3 Best DAC For The Money [2021 Review]

Most of us utilize at least one digital-to-analog converter (DAC) on a daily basis, even if we aren’t aware of it. Any device that produces digital sound, such as a laptop, Blu-ray player, digital TV box, games console, portable music player, or smartphone, needs a DAC to convert the audio.

Your digital music library is nothing more than a large collection of “0s and 1s” that only make sense in the digital domain if you don’t have a DAC. In short, DACs are critical to making digital music enjoyable.

We included three of the best DAC devices for your money. If you are interested in these models, keep reading our 3 Best DAC For The Money review for more information below.

Our Top Pick: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter

Features: Since 2015, when AudioQuest debuted its Black and Red models, which included Android and iOS smartphone compatibility, the Cobalt is the first DragonFly to extend its wings. We’re happy to report that little has changed in terms of basic functionality since then.

These are items whose attractiveness stems from their simplicity, and whose plug-and-play approach to cleaning up the sound from your computer (or, with the supplied dongle, a smartphone or tablet) is a big part of that.

That isn’t to argue that AudioQuest has merely repackaged their cheaper DACs in a new chassis with a different color scheme and slightly smoother edges. If you are looking for the 3 Best DAC For The Money, you should give this one a chance.

The most significant improvement, though, is only noticeable when you plug in the DragonFly Cobalt; it’s in the performance.

The DAC’s LED will glow one of six colors to indicate sampling rate when connected to your laptop or smartphone and selected as the audio output: red for standby, green for 44.1kHz, blue for 48kHz, yellow for 88.2 kHz, light blue for 96kHz, or purple for decoding MQA.

Darko has commended DragonFly Black, the most economical model in the award-winning DragonFly series. Audio is hailed as “the ideal everyman hi-fi device,” while DragonFly Red, its more sophisticated sister, offers much-increased performance at a similar price.

For naturally detailed sound, the ESS 9010 DAC chip in Black and the higher-performance 9016 chip in Red use minimum-phase filtering. DragonFly Red contains a more advanced ESS headphone amp, whilst DragonFly Black employs a high-quality headphone amp with analog volume control.

A complex approach that provides Red a unique combination of power and grip over the music—a bit-perfect digital volume control that exists on the 9016 DAC chip itself. The DragonFly Black produces 1.2 volts, which is enough to power all preamplifier input circuits as well as a wide selection of today’s efficient headphones.

DragonFly Red is compatible with a larger range of headphones, including power-hungry, low-efficiency types, thanks to its greater 2.1-volt output.

Runner Up: iFi Zen DAC V2 Desktop Digital Analog Converter

Features: We couldn’t believe the tremendous value provided by the $130 desktop DAC Headphone Amp combo when we tested iFi Audio’s initial Zen DAC back in 2019.

It supported all digital audio formats, including high-resolution formats such as MQA and Native DSD, and it possessed adequate power, particularly via the balanced output. Most importantly, it sounded incredible.

The Zen DAC has been the inexpensive centerpiece of many headphone systems over the last couple of years, and it’s held up admirably. There aren’t many devices that can do everything it does for the price.

If you are looking for the 3 Best DAC For The Money, you should give this one a chance. You’ll see the other difference when you feed them an MQA signal. A Magenta indicator light is visible on the front of the machine in the original edition.

The iFi Audio Zen DAC v2 is a replacement for the original Zen DAC, which won an Editor’s Choice Award in the 2020 listings. The Zen line continues to grow at a breakneck pace, and instead of focusing on new products, iFi has been applying what it has learned so far to existing models.

The Zen DAC v2 replaces the Zen DAC, resulting in a £30 price increase. In terms of functionality, not much has changed.

The Zen DACv2 is a single-input DAC that gets its power and signal from a USB port. At 24/384kHz PCM and DSD256, format handling remains identical, as does MQA packaging and decoding, however, the way this information is delivered to the DAC has changed.

This allows you to listen to MQA audio files and streams, which have the same sound quality as the original master recording.

The LED turns green or blue while the unit is decoding and playing an MQA stream or file, and it also indicates provenance, which ensures that the sound is equal to the source material.

It illuminates blue when playing an MQA Studio file that has been either approved in the studio by the artist/producer or verified by the copyright owner.

Best for Budget: Linsoul E1DA 9038D DAC

Features: The 9038D is packaged in a teeny-tiny cardboard box. There are no accessories included. You can purchase the device with a USB-C to C cable, a USB-C to C Y-Splitter cable, or a USB-C to lightning cable, among other options offered by distributors and E1DA.

These packages, of course, come with a price difference. The product’s packaging is simple and straightforward. There are no marketing gimmicks, overblown claims, or anything like that.

