Best DACs Buying Guide 2022: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best DACs you can buy in 2022.
You might not realise it, but most of us make use of at least one digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) every single day. Any device that delivers digital sound – be it a laptop, Blu-ray player, digital TV box, games console, portable music player or phone – requires a DAC to convert its digital audio to an analogue signal before it is output to speakers, headphones or another analogue device.
Without a DAC, your digital music collection is nothing but a sizeable collection of “0s and 1s” that makes sense only within the digital domain. In short, DACs play an instrumental part in making digital music worthwhile. Especially if you choose the right one...
How to choose the best DAC for you
The very best DACs will make your hi-fi, desktop or audio system sing, but something sub-optimal – or sticking to the ones used in regular do-it-all components like those mentioned above – will prevent you from getting the most out of your set-up.
So, what sort of DAC will best suit your needs? If you're looking to boost your mobile sound on the go, a tiny USB dongle (with an adapter, if your phone requires it) will do the trick nicely and discreetly as the middleman between your phone and headphones. Some are wired to your headphones and source, others can connect to a source wirelessly over Bluetooth. (Examples of both can be found below.)
Then there are desktop and USB-stick DACs – both easy-to-use and typically affordable solutions to maximise your laptop or PC's sound. There are also more serious DACs that are designed to slot into your home hi-fi system to improve the quality of a digital source, some of which are geared towards headphone listening while others are headphone socket-less and thus strictly designed to sit between a source and amplifier.
Whatever style of DAC you might need, you're sure to find a contender on this list of the best DACs you can buy...
- What is a DAC? Here's everything you need to know
Given there's no Bluetooth connectivity or headphone amp onboard, 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.
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).
Read the full review: Chord Qutest
The ‘if it ain’t broke…’ saying isn’t lost on us. But at the same time we realise that in a competitive industry such as hi-fi, making the best even better off your own back isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s what iFi has done with its budget home DAC and headphone amp offering, with the original Zen DAC now making way for a ‘V2’ model that offers improvements in terms of processing, MQA decoding and circuitry.
They pay off - as the DAC's current What Hi-Fi? Award-winning status demonstrates. This budget DAC, which can be USB or mains powered (though a mains adapter doesn’t come in the box), is excellent in both the features and performance department for the money.
At one end is a USB Type B input, plus RCA line and 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced outputs. The output of the Zen DAC can be switched between fixed and variable, meaning the iFi can operate as a digital preamp if you so wish. At the other end is another Pentaconn balanced output, which sits alongside the more conventional 6.3mm socket.
Offering a significant upgrade over computer sound quality in an era where people need it most, the Zen DAC V2 is another feather in the cap for iFi’s budget Zen series.
Read the full review: iFi Zen DAC V2
The fittingly named Mojo 2 is the long-anticipated, re-engineered replacement to the 2015-released original, which burst onto the scene as a real benchmark-setting game-changer in the then-fledgling world of portable DACs/headphone amps. And while those familiar with Chord’s most affordable product will see from the accompanying image that the aesthetic hasn’t exactly been overhauled for the sequel, significant progress has been made elsewhere to protect its position as the pinnacle of portable DACs.
While from a performance point of view the Mojo 2 can just as confidently raise a hi-fi system’s game too, some of those looking for a system boost might reasonably prefer a dedicated system alternative with more suitable connections, such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M (below). But for those who are after a primarily portable or desktop DAC solution in this price region (and cannot triple their budget to Chord Hugo 2 territory), we believe the decision to Mojo 2 or not to Mojo 2 is far easier. And what about existing Mojo owners? Honestly, Chord has left us no choice but to recommend the upgrade.
Read the full Chord Mojo 2 review
If you're looking for a DAC that combines all manner of useful features into an attractive and sonically astute package, the DacMagic 200M is a no-brainer, especially at this price.
It's well-equipped enough to slot effortlessly into any hi-fi or desktop system. A wide selection of digital inputs caters to a range of sources and there's aptX Bluetooth on board too. Add balanced and unbalanced outputs into the mix, plus a headphone output and hi-res audio support and that's pretty much any and all bases covered.
