Digital Analog Converters (or DACs) are devices that convert a digital signal into an analog one before it is passed to the listening device. Traditionally, computers and smartphones both perform a similar function but with less efficiency. USB DACs can be used in conjunction with your PC or phone to help improve your listening experience.
Headphones have different impedances, meaning that they require a specific amount of power to drive to their full potential. High-impedance headphones will typically require a DAC or headphone amplifier in order to get them to sound good. USB DACs are a popular solution for headphones enthusiasts looking to upgrade their cans to a high-impedance pair.
The Chord Hugo 2 is the best USB DAC if you have the money to spend. This is a high-end product but offers great performance and a unique appearance.
Even though it’s a relatively cheap digital-to-analog converter, its performance can easily match that of its more expensive counterparts.
The AudioQuest DragonFly is a relatively cheap 32-bit DAC that offers superb sound and convenience on the fly. It’s one of the smallest DAC units in this review, and its performance-to-price ratio is impeccable. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a USB DAC headphone amp.
Do You Need a DAC?
A common mistake for budding audio enthusiasts is to assume that a DAC will automatically improve their listening experience. While a digital-to-analog converter can improve your audio quality on even modest impedance headphones, some headphones will benefit more than others. If you’re using a budget pair of headphones that have flaws in their overall design and general sound quality, you may be left disappointed — as a DAC is not going to suddenly make them sound good.
It’s not only the performance of your headphones that matters, but also the performance of your phone or computer. Some motherboards have very efficient digital-to-analog conversion that will see only marginal improvements from lower-end DACs.
Buy a DAC if you have a high-impedance pair of headphones that aren’t being sufficiently driven by your phone or computer, or if you’re looking to increase the overall volume of your media. While your computer may be able to drive your headphones enough for it to still sound good, you may still notice a lack of overall volume. A good DAC will in many cases help you add extra volume to your listening experience.
You don’t need to buy a DAC if you’re already happy with your overall sound experience, and while it can offer future-proofing should you move to higher impedance headphones, understand that you may not notice any immediate advantages.
The 5 Best USB DACs
The following products are all great DACs, but we’ve also noted above which is best for which reasons. Some have been selected solely on performance while others have been selected for their value and features.
|Outputs||Coaxial, analog, 2 x microphone jacks|
|Output impedance||0.025 Ω|
|Output power||94mW at 300 Ω; 740mW 32 Ω; 1050mW 8 Ω|
|Inputs||USB x 2, Direct|
|Frequency response range||20 Hz to 20 kHz +/- 0.2 decibels|
|Dimensions and measurements||5.11 x 3.93 x 0.83 in|
|Selectable features||Filter, Input, X-PHD|
It’s not hard to stumble across Chord’s Hugo 2 when you’re looking for a quality DAC; it’s marketed pretty intensively, mainly due to the fact that it’s one of the best units in its class.
When I first beheld the Hugo 2, I didn’t realize it was a USB DAC; it’s huge, and even though it does have two USB inputs, I thought these were nothing more than means of alternative connection.
It turns out Hugo 2, indeed ‘is’ a USB DAC amp, and even though it’s easily one of the bulkiest, most unwieldy models in this category, its performance, and features are practically incomparable to most models I’ve reviewed.
Overall, before even testing it out, I knew that Chord’s Hugo 2 has a perfect 5/5 rating in terms of performance; however, the sad part is that not a lot of people can afford it.
Even though it has a massive casing, the Hugo 2 can still pass on as a ‘portable DAC unit’. If you aren’t specifically looking for a tiny-sized USB DAC up 2, you might as well find the Hugo 2 as ‘compact’.
Obviously, it weighs a bit more than, say Schiit’sFulla or AudioQuest’ Dragonfly; even still, weighing 750 grams might as well translate to ‘lightweight’ in my book.
The Chord Hugo 2 features a plastic casing, which isn’t exactly shockproof, but it is pretty durable. Its design is pretty great overall, as long as you make sure not to drop it by accident. The casing might not get too roughed up, but several exposed flimsy parts could easily crack.
