Best DACs 2024: USB, desktop and portable digital-to-analogue converters

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 another analogue audio output, it has a DAC built-in.)

As digital audio is now dominating our music listening habits as streaming and internet radio grow in popularity, DACs have become more ubiquitous, both in their integration into audio products and the number of external DACs available. It is the latter we are focusing on here, as they are dedicated to the digital-to-analogue conversion cause and therefore tend to fly the flag for sound quality more than the DAC chips found inside everyday do-it-all devices.

We pride ourselves on how we test DACs. Ensuring our expert reviews team, which has over 150 years of experience, has reviewed a large market segment is key in allowing us to confidently pick the best DACs across various budget and for every use case. After all, something sub-optimal – like those built-in DAC chips or a poor-performing external DAC – 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 really sing, invest in the best...

The quick list

Written by
About Us
Written by
Becky Roberts

I'm the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and have been testing hi-fi and audio products for over a decade – including every kind of digital-to-analogue converter out there. I'm a self-professed headphones fan and spend a lot of time either at my desk or travelling, so desktop and portable DACs are my most used and valued audio components. My picks below have something for everyone, varying in use-case design and budget, but all six share one thing in common: class-leading performance at their respective prices.

The best hi-fi DAC

What Hi-Fi? Award winner. The best DAC to upgrade your hi-fi system.

Specifications

Inputs: Coaxial, optical, USB (Type-B)
Outputs: RCA
Bluetooth: No
Max file support: 32-bit/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
-
No headphone jack

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. (It's the only one of this type on this page.) 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. It takes the performance of its 2Qute predecessor and goes far beyond it, offering greater nuance, texture and space. "Notes have crisper, more distinct leading edges, carry warmth and texture in abundance, and never decay prematurely – even when forthcoming notes tumble over the top," we penned in our five-star Qutest review.

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 and the easiest recommendation we can make for anybody who is looking to upgrade their digital hi-fi system and can afford this machine.

Read our full Chord Qutest review

The best budget DAC

What Hi-Fi? Award winner. A fantastic way to upgrade your desktop headphone system on a budget.

Specifications

Inputs: USB 3.0
Outputs: RCA, 6.3mm, 4.4mm x2
Bluetooth: No
Max file support: 32-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD256, MQA
Dimensions (HWD): 3 x 10 x 11.7cm
Weight: 0.8kg

Reasons to buy

+
Clearer and more insightful than predecessor
+
Expressive dynamics
+
Good output selection

Reasons to avoid

-
No mains adapter included
-
Has a brand-new successor (Zen DAC 3)

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 did with its budget home DAC/headphone amp, with the original Zen DAC having made way for a ‘V2’ model that offers improvements in terms of processing, MQA decoding and circuitry. This V2 model has What Hi-Fi? Award-winning status and still available, though a pricier Zen DAC 3 successor has just been announced and we look forward to seeing if its performance warrants the price hike shortly.

Meanwhile, the V2 budget DAC, which can be USB or mains-powered (though a mains adapter doesn’t come in the box), is still excellent in both the features and performance department for the money. "We hailed the Zen DAC for offering a significant upgrade on a computer’s audio quality for not much money, and the Zen V2 achieves that to an even greater extent," we noted in our Zen DAC V2 review.

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 and a great way to boost your laptop or computer sound.

Note that the company's Zen Air DAC is an even more affordable version, but we're yet to put that one through its paces.

Read our full iFi Zen DAC V2 review

The best portable DAC

What Hi-Fi? Award winner. Chord’s game-changing portable DAC brings high-end performance to a desktop/portable setup.

Specifications

Inputs: Optical, 3.5mm coaxial, USB-C, Micro USB
Outputs: 3.5mm x2
Bluetooth: No
Max file support: 32-bit/768kHz, DSD256
Dimensions (hwd): 2.3 x 8.3 x 6.2cm
Weight: 185g

Reasons to buy

+
Benchmark transparency
+
Lively, musical, open sound
+
Several customisation options

Reasons to avoid

-
Convoluted colour display

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.

To quote our five-star Mojo 2 review, "we aren’t exaggerating in saying that Chord has advanced the Mojo in pretty much every sonic area. The Mojo’s soundstage has been opened up for the sequel and that extra depth and dimension has been filled with greater resolution that is not only unmistakably present thanks to a big boost in clarity but also more precisely placed."

