What is a DAC?
Most people will not know what a DAC is but it is something that almost everyone will have come into contact with at some point or another. To audiophiles, the DAC chip is known as a massively important piece of equipment in the chain of sound.
DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter and it is essentially (in audio terms) the device that translates a digital signal produced by your source (phone, tablet, computer or DAP) and turns it into an analog signal that you can hear.
For audiophiles and audio aficionados, this is a key element in the ability to accurately portray music and achieve the best sound possible. You can have the best headphones in the world but if you have a poor quality DAC this is one potential area that can bottleneck and prevent you from the optimum listening experience.
For more information check out our simplified article on what a headphone DAC is.
The rise of the Audiophile DAC
Roll back about 10-15 years and the most consumer had no idea that a DAC existed let alone put any thought into which one to buy. However, in that short space of time, the hi-resolution audio hobby has exploded and people care about getting the best sound possible. The way I see it the 4 most important factors for achieving the best possible sound comes from 5 different factors.
Audio track production standards & mastering
Output device (Hi-Res Headphones & Audiophile Grade speakers
Optimize these 5 areas and you are going to have a terrific time listening to some of the best quality sounds you can get. Bathe in the knowledge that you are probably listening at a higher level than those around you... but beware they also probably don't care. This is an area of audio that relatively new in peoples heads and something true nerds like us really only know or care about.
That said the differences in different DAC units can be quite stark and I personally find the investment in time and money to finding the right one for me worth it every time i sit down for a long listening session.
Integrated vs stand Alone Dacs
Once upon a time, your only option for getting a good DAC in a portable form was to perform some witchcraft on an old iPod or another source so you could directly access the digital source and bypass the in build (usually poor quality) DAC chip. This way you could plug in your own external DAC and run it to an external amplifier. I have to admit this was a fun time for geeks like me. I thought nothing of walking about with a stack of bricks in my pocket but times have certainly changed.
Nowadays ,many companies have entered the DAP market and in doing so one of the ways they compete is by offering better and better DAC setups that are built directly into the device. You would think that this would kill off the market for the external DAP but this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, many DAP manufacturers themselves have contributed to the rise of the external DAC by kindly including line outs on even modestly priced DAP units
The market for external units has grown at an exponential pace and there is a lot to chose from. For me, there are 2 distinct advantages of owning external DACs. Firstly some of the DACs we have listed on this best headphone DAC list are just exceptional sounding and stand out from those that are available internally on DAP's. The second reason is that it allows me to change out my DAC frequently if something new comes out I am no longer tied to the one that exists inside my DAP.
There are of course many other reasons that people would want to own an external DAC and many of the units below have their own unique designs, sounds, and features that may be of advantage to you in one way or another.
What about stand alone DAP’s (Hi-res music players)?
Whilst this article focuses on stand alone headphone DAC units we also cant ignore the convenience of a dedicated audiophile grad DAP (digital audio player). These players tent to be more portable and have less moving parts, the good news is that many of them also have the ability to use them as external dacs with computers and other components. If that is something you might be interested in I suggest checking out our list of the 15 best High resolution music players 2019.
Best DAC's of 2018
For this list of the best DAC's we have decided to only include those which we have had direct experience with and we can vouch for. I have also tried to include a wide range of price options as well as include external headphone DACs that can be used in a home and portable setup.
iFi Audio Nano iDSD LE
Sony PHA1A Portable Hi-Res DAC/Amp
Nextdrive Spectra X
Chord Mojo - A Game Changer
The Chord Mojo hit the scene a few years back and made a huge splash on the enthusiast audio market.
It was certainly a quirky entry into entry-level DACs from Chord with its odd interface of different colored lights and ball-shaped buttons.
Once you got the hang of how to operate the Mojo however you were mightily rewarded with deeply detailed, rich and spacious sound.
The Mojo is every bit as good today as it was when it was released and we love it for its ability to put out a sound that only far more expensive bulkier units are able to offer. I personally use one in 2018 and can't foresee myself getting rid of it any time soon.
iFi Audio Nano iDSD LE
Quite the mouthful and iFi aren't going to win any awards for the way they name their products but if you are after a small inexpensive high-quality DAC unit then the Nano is a great choice.
It stood out to me as it offers DSD over ASIO which is something that more expensive DACs still don't include the unit is rugged and very well built and it has a fairly solid battery life of 8 hours which should more than likely get you through a full days listening.