The case of the 9038D is made of sandblasted anodized aluminum. We can’t find any milling faults or imperfections on the CNC. The logo and name are laser engraved and have a long lifespan.

If you are looking for the 3 Best DAC For The Money, you should give this one a chance. The USB-C port and the 3.5mm headphone jack are both solid and long-lasting.

Its size makes it extremely portable. It weighs just 12 grams and measures 48x22x9mm in size. E1DA seems to be releasing new devices on a regular basis, and one of the most recent is the E1DA 9038D, a DAC with a headphone output that’s smaller than our thumb.

Despite this, it produces a significant amount of power, rivaling specialized low-end amplifiers. It’s a modest marvel, really, with pretty much everything it needs.

The E1DA 9038D, like the E1DA PowerDAC v2, comes with its own program for tweaking the various settings.

The software is free to download on both Android and iOS, but it only allows you to control the volume; if you want to mess around with other settings, you’ll have to pay €10.99. (or the equivalent in your local currency). That’s a considerable sum of money, and if you do pay, you’ll be able to change the settings.

For high-end headphone demands, we still recommend a dedicated desktop-sized amplifier, but the E1DA provides a tremendous amount of power on the go. Keep in mind that this is a device that will fit into your Levi’s coin/watch pocket.

You can carry it with you everywhere you go and you won’t have to worry about charging it because there are no batteries inside. It pulls electricity directly from sources such as your laptop or smartphone.

Buyer’s Guide for 3 Best DAC For The Money

A good digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, can improve your listening experience dramatically. All of the music on your phone is stored digitally, but it must be converted to analog in order for your ears to understand it – and that’s a lot of digital data to convert.

As a result, you should accomplish it properly by using one of the best portable DACs available. Because, rather than entrusting this critical step to the DAC chip in your phone, tablet, or laptop, your music will sound clearer, crisper, bassier, and altogether more convincing if you do it this way.

If you are still not sure which DAC to get after reading our review, keep reading our buyer’s guide below.

What is DAC?

Until recently, standalone external Digital-to-Analog-Converters were, if not outright rare, at the very least niche hardware accessories reserved for recording studios and die-hard audiophiles.

Upgrades to conversion hardware have become more important for individuals dissatisfied with the typically poor audio playing quality of generic PC and mobile devices, especially as more audio-visual content is produced in HD formats.

Every digital device that can play music (through headphones or speakers, for example) already has a converter. This is the chip on the motherboard of a computer (or phone) that is located close to the device’s audio output.

The original DACs are usually connected to a single model’s motherboard, therefore their quality is determined by the motherboard’s specifications and price. Its job, like any other DAC’s, is to convert the digital ones and zeros that make up your music into analog sound.

Should I get a separate DAC or a DAC/Headphone Amp?

You’ll need a headphone amp if you’re utilizing headphones. You can buy a separate headphone amplifier, although many DACs already have one built-in.

A DAC/Headphone amplifier is more convenient, but a solo DAC allows you to choose the headphone amp. Be mindful that some of the less expensive DAC/headphone amp combos have low output power amps that can’t drive high impedance, low-efficiency cans.

Is it always better to use a 32-bit/384kHz DAC over a 24-bit/192kHz DAC?

No! When purchasing their first DAC, many people focus on the maximum bit depth and sampling rate, assuming that the bigger the number, the better. However, this only specifies the maximum bit depth and sampling rate that the DAC can tolerate.

However, only a small percentage of the population has access to music files with such high sample rates and bit depths. 16-bit/44.1-kHz is the specification for a CD.

A recording studio’s standard recording resolution is 24-bit/96kHz (occasionally 24-bit/192kHz). Even yet, it will be delivered to consumers at a lower sample rate and bit depth.

As a result, we don’t care if our DAC can theoretically ‘process’ these uncompressed audio files.

Rather, we should be concerned with how well a DAC converts a digital file (of any size; lossless or lossy) into an analog signal with rich aural depth, clarity, precision, and other characteristics.

I use a desktop PC. Should I invest in a separate DAC or simply improve my sound card?

DACs offer the advantage of being isolated from the components of your computer, which might cause interference. They’re also independent of your computer, allowing you to utilize them with other sound sources such as your iPhone or laptop.

Today’s sound cards, on the other hand, have far superior DACs and are better protected from electrical noise than previous generations. Not to mention that they are usually less expensive. As a result, the answer is that it depends.

DAC Types

Standalone DACs can be USB-enabled boxes with a simple pair of analog outs, with the USB connection streaming both data and the voltage required by the DAC circuit. Be careful that certain DACs require power from the mains.

