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Best DACs for 2021

How to get the best sound from your digital audio sources

In this article: We'll look at what a DAC is, and how it makes your digital music sound better. And then I'll recommend a few that stand out from the crowd, to help you get started shopping:

  1. Best budget DAC — iFi Audio hip-dac
  2. Best portable DAC — AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
  3. Most versatile DAC — iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label
  4. Most compact desktop DAC — Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100
  5. Best desktop DAC — Cambridge Audio DacMagic200M
  6. Best high-performance DAC — iFi Audio Pro iDSD

Digital music is all the rage nowadays. I know when I want to check a new album out all I have to do is fire up TIDAL, search for it, and stream away. That's much simpler than scouring record stores to find a physical copy of the album. If you've found yourself in that same position you might be thinking: "How do I make sure I'm getting the best sound possible when I'm playing digital music?"

That's where a good DAC comes in handy.

digital to analog conversion --- from 0s and 1s to music

Digital-to-analog converters take the 1s and 0s of digital music files and turn them into an analog signal

Okay, so what is a DAC?

DACs, or Digital-to-analog converters, convert digital data into an analog audio signal. However, not all DACs are built for sound quality. Your smartphone, tablet, and computer all have DACs built into them. Those DACs are more rudimentary, however, serving only to handle the conversion process and nothing else.

A dedicated outboard DAC is what you'll need to bring your music to life; that is especially true for high-resolution tracks. Those are files that have a higher-than-CD-quality bit depth and sample rate. Outboard DACs support higher bit-depths and sampling frequencies than most "stock" DACs. That greatly improves the detail, clarity, and overall soundstage of your music.

There are many different flavors and shapes of DACs. Some are small and portable, others are large and are more geared towards home setups. In a sea so vast and deep it can be challenging picking the right DAC for your system. Here are my top picks for 2021.

iFi Audio hip-dac Portable USB DAC and headphone amplifier

Best budget DAC — iFi Audio hip-dac

When I first saw the hip-dac I had to do a double take. For a second, I thought the trainers from iFi had brought in an old hip flask they'd painted for display. Upon closer inspection, I found that they'd brought in a potent portable DAC that offered a whole host of handy features.

The hip-dac is a lightweight piece of machinery, coming in just shy of 4.5 ounces. Its light weight coupled with its slim profile makes it easy to handle and cart around while you're out and about.

It has a 12-hour battery life so no need to worry about it drawing excess power from your device. And it uses a 32-bit Burr-Brown "True Native" chip that supports PCM sampling frequencies up to 384 kHz as well as DSD 256. It can also render MQA, which is almost unheard of at its $150 price point.

The hip-dac boasts a solid headphone amplifier, too. The headphone amp plays well with lower-impedance headphones. On that note: it has built-in PowerMatch technology that can be turned on or off to match different headphone and earbud types. Keep it off if you'll be using sensitive In Ear Monitors (IEMs for short) or flip it on if you're using headphones with a low efficiency to get the most out of the amp section.

Connections

  • Type A USB input for connecting PC, smartphone, and other mobile devices
  • unbalanced 3.5mm headphone output
  • balanced 4mm headphone output
AudioQuest DragonFly® Cobalt Plug-in USB DAC/headphone amplifier

Best portable DAC — AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt

The DragonFly series of DACs from Audioquest has always held a special place in my heart. The Cobalt is a tiny DAC — roughly the same size as a flash drive — and it packs quite a wallop.

When I demoed the Cobalt, I could tell it was in a whole 'nother league compared to the other DragonFly DACs. The soundstage was considerably wider. The vocals had a better, more frontal presence, and the mids seemed tighter. The bass was more tightly controlled and less prone to drowning out the mids, too. That cemented the DragonFly Cobalt as my pick for a portable DAC.

The 32-bit ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M chip it uses is one of the best out there for the cash. It doesn't utilize an internal battery — rather, it draws its power from your smartphone. Thankfully, the 9038 chip is very efficient so it won't drain your battery too quickly.

The Cobalt plugs into your smartphone via one of the included adapters, making connection a breeze. You could also plug it into your PC using the standard Type A USB connector built onto the unit itself. The headphone amplifier section is surprisingly powerful.

I tried the Cobalt out with a set of Sennheiser HD660 S over-ears, and the two paired extremely well together. It can handle all but the most inefficient and high-impedance headphones.

