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Getting great sound is a challenge overall.
We've done the hard work and looked at headphone AMP DAC combos that cover many budget ranges.
There are a few things you should look for when picking up a good DAC.
You can come across an affordable DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) that has relatively the same basic function as $2000 equipment.
SNR, or Signal-to-Noise Ratio
The higher the number in decibels, the better quality. SNR refers to the level of the desired signal as opposed to background noise. In the case of equipment that has 96 dB, it means that the sound produced is 96 dB higher than the background noise.
The human ear is capable of hearing sound with frequencies of 20Hz to 20kHz, so a DAC should be able to cover these frequencies when reproducing sound.
Though it is rare to see equipment that will not be able to cover these frequencies, even with cheap DACs, it is still a standard that they follow.
Is the amount of signal that goes from one line/channel to another? So, if you feed signal to line one and listen to line two, there shouldn’t be anything coming out. If there is, it should be very minimal, almost unnoticeable, the lower the number for crosstalk, the better.
THD+N is not readily available at times and the most common specification you will see for a DAC is its sampling rate. This is measured in kHz. The higher the sampling rate, the higher your sound reproduction will be. Most modern equipment can provide higher than 44.1 kHz, which has been a standard for most audio recordings.
This is also a critical feature when looking for a good DAC, it determines the dynamic range of the audio signal. In theory, 24-bit digital audio can reach a maximum dynamic range of 144 dB, compared to just 96 dB for 16-bit but today's digital audio converter technology cannot come close to that upper limit. Several DACs offers 32-bit, as well.
At a Glance: Our Top Picks for Dac
- OUR TOP PICK: Benchmark DAC3 HGC
- iFi - Micro iDAC2
- Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus
External Sound Card VS. External DACs
Our Top Pick
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You might already have that big question mark on your head as to what the difference is between a DAC and an external sound card. It can be quite confusing.
To put it simply, a DAC has a sole purpose of delivering sound out to a speaker or a headphone. It does not have an extra line-in.
An external sound card, on the other hand, has more out ports and thus, can support surround sound up to 7.1 channels, and also has line-in ports.
So, let's get into the best headphone AMP DAC combos.
Review of the Best DACs For Any Budget
iFi - Micro iDAC2
This product has awesome features, which leads us to put it on the list. The numbers from the manufacturer may throw you off, but its performance is amazing.
Once you’ve seen micro-sized DACs, you may think you’ve seen them all. But let’s not stereotype and believe small DACs have less power than the much bigger ones. The iFi Micro iDAC2 converts your digital input to superb sound. It has a sample rate of 384 kHz, and the bit-depth is 32-bit. Up-sampling is real.
At 0 dBFS this DAC's Signal-to-Noise Ratio is 114 dB (Weighted - A), you’ll only hear the clearest sound from your music. The Total Harmonic Distortion +Noise on this DAC is also impressive and is rated at less than 0.0025% @ 0 dBFS (100k load) and less than 0.025% @ 0 dBFS (600R load). Even at full volume on your headphones, you won’t hear any distortion.
The conversion process from a digital to an analog signal is handled by a Burr-Brown chip from Texas Instruments in place of the ESS Sabre that was initially installed on the first iDAC. It has three modes of filters; Bit Perfect, Min Phase, and Standard. It supports PCM, DXD, and DSD playback.
This is a USB 3.0 audio-in connection that goes to your computer. Right next to the audio-in you have digital output SPDIF port. The output ports are located on the back of this DAC and you have an L/R RCA and a 3.5 mm (amped) port, which is controlled by a knob next to it. It would be preferred if they had the switches and ports on the back instead of the sides.
The design is minimalistic and looks sturdy, weighs only 0.58 lbs and measures 158 x 68 x 28mm, so it is very portable and easy to carry. It does not require a separate power supply. It will run when connected to a USB port.
We’re starting to get quite expensive with these headphone DAC AMP combos, audiophiles have to pay a decent amount to get high-quality audio.
2. Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus
This product has tons of features and Bluetooth capability. As you would expect in this price range, this has excellent overall sound for its price.
The DAC Magic Plus can up-sample a regular CD audio to give it extra quality during playback. This feature works well with lossy/compressed files like AAC and MP3s. This DAC has a max sample rate of 192 kHz and a bit-depth of 24-bit. You can be sure of great audio every time you plug in your speaker or headphone.
