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A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) can greatly improve the quality of any audio system. Even in its most basic form, it will add clarity, volume, and crispness to any digital audio signal. We'll take a closer look at the top options on the market right now and help you choose the best USB DAC for your needs.
AudioQuest DragonFly Red
- Value for money
- Tiny size, tons of power
- Warm but clear sound
- Perfect size
- Handy gain dial
- Richer than onboard sound
DROP Liquid Carbon X
- Stunning design
- Pristine audio
- Top-shelf internals
What's the easiest way to add oomph, panache and crispness to your audio?
A DAC (Digital-to-Audio Converter), of course!
A better DAC adds much needed clarity, firmness, and crispness to your audio output. An external DAC bypasses your computer's onboard audio conversion process, rendering the signal with much greater accuracy. As a result, the sound that you hear through a DAC is sharper and clearer than whatever your computer (or mobile device) onboard audio can throw up.
While DACs can use a number of input formats, we prefer – and recommend – USB DACs for tons of reasons. For one, USB mitigates the need for external power – a USB DAC can draw power from the computer itself. And two, USB, by default, is a high bandwidth protocol. This is perfect when you're processing tons of information, such as a large audio file.
USB DACs are ideal for desktop/laptop computers. Depending on the size, they're also a good option for smartphones and other mobile devices.
This guide will help you find the best USB DAC for your needs. We'll look at some of the top options on the market and help you buy the one that suits your budget, needs, and existing hardware.
A Quick Overview of Digital-to-Analog Converters
As much as I didn't want to cover the basics here (we've done that in our budget DAC buying guide), I get a lot of questions from readers trying to understand how DACs work. And since we're exclusively covering USB DACs in this guide, I figure this is as good a place as any to talk about the basics.
Everything that happens on a computer is digital. When you have a sound file on your computer, you essentially have a digital file – a collection of 1's and 0's (i.e. binary).
Human ears, of course, can't hear digital files. To transform these digital collection of 1's and 0's into something you can hear, you first need to convert the digital file to analog, i.e. a sound wave.
The process of converting digital files to analog is handled by your computer's onboard chip. It turns digital audio to audible-to-human analog files and sends it to an amplifier which boosts the strength of the signal. The amplifier then sends it to a listening device – such as speakers or headphones – and you get to hear that magical thing – sound!
Now every modern computer is entirely capable of handling this entire conversion-to-amplification process by itself. But this onboard hardware is “generalist” in nature. It is meant to handle various computing tasks, not just digital-to-analog conversion or amplification.
The more you delegate all these tasks to external hardware, the better your eventual sound quality. Add an external DAC – with hardware dedicated to audio conversion – and your resulting audio will be cleaner and brighter. Throw in an external amplifier and the signal will be stronger than whatever your computer's onboard chip can pull off.
Think of it as a bunch of specialists doing what they're designed to do vs. a generalist (i.e. your computer) doing what it has to do.
In general, the more you delegate the entire audio signal chain to specialist hardware (external DAC, external amplifier, specialized headphones/speakers), the better the eventual audio quality.
So when you buy a DAC, you're essentially buying hardware that is built specifically to convert digital audio to analog formats. Consequently, the conversion process is tighter and more accurate, resulting in better audio quality.
The better the DAC's onboard chip and conversion algorithm, the better the final audio quality.
Keeping that in mind, let's take a closer look at the best USB DACs you can buy right now.
The Best USB DAC in 2020
Based on their price and real-world performance, these are the best USB DACs to buy right now:
The Audio Quest Dragon Fly is often mentioned in reviews and discussions among users as arguably the best USB DAC that money can buy on the market. It is very portable and comes with several excellent features that make it a wonderful value buy.
Most sound devices on the market today come with low quality and underpowered sound cards that do not bring out the best from your music files. If you have a computer, smartphone, or tablet and you use these in playing music, you will need a digital to analogue converter. Hence, your best bet is USB DACs.
The earliest versions of this product were quite bulky and not very easy to take around. However, with the world’s focus on creating smaller and smaller devices, it is not surprising that the latest model from Audio Quest is a portable product. Due to its size and the new technologies it uses, this product is not as power-hungry as the former versions. Instead of consuming plenty of power, it is a compatible DAC that is as efficient as possible.
The design is quite appealing, as it features a USB extender cable. I found this cable to be especially handy since the DAC itself prevents you from connecting anything to adjoining USB ports.
It is portable and lightweight, weighing just 0.77 ounces. To aid in safekeeping and portability, it features a carry case.
