|Best Overall||Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M|| |
Richly detailed sound and a plethora of inputs/outputs combine in the perfect preamp for a high-resolution listening station.
|Best DAC/amp Combo||iFi xDSD Gryphon|| |
Naturally outstanding sound, well-implemented analog enhancement modes, and plentiful wired and wireless connectivity make this a compact powerhouse.
|Most Portable||THX Onyx|| |
Excellent durability and portability let you get the most out of mobile streaming.
Few things in life can sweep you away and transport you to another time as music can. The joy and nostalgia it can bring are hard to overstate. Taking full advantage of that power means investing in the listening equipment that makes it happen. If you’ve already got a good pair of headphones, one of your next upgrades should be your DAC.
A DAC is a digital-to-analog converter. Its sole responsibility is to convert the 1s and 0s output by your computer (or smartdevice) into a signal that can be played by your headphones. Even though that sounds like a cut-and-dry task, how DACs accomplish this varies, as do the prices, form factors, and features they offer. The best DACs can enhance your listening experience and we’ve collected the top choices right here to get you listening fast.
- Best overall: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
- Best DAC/amp combo: iFi xDSD Gryphon
- Most portable: THX Onyx
- Best for gaming: Creative Sound Blaster X4
- Best on a budget: JDS Labs Atom DAC+
How we selected the best DACs
Over my years of reviewing tech, I’ve extensively tested a wide array of audio equipment. I cut my teeth reviewing gaming headsets at MMORPG.com and quickly discovered a love for audio that progressed into a full-fledged love of hi-fi. In the seven years since that first review, I’ve graduated from gaming headsets with built-in components to desktop DACs and amps, portable hybrids that combine them both into one, and smartphone dongles that range from $10 to $200. I love diving deep into the world of headphones and that begins with the gear driving that listening experience.
To create this list, I drew upon multiple sources: user impressions, deep lists of specifications, and, of course, my own experience with several of the products collected. I also researched the pedigree of the different brands producing DACs today and the real-world experiences being shared in forums and Reddit threads. Together, these sources painted a clear picture of the best choices for different types of listeners chosen for this list.
Things to consider before buying a DAC
Choosing the best DAC can be confusing. Even as someone who has been in the hobby for several years, I still find myself researching the differences between different DACs and their features, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. There are a few key things to keep in mind that can help any DAC shopper. Here are the most important points to consider before pulling the trigger.
Portable or desktop
Do you aim to listen at home or on the go? That should be the first question you ask before seriously shopping for a new DAC. Desktop DACs are often larger and require external power, either over USB or from a standard wall outlet. Portable DACs are much smaller and are made for travel. They sometimes include batteries to preserve the life of your smartphone and may even include a Bluetooth receiver for wireless listening.
Though you’ll often pay more for the freedom they offer, portable DACs can usually connect to your PC as well thanks to their USB connectivity. That doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same or the best fit for home listening, however. Since they’re made to be self-enclosed units, DACs like the Chord Mojo 2 and FiiO Q1 won’t integrate with larger audio systems as easily (or at all) and lack connections for dedicated speakers. If all you’re using are headphones and in-ear monitors, a good portable DAC can be a perfect choice, but if you have other audio equipment already, standalone options like the iFi Audio Zen DAC or AudioEngine D1 are a better fit.
What DAC chip does it use?
The job of any DAC is the same: to convert the digital output of a computer or smartphone into an analog impulse that can be played by headphones and speakers. This processing is done through a small computer chip and if you’ve ever plugged in a pair of monitors into a headphone jack, you’ve heard the results. But even though the end goal is the same, not all DACs are created equal or go about their conversion in the same way. The first thing to know before hitting that Buy Now button is exactly what DAC chipset your device is actually using.
There are a number of major brands in the DAC world but very few actually produce their own chips. Instead, they utilize chipsets from other brands, like ESS, AKM, Cirrus-Logic, and Burr-Brown. Like any good tech brand, these companies scale their products to offer different features and match the calibers of DAC they may be implemented in.
