For those new to the world of high-end audio, DACs (digital-to-analog converters) and amplifiers are external audio components that bypass the built-in (and often low quality) sound card of your current system be it laptop, mp3 player, or otherwise. To put it simply, they have the ability to bring the sound quality of your headphones to the next level. Below is our buyers guide to the best DAC/Amp combos on the market.
If you are unsure what you want or need, asking yourself these questions will help guide you (as well as learning a bit about digital audio):
- Do you already have a pair of headphones you love? If not, that should be your top priority. Headphones are the most important component in your audio rig so make sure you have a pair that you can trust as your sidekick for years to come before you invest in a DAC or amp.
- How difficult is it to drive your headphones? For those new to amplification, “to drive” means to provide sufficient power, but this does not directly translate to sufficient volume. Even if your current system can drive your headphones to high enough volumes, you may still benefit immensely from an amp. A general rule of thumb is that the bigger your headphones are and the the higher the impedance (ohmage) the more likely they are to benefit from an amplifier. I recommend searching audio forums for other people that have your headphones and seeing what they say about how an amp affected the sound.
- Is this your first DAC/Amp? If so, I highly recommend going for a portable model. This way, you can take your hi-fi gear wherever you go. Most portable DAC/Amps are battery or USB-powered — perfect for laptop listening.
- Will you be using it with your iPod or iPhone? If so, I recommend an iPod line out dock (LOD) cable because it can bypass the internal sound card so your shiny new DAC/Amp can work its magic. These FiiO cables are cheap too, so no excuses!
- What is the bitrate of your music library? To get the most out of a DAC/Amp, your music should be encoded in a high quality format. Lossless formats such as FLAC are ideal but because they are very large, it makes them less practical to use on portable players such as smartphones with limited storage capacity. It is also difficult for most people to tell the difference between FLAC and high bitrate mp3s. Our format of choice is V0 mp3 (variable bitrate ~245 kbps) which is a great compromise between excellent sound quality and small file size.
- How do I find a good match for my headphones? You shouldn’t stress over this, but all amps, DACs, and headphones have their own unique sound signature so proper pairing can be critical when striving for the “perfect sound”. If you find your headphones slightly aggressive or harsh, pairing them with the proper DAC/Amp can rid them of the problem. There are infinite possibilities here so if you are concerned about pairing your best bet is to search forums for people in your shoes — there is a good chance your question has already been answered!
Onto the good stuff… the recommendations! Below are some of the most highly regarded DAC/Amps at their respective price ranges. Disclaimer: these recommendations are not comprehensive. Instead, we have tried to find something for everyone while keeping the list short. At the same time, this is a living document so let us know what we’re missing!
FiiO E7 (USB or battery powered) – $70
FiiO is a budget-minded company that offers some of the best products for the money. The E7 acts as a DAC+Amp when plugged in to a computer via USB or a standalone amplifier when plugged into an mp3 player line out. It boasts 80 hours of battery life, a bass boost with 4 settings, and 2 headphone line outs. The E7 does not support 24/96 and the amp section is not very impressive but for the money this thing is packed with features. It looks very nice too with a brushed metal finished on all sides except the front which has a mirror-like gloss to it. [Buy at Amazon]
FiiO E10 (USB powered) – $70
If you are on a budget and don’t plan on using a DAC/Amp with your portable device, the E10 is the way to go as it offers a modest improvement in sound over the portable E7 as well as support for 24/96. If you don’t want to dive into reviews and just want a great bang-for-your-buck DAC/Amp, the E10 will not disappoint. The brushed metal finish makes it look and feel fantastic, it is very user friendly, and simply fun to listen to. The +3dB bass boost switch is no joke — it bumps strong, controlled, punchy bass. Across all frequencies it isn’t especially articulate or resolving, but other than that there is not much to dislike. It pairs well with all genres and almost all mid-tier headphones. To give you a tour of the features, the E10 has a volume knob and headphone out on the front of the device, and on the back a mini-USB power input, coax out, and line out. [Buy at Amazon]
HRT HeadStreamer (USB powered) – $140