Hugo 2 DAC rocks Chord’s patented and custom-coded Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA chipset, one of the strongest in this price range. Its total playtime exceeds seven full hours and needs approximately eight hours of charging to get its juices back up.
One of the features that struck me the most is the casing; as I mentioned a bit earlier, this DAC is quite durable, but not impervious to damage. It packs a clamshell casing made from machined aluminum with a set of polycarbonate buttons. The good thing about it is that the main features are shielded from external damage, but the bad thing is that the acrylic window is a bit too exposed for comfort.
Sound and Performance
You can be absolutely certain that you won’t find a DAC with more attack and crispness; the same can be said about the absolute equilibrium present in the balance of the soundstage.
It’s interesting how such a well-balanced DAC unit can actually excel in every possible field of performance; its treble is airy and remarkably clean; you’ll get as much mids as you can possibly need, and as far as the bass goes, this thing is a raging behemoth.
Moreover, the best thing about it is that you can control every little aspect of its performance if you know what you are doing and what you are looking for. On the flip side, the learning curve is quite steep here as there are plenty of features that you’ll need a bit of time understanding.
The bottom line is that this DAC can do everything you can dream of, and then some. If you can afford it, it’s easily the best digital-to-analog converter for critical listening, gaming, and studio work.
Why Should You Buy the Chord Hugo 2?
Although it doesn’t get much better than this, most people feel reluctant about trying Hugo 2 out due to its incredibly steep price. I recommend it to people who want nothing short of perfection, studio engineers, professional producers, and people who don’t mind paying a small fortune for absolute, unmatched performance.
|Outputs||Coaxial out, Line out, 3.5 mm headphone jack|
|Output power||Approx 200 MW at 32Ω|
|STR ratio||<0.006% at 1 kHz|
|Frequency response range||20 Hz to 20 kHz|
|Dimensions and measurements||3.1 x 0.8 x 1.9 ”|
|Selectable features||Bass boost and gain switch|
Let’s start off with our top pick – FiiO’s e10 USB DAC headphone amplifier USB C DAC. I personally liked it a lot since it boasts a variety of great features, including excellent, sturdy construction, it’s very versatile, and it packs quite a punch for a small DAC unit. In comparison to FiiO e10K Olympus 2 USB DAC and headphone amplifier, I’d say they are both more than valuable for the cash.
It looks relatively basic, but one could easily tell that it was purposefully built to last. The almost vinyl-like finish gives away its robustness while its simple, straightforward front panel suggests that it’s beginner-friendly as well.
Given its small size, most people would assume that it doesn’t really have that much power. However, it boasts exceptional strength and promises convenience on the fly due to its small, lightweight build.
At a glance, considering its price all the while, I liked it quite a bit. It has a small footprint, a bass boost switch, and a very responsive gain control knob, so I immediately found it as valuable for the buck.
If I were to take an educated guess simply based on what I see laid out in front of me, FiiO’s E10K deserves a solid 4.5 out of 5; The only reason why I wouldn’t give it a perfect rating of 5/5 is that personally, I prefer the ‘dedicated-USB’ DAC units; the smaller, pocket-sized variants.
FiiO’s E10k is, in my opinion, designed perfectly if you compare it to a standard tabletop DAC. It is a USB-powered DAC, but in comparison to AudioQuest’s DragonFly, for example, it’s actually quite big. On another hand, in comparison to Chord Hugo 2, it’s small and takes up only a little bit of your working space.
This little DAC features a phenomenal build quality rating; we could’ve deduced as much even by looking at it. If you flip it through your hands you will feel how sturdy it actually is. It’s obviously made from top-quality plastic materials and also boasts a fine, beautiful hardwood finish.
On top of that, all the ins and outs feature highly durable o-rings and hardware, so you can rest assured that they’re going to serve you well for years to come.
