In 2021, whether you are aware of it or not, you’ve almost definitely used a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter, before. A DAC converts digital audio information into analog sound waves that you can hear. DACs are in everything, from cell phones to computers, and more.
Oftentimes, for casual listening at audiophile quality audio levels, whether you’re using a computer or a mobile device, you will find that the proper DAC and amplifier are extremely helpful in these situations. This article details reviews of the best DACs available in 2021, including USB and portable DACs, as well as standalone DACs and desktop DACs.
Here are the best DACs of 2021:
1. RME ADI-2 DAC FS
The best overall digital-to-analog converter on the market
The RME ADI-2 DAC FS is one of the best options around for a DAC for audiophiles. If you want flat sound, no distortion, and plenty of versatility, you get it in the ADI-2 DAC FS. I highly recommend it for audiophiles who are willing to spend the money on this DAC.
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RME has become one of the absolute best manufacturers of professional digital-to-analog converters, and they have taken some of the features from their studio-centric Pro model and have added features that are ideal for high-fidelity audio lovers for at home listening. The RME ADI-2 DAC FS is this such model, and it is packed with some incredible features that make it hard to pass up.
The ADI-2 DAC is extremely versatile due to its many features. The ADI-2 DAC sports balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, an Extreme Power headphone output, a super low noise in-ear monitor output, SteadyClock FS technology, and it even comes with a handy remote control.
The ADI-2 DAC has a menu that is unchanged from the Pro model, featuring volume controls, input and output selection, EQ, and a setup button. The only difference is an additional filter is available. The ADI-2’s super low noise output is ideal for listening with in-ear monitors, as in-ear monitors are extremely sensitive to noise and uncover the noise floor of DACs and headphone amps. The noise floor of this output is extremely low while still providing the full frequency range of high-quality audio.
Also featured on the ADI-2 is AutoDark mode. This mode turns off all lights on the DAC after 10 seconds of no user operation. The DAC’s remote can be used to turn the lights back on. The remote is very nicely designed with easy to read buttons and nice button ergonomics. You can control the EQ, volume, and over 32 different functions with the remote for ultimate flexibility.
The SteadyClock FS technology implemented into the ADI-2 DAC is a new feature that rejects jitter, keeping audio clear. The ADI-2 DAC has undetectable distortion levels and 4 dB of headroom to ensure that absolutely no audible distortion is detected even with peaks in your audio at high volumes. The frequency response range is an insane 0 Hz to 80 kHz with a flat, transparent sound signature.
2. Monoprice Monolith THX Desktop DAC
The best desktop DAC under $500
The Monoprice Monolith THX is an incredible DAC and headphone amp for those who want a mid-priced unit. It certainly holds its own against higher priced models and is perfect for audiophiles who don’t want to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a DAC.
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Monoprice is an audio gear manufacturer that provides high-quality equipment at a more reasonable price, including speakers, headphones, headphone amps, and DACs. Monoprice has a mid-priced DAC called the Monolith THX, and I would consider it to be one of the best desktop DACs.
The Monolith THX features a large, easy to read display screen that shows volume level, input, signal, and the current settings. A large volume knob and Menu and Enter buttons are also featured. The Menu button also functions as the power button and a back button.
Also featured with the Monolith are dual AK 4493 DACs. These DACs are incredible, with a superb signal to noise ratio and allow for plenty of dynamic range without introducing any distortion into the audio. They’re definitely not the absolute best DACs considering there are better options, but for this price point they are very, very good.
The Monolith is great for any headphone and has plenty of power. The Monolith also features a USB input, a Toslink optical input, and a few others, including analog RCA and balanced inputs. The USB input allows the DAC to reach its fullest capabilities, so I recommend using it over other inputs.
The Monolith also functions as a preamp for more flexibility, so you can use powered speakers with it too. Also featured are a parametric EQ and a shelf EQ, three DAC filters, and dynamic range control for advanced audio tailoring.
The amp has THX’s AAA (Achromatic Audio Amplifier) technology, which doesn’t add any coloration to the audio, and Dirac Sensaround, which is a technology that makes headphone audio sound more like traditional speakers and gives you a more spacious soundstage.
The frequency response range of the Monolith is 1 Hz to 40 kHz and the sound signature can be described as well-balanced and neutral, but also slightly warm. Bass is balanced and not overly exaggerated. Dynamic range is exceptional and clearly reproduces the audio and its energy.
3. Cayin iDAC-6 Mk2
The best DAC under $1000
The Cayin iDAC-6 Mk2 is an incredible DAC for just under $1000. The timbre options make it very flexible, which adds to the excitement of listening to music with it. Audiophiles and music producers alike will appreciate its flexibility and sound quality. I highly recommend this DAC if you have the money to spend on it.
|Image credit: Cayin Check MusicTeck||
Cayin has a very nice DAC and headphone amp combo unit that is part of their i-series, which is their audio solution for audiophiles and music lovers in general. The Cayin iDAC-6 Mk2 is the newest model of DAC from the company and it is an incredible product that holds its own against more expensive DACs and headphone amps.