Some of them have better features, like support for boutique file formats or higher-resolution playback. Others offer less measurable noise and distortion (though whether you’ll actually hear it the improvement isn’t a given). Many users report certain sound characteristics aligning with different DAC chipsets. ESS DACs, for example, are frequently described as being more resolving, which can mean sharper, more “exciting” treble, while AKM DACs are “warmer,” which typically means weightier bass with slightly less treble. It’s important to note, however, that a DAC isn’t intended to color the sound in a major way, so don’t expect huge sonic differences between brands on identical settings.
While most DACs clearly label which chip they’re built around, deciphering the differences between chips isn’t always straightforward. It usually means taking a close look at feature and specification lists to determine whether they will make a real-world impact on your listening experience. On the technical side, you’ll need to look at specifications like bit-depth and sample rate. Others, like frequency response and signal-to-noise ratio, are also important to determine the scope and clarity of the sound being produced. Before buying any DAC, it’s a good idea to type that particular chipset into Google and read some expert impressions about its performance and what real listeners like yourself are saying.
But specs aren’t all …
Connectivity and playback options
Two other important considerations when choosing a DAC are its connectivity and playback options. Connectivity refers to its inputs, outputs, and wireless connection options. Is it able to receive audio the way you’d like to send it: USB, optical, or coaxial? Once it receives that audio, how is it able to send it back out again?
The output options are especially key. Depending on the model you’re interested in, you may find that its outputs are either too limited or too plentiful, which means you’re probably paying for features you don’t need. If your amplifier or headphones use a balanced connection (circuitry common for high-end headphones, earphones, and amps pairing conductors that can deliver higher power and lower interference), it’s also important to double-check that your DAC supports that configuration so everything connects properly and takes full advantage of your equipment. (It is possible to damage incompatible equipment, so match accordingly.)
Along with that, and directly related to the first consideration we discussed, you need to make sure that the DAC can support the file types and streaming services you would most like to use. Premium streaming service TIDAL’s Master Quality tracks may sound the best to your ears, but you’ll need a DAC that can properly decode those files because they use a format known as MQA, or Master Quality Authenticated—a form of compression that “folds” and “unfolds” audio at varying resolution levels to efficiently stream higher bitrates, and not all DACs can take full advantage of it. It can also be wise to think ahead to the types of things you might like to listen to in the future. You might not listen to high-resolution DSD (Direct Stream Digital) files right now, but if you fall deeper into the hobby, you may want the option down the line. Planning ahead may cost a little more up front but can save you a bundle from buying a whole new DAC in the future.
Does it include a headphone amplifier?
Even the best DAC is useless without an amplifier to power the headphones or speakers connected to it. Some DACs, often referred to as hybrids or combos, have these built-in. The Chord Hugo 2 is an ultra-high-end version of exactly such a device, but you don’t have to break the bank to find a quality all-in-one solution. Fiio’s E10K Olympus 2 is only $100 and can fulfill your DAC and amp needs in one tiny, affordable box.
If you do choose a hybrid DAC, be sure to check its output power. Most modern headphones don’t require a lot of juice to drive, but some audiophile favorites and mixing headphones still do, like the Sennheiser HD650, HIFIMAN Sundara, or beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro. Because every headphone is different, it’s difficult to say exactly how much power you’ll need, so we recommend putting your headphones through a power calculator to determine how many milliwatts and volts you’ll need for your preferred headphones.
Finally, we come to the price. The cost of audio gear can range widely, where one DAC might be $200 and another might be $2,000, even when running similar chipsets. Does that second DAC really sound ten times better than the first? Probably not (though it’s almost certainly an improvement). So much of the hi-fi hobby is about incremental gains and those margins only become thinner as the price scales up. Diminishing returns are a very real consideration for anyone in the audio hobby.
