Let’s face it, laptop and desktop sound cards aren’t always able to produce the sort of sound that will impress most audiophiles. But even if you don’t describe yourself as such, there’s no denying that you won’t get to experience outstanding sound quality from the average computer’s audio-in port. USB DACs are built to overcome the limitations of basic sound drives, converting digital sound into analog.
When this happens, sound from your music, movies, and games will thump out at frequencies that you’ve never heard before. Below are 18 USB DAC products, chosen for their durability and quality of features. Each device is recommended, so read further to get a better idea of which suits you more than the others. Let’s begin!
This section will cover important information that you should be familiar with before settling on your next USB DAC.
The first thing that you’ll want to understand before looking at the great DACs shown below is the quality you want and price. This is indicated below with each section listed. For example, to get the best USB DAC under 100, simply look into the products under the corresponding subheader.
The same applies to the best USB DAC under 1000, and so forth. The starting point for shopping is the price range. But how does one go about finding the best within the price range?
You don’t always have to pay attention to the technical aspects of your DAC of interest. They’re all high resolution audio devices. Instead, focus on how easy it’ll be for you to use it in your desired situation. For most, this will be either in a living room or bedroom. Yet for others, listening may even take place in an outdoor setting, such as in your backyard or a walk in the park.
In this case, having a small DAC and can hold a wireless charge would suffice. But if you plan on hooking up numerous amps or headphones, you’ll want something that contains the necessary line out ports. This can include (but not be limited to) RAV, AUX, or optical ports.
Again, you can use a USB DAC just about anywhere there’s a place for you to charge the device at. But if you’re going wireless, feel free to take it outside with you. How familiar are you with DACs? The abbreviation stands for Digital Audio Converter.
Many people who are not familiar with the way that they work sometimes get them confused with amplifiers. Understanding the difference is in their respective names. An audio converter transfers digital signals into analog, while an amp can only boost the signal. Most PCs and laptops contain a sound card, and oftentimes more rudimentary form of a DAC.
But due to the constraints that computing systems have when transferring the data over into analog, the sound quality comes out poor. Clipping and distortion may be noticed, especially when the volume is turned down.
Fortunately, USB DACs can eliminate many of these problems, and ore. Some models also include built-in amplifiers in the unit, especially for headphones. If you need one like this, be sure to check the product description to see if the feature is listed on the DAC that piques your interest.
Most DACs are built with headphone audio out ports. If you’re planning on using a DAC to hook them up to a set of cans, be sure that the brand is of high quality. Regardless, even bad quality headphones and earbuds will sound significantly better than directly putting its jack into the sound card. But if you’re going to go all the way with a DAC, why not improve the listening device as well?
Some headphones might work poorly with lower quality DACs, especially if they have poor impedance. The higher the impedance, the less power your headphones will need to play sounds. If you use cans that are low in impedance, you might get a more fuzzy sound when the volume is turned up very high.
Smartphones have essentially become mini computers. In recent years, improvement to their computer and cameras make them useful for a wide array of tasks. But the same cannot be said for sound cards.
This could be in part due to certain manufacturers relying more on Bluetooth than aux. In any case, so long as your smartphone has an audio-in port, you’ll be able to convert your music into a higher quality sound to the same level as what’s capable on a laptop or PC. But maybe you want something wireless?
If so, there are Bluetooth converters that exist as well (with one that’s reviewed further down). Before you pick any DAC when looking for a device to link to your mobile, be sure that it has an audio out. Furthermore, check to see if there’s no firmware upgrade needed. When using a DAC strictly for your phone, there’s little need for you to upgrade, more so if your desktop/laptop usage is limited.
Picking up from the information about smartphones, how often do you listen to music outside of your home? Even if it’s jogging down the street or walking to the park, you’ll love the sound boost that portable DACs can give to you. These aren’t the DACs used in the past. Many brands are very small, smaller than most smartphones sold on the market, even. But there are a few things that you’ll want to pay attention to before you buy one. First off, check to see if the DAC is rechargeable.
If so, then it’s also likely that you can charge your phone from the DAC. Most portable DACs have a charge that lasts around eight hours on average, relying on lithium-polymer batteries to keep it in power. Their wireless nature doesn’t reduce sound quality. Certain features that you see on home DACs might be missing from the portable brands, such as optical and RCA ports. If you must have those, the portable DAC you end up getting might be a bit larger and bulkier for you to carry around.