The DACMagic Plus uses a cheaper DAC Chipset installed in this device, a Dual Wolfson WM8740, but even with that, it is still a top-shelf quality hardware, and the sound quality it produces is amazing.
Background/Ambient noise is not going to be a problem for the DACMagic Plus. It has an SNR of 112 dB and crosstalk is rated at less than -130 dB@1 kHZ, less than -112 dB@20 kHZ. No hiss, no crackling sound. You can hear the lowest and the highest frequencies from your audio since this DAC has a respectable frequency range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
This DAC has two modes. You can use it as an amp and also as a pre-amp. We must say switching between the two is kind of annoying since you need to hold the volume knob down while you are turning on the device to make it switch from amp to pre-amp and vice versa.
There is a wide variety of digital connectivity, as well as output ports, all of these are located on the back of the equipment. On the front, you have the power switch, the volume switch, and the 3.5mm line-out. This is not a portable piece of equipment, as it weighs 2.6 lbs and measures 8.5 in x 7.5 in x 2 in.
Be aware, to get high-res formats you will need drivers for Cambridge Audio. So high-res formats are limited to just the computer (Mac or PC).
Even with that, its features and relatively affordable price make this DAC easy to be loved by its user.
3. Optoma NuForce uDAC5
This is another smaller form factor DAC. Similar to the Fulla 2 and the Fiio K1, the size is deceiving. This DAC is small and light; it measures 2.68 inches wide by 1.77 inches deep by 0.83 inches high, weighing only 3.53 ounces.
Unlike the Fulla 2 and the K1, this DAC from Optoma cannot connect to a smartphone without a ton of wires and adapters. It doesn’t have a 3.5 mm port or a micro-USB.
The connections it does have, is an L/R RCA port and an optical port on the back and a USB for input and power. On the front, you have the volume/power knob, a power indicator, and the 3.5 mm line-out.
The Optomoa NuForce uDAC5 has an ESS SABRE for its DAC chip, it has a max sampling rate of 24-bit/384 kHz and supports DSD playback. This also has a built-in amplifier to drive even those big cans.
Interestingly, the frequency response of this equipment depends on the audio source. Listening to an LP has a range of 10 Hz-30 kHz, if you are listening to a CD, it covers 20 Hz-20 kHz, for SACD it has a wider coverage of frequency at 10 Hz-70 kHz, and with DSD, you have 10 Hz-30 kHz.
The only downside is that it is not universal since the input is limited. If they included a 3.5 mm line-in and a separate power port, this could have been a more versatile DAC, which makes this equipment a bit expensive for its features and design.
Cheapest Headphone DAC AMP Combo:
While lacking some controls, the Fiio K1 gives you a great headphone DAC AMP for a really cheap price.
Combined with its small, portable design, it is definitely a good choice as a cheap upgrade to a standard audio output.
The Fiio K1 is a compact and inexpensive Digital Audio Converter intended for people on the go, it’s compact and very lightweight, and can fit in your pocket easily. It has a sand-blasted titanium case with a transparent detachable clip.
This DAC from Fiio weighs 11g and measures 50 x 2.0.5 x 8 mm. It may be compact and small, but this DAC is packed with impressive power to amplify your audio, either from a computer or some select smartphones.
The Fiio K1 can be connected to an audio source via an included USB to micro USB cable. You can then plug in your headphones to the 3.5 mm jack.
This handy DAC gets power directly from the audio source. It does not require batteries or a power supply. Regretfully, it doesn't have any knobs or buttons to control the volume either, you will need to control it directly from the audio source.
For the price you are paying for this DAC, you are getting a lot more, it has a max sampling rate of 96 kHz and a resolution of 24-bit. Sound going through this DAC is then amplified before going out of the headphone or speaker.
It covers all the frequencies the human ear can detect, having a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
That annoying hissing sound will be removed, as well. with a SNR of ≥100 dB (A-weighted). All this is processed by its DAC chip, the Burr-Brown TI PCM5102.
This is plug & play; you don’t have to worry about compatibility. Plug it in, play the audio, and listen to the crisp, clean sound. With all the quality of this external DAC, you’ll wonder how Fiio was able to put such a low price tag on it.
Best Headphone DAC AMP Under $100 :
Schiit Fulla 2
Once you see the features of this DAC, you’ll be convinced that this is not Fulla Schiit...
We don't earn anything from you buying this, it's just straight up the best headphone DAC AMP under $100.