Some people have mentioned, though, that the USB input might be a bit wiggly at times. There is, in fact, a tiny hole (smaller than a millimeter) between the jack and the casing which might be the reason why the input isn’t as stable.
Regardless, this little ‘flaw’ is so small that it is borderline insignificant; it clearly doesn’t affect the E10K’s performance as much as it can potentially affect your ‘comfort’ of using it. All things considered, the FiiO’s E10K DAC is designed almost perfectly well. The knob feels pretty great and is highly responsive, the inputs and jacks are of tremendous quality, and the same can be said about the hardware in general. The casing is, obviously, incredibly durable, so I give this one a 4.5 out of 5 in terms of build quality.
FiiO’s E10 DAC was a huge success when it came out, and even though I haven’t used it myself, I’ve made sure to check out what others had to say about it, watched a couple of testing videos, and compared its specs to the DACs I used (and still use).
Generally speaking, I notice that the E10K is nothing like its predecessor in terms of features. Actually, it might resemble it just by a bit in terms of design, but nearly all of the features have been graced with some serious upgrades.
First and most importantly, the chipset was changed entirely. The E10 comes supplied with the WM840 chip while the E10K comes supplied with the PCM5102. The latter works miracles in terms of improving monotonicity while reducing the (already low) delay rate. The overall audio quality also suffered a dramatic increase.
What struck me the most was the fact that this new chipset reduces the mute intervals which often occur when I flip through different tracks (regardless of whether I’m listening to some music or tracking my own). Although this change is very subtle, it means a lot for audio engineers and producers who rely on pinpoint accuracy and surgical precision to earn their bread. The brand also stated that the noise floor was reduced with the integration of an optimized low-pass buffer and improved all-new bass boost. Again, I haven’t used the E10, but it’s obvious that these new features are completely exquisite and make for a completely unique DAC which has very little in common with its earlier version.
Sound and Performance
The E10K DAC packs LMH6643 buffer which provides superb transient response; its performance is on par with some of the most expensive DAC models on the market, with the main difference and the biggest benefit being that it actually comes at a very approachable price.
It is perfect for practically anything you want to do with it; listening to music becomes so much more enjoyable, and with the addition of the bass boost feature paired up with exceptionally sensitive gain control, you’ll be able to immerse in your favorite tunes like never before.
Why Should You Buy the FiiO E10k?
There are a lot of reasons why FiiO’s E10K is a go-to DAC for many people. It sounds great, it’s small, and it packs some serious features considering how cheap it is. Even though it’s a relatively cheap digital-to-analog converter, its performance can easily match that of its more expensive counterparts.
It’s great for casual and critical listening and for various studio applications (track engineering, producing, mixing, etc.). There are no real downfalls or drawbacks you should be worried about, so I highly recommend giving it a try.
|Connection Type||USB 2.0 Type-A|
|DAC chip||ESS ES9010|
|Maximal sample rate||96 kHz @ 24 Bit|
|Analog I/O||1/8-inch; 3.5 millimeter TRS output|
|Supported sample rates||44.1 kHz; 48 kHz; 88.2 kHz; 96 kHz|
|Compatibility||Supports Windows 7, 8.1 and 10; Linux; macOS 10; iOS 5OS; Android 4.1 (and later versions)|
|Measurements||0.5 x 0.7 x 2.4 in|
Many people might feel a bit skeptical about dedicated DAC USB because of their small size; anyone who knows anything about digital to analog converters probably realizes that DACs are quite complex contraptions, so I understand why certain people would doubt that something so small as the DragonFly could do anything substantial.
At first glance, AudioQuest’s’ DragonFly doesn’t look like much; it’s a small USB stick which presumably has a powerful chip.
However, if we take a closer look at AudioQuest’s catalog, we’ll see plenty of similarly designed items, such as Cobalt DAC, Sabre, the Jitterbug filter, and so on. After realizing that this brand specializes in ‘all things USB’, it’s fair to say that you should expect quite a bit from the DragonFly.