Sonically, it's got that recognisable 'Cambridge' sound, meaning a full, smooth tone partnered with an open, expressive, and authoritative delivery. Ignore this talented all-rounder at your peril.
Read the full review: Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M
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 installment in AudioQuest's line of portable DACs – the DragonFly Cobalt.
The USB DAC (which resembles a UBS stick/key and plugs straight into a laptop or PC's USB-A socket) 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 indeed phone via a dongle – and selected as means of audio output, the DAC’s LED will shine one of six colours 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 a great feature for at-a-glance checking and helps justify the extra outlay.
Read the full review: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
The headline is that this portable DAC/headphone amp offers a Bluetooth 5.1 connection to your source device (although not to your headphones, those still need to be wired into the unit) thus eliminating one wire from the potentially bulky, tangled equation of phone, to DAC, to headphones.
When discussing DACs to improve the sound quality of your music, Bluetooth puts the cat among the pigeons owing to the inescapable truth that its delivery has yet to catch up with both wi-fi and wired listening for a truly high fidelity sound. However, when portability is paramount and convenience is key, you cannot currently better the iFi Go Blu. It levels up your phone’s sound with very little effort or added weight in your pocket or strain on your wallet. It can sit in the tiny watch pocket of your jeans, doing its good work nowhere near your actual phone, and if you’re working in a cafe, it will both look and sound exceptionally good next to your flat white. Highly recommended.
Read the full iFi Go Blu review
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.
To say it's a decent-sounding one would too. The Hugo 2 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 the 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. And that's why it's a What Hi-Fi? Award winner. We like it a lot.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo 2
At this level, you’re unlikely to find a portable DAC as clear, zealous, fully featured, or as downright good-looking as the iFi hip-dac 2. When a product leans quite heavily on a gimmick – i.e. masquerading as a vessel for alcohol, albeit a nice one – you might feel yourself dismissing it before you’ve given it a chance. To do so where iFi is concerned would be wrong, because really, this DAC is anything but a joke.
It improves the quality of portable music without issue, faithfully plays virtually anything you ask it to, and the extra oomph afforded by the company’s more premium processor, in conjunction with its favoured Burr-Brown DAC, is well worth the nominal extra outlay over the original. Said original is still a noble, inexpensive DAC. It’s just that its successor is that little bit better.
Read the full iFi hip-dac 2 review
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). Just like the iFi Go Blu above.
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.
Read the full review: Audiolab M-DAC nano
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 underpowered. 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
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 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 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+
Like its newer variant, the hip-dac 2 (above), this portable DAC resembles a hip flask and delivers a shot of high-quality sound on the move. The most compact option in iFi's range, it's essentially the guts of the British brand's excellent desktop-based Zen DAC (below) squeezed into a smaller, battery-powered package.
The aluminium case feels rock solid and is accented by a nicely-damped metal volume control. As for audio quality, the hip-dac serves up the typical easy-going, refined iFi sound – we're big fans of its "undemanding nature, expressive dynamics and pleasing rhythmic precision."
In short, the iFi hip-dac is a superb buy – but it's up against a strong field. The likes of Zorloo’s Ztella set high standards for below the £100 mark, while the Cyrus soundKey remains hard to beat. Still, if you're looking for a high-quality portable DAC, this talented box of tricks warrants an audition.
Read the full review: iFi hip-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 that 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
How we test DACs
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door – including DACs.
What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we listen to every DAC we review against the current leader in its field to gauge how it compares to the best-in-class competition. We keep What Hi-Fi? Award winners in our stockrooms so we can always pit new products against ones we know and love, and we do our best to review as many new models in as many markets as possible to ensure our contextual knowledge is the best it can be.
We are always impartial in our testing and ensure we hear every DAC at its optimum – whether it's a portable DAC for using out and about with our phone, or one designed to slot into a hi-fi system. We'll use them in their best use case with different partnering source kit and headphones, as well as play plenty of different types of music through them. Naturally, we give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in) too.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
You can read more about how we test and review products on What Hi-Fi? here.