Having music at our fingertips anytime and anywhere has become something we’ve gotten used to and can’t seem to live without.
From MP3 players and iPods to smartphones, laptops, and desktops, most people spend a majority of their day, whether working, studying, sleeping, or simply relaxing, with their favorite tunes in the background.
However, as music became more and more easy to acquire, via various streaming platforms or cheap devices, the overall sound quality seemed to degrade quite a bit. It’s almost as if since vinyl records people only valued the amount of music they could have with them, and not the quality.
Luckily, there is still a way to get a solid audio quality while having plenty of songs to choose from. A DAC is a Digital to Audio Converter, a device which handles the transformation of zeroes and ones into an audio signal, ready to be interpreted by your headphones or speakers. Although your device already has one built- in, having an external DAC can make a huge difference.
But how do you find the right one? In this article, we will go over the most important features and specs a good USB DAC should have, as well as mention and quickly review our pick of the 5 best ones you can buy.
The Best USB DACs: Reviews
1. Modi 2 USB Digital/Analog Converter
The Modi 2 DAC by Schiit is a beautifully designed device, capable of improving your sound signal to an amazing level.
For just over $100, this DAC is a great solution for anyone in need of a better sound, whether when using a computer (both Windows and OSX), an iPhone or iPad. Standard mode allows you to use a 24bit/ 96Khz output, and by installing drivers, the included Expert mode gives you high-resolution 24bit/ 192Khz settings.
As it doesn’t require an AC input, it’s perfect for anyone using a laptop, or simply in need of a portable yet high- end DAC. Modi 2 is made in the USA, each and every part carefully manufactured and put together by folks from Schiit. With a 2- Year warranty, this DAC is sure to give you a pleasurable experience in enjoying your favorite songs.
2. FiiO E10K
- Easy to Operate Design: The refined E10K-TC is tiny enough to carry with you wherever you go but is also right at home on your desk to make your music sound great anywhere, the small yet easy-to-operate design makes it a perfect companion for listening
- Impeccable XMOS Decoding: The E10K-TC comes with the flagship XMOS XUF208 for better USB decoding. Compared to the original E10K, the USB Audio class has been upgraded to 2.0, and PCM is now supported up to 32 bit/384kHz sampling rates to better capture the details in your music
The E10K is a compact DAC and headphone amplifier designed for making music feel more vibrant and natural.
As this DAC rocks an all aluminum design, not only does it look sleek, but it also provides a level of anti- interference, as to keep the signal clean and hum- free.
The front of this device features a large volume potentiometer for easy sound level control. Besides the headphone output, there is also a 3dB bass boost switch, which ups the low end quite nicely.
Besides the USB connection, you can also go for a coaxial or line- out option, with a stable 96KHz/ 24-bit high-resolution signal.
With no need for an external power input, the E10K is a portable and budget- friendly DAC, ready to be used straight out of the box.
3. AudioQuest Dragonfly Black
- 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre DAC
- Offering tremendously enhanced sound, higher value, and significantly lower power consumption than the original award-winning DragonFly
No bigger than a USB memory stick, the Dragonfly truly stands as the perfect DAC for laptop and smartphone/tablet use.
A straightforward design, featuring only a USB connection on one side, and a 3.5 mm headphone connection on the other, makes using this DAC a piece of cake.
If you’re looking for a device you can simply plug in and hear a noticeably better sound in your headphones or speakers, this is exactly that. From MP3 files to more high- fidelity ones, the Dragonfly has got you covered.
With an additional adapter, you can use this puppy with a smartphone or tablet, without even noticing it’s there.
4. OPPO HA-2SE
- High-resolution USB DAC for Apple/Android/PC/Mac
- ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9028-Q2M DAC chip
Probably the best-looking DAC and headphone amplifier device you will find, the OPPO HA- 2SE offers so much in a small and mobile form factor.
Oriented towards audiophiles on the go, this DAC/ headphone amp combination is the go- to solution for anyone in need of a couple more options with their DAC.
Offering USB A and micro- B connections, the HA- 2SE can easily be used with both Apple and micro-USB devices. Oppo also includes a bunch of cross- USB adapters as well as a 3.5 mm stereo audio cable and a pair of silicone rubber bands to keep the DAC and your device together.
You can truly take control over the sound you’re receiving via a gain switch, a bass boost button, and an ergonomically placed volume wheel.
Getting the best sound possible out of your mobile device, and simultaneously charging it via a built- in power bank, the HA- 2SE is a premium solution most audiophiles will find is well worth the money.
5. Apogee GROOVE
- USB 2. 0 connection to Mac and PC with up to 24 bit/ 192kHz audio
- Enhances your iTunes, Tidal, Spotify, Pandora or other music listening experience
And finally, at number five, we have the Apogee Groove. A simple and practical solution for anyone in need of a boost in sound quality.
Ready to soothe your ears straight out of the box, the Groove rocks a minimalistic an easy to use design. Simply plug it in your laptop or any other USB- friendly device, and plug in your headphones at the other end.
The two buttons on the top of the sturdy aluminum case make dialing in the perfect volume a breeze.
With signal quality up to 24bit/ 192KHz, you will feel a significant difference when listening to or producing music.
What Type Of DAC Do I Need?
As there are a couple of different styles of DACs you can get, the most important question you should ask yourself is:
“With which device, and in what setting am I going to use one?”
- Portable – This is a type of USB DAC which you can easily carry around. Its primary use would be either with a laptop or a smartphone. Simply put, it’s a compact headphone amplifier.
- Desktop USB DAC – As the name suggests, this type of device is used with a desktop computer, to which it connects via a USB port. As they often need AC power to work, they aren’t as portable as the previously mentioned type. Another great option this type of DAC provides is that you can easily hook up an external audio system or streaming device to it, and also have a headphone output if you need more privacy.
- Headphone Amplifier DAC – A device you would use to get the most out of your headphones. As these have an integrated amp designed for use with headphones, you’ll be amazed at how different and better your favorite headphones can sound. It may even have the potential to make your headphones louder!
There are a few more DAC types out there, but these cover the ones that majority of people need and look for.
How Good Is My Music Source?
Whatever your music source choice may be, always go for the highest quality setting. This applies mostly to streaming platforms or other digital sources.
Combining an entry level DAC with expensive speakers, and vice versa just doesn’t do anything. If you already spent a lot of money on your audio system, investing in a good DAC will prove as a worthy investment in the long run.
Now that you know what to look for, let’s take a look at our pick of the 5 Best USB DAC devices you can get.
If you feel like you need a boost in the sound quality of your device, getting one of these DACs will surely surprise you with the clarity and balanced sound they provide.
We hope you found our review of the Best USB DAC devices helpful, and as always, thank you for reading!