The iDAC-6 Mk2 features 6 digital inputs including a USB input, Coaxial 1 (BNC) and Coaxial 2 (RCA) inputs, and an Optical input to name a few. Something that sets this DAC apart from others is its ES9028Pro chipset which is fully capable with the highest decoding requirements of today’s music.
Another really nice feature is that the iDAC-6 Mk2 has two different types of timbre due to corresponding amplifier circuits: vacuum tube and solid-state. You can get some really nice, warm audio from the vacuum tube circuit while also having a pretty accurate sound. For audiophiles, tube circuits aren’t always ideal, so if you want a more brittle and even more accurate sound, the solid state circuit will give you that. You can use either circuit depending on your listening tastes and either way you will get very high-quality audio thanks to its 20 Hz to 50 kHz frequency response range, and it works with both the featured Line output and Preamp output.
The iDAC-6 Mk2 has a very large, bright screen that displays the volume, which input you’re using, and other settings like what circuit you’re using. The buttons on the DAC include power, source, timbre, and line/pre. The large volume knob doubles as a menu control and an okay/enter button. The DAC unit is meant to be stationary and stay on a desktop or bookshelf as it’s pretty large. The design is extremely sleek and the metal chassis is made to be quite durable as well.
4. Audioengine D1
The best USB and optical DAC under $200
The D1 DAC and headphone amp from Audioengine is definitely one of the better cheap options for a DAC while still remaining in the lower-mid-price range. I recommend it for beginner audiophiles who are starting to get into DACs and headphone amps.
|Image credit: Audioengine Check Amazon||
Audioengine has some very nice products for listening to high-quality audio, and their DAC and headphone amp options are pretty affordable compared to others available on the market. The D1 is one of the best budget DACs while still remaining high-quality compared to some of the portable DAC options.
The D1 features an internal AKM4396 DAC which is known for its low noise while providing a high-fidelity audio output. The D1 has an impressive signal to noise level ratio, having very low noise and low distortion levels. The DAC has a headphone amplifier that is based on the OPA2134 made by Texas Instruments, which is a low noise op amp. The headphone amp has enough juice to power even the most power-hungry headphones and give them a good boost of high-fidelity audio.
As for the controls of this DAC, there is no screen and no menu to use, making the operation very simple. On the DAC are a volume control, a headphone output and a light that indicates that the DAC is powered on. As for the inputs and outputs, there is a stereo RCA output, an Optical/Toslink input, and a USB input. There is no power button on the DAC and instead it is plug and play and USB-powered; it’s powered by your computer or other USB device with digital or USB outputs. No drivers are required to download before using this DAC, which is extremely convenient.
As for the sound of the Audioengine D1, the optical input has a bit of a better sound, more polished and refined. However, the difference between the USB input and the optical one aren’t that large. The frequency response range of the D1 is 10 Hz to 25 kHz, and you get a pretty flat, well-balanced sound. Dynamics are not overly exaggerated but are still prominent enough to give a ‘feel’ to music. Detail in audio is very easy to hear with this DAC.
5. FiiO D3
The best portable USB DAC under $50
The FiiO D3 is the easiest to use, most compact DAC to use with your devices that have Optical or Coaxial outputs. Those that want high-quality audio from devices that may not output high-fidelity sound can hook it up to TVs and other devices and get high-quality audio in seconds. Audiophiles, gamers, streamers, and those with home theaters will get a ton of use out of the D3 and its functionality.
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FiiO is one of the most popular brands that makes portable and more stationary DACs and headphone amps that are perfect for everyday use. The FiiO D3 happens to be one of their more portable options and is a top-rated product. The D3 is meant for interfacing between modern devices that have digital audio outputs (game consoles, CD or DVD players, digital media players, etc.) and analog amplifiers, speakers, or even wireless headphones.
You will need to make sure to check that the devices you use with this DAC have Coaxial or Optical digital outputs in order for the D3 to work with your devices.
The layout of the D3 is very simple and makes it incredibly easy to use. Featured on the D3 are two outputs, an RCA output and a Line output. It also has two inputs, a Coaxial input and an Optical input. A switch on the back side lets you choose between using either the Coaxial input or Optical input. There are no other controls on the DAC other than the input switch, so volume and EQ will have to be controlled by whichever device you are using. In this situation, the D3 is perfect for using in combination with a standalone EQ or amplifier. There is no power button; instead the DAC is powered when you plug the proper USB cable into it.
As far as it sounds, the D3 is easily able to provide high-fidelity audio, and has a frequency response range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The sound signature can be described as clear, natural, flat, and accurate, so you won’t get any coloration from using this DAC.