Simply put, it doesn’t get more convenient than this. The Dragonfly is among the smallest, most portable USB DAC units that could easily fit inside your pocket or a wallet. You can carry it anywhere, anytime, and the only thing you should be worried about is not misplacing or losing it due to its incredibly petite size.
On the downside, this DAC is also among the flimsiest ones. It isn’t made from cheap plastic per se, but it won’t be able to survive much punishment. Luckily, though, it won’t break if you accidentally drop it due to its low weight; the head also has a removable protection slot, which means that all of the important parts are somewhat shielded from physical damage.
Dragonfly comes supplied with a variety of high-quality features, including the ESS ES9010 DAC chip, analog volume control, and superb compatibility with all up-to-date operating systems.
On another hand, by comparing it to newer AudioQuest Dragonfly models (Red and Cobalt) I deduced that it’s quite weaker. Both Red and Cobalt Dragonflies feature digital 64-bit volume controllers and pack superior output power and DAC chips. Even so, the ‘Black’ one does the job for the money.
Sound and Performance
Even though it offers convenience on the fly, the AudioQuest Dragonfly won’t do much good if you don’t know how to utilize its features. Given that its output power is nearly half of the Red and Cobalt versions, you’ll need to rely on the analog VC to fine-tune its performance.
One of the best things about this USB DAC is the fact that it’s compatible with most desktop PC OS variants. Both Windows and Linux users can benefit from it, but it’s not exclusively built for PCs – it’s also compatible with Androids and iOS-based smartphones.
Why Should You Buy the AudioQuest DragonFly?
Dragonfly is a relatively cheap 32-bit DAC that offers superb sound and convenience on the fly. It’s one of the smallest DAC units in this review, and its performance to price ratio is impeccable. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a USB DAC headphone amp.
|DAC type||USB, optical|
|Inputs||USB, S PDIF optics|
|USB transfer||Asynchronous dual clock|
|USB class||Type 1.0 and above|
|Input bit-depth||16 bit; 24 bit|
|Optical input sample-rate||39 kHz – 192 kHz|
|Dimensions||3.5 x 3.75 x 1.0 in|
Audioengine’s D1 DAC looks cool and smooth; I liked it as soon as I laid eyes on it in terms of aesthetics; judging by the modest front panel set of features, I immediately assumed that this DAC was designed for beginners, gamers, and people who simply want to improve the quality of audio of their music.
I wasn’t too far off with my initial presumption; this is a relatively simple and straightforward USB DAC that comes equipped with high-performance features; it also boasts a solid level of connectivity and generally makes quite a bang for the buck.
Audioengine’s D1 DAC has a plain, straightforward design. It features a durable plastic casing, although there are no additional reinforcements that would protect it from physical damage. On the other hand, all of the features are safely tucked inside the casing, with the only exposed feature being the output level knob.
Apart from looking great, this DAC has a small footprint and is incredibly light. This means you won’t need to worry about storage or working space – you can literally put it whenever you like.
Audioengine’s D1 DAC has a modest set of features, but they’re all of tremendous quality. On the front panel, you’ll see the three main features: the volume control knob, power indicator, and headphone output. These features are basically perfect for people who don’t want to dabble with DAC units and who wish to enhance their audio in the simplest way possible.
On the rear panel, you’ll see a huge variety of inputs and outputs, including one RCA out, one Optical/TOSLINK input, and the reason why this marvelous DAC has made it onto this list, a reliable USB input.
Sound and Performance
Audioengine’s D1 is a mid-priced DAC that performs incredibly well for the money. Although it doesn’t possess a huge variety of customizable features, its chipset is a powerhouse. It works perfectly well with Windows, Mac, as well as with most Linux OS, and for a 24-bit DAC, it actually holds huge value for the cash.
Why Should You Buy the Audioengine D1?
All things considered, I liked this USB DAC so much because it does more than it should for the money.