Performance is the main appeal of this product. From my testing, I observed that the sound produced is rich, clear and excellent when paired with your tablets, phones, computers, and even TVs.
The main reason why it sounds so good is the 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip. This chip comes in very handy and ensures that you will receive any software updates as soon as they are available.
It might be small, but it is quite powerful. You will have a good time powering your devices, from desktop speakers to headphones and high impedance headphones.
While at first glance, it might seem underpowered, you will be surprised by the impressive sound you will get from this convenient and portable device.
What I don’t like:
Well, performance-wise, there is almost no single issue with this unit. One issue, however, is that you will require an adapter for handheld devices. The minor problem is that the red finish is not durable and chips quite easily.
Best Budget USB DAC: AIMPIRE AD10
- 16-32 bit / 44.1 – 383kHz
- Sampling rate indicator
- OP Amp socket
This excellent DAC is designed with features that can give even more expensive options on the market a run for their money. In the box, you will find the ESS ES9018K2M, which delivers more than decent performance. ESS chips, particularly those in the K2M line, are mainly designed to be used with mobile devices.
Therefore, this unit is great for mobile devices but is expected to struggle with high powered options. However, this particular chip used in the AD10 offers better performance than several other options in the same line of products.
In fact, you can use it as your desktop DAC. While it can be used as such, it comes in a small size that I found quite appealing. It isn’t as small as our top pick above, but it comes in a size small enough to fit in the hand. Therefore, you will discover that it can be used in a small space without taking up needed space. You can place it anywhere on your table without any hassles.
A budget option, you will be forgiven for thinking that this product has poor mechanical processing. During my testing, however, I found the processing to be rather efficient. Despite the relatively low price, it is built to last. It has the whole case made of quality aluminium. Therefore, it will last for a relatively long time. Its appearance is sturdy and looks good on any surface you choose to place it on.
The front panel of this unit comes with a screen that shows the sampling rate of your music. I found the display to be quite large and clear. The rear panel consists of a single mini USB input signal. You will also find an Optical port, Coaxial port and a pair of RCA ports.
Internally, this budget product is quite powerful, coming with some really impressive decoding hardware. As earlier mentioned, the ESS ES9018K2M chip enhances the overall performance.
One really impressive feature that I discovered while using this product is that it does not require a separate source before you can use it. The power comes, not from batteries either, but from the USB port at the rear.
Performance-wise, it is quite decent. It reproduces sine waves that are very clear and rounded. I did not discover any distortion even at low volume. It is a really good DAC that makes me wonder how the manufacturer managed to produce such a product at a low price.
Installation is straightforward, especially for folks with new Windows versions.
What I don't like
I would love to say I loved everything about this unit. It is really almost as close as you can get to a high performance option without spending plenty of money. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that I wished it has a better display.
Best Desktop USB DAC: Audioengine D1
- 24-bit DAC
- IOS and Android compatible
- 2 foot cable
- 3-year warranty
It can be a hard task choosing the best desktop DAC since there are quite a number of good options on the market right now, but the Audioengine D1 is definitely up there among the best options that you can find right now.
During my testing, I found it to be nearly perfect, especially when using it with a computer. Although it is a top quality desktop DAC, it can also be used for other products, ranging from TVs, phones, consoles, and similar gadgets. From my experience, it is mainly great as a desktop DAC because of the impressive build and design.
Like most Audioengine products on the market, this unit comes in a plain, black design that is simple, yet classy. The compact design means that it can be used on a small table without taking up plenty of space.
It provides connections that you would only find on some high-end devices too.
Furthermore, it is especially suited to act as a desktop DAC because it works excellently with PCs and Macs without any extra drivers required on the computer. What is more, it features a 2m USB cable.
Sound quality is truly amazing with this product. The optical input here makes your music sound so refined and clear. When it receives high resolution sounds, the quality it delivers is balanced and very informative.
I can describe it by saying it delivers a refined sound and very little hardness.
What I don't like
Well, as impressive as this product is, it comes with downsides that knock it down a peg or two. It doesn’t have a rhythmic fluidity that I like, and it suffers from a degree of imprecision.
Best Bluetooth USB DAC: Topping MX3 DAC
- Bluetooth receiver
- 257 MW output power
- 20-200 kHz frequency response
I would never recommend Bluetooth as a format for any DAC – despite advancements in Bluetooth 5.0, the bandwidth is still too low for accurate sound information.
But the lure of going wireless is too strong for some. If you fall into this camp, this unit from Topping is the best you can get – wireless audio that's far better than your computer/smartphone's stock sound.
