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 something on our list of the best DACs. And with Black Friday around the corner, it's a good time to be keeping an eye out for bargains.
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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.
It boasts Chord's trademark colour-denoting buttons, which 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); 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 too, weighing in at just 28g. Being small and light are major plus points for portability, but the nano’s biggest advantage over rivals such as the Soundkey or the Dragonfly (below) is that the connection with your device is done wirelessly, in this case by apt X Bluetooth (v4.2). There's a built-in rechargeable battery, too. Sonically, 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
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 £100 more, but it does take performance to another level. We'd willingly pay the extra.
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 affords your music space, detail, dynamics and transparency. And that's great for the size and money.
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 pulls it off superbly. Use this DAC 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 it delivers. 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. 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.
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 update treatment. The M-DAC+ was well worth the wait. Not just a bigger box, the specs got the plus treatment too, with support for 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256 hi-res music, plus a host of new connections. Sonically, 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 Hugo 2 via aptX Bluetooth. 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs also feature, plus a pair of stereo RCAs to connect an amplifier. The Chord is a smooth, neutral listen – it doesn’t overstate, it doesn’t underplay. It simply 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
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 (and 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. So, Chord’s seemly unstoppable digital bandwagon rolls on with yet another class leader. The Hugo TT2 may have slightly flawed ergonomics, but in every other respect it’s a stunner.
Read the full review: Chord Hugo TT2
Unlike the Mojo and Hugo 2, the Chord's 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. That headphone output is similarly pleasing and it even makes a decent digital preamp. Eight grand is quite some price tag, but then the DAVE 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, 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. 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