The Best DAC Under $100 for Audiophiles on a Budget
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A high-quality DAC for a budget less than $100? What used to be a pipe dream is now a reality. DAC prices have dropped sharply in the last decade and audiophile-grade equipment can now be had for cheap, as this roundup of the best DAC under $100 shows.
I blame the iPod.
No, seriously. Before the iPod, and later, the iPhone, DACs (Digital Audio Converters) used to be clunky, ginormous monstrosities that would take up entire shelves and would cost an arm and two legs. You’d sit down in your best chair with a pair of $600 headphones with coiled cables to use them. And you’d probably sip cognac while doing it.
The entire audiophile culture changed with the iPod. Suddenly, everyone was listening to music all the time. And eventually, they started demanding better sound quality than what Apple could offer.
So a bunch of manufacturers came up with portable DACs that could fit inside your pocket and draw power from your phone’s USB port. They used cheaper components but the audio quality was still miles better than stock.
The result is a thriving market for DACs all available at budget prices. From desktop DACs the size of a small paperback to tiny mobile-friendly DACs you can plop into your pocket, there is a unit that fits every need.
In this article, I’ll look at the best DAC under $100 you can buy right now.
The AudioQuest DragonFly is a DAC and headphone amp that comes in a simple design and goes at a very cheap price.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is quite different from the DragonFly Red. The DragonFly Black works quite superbly with easier-to-drive headphones. It suits headphones that do not require a lot of power since it has “just” a 1.2 V output.
It comes in a black metal casing. There are no buttons or switches on the device. Rather, on one end of the DAC is a gold-plated USB port, and on the other end, there is a 3.5 mm headphone jack. There is an LED indicator that shows the sampling rate of the DAC.
The metal housing features a rubber-like paint. Although this doesn’t impinge on the sound quality form the DAC, I was disappointed that the paint applied, chips quite easily. For extra protection and portability, it comes with a protective sleeve.
It comes with a USB extender cable. I found this useful, especially when using it on my laptop. It ensured that the DAC does not block any extra USB ports on the laptop.
When I paired this DAC with my iPhone, it provided pristine, clear sound. The output was simply great. I am usually picky with my sound quality, and with this DAC, I am pleased to announce that it works just as advertised by the manufacturer.
I preferred it greatly to my iPhone’s Lightning Adapter. When I used the DAC with more powerful headphones like my Sennheisers, it sounded incredible. However, this causes a drain on your battery.
What we don’t like
Although an excellent DAC, it comes with its fair share of flaws. For one, since it isn’t an MFi device, I observed that there is no way to control tracks via the device. I also noticed that unplugging my headphones cut out the audio and I had to remove and re-insert the device before I could resume my music.
Best Entry-Level DAC: Neoteck Headphone Amplifier
- 3.5 mm AUX I/O
- 2000mAH battery
- Compatible with various devices
- 8.3V/1A Internal Voltage
This DAC comes at a very cheap price, which makes it attractive for those on a budget. The design, however, gives little indication of the price. It looks really good. It has a metal housing that feels really nice. It is also quite portable as it can be slipped into your back pocket or that little pocket in the front of your jeans.
Noise cancellation on this amp is quite good, although if you use it while charging, you are liable to hear some static.
It is relatively powerful and can be used for a number of powerful headphones without any issues. It gives you 6 powers of runtime, which is paltry compared with the FiiO A3 Portable, but it charges in about an hour.
What we don’t like
The 3.5 mm cable that is attached with this device is quite poor. I had to use another cable and dispose of the garbage the manufacturer provided.
Best Desktop DAC: SMSL M100
- DAC AK4452 Chip
- 44.1/48 kHz frequency
- 32-bit/ 768 kHz signal support
- MELF resistors
The SMSL M100 has a quite exceptional build. The design is quite fresh. You can get the DAC in black or blue hues. The one I tested came in black and looked really sleek. It is arguably the best-looking of the DACs I tested. It comes with a display that shows information about sample rate and the quality of the file being played.
Input noise is quite low on this device. I loved the audio output. The sound is balanced, although I feel it is partial towards high frequency. The Soundstage is wide and good. Instrument sounds did not sound muddled but clean and crisp.
While the size and dimensions make it unsuitable for carrying around anywhere, it’s a great option for desktop users. You also get multiple ports, including coaxial ports. Perfect if you want to listen through speakers and not just your headphones.
What we don’t like
It doesn’t have a power adapter included which is honestly baffling. I also found the sound too analytical for my tastes.
Best USB-C DAC (for Phones): HIDIZS Portable Amplifier
- USB Type-C dongle
- Plug and Play design
- Compatible with all major OS
- 24-BIT/192 kHz Hi-res output
Although wireless headphones and Airpods are all the rage now, for many of us, the headphones we have all end in a 3.5 mm connector. If you are looking to improve the sound quality from your headphones, the DAC from a rather obscure company is an impressive and cheap solution.
