A quality digital audio converter (DAC) is essential to any new audiophile setup, as signal degradation usually begins internally at your computer’s soundcard. DACs are highly preferred over the internal equipment in your computer or mp3 player, as these dedicated units have better conversion chips, power supplies, and output circuitry than what is in your media device.
Upgrading to a DAC will improve amplification, dynamics, soundstaging, and so much more, but the double edged sword of audiophile equipment means that absolute best audio equipment sits behind an insurmountable price barrier.
The essential issue with audiophile equipment is that there is always a more expensive piece of equipment looming over your head, making your setup feel incomplete. However, even an entry-level DAC can vastly improve the experience of your high quality audio files.
A standalone DAC will provide significant upgrades from an integrated sound card, and there is no shortage of fantastic values in the sub $200 price range.
Many of these DACs offer dual function as a DAC and a headphone amplifier, allowing you to explore their benefits for both headphone and monitor listening.
Whether you favor one style of listening over another will affect how much you pay for your gear, but no matter where that leaves you, if you find a sound you like at a price you’re comfortable with, that’s a win.
1. Audioengine D1
The D1 digital-to-analog converter from Audioengine is a standout value, as it offers great sound quality at a price that is more affordable than comparable units. This USB DAC is plug-and-play with Mac or PC, making it one of the easiest ways to bring your FLAC and Apple Lossless files to life.
The sturdy metal casing with rubber front and rear plate has a compact footprint and a simple interface, with only a volume knob, power button, and a headphone jack on the front. On the back, there is one USB and one optical S/PDIF input, plus an RCA output.
The front 3.5mm headphone port is your output option for headphone listening. A 1/4 inch jack would have been a nice addition as they more commonly need amplification, but the 3.5mm jack will be appreciated by those who are using budget headphones, since this is a budget unit in itself.
The D1’s low 10 ohm output impedance will not work with some high impedance headphones (300 ohms or more), but when the impedances match up, the amplifier is excellent.
For USB audio the D1 goes up to a 24-bit resolution and a sample rate of 96 kHz, which are standard specs for a DAC that aims for smooth and accurate conversion of data to sound. These two figures are commonly measured with a dual rating, in this case 24/96. This rating puts the audio fidelity of the D1 at the level of HD Blu-Ray audio. The D1 is characteristically low in jitter, and also has a high signal-to-noise ratio of 110dB makes for a clean sound with minimal digital distortion.
The sonic accuracy of music played through the D1 is tighter, offering more room for individual frequencies to flourish, plus a wider sound stage. The frequency response of 10Hz – 25KHz also contributes to the added depth of the sound, and although it takes a trained ear to pick up this added complexity, it will immediately shine on that one song you’ve heard for the thousandth time.
While I have no direct complaints about the sound, I am left feeling like something is missing from the audio experience of the D1. True individuals frequencies will stand out under the D1’s subtle influence, but after comparing to slightly pricier DACs, it is apparent that this system could perform even better. Such begins the slippery slope of audiophile gear.
If reading about the D1 already has you thinking about an upgrade, the Audioengine D2 offers wireless streaming, and slight improvements on signal to noise ratio and frequency range for about double the price. But the vast world of potential improvements aside, the D1 is where the value is, as the unit’s solid amplification and compact footprint make it a great starting point for budding audiophiles.
- Small footprint
- Built-in headphone amplifier
- No 1/4 inch headphone output
- High impedance limits headphone selections
- Tonal balance could be more rich
2. JDS Labs O2+ODAC COMBO RevB
The ODAC and Objective2 are two powerful pieces of audio gear designed fully open-source by audio genius NwAvGuy, who took a scientific approach to making a small, portable, transparent and low cost headphone amplifier and DAC.
While the combo unit of the two is a little pricier than our target budget, you can technically buy the ODAC without the included headphone amplifier and keep the cost below $200. This is a valid option if you vastly prefer speakers over headphones.
Slightly higher price considered, the combo unit does bring a great value, and is most definitely lives up to being small and portable. It was built from the top-down to be simple and effective, which means it is light on additional features and aims to instead provide the best sound possible.
For example, the default configuration of the O2+ODAC ships with a front 3.5 mm line in, a mini-USB port in the back, and a 3.5 mm headphone-out jack, but if you want a 1/4-inch or RCA line out, those have to be custom-ordered from JDS Labs.
The ODAC has a solid 24-bit resolution and a sample rate of 96 kHz, giving it the same 24/96 rating as the D1. This high sample rate reveals improved sound staging and a more balanced sound spectrum in a high-quality audio file. The sound is transparent and brings tighter bass with less frequency bleeding between midrange and low-end sound. High end sounds are also enhanced, and dynamic range is solid despite a no frills frequency range of 20Hz – 20kHz.