The MX3 DAC is a small, compact and very affordable USB DAC and desktop amp with Bluetooth connectivity and other nice features.
Although the packaging isn’t really appealing, especially when compared to other options, it comes with several accessories that you will not find in other rivals. Some of the accessories in the package include an AC adapter, one AC and USB cable, an IR Blaster, Bluetooth antenna, batteries, NFC tag, and several connector caps.
The unit itself comes in a better looking design than what I am used to from Topping. It feels compact and will take up very little space on your table. It is well built and feels durable and lightweight. It features a big screen that provides plenty of information.
Operation and control is relatively straightforward. You get a knob that controls all the main operations of the unit. It can be used in different settings and can turn the unit off and on, switch modes, control volume, and more.
The IR blaster provides more operation options. The IR remote can control many things, ranging from skipping songs to controlling bass and brightness. It isn’t a bus-powered option but is powered via the PSU that provides 24V and 3.75A.
Due to the USB connection, this unit is compatible with different operating systems and devices.
Sound is my main concern, and while the specifications make it seem like just an average unit, real-life testing reveals that it is so much better than other Bluetooth DACs out there. It doesn’t distort sound, and it shows an impressive flat frequency response. The bass and treble control is well implemented on this unit and delivers great sound.
What I don't like
I noticed that this unit does not offer as much I/O ports as other options on the market. That should not be a problem in most cases, however, since you'll use it as a wireless device anyway.
Additionally, the sound quality isn't quite as good as you'd get from a wired device. But that has more to do with the limitations of the Bluetooth interface than the device itself.
Best USB DAC for Gaming: CREATIVE Sound Blaster X3
- Dolby digital live encoding
- High resolution 115 dB
- 0.0004% total harmonic distortion
- Quick switch modes
The latest DAC from Creative is an excellent unit that gives you different sound options. Creative Labs is a popular manufacturer of sound cards. The company specializes in good quality products that customize audio for everyone.
The design of this unit is admittedly simple. However, it allows you to do plenty of stuff. For example, the large knob on the front panel can control different things depending on how you set it up. Aside from the knob, you will also find different buttons that carry out different functions.
The rear panel is where the ports are. There are up to seven ports at the back, with 6 of them offering audio variety.
It comes in a box-like shape that is perfect for a small table. It is built to last and comes with a quartet of feet to ensure stability and prevent falling.
The technology used in this product claims to use intensive methods and complex algorithms to create the best sound experience. While I am no expert in such technical details, I must say that the sound quality that this unit produces is mighty impressive.
It comes with a plethora of features that make it a truly impressive unit. For instance, it comes as a USB DAC that produces virtual 7.1 surround sound that can be customized to elevate your listening experience. It can be used with several types of devices as it is compatible with IOS, game consoles, Windows, and Android devices. Furthermore, the SXFI technology creates 3D sound when paired with your headphones.
While this unit can be controlled via Bluetooth devices, it does not support Bluetooth for streaming purposes.
For power, you should note that it is the connected device that will power the unit.
Setup is easy and straightforward as long as you keep in mind the different settings and configuration options. For the best performance, you will need to install the Command app on your smartphone. If you are using your computer, you will also find a suitable software that will help you get the most from all the features.
Performance is where this unit shines. It can handle up to 32-bit at 192 kHz, making it a wonderful choice for headphone lovers.
What I don't like
First, I would have loved more integration between the desktop and mobile app versions. The Super X-Fi feature is cool, but it would have been even better if I could customize it.
Best USB DAC for Audiophiles: Massdrop Liquid Carbon X
- XLR, RCA input
- Micro USB output
- 6.35 mm TRS headphone jack
The Massdrop Liquid Carbon X is one of the best looking DACs you will ever come across. It comes in a simple yet classy design. The body of the unit is covered in rubberized paint that feels really nice to the touch and is so easy to clean.
The front and rear panel of the unit comes with balanced and unbalanced connections. Overall, in terms of appearance, there is almost nothing to fault.
The 30V output power is one of the most powerful on the market and definitely the most powerful on this roundup.
The best USB DAC is built to last for a long time while giving excellent sound performance. This is one of the best options you can buy right now.
Sound performance is top-notch. Using the solid-state bridged amp, it delivers a clear, warm, and rich sound.
What I don't like
I observed during my tests that the TRS connector doesn’t deliver as good a sound as the 4-pin XLR connector. It simply doesn’t sound as good or detailed.
Over to You
Finding the best USB DAC given the highly technical nature – and often limited availability – of this audiophile gear. Hopefully, this article will help you make the right decision.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
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