Today, most music content is digital. This content might be stored locally in a computer file system, on CD/DVD media, or is streamed from some service such as Spotify, TIDAL, Apple Music, etc over the Internet. To play this digital content you need a device which as able to read or receive the digital content (a player or receiver).
Ultimately digital content needs to be sent through a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) to drive speakers. In many products like the headphone jack on most laptops and cell phones the DAC is very low quality. In these cases, using an external DAC can significantly improve the sound quality. DACs might provide line-level analog outputs designed to be fed to traditional stereo equipment or might have a built in amplifier designed drive headphones. Smart speakers and wireless headphones have built in DACs.
There are devices that are just dedicated players/stream-receivers, dedicated DACs, or contain both functions.
Today the most common “streaming devices” are computers, cell phones, and the all-in-one self powered wireless speakers. A common approach for audiophiles who have a significant amount of locally stored media is to have a computer which holds their content and runs software like Roon, Apple Music, etc and sends a signal via USB or TOSlink to a DAC and into traditional audio components.
For people who are just using streaming services, or want to separate their computer(s) from their audio equipment there is a wide range or devices. I think one of the best values is that highly versatile Bluesound Node. This device supports lossless streaming via Roon, Airplay, and TIDAL. It also has built in Spotify Connect and supports BlueTooth connections. Additionally, it can accept data via TOSlink and HDMI Arc. The signals it receives can send digital out via TOSlink which bypasses it’s DAC, or via RCA jacks through a decent built-in DAC. It can be configured to automatically select whatever source has most recenting started streaming data.
There is an amazing price range for desktop DACs. They can range in price from less than $100, to $42k?! Like most high end audio, there is a law of diminishing returns. It’s often possible to find less expensive DACs which sound better that moe expensive DACs. I would recommend the following DACs which I have generally arrange in increasing sound quality (and typically increasing price)
- JDS O2+ODac, $279 for most headphones, or the Matrix m-stage HPA-2 w/ USB, $289 for HD800.
- Massdrop Liquid Carbon X-Sdac, $349 combines a good quality headphone amplifier with a budget Grace designed DAC into a very nice desktop unit.
- Schiit Bifrost, $350-500 depending on options. The Bifrost is an amazing value and I think stands up well to the Gungnir and the DA11 if the rest of your signal chain is single ended.
- Audio GD makes a range of products which tend to deliver good value at a variety of price points. Several of their DACs are paired with very respectable headphone amplifiers making them an excellent all-in-one solution for headphone users.
- Schiit Gungnir very solid DAC which doesn’t do anything wrong. This would be my under $1000 choice for a DAC.
- Lavry DA11 is a very solid DAC. With some high end DACs there is something I will notice and think, wow, this DAC is letting me hear something I haven’t been able to hear with lesser DACs. There is nothing about the DA11 that makes me go “wow”… but there is also nothing that I heard and think “that is wrong”. The DA11 is a very balanced, neutral DAC which does everything well and nothing wrong. It has a respectable built in headphone amplifier that I found drove my HD800 and the LCD-2 adequately, though not as well as high end headphone amplifiers.
- Grace m903. I think of the Grace as being very similar to the DA11, slightly better sound quality, with a much better user interface and more features.
- Chord Hugo (not desktop.. but this is where I place it)
- NAD m51, PS Audio PWD2, Audio GD Master 7, Auralic Vega, and the Metrum Hex are all quite good… I have a slight preference for the GD Master 7.
- Schiit Yggdrasil
- Chord DAVE
At the modest end, less expensive DACs made by Centrance and HRT are a good value whose performance in somewhere between the oDac and the Bitfrost. The Musical Fidelity V90 has gotten mixed reviews, with some people claiming it’s amazing, good as any $2K DAC, while others say it just ok. I have read several reviews of Questyle Q192 which suggest it might be worth a look.
Based on reviews other DACs which are worth considering, which I expect would be in the same league (maybe better, maybe worse) than the Lavy DA11 in sound quality would include Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Anedio D2, M2Tech Young DAC, yulong a18, matrix-x. In past years the original Benchmark DAC1 often got good reviews. I don’t understand, I never liked the DAC1.
There are a number of DACs that others might be interested in that should be in the same league (or maybe better) as the PWD2 / M51 / GD M7. They aren’t on my list because of my perceived ROI. This includes the Ayre QB9, Lampizator, Resonessence Labs Invicta, Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2, Lynx Hilo, and DACs from MSB Tech
One other thing to mention is a sound processor system called the Realiser A8 which gives the experience of listened to speakers or 8-channel surround sound using headphones. They are very cool, but also price ($3k+), but for someone who doesn’t want the music in the middle of the head sense and can’t use speakers for some reason, these are worth giving a listen to.
Nearly all the Portable DACs on the market accept USB input. Some also support Coax or TOSlink. Most of the portable DACs have built in headphone amplifiers. Some DACs are powered from the USB bus which keeps things simple if you are using a laptop of desktop (no batteries to charge or extra power cable) but limits it’s use with phones and tablets that don’t have enough power to run the DAC. Portable DACs I would recommend in order of sound quality:
FiiO E17k ($139) is a decent sounding DAC / amplifier with lots of features and supports both USB and Coax digital in.