You can purchase at Schiit's website and it's just under $100.
Schiit has been amazing at creating DAC/Amps, and they continue the trend with the Fulla 2, you would be amazed at what this little thing has to offer. It is DAC, and an amp at the same time, but still has disadvantages.
It is light and portable. The Fulla 2 is just 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.375” (including knob) and weighs 9 oz. The body has that anodized metal finish and has three rubber feet at the bottom. Unlike other small DACs, the Fulla 2 has integrated rubber feet.
Connection for this DAC/amp is simple. On the front, you have a ⅛-inch line-in port, and a quarter-inch line-out, which is a good choice for the main line-out. This gives you a more solid connection between the Fulla 2 and the headphone. If you’d notice, headphones like the Sennheiser 650 has a quarter-inch jack, instead of a 1/8-inch jack. The line-in port will automatically take over the DAC, so even if something is connected to the USB, the front line-in will still be the one heard playing. It automatically switches to the USB input once you unplug from the line-in port.
On the back of this DAC/amp, you have four ports. There are two micro USB ports, one is power and data, and the other one is just power. The reason behind this is that if you are plugging in a phone using an OTG cable as an audio source, it will draw power from it and drain the battery faster, therefore, Schiit added a secondary power only port so it won’t drain your phone’s power.
There are also two ⅛-inch ports on the back, there’s one that is a variable pre-out, and another line-out for a 3.5 mm jacked headphone.
As for its performance, you are getting your money’s worth. This chip used for this DAC is an AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1662-based filter stage. It has a max sampling rate of 96 kHz and a bit-depth of 24. What makes it better than the Fiio K1 is that this DAC supports Direct Stream Digital. However, if you are to compare it to a Modi 2, which is a DAC only, the Fulla 2 is a little bit inferior when it comes to sound.
Another drawback is that if you turn up the volume to about 75%, you will notice a bit of a distortion, and if you go further, distortion will become really noticeable.
Overall, if you are looking to buy a DAC and amp combo at a reasonable price, then the Fulla 2 is one to take into consideration.
If for some reason you aren't in the mood to purchase on a different website, the FiiO E10K on Amazon is also very good, but lacks the two-line input.
Best Portable DAC:
This DAC is truly portable because of its built-in battery, so you can take it anywhere to get crisp sound from the source of your choice.
The design looks great with an aluminum body and a nice anodized finish. Equipped with a Burr-Brown PCM5102 DAC chip, this compact DAC and headphone amplifier provides you an amazing sound quality, like a live version of a song with your eyes closed.
It has a very wide frequency response, covering 10 Hz to 100 kHz when you are using the audio-in as the source. Max sampling rate for this DAC is 24-bit/96 kHz, which is similar to the Fulla 2 and the K1.
The front has the volume/power knob, the power indicator, and the 3.5 mm line-out. On the back of the HA-P50SE, you have the micro USB type-B input and a USB type-A input port. A switch is also included to select which source is active.
This DAC is portable but it is not that light, though it is not enough to strain. The dimensions of this DAC are 64mm × 21.7mm ×112 mm (excluding protruding guards). Because it is made of solid aluminum, it weighs 210 g, that’s almost quarter-kilo.
One great feature of this DAC is that it has a dual-power source. You can use either a 5V DC adapter to power this device or the built-in battery that provides up to eight hours of use. Though this has an integrated amp, it lacks DSD capability. However, if you are just listening to MP3, then this equipment is more than enough.
Best Headphone DAC AMP Under $200:
Meridian Audio Explorer2
This is a very good DAC/AMP combo that although it is limited on ports to use, has great sound at a decent price (relatively).
It has a very simple, yet solid build. It is somewhat cylindrical, and you can see that the interface is quite straight-forward. On the front, you will see two 3.5 mm ports, one for the line-in and another for the line-out. Even with this, the line-in does not support smartphones and tablets. So the input source is limited to direct laptop/desktop. For power, you need to connect it via USB.
Performance won’t be a question for this DAC/Amp combo. This DAC has a great sampling rate of 192 kHz and bit depth of 24-bit. This DAC also covers a wider frequency range; it has a frequency response of 20 Hz to 60 kHz. The audio conversion of the Texas Instruments PCM5102 is simply outstanding.
The body of this DAC has a nice glossy finish and is almost the size of a cigar, so you can just easily slip it into your pocket. The Explorer 2 supports DSD, as well as MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). Streaming services like Tidal are trying to make a thing of this MQA file format.
