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Best DACs 2021: USB, portable and desktop DACs

Best DACs Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best DACs you can buy in 2021.

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 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” that makes sense only within the digital domain. In short, DACs play a huge part in making digital music worthwhile.

The very best DACs will make your system sing, but something sub-optimal - or sticking to the ones used in regular do-it-all components like those mentioned above – might prevent you getting the most from your set-up.

Whether you're after a cheap USB DAC for your laptop, a portable model to improve your on-the-go phone sound, a high-end device to slip into a home hi-fi system, or a multi-purpose hybrid, you're sure to find a contender on this list of the best DACs...

See all our DAC reviews

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: Future)

1. Chord Qutest

Pound for pound the best DAC on the market right now.


Inputs: Coaxial digital, optical digital, USB Type-B | Outputs: RCA phono | Bluetooth: No | Max sample rate support: 32bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512 | Dimensions (hwd): 4.1 x 16 x 7.2cm | Weight: 770g

Reasons to Buy

Clear, precise and subtle performer
Excellent timing
Well equipped

Reasons to Avoid

No Bluetooth

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

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

2. Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

Cambridge’s generously featured DAC is the best you can buy at this level


Inputs: Coaxial digital x2, optical digital x2, USB Type-B | Outputs: RCA phono, XLR | Bluetooth: aptX | Max sample rate support: 332-bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512, MQA | Dimensions (hwd): 5.2 x 21.5 x 19.1cm | Weight: 1.2kg

Reasons to Buy

Smooth, clean, insightful sound
Generous connectivity
Native MQA support

Reasons to Avoid

No remote control
Tough competition

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 bot of 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 which means 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

Best DACs 2021

3. Audiolab M-DAC nano

The best portable DAC we've heard recently.


Inputs: n/a | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: Yes | Dimensions (hwd): 44 x 44 x 14mm | Weight: 28g

Reasons to Buy

Sonic punch and refinement
Compact and lightweight
Wireless operation

Reasons to Avoid

Battery life could be better

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

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: Audioquest)

4. AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

Another brilliant portable DAC from AudioQuest with a clever design.


Inputs: USB Type A | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: 24bit/96kHz PCM | Dimensions (hwd): 1.2 x 1.9 x 5.7cm | Weight: n/a

Reasons to Buy

Clear, insightful sound
Excellent timing and dynamics
Extensive file support

Reasons to Avoid

Not the most relaxed sound
Adaptor can be tricky to fit

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

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: Astell & Kern)

5. Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable

Another brilliant portable DAC from AudioQuest with a clever design.


Inputs: USB-C | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: PCM 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256 | Weight: 27g

Reasons to Buy

Notable improvement to audio
Clean, precise character
Nicely made

Reasons to Avoid

No iOS device compatibility

Before Astell & Kern announced its AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine the company making such a product. After all, it has been in the portable digital audio game with portable music players for years and enjoyed much success.

That know-how has been put to good use in offering USB-C device owners an affordable, practical way to soup up their smartphone or desktop sound through wired headphones. Adding the AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable between these headphones and our source devices (which provide power to the DAC) makes the world of difference. It’s such an appealing option that we can almost forgive the unwieldy name.

Read the full Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC Cable review

Best DACs 2021

6. Cyrus soundKey

This compact little critter is a fine budget DAC.


Inputs: Micro USB | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: 24bit/96kHz PCM | Dimensions (hwd): 2.3 x 0.8 x 5.4cm | Weight: 16g

Reasons to Buy

Clean, open sound
Loaded with detail
Compact and unobtrusive

Reasons to Avoid

Attaching to an iOS device is a faff
Some rivals sound more dynamic

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

Best DACs 2021

7. AudioQuest DragonFly Red

The DragonFly Red is another excellent portable DAC.


Inputs: USB Type-B | Outputs: 3.5mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: 24bit/96kHz PCM | Dimensions (hwd): 1.2 x 1.9 x 7.2cm | Weight: 22g

Reasons to Buy

Sophisticated, solid and subtle sound
As convenient as ever
Smartphone compatible

Reasons to Avoid

Red finish seems easily chipped

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

Best DACs 2021

8. Chord Mojo

A slice of high-end audio in a small DAC package.


Inputs: Coaxial, optical digital inputs, Micro USB | Outputs: 3.5mm x 2 | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: 32bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512 | Dimensions (hwd): 2.2 x 6 x 8.2cm | Weight: 180g

Reasons to Buy

Subtle and dynamic sound
Fine rhythmic drive
Solid build and good finish

Reasons to Avoid

Runs warm and gets hot charging

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

Best DACs 2021

9. Audiolab M-DAC+

This impressive DAC delivers an organised, coherent and expansive listen.


Inputs: 2 coaxial, 2 optical digital, XLR, stereo RCA, AES/EBU, USB Type-A, USB Type-B | Outputs: 6.3mm | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256 | Dimensions (hwd): 11.4 x 24.7 x 29.2cm | Weight: 3.7kg

Reasons to Buy

Extensive spec
Fine build and finish
Organised, tidy and expansive listen

Reasons to Avoid

Could sound more attacking

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+

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: iFi)

10. iFi hip-dac

This talented portable DAC delivers high-quality sound on the go.


Inputs: USB Type-A, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio | Outputs: 3.5mm, 4.4mm | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: PCM (up to 384kHz), DXD (up to 384kHz), DSD (up to 256kHz), MQA | Dimensions (hwd): 1.4 x 7 x 10.2cm (length) | Weight: 125g

Reasons to Buy

Easy-going by engaging sound
Battery power
Fine build and finish

Reasons to Avoid

Up against tough competition
Larger than some rivals
Sub-par sampling rate indicators

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

Best DACs 2021

11. Chord Hugo 2

Chord's Hugo was already a stellar DAC, and this only improves on it.