EarStudio ES100 is a decent sounding bluetooth reciever combined with a DAC and headphone amplifier. It can also function as a USB DAC. Decent, but not exceptional audio quality, but enables using wired headphones with modern smart phones which no longer have headphone jacks. The amplifier was surprisingly powerful, able to adequately drive Sennheiser HD800.
AQ Dragonfly is perfect for the “road warrior” who needs to travel light. It’s the size of a thumb drive and powered by the USB bus. Absolutely amazing sound quality for the size and price when driving IEM or efficent headphones. I used mine with a USB right angle adapter so the Dragonfly sat flush against my laptop rather than sticking out. The rest of the DACs I list here are better, but not night and day better. When focused on listening your would notice the units below are better, but if music was playing in the background, the Dragonfly’s sound quality wasn’t a distraction. I found combining the Dragonfly with a Headamp Pico Power was a very nice solution for full size headphones such as the HD800.
Geek Out V2 (GOV2) is the most powerful amplifier I have tried that is powered via the USB bus. Had no problem driving full size headphones. Single ended it’s a bit better than the HiFi-M8, but trailing the Chord Mojo. When running balanced, the GOV2 gets very close to the Mojo. Compared to the Mojo, the GOV2 has better dynamics (especially in the lower registers) and slightly better high frequency extension. In every other areas, I found the Mojo better including sense of space, separation, as well as smoother and less fatiguing without giving up too much detail. The GOV2 packaging feels cheap, but doesn’t hinder function. Another review had Geek Out V2 close to the Mojo performance. Geek Out V2 measurements look good. I prefer the Mojo to the GOV2, but the GOV2 is an great value, being just slightly behind the Mojo in terms of sound quality at 1/2 the price. Alas, I believe the crowdsourced company that makes GOV2 might has ceased to exist.
Chord Mojo ($599) is the best sounding portable DAC/amp I have personally heard exept for the Hugo which is 4x it’s cost. The Mojo is also one of the best sounding DAC & amp (portable or desktop, integrated or seperate) I have heard at it’s $600 price point driving my HD800 and Westone 5ES. That said, it is also one of the most over hyped products. It’s good, but it doesn’t compare to top end DACs and amplfiers.
Chord Hugo2 ($2500) is an amazing unit, but it had better be for the money. The Hugo can compete against desktop size units even though it’s small enough to slip into a coat pocket, battery powered, take almost any input or output you could imagine, except no balance output. I would characterize the DAC a bit like my Lavry DA-11… that it didn’t do anything that bothered me (everything was good), but it didn’t blow me away. There are top DACs which I think are better, and several of them are cheaper than the Hugo. The amplifier is decent, but at the Hugo’s price point I would have expected something better. I found the adding a Headamp Pico Power didn’t improve the sounds of the HD800, but it didn’t make it worse. The Sennheiser HDVD600 improved the sound quality, and the Hugo was noticeably behind the Headamp GS-X mk2.
Over the last several years I demo-ed, borrowed, or owned a rather large number of portable DAC/amps. Below are a few portable DACs which I thought were particularly noteworthy. In general, I believe the above units will provide better price performance than these, but others might prefer them to what I listed above:
- Ray Samuels Audio Predator and Intruder were noteworthy at one time because they were some of the only DAC/amps which had enough power to drive full size headphone.
- Headamp Pico DAC/Amp was one of the first battery powered DAC/Amp capable of driving full size headphone. I found it had a neutral (almost to the point of cold) sound signature in a nice package. I prefered the Dragonfly driving the Pico Power amplifier.
- CEnterence HiFi-M8 ($699) is a portable, do everything unit available in a number of configuration, powered by internal batteries, and has an amplifier that is powerful enough to handle even difficult to drive full size headphones and was available with a balance plugs, though the amplifier was single ended. While extremely versatile, I think nearly all the portable DACs I have listed provide superior sound quality.
- Resonessence Labs Concero HP ($850) is one of the most expensive USB bus powered DAC. It’s as simple as the HiFi-M8 and Hugo are feature rich. I have not heard one myself, but reports from people I trust say that it is the best sounding USB powered DAC they have heard. I would love to compare it to the Chord Mojo… not sure which would be more pleasing to me.
- DACs from iFi have a good reputation. I listened to one of their early models years ago and it was decent but not great. Newer models are likely worth a listen.
I wrote up a bit about comparing the Chord Hugo vs The HiFi-M8 vs my Desktop Lavy DA-11 + GS-X mk2 and Chord Hugo vs Geek Out V2. There is a nice table showing portable DAC with the HD800.
Smart phones have nearly killed the portable audio player marketplace. Why carry two devices when one works just fine? the headphone jack on almost all smart phones, if it exists, tends to be fairly low quality, and the Bluetooth implementations are even worse. For people who want good quality audio out of their smart phones or other portable computing devices I suggest using one of portable DACs listed above.
There are a few reasons people choice to use a dedicate portable player. The first reason is that its possible to carry more multiple at a significantly lower price point. The second reason is that the better quality portable players headphone jacks that provide high quality sound.
Fiio is the low price leader while Astell&Kern is unmatched at the high end. Sony, who defined this marketplace continues to make products in this space. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes flawed. I have gotten tired of their uneven execution and stopped considering their products.
The Brennan B2 is versatile CD ripping, audio serving device which can stream to Sonos speakers, drive highly efficient bookshelf speakers with it’s built in 15 watt amplifier, send digital audio streams via TOPSlink or HDMI.