Connections

  • Type A USB input for connecting PC, smartphone, and other mobile devices
  • unbalanced 3.5mm headphone output
iFi Audio micro iDSD Black Label

Most versatile DAC — iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label

British hi-fi legend iFi brings another stellar piece of equipment to this list with their Micro iDSD Black Label. The Black Label is, by far, one of the most versatile DACs on the market. It can serve as a dedicated DAC for your favorite headphones or as a preamp for your home stereo system. Its slim design makes it work well in either case.

The Black Label features twin 32-bit Burr-Brown "True Native" DAC chips on the inside allowing for separate signal paths for the left and right channels. That, in turn, gives you a more accurate, more detailed stereo image. The sound is intricate, with a good amount of soundstage depth and a high level of clarity.

If you'd like it to serve as a dedicated preamp, the Black Label has you covered. It features a pair of unbalanced RCA preamp outputs. You can select if they're fixed or variable, making it an ideal choice for a 2-channel stereo system.

Want to take it on the go? No problem. This DAC has a built-in 12-hour battery so it can drive your favorite headphones for half a day before needing to be recharged. In that time, you'll be able to enjoy some sweet, sweet music from any portable device you prefer. Just hook it up via the Type A USB input and you're rockin' in no time.

Connections

  • coaxial/mini optical digital input/output (standard Toslink to mini optical adapter included)
    • functions as a coaxial digital output when USB audio signals are applied
    • without USB audio signals, functions as an optical or coaxial digital input
  • stereo unbalanced RCA preamp output with selectable fixed/variable level
  • unbalanced ¼” headphone output (3.5mm mini to ¼” adapter included)
Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 with a tennis ball for scale.

Most compact desktop DAC — Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100

The DacMagic 100 has been my go-to as a solution for desktop audio woes for some time now. The sleek design makes it a clean-looking piece that should integrate well in any desktop setup.

It has ample processing, thanks to the Wolfson 8742 DAC chip housed inside. The chip can handle a 24-bit/192kHz signal (through USB) so no need to worry about losing anything from your digital sources. The DacMagic 100 also has a front-panel sampling rate indicator to help you verify the quality of your source.

Don't feel like hooking it up to your desktop system? This magic box has you covered there too: a pair of gold-plated RCAs take care of the output connection that'd go to your receiver.

Connections

  • USB (Type B) input for connection to a computer
  • three digital audio inputs: one optical (Toslink) and 2 RCA coaxial (S/PDIF)
  • one pair of unbalanced RCA outputs
Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

Best desktop DAC — Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

An elegant successor to the legendary DacMagic Plus, the DacMagic 200M brings a bit more to the table than its predecessor. Granted, the DacMagic Plus stole my heart the first time I got to play around with it — I'd used the same set of HD660s from Sennheiser that I mentioned earlier and the results were astonishing. The DacMagic 200M takes that same kind of performance and cranks it up to eleven.

Cambridge decided to switch things up a bit and employ twin ESS Sabre 9028Q2M DAC chips in this iteration. Those 9028Q2M DAC chips don’t mess around! They offer a cleaner, punchier sound overall compared to other DAC chips.

They also decided to beef up the headphone amp section, this time utilizing a high-performance Class A/B amplifier with a very low noise floor. It can handle inefficient headphones or higher-impedance headphones with ease — the output is pretty stout.

No need to grab an external Bluetooth receiver if you want to wirelessly stream your tunes. Unlike its predecessor, the DacMagic 200M has Bluetooth 4.2 built in with aptX support. It's also the first Cambridge Audio product that has full MQA support, serving both as a renderer and a decoder.

It'll take up a bit more space than the DacMagic 100, but the audio upgrades are significant. It can integrate into most home systems with just a couple of cables. You can connect it up to a CD player, a home stereo, or PC thanks to the various inputs and outputs on the back.

Connections

  • 2 optical digital inputs
  • 2 coaxial digital inputs
  • 1 USB Type B input
  • balanced stereo XLR outputs
  • unbalanced RCA stereo outputs
  • 1/4" front-panel headphone output
iFi Audio Pro iDSD

Best high-performance DAC — iFi Audio Pro iDSD

Topping off our list is the powerful Pro iDSD. Housed inside its gorgeous all-aluminum case are four bit-perfect, quad core Burr-Brown DAC chips that are the workhorses of the operation. The sound from the iDSD is excitingly clear and detailed. Cool enough, this DAC also features a tube section that adds more warmth and liveliness to your music.