6. Hafler HA75-DAC
The best tube sounding DAC under $1000
The Hafler HA75-DAC is the perfect option for those who like the old, analog sound of tube circuits. This DAC would be great for use with a record player due to the warm sound, but is also ideal for use with a computer or home theater.
|Image credit: Hafler Check Amazon||
Hafler has a very nice desktop DAC called the HA75-DAC. While Hafler is not extremely well known, they carry many high-fidelity audio products, including top-quality headphone amps. The HA75-DAC is an incredibly versatile DAC that has two different circuits in it, with a tube circuit that the inputs go through, and a solid-state circuit that the audio passes through before being outputted.
The HA75-DAC features balanced XLR connectors, a USB input, and RCA inputs. A selector switch on the front of the DAC allows you to switch between analog and digital sources. ‘Thru’ and ‘tube’ RCA outputs allow you to connect a standalone amplifier or preamp to them, and you can also feed another input device this way. There are also 2 headphone outputs.
Also featured on the HA75-DAC is a power button, a select button, and knobs for feedback control (to cancel out distortion), volume, and focus. The Focus control makes the audio sound like it’s coming from speakers, even if you’re using headphones, making for a more natural soundstage, and it can be dialed in based on your preference.
A voicing switch is also featured with 3 different positions to allow for a loudness curve to be applied or to enhance the bass response. It can also be bypassed if you want a more neutral, flat sound. The included load selector switch allows you to tailor the output of the DAC to match the impedance level of your headphones, making it great for any headphones.
Because this is primarily a tube circuit DAC, naturally it will have a warmer sound with plenty of clarity, depth, and detail, while having that slight harmonic distortion from the tube circuit. Some audiophiles don’t want this in a DAC, so this might not be the DAC for everyone. Take note that you will need to use an external power supply for the HA75-DAC and one is included with the purchase of the DAC.
7. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD
Another great choice at around $100
The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD is a good DAC for beginners who don’t care much about versatility or crazy features. If you want something simple, this is the one to get. Producers and audiophiles will enjoy this DAC. It’s easily one of the DACs with the best value on this list regardless of its simple design features.
|Image credit: Creative Check Amazon||
Creative has a very nice budget DAC that is compatible with high impedance headphones that are up to 330 ohms. The Sound Blaster X-Fi HD is a very simple DAC that sufficiently powers your headphones and provides you with high-fidelity audio using your computer as the audio source.
The most interesting feature of this DAC is that it has a microphone input on the front side for recording audio. Also featured is a headphone output with a studio-quality headphone amp. The only control on it otherwise is a volume knob. On the back side of the DAC you’ll find optical inputs and outputs, stereo RCA inputs and outputs, and a phono preamp if you want to directly record vinyl from a record player.
SBX Pro Studio technology is integrated to give you extremely realistic audio and even 3D surround sound while wearing headphones or using speakers. THX TruStudio Pro technology is also integrated for an even more polished sound.
The Sound Blaster X-Fi HD has a lot going on under the hood and even comes with a Media Toolbox from Creative that allows you to record, clean up, edit, and organize audio with ease. A driver is needed in order to run the Sound Blaster X-Fi HD but it is compatible with the latest computer operating systems.
As for the sound, the bass is very tight and controlled while the highs are crisp and the mid range frequencies are rich and full without getting muddy, and has a crazy frequency response range of 40 Hz to 100 kHz. The Sound Blaster X-Fi HD is marketed as an external sound card for your computer but it surpasses this due to its technology. The microphone input adds another level of flexibility and allows you to record high-definition audio much like you would with an audio interface.
8. Chord Hugo 2
The best DAC for extreme visual audiophiles
The Chord Hugo 2 is a perfect DAC for those who want tons of flexibility in compatibility and control over the sound of their audio. I highly recommend this DAC for more advanced audiophiles who like to have visual feedback from their DAC.
|Image credit: Chord Electronics Check Amazon||
Chord Electronics is a high-quality manufacturer of DACs and other audiophile gear, and the Hugo 2 is their newest, updated model of the Hugo DAC. The Hugo 2 is a DAC designed for use in the home and on the go with either headphones or an audio system, and features cutting edge technology that separates it from the rest of the pack.
FPGA technology has been implemented to improve noise reduction and amp power. It is very flexible due to its many inputs and outputs as well as its fully functional remote control that is included with it. Four digital inputs are available to use, including optical, coaxial, and high-definition USB. The Hugo 2 also has Bluetooth compatibility for wireless enjoyment of music. The analog outputs featured on the DAC are a stereo RCA output and 2 different headphone outputs.
Featured on the DAC are 4 control buttons, which light up with 11 different colors in correspondence with the current settings and functions, which is a great way to keep track of the settings without having to rely on a menu. The buttons include: power, input, a multi function filter, and crossfeed.
