A Digital-to-Analogue Converter is a useful tool for converting an audio digital input into an analog audio signal which can in turn be fed into a headphone amplifier. A headphone amp is used where it is not possible to connect the headphone to the DAC directly. Popularly, a DAC is connected to a computer via USB, with SPDiF connections, or other similar audio devices compatible with a DAC. It is also possible to connect certain smartphones with DACs via interconnect cables or adapters.
Digital-to-analog converters are devices that are very useful tools for producing analog output from an audio input. There are a number of different types of DACs which vary in terms of their working. Inevitably, with so many options available in the market, making the crucial decision of which DAC to buy is a difficult one which requires careful deliberation. Product reviews and comparisons can be an immense help when it comes to making that decision. Given below are some of the most popular DACs available in the market.
Best DACs under 300 In 2020
- Best Overall: S.M.S.L M300 MKII HiFi Audio DAC
- Best Budget: Cambridge-DACMagic 100
- Sound BlasterX G6 Hi-Res External Gaming DAC
- Musical Fidelity: V90-DAC Digital To Analog Converter
- Sennheiser GSX 1000 Gaming DAC
- Topping D30 DSD USB DAC
1. Best Overall: S.M.S.L M300 MKII HiFi Audio DAC
Rating: 4.1 / 5
S.M.S.L M300 MIKII HiFi audio DAC is the ideal product to enhance your music experience tenfold! With its 32-bits high resolution and PCM digital audio, you can sample it up to 32bit/ 768kHz. The device can also support a DSD playback of as much as 512DSD. With its Flagship Audio Decoding Chip, this new version of DAC can transmit sound even more accurately.
M300 MIKII audio DAC has multiple modes including 3 sound color modes and 6 digital filter modes (Sharp, Short Sharp, Slow, Short Slow, Super Slow, Sound Color 1 to 3, and LD Short) Very easy-to-use and user-friendly, this product is highly convenient for users. It works with a simple multi-functional remote which uses R03/AAA batteries.
2. Best Budget: Cambridge-DACMagic 100
Rating: 4.5 / 5
For users who rely on computers and other similar digital devices for their music listening, DACMagic is just the product you need. With DACMagic, the sound input from TVs, computers, or other digital devices can easily be passed onto the amp without any reduction in detail, clarity, or depth.
DACMagic, unlike most other digital devices, decodes the digital audio itself to provide a highly improved sound quality. It is a very high-performance DAC that can use playback of as much as 24-bit/192kHz resolution audios. The most interesting feature of DACMagic is its ability to connect to four devices at a time with its 2 coaxial, 1 USB, and 1 optical input. You can simply switch between the four devices using the controls on the DAC’s front panel. Overall, it’s an excellent choice but for more budget friendly DACs you can check out our linked guide.
3. Sound BlasterX G6 Hi-Res External Gaming DAC
Rating: 4.4 / 5
With Sound Blaster X G6 Hi-Res 130dB you can boost your gaming experience by tenfold! Connect the device with your PS4, NINTENDO SWITCH, XBOX ONE, or PC and improve your controller and motherboard audios. With its immersive 7.1 surround system and enhanced audio realism, your gaming will become all the more exciting.
Its custom-designed Xamp amplifier has discrete components and a bi-amp design. With it, you are guaranteed authentic sound quality improvement as all audio channels are amplified individually. You can also get best dacs under 150$, in case you don’t want to spend too much.
4. Musical Fidelity: V90-DAC Digital To Analog Converter
Rating: 4.6 / 5
Music Fidelity V90-DAC has a lot to offer but at a reasonable price and there are excellent dacs under 100 dollars as well by the same brand. Here, you can find all the features you might expect in a high-end DAC but certainly not in a cost-effective product. It features state-of-the-art components and designs with excellent performance in technical terms. Its noise, distortion, linearity, phase, and bandwidth alterations are exceptional and not outdone by any other product.
5. Sennheiser GSX 1000 Gaming DAC
Rating: 4.1 / 5
You can increase the excitement and enjoyment you experience while gaming immensely with this EPOS Sennheiser GSX 1000 DAC. Its audio engine promises great spatial awareness and positional audio. With as many as 4 customized sound settings in the LED touchpad, you can customize your music listening! These settings include a touch mode switch and a volume ring to adjust the volume.
With its presets EQ and DAC chip you can exercise control over your gaming experience and can even use attuned audio presets. The DAC chip is super easy to set up since it needs no additional drivers. You can improve gaming immersion further by adjusting the reverberations to match the size of your room.
6. Topping D30 DSD USB DAC
Rating: 4.2 / 5
The D30 is compatible with USB, optical, and coaxial inputs ranging from 16-24 bit/44.1-192KHz. It has 2 LEDs and 2 switches which are sufficient for display and operation. The circuitry is designed with an electronic switch and a relay. The body of the D30 has centralized machinery and is engraved using a high power laser. It guarantees very low levels of jitter and can support the ASIO Audio software interface too.
How to find the best DAC: Buyers Guide
Types of DACS to choose from
Summing amplifier A summing amplifier is an op-amp amplifier that has a number of resistors connected via one input. The summing junction or the virtual ground is the place where the multiple resistors meet. The binary input is received by the resisters and the output at the op-amp. For the analog output to be accurate, the resistors must be matched.
- R-2R Ladder
The R-2R is the most basic and common form of DAC which requires only two, ladder-arranged resistor values. This can be thought of as a complex voltage divider. The 2R resistors receive the binary input and the output comes at the bottom of the ladder.
- PWM DAC
This Arduino microcontroller uses a PWM signal to produce analog signals. At the output, the signal is a binary waveform with both high and low peaks. The duty cycle is variable.
Common applications of DACs
- Digital signal processing
Signal processing is made much easier if the signal is in the form of binary output. In audio editing, for example, the audio input is converted into the binary output on which operations are performed. A DAC is used here to playback the audio by converting the input into a sound signal.
- Digital power supplies
A DAC is also used in converting voltage or current in power supply by changing its reference because most of the microcontrollers are not fast enough to be used in a power supply control loop. To do so, the DAC is connected to microcontroller output.
Factors to consider when buying a DAC
Using a DAC can significantly improve the sound of digital music and is a great addition to your home sound system. Although the difference may not be very huge, it sure is noticeable. Any kind of improvement to the sound quality is indeed a good investment. When finding a DAC from the many available options, there are a number of factors to be taken into consideration, the most important of which include:
- What device do you intend to connect the DAC to?
The DACs available in the market differ in terms of their compatibility, with most being designed specifically for high-end stereos, iPads, and iPods, for example. Remember to choose a DAC which is compatible with your source device.
- The quality of your music sources
Digital music comes on a range of qualities and formats. The effectiveness of a DAC in improving detail depends largely on the quality of the input music. Although a DAC can