. The USB connection here streams data and the voltage for the DAC circuit to work.
They are analog outputs for your speakers and can serve as separate outputs for your headphones. They also come with volume control for the preamp that you can control with a software program.
These are portable in size, and they connect with tablets and smartphones. They feature mini-USB type-C ports like S.M.S.L M400, including a headphone DAC amp.
A DAC comes with several binary or digital inputs and a single output. Generally, the number of binary inputs on a DAC is a power of 2.
For most desktop or laptop computers, you will have to connect a USB cable to any available port on a device. After that, you will have to connect that cable to your corresponding input on your DAC.
If you want to connect your headphones, you should go for USB DACs headphones with an inbuilt amp. You can connect your DAC to any device using the RAC output.
These devices come with USB cables that you can connect to your computer. You can also use coaxial and optical digital cables to connect them to your music player.
And if you are looking to connect it to your stereo, you will need a stereo mini, RCA, or XLR cables like in the case of Audioengine D1 or S.M.S.L. M400. But mostly, they are equipped with USB connectivity.
There are balanced and unbalanced connections, respectively, referred to as pro and semi-pro. They can have dramatic effects on the overall audio performance.
The effect happens once the sound has been converted, but the balanced outputs have impedance balancing of the connected cable. Therefore, it results in the improved transference of the overall audio signal.
Most DACs come with RCA outs (unbalanced analog), mini jack out (analog), ¼-inch jack (un/balanced analog), XLR out (analog), S/PDIF (digital), optical 3.5mm & TOSLINK (digital), XLR AES/EBU (digital), wordclock (coaxial), USB, (A, B, C, mini), thunderbolt (rare), Firewire.
Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate
As you pursue the best DACs to buy, you will encounter two sets of numbers when going through the specs. These are bit depth and sample rates often given in kilohertz or kHz. These numbers are the numerical measures of how much data a particular DAC can transmit.
Sample rate refers to the number of times recording something per second from incoming audio. A piece of recording equipment or program doesn’t record in a continuous stream and can only sample the signal that it receives.
The more times the device can do this, the better the quality. Furthermore, these samples have some info which is called bit depth. And the higher the bit depth in each remission means there will be more data per transmission, and the overall quality will be better, as in the case of RME ADI-2, Gustard DAC-X16, and S.M.S.L. M400.
Each song you record has its sample rate and bit depth, while the numbers given for a DAC, you are looking to buy the highest bit depth and sample rate that it can manage. And, of course, you want both these numbers to be as honest as possible for the DAC you are looking to buy.
MQA refers to Master Quality Authenticated, and it’s a file type unique to the Tidal streaming service. With this file type, you can conveniently stream a hi-res file on the internet, and you won’t have to compromise on quality. FiiO BTR5-2021 supports this file format.
The source file is pretty large, and it is folded by various programs to pack it into a small file for transmission over wifi. The concept here is that this MQA file (on Tidal) sounds better than other hi-res files (on Spotify, etc.).
However, there is an issue here, as YouTuber GoldenSound pointed out in this video. The conclusion from this video that we can draw is that MQA is not a lossless format, but it also adds to the noise and other artifacts.
Now, MQA is a separate entity as it is the company that licenses the MQA file format to Tidal. In response to the video, they contended that the MQA file format could only deal with natural sounds and not the sounds uploaded in the video by GoldenSound.
This response is useless as Tidal’s software program works pretty opaque. On the other hand, DSD and PCM are both open-source programs, and they both have been thoroughly tested. Any new file format should be subject to thorough testing if it needs to sell as better than the rest for millions of users. And its claims should be backed up with facts.
So, objectively speaking, MQA doesn’t stand its ground in top performance. The tidal service is excellent, but it should only work if you want to buy a DAC to work on MQA. Otherwise, you need to look elsewhere.
Ever since the hard evidence about MQA and its performance came out, DSD became the criteria to measure any DAC’s quality. It is an audiophile DAC and proves to be a yardstick for those who have hi-res libraries.
It refers to Direct Stream Digital, and it is an audio protocol called 1-bit SCD bitstream, a file for Super Audio CDs. This file format comes in several resolutions, and the highest resolution is DSD256 or Quad-DSD, which can snake audio at 11.2 MHz. It is four times the sample rate of SACD.
You will need a specialized player that can process DSD format, and your iTunes player will not get the job done here. For this, you can go for Audirvana Plus. Once you get it working, prepare yourself for a wide ride
R-2R vs. Sigma-Delta
Now, there are two different types of DAC conversion technologies; these are Sigma Delta and R-2R. R-2R uses a chair of resistors. Some of them have a value of R, and some have a value of 2R.
R refers to the number of resistors and the particular value. If you arrange them in a particular way, some resistors double their specific value. One such arrangement is the ladder arrangement, with 2R resistors working as rungs and Rs using side rails.
These resistors work together to translate voltages and create analog sounds from digital signals precisely. This specific method is extremely accurate and reduces any noise or digital artifacts to a minimum.
Still, there are not many DAC devices that use this. The R-2R circuit is expensive despite being simple in design and construction.
A more affordable option is the Sigma-Delta. They are also referred to as delta-sigma, and this name comes from a mathematical process used for conversion.
This construction doesn’t come with a neat line of resistors and has various components that work together to get the job done. This type of construction spreads the noise around and makes it much less audible. From there, the signal is sent to the delta-sigma modulator.
The modulator alters the oversampled audio into a bitstream with a high sample rate. And it further reduces the noise. After that, the signal goes through a low pass filter and a digital decimator for further processing to reduce noise.
The M400 features 2 channels and RCA and XLR analog outputs with USB, optical, coaxial, Bluetooth, and IIS digital inputs. It comes with a sample rate of 768 kHz and 32-bit depth.
Gustard DAC-X16 has 2 channels and a similar sample rate and bit depth but comes with 2 CLR and a dual RCA analog output. It features 1 coaxial, one optical, I2S, and AES digital input, and it runs on USB-B.
But the best DAC on the market today is the RME ADI-2 which has a similar number of channels, sample rate, and bit depth. But it comes with more connectivity options as you can connect it with your headphones apart from the conventional analog outputs and digital inputs. And that is why it wins our Editor’s Choice Award.
Digital-to-analog converter - Wikipedia
DACs are commonly used in music players to convert digital data streams into analog audio signals. They are also used in televisions and mobile phones to convert digital video data into analog video signals.