Of course, plenty of other DAC models offer similar connectivity and power at a bit more approachable price, but D1 seems to have a bit more well-rounded performance. It’s literally good for anything, and its learning curve isn’t as rigorous as with other similarly priced models.
|Number of channels||Two|
|Indicators||16 LED’s on the front panel|
|Inputs||USB, 2 x optical, 2 x coaxial|
|Crosstalk||-137 dB @ 20 Hz; -130 dB @ 1 kHz; -116 dB at 20 kHz|
|Frequency response range||20 Hz – 20 kHz|
|Dimensions||9.3 x 9.5 x 1.7 in|
Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC is not your average digital to analog converter; at first glance, it looks more like an old-school VHS, but judging from the manifold of features embedded into its front panel some would probably assume it’s a mediocre mixing console.
Luckily, this DAC is all but; it’s a quality converter that boasts nearly infinite audio customization potential, but all good things come at a price, and this one’s fairly expensive. Let’s see what it can offer you.
This DAC has a fairly big footprint, so you should probably clear up some working space beforehand. On top of that, it’s also quite heavy, weighing approximately 3 pounds. Even so, it features a sturdy aluminum casing and was obviously built to withstand quite a bit of abuse.
The Benchmark DAC3 is a professional DAC, as you could easily deduce by the sheer number of controls on the front panel. It features dozens of channels and quite a few features (such as polarity and dim/mute) that laymen probably won’t know how to use straight off the bat.
Benchmark’s DAC3 has so many features that it would take a while to list them all. It comes supplied with a huge number of (balanced and unbalanced) outputs, a variety of selectable features, such as Dim/Mute, polarity; bypass/calibrated output, and selectable sample rate;
Furthermore, it also features a remote controller that comes supplied with the same settings as the ones on the front panel.
On top of that, it sports digital pass-through filter, native DSD conversion, a bi-directional trigger, and, most importantly, ES9028PRO converter. Suffice to say, most of these features are pretty advanced, so again, I recommend this DAC to professional studio engineers and people who’ve had some experience with using DAC units.
Sound and Performance
One of the best things about DAC3 is that you can practically do anything with it. Even if you decide to not tinker around with the many features it comes supplied with, it’s ‘naturally’ so strong and capable that it will take your music listening/gaming experience to a next level.
Professionals and studio veterans who know how to navigate through its settings will be rewarded greatly; you’ll have total control over any song or track, as well as a clear display of any toggled settings via LED. In short words, Benchmark’s DAC3 is one of the best USB DAC models, even despite the fact that it costs a small fortune.
Why Should You Buy the Benchmark DAC3 HGC?
First and foremost, Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC is a high-end DAC. Most people don’t feel particularly comfortable investing so much in a piece of technology, but on the other hand, the benefits it brings to the table are almost unparalleled.
It excels in connectivity as it packs so many ports, it sounds absolutely amazing, and with a little know-how, you can tweak your songs and tracks beyond your wildest dreams. Is it good for casual listening? It’s phenomenal. However, I would recommend it to professionals and people who are actually earning their bread and butter with it.
|Output power||1.1 Vp @ 16 ohms (3.5 mm); 2.2 Vp @ 16 ohms (2.5 mm)|
|Output impedance||0.5 – 1 ohm|
|Connection types||USB, Bluetooth 5.0|
|Codecs||LDAC; aptX HD; AAC; aptX; SBC|
|Bluetooth range||Approx. 32 ft|
|Battery life||14 hours|
|Frequency response||10 Hz – 40 kHz|
|Dimensions||1.0 x 2.0 x 0.5 in|
If you thought that Dragonfly is one of the smallest USB DAC models, think again. EarStudio’s ES100 MK2 is, without any doubt, the tiniest, most petite digital to analog converters currently available.
There’s no need to assume its power or ability simply based on looks, rather let’s focus on the benefits you’ll be able to reap immediately; this is the smallest, lightest DACs on the market, and it packs inline volume controls and pause/stop functions. Basically, this is a modern mp3 player which rather than playing your songs has the ability to exponentially enhance their audio quality. Let’s delve a bit deeper into details.
