The Best USB DACs - Audiostance

The 6 Best USB DACs

Whether you’re looking to increase the volume of your headset, improve the audio quality, or support high-impedance headphones, a USB DAC is an effective solution that doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. These devices convert a digital signal into an analog one, increasing the richness of the sound and making it more comparable to the original recording.

Our Recommendations

Our Pick!

Fiio E10K

The E10K by Fiio is a versatile USB DAC that offers gain control, bass boost, and effective amplification. It effectively improves audio quality and is available for under $100.

Most Affordable – Creative Labs Sound Blaster Play! 3

Available for around $20, the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Play! 3 is an incredibly affordable DAC that can boost your audio quality with quick and easy implementation.

Smallest Design – AudioQuest DragonFly

The DragonFly by AudioQuest is an incredibly small USB DAC that looks like a USB drive. Ideal for traveling or for use on smaller devices.

Best Build Quality – Shiit Modi 3E

The Shiit Modi 3E is a durable USB DAC that retails for around $100. It effectively increases the warmth of digital signals while flexing its amplification power.

Elevate Your Listening Experience With One Of The Following USB DACs

USB DACs are a powerful tool that can immediately improve the quality of your desktop, phone, or laptop’s sound. Forget complex setups that involve a steep learning curve. These DACs can be plugged in and enjoyed within seconds.

1. FiiO E10K USB DAC

  • Compact design that’s easy to move
  • Gain Control
  • Bass Boost
  • Line-out lets two people listen at the same time
  • No optical input

Compact and full of features, the Fiio E10K is an outstanding USB DAC for music enthusiasts looking to improve their sound quality without breaking the bank. At just over $100, it is widely considered the go-to choice as a first DAC.

It features a USB-C input along with three outputs (3.5mm headphone port, line-out, and coaxial out). This allows for connecting more than one pair of headphones so you and a friend can hear what’s playing at the same time.

Despite its small build, the E10K has a volume control button, a gain switch (high or low), and a bass boost feature. This is a lot of control for such an affordable device and is one of the reasons the E10K is such a popular choice.

Whether you’re looking to power high-impedance headphones, increase the volume of your device, or simply improve the quality of sound, the E10K is a reliable option.

2. Schiit Modi 3E

  • High fidelity sound
  • Durable build
  • Linux support
  • Fairly heavy
  • No volume control

Schiit is synonymous with popular DACs, and while not every release has been a perfect home run, the Modi E3 is a powerful yet compact and affordable USB DAC for all experience levels that represents some of Schiit’s best work. It features a sleek design with tones of silver, with the durable metal case wrapping over the front to create a clean aesthetic.

Like Fiio’s E10K, it has a single USB input that improve the audio quality from other USB supported devices, including phones, laptops and desktops. It supports PCM audio up to 385kHz and DSD up to 11.2MHz. While the lack of additional imports reduces its versatility, it prioritizes an easy to use design that isn’t intimidating to new users.

The Modi 3E stands out with its ESS Sabre chip, which produces a smooth, natural sound. It is an affordable way to increase sound quality and provide high-impedance support, but it does have limited control without a gain or bass boost feature. Still, the Modi 3E supports various inputs, including Coaxial SPDIF and Toslink SPDIF. There is also an RCA output on the back.

Overall, the Schiit Modi E3 is a powerful USB DAC that effectively increases the sound quality of most built-in DACs on laptops and computers. During sales, you can often find one for around $100.

3. AudioQuest DragonFly

AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC
  • Extremely compact design
  • Android & iOS support (requires adapter)
  • High-fidelity sound
  • No Linux support
  • No controls

The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is a compact USB DAC that can significantly improve the sound of your headphones. Despite being the size of a USB stick, this little DAC has some powerful capabilities, providing high-fidelity audio. It retails for around $130, making it accessible on a budget.

This incredibly small DAC can be stored in one’s pocket and easily taken with them anywhere. This increase in portability makes it well-suited to traveling, where a larger DAC could create logistical challenges. Additionally, there’s no need for drivers, creating a true plug-and-play experience. The DragonFly Black supports a single 3.5mm connection, ideal for personal use. It’s compatible with both Windows and Mac computers, as well as Android and iOS devices (with an adapter).

This budget-friendly DAC is a great option for music lovers looking to create warm analog tones. Expect richer, smoother audio compared to your device’s standard output. While the DragonFly Black has awesome features for its price, its output power is lower compared to newer DragonFly models. However, for those seeking a convenient and affordable way to enhance their digital audio, the DragonFly Black is a top choice.

4. Audioengine D1 Premium DAC

Audioengine D1 Premium DAC
  • Volume control knob
  • Optical input support
  • RCA output option
  • Easy to use
  • No Linux support
  • Feels a bit flimsy when compared to others

The Audioengine D1 USB DAC is a stylish USB DAC with a professional-looking minimalist design that fits into just about any desk setup. While it lacks extensive customization options, it prioritizes ease of use and performance without sacrificing broad device support.

Retailing for around $170, the D1 offers impressive value for its price tag. It has a standard 3.5mm output that can drive high-impedance headphones as well as RCA output support for AV receivers or powered speakers. Its input ports include USB-C (PCs, Tablets & Phones) and optical (Consoles, TVs). There is also a volume dial on the front of the device, allowing for easy volume tuning without having to adjust your input device’s audio.

While larger than a stick-style USB DAC, the Audioengine D1 is still a compact DAC that can be carried between locations without much effort. Its durable construction, made from premium materials, adds extra protection during transit. With its plug-and-play approach, no matter where you are, you can plug the D1 in and get going immediately.

