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, games console, portable music player or phone – requires a DAC to convert its digital audio to an analogue signal before it can be output to speakers, headphones or another analogue device. (Essentially, if a digital device has a headphone jack or an alternative analogue audio output, it has a DAC built-in.)
Indeed, 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. So they play an instrumental part in making digital music worthwhile for many of us.
As digital audio is now dominating our music listening habits as streaming and internet radio grow in popularity, DACs too have become more ubiquitous, both in their integration in hi-fi products and in the number of external DACs available. We pride ourselves on testing a large segment of the market, which allows us to confidently pick the very best DACs across every budget and for every use case. After all, 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, if you want to hear your digital hi-fi, desktop or portable audio system to really sing, invest in a decent DAC...
The quick list
The best hi-fi DAC
With no headphone amplifier onboard, the Award-winning Qutest is the ideal bridge between your digital source and amplifier.
The best budget DAC
This affordable desktop DAC is proof that better audio performance is accessible to everybody.
The best portable DAC
Chord’s palm-sized, battery-powered DAC has a lossless digital signal processor that ensures any device finds its audio mojo.
The best USB DAC
The sound produced by this dinky DAC far outweighs its dimensions, making it perfect for your laptop or phone.
The best desktop DAC
With its quirky colour-coding system, Chord’s Hugo 2 is certainly eye-catching, but its detailed and dynamic performance makes it a treat for the ears, too.
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The best hi-fi DAC
Given there's no Bluetooth connectivity or headphone amplifier 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 multi-award-winning 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). Quirky, sure, but undoubtedly talented.
Read our full Chord Qutest review
The best budget DAC
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-level 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. The Zen Air DAC is even more affordable, but we're yet to put that one through its paces.
Read our full iFi Zen DAC V2 review
The best portable DAC
The fittingly named Mojo 2 is the long-anticipated, re-engineered replacement to the 2015-released original Mojo, 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 Award-winning 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. iFi also offers a cheaper option with its GO Blu, which has the added bonus of a Bluetooth connection between it and the source.
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 our full Chord Mojo 2 review
The best USB DAC
Looking for a compact sound-booster that is just at home on your desktop as it is in your pocket? Then you should try the latest instalment in AudioQuest's line of portable DACs – the DragonFly Cobalt. While also the most expensive of AudioQuest's DragonFlys (the most affordable option is the DragonFly Black, the middle model is the DragonFly Red), we think it's the best value and therefore most highly recommendable.
The USB DAC resembles a UBS stick/key and plugs straight into a laptop or PC's USB-A socket, or a phone via a dongle adapter. It boasts a more advanced DAC chip than the model-down Red, plus a new microprocessor that 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. The Cobalt does wonders in cleaning up our laptop’s performance, no matter what kind of file we feed it or whether it’s streaming from YouTube, Spotify, Tidal or playing from our own hi-res library.
Once attached to your device and selected as a 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.
Read our full AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt review
The best desktop 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. Both 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.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is an option if you budget is smaller, and you should consider the Chord Hugo TT2 if it's bigger, but there isn’t another DAC around at anywhere near this sort of price that's able to communicate so well and so effortlessly. And that's why it's a current What Hi-Fi? Award winner. We like it a lot and reckon this is the most DAC most people will ever need.
Read our full Chord Hugo 2 review
The best high-end DAC
You've reached the most capable digital-to-analogue converter we’ve ever reviewed, which may not be surprising considering the price of this thing – £26,775 / $32,800 / AU$46,995.
There is no denying that the dCS Rossini Apex DAC is hugely expensive, and in these financially turbulent times it is easy to dismiss such products simply because they cost so much. Yet, judge this DAC by performance and it’s hard to imagine how it can be bettered. The Rossini Apex DAC delivers transparency of the highest order and sweeps us away with the musical experience time and time again during our testing.
The Rossini’s connectivity is very good too. You have USB in both Type A and B forms along with coax, BNC coax, optical and a pair of AES/EBUs. There are no analogue inputs of course, but there are outputs in both single-ended RCA and Balanced XLR flavours. Of course, any product that sells for as much as the Rossini has to be superbly made – and it is.
Chord's DAVE is also a high-end option if you can't quite stretch to the Rossini, while Nagra's HD DAC/MPS will also save you a few grand, but if you’re lucky enough to even contemplate buying at this level, we envy you.
Read our full dCS Rossini Apex DAC review
How to choose the best DAC for you
Wondering what sort of DAC will best suit your needs? Let us help.
If you're looking to boost your mobile sound on the go, a compact USB dongle (with an adapter, if your phone requires it) will do the trick nicely and discreetly as the middleman between your phone and wired headphones. Most are wired to both your headphones and source, while some (like the iFi Go Blu) can connect to a source wirelessly over Bluetooth and thus take one wire out of the equation.
Then there are desktop and USB-stick DACs, both easy-to-use and typically affordable solutions to maximise your laptop or PC's sound, or again be used with a phone via a dongle adapter.
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. Most are geared towards headphone listening and therefore have headphone amplifiers built in, though some (like the Chord Qutest listed above) are headphone-socket-less and therefore strictly designed to sit between a source and an amplifier/pair of active speakers.
Most DACs nowadays support a wide range of hi-res PCM files – FLACs, for example, often up to 32-bit – but compatibility should be considered if you play or stream more niche music formats such as DSD or the MQA-powered Tidal Masters.
How we test DACs
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London and Reading, 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 and as many five-star products as we can in our stockrooms so we can always pit new products against ones we know and love. We do our best to review as many new models in as many markets as possible, too, 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 use out and about with a phone, a desktop one ideal for pairing with a laptop, 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, before that, 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.