The most impressive element of the ODAC’s sound, its transparency, comes easily through the O2’s low output impedance of 0.54 ohms, which allows the ODAC to power a wide variety of headphones without influencing the sound.
The exception to this statement is very sensitive headphones, as the constant gain of the amp floods the sound, even when the high gain mode on the volume knob is disabled. Despite this, this device offers <0.005% total harmonic distortion, making for a very clean sound. Assuming you have a nice set of speakers, this carries over to speaker listening as well.
In either case, it is important to remember that because of this transparency, high quality files sound better, and low quality files sound worse. This DAC will not color your low bitrate files to sound better, but will otherwise bring better recordings one step closer to their original studio sound.
One of the best things about NwAvGuy’s ODAC design is that it is open source, and can be found in various permutations from other manufactureres. JDS Labs is the easiest to work with, however, as they are very open to custom orders, should you need specific changes to be made to the O2+ODAC. With that kind of freedom, this DAC can work for a listener of any experience level.
- Open-source design offers flexibility for custom orders
- Low output impedance works with most headphone loads
- Transparent and natural frequency response
- Frequency range could be larger
- Gain is still high in low gain mode
- Limited in/out options on default model
3. Mass Fidelity Relay Hi-Fi Bluetooth DAC
There is a certain romanticism in laboring over analog equipment: powering on, plugging in, dropping the needle. For high quality digital sources, however, our only expectation besides quality is convenience, and Mass Fidelity delivers both with the Relay, a high quality Bluetooth streaming solution.
The Relay, is sleek, light, and beautifully machined from solid aerospace-grade aluminum, making it a stylish addition to any hi-fi setup.
It can be set up in under a minute, as it has just one RCA output to plug in, while the input is handled by a small Bluetooth antenna on the back. Bluetooth pairing is quick and convenient, plus it even supports extra features like pairing to multiple devices for gatherings, and fast re-pairing for daily use.
The Relay can decode SBC, A2DP, and AAC, but provides the best sound over aptX, making this a great choice for Android users. This does cause a minor problem for iOS devices, as even the newest iPhone 6s only supports the lower quality A2DP or AAC formats.
At its best, the Relay performs at 24bit/48kHz, which is roughly equivalent to CD quality. While this does mean that the Relay is outclassed by pricier wired DACs for smoothness, it is still nothing to scoff at for a Bluetooth DAC.
In fact, 44.1 kHz is the ideal sample rate for most media, as a majority of listeners will not be able to distinguish between this and a higher quality sample rate.
This is because 44.1 kHz is accurate enough to cover exact frequency range of human hearing, and though some barely perceptible dynamic range is lost, the added function of wireless connecting offers a fair trade-off for most people.
This is especially true considering that the Relay sounds better coming through hi-fi speakers than most other digital audio sources connected by wires. I confirmed this by playing aptX audio from Samsung Galaxy S5 through the sample unit I received into my vintage BSR hi-fi system, and then comparing it to a wired connection from my S5’s headphone jack into the same system.
The bottom line is that the Relay’s microprocessor far outclasses the sound card of my smartphone, and provides much better amplification plus improved clarity. And then there’s the best part: it lets me stream from anywhere in my living room at low latency.
Even with a potentially lower sample rate than you could have from a wired connection, the Relay has a phenomenal sound that is both accurate and detailed. With a 112dB signal-to-noise ratio and only 0.0001% THD (total harmonic distortion), neither noise nor distortion will come between you and your favorite tracks, which ring through accurately and with a new clarity.
All of the tracks I tested on my Relay came through more full and rounded than they did from being directly connected to my aging speakers, the added transparency of the sound helped reveal new details in my music.
It is easy to write off this wireless DAC because of the inherent limitations of wireless audio. But before you do, I would certainly recommend giving it a try, as I never realized how cool it is to stream wireless audio at such high quality, especially at parties.
Wireless DACs are a fantastic idea, and though it makes so much more sense to use in my living room rather than my studio PC, the Relay allows me to finally bring my high quality music out of my restricting little cave.
- Bluetooth wireless gets long range
- aptX codec delivers solid 24bit/48kHz sound
- Easy setup and pairing
- Higher price tag
- Additional inputs/outputs would be nice
- Poor quality on non-AptX compatible devices like iPhones
4. Creative Sound Blaster E5
Despite not being a dedicated DAC, Creative’s Sound Blaster E5 is a multi-purpose audio powerhouse that casually integrates beautifully smooth digital decoding into its repertoire. This sturdy alloy unit has a matte finish and a rubber base that holds it in place on your desk, but the accompanying angular stand is another nice way to take advantage of the full gamut of features that the E5 offers.