If you’re new to the world of DACs and amps, it’s wise to set yourself a reasonable budget and stick to it. Just because something is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s going to sound better. This is especially true when you’re early in the hobby and may not be able to hear the difference between two DACs—even when others claim to. Research the options that meet your needs and budget and choose the best option among the bunch.
The best DACs of 2022: Reviews & Recommendations
Now that you know what to look for when shopping for a new DAC, it’s time to choose the best fit for you. Sorting through the masses of different options, some from big brands and some from those that won’t be here in a year, can be confusing. We’ve collected the best choices in five key areas to help cut through the noise.
Best DAC overall: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
Why it made the cut: The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is an outstanding, fully featured desktop DAC that’s feature-rich and premium without being exorbitant.
- DAC: Dual ESS ES9028Q2M DACs
- Included amplifier: Up to 300mW for headphones, 4.2 VRMS for speakers
- Bit-depth/sample rate: 32-bit/768kHz
- Format support: PCM, DSD, DoP, MQA
- Bluetooth: Yes, 4.2
- Dual DACs for balanced sound
- Wired and wireless high-resolution listening
- Wide format support
- Plentiful connectivity options
- Costs a premium
- No LDAC
Since its release in 2021, the DacMagic 200M from Cambridge Audio has been a frequent flier on “Best Of” lists due to its outstanding balance of sound, features, and connection options. It’s easy to see why it’s so beloved: With its combination of dual ESS ES9028Q2M DACs, built-in 300mW headphone amp, wired and wireless connectivity, and premium build quality, it’s the kind of device even a veteran audiophile could stay delighted with for years.
While the other DACs on this list content themselves with a single chip, the DacMagic 200M implements a pair of high-quality ESS chips to reduce crosstalk and improve separation between the two channels. The audio sent from the device is impeccably high-resolution with a maximum bitrate of 32-bit/768kHz and support for PCM, DSD, and MQA. It even supports DoP, which stands for “DSD over PCM,” so it can accept DSD files over USB even if your USB port doesn’t know how to natively handle the data. Pair that with dual digital inputs (your choice of optical or coaxial for each), and USB audio-in, and you have a device that’s able to accept audio from just about anywhere for under $500.
When it comes to sending audio out, the DacMagic 200M has a whole different set of tricks up its sleeves, acting as a preamp perfect if you’re building a components system with a dedicated headphone amp or AV receiver. Turn it to the back and you’ll find RCA jacks and a pair of XLR ports to drive balanced and unbalanced speakers. A ground lift switch sits on the other side to eliminate any hum that might be coming from your home electrical system. You can even apply a set of digital filters that fine-tune the already expansive 10Hz to 50kHz frequency response. But that’s not all: under the hood is a built-in headphone amplifier and Bluetooth transmitter so you can get listening right away or integrate it into a larger setup.
Wireless audio does feel like a bit of an afterthought, though. It only supports Bluetooth version 4.2, and we’re now seeing products sporting a whole version higher (Bluetooth 5.2) that offer better reliability and power efficiency. And though it’s great to see the DacMagic support higher than vanilla Bluetooth through its aptX codec, it still falls short of the quality delivered by LDAC or aptX HD/Adaptive found on competing devices.
Best DAC/amp combo: iFi xDSD Gryphon
Why it made the cut: The iFi xDSD Gryphon is a hybrid that does it all, offering excellent wired and wireless connectivity, a built-in battery, and tons of rich, powerful sound.
- DAC: Burr-Brown
- Included amplifier: Up to 1000mW
- Bit-depth/sample rate: 32-bit/768kHz
- Format support: PCM, DSD, DXD, MQA, DoP over S/PDIF
- Bluetooth: Yes, 5.1
- Outstanding sound quality, whether wired or wireless
- Powerful built-in DAC with 3 selectable digital filters
- Customizable sound with built-in XBass II and XSpace switches
- Informative OLED screen
- No track controls
- Larger for a portable
At first blush, the iFi xDSD Gryphon might seem expensive at around $600, but it’s hard to find another portable combo DAC/amp that’s quite as full-featured as this one without paying more. A corrugated metal casing with an OLED display strip on top, outputs and a control panel at one end and plastic capped inputs at the other, the flask-sized Gryphon is distinctive aesthetically but truly extraordinary internally.