The HeadStreamer is anything but typical in the realm of entry-level DAC/Amps. From its white/gray color scheme (which looks great with Macs) to its seemingly bare-bones feature set, you’ll have to look deeper to see why the HeadStreamer deserves a place on this list. As you can see from the photo, all the controls and features are on the front face of the device. There is a mini-USB in, headphone out, and LED lights which indicate the sampling rate. It’s a basic feature set, but one that should satisfy the average listener. There is no physical volume knob so volume control must be done via your computer, but HRT states that because the volume is added after the D/A conversion the sound quality is improved, especially at low volumes. The HeadStreamer supports all bit depths and sample rates except 192khz so unless you are a recording musician you will be taken care of. The strengths of the HeadStreamer can be summed up in three words: detail, soundstage, and BASS! The HeadStreamer’s detail retrieval and soundstage are very good but it’s the bass output that is simply top notch for the price. Though it is not intended for bassheads (for that check out the Digizoid ZO amplifier), the bass hits hard with good texture and control. The overall sound signature is forward yet close to neutral so the HeadStreamer is great for people who want to add an energetic edge to their headphones. [Buy at Amazon]
Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2D (AC powered) – $230
Combining two of their own products (the EHP-O2 and the E-DAC) into one device, the EHP-O2D is a small desktop DAC/Amp combo that pushes a smooth, warm sound. Interestingly, all the electronics in the O2D were designed by NwAvGuy (a DIYer). All the ports are on the front of the device except the mini-USB in. The DAC section supports up to 24-bit, 96khz files. All in all, the O2D packs a huge sound into a small box and should be a top consideration for those worried about desk space. [Buy at Epiphany Acoustics]
AudioQuest Dragonfly (USB powered) – $250
Despite being the size of a USB thumb drive, the Audioquest Dragonfly is powerful enough to drive all but the most demanding headphones. Even top tier planar magnetic headphones such as the Audeze LCD2 can be powered adequately by the Dragonfly! For those who highly value portability, there should be no hesitation to shoot for the Dragonfly. It doesn’t have any special features (besides 4 colored LED lights that indicate the sample rate) but if portability is a concern and you will be doing mostly laptop listening, the Dragonfly can’t be beat. [Buy at Amazon]
CEntrance DACPort (USB powered) – $400
If you do not have a portable solution and can afford it, there are few reasons to not go for the DACport. It is plug-and-play via USB, does not require an external power source, and is compatible with all major operating systems (PC, Mac, and Linux). It is only average in terms of features, but the DACport shines when it comes to sound quality. Packed within the unique-looking capsule is a neutral sound with top notch detail retrieval and sense of space. If you ever wish to upgrade, the DACport can feed a dedicated amplifier. [Buy at Amazon]
Yulong D100 MKII (AC powered) – $475
Building a desktop rig can be a daunting task. With budget as your only limit, how do you go about narrowing down the playing field? D100 to the rescue, but not only because it sounds great with nearly all dynamic headphones; the back of the device is the kicker. It is compatible with USB, Optical, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU inputs, as well as RCA/XLR outputs so no matter your upgrade path, Yulong has you covered. The DAC section of the D100 is without a question top tier at this price and can compete with $1000+ products. Its built-in amplifier is also very good — capable of driving any headphone you can get your hands on. Many people decide to buy an external amp somewhere down the line, but for starters it is certainly not necessary. Its sound signature is ever so slightly warm, but transparent for the most part and very true to the source. If you decide to pull the trigger, make sure to get the MK2 version! Although the hardware has stayed the same, Yulong has tweaked several circuit parameters based on customer input. Photo courtesy of NobleHiFi. [Buy at eBay]
V-Moda VAMP (iPhone attachment) – $600
Ever wanted to listen to your high-end headphones straight from your iPhone? That’s exactly what the VAMP can do. In addition to being a stylish, high quality DAC/Amp, it also serves as a backup battery for your iPhone with the flip of a switch (it can extend your iPhone’s life 2x at full charge). The VAMP does add some bulk to your phone but the contours and brushed metal make it look very sleek. It is based on the VentureCraft Go-DAP 4.0 but V-Moda has made some notable improvements. Whether the improvements are worth $200 is up in the air, but here are the differences are as follows: the battery size is increased (from 1,500 mAh to 2,200 mAh), the op amps are of higher quality, and the EQ setting is slightly different (more forward in the mids). [Buy at Amazon]