The search for the best headphone DAC amp budget can be a daunting one. Headphones are an essential part of our lives, and there are many factors to consider when purchasing them. They range in price, size, design, and materials used to make them.
If you’re looking for a great pair of headphones that will give you excellent sound quality no matter what genre of music you listen to, then it’s time to look into a good desktop DAC. The first thing you’ll need is some money because these things don’t come cheap!
Luckily Hooke Audio has done the hard work for you and has found three options that should suit your needs at different price points.
Top Rated Best Headphones Dac Brands
1. Auralic Altair G1
A lot of crossovers exist between DACs and amps, and music streamers. This is especially true for the Auralic Altair G1. It is a DAC, and it is a great one.
However, it can also be used as a built-in headphone amplifier and Roon endpoint. It is ideal for people who want an all-in-one solution. Even if you are only using it for its DAC capabilities, you will be in good hands. It offers music file handling that includes MQA/DSD capabilities and can take files up to 32 bits/384kHz.
The problem is, the Altair G1 just isn’t as good as the rest. For example, it would not be easy to choose it over the Chord Electronics Hugo 2, especially as there are accessory products that stream that DAC.
We think the RME ADI-2 headphone amplifiers are better in terms of audio quality. Auralic seems to have gotten the Altair a little behind; they are now focusing mainly on streaming wireless transport such as the Aries G2.1 or the extremely expensive streaming DACs such as the Vega G2.1. Although the Altair is a solid product, there are better alternatives.
- Full wireless streaming and a wide range of features.
- The DAC needs an update.
2. Schiit Yggdrasil
Proudly all-American-made headphone amplifiers from Schiit Audio, straight out of Valencia, California. Like Yggdrasil, which means World Tree, most other Schiit devices get their names from Norse mythology.
They all have a somewhat weapon-like appearance, but they are very 21st century. Although the audio quality is fantastic, it comes with a cost.
Yggdrasil is often sold out, so there is no better guarantee of quality. We recommend waiting for the “Schiit” moment to order new orders.
This amp DAC is different from all other brands because it uses the same DAC chip technology. Most audio conversion hardware uses the delta-sigma DAC architecture. Analog sound devices Yggdrasil uses AD5791BRUZ chipsets.
They use multibit ladder conversion, which, in other words, does not alter the digital DNA of digital audio. It preserves detail accuracy down to a single sample.
They’ve eliminated all the guesswork, Schiit said. The connectivity is very generous and professional-level. You’ll find an AES digital XLR and balanced XLR outputs, as well as all the other digital and analog connections.
All internal components of the portable device are easily upgradeable (the USB c board and the analog output section). A headphone amplifier is missing.
This is because the DAC technology should be kept as discrete as possible. We think the DSD is a little too intrusive. We think other DACs, such as the Hugo or the DAC3 HGC, offer better value, but this is still a great piece of gear. This is the best portable DAC you can buy.
- Amazing multibit ladder technology.
- It is entirely modular and stunning in design.
- Sounds fantastic.
- USB c
- No DSD
- No headphone amp
3. Benchmark DAC3 HGC
Since their release, Benchmark’s DAC1 & DAC2 have been industry standards for DAC performance. Anyone familiar with Benchmark’s excellent audio conversion performance knew that the DAC3 was eagerly awaited. They are also an international media group and leading digital publisher
This must-have put a lot of pressure on the design team to deliver. It’s not as enjoyable to use as the Hugo 2 or the RME ADI-2 and does not offer Bluetooth. It’s still very affordable, and the audio quality is fantastic.
The DAC3’s advanced harmonic filtering is evident in the DAC3’s silky-sweet top-end audio performance. The Hybrid Gain Control (HGC) helps to focus the headphones sound.
Benchmark is optimized for direct connection to power headphone DAC or powered speakers. This is not something to take for granted.
Much effort was put into optimizing the gain stage of the balanced outputs and the state-of-the-art volume control attenuation. It is seen as the very best portable DAC.
- Superior sound
- It can be pretty complicated.
4. Chord Electronics Hugo 2
The Chord Hugo 2 is among the best headphone amps. The Chord Hugo 2 is a portable, high-end DAC chip that can handle aptX Bluetooth and seven-hour battery life. It delivers incredible sound.
