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Drastically improve your listening experience with our pick of the best DAC for different budgets and needs.
Our Top Picks
Best budget: Schiit Modi 3
“Great audio quality at a reasonable price tag makes the Modi 3 a great beginner DAC”
Best for laptops: FiiO K3
“Small size, handy controls and markedly improved audio quality over default laptop sound”
Best for gaming: Schiit Hel
“A handy microphone input and large control knob make this Schitt ideal for gamers”
Most portable: AudioQuest – DragonFly Red
“This pocket-sized beast makes $500 phones feel like full-fledged audiophile setups”
Best sound quality: Topping DX7 Pro
“Pricey, but if sheer sound quality is your top priority, you'll love the DX7”
Before we dive into our detailed reviews of the best DACs, we need to answer a very important question: do you really need a DAC?
If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have emphatically said “yes”.
You see, a decade back, the both the internal audio components in most motherboards and the algorithms used for decoding and converting digital audio used to be poor quality. Windows computers were particularly notorious for this. If you bought a budget laptop (say under $500), it was practically guaranteed that your default audio would have high latency and inaccurate digital-to-audio conversion.
But that has changed in the last few years. Windows has become increasingly better at decoding digital audio. The quality of components, especially on higher-end laptops (especially ultrabooks) is increasingly better. So much so that more and more DJs and producers are now switching to Windows from Mac.
Given the increasingly better quality of components and conversion algorithms, it is safe to say that a majority of listeners won't find any use for a DAC.
If all you want to do is listen to a few songs casually at low volumes, a DAC would be a waste of money for you.
However, if you care about audio quality, need stronger clarity and amplification, and own headphones/speakers that can do a DAC justice, then you will see a definite improvement in your listening experience with a DAC. The difference is particularly marked on phones and older/cheaper laptops.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let's do a deep dive into the world of DACs and find the best DAC for your specific budget and needs.
The Best DAC for Every Budget
Let's take a closer look at our favorite DACs for different budgets and needs in 2020.
Schiit Modi 3
The Modi 3 is not the best DAC as far as audio quality is concerned. Neither is the most portable unit on this list. What it has going in its favor, however, is a great price tag, acceptably robust sound quality, and durable internals that will last for years, if not decades. For the price, this is arguably the best value DAC on the market currently.
The Schiit Audio Modi 3 is a great converter made in the USA at the cost of a dinner for two. Asides from its exceptional quality/price ratio, the DAC outperforms its competition. Modi 3 has the classic set of three inputs: Coax, Toslink, and USB port.
Its beating heart is the AK4490 converter used in very expensive DACs. It's in good company with a firmware and a set of filters written by Schiit Audio for the occasion.
The Schiit Audio Modi 3 has no section dedicated to headphone amplification and therefore no volume knob; if you need this functionality, you just have to go for something like the Magni headphone amp, which is the same price as the converter.
The Modi has been designed by Schiit with the same idea they had in mind when they produced their amplifier, to offer an extremely good product at a competitive price.
The Modi was presented together with the Magni amplifier to offer a good all-round pair. But they are affordable for all budgets. It is based on the AKM4396 conversion chip and an asynchronous USB input with a C-Media CM663 chip. It can work with 24-bit and 96 kHz files (including 88.2 kHz), although the chip could work up to 192 kHz natively. But it has been limited to allow driverless operation on any PC.
The construction of the Modi, while being economical, is of a very high standard. The case is made up of two parts, one in satin aluminum with the 4 visible fixing screws and the lower part is dark gray sheet metal. The whole is very solid to the touch without any creaking, and it is very pleasing to the eye.
The case is really tiny and measures 12.7 × 3.2 × 8.9 cm (WxHxD) despite weighing 0.5 Kg. A white LED on the front indicates the connection and operation of the DAC.
The Modi is very minimalistic in design. On the back, you can find only the USB input also used for the power supply.
One feature surprises me, given the price. The USB power supply is galvanically isolated and leads to the elimination of any disturbances coming from poor quality PC power supplies. This is a problem that also afflicts more expensive DACs, such as the V DAC II.
Modi is totally plug & play. It works with any operating system without the need for any driver. In the package, you will find the DAC, 4 rubber feet to glue under the DAC, and the manual.
What I don't like
The Schiit Modi 3 has no section dedicated to headphone amplification and therefore no volume knob.
Recommended for: If you need a DAC for your desktop/laptop and are working with a fixed budget, look no further than the Modi 3. It lacks a few crucial features – notably a volume knob – but the robust build quality and acceptably strong audio performance make this one of the best value-for-money deals right now.
Best for Gaming: Schiit Hel
The term gaming DAC/amp paints a certain type of picture but don't let that fool you. Now retailing for a bit over 200 price, the Hel is built tough. It has a great aesthetic and some serious power output. We're looking at a frequency response of 20 Hertz to 20 kilohertz with 1000 watts of power.