While from a performance point of view, the multi-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 bonus of a Bluetooth connection between it and the source. But know that the Mojo 2 is undoubtedly the better performer.

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 (below) 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

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Becky Roberts

You might have realised that Chord Electronics DACs represent half of the picks on this list, and for good reason – the British digital audio specialist has set the bar high at many price points. The Chord Mojo is its entry-level DAC, and while its compact, portable design is quirky to use and has a relatively high price, its performance really is superb – not a million miles from that of the much more expensive (and excellent) Chord Hugo 2, I must say. I love using it for longer travels – on flights, for example – and I'd recommend making the most out of it by pairing it with high-end audiophile headphones if you can.

The best USB DAC

What Hi-Fi? Award winner. A brilliant, cleverly designed portable DAC for PCs, laptops and phones.

Specifications

Inputs: USB
Outputs: 3.5mm
Bluetooth: No
Max file support: 24-bit/96kHz PCM, MQA
Dimensions (hwd): 1.2 x 1.9 x 5.7cm
Weight: 20g

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

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 it's also the most expensive of AudioQuest's DragonFlys (the most affordable is the five-star DragonFly Black; the middle model is the five-star DragonFly Red), it is also the best value of the trio 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 to a phone via a USB-A-to-USB-C (or -Lightning) dongle adapter. It boasts a more advanced DAC chip than the model-down DraongFly 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. "Lines are indelibly drawn round the edges of each instrument, with granular detail on offer to complement the cleanliness and military precision," reads our five-star DragonFly Cobalt review.

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

An exceptional desktop device – and the most DAC most people will ever need.

Specifications

Inputs: Coaxial, optical, Micro USB
Outputs: 3.5mm, 6.3mm, RCA
Bluetooth: Yes (aptX)
Max file support: 32-bit/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. 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 be 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. But its biggest talent? Timing. As we noted in our five-star Chord Hugo 2 review, "timing is perhaps Hugo 2’s strongest suit of all – it brings absolutely believable unity to ensemble music". It has the dynamic expression and insight to outmuscle excellent rivals like the SPL Diamond and NuPrime DAC-9X.

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M and Chord Mojo 2 (above) are options if your budget is smaller, and you should certainly consider the next-model-up 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

A serious DAC that sets sky-high standards for performance and pricing.

Specifications

Inputs: USB Type A, USB Type B, coax BNC, coax RCA, optical, AES/EBU x 2
Outputs: RCA, XLR
Bluetooth: No
Max file support: 24-bit/384kHz PCM, DSD128
Dimensions (hwd): 12.5 x 44.4 x 43.5cm
Weight: 15.6kg

Reasons to buy

+
Outstanding detail, composure and sonic authority
+
Expressive dynamics
+
Taut and powerful bass
+
Excellent build and finish

Reasons to avoid

-
Streaming module doesn’t impress as much as the DAC section
-
A bewildering array of filters and sonic tuning options

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 swept us away with the musical experience time and time again during our testing. In our five-star Rossini Apex DAC review, we said: "We’re impressed by the authority and scale of the Rossini’s presentation. It sounds solid and full-bodied in a way that digital products very rarely do. We also admire the stability, focus and layered nature of the dCS’s stereo imaging."

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 and dCS's Lina are other high-end options to consider 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

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. The right dedicated DAC will give your everyday digital device or more sophisticated digital source the sonic boost it could well need, but there are different types to consider depending on your device and user requirements. 

If you're looking to boost your mobile sound on the go, a compact USB-C dongle (with an adapter, if you have an iPhone 14 or older) 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 typically affordable and easy-to-use 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 wish to play or stream more niche music formats such as DSD or MQA.

Also consider

  • NuPrime DAC-9X: While not quite as transparent as the class-leading Chords, this DAC/preamp/headphone amp hardly puts a foot wrong – it still sounds terrific, is generous in the connections department and works well in a wide range of systems.
  • iFi hip-dac 3: AudioQuest's DragonFly Cobalt edges the rivalry, but it's a very closely fought battle – not something many of the AudioQuest's contenders can claim. This portable DAC is smart, versatile and a pleasure to listen to.

How we test DACs

The diversity of DACs, from portable models for phones to component-sized converters for high-end hi-fi systems, means that not all DACs are tested the same way at What Hi-Fi?.