Inputs: Coaxial, optical digital inputs, Micro USB | Outputs: 3.5mm, 6.3mm, RCA phono | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512 | Dimensions (hwd): 2.1 x 10 x 13cm | Weight: 450g

Reasons to Buy

Detailed, dynamic and open sound
Well-made and specified
Exotic multi-coloured control system

Reasons to Avoid

All those colours can get confusing
Not strictly speaking portable

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

Best DACs 2021

(Image credit: iFi)

12. iFi Zen DAC

An accomplished and affordable DAC with many talents.


Inputs: USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible) | Outputs: Audio RCA, optical/coaxial | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256 | Dimensions (HWD): 3 x 10 x 11.7cm | Weight: 0.8kg

Reasons to Buy

Lots of detail
Great build quality
Plenty of features

Reasons to Avoid

Nothing at this price

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

Best DACs 2021

13. Chord Hugo TT2

Chord has produced another class-leading DAC.


Inputs: Coaxial, optical digital inputs, USB Type-B | Outputs: 3.5mm, 6.5mm, RCA phono, XLR | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512 | Dimensions (hwd): 4.6 x 23.5 x 22.3cm | Weight: N/A

Reasons to Buy

Articulate, informative sound
Great dynamic expression
Fine build

Reasons to Avoid

Ergonomics can be frustrating

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

Best DACs 2021

14. Chord DAVE

We haven’t heard a DAC at this level that sounds so natural or insightful.


Inputs: Coaxial, optical digital inputs, USB Type-B | Outputs: 3.5mm, 6.5mm, RCA phono, XLR | Bluetooth: Yes | Native sample rate support: 32bit/768kHz PCM, DSD512 | Dimensions (hwd): 7.1 x 33.3 x 15.4cm | Weight: 7kg

Reasons to Buy

Class-leading sound quality
Impressive feature list
Distinctive appearance

Reasons to Avoid

If the price isn’t an issue, nothing

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

Best DACs 2021

15. Nagra HD DAC/MPS

This Nagra (with its matching power supply) is one of the best DACs we've ever heard.


Inputs: Coaxial, optical digital inputs, USB Type-B | Outputs: 6.5mm, RCA phono, XLR | Bluetooth: No | Native sample rate support: 24bit/384kHz PCM, DSD128 | Dimensions (hwd): 7.6 x 35 x 27.7cm | Weight: N/A

Reasons to Buy

Natural, fluid and informative sound
Rhythmic and expressive delivery
Terrific build

Reasons to Avoid

Display could be better

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

  • djh1697
    The MARCH USB DAC is only £260, and made the Naim DAC sound pale! Works great with Tidal/Qobuz/Roon. Grab one while you can! They are superb! The will take DSD64 and 384/24 PCM
  • aaadavid
    I had a Rega Dac R - just upgraded to this DAC : RME adi-2 fs dac - astonishing improvement - see this review as an example have no affiliation with RME
    If you want the best DAC this is it.
    Please review What HiFi !!
  • Jacore
    Nice list. Would be good to see some reviews of R2R ladder DACs. Massive analogue dynamic sound. I’m currently running the Denafrips Ares II and it sounds astonishing. Like having my LPs on demand :)
  • jgladden
    Agree w aaadavid, huge miss excluding rme adi-2. Either the list is wildly out of date or whathifi is getting a kick back from chord. The rme costs less than the qutest, offers mind blowing options to dial in the sound, superior reproduction across the frequency range, balanced and unbalanced output, much quieter output (the qutest hiss is a thing folks), qutest might edge out the rme in regards to wider soundstage - it remains hotly contested which is the better DAC, but missing the rme entirely is unforgivable. Come on whathifi, its 2020, test a wider range of product please!
  • david_malcolm
    I agree that not featuring the RME ADI-2 and R2R ladder DACs seem to be either oversights or commercial decisions in this review.
  • Jota180
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    The digital-to-analogue conversion process is absolutely critical, so make sure you enlist the help of a decent DAC.

    Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs : Read more

    No RME, no list.
  • Jota180
    jgladden said:
    Agree w aaadavid, huge miss excluding rme adi-2. Either the list is wildly out of date or whathifi is getting a kick back from chord. The rme costs less than the qutest, offers mind blowing options to dial in the sound, superior reproduction across the frequency range, balanced and unbalanced output, much quieter output (the qutest hiss is a thing folks), qutest might edge out the rme in regards to wider soundstage - it remains hotly contested which is the better DAC, but missing the rme entirely is unforgivable. Come on whathifi, its 2020, test a wider range of product please!

    Agree with all of this. I was thinking of pulling the trigger on the Chord and was looking around the internet and I'd never heard of RME beofre, but once I'd read up on it, looked at the specs and feature list it's an absolute no brainer.
    It's just so well specced with useful things, well thought out and the two plugs for headphones and in ear phones is the icing on the cake.
    I'm so glad I found this one because the sound and features makes this unbeatable in my view.
  • Friesiansam
    I would want to see far more than just that one review about the RME. It tells us that the noise floor is low, timing is good and clarity is good but, there is lot more that affects perceived sound quality and this review tells us nothing else about the sound it delivers. Make sure to buy from a retailer that will facilitate easy returns.