In this price range of sub-$200, the performance is a very reasonable if you are looking for a good-quality DAC/Amp. However, it feels too minimalistic and there isn’t much option for output and controls. Let’s face it, it’s not just the sound quality we are looking at when we are choosing a good DAC.
Best Headphone DAC Under $300:
Musical Fidelity V90DAC
This item features extremely high audio quality, with very low crosstalk and sampling rates up to 384 kHz.
A very impressive choice to consider
The V90DAC by Musical Fidelity is an improved version of an old V-DAC II. It looks more organized having the power switch and the input switch on the front and all the input and output ports on the back. This gives it a more professional look. This DAC is compact and has a nice aluminum housing. The V90DAC measures 2.0 x 8.6 x 7.6” and weighs 2.6 lbs.
The V90DAC has three inputs; two Toslink/optical ports and a SPDIF port. As for the output, it has the L/R RCA, meaning you can still connect it to a headphone, all you need is an RCA to 3.5mm stereo adapter.
The performance of the V90DAC improved slightly over its predecessor. It has the same sampling rate of 96 kHz, but the bit-depth is now 32-bit. It produces good-quality audio for a relatively small amount of money (comparatively of course).
Downsides are always present in any review, and without a built-in amp or DSD support, it is a major upset for users, especially if they are paying $300 for equipment. Another thing is that it only has a 96 kHz sampling rate, a bit low for its price range. However, even if this DAC lacks those two features, it still compensates with other benefits you are getting from this equipment.
The DACMagic Plus has an optional Bluetooth module you can connect wirelessly. It even uses AptX to make sure it does not have any lag when connecting to the source.
You get very low chances of crosstalk from this device. It shows 104 dB in frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. The Signal-to-Noise Ratio is also great at 117 dB. All of its conversion processes are done by a Burr-Brown PCM1795 installed in this DAC.
Now, if you want to get the best out of this DAC, you need to make sure you use a linear power supply and upgrade the power supply that came with it. The V90DAC becomes more sensitive and efficient if used with a linear power supply.
9. Benchmark DAC3 HGC
You would expect nothing but ultimate quality with the price tag that this DAC brings.
A DAC, an amp, and a pre-amp rolled into one. The superior sound quality coming out of this piece of equipment is just stunning. This is one of our best DACs.
We’ve checked out several DACs around, and one stood out mightily within the pack. This DAC from Benchmark is built for producing the best quality audio you can get. At first glance, this amp is just a bunch of ports and LEDs and a knob to control the volume.
Sure, it is not that attractive to the eye, and you might even question, is it really worth over $2000? Price is often a factor when people are shopping for any product. It needs to be jaw-droppingly good looking. We have to admit this DAC is not appealing.
It is just the same size of a hardback book, measuring 216 mm x 249 mm x 44.5 mm and weighing 3 lbs (DAC only).
But let’s take a look at what’s under the hood, its features, and possibly end up with a justification why we chose this to be at the top spot. The DAC3 HGC (Hybrid Gain Control), has an ES9028PRO chip, this allows this device to reproduce high-quality audio in different formats. The sample rate of this DAC is 192 kHz with a bit-depth of 32 bits. However, this depends on the input. The optical inputs are limited to signals of 96 kHz, while the others can cope with 24-bit/192 kHz.
For the outputs you have dual 6.3 mm ports on the front. If you use the port on the left, it will mute both the XLR and RCA line output, while everything is kept active if you use the one on the right (greedy little lefty!). Both of these ports are driven by an HPA2 module that can power even the most power-hungry cans.
The front panel is like a landmine of LEDs. You have seven lights to indicate the source, one shows if you have home theater bypass mode active, two for bit depth (16 or 24-bit), and four more to show sampling rate and DSD. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.
As for sound quality, most of the frequencies common to the human ear are covered (20 Hz to 20 kHz). There’s virtually no noise or distortion present in your output, SNR is rated at 128dB, and THD+N is 0.00032% @–3 dBFS @20 to 20 kHz test tone. Because of the DAC chip configuration, crosstalk is also eliminated. It has eight channels grouped into sets of four to make stereo outputs.
The result of all this is super-clear, clean, and crisp-sounding audio that can blow your mind out. Surely it is not for everyone, and really only for the purest of audiophiles. But for people who can spend a lot on audio equipment, this thing is undoubtedly going to get your attention.
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