The D1 uses a high-quality chipset to produce excellent sound quality on a budget. It’s a simple solution to a simple problem and doesn’t overcomplicate the process. If you’re looking for a USB DAC but don’t want to deal with a learning curve, the D1 is optimal.

5. Creative Labs Sound Blaster Play! 3

  • Extremely affordable
  • Compact, portable design
  • Mic monitoring
  • No controls
  • Only supports 3.5mm headphone out

Elevate your music for the same price as a takeout meal. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Play! 3 retails for just over $20, providing a budget method for improving sound on desktops, laptops, and tablets.

This tiny USB DAC is extremely portable and provides plug-and-play capabilities. No drivers are needed, making it ideal for carrying with you to friends, on holiday, or even back and forth between your home and office PC. Optional downloadable software adds functionality. The Y-splitter provides microphone support, too.

Overall, this is a simple USB DAC that doesn’t try to do anything special, instead providing a reliable digital-to-analog converter at an extremely low price.

6. Fosi Audio Q4

  • Bass and treble controls
  • USB, Coaxial, and optical input options
  • Volume button for easy control
  • No information on the DAC chip

The Fosi Audio Q4 is another compact and lightweight USB DAC that, similar to the E10K, focuses on providing a lot of control of your sound. It features adjustable bass and treble controls in addition to a volume adjustment knob.

The rear of the speaker features several inputs: PC-USB, Optical, and Coaxial. There are two output options: a 3.5mm output for your headphones and an RCA output. A built-in switch allows for easy toggling between the input types.

This USB DAC effectively increases the volume and sound quality capabilities traditional built-in DACs offer. The Q4 retails for around $75, making it a budget-friendly choice.

A Buyer’s Guide To The Best USB DACs

Buying your first DAC can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Here are the five most important things to understand when buying a DAC. Understand these, and you’re well on your way to an educated purchase.

Built-In Amplifiers

USB DACs serve two main purposes: adding more power to increase volume or power high-impedance headphones and converting a digital signal to an analog one. Not all DACs have built-in amplifiers, and some are made just to convert the signal. The Fiio E10K, Shiit Modi 3E, and Audioengine D1 are all examples of USB DACs with built-in amplifiers.

Inputs & Outputs

Think about how you plan to use your USB DAC. Some only support a 3.5mm output, which will work for a single pair of headphones but otherwise can’t be used for other devices. On the other hand, some of the slightly larger DACs come with additional outputs, such as Coaxial out, line-out, and RCA. Additionally, some support coaxial SPDIF, Toslink SPDIF, and optical input.

Gain Control

Gain control is a feature offered by some DACs that allows the user to adjust the amount of gain on the DAC. This can further help to increase volume levels in setups where volume levels are too low.

Bass Boost/Bass Control

Bass Boost is a feature that will appeal to the bass heads who are always after more low-end. Bass control lets the user increase the emphasis of low-end, for a deeper, boomier sound. The E10K features a single bass boost toggle, while the Q4 has a bass dial along with a treble control that can be used for the same purpose.

OS Support

It isn’t the first thing we think of when we buy a piece of hardware, but USB DACs may have limited OS support. Some are only compatible with newer versions of windows (typically Windows 7 and up). Additionally, some are only supported by Windows and MAC, but not by Linux. If you’re using an older operating system or Linux, you’ll want to confirm compatibility before purchase.

Understanding The Purposes of a DAC

Many people only begin learning about DACs after they’ve invested in a pair of headphones and aren’t happy with the results. This happens to both casual listening and budding audiophiles who have just invested in their first pair of audiophile headphones. In the latter case, the built-in DAC (every PC, Laptop, and Phone has one) is usually insufficient to power the drivers of the headphones.

This relates to impedance, and headphones with higher impedance will require more power to drive them. Headphones that aren’t sufficiently powered can sound soft or even exhibit artifacts that cause their sound quality to deteriorate. In these cases, a DAC with a built-in amplifier helps to power these high-impedance headphones.

More power also equates to more volume, and even traditional low-impedance headphones (<80 Ohms) can become louder when using a DAC.

At its core, a DACs job is to convert digital signal to analog signal. This helps to improve many aspects of audio, but ultimately, there are some people who prefer the sound of digital over analog, with analog carrying a warmer tone.

Frequently Asked Questions

DAC technology is not exactly young, but there are still plenty of things we don’t know about it. This section is dedicated to both professional audio engineers and people who want to get more familiar with DACs.

How does a DAC work?

DACs use pre-existing binary numbers stored on various digital platforms and morph them into analog voltage/current. Basically, ‘digital’ soundwaves are ‘read’ by a DAC unit and tinkered with until they become ‘analog’ soundwaves. Different DAC models have different conversion ‘methods’, but in a nutshell, they borrow soundwaves from digital forms and mold them into analog soundwaves.

What is a USB DAC UP?

The ‘UP’ in DAC UP refers to the fact that these digital-to-analog converters have substantially cleaner circuits; this means they have significantly smaller fluctuations in terms of DC voltage, which consequentially means less buzzing and less sound ‘ripples’.

Which headphones need a DAC?

It will depend on the power of your source device, typically you’ll want to look into a DAC if your headphone impedance exceeds 80 Ohms, but some motherboards are able to drive 80 Ohm headphones with good success.

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Written by
Bryn De Kocks

Bryn De Kocks is the lead editor for Audiostance, as well as one of our trusted reviewers. He has more than 15 years of experience in online publication and stands firm in being transparent with both the benefits and drawbacks of the products he reviews. Outside of editorial work, Bryn has been an avid online gamer and casual digital music producer since his teenage years, bringing his understanding of audio and especially headphones to the table. His daily driver is a humble pair of Fidelio X2HRs powered by a Fiio E10K. In his spare time he enjoys nature photography.

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