Most DACs convert digital to analog well, even the low-quality models. It’s usually pretty easy to tell the low quality from the high. Look at the physical makeup of the DAC. The cheaper versions tend to be very lightweight and contain cheaper dials and ports on the exterior. The exterior might look a little flimsy and using it carelessly might risk it breaking shortly after the warranty period passes. But they generally can do the same thing that high-quality DACs can do, albeit fewer secondary features.
High-quality DACs have more extras such as headphone amps, dual aux, and better performance when playing lossless audio files with a high bit rate. They may come with equalizers and presets. Both the low and high-quality content the same standards when installing, meaning that it could either be easy or difficult to do based on the brands and not the quality or price.
DACs can convert most lossless audio files, although some of them may not do this unless using particular software for the job. The good thing is that it’s easy to find multiple music and video players that can do this in sync with your DAV, whether you’re using a Mac or PC. Look at the user manual for the DAC you like before you order.
You’ll know what to do (and what needs to be downloaded, if anything at all) when it arrives at your door. In any case, don’t worry too much about lossless audio; the DAC you choose should play it with few issues. And by lossless, that means talking digital formats such as FLAC and ALAC, not Mp3.
Do you have an older stereo system that you want to put to good use? Or maybe there’s an antique turntable that you would like to bring to life again. If so, check to see if the system has the correct ports that you’ll need to convert music. For many older stereos and record players, this could be RCA optical, or the higher-end MQA.
Remember, most music devices produced before 2000 might not have USB out ports. If not, then the only way to convert would be to send the signal through to your alternate ports. Be sure that you look at your system and the DAC you want, making sure that they contain ports that are compatible with each other. If you do notice a USB out slot, then there’s no reason for you to try the other plugs (unless you want to).
USB DACs have loads of benefits that can make your music and sound listening experience much more pleasurable on the ears. Many audiophiles won’t listen to anything from a computer or smartphone without having one hooked up to their favorite source device. Most models are small but built durably, containing sound drives that make analogs sound clean yet rich and enveloping.
Little static or noise that you would otherwise notice from a computer’s sound card will show up, and some brands contain amplifiers to go along with their converting capabilities.
Overall, the negatives are few. Some DACs might not work until firmware updates to their drivers are installed, which may vary depending on the operating system that you’re using. And cheaper brands might still output feedback, particularly if the sound is played through a bad pair of headphones. Try to upgrade your headphones when shopping for a new DAC, if you can.
The Creative Sound BlasterX G5 is built for people that want something compact but has some of the same features as what one finds in higher priced DACs. While the look might not be too showy, you’ll get plenty of options for attaching all of your favorite source devices. This includes anything that has an audio out dock. Most of today’s television sets and computers will easily attach to it. Setup is quick and painless.
You may not even need to flip through the manual at all. There’s a dual connection with headphones and desktop, a great way to share what you’re listening to with another person that wants to hear music. Updating to the most recent firmware likely needs to be done before you use the BlasterX; be prepared to do this once it arrives. Highly recommended.
The FiiO E10K is the best USB DAC under 100 for people that want an easy to turn dial that won’t ever lose its position. If you’ve handled similar audio equipment before, Then you know how easily some of them may lose gain and/or volume because of a sensitive turning dial. This issue is nonexistent on the E10K.
Instead, you’ll get a great sound at low-frequency bass that’s not harsh, yet can be heard in large or small rooms. There’s no feedback to report at all. The line out is separated based on volume. You can turn the sound up to the level you want without disturbing another amp you might have hooked up the DAC. All in all, the E10K is great in quality and outstanding in price.
The Audioengine B1 is a Bluetooth receiver unlike many of the rest of the DACs shown in the reviews, That’s because it doesn’t use the conventional method of delivering improved sound to your speakers/amps. Instead, you can hook up your Bluetooth-featured devices.
It’s suggested for people that want to stream music wirelessly through speakers without the need of attaching them to the receiver itself. As a result, you can play music anywhere you want, so long as the two units are connected. Sometimes, you might have to reconnect your devices because of the sound fading out but this isn’t something that’ll occur to the point of becoming a frustration.
The Audioengine D! is a mini DAC with RCA outputs, S/PDF input, and a headphone port. One would think that because of this, the size would be a little larger than those without. It’s very small and weighs only 1.1 pounds in total. The volume knob is very big and turns quickly but stays firmly on the level you have it set to. And no firmware update is needed to use it straight from the box.