It can handle significant sample rates and bit depths (up to 32-bit 768kHz), as well as full DSD functionality up to DSD512.
The portable headphone amplifier has enough power to run even the most demanding headphones. Although the Mojo is slightly more expensive, it’s still a popular choice among audiophiles. These amplifiers are a favorite of our top-end DAC.
These portable DACs are not the best sounding on the list. That would be the RME ADI-2 DAC. It is not the best portable DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt.
It does so much that it’s hard to find anything better. Chord makes several great DACs, such as the Dave and the Qutest, but the Hugo 2 is our top pick for DACs. It is still the Best portable DAC for you.
- Amazing design and features.
- Good structure quality
- High-end DAC chip
- It doesn’t sound as good as less-expensive DACs.
5. RME ADI-2 FS
Germany’s RME has established its position as the world’s best DAC-maker with its ADI-2 FS. The ADI-2 is a stunning machine with a fantastic display that allows you to control your sound completely.
RME’s SteadyClock technology reduces unwanted noise to ensure that the audio quality is clear and precise. We don’t believe you can find better amplifiers for the price.
It’s certainly not as fun as this one. Although the ADI-2 doesn’t have Bluetooth like the Chord Electronics Hugo 2, it is an excellent wired solution.
The ADI-2 is an excellent alternative to the Hugo 2, even though we found ourselves still using it for most of our listening. We didn’t enjoy the complicated menu system that relies on many unintuitive controls for navigation.
Nevertheless, it is a minor drawback compared to the many pros of the ADI-2. RME isn’t yet a household name, but they have produced some great products and are highly recommended. The Benchmark DAC3 HGC is a professional piece of equipment that offers fine-grained control. This probably is the best portable DAC.
- Excellent sound and interface.
- Good build quality
- A complicated menu system and no Bluetooth.
6. CHORD MOJO
Although the Chord Mojo is an audiophile’s delight, it can also be used with a phone or DAP. It can only be wired and cannot compete with iFi for phone use.
A USB to the lightning adapter is required for iPhone connectivity. However, if you are serious about your audio quality, it’s well worth the additional PS29. The Chord Mojo is unbeatable sound-wise. We didn’t listen or play any file in any resolution that was not improved by feeding it.
Although it is expensive for a portable DAC, this price is still a good deal because the performance is comparable to the PS1,400 Chord Hugo.
It makes almost everything sound better. And, since it can be used with any device with an optical audio output (phone, laptop, or other), it’s as close to a bargain you’ll find with a Chord product.
You can easily pullout some great adjectives from the audio thesaurus to apply them to the Chord Mojo. They are complex, articulate, robust, and fulsome all at once. It is easy to use and made of aircraft-grade aluminum.
Although it does not have a display, you can still see the file quality by pressing the power button. The light-up buttons will turn red for 44.1kHz, green at 96kHz, and white for DSD.
The Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA processor onboard can handle any music file, from 44.1kHz to 32 bit 768kHz, DoP DSD (PCM. WAV, AAC. AIFF. MP3, and FLAC).
The majority of people listen to music on their smartphones, so the Mojo is a good choice. However, they should not mind the bulky wiring. Chord mojo is aimed at people with more complex needs.
- Sensational sound
- Great build quality
- Good frequancy range (44.1kHz to 32 bit 768kHz)
- A strange look, but a little heavy
7. Cambridge Audio Dacmagic 200m
The Cambridge Audio Dacmagic 200m portable DACs support is beyond any audiophile’s imagination. It is the reason it was named Best D.A.C. in T3 Awards 2023.
The E.S.S. Sabre D.A.C.s, one for each stereo channel, and DSD512 over USB are supported by the twin E.S.S. Sabre D.A.C.s. You thought 16-bit/192kHz was thrilling?
You have two optical and two coaxial inputs as well as a USB c digital input. These outputs can be combined with balanced or unbalanced outputs so you can make any connection you want.
This includes headphones as well, so it’s high up on this list. A headphone amplifier is included, and there’s also a 6.3mm audio jack at the front and USB Type-B.