DAC/Headphone amplifiers provide analog outputs for your speakers and (usually) separate outputs for your headphones.

They frequently contain a hardware volume control for the preamp, which can also be managed via software, allowing you to lower or raise the nominal output sent to your cans.

The majority of the DACs on this list include headphone amplifiers, and we’ve noted where this is the case.

Portable DACs are typically connected to smartphones or tablets through small USB-C connections and almost always contain a headphone preamp. They can also be used as a digital audio converter (DAC) for computers.

DACs with only Optical or SPDIF digital inputs, for example, is used for digital to analog audio conversion in A/V Receivers, TV sets, Digi-boxes, and related devices.

DAC Setup

DACs are usually USB-connected boxes that replace the inbuilt headphone/line out when attached. They are commonly plug-and-play devices, which means that your computer’s operating system will immediately recognize them, know what they are (down to the brand/model), and what they perform.

For some DACs, you may need to install drivers (audio settings control menu program). The DAC appears in your Settings/Preferences sound menu’s playback options once connected, and you must pick it from the scroll-down menu to make it your preferred hardware output for playback.

Advantages Of DAC

The best portable DACs transform the bits and bytes encoded in a digital audio file into something that can be played back on a headphone or speaker (analog devices).

The idea behind DACs and amps is that when you play music on your phone or speaker, the sound you hear isn’t always what the artist intended. We’ve discovered that it should frequently be clearer, crisper, or provide more bass.

Of course, you might simply become accustomed to the way your phone handles music. If you’re an audiophile, however, it won’t suffice.

So, if your music isn’t sounding as well as it should, and the only thing you’ve changed recently is the source, your new gadget (a new laptop, desktop, phone, or tablet) is likely to have a low-quality DAC built-in.

To be clear, your phone or other device contains a DAC. That isn’t to say you don’t require another.

The first benefit of using an external DAC instead of the one that comes built into your device is that the external system is usually better.

Simply told, external DACs will usually outperform those included in your smartphone or comparable playback device, owing to the fact that that component of the technology isn’t normally prioritized in all-around media devices like phones or tablets.

The second incentive to invest in a better system is that some of the more expensive headphones on the market are ‘high-impedance headphones, which require more power from your music source’s headphone port to function effectively.

The prevailing opinion is that the more difficult it is to drive a set of headphones, the better they will sound when matched with the correct equipment.

An external DAC can be used as a headphone amplifier to supply the extra power required to drive a set of high-impedance headphones.

What makes an external DAC superior?

An external DAC avoids the weaker audio decoding of your phone and computer. It has the ability to deliver music with more precision.

We know a lot about headphones, headphone amps, and digital to analog converters. We presented a training workshop for our Advisors earlier this year, demonstrating the benefits of a high-quality DAC.

An external DAC provides a more stable audio foundation for the rest of your gear. You’re in for a treat if you pair it with a good amp and some quality speakers or headphones.

Which DAC is best for you?

There are a variety of DAC styles to choose from. Some of these are perfect for powering your headphones. Others are only suitable for use with your home stereo system. Many people can work successfully with both.

However, the majority of our DAC customers nowadays utilize them to listen to music using headphones. With a headphone setup, you get a lot of bang for your buck. Adding a DAC and a good headphone amp can make a big difference.

Wireless DACs

Wireless DACs send digital content to an audio system that is located elsewhere. Some employ a transmitter system and link to your PC. It delivers the digital data to a separate wireless receiver via RCA cords, which is connected to your stereo or amplifier.

Wireless DACs are increasingly using Bluetooth® to transmit audio from a smartphone or tablet. Some offer a longer wireless range, allowing you to roam about with your phone more easily.

Headphone DACs

Consider a DAC with a built-in amplifier intended to drive headphones to get the most out of them. Your headphones will get a fresh lease on life thanks to high-quality sound processing and reliable electricity.

Some headphone amplifiers can also be utilized as a powerful digital preamp. These are great if you want to connect your DAC to both your home stereo system and your headphones.

iPhone DACs

For many of us, our phone is our primary source of music. We have a number of DACs that will work with Apple and Android devices. A special Apple Lightning adaptor, USB-C adapter, or micro-USB adapter may be required for your phone.

Conclusion: 3 Best DAC For The Money [2021 Review]

If you’re an audiophile, you’re well aware that the gear is just as vital as the music. Equipment may even take precedence for certain folks. For most people, the first step is to get a good pair of headphones.

You will be properly engaged if you use a pair of high-quality headphones. You’ll never want to wear ordinary headphones again after that. The majority of these headphones are superior to the popular options available.

To get the most out of the time, you’ll need a DAC and amplifier combination. We hope you liked our 3 Best DAC For the Money review and it was helpful.