Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

The right DAC will make your system sing, but something sub-optimal 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.

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

1. Chord Qutest

Goes without headphone amplification and Bluetooth but hits back with class-leading sound.

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best Chord Qutest deals

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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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

2. AudioQuest DragonFly Red

If you want to give your computer a hi-fi boost, the DragonFly Red is a superb option for the money.

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best AudioQuest DragonFly Red deals

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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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

3. Cyrus soundKey

This compact DAC is a brilliant budget option.

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best Cyrus soundKey deals

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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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

4. Chord Mojo

This outstanding DAC delivers a slice of Chord's high-end sound in a small package.

SPECIFICATIONS

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 when charging

Today's best Chord Mojo deals

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£398.99
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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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

5. Audiolab M-DAC+

An organised, coherent and expansive listen - and built like a bus at the same time.

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best Audiolab M-DAC+ deals

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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+

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

6. Chord Hugo 2

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

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best Chord Hugo 2 deals

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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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

7. Chord Hugo TT2

Chord has produced another class-leading DAC.

SPECIFICATIONS

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 (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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

8. Chord DAVE

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

SPECIFICATIONS

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'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

Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

9. Nagra HD DAC/MPS

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

SPECIFICATIONS

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

Today's best Nagra HD DAC/MPS deals

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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