This is a tiny, nearly weightless DAC. It’s entirely made from relatively flimsy plastic, but due to the fact that it weighs only 20 grams, it won’t get damaged even if you drop it from a height of a meter or so.
The ES100 MK2 was designed to fit into a pocket; you can literally use it while you’re driving, jogging, working, or while hitting the gym. As a matter of fact, it has a huge battery lifespan and boasts Bluetooth connection capability, which means that you can use it in any way or form you wish.
Who would’ve thought that such a small DAC would have two chipsets? The ES100 MK2 packs dual-drive AK4375a chips which provide it with enough power to augment the dirtiest, muddiest mixes and dust them off to a level of pristine quality.
On top of that, it features analog inline volume controls, an integrated gain amplifier that you can tinker with endlessly, and numerous app-based features. Some of the most rewarding app-based settings you’ll be able to use include the 10-band EQ, battery & volume control, DAC filter and oversampling, and channel trim and maximal volume limit.
Sound and Performance
In a nutshell, ES100 MK2 performs flawlessly. I suppose some people might find it as somewhat inconvenient that most of the features require an application in order to be used, but personally, I find that even more convenient.
Due to the fact that it packs not just one, but two premium-quality chipsets and numerous volume and fine-tuning features, we can safely say that it’s one of the most capable, most reliable DACs in this price range. It’s a USB DAC headphone amp USB DAC android which is compatible with most smartphones and smart devices.
Why Should You Buy the EarStudio ES100 MK2?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for a compact DAC, a good-sounding one, or a cheap one; the ES 100 MK2 fits the bill in every way possible. This is a pocket-sized digital-to-analog converter powerhouse that boasts a huge level of versatility and reliability. By all means, give it a try; I guarantee you’ll like it as much as I did, if not more.
|Inputs||1/8 inch; 3.5-millimeter S/PDIF coaxial input, TOSLINK|
|Outputs||1/8 inch; 3.5-millimeter TRRS|
|USB input||USB 3.0 Type-A digital; micro-USB (charging)|
|Volume control||-101 – 0 decibels (1 dB increments)|
|Dynamic range||<113 dBA|
|Output impedance||<1 ohm|
|Battery life||Up to 10 hours|
|Dimensions||3.7 x 2.6 x 0.7 in|
If you are on the market looking for a unique, exquisite DAC, you should look any further; iFi’sxDSD portable Bluetooth DAC is one of the best-looking, best-performing digital to analog converters in the price range.
Apart from having a ravishing design, this DAC looks like it’s really fun to use. The main volume control knob is pointy and edgy, and virtually all of the features onboard the front panel are self-explanatory.
The design of this DAC is exactly what makes it so amazing. It’s unique and exquisite in every way possible, starting from the casing down to the features it comes supplied with.
The casing of xDSDaptX DAC is made from an ultra-robust metal material, and even though it means that it’s also quite heavier than average, this also means that it will survive years of use and abuse.
On top of the fact that it looks cool and is pretty durable, the design of this DAC can also be described as beginner-friendly. There are only a couple of features on the front panel, including the 3D+ and XBass+ alongside the master volume control.
Last but certainly not least, the xDSDaptX DAC features a very small footprint. It’s lightweight and portable, and you’ll be able to easily reposition it from place to place whenever you wish.
This DAC is packed with premium-quality features. First of all, it is compatible with most Bluetooth devices (except smart headphones), packs a huge array of digital inputs, and rocks the Burr-Brown Chipset designed and manufactured by Texas Instruments.
I was really interested in finding out what 3D and XBass functions were, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. The ‘3D’ button, once pressed, amplifies the entire soundstage; this basically means that any song (or track) you put on will get louder, meaner, and substantially deeper.
The XBass is, contrary to what I initially thought, not a booster, but it’s a button that corrects the bass output. By pressing this button, you’ll enrich the bass in your songs or tracks, filling up the missing parts and making the bass sound clearer and deeper on the fly.