All this, plus aptX Bluetooth for CD-quality streaming. Unfortunately, there is no Wi-Fi support.
Thanks to its superb audio handling, small size, and future-proofing capabilities. Cambridge Audio Dacmagic 200m is seen as among the best portable DACs on the market supported by its audience. Cambridge audio Dacmagic 200m is one outstanding products of this brand.
- Excellent sound
- Good volume control
- Astonishing format support
- USB c
- Only USB Type-B
- No Wi-Fi Support
8. IFI XDSD
Portable D.A.C.s were initially designed to maximize audio output from your laptop. However, most people now listen to music on their smartphones.
Although the Chord Mojo (below) has made this possible, it is pretty heavy and can only be connected to your phone by wire. The Mojo will make your mobile phone four times wider and three times heavier, with wires coming out like a science experiment.
Enter the iFi xDSD. You can connect it to your phone, laptop, or other digital inputs device with a USB or optical output. However, it also comes with Bluetooth, which allows you to plug your headphones in and keep them completely separate from your phone. This allows you to use your phone as usual for browsing, messaging, and other activities.
This is a point that hi-fi enthusiasts would have made years ago. Bluetooth is not an audio source for hi-fi. Bluetooth seems to be accepted in the hi-fi community.
Bluetooth Stage uses the CD-quality A.A.C. and aptX codecs, along with more hi-fi-tastic wireless technology and a Cyberdrive analog headphone amplifier to make the most of the connection. Hi-res audio and M.Q.A. support will appeal to those who want better sound than the CD.
Although I admit that I get a little confused when brands talk about bit rates or ‘balanced topology, the fixed is a fantastic D.A.C./amp. Although it’s designed for hi-fi enthusiasts, people can still enjoy it.
It has USB and mini digital inputs at the back so that you can use them with any other kit, provided with the correct adaptors. However, its primary purpose is mobile. It can be used with Astell & Kern digital audio players just as well as smartphones.
You might find the Xbass and 3D audio settings a little too much. Their effect is so subtle that it’s almost invisible. But you can always turn them off. You can expect it to last for 10 hours battery life with Bluetooth, but it will be more like 6. They will also provide hours of enjoyment, I promise.
- Everything is made more accessible with Bluetooth
- Sounds amazing
- Inputs to your laptop and home kit
- Questionable bass boost or 3D sound options
9. Gustard X16
Gustard is will become the leading digital publisher future that produces excellent audio products. The X16 desktop D.A.C. is worth looking at if you are searching for desktop DACs.
The X16 is one of few desktop models that offer a screen. Although the menu text may be small, it’s crisp and clear. The sound is also excellent.
The twin ESS ES9068AS DAC chip can quickly process any incoming audio, including M.Q.A. and D.S.D. This D.A.C. is excellent for people who love to tinker.
There are real downsides to the Gustard X16. The remote is a pain in the neck. It feels cheap and unresponsive. The D.A.C.’s biggest problem is its inability to stand out from the rest. D.A.C.s with comparable prices, such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic200M, do a better job and have a more straightforward interface.
Although the 200M doesn’t have a screen or remote control, it is far easier to use. We are going to recommend it over the more capable S.M.S.L. SU-9.
It’s not possible. The X16 is a solid D.A.C., but its shortcomings mean that it can’t compete with the rest. Although it’s an acceptable alternative and should be included on this list, it’s not perfect.
- The beautiful display and good sound.
- It’s too far away but doesn’t seem to be able to compete.
10.AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is an excellent choice if you are looking for a portable DAC. Although it is an essential USB stick with a 3.5mm headphone output and no other features, it is a remarkable device.
The Dragonfly Red by AudioQuest The Dragonfly red produces a lively and exciting sound. Its internal amplifiers can also handle a wide range of file formats, including MQA from Tidal. This is the most user-friendly headphone amplifier that we have ever tested. It also looks great.
The DragonFly Red is $200 and $100 cheaper than the Cobalt. This makes it more affordable. The DragonFly Cobalt, despite its high price, is a significant update that provides real benefits.
