Best DACs Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best DACs you can buy in 2020.
You might not realise, but most of us make use of at least one digital-to-analogue converter (or DAC) every single day. 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 analogue signal before it is output.
Without a DAC, your digital music collection is nothing but 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 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.
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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 and 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 really 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 warmth and texture in abundance.
The Qutest boasts Chord's trademark colour-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 on-board, the Qutest’s sole purpose is to be the digital-to-analogue bridge between your digital source and amplifier. And it does the job brilliantly.
Read the full review: Chord Qutest
A great way to improve the sound of your phone or laptop, we can’t think of a better alternative for portable use. The M-DAC nano is a tiny unit, barely bigger than a custard cream biscuit. It’s light, weighing in at just 28g, and there's a built-in rechargeable battery, too.
Being small and light are major plus points for portability, but the nano’s biggest advantage over rivals such as the Cyrus Soundkey or the AudioQuest Dragonfly (below) is that the connection with your device is done 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, 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?
Read the full review: Audiolab M-DAC nano
Want all the benefits of the DragonFly Red (2.1v headphone output, bit-perfect digital volume control and MQA renderer) with more detail, greater dynamics and an even better sense of timing? Then you should try the latest instalment in AudioQuest's line of portable DACs - the DragonFly Cobalt.
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 colours to indicate 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 a great feature for at-a-glance checking, and helps justify the extra outlay.
Read the full review: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
A cheaper alternative to the AudioQuest above is the Cyrus soundKey. 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 cable.
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 great level of detail, with voices and instruments rendered in a completely natural way. Dynamics and transparency are also key strengths that make this mini marvel punch well above its weight.
Read the full review: Cyrus soundKey
The majority of 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, like the DragonFly Cobalt above, pulls it off superbly.
Though on first glance, it might seem a bit under-powered. After all, its hi-res support tops out at 24-bit/96kHz, which is 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.
Read the full review: AudioQuest DragonFly Red
Mojo is short for ‘Mobile Joy’. And this DAC more than lives up to its name.
Sonically, It can convey power and scale when the music requires but has the finesse to make the most of the subtler passages, too. That sense of organisation is clear here, as is the 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 which makes 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.
Read the full review: Chord Mojo
The original M-DAC was among our favourite 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 at the money.
You don't just get a bigger 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's 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 wide, believable soundstage, impressive detail levels, and good timing. It's not the last word in attack and drive but if you can handle that, there's not much else to quibble with here.
Read the full review: Audiolab M-DAC+
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 pair of stereo RCAs to connect an amplifier.
So to say it's a versatile piece of kit would be an understatement.
The Chord is a smooth, neutral listen – it doesn’t overstate, yet it doesn’t underplay. For some DACs, that could be playing it safe, but the Hugo 2 still manages to keep things interesting, creating a holistic sound: it arranges the pieces into a convincing whole where bass is balanced against treble in the most unforced and crystal-clear manner. There isn’t another DAC around at anywhere near this sort of price able to communicate so well and so effortlessly. We like it a lot.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo 2
IFi has a solid reputation for its well-featured, affordable digital-to-analogue converters. And, thanks to a combination of features and sound quality that’s hard to better at the 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 computer that’s connected to it. 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. Though, bear in mind that at about the size of a paperback, it's not as portable as some rivals.
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 sounds great too, easily outperforming the sound card in a laptop. There's a convincing 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.
Read the full review: iFi Zen DAC
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 best value DAC the company makes. You’ve got to have a mighty transparent system (not to mention a mighty fat wallet) to justify the use of anything more expensive than this.
There’s now also plenty of clear air between the performance of the TT2 and the Hugo 2, enough to make the price difference easily 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 stunner.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo TT2
Unlike the Mojo and Hugo 2, the Chord DAVE isn’t about portability. It’s about maximising performance, and it does this brilliantly. The DAVE’s sound is superbly refined, but it never uses that as an excuse to smooth things off and remove the sparkle from recordings.
It’s faithful to the source, and we can ask no more than that. You get plenty of source options too: there’s 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 - that's very capable indeed, though we're not sure how many people will actually be able to take advantage of such numbers.
DAVE doesn't come cheap, but then this DAC is quite some product. We're smitten and we think you will be too.
Read the full review: Chord DAVE
We've no hesitation in saying Nagra’s HD DAC is one of the best DACs on the planet. It's a hugely desirable piece of kit which boasts immaculate build quality and immense 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’s plenty of refinement and a total lack of unwanted hardness, there remains a healthy dose of dynamic punch when required. Whether enjoying aggressive or subtle selections, the Nagra is capable of staggering levels of detail presented in an effortlessly musical style. And of course it goes without saying that the build quality is second to none (as you would expect at this price).
If you're in the market for a serious high-end DAC, then you need to hear this.
Read the full review: Nagra HD DAC/MPS