With the filter button, four functions are available to allow you to change the frequency shape, depending on whether you want warmer tones or something more transparent and neutral. The crossfeed button offers 3 operation modes that essentially mimic the soundstage that you would get from listening to music on speakers. A volume roller is featured on the top of the DAC.
The Hugo 2 is battery-powered and will operate for around 7 hours with a full charge that takes 4 hours. An indicator light shows the battery status.
The frequency response range of the device is 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and you can get a variety of sound signatures from it due to its many filter modes, but in general the audio is very flat and natural sounding without having any overexaggerated frequency issues.
9. AudioQuest DragonFly Black
The best DAC for iOS and Android devices
The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is yet another fantastic portable DAC that will fit in your pocket and work with many USB devices. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys music and wants an easy to use DAC that they can take anywhere.
|Image credit: AudioQuest Check Amazon||
AudioQuest is known for having some of the absolute best DACs and headphone amps that are portable, and the DragonFly Black is one of the cheaper DACs that works extremely well with Android devices, iPhones, and other iOS devices.
The Dragonfly Black is a plug and play device and is compatible with computers as well due to it being a USB DAC. It can play any file type as long as it has audio in it, regardless of the resolution and quality.
The DragonFly Black has a very simple dongle style design, it plugs into phones with a Lightning to USB adapter from Apple or the appropriate adapter for Android devices. The design only has a headphone output and a USB input, other than that it looks like a flash drive USB stick.
It features a new, updated chipset and ESS Sabre 9010 processor that improves everything about the sound, everything from the clarity, detail, to the richness, tone, and transparency. This new chip also improves the signal to noise ratio for a cleaner sound and better silent operation.
Easily the neatest feature of the Dragonfly Black is that the logo on the DAC lights up to indicate which resolution of audio is playing, with different colors for the different corresponding audio qualities. The Dragonfly has a fixed audio output to feed preamp signals or an AV receiver if you have one. The battery of this DAC is built-in and is powered by whatever device you connect to it.
As for the sound, it can be described as clean, clear, and natural, with the frequency response range being 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Minimal phase filtering is featured to allow the sound to remain incredibly detailed and dynamic. High-quality audio will be improved a fair amount with this DAC and the sonic details and characteristics of CD quality audio will be improved as well.
10. FiiO BTR3
The best budget wireless Bluetooth DAC
The FiiO BTR3 is a fantastic portable wireless DAC that the most active audiophiles and music lovers will enjoy, but it can also be used with computers and for the home theater. It is a top-end product that bridges the gap between high-fidelity audio and functionality of Bluetooth connectivity. On top of all this, it is also a great budget DAC.
|Image credit: FiiO Check Amazon||
The second FiiO DAC on this list is well worth the purchase and is yet again another great option that is very affordable, making it ideal for beginners or those who don’t have a big budget to spend on audiophile DACs that will get you high-fidelity audio.
The FiiO BTR3 is a wireless DAC in a dongle type design that uses Bluetooth and is one of the best DACs for mobile devices like the iPhone. As this is a wireless Bluetooth DAC, you pair your mobile device to it and then plug the headphones into the BTR3, which pretty much makes your wired headphones wireless without them actually being wireless.
The BTR3 uses a Qualcomm chipset to improve connectivity and signal strength. Pairing is easy, and an indicator light changes color based on the corresponding codec.
Featured on the DAC is a headphone output, a power button, volume control and track skipping buttons, and even a built-in microphone that has active noise-cancelling technology for making calls. There is a multifunctional button that can be used with Siri as well, and you can answer calls and play and pause your music that way. The DAC is an independent AK4376A which has a very low signal to noise ratio, so you can catch every detail in audio with ease.
As for the sound, the BTR3 tends to boost highs and lows, while skimping on mid frequencies, making it lack a bit of warmth and depth. The frequency response range is 20 Hz to 40 kHz. When using the DAC plugged into a computer, audio is much crisper and more powerful.
This DAC is small enough to take with you anywhere you go, and can be worn with a clip or a lanyard. The battery life of the BRT3 is excellent, providing you with 11 hours of audio playback with just a 1.5 hour charge.
DACs are a mystery to most consumers, but the more you learn about them the less scary they seem, and it’s actually not too difficult to find a DAC that will work for your headphones to give you great sounding audio. Whether you’re a music producer, audiophile, or average Joe, there is a DAC for you that has the soundstage and sound signature you want when listening to audio.
Make sure you check plenty of DAC reviews and do your research before purchasing. In 2021, there are a ton of options and it can be overwhelming to find the best DAC on the market for you, but with a little guidance you will be successful. Make sure to check back with Consordini soon for new articles and guides on the best music equipment and audio gear available for purchase for your needs.