This portable headphone amplifier will beat Audiolab m DAC nano and iBasso models. The DragonFly Cobalt delivers excellent sound and is lightweight. It can only deliver file sizes up to 96kHz. The DragonFly red is an intentional choice by AudioQuest.
- Superior sound
- Attractive looks
- Although the AudioQuest DragonFly Red is quite expensive, it is unnecessary to apply.
11. Audiolab M-DAC Nano
The M-DAC Nano’s small size is not a mistake. It’s a compact piece of audio excellence.
Audiolab M-DAC Nano is a portable headphone DAC/amplifier at an affordable price. Audiolab M-DAC Nano will boost the audio quality of any Bluetooth-connected device. This gadget is as easy as it gets. Connect the MDAC Nano to your Bluetooth player or smartphone, and plug in a pair of wired headphones.
Your headphones will be connected to your smartphone via a wireless, with dedicated volume control on the MDAC Nano. The unit has an “F” button that allows 32bit/384kHz scaling, which adds critical clarity and depth to the source’s output.
With general use, you’ll get 8 hours of audio wireless playback but only 6 hours with upsampling turned on. The headphones are spaced at 3000 ohms and 7.5 MW power. It supports Bluetooth V4.2 with aptX Bluetooth, AAC, and Low Latency codecs. This is about the best presentation you can get from your mobile device.
The headphone jack is declining, and smartphone amplifiers are improving but not at the level an audiophile would be proud of, so the Audiolab M-DAC Nano is a great dedicated headphone amp for anyone who needs it. It costs just $169 / PS149 / AU340.
- Wireless capabilities added to wired headphones
- Upscaling requires a -6 hour battery
- Not as versatile and adaptable as other options
12. iFi hip-dac
If you are looking for a portable DAC with a beautiful design, the iFi hip is an excellent option. iFi hip-dac supports many codecs and Bluetooth connectivity options, making headphones that are already great sound even better.
The fire hip-DAC costs $149 / PS149 / AU$249 and looks fantastic. The DAC’s elegant, copper-colored finish and hipflask-like design (hence its name) make it a DAC you will want to flaunt. It is small enough to fit into your pocket easily.
Although it’s disappointing that the hip-DAC doesn’t have Bluetooth support and that Apple users (ios device) must purchase an additional cable, overall, iFi hip-dac is one of the best DAC on the market with budget price.
- Great design
- Support for many Hi-Res Audio codecs
- Balanced output and 3.5mm
- No wireless connectivity
13. iFi Zen Dac
The iFi Zen DAC is a great starting point if you don’t have a lot of money for your first set of headphones.
The DAC/amp combo is powerful enough to drive headphones with high power consumption. It also works well with in-ear monitors.
The iFi Zen DAC offers more features than you might expect for its price, including support for DSD256 and PCM384, DXD384, and MQA.
Balanced inputs and outputs are available, and the option to bypass the headphone amp if DAC is being used solely for audio. Although you might not use all these features, they are helpful for future planning as your audio journey progresses.
The specs of the fire Zen DAC would have you believe it costs $500 or more. However, it is only $129 / PS129 (about AU$250), making it one of the most affordable audio deals available.
The iFi Zen is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to get into headphone audio or simply a portable DAC/amp that can be carried around with you. iFi Zen Dac is well known among the best portable DACs.
- Smooth, relaxed sound
- Supports headphones with high-impedance
- Built like a tank
- No power supply
14. Schiit Modi 3+ Headphone Amp
The Modi line by Schiit is a DAC legend, especially when paired up with the Magni headphone amp. The Modi 3+ update combines all the magic of the Modi variants into one sub-$100 DAC. This is the third Modi model.
Schiit rebranded the brand, so it’s now just the Modi. Although it isn’t a significant update to the Modi 2, it does not need to be.
It already does what it was meant to do exceptionally well. It delivers crisp, clear audio and is very easy to use. Although it’s not the most exciting DAC, it’s an excellent DAC for the price. If you have a tight budget, this is a great option.
Modi Multibit is an upgraded version of the Modi. It adds extra inputs and a great digital filter. The Modi Multibit is more expensive at $249, so make sure you know this before you purchase.