The unit has the ability to control powered speakers using the volume knob. It has separate inputs for power.
The Hel needs both USB connections in place. It is not going to run just off bus power. It requires two USBs all the time because it needs a constant power supply. The DAC also has a quarter-inch out on the front panel as well as a low gain/high gain switch for headphones. Low gain is there to give you a really quiet operation. You've also got a switch for input select to toggle between the USB and a 3.5-millimeter aux input on the rear. Also on the front panel is a 3.5 millimeter Jack.
Something I rarely see and absolutely love is the possibility of a physical mic level adjustment with a nice smooth pot. This means if you're coming in a little hot or low, you don't have to go back to your system settings in Windows to experiment with an ideal mic level. This is locked at 24-bit 48 kilohertz which I also rarely see. I love the physical implementation of the dial just on the front of the Hel.
What I don't like
The Hel sounds pretty clear and detailed, maybe not as full as I would like it. And there is some noise on the input. It's weird when you plug this thing in for the first time as it defaults the Windows microphone level to 54.
Recommended for: While the Schiit Hel would work well for most users, I particularly recommend it for gamers since it has a mic input built in. If you plan to play online or stream on Twitch, you'll love the audio quality and robust set of features on the Hel.
Best for Laptops: FiiO K3
The FiiO K3 is FiiO's new miniature DAC and amplifier, with very compact dimensions and gigantic performance. This K3 is designed to get the most out of the sound of the PC and increase the power of your music, considerably. Thus, you can experience every detail of your favorite music without compromise.
With this, the new FiiO lands on the market to be the most portable, compact, and high-performance DAC/Amp in its range. Your sound will never be the same.
The FiiO K3 includes an XMOS USB receiver chip which can decode 384kHz/32-bit PCM as well as native DSD, components typical of higher-end devices. Meanwhile, the K3 has two crystal oscillators. Each of these ensures that all digital audio signal you feed on the DAC is very accurate for better, sharper sound quality.
To be able to take advantage of all the benefits of this DAC, you will only have to connect the K3 to your PC via USB. You'll be able to enjoy the music as it was conceived by the artist during the recording. The internal design of the FiiO K3 consists of two main layers that operate together in perfect harmony. Digital processing is done through its high-performance AKM AK4452 DAC, with 32-bit Velvet Sound technology. This FiiO K3 integrates an OPA926 that features low distortion and noise and high performance. Thus, the K3 offers effortless high-resolution sound, delivering up to 320W of power at 16 Ohms per balanced output.
With the K3 and its USB type-C, you will achieve the most stable connection. This USB port is surge protected and incorporates a double filter circuit to ensure the stability of the power supply. Thus, all the signal transmissions that occur in the FiiO K3 will become a true symphony for your ears.
The specs are advanced enough to let you hear the difference in sound quality. And the price tag is low enough that you don't have to ruin your wallet.
The FiiO K3 digital audio converter is equipped with a USB Type C input, to be connected to the computer. If you are used to the sound of your PC's internal sound card, you will hear the difference.
It includes a 3.5mm mini-jack output, 2.5mm balanced output, and optical and coaxial digital outputs. There's a volume pot on the front. The design is very modern and clean, with the portability factor playing to its advantage.
What I don't like
The blue LED is unbelievably bright and can hurt your eyes when you look into it. It's, even more, worse knowing that it's a desktop DAC with the LED designed to stare at you. The design doesn't even really allow it to be blocked by a tape.
Recommended for: If you are looking for yourfirst budget USB DAC with a headphone amplifier for your laptop, this is the model for you. Through its coaxial and optical digital outputs, you can connect the FiiO K3 to laptops, speaker systems, home theater, stationary amplifiers, etc. For laptop users, this is the best DAC around given the price tag.
Best for Beginner Audiophiles: Mayflower Electronics Objective ODAC
Are you the kind of person that fancies yourself as an audiophile? Have you recently bought yourself a pair of headphones that just don't really seem to be cutting it? Well, if you're hooking up those headphones to something like an iPhone or an iPad or even maybe the headphone jack on your computer, chances are you just may not be getting nice clean power to those headphones.
So, what do you do to get that nice, crisp, clean sound? Well, you should consider taking a look at the Mayflower Objective 2 ODAC.
The amplifier is actually built by hand by the manufacturer. It has a volume knob that is made of aluminum. The power plug is on the back instead of the front. You have a power switch. If you have your output, you can also choose to use an analog input instead of the USB if you want. It is 12 to 20 volts AC input and it does come with the power brick.
Included are a heavy-duty USB cable and very heavy-duty sticky rubber feet. The DAC does not slide on the desk. Rather, it's very stuck. The DAC is suitable for 150-ohm headphones which have very high resistance and are power-hungry.