It features a high-quality 32-bit Burr-Brown chipset (the same one used in a multi-thousand-dollar flagship DAC/amp) with support for all-manner of high-end audio, whether that’s standard MP3s presented in HD or proprietary file types like DSD, DXD, or MQA for streaming hi-fi over TIDAL. The Gryphon outputs support balanced (4.4mm) and single-ended (3.5mm) headphones and earphones—no matter how you want to listen, this hybrid DAC is ready to offer a great experience. A Gryphon even holds the distinction of being our associate managing editor’s current go-to (pictured above with the equally compact, richly immersive Sennheiser IE 600 and an ASUS ROG Phone 5—a sweet streaming suite for a personal audio enthusiast).
The magic of the Gryphon lies in its versatility. You can cut the cord and use it, when fully charged, for up to 8 hours on the go with Bluetooth streaming over SBC, AAC for iOS, and up to 96kHz using LDAC, LHDC/HWA, or aptX HD/Adaptive on Android devices. Or you plug it in via USB, Coax, or Optical and ensure that no audio bit gets adulterated by wireless compression. Once you’re listening, you can enhance bass and/or upper midrange presence, as well as soundstage with iFi’s innovative XBass II and XSpace analog enhancements. Connected to your PC over USB-C, it will act as an external soundcard, eliminating the need for a dedicated desk setup—perfect with headphones and, when the Gryphon is accepting a digital source, ports on the back can even be used to feed an external amp or powered monitors.
The tremendous 1000mW @ 32 ohms of power on offer over its balanced connection also means this DAC can drive even very demanding headphones. The single-ended connection is much more limited at 320mW but is still enough to drive the vast majority of cans available today. If you’re a fan of sensitive in-ear monitors (IEMs), don’t worry, because the Gryphon also offers an iEMatch mode (assignable to either output) to prevent hiss from invading your favorite tracks, while maintaining dynamics. As for the tonality, the Gryphon emphasizes not emphasizing any one thing. It respects the symmetry between impact and imaging, staying as articulate as it is energetic. Its sound-shaping features can fatten up the speedy, textured bass, but not to the detriment of organic midrange expression and shimmering treble details.
Despite checking nearly every box an audiophile could ask for, there are still a few missing features here. Track controls are completely absent, so you’ll still be reaching for your smartphone to play or pause. I would have also liked to have seen some kind of belt clip or travel case included because the device is about the same size as a modern smartphone and roughly twice as thick. If you’re carrying anything else in your pocket, the Gryphon isn’t likely to fit. All that said, the Gryphon has set a high standard for transportable hi-fi.
Most portable: THX Onyx
Why it made the cut: Tiny but powerful, the THX Onyx is an extra portable DAC with a great built-in amplifier.
- DAC: ESS9281 PRO
- Included amplifier: 180mW (THX AAA-78)
- Bit-depth/sample rate: 32-bit/384kHz
- Format support: PCM, DSD, MQA
- Bluetooth: No
- Excellent audio quality
- Silent background noise
- MQA Support
- Extra durable for extended life
- Cable is less flexible than many competing dongles
- No track controls
If the name sounds familiar, it should: This is the same THX that’s been blowing away movie theaters with bombastic cinema sound since it was co-founded by George Lucas in the ’80s. The THX Onyx is a portable DAC with a built-in 180mW amplifier and is the best choice for listening on the go. Not only does it provide crystal clear and highly detailed sound thanks to its ESS9281 PRO DAC module, it also has a THX AAA amplifier that all but eradicates background noise and distortion. It’s exceptionally good, but at $199 it’s not cheap and doesn’t offer any track controls, which is a bummer.