We think the vanilla Modi is a good-if-unspectacular DAC that can form the unassuming backbone of any decent hi-fi or headphone system. Modi replaces the Fulla model on this list – although that model is still in stock, we believe Modi does a better job as a DAC. It is seen as among the best portable DACs.
- A super-clean operation under $150
- It isn’t a fascinating DAC.
15. iBasso DC01 Headphone Amp
The iBasso DC01 dongle is a simple device that connects to your phone. You don’t need an iPhone to apply, as long as your phone supports Android.
Although it does exclude a large portion of the market for the DC01, that doesn’t make it a bad DAC. It’s a very capable DAC that can dramatically improve the sound quality of any smartphone compatible with it.
You can even use it with your laptop or computer via a small USB c connector. The lightweight design makes it easy for you to carry around in your pocket.
We also appreciate the low price. The DC01 budget DAC is worth considering, even though it is smaller and better than the Periodic Audio Rhodium.
We can’t seem to get over the inability to connect the iPhone (not as bad as the Rhodium) and the odd shape. The DC01’s triangular shape means that it is lightweight but can be annoying.
We think it’s the type of product that will sell well with some minor redesigns and maybe a little more attention to those who don’t have Android phones. It’s an affordable alternative to Hidizs and Audiolab DACs.
- This is one of the best ways to upgrade your phone’s sound.
- No iPhone connectivity, awkward shape.
16. Nagra HD DAC/MPS
We are confident in stating that Nagra’s HD DAC has the highest quality DACs available. This kit is highly sought after because of its impeccable build quality and attention to detail.
You will need premium partners to get the most out of the Nagra. Otherwise, it’s almost like driving a Bentley on pram tires. But once you have them hooked up, you’ll be able to enjoy an excellent organic, natural, and detailed sound.
There’s a lot of refinement, but there isn’t any unwanted hardness. However, there’s still plenty of energy when needed. The Nagra can deliver stunning levels of detail, no matter how subtle or aggressive, musically and effortlessly. It is no surprise that Nagra’s structure quality is top-notch, as you would expect for this price. If you are searching the best headphone amp then it is for you.
- Natural, fluid, and informative sound
- Expressionist and rhythmic delivery
- Amazing build
- The display could be even better
17. Chord DAVE
The Chord DAVE, unlike the Hugo 2 and Mojo 2, isn’t concerned with portability. It is about maximizing performance, and it does so brilliantly. The DAVE has an exquisitely balanced sound, but it doesn’t use this to dull the recordings.
It is faithful to the source, and that’s all we ask. There are plenty of sources available: you have the standard trio of digital inputs (1 USB type B, four co-ax, two optical) and the rarer AES/EBU balanced input.
A quartet of BNC connectors is also available that Chord calls DX inputs. These are for unannounced Chord source product products.
It also impresses on paper. It accepts PCM signals at up to 768kHz. This is a mighty USB, but we are not sure how many people will take advantage of it.
DAVE portable DACs are not cheap, but this DAC is a great product. We are smitten, and we believe you will too.
- Superior sound quality
- Impressive feature list
- Differentiated appearance
- Nothing is essential if the price isn’t an issue
- Only USB type B
18. Chord Hugo TT2
As you move up the price scale, Chord’s DAC dominance continues. It’s possible to argue that the Hugo TT2 is the best value DAC company makes in terms of performance and features. To justify spending more, you need a transparent system and a large wallet.
The performance differences between the TT2’s and Hugo 2 are not significant enough to justify the higher price. Bluetooth aptX allows wireless playback from a tablet or phone, but it is not as good as the TT2’s wired connections.
These are exceptional, creating a vivid picture that is full of energy and coherence. It is a beautifully detailed and expressive presentation.
Chord continues to ride the seemingly unstoppable digital bandwagon with another class leader. Although we don’t like the Hugo TT2 scrolling menu system, it’s a great design.
- Articulate, informative sound
- An amazing expression of energy
- Beautiful build
- It can be frustrating to use ergonomics
What Is a DAC?
A DAC is a digital to analogue converter. It allows us to take digital information stored in our computers, iPhones, or Android devices and convert it into sound.