Sound and Performance
In short words, iFi’sxDSDaptX DAC is one of the best-sounding DAC systems I have ever used. It has a ton of audio customization potential, great connectivity, and one of the best chipsets in the class, and it’s incredibly fun and easy to use.
It performs way better than I expected it to, and even though it’s a bit pricey, xDSD’s performance can easily go toe to toe with some of the most expensive high-end DAC models available for the money.
Why Should You Buy the iFi xDSD?
It seems as though I was intentionally saving one of the best USB DAC models for last, but that was not the case. As a matter of fact, iFi’sxDSD DAC is genuinely great because it’s portable, because its performance rating is sky-high, and because it doesn’t even cost that much, considering the benefits it brings to the table. I warmly recommend it to everyone, not just audiophiles and studio engineers.
What to look for when searching for the best USB DAC?
First and foremost, you should ask yourself ‘What do I intend to do with my DAC?’; generally speaking, there are people who simply want to improve the sound quality of the music they’re listening to; there are also people (studio engineers, mixers, DJs) who rely on DACs to deliver their products and earn their bread and butter.
There are different DAC units for each ‘category’; although this is not a rule, laymen and people who are looking for a DAC for casual music listening should check out budget models; professionals and seasoned veterans are encouraged to look up the high-end ‘boutique’ category where some of the best (and most expensive) models are.
Believe it or not, each DAC will alter your songs/tracks in a different way. The reason for this is that each DAC comes supplied with a different chipset. As a matter of fact, some models, such as Earaudio’s E100 even have two.
Gauging how good a chipset is might be difficult because there are numerous other factors that affect the overall sound. Even so, you can always look up and see the release date of a chipset to determine how up-to-date (or outdated) it is.
Tightly correlated to the ‘intended use’ is the compatibility of your DAC. Do you want to use it with your PC exclusively, or do you wish to plug it into your phone as well? Certain DAC models are compatible with all kinds of operating systems, but a good chunk of them will only work with the latest up-to-date versions of Android, Windows, and sometimes Linux. Consider models with better compatibility if you wish to ‘share’ your DAC with a housemate/roommate.
Since you’re already opting for a USB DAC, you might as well get a portable one. ‘Normal’ DAC units are generally bigger, and what they lack in portability they make up for in terms of brute force and versatility. Smaller DACs, like Dragonfly or Earstudio ES100, are perfect for people who don’t have too much space to spare.
Connectivity defines the potential uses for your DAC. Models with low connectivity will allow you to use them in a fixed number of situations while models with superior connectivity will allow you to use your DAC with any kind of device (and any number of devices, sometimes even simultaneously).
What is the difference between digital and analog sound reproduction/recording?
Before we delve a bit deeper into detail, we should break down a couple of technical terms so that you can better understand what DACs do and why they are so important.
Digital audio basically refers to sound data that has been either recorded or converted into a digital form. Digital sound waves are always encoded as invisible numerical samples that run in a continuous sequence. Furthermore, digital audio can be tweaked in numerous ways; you can copy it, modify it and edit it as many times as you like. However, you can’t really use it in its current form.
Now, analog audio is much different in the sense that it can’t be edited or modified – once recorded, analog audio signals are unchangeable. On the other hand, analog audio used to be the only way of recording and reproducing sound. Its main downfall was the fact that it can’t be altered, but its biggest benefit is that it’s easier to work with (or at least, it was easier to work with).
One of the best ways to define analog and digital sound waves is to observe them through the lens of the original sound waves they relate to.
In that sense, analog sound waves are identical to the original – they are a perfect recreation of what the original audio ‘looked’ like. The graph for analog waves, compared to the original sound waves, doesn’t have even the smallest difference.
Digital sound waves are essentially a binary representation of analog recording. They are used by DACs, pre-amps, and amps which ‘refine’ them into hearable audio. A graph of digital sound waves is ‘pointy’ and ‘edgy’ in comparison to a graph of analog sound waves.
As mentioned before, digital audio (just like a digital representation of digital sound waves) can be tweaked. Different programs represent different graphs.
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.