That means you can plug everything in from the jump, all without a thorough reading of the setup instructions. There is no equalizer or preset provided here, so that part would have to be taken care of from either another hardware-based device of a good software application. But chances are you won’t need to fiddle around with such a thing, anyways.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 is an S/PDIF receiver and DAC with a powerful sound driver built into the frame. When you turn it on and listen to your music for the first time, you’ll marvel at how well balanced all audio stays. Whether you’re playing classical music on FLAC or looking at your favorite movie, you’ll notice sounds that you hadn’t heard before.
It brings out the nuances that people can’t distinguish with normal headphones or stereo speakers and outputs them in analog to a warm, well-developed, and rich sound quality. You can connect four devices simultaneously here, so consider this for more than just your computer. It makes a great addition to the audio of your home entertainment center.
The iFi Zen DAC is a true HiFi Converter for those that love deep bass with a lot of texture. Your audio converts without any muddying, which is great for sounds that contain lots of low frequencies. The volume dial is another good feature. When you turn it, a light that’s fixated nearby will alternate in color, notifying you that you’re setting it to a different level.
Another great attribute is the body itself, which is built to a standard that’s often seen in the more expensive models. You’ll want to ensure that the headphones you use with this product are at least above mediocre. It has a hard time converting cheaper cans without slight feedback showing up when the audio is near silent. In any case, the iFi Zen remains one of the best DAC under 300 that you’ll find on the internet. Give it a shot if you love a little extra bass in your audio.
The Micca OriGen G2 is a high-resolution USB and preamp that’s small but powerful in conversion quality. Several ports range from optical to DC SV here, making it suitable for some older stereo systems. Like other DACs, this unit has a large volume dial that takes up a good deal of space on the unit itself. When you have it attached to your PC or laptop, pay attention to the way it plays high and low-quality audio files.
When you switch from them, it automatically changes the bitrate in accordance with whatever software that you’re using. So as long as you’re playing music or video from a capable player, you’ll never get the lagging sound quality when the kilohertz changes. If you don’t there might be a low humming sound that’s noticeable when you turn down the volume dial. Be sure that you have good software to use with the OriGen and no such thing will ever happen.
The AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB is another small converter, one of the smallest shown in the reviews. You can easily get it into almost any pocket you have on your clothing, making it worthwhile for playing music in an outdoor setting where you’re walking around. It’s nearly the same size as a thumb drive but slightly heavier.
The driver is strong enough to deliver a sound that’s impressive and much better than the average sound card that’s built into smartphones, no matter how low the bit rate is. Like the converter, setup is small and quick enough to do on your own, with minimal instructions. It’s a great DAC for beginners that want to get a test of what DACs are all about, or those that simply want one that can fit into the palms of their hands.
The Musical Fidelity V90-DAC contains an audio chip that’s equal in power to DACs housed on units that are priced much higher. It’s called the Burr-Brown 1795 PCM, which is capable of converting to analog without any hissing or humming, regardless of how high or low you alter the volume. The sample rate keeps low and high bitrate music playing smoothly, sounding almost as if the unit were an amp.
It has optical ports and a USB slot for connecting your computers, smartphone, or stereo system. There might be a bit of trouble when plugging in your AC in port, at least from the start. Just use a little elbow grease to push it in all the way if you’re having trouble; don’t worry about anything breaking.
The HiFi Decoder SMSL DAC is a little larger than some of the units shown, but don’t let that scare you away from all that this product can do for your entertainment system. There’s a remote featured, having good distance that allows the DAC to be manipulated from several feet away.
There are RCA and XLR ports, so hooking up any high-quality audio source you have to this machine is easy to do. If you would like to tweak the sound a little bit, there’s a very easy way to do that as well. Simply change the PCM filter or equalizer to the preset that you like. The sound output is clear and crisp, but it doesn’t sound too “rich” at low volumes. But the SMSL DAC remains recommended for most and is one of the best DAC under 300 that you’ll find around.
The Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic Plus is a HiFi converter that specializes in audio that’s played with computer software. It will convert the digital info of high and low bit rate files smoothly. Use it as a preamp for playing music tracks as well. It could be very useful to practice deejaying at home while mixing different tracks through an amp.
You’ll get no distortion from your amp or headphones, whereby the conversion blocks all unwanted imperfection in your analog sound. You’ll be left with a rich audio texture that’s deep at low frequencies but stable during the highs. Every once in awhile, you’ll have to restart the DAC in the middle of your listening experience to keep the clock in sync. However, this even is rare and may not be a problem with your particular model.