The sound quality is amazing because it has a built-in ODAC. The noise floor on this is really really low. The quality of this “really” made me enjoy gaming and playing music again. It will make you want to listen to music every time because of the beautifully clean sound it creates. The DAC recreates all of the frequency ranges of the input coming in. It amplifies the sound beautifully – no static, no distortion.
What I don't like
For the level of users, it is directed at, I think it is a bit too expensive.
Recommended for: If you are a starting audiophile and you need the best DAC or even a headphone amplifier, consider this unit from Mayflower. It significantly cleans up the audio signal and gives you a real taste of what true audiophile-tier gear is capable of.
Best for Phones: AudioQuest – DragonFly Red
With this stick, we are facing an incredible miniaturization. The DragonFly Red from AudioQuest is a digital/analog converter, plus a high-performance computer and an amplifier. The area of application is stately. When we remove the capsule at the front, the familiar USB connector smiles at us.
The DragonFly fits with an adapter on a smartphone or directly on the laptop or fixed computer. A cable from USB-C to a mini socket is included in the package. Android and iPhone users would have to get an adapter for little money.
Audioquest has not only invested years in development but has also bought the best chips. This DAC incorporates an ESS ES9038Q2M chip. It's quite new and almost limitless.
The overall architecture was designed to be highly audiophile. This means there is no target for nasty interference signals such as Bluetooth or WLAN. Cell phone rays are also blocked.
The initial installation will cost you neither sweat nor time. Simply plug it in, possibly select the sound target in the software and listen. Then plug it into the iPhone. It is efficient, smart, and effective.
How does the sound impression last? The bass suddenly had pressure and contour. Very tidy, but never tough.
The price is fair, almost too low for profit. It costs less than the Mayflower Objective2. Audioquest stows it in half a gum box. This alone is worth all honors. In addition to the sound output, everything becomes more concrete, stronger in the panorama, and in the colors.
With a red finished in gold lettering, with a protective endcap, and a leatherette pouch, it is never aggressive, but audiophile-class. This is one of the most beautiful miniaturizations we have seen in years.
What I don't like
There is a variety of this series. When you make a comparison, you'll see that the red is more expensive, unjustifiably.
Recommended for: The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red is very portable and suitable for on-the-job use. The included travel pouch makes this even easier. If you want a small DAC that works well with both Android and Apple phones, the Dragonfly Red is the best DAC on the market currently.
Best Sound Quality: Topping DX7 Pro
The Topping DX7 version is currently one of the latest and most expensive converters from Topping. It uses a CSR8675 chipset which supports Bluetooth 5.0.
A silver infrared remote control is optionally available. At this point, I will spare myself the need to provide further technical data, which all read fantastic, but are hardly relevant for the listening experience.
The signal-to-noise ratio of around 130 dB and the distortion factor far surpasses the values of a conventional CD player. In addition to the XLR connections on the back, the device even has an S-EBU input, to which an external clock can also be connected.
The box is phenomenal and comparatively huge. It is pitch black and protects the device with a foam lining. The power cord and instructions are included; the cinch sockets have two plastic plugs. An IEC cable is also included, as well as an operating manual and a USB cable.
The front side houses a 6.35-millimeter jack socket. An adapter to a small jack is included, and a 4-pin XLR socket for balanced headphone cables. With closed headphones, the result of the channel separation should work better anyway due to the partitioning. Jack sockets are rather unsuitable anyway.
A white OLED display is embedded in the center, the luminosity of which could have been a bit stronger in the brightest setting. Operation is via a gridded aluminum rotary wheel, which is roughly reminiscent of the VFO of an amateur radio transceiver.
There is a mechanical on/off switch next to the mains connection socket. The housing consists of solid aluminum plates, which is why the silver color variant looks more elegant.
The optional remote control offers various operating options such as source selection and volume control. Depending on the area of application, for example, as a hi-fi pre-stage, there is the option of regulating the analog outputs on the rear.
The Topping DX7 provides an unbelievably great potential for a comparatively manageable purchase price without any surprises. Fully symmetrical structure, corresponding outputs, several digital interfaces, easy handling, and all of this packaged in an elegant, neatly processed aluminum housing.
What I don't like
If you use it as a preamp, you have to be careful. Press the wrong button and the sound will suddenly come out of the speakers with full force.
Recommended for: The DAC/amp is a feature-rich and high-end product that produces great sound quality. It is best recommended for demanding listeners who want the best DAC with zero compromises. It's expensive, but the performance is worth it.
Over to You
Picking the best DAC isn't easy – you have to factor in price, performance, and portability. Hopefully, this list will help you zero-in on the best gear for your needs.
For more suggestions and recommendations, email us using this contact form.
Check our other recommendations
- On a budget? Check out our pick of the best budget DACs
- Just starting your audiophile journey? Choose from these DACs under $100
- Instead of a DAC, try using one of these audio interfaces instead
- November 3, 2020: Article first published