The HIDIZS Portable Headphone Amplifier has a metal exterior. The metal construction is coupled with a braided cord that delivers overall durability. It is very tiny and can fit into your pocket very easily. For safekeeping, it comes with a case. Although it is a Type-C dongle, it comes with a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter. Therefore you can use it with computers and phones that haven’t upgraded to the latest USB connections.
During use, I tested it with my iPhone and my Samsung phone. It connected seamlessly with the different OS. I also used it on my MacBook without issues. The manufacturer claims it is compatible with Windows laptops, and I expect this to be true.
The HIDIZS Portable Headphone Amplifier does its job of amplifying sound very well. It does not modify or mess with your music. All the frequencies here are accurately transmitted. I observed that a modification it made is increased volume, which for me is a good thing. Using this DAC made my music louder, and with a pair of quality headphones, even the most critical of audiophiles will be left impressed.
All of these features and capabilities come at a pretty cheap price. It is so good; it feels too good to be true. Even high sample-rate digital file are rendered perfectly on this DAC.
What we don’t like
You can set the HIDIZS Portable Headphone Amplifier to run in different modes. However, if you want to switch modes, you have to download from the HIDIZS website and delete the previous mode. This is quite unnecessary, in my opinion.
Best for iPhone: FiiO i1
- MFi standard lightning plug
- 3.5 mm output interface
- 16-320 Ohms driveability
- USB Power supply
- Apple Compatible
Unlike some of the other DACs on this list, the FiiO i1 is mainly for Apple devices. As a result, it has a MFi Apple class-compliant lightning plug. The cable is 80 cm in length. The body of the DAC itself is about 45mm. I love the compact design of this DAC. It fit seamlessly with my phone, and I didn’t have any connection issues even with my phone case.
The DAC comes in a metal alloy casing. This casing is lightweight and feels durable. And it should! It is where the microphone, volume, 3.5 mm connector are located.
During testing, I observed that the controls are easy to use. They are not hard to operate. It is somewhat similar to that found on Apple earphones. It has a rocker switch by which you can control the volume, control playback, and even activate the Virtual Assistant on your device.
I found this DAC a much better alternative to the dongle provided by Apple. It allows you to keep your favorite headphones despite the new trend of smartphones without earphone connectors.
It is plug and play. Therefore, there is no need to install any applications or software before using it on your device. As the device uses your phone’s battery, it is nice to know that it has a power management system.
It can put itself in a low power mode whenever it is not in use.
The sound is quite decent, although it doesn’t sound a great deal better than the dongles sold by Apple. The low output impedance on the i1 makes it great for low impedance earphones. I didn’t hear any hiss on my headphones while using this DAC.
The DAC has quite aggressive detailing, and the Soundstage is wider and more separated than the stock Apple dongle.
What we don’t like
Cable management and the amplification stage could be better than what it offers.
Best DSD DAC: TOPPING D10
- Exchangeable OP
- Supports DSD256/ 32-bit
- Comes with Thesycon driver
The TOPPING D10 is compatible with quite a wide variety of devices. It has a display, which is a very welcome addition, although it adds to the size. The display shows the type of file playing and its qualities.
I like the fact that it comes with a replaceable op-amps socket. Thus, if you want to change the sound signature, all you have to do is replace it with a different op-amp.
It significantly improved the sound from my phone. The linearity on this baby is superb, and the frequency response is flat.
What we don’t like
There are popping and cracking sounds. I also noticed that the Soundstage is a tad small.
Best Battery-Powered DAC: FiiO A3
- Gain switch
- 1400mAh battery
- 16 – 150 Ohms headphone impedance
- OPA1642 preamp
The FiiO A3 is the second DAC from FiiO on our list of the best DAC under $100, and it is arguably the sleekest and best looking of the bunch. It comes in an attractive and portable design. It can slip into your pockets and other small places with ease.
When I got this out of the box, I fell in love with the build quality. It has an aluminum-alloy casing that makes it look very stylish. It looks nothing like most DACs in its price range and even looks better than some other more expensive models.
It comes with controls on the casing. There is a volume control dial, gain adjustment switch, bass, and boost function switch.
Connectivity is also provided for. You have the USB jack at the rear and a pair of 3.5 mm audio jacks.
Battery life is great on this bad boy. No matter the device you pair it with, you can rest assured that you will get more than 15 hours of use. Therefore, you can use it throughout the day (except you have your headphones plugged in for more than 16hours, which would be concerning).
As for sound quality, I loved it! The output from this DAC is so clean and crisp. You do not have to worry about any modification to the sound by the amp. Your music retains its tone and essential features.
Some assume the bass boost simply increases the volume of the music, but do not be fooled, using the bass boost simply takes your music to a whole other level.
What we don’t like
There is almost no flaw to be found here. From the design to the sound, everything is really great. If I were to nit-pick, however, I’d say the length of charging to 100% is too long.
Over to You
There you have it – our picks for the best DAC under $100 you can buy right now. Not all of these will be suitable for every user, but if you go by the categories above, you’ll find something that fits your needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Need to learn more about DACs and our list of the best budget options? Read the buying guide here
- Want headphones to accompany your new DAC? Our picks of the best studio headphones can be found here.