But what makes it the best choice for portability? Outstanding durability and the ability to fold over on itself with an invisible magnet clasp. While many other dongle DACs use plastic and weak shielding on their wires, the Onyx’s DAC and USB jack are protected by sturdy aluminum housings. The cable is guarded by silky soft yet durable rubber to ward of fraying and broken wires (though this does make it a touch less flexible). This is a DAC that’s made to last the rigors of everyday life.
While it’s not the smallest portable DAC on the market, its ability to fold over on itself adds to its portability. A small magnet near the USB port connects to the DAC, allowing it to lay flat behind your phone. In a second, the Onyx’s 8-inch length turns into a 1.5-inch curl wire, making it exceptionally pocketable.
Best for gaming: Creative Sound Blaster X4
Why it made the cut: Made for gaming, the Creative Sound Blaster X4 is packed with features that make for a stellar entertainment experience.
- DAC: Undisclosed
- Included amplifier: 1.3 – 2.9 VRMs
- Bit-depth/sample rate: 24-bit/192kHz
- Format support: PCM, Surround 7.1, Dolby Digital Live
- Bluetooth: No
- Multi-platform support: PS5, PS4, Mobile, Windows, Mac
- Virtual surround sound and other gaming-specific features
- Mic support with built-in communication features
- Plentiful software controls and onboard memory
- Plastic construction
- Lower resolution
- Limited file format support
The Creative Sound Blaster X4 is tailor-made for gaming. While other DACs might work, the X4’s plentiful connectivity, built-in presets, rich software suite, and onboard memory make it the go-to choice for gamers who want to level-up their listening experience for under $150. Best of all, it offers native support for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, and even macOS.
Once taken out of its box, the first thing you’ll notice is its bold and easy-to-grab volume knob. The next thing you’ll notice is the sheer amount of inputs and outputs it has. As a gaming device, there are ports for both a headset and a microphone on the front edge. Around the back are ports for a full set of surround sound speakers, as well as line-in, optical line-out, and USB jacks. The X4 comes with several clickable presets to quickly tailor the sound for gaming, music, or movies without ever opening a piece of software.
But you should plan on using the software suite because that’s where you’ll be able to tap into the full suite of options. A 10-band EQ allows you to tailor the sound and save those to the device. You can also enable gaming-specific features like virtual surround sound, SXFI Battle Mode and Scout Mode to enhance situational awareness, and even enhance the quality of your microphone with noise removal and a vocal equalizer.
The biggest downside to the Creative Sound Blaster X4 is that, since it leans so heavily into its gaming features, it falls short when it comes to resolution and file support. There is no MQA decoding for high-quality streaming over TIDAL and quality is limited to 24-bit/192kHz. That’s more than enough for a great listening experience but definitely falls short of other options on this list.
Best on a budget: JDS Labs Atom DAC+
Why it made the cut: This affordable DAC is a no-muss, no-fuss gateway to great audio on a budget.
- DAC: ES9018K2M
- Included amplifier: No
- Bit-depth/sample rate: 32-bit/384kHz
- Format support: PCM, DSD
- Bluetooth: No
- Simple setup
- Improves upon the popular Atom DAC
- Very affordable
- Lacks added features
- Plastic construction
- Requires a separate amp
The JDS Labs Atom DAC+ is the successor to one of the company’s most popular products: the original Atom DAC. This time around, the company has changed DAC chips from AKM to ESS, but what really matters is that they’ve managed to fine-tune it to deliver less distortion, more clarity, and improved dynamic range. While the DAC+ doesn’t push any limits with its sample rate, it’s able to deliver a clear, detailed sound on the cheap.
Coming in at only $119, you have to expect some concessions. There’s no built-in amp, so this device is for conversion only. Buying a matched set with the Atom Amp+ adds another $99, but allows you to stack the devices into a veritable tower of power. Outputs are also limited with only a single pair of RCA jacks. The DAC+ does support TOSLINK-in for optical sound, standard USB Type-B for connecting to a computer, however, and includes an external power brick for clean, consistent power to keep it running smoothly.