If you’re used to listening on Spotify or another streaming service, that music will have been encoded as a bitstream. This means that an algorithm will determine the bits and decode them to reproduce the initially recorded sound. This algorithm applies lossy compression, which throws away some of the information to produce a smaller file size.
What Are The Different Types Of DAC?
There are three main types of DAC, and they differ depending on how they convert digital audio into an analog signal.
These are attached to your computer and meant for desktop use. Depending on the quality of sound you want to produce, they can be large or small, but if space isn’t an issue, these are great for producing high-grade sound.
DAC/headphone amplifier combo. This type of digital device usually includes a headphone amp to boost the sound quality when listening with headphones. This is great for people who want good sound in a smaller package, especially if you don’t have space for a standalone DAC.
DAC is also helpful as they allow you to use your own choice of headphones, so it will be easier to find something that suits your needs and preferences.
This type of device is small enough to be used when listening with headphones on the go, so you can enjoy high-quality sound no matter where you are in the world. These are also smaller than standalone DACs but will take up more space than a combo device would.
How to Find the Best Headphone Dac
Sound is one of the most important factors when choosing an external DAC. This doesn’t just mean that you should choose a device with excellent audio quality; it also means that you should buy something which fits your style and taste in music.
If you travel a lot to places where space is at a premium, this will be a significant factor when deciding which device to buy. Paying a little more for something smaller is worth it in the long run, as you’ll be able to take your music with you wherever you go.
The materials used to build the dams are also essential because different materials will have different sound quality characteristics. It all boils down to personal preference, but buying an external amp DAC is a long-term investment so think carefully before you buy.
Designers and manufacturers have come up with many ways to make headphones look better than our standard black pair.
Finally, your budget will also affect which device you choose as they can be expensive! The good news is that there are plenty of top-quality options available at various price points, and choosing one at the right level for you won’t break your bank!
The Advantages of Using an External Dac
The main reason you’d buy an external DAC is to improve the sound that comes out of your headphones or speakers.
Another great benefit of this type of device is that it frees up space on your computer, meaning you’ll have more room for work or play! You also won’t need a set of speakers, which can save you a lot of money in the long run.
There are also plenty of great features that you won’t get with your standard headphones, including great sound via better apps. This is perfect for people who like to listen to music while doing other tasks, as they don’t have to pause their work to change tracks.
These devices also allow you to improve the sound of your music on other devices, which is perfect if you often listen to the same songs on more than one device.
Better audio quality
External DACs are similar in many ways, so choosing which one is right for you depends mainly on your listening preferences. Having one of these will allow you to truly enjoy your music, whether you’re listening at home or on the go.
A DAC is an abbreviation for digital to analogue converter. A DAC receives digital audio from a computer and converts it into analog signals played through headphones. A DAC consists of an RCA or optical input, a digital/analog converter, and a headphone output at its most basic level.
How to use headphone DAC?
Connecting your DAC to laptop/PC
1. Connection via USB Audio Class 2.0: By connecting a DAC (digital-analog converter) via the USB port using a digital signal, you’ll get the best voice possible.
2. Connection via standard RCA audio cable (red/white): connect an RCA cable between your DAC and your sound card.
3. Connection via TRRS (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve): if you have a modern smartphone or tablet that supports HD Audio over the 3.5mm headphone jack, you can connect it to your DAC using this type of connection.
Connecting your DAC to Music Player/Smartphone
1. Connection via standard RCA audio cable (red/white): connect an RCA cable between your DAC and your music player. The DAC will receive the digital signal from the portable music player via the optical or coaxial port (if available).
2. Connection via 3.5mm TRRS jack: if you have a modern smartphone or tablet that supports HD Audio over the 3.5mm headphone jack, then you can connect it to your DAC using this type of connection.
Related articles: How To Use A Headphone Amp? Top Full Guide 2023
When it comes to listening to music, the audio quality is one of the most important things. However, if you want to get the best experience possible, you need a good DAC. A good DAC should improve your sound and be easy to use and store when not in use. We hope that our best DAC headphone amp will help you find the most suitable DAC.
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Last update on 2023-03-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API