The Chord Electronics Mojo is a great digital DAC for smartphones and/or Mp3 players of all kinds. Why is that, you may ask? It has a very compact size that fits great in the pocket yet is easy to hold in the hands within motion. That makes it suitable for your daily workout routine, no matter if you’re doing it from home or outside.
Hook it up to your mobile device while using a good pair of headphones or earbuds, and your ears will thank you. The sound is improved greatly, keeping you from hurting your ears from changing the volume too frequently (which is often the case when listening to music on a smartphone’s factory sound card).
The Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital is a converter that almost resembles the old cable boxes from the 1990s. Yet this isn’t some ancient relic from the past (because that’s how quickly electronics have been evolving in the last few decades). It has a remote control with a decent range. You won’t be able to turn the converter on or off with this, so don’t get too comfortable with changing its settings from a distance.
The firmware update installs quickly and won’t take up much of your computer’s HD space. Going back to its size, fit on a desk with the rest of your equipment and it’ll never get in the way. Overall, a solid product built for HiFi audio conversion that’s maintained through a simple interface.
Going back to extreme portability, the Oppo HA-2SE Portable Headphone Amplifier and DAC is just that, a converter that can boost the sound quality of your devices apart from everything else. To repeat, the amp is separate from the DAC portion and functions independently. You can play audio from there or your stereo system, at the same time. And because of the device’s lithium polymer battery, using it with a smartphone in any location you want is easy.
And when you’re not charging the DAC itself, use it to power up your smartphone when there’s no other charger around. The Oppo HA-2SE looks almost like a smartphone itself and stores the same. Included is a faux leather cover to keep the insides from getting damaged. After a while, the cover could brittle and tear, quicker if you’re the type that handles your electronics roughly. Be gentle with the converter and nothing like this will happen. It’s one of the best USB DAC under 1000 and suggested for smartphone users.
The iFi Micro iDSD Black label is small but maintains a lot of features that DACs of this size don’t always have. First, there’s MQA. With this, you can listen to streaming content such as Spotify, Deezer, and Netflix and see sound improvements over their poor bit rate. And when you’re done charging, the battery should last for up to 10 hours max.
The average is about eight hours but tends to be a bit higher if you’re not constantly using it throughout that time. No humming or distortion is heard over your amp, even if the unit in use is less than perfect.
The Marantz HD-DAC1 looks sort of like an antique, but the features it’s packed with make it anything but. There’s wood grain on the sides that look nice when placed next to turntables and stereo systems with a similar exterior.
The sound that comes after conversion is lush and warm, but not overbearing. You won’t get any imperfections in the bass as your amp lowers in frequency, making the bass-heavy audio ring with clarity. Play high bitrate lossless files on your preferred software and the conversion quality won’t ever reduce itself.
Yet another one of the best USB DAC under 1000, the Sony UDA1/B is a high-resolution DAC that’s perfect for laptops and PCs. Whether you’re playing games or just want to hear some good music you’re in the right hands.
The headphone amp is also an outstanding addition that greatly builds on your music, with or without applying an equalizer preset. Attach your old stereo system to this and you’ll bring new life to it, especially those with Cassette and CD players.
The last product is the Teac UD-503-B. A digital LCD is built into the front, with most of the line in/out ports to the left and right. For a converter of this type, it has a strong pick-up and play feel to it. Setup instructions are comprehensive and easy for beginners to understand. And because of its weight, you’ll never have to worry about things sliding around once you’ve got everything plugged in and ready to go.
If you’re on a Windows-based computer, be prepared to install driver software before beginning to use this converter. Mac users are in luck since this isn’t a requirement. After that, play your audio as normal; the sound will become richer in quality after a few hours have passed away from the break-in period.
Out of the 18 USB DAC products shown, which do you think is the best? When factoring in price plus the number of features available to customers, the clear winner is the Creative Sound BlasterX G5. While it doesn’t contain any of the fancy ports that are shown with other DACs, it does have a line in/out for aux and USB ports. You can boost the sound quality further with its hardware-accelerated Scout Mode feature.
Unless you need something for an older stereo system or like the portability of the converters shown that are smaller than this model, the BlasterX is an excellent product to settle on. As indicated in the Value Section, specific features that pertain to size, setting, and price/quality range will help you choose the right USB DAC. The G5 remains suggested when considering those factors.