Looking for something you can snag with Prime Shipping? Schiit Audio’s Modi 3+ is another great option that supports up to 24/192 resolutions through an AK4490 delta-sigma DAC housed in a sturdy aluminum case with a toggle switch to select between Micro USB, Coax, and Optical inputs. Like the Atom DAC+, there’s no built-in amplifier, but Schiit also sells the Magni 3+ to accept the Modi’s output via RCA, and it’s identically sized for easy stacking and powerful enough to drive most headphones.
Q: Are DACs really worth it?
Absolutely, but don’t go in expecting your listening experience to be completely different. The most noticeable upgrade many listeners experience is when switching from the built-in audio on their PC to an external DAC for the first time. This is because an external DAC physically separates its audio components from the rest of the computer, reducing or eliminating electrical interference that comes through and white noise, digital artifacts, and distortion through your headphones. The experience is often enhanced by the fact that dedicated DACs are almost always better and more feature rich than the integrated chips built into motherboards.
Beyond this point, DACs tend to offer incremental improvements. While there are differences in sound quality, unless 1these can be difficult to hear for less experienced listeners. Investing in the best DAC is first about investing in a dedicated audio solution. After that, it’s about allowing your headphones to play at their full potential across multiple file types and sources.
Q: Are expensive DACs better?
Expensive DACs rely on premium components and boutique engineering to push the listening experience to its theoretical maximum. Premium DACs often tout levels of distortion far below audible levels and include features like femtosecond clocks that keep the timing of its audio bits to the quadrillionth of a second. In short: much of the “quality” difference isn’t going to be something you can actually hear.
That doesn’t mean pricier DACs have nothing to offer, however. More expensive DACs tend to include advanced features like full MQA decoding for TIDAL’s highest-quality Master tracks (cheaper DACs can be limited or not support MQA at all) or high-resolution DSD playback. They’ll typically offer more, and better, connectivity, which includes features like high-resolution wireless streaming. It’s not uncommon for expensive DACs to look the part of a prestige product either, allowing them to fit right into showpiece audio setups.
Like any expensive hobby, however, these high-end items tend to be best suited for people heavily invested into the hobby. Since audio quality improvements will be marginal or even imperceptible beyond the $100 to $200 level, it’s best to decide on the features you want first and choose a reasonable budget to attain them.
Q: Does a DAC make a difference with Spotify?
It can, but not as much as competing streaming services like TIDAL, Deezer, or Amazon Music HD. This is because Spotify, even at its highest quality setting of 320kbps (MP3 quality), is still lossy. Compared to lossless streaming platforms, which are delivering bitrates at or well-exceeding 1411kbps (16-bit, or CD quality), music streamed through Spotify has more compression and “loses” data, dropping quality below the level of a physical CD. Since the DAC is receiving compressed data, the result isn’t going to be as impressive as from other lossless sources.
Just because you listen to Spotify doesn’t mean getting a DAC is a bad idea. If you’re listening through your computer’s built-in audio jack, you’re likely hearing subtle background noise that can degrade sound quality even further. In my own experience, I found that listening to Spotify through a dedicated amp/DAC hybrid made music sound clearer and more detailed. If you’re not noticing background noise, however, you’ll likely find upgrading your headphones provides a bigger improvement to sound quality overall.
Final thoughts on the best DACs
Choosing a DAC can be a daunting task. There’s a lot to consider and a lot of specs to sort through. At the end of the day, it’s one of the most fundamental upgrades you can make, right alongside buying new headphones and a new amplifier. Since DACs generally don’t make a profound impact on sound quality, you don’t have to feel pressured to spend exorbitant amounts of cash (but certainly can). Hi-fi is a hobby that can grow with you, and, like the very best of them, there’s always more to experience.