You won’t understand this, however you in all probability use a DAC as a lot as you do underwear. Each single day, proper? (Proper?) Digital-to-analogue converters, to make use of their unbridged title, are present in most audio sources in the present day, together with telephones to laptops, and carry out the important function of remodeling digital music (a bunch of 1s and 0s) to the analogue kind (an audio waveform) that headphones and audio system can perceive. (Wish to nerd up on DACs? Then proper this strategy to our DAC explainer).
So if in case you have DACs already in your units, why must you contemplate shopping for one other? Effectively, for higher sound high quality. DACs – primarily tiny chips that convert the audio earlier than it’s output by means of the gadget’s, say, 3.5mm audio port – typically aren’t prime quality in such multi-tasking units, so getting your self , devoted exterior DAC gadget that may extra precisely convert digital to analogue, and thus savor extra of a saved music file or stream’s knowledge within the course of, will make an enormous distinction to the music listening expertise.
In lots of circumstances, exterior DACs can play ball with telephones, laptops and even hi-fi methods, although some have been designed extra for one function than the opposite. For the What HiFi? Awards, our workforce of evaluate consultants first-time-tested or revisited 15 DACs from the most important manufacturers within the enterprise – AudioQuest, iFi, Chord Electronics, Cambridge Audio, FiiO and Helm Audio – and these are the six we would most heartily advocate for moveable telephone, desktop and hi-fi system use.
For moveable telephone use
Simply over 10 years in the past, AudioQuest roughly based the moveable USB DAC. Its groundbreaking DragonFly Black arrived in 2012 to a sea of raised eyebrows with its unassuming USB reminiscence stick kind, which may plug straight into laptops/computer systems at one finish (sure, similar to a USB storage key) and accommodate 3.5mm wired headphones on the different. This magic intermediary continues to be accessible (albeit in a extra up to date model), although it was quickly adopted up by the superior DragonFly Pink, and now the favored line tops out with the DragonFly Cobalt, a multi and present What Hello-Fi? Award winners.
It is just a little greater than double the worth of the Black, however those that can afford it over the Black and Pink siblings shall be rewarded with a really worthwhile soar in audio high quality over their telephone or laptop computer. In our minds, it represents the most important efficiency per pound worth of the lot. The Cobalt nonetheless takes the type of a USB stick, however whereas that will appear just a little outdated for laptops and telephones that more and more undertake USB-C connectors, you may simply use it with a USB-A-to-USB-C adaptor, which is included within the field.
The world is not wanting moveable DACs these days as an growing variety of dongle DACs (just like the Helm Audio Bolt) specifically hit the scene, however the AudioQuests stay the strongest propositions we have heard.
Alternatively, a extra modern and handy possibility is the five-star iFi Go Blu DAC. Just like the AudioQuests, headphones plug into one finish, however the very pocketable Go Blu can connect with your telephone/laptop computer wirelessly over Bluetooth, primarily taking one cable out of the equation should you so want. Whether or not related over Bluetooth or by way of its USB-C enter, the Go Blu will give your supply gadget an actual top-to-bottom enhance in not solely readability and weight but in addition openness and element. You may get higher efficiency in your cash going wired with the AudioQuests, however, to cite our evaluate, “when portability is paramount and comfort is vital, you can not presently higher the iFi Go Blu”.
For desktop laptop computer use
As talked about earlier than, the above 4 examples may be simply as simply paired with laptops as they will with telephones. That mentioned, if portability is not a precedence and you want one thing extra substantial that may be a mainstay in your desktop, our entry-level decide is undoubtedly the iFi Zen DAC V2, one other What HiFi? Award winners.
With extra outputs (6.3mm, RCA and balanced 4.4mm) and an asynchronous USB Sort B enter, plus customization sound modes, full MQA audio decoding (useful for Tidal Hello-Fi Plus subscribers) and the flexibility to work in a price range hi- fi system in addition to with a pc/laptop computer, the Zen DAC V2 would not solely sound wonderful however can also be extra versatile than its aforementioned friends.
Going up in value would not essentially imply you get extra options and adaptability, although – because the best-sounding DAC thus far demonstrates. The Award-winning Chord Mojo 2 is just a few rungs up the ladder on the subject of efficiency – and sure, value – providing an excessive amount of the efficiency of the thrice-the-price, additionally Award-winning Chord Hugo 2. Our decide of the desktop DACs, the Mojo is really distinctive on the subject of the sound high quality that may be supplied from one thing at this stage, although bear in mind that it would not have the convenience of use of the iFi or the flexibleness of one thing price- comparative just like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M.
The palm-sized gadget can considerably enhance the sound of just about any sort of digital supply because of its USB-C, optical, micro USB and three.5mm-coaxial inputs – even mid-range hi-fi methods in case you are keen to get round its omission of RCA outputs and consequently navigate to another cable resolution.
For hi-fi system use
Whereas the Chord Hugo 2 is, just like the Mojo 2, battery-powered, its value, efficiency and connectivity make it simply as appropriate for system environments as desktop ones. That is primarily the Mojo 2 on steroids, providing some of the clear and musical performers available on the market. “There is not one other DAC round at wherever close to this type of value in a position to talk so torrentially, so unambiguously or so effortlessly,” we concluded in our evaluate of the multi-award winner. (That mentioned, these with larger budgets and sonic ambitions can go up a mannequin to the Chord Hugo TT2.)
There are hi-fi system-friendly inputs – particularly coaxial, optical and aptX Bluetooth – however whereas RCA outputs are onboard for hooking it as much as an amplifier in a loudspeaker-fronted system, a lot of the Hugo 2’s design is, like each different DAC talked about thus far, geared in the direction of feeding headphones. If you happen to aren’t an enormous fan of headphone listening, nonetheless, and could be glad by a DAC that may purely sit between a digital supply and amplifier to make a sonic distinction in a hi-fi speaker system, then we might level you to a different Chord (sure, Chord Electronics largely dominates this market) – the Qutest.
Primarily a Hugo 2 with out the headphones stage, built-in battery and Bluetooth (and the additional value that goes into these issues), this multi-product-of-the-year winner units the benchmark earlier than you get to true high-end territory .
Learn our longer shortlist of the finest DACs you should buy
What’s a DAC? And do you want one?
7 explanation why a DAC might be your music buy of the yr