Of course, the Nano can support PSM as well as DSD and the sound is just very clean crisp and clear with very little in the way of distortion.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
Another DAC that I personally own and keep on me almost all the time is the Dragonfly Red. I was a huge fan of the original Dragonfly DAC and it completely revolutionized the way I listen to music.
This little DAC is ultra-portable and best used when on the go plugged into your phone via USB OTG cable to take the sound up a considerably large notch. One of the reasons the sound is so good is the inclusion of an ESS sabre dac.
If you are even tighter on cash and can't quite afford the Dragonfly Red then the black is still an excellent option. Both DACs run the exact same DAC but the red has a better amp unit and is capable of driving even full sized headphones.
Update: I have now replaced and am recommending the Nextdrive Spectra X. Dragonfly is still the best option if connection to a computer via standard usb A port.
My current desktop DAC unit at my office is the Marantz HD-DAC1. Marantz is one of those legendary names in audio and for the price the HD-DAC1 represents exceptional value for money Lets talk about the design first.
Iconic porthole display and with high-quality finish all around and super smooth dials. Its a really nice bit of kit to have on your desk. The feature set is also pretty extensive with Coax, optical and USB-B as well as jitter removal and high-level DSD support.
Its no slouch either in that it can easily drive headphones upwards of 600 Ohms. The quality is crystal clear and the soundstage is massive.
Another ultraportable external DAC that will work great with your phone to enhance the audio. Much like the Dragonfly Red, this is a small and easily pocketable unit but it comes in at just half the price. It handles a wide range of audio formats including FLAC, AAC, and MP3 and has support for 24-bit files at 96khz.
Bang for buck its really hard to beat and it is compatible with android, ios and windows devices. Build quality is very good and Cyrus have gone a long way at reducing power draw on your phone so you can listen longer.
Sony PHA1A Portable Hi-Res DAC/Amp
Sony is on top of their game in almost every tech category right now and over the past few years have really made themselves one of the main competitors in high-end portable audio. The Sony PHA1A is a gorgeous piece of kit and its very feature rich to boot.
You get PCM 192khz support at 24 bit and all the good file formats seem to be supported. There is a electable gain switch and the DAC is able to drive headphones ranging from 8=600 ohms.
Build quality is excellent just as you would expect from a Sony product. Especially nice is the volume dial which is buttery smooth and makes blind pocket operation a breeze.
Really the only thing that lets it down is the short battery life of just over 5 hours in our testing it was a little too short to provide a full day of listening.
Cambridge Audio Dacmagic Plus
Its been on the market for some time but the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic Plus is still a great option if you are looking for a desktop headphone DAC. It has a very robust set of options for connectivity both in and out including balanced and unbalanced outputs as well as coaxial support.
It uses dual Wolfson WM8740 Dacs, support 24 bit files up to 192khz and capable of upsampling up to 384khz thanks to their high-level DSP.
The sound is obviously very good coming from a company like Cambridge audio that is very well respected in the audio game but the real standout feature is the ability to input via Bluetooth from your mobile device.
Extreme Budget DAC option: Something I want to add into this article is a little hack of sorts if you are really on a tight budge. A few years ago LG released the LG G5 with an attachable Bang & Olufsen DAC unit. Since that phone is long gone these DAC’s are all over ebay for under $30. Internrally they are essentially a Dragonfly DAC /Amp with the same internals. You can hook it up to you android phone and use it as a cheap portable DAC and amp solution with amazing sound…. just a thought.
Spectra X DAC by Nextdrive
This little DAC has just worked itself into my day to day setup and in doing so it has replaced my much loved Dragonfly Red DAC.
Both of the units sound great but the real distinction is in the design with the Spectra X having a slimline barrel tube that houses all the components it just disappears and feels like an extension of the cable as opposed to a second device that I have to carry around.
The Spectra is available in three different connectors (lightning, micro-USB and USB-C) so you are able to pair it up with your smartphone accordingly and boy is it nice not to have to carry a dongle around.
It is using highly regarded components (Sabre DAC and Texas instrument amping sections) and the build quality is top draw.
Finally one other edge that the Spectra X has over the Dragonfly is the higher bitrate support for files up to 32bit. Simple, clean and sounds incredible when paired with some good IEM’s.