Considering all the other bells and whistles that this device has, it is best to start with the most important element: the sound. It offers a smooth and jitter-free 24bit/192kHz output, but only 24/96 if you are going through USB.
The signal-to-noise ratio is a solid 120dB, but certain elements of the E5 make it prone to coloring the sound with somewhat boosted treble. The DAC has versatile connections as well, including a Line-in / Mic-in / Optical-in, a Line-out / Optical-out, and USB 2.0 in.
I really like the E5 for what it is, as at $200, it E5 could be a slightly better DAC than it is, but instead it offers the many other features that make this a truly standout device.
The E5 also has a built-in headphone amplifier, with a convenient gain switch that allows the amp with work with either high impedance or low impedance headphones without the risk of output distortion.
The sample unit I was sent to review handled my large collection of headphones excellently, though I don’t have any over-ear monitors to test the unit to its limit. One downside for headphone aficionados is that two 3.5mm out ports do not offer major flexibility for headphone options, but this can be easily fixed with adapters.
Next to the gain switch is an SBX button that corresponds to the SBX Pro Studio suite software. You can use this software to add EQ or mixer adjustments to your audio.
Most budding audiophiles will want to hear their high quality recordings without digital enhancements, but the SBX button can be handy if you really want to kick the bass up a notch. It also works well for gaming or watching movies, since you can fine tune your audio to fit the action level.
Adding even more value is the internal battery, which can provide over 8 hours of portable listening for use on the go. Pair this with the ability to pair with Bluetooth and NFC to stream high quality codecs like aptX, AAC, and SBC from your phone, and you have a fully mobile wireless DAC.
The unit even has built-in microphones which can also be improved using the SBX software, but this definitely won’t replace a standalone microphone if you own one.
Simply put, if music is your one and only passion, the extra features of the E5 might go to waste if you picked it over a dedicated DAC. But if you are a general media buff who devotes equal time to gaming, music, and movies, then the E5 will be a playground of extra features that will keep you busy for hours. All of these features come delay-free, so for a do-it-all combo unit, you really can’t ask for more.
- Smooth 24bit/192kHz output
- Built-in headphone amplifier
- Bluetooth wireless streaming
- Slight sound coloration
- Built-in microphone could be better
5. Schiit Modi 2 Uber
The audiophile community equally reveres Schiit for its high-benchmarking entry level equipment and ridicules it for its horrendous name. Whether you love or hate the name, you can’t deny that Schiit offers one of the best values in entry level audiophile equipment, namely their Modi 2 Uber DAC.
The Modi 2 is meant to combine with the accompanying Magni 2 Uber Headphone Amplifier, which can be acquired at the same price to make the infamous Schiit Stack.
Because this modular setup allows you to combine headphone listening with hi-fi listening in the same way the O2+DAC does, these two units draw a lot of comparison.
Unfortunately for those with little desk space, there is no combined unit for the Schiit Stack, though their rubber feet do help them sit atop one another easily. The low impedance Magni 2 amplifier performs comparably to the O2 and adds great functionality to your audio setup, but for the sake of sticking to DACs, I will focus on the Modi 2 specifically.
The brushed aluminum case of the Modi 2 is elegantly designed, and matches the “strictly business” front plate with a small selector button and LED display to show which of its three inputs are selected.
On the back, you have the choice of either USB 2.0, optical TOSlink SPDIF, or coaxial SPDIF inputs, all of which are paired with a lone RCA output. The only gripe with the Modi’s form factor is that the LEDs are painfully bright in a dark room, and cannot be disabled.
In terms of sound, the Modi 2 Uber sounds smooth no matter which input is used, as it is capable of up to 24bit/192kHz output. This high sample rate makes for a smoother sound, and also offers more information for your speakers to create dynamic range. With a THD of <0.002%, and a signal-to-noise ratio of at least 104dB, musical intricacies shine with minimal interference.
Highs are more clear, and the mids and lows blend much less, making for an overall more defined sound. One of the biggest auditory boosts is the improvement to sound staging, which helps bring out each unique instrument in the mix. Like any good DAC, the Modi 2 Uber enhances the natural sound without adding warmth or coloration, allowing you to enjoy your music in a more true light.
For what it is, Schiit offers an immense value for improving your music-listening experience. It is easy to get a little more or a little less out of the total Schiit package for what you want to spend too, as each of the two units have normal versions that are under $100.
However, in the case of the Modi DAC, but I strongly recommend paying the extra for the Uber version, which offers the additional outputs, and less driver issues on Windows computers. Note that neither unit comes included with cables, but even with this expense considered, Schiit gives you a ton of value in a very small package.
- Plentiful input selection
- Smooth 24bit/192kHz output
- Requires drivers on Windows computers
- No option for a built-in headphone amplifier
- Bright LEDs cannot be disabled
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