The built-in headphone amplifier is able to deliver a lot of clean power to any cans you'd like. It eats higher-impedance headphones for breakfast. Want to use it in your stereo setup? No problem. The outputs on the rear can be set as fixed or variable which allows you to use the iDSD as a preamp to your home system.

There's no shortage of ways to get your tunes going. Streaming can be done via Wi-Fi using the MUZO Player app (which supports TIDAL) or Apple AirPlay. You can hook up an external hard drive or USB drive, your computer or music server, a CD player or transport, and even a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) if you plan on doing some mixing.

Connections

  • USB Type A input for connecting a thumb drive or an external (self-powered) hard disk drive (HDD)
  • asynchronous USB Type B input for connecting a Mac® or Windows® computer
  • coaxial/mini-optical digital input
  • balanced AES/EBU digital XLR input
  • balanced stereo XLR and unbalanced stereo RCA outputs

Any Questions?

Check out our DAC buying guide for the full scoop on DACs. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to any of our advisors. They’re extremely knowledgeable and get hands-on with a lot of the gear we carry. I should know — I used to be one myself!
Last updated 2/8/2021
  • Rosa from san francisco, CA

    Posted on 7/9/2021

    Hi, hope you can advise, I mostly listen to spoken word, so I would like to enhance vocals. Also some audiobooks have interesting music and or sound effects interwoven. A DAC recommendation would be appreciated. I do tend to cast the sounds to other devices that have Air Play, but of course not when I have my headphones on. I do have a no name DAC that I purchased from eBay over 10 yrs ago. The vendor no longer builds them, but I remember being amazed at the sound when piped through it to my wired headphones.

  • Marc

    Posted on 3/18/2021

    How does the Dragonfly DAC or ifi audio works with the online controls and mic in headphones? Will they still works if I get a phone call or do I have to remove the dac to use my headphone with calls

  • Bill from Atlanta, GA

    Posted on 3/3/2021

    Is it better to connect to the AVR component via Bluetooth or coax cable when using an I-Pad for the music source? Or should we use the dragonfly and connect through the USB?

    Commenter image

    Archer A. from Crutchfield

    on 3/3/2021

    Thanks for reaching out, Bill! That's a great question. To get the best sound quality possible, I'd recommend doing some sort of hardwired connection. Bluetooth is convenient but the way it compresses a digital signal can hurt the fidelity of the track. Your receiver's DAC can't improve what isn't there, if that makes sense. If you've got an adapter to take the lightning connection from your iPad and turn it into a coaxial digital one, go for it. That'll give you a fuller resolution that your receiver's DAC can convert and improve. Contemporary receivers can have some surprisingly good DACs in them, but the ESS-Sabre DAC chips in the Dragonfly-series have an advantage in terms of clock speed and accuracy. Since the Dragonfly DACs are a more dedicated piece of equipment, picking one up will add another layer of detail and clarity to your tunes. Also, if you plan on doing any streaming through Tidal then running the signal through a Dragonfly would be the way to go since they can all decode MQA.
  • Ed from Boynton Beach, FL.

    Posted on 3/3/2021

    Which DA is best for these applications? 1. Spotify on PC... Nano USB to Amazon Bluetooth receiver cabled to a legacy Nakamicki receiver -> Polk SDA Speakers? 2. Spotify on PC to SONOS Connect cabled to legacy Yamaha 2020 receiver -> to Vanderstein 2s ? Thanks !!

  • Greg from Ashland

    Posted on 2/13/2021

    I've been using a Dragonfly DAC with my iPhone in my car, connected via AUX. Am I damaging my audio system in any way?

    Commenter image

    Archer A. from Crutchfield

    on 2/24/2021

    Excellent question, Greg! You aren't hurting anything. The power coming out of your Dragonfly is significantly less than it'd take to damage anything in your ride. I'd actually used my Dragonfly Black with my 08 Civic's stock radio for quite a while before I upgraded it. The added output voltage of the Dragonfly is helping to maintain signal strength. Think of it kind of like if you were feeding signal from pre-outs on a radio into an amplifier. The higher the pre-out voltage, the stronger and cleaner the signal.