Best DACs Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi? ‘s round-up of the best DACs you can buy in .
You might not realize it, but most of us use at least one digital-to-analog converter (or DAC) daily. Any device that delivers digital sound – be it a Blu-ray player, digital TV box, games console, portable music player, or smartphone – requires a DAC to convert its audio to an analog signal before it is output.
Without a DAC, your digital music collection is a sizeable collection of “0s and 1s” (more on that shortly) that makes sense only within the digital domain. In short, DACs play a large part in making digital music worthwhile.
The best DACs will make your system sing, but something sub-optimal – or sticking to the ones used on some components – might prevent you from getting the most from your set-up.
Whether you’re after a cheap USB DAC for your laptop, a high-end unit to slip into a home hi-fi system, or something in between, you’re sure to find a contender on our list of the best DACs.
Chord continues to light up the premium market for DACs, and the Qutest is the proof. It’s the product that lesser rivals look up to at this price point. The DAC delivers a crisp, clean, concise sound with Chord’s now familiar neutral tonal balance.
As with all decent hi-fi gear, it’ll take a bit of running in time before the Qutest starts to sing. But when it does, you’re in for a treat: songs are imbued with a great sense of scope, and there’s abundant warmth and texture.
The Qutest boasts Chord’s trademark color-denoting buttons which tell you which source it’s drawing on: they glow white for USB-Type-B (capable of accepting 32-bit/768kHz PCM/DSD512), yellow for the first BNC coaxial and red for the second (24-bit/384kHz); and green for the optical (24-bit/192kHz/DSD64).
Given there’s no Bluetooth connectivity or headphone amp onboard, the Qutest’s sole purpose is to be the digital-to-analog bridge between your digital source and amplifier. And it does the job brilliantly.
Being small and light are major plus points for portability. Still, the nano’s most significant advantage over rivals such as the Cyrus Soundkey or the AudioQuest Dragonfly (below) is that the connection with your device is made wirelessly, in this case by aptX Bluetooth (v4.2).
Sonically, it’s just as sweet as the custard cream we mentioned earlier: this is an impressively solid performance, giving a marked improvement in bass punch and power. Not only that, but it also adds volume while still managing to refine the sound.
Overall, it’s an exciting and entertaining performance that will improve your music on the move with minimum fuss. What could be better?
The new model boasts a more advanced DAC chip, and a new microprocessor draws less current and bumps up the DAC’s processing speed. Yes, it costs around a little more, but it does take performance to another level. We’d willingly pay the extra.
Once attached to your laptop or smartphone and selected as means of audio output, the DAC’s LED will shine one of six colors to indicate the sampling rate: red for standby, green for 44.1kHz, blue for 48kHz, yellow for 88.2 kHz, light blue for 96kHz or purple when decoding MQA. It’s an excellent feature for at-a-glance checking and helps justify the extra outlay.
A cheaper alternative to the AudioQuest above is the Cyrus soundly. There’s a 3.5mm socket for plugging in headphones (or connecting to a system). At the other end, there’s a micro USB socket. There’s no need (nor any room) for anything else.
In the box, Cyrus provides a cable terminated with a micro USB at both ends (for use with appropriate Android devices) and a micro USB/full-size USB cable (for use with laptop or desktop computers). Apple user? You’ll need to buy a dedicated thread.
Sonically, it’s the musical equivalent of the Tardis – it might be small, but it affords your tunes an immense amount of space, so nothing sounds too cluttered. This is especially pronounced when listening to quieter, sparser material. There’s also a significant level of detail, with voices and instruments rendered in a completely natural way. Dynamics and transparency are key strengths that make this mini marvel punch well above its weight.
Most DACs and headphone amplifiers fitted to smartphones or laptops are cheap and not very good. Adding a dedicated DAC, no matter how small, can make all the difference. So, a DAC and headphone amp disguised as a USB stick sounds like a great idea – and the DragonFly Red pulls it off superbly like the DragonFly Cobalt above.
Though at first glance, it might seem a bit underpowered. After all, its hi-res support tops out at 24-bit/96kHz, the same as the much cheaper AudioQuest DragonFly Black. But it does have a higher voltage output (2.1v), which makes it better suited to driving more demanding headphones.
And it makes a real difference. Use it instead of the headphone output on your computer, and you’ll notice improved weight and texture to your tunes, combined with a natural and subtle sound. All told, it’s a supremely compact and convenient device that can be taken anywhere for an immediate musical boost.
Sonically, It can convey power and scale when the music requires it but has the finesse to make the most of the subtler passages, too. That sense of organization is evident here, as is Mojo’s composure when music becomes demanding. There’s plenty of detail to get your teeth into, and while it’s a full-bodied sound, it avoids any hint of excess richness at mid- and low-frequencies.
We’re also happy with the unit’s sense of refinement. Its transparency means that poor recordings (and sources) will be easy to spot, but this DAC won’t go out of its way to be nasty.
Battery life is around eight hours, making it a decent companion for a commute or business trip, while inputs include micro USB, optical and coaxial. The only feature missing from Mojo’s arsenal is Bluetooth, but we’re prepared to give it some leeway because it sounds so good. Go on, get some Mobile Joy in your life.
The original M-DAC was among our favorite pound-for-pound DACs for half a decade – and in 2016, Audiolab finally gave it the long overdue update treatment. Thankfully, the M-DAC+ was well worth the wait and is still up there with the best DACs for the money.
You don’t just get a giant box; you get much better specs too. Such as? There’s support for 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256 hi-res music, plus a host of new connections to keep you entertained. It also has added tweakability: there are a ridiculous 11 filters to play with, each making a subtle but noticeable difference to the sound. That should keep you busy.
And on the audio side, you won’t be disappointed. There’s a vast, believable soundstage, impressive detail levels, and good timing. It’s not the last word in attack and drives, but if you can handle that, there’s not much else to quibble with here.
The superb Hugo 2 features all the inputs and outputs you could realistically require from a product of this type, including digital optical, coaxial, and mini-USB. Music can also be fed to a pair of wireless headphones via aptX Bluetooth. 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs also feature, plus a couple of stereo RCAs to connect an amplifier.
So to say it’s a versatile piece of kit would be an understatement.
The Chord is smooth; neutral listen – it doesn’t overstate, yet it doesn’t underplay. For some DACs, that could be playing it safe. However, the Hugo 2 still manages to keep things interesting, creating a holistic sound: it arranges the pieces into a convincing whole where the bass is balanced against treble in the most unforced and crystal-clear manner. There isn’t another DAC anywhere near this sort of price able to communicate so well and effortlessly. We like it a lot.
IFC has a solid reputation for its well-featured, affordable digital-to-analog converters. And, thanks to a combination of features and sound quality that’s hard to better at a price, the Zen DAC is arguably one of its finest products.
The Zen DAC is a USB-only desktop DAC that takes power from the connected computer. Because you don’t need to be near a power socket, you can use it in the garden, in a cafe, on the train… wherever you take your laptop. However, bear in mind that it’s not as portable as some rivals at about the size of a paperback.
Despite its budget price, the iFi can handle PCM files up to 384kHz and up to DSD256 files. And it can decode MQA, which is impressive at this price.
It also sounds great, easily outperforming a laptop’s sound card. There’s a clear sense of authority, and tonally the sound is very well-judged. The Zen DAC is up there with the best at this price bracket and a great option for anyone on a budget.
Chord’s DAC dominance only continues as you go up the price spectrum. In performance and feature terms, it’s possible to make a strong case for the Hugo TT2 to be considered the company’s best-value DAC. You’ve got to have a robust, transparent system (not to mention a mighty fat wallet) to justify using anything more expensive than this.
There’s plenty of clear air between the performance of the TT2 and the Hugo 2, enough to make the price difference readily justifiable in a suitably talented set-up. Bluetooth aptX is onboard for wireless playback from a phone or tablet, and while it sounds good, it’s not a patch on one of the TT2’s wired connections. But these are a cut above, painting a vivid picture brimming with attack and a sense of coherence few can match, let alone better. It’s a wonderfully detailed and expressive presentation.
So, Chord’s seemly unstoppable digital bandwagon rolls on with yet another class leader. We’re not a fan of the Hugo TT2’s scrolling menu system, but in every other respect, it’s a beauty.
It’s faithful to the source, and we can ask no more. You also get plenty of source options: the usual trio of digital inputs (one USB type B, four co-ax, and two optical) to go alongside the much rarer AES/EBU balanced digital input. There’s also a quartet of BNC connectors that Chord calls DX inputs for as-yet-unannounced Chord source products.
It impresses on paper, too. The single USB accepts PCM signals with sampling rates up to 768kHz – capable. Indeed, we’re not sure how many people will be able to take advantage of such numbers.
DAVE doesn’t come cheap, but this DAC is quite some product. We’re smitten, and we think you will be too.
We’ve no hesitation in saying Nagra’s HD DAC is one of the best DACs on the planet. It’s hugely desirable and boasts excellent build quality and attention to detail. Of course, to get the best from the Nagra, you need to add premium partners (otherwise, it’s like running a Bentley on pram wheels), but once hooked up, you’re treated to a wonderfully organic, natural, and detailed sound.
While there is plenty of refinement and a total lack of unwanted hardness, a healthy dose of dynamic punch remains when required. Whether enjoying aggressive or subtle selec ions, the Nagra is capable of staggering levels of detail presented in an effortlessly musical style. And, of course, the build quality is second to none (as you would expect at this price).
You need to hear this if you’re in the market for a serious high-end DAC.
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