The former kind are lived with and used out and about and at our office desktops, while the latter invariably passes through our state-of-the-art testing facilities in Reading, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers tests every bit of hi-fi kit that pass through our door.

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 put 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 ensure we hear every DAC at its optimum – whether it's a portable USB DAC for on-the-go use with a phone, a desktop model ideal for pairing with a laptop, or one designed to slot into a hi-fi system. Depending on the type and budget of the DAC under scrutinty, various partnering headphones and source devices are used with it to guage its performance across both real-world and ideal setups. And we play an eclectic mix of music genres and quality audio files 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 ensure 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.

Recent updates

  • May 2024: No new entries, despite new reviews of the SPL Diamond and iFi hip-dac 3, which are very good but don't dethrone the Chord Hugo 2 and AudioQuest Cobalt respectively.
  • January 2024: We added 'also consider' options to the bottom of each entry to give you more context and choice, as well as an FAQ section (below) to answer any queries you may have on digital-to-analogue converters.
  • October 2023: We flagged our newly crowned What Hi-Fi? Award 2023 winners, which make up two-thirds of this buying guide list.

F.A.Q.

What does 'DAC' stand for?

'DAC' stands for 'digital-to-analogue converter', so we're rather glad the device has a commonly used acronym. It's a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name, considering the devices convert digital audio signals to analogue ones so that they can be understood by speakers and headphones.

What is a DAC?

Built into every digital audio device, such as computers, tablets, music streamers and smartphones, DACs are fundamental in listening to digital music. A DAC chip converts digital information (essentially a sizeable collection of “0s and 1s”) into analogue signals that are intelligible to the likes of speakers and headphones. You can read about how this is done in our comprehensive What is a DAC? explainer.

But DAC chips are not born equal, nor are their implementations standard across digital devices they're found in. They are likely to be inferior in both ways inside everyday do-it-all devices than dedicated DAC devices designed specifically for the task (like those you'll see above), hence why they often make a big difference when it comes to improving sound quality.

Can a DAC be used as a preamp?

Firstly, the roles of a DAC and a preamplifier are different: the former converts digital audio signals to analogue, while the latter boosts (typically weak) signals from a source (a turntable, say) or a DAC before they are fed to a power amplifier or active speakers. However, many dedicated DACs now feature preamp stages and volume-controlled outputs, meaning they can perform both tasks. 

That said, the efficiency and effectiveness of a DAC's preamplification duties really will depend on the DAC itself and the rest of the system it's connected to. You may find that the DAC's output signal is too weak, for example, and you won't likely get as much control over level adjustment as you would a separate preamp (or integrated).

Will a DAC improve Spotify?

Connect a decent-quality DAC (like one of those listed above) to your laptop or phone or other digital music source, and you should hear a sonic improvement in the music you're playing through it, whether it's from Spotify or Tidal or locally stored files. However, a DAC can only deal with (convert) the quality of the digital file/stream it is handed, and Spotify's maximum bitrate of 320kbps is rather limited compared to high-resolution streams from many rival services.

So yes, you should hear a positive difference during Spotify playback if you add a good DAC to the equation – so long as (and this is important) your headphones or speakers are transparent enough to communicate what the DAC is doing. 

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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10+ years in the hi-fi industry, she has reviewed all manner of audio gear, from budget amplifiers to high-end speakers, and particularly specialises in headphones and head-fi devices. In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.

With contributions from
  • 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
    Reply
  • 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 https://www.themasterswitch.com/rme-adi-2-dac-reviewI have no affiliation with RME
    If you want the best DAC this is it.
    Please review What HiFi !!
    David
    Reply
  • 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 :)
    Reply
  • 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!
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • gaburko
    Again no RME? Guys, your objectivity has always been questionable, but when you persistently ignore one of the best products out there for years, it makes me think you might have other things on your mind apart from product quality.
    Reply
  • TenTonTarantula
    No Schiit, Denafrips, RME....in general in WHF, not just this list. Must be something to do with not upsetting established relationships with manufacturers, but would make WHF much more interesting if they covered the full range of the industry, not just the same old roster of incumbents. Might given the reviewers a bit more excitement too...and even the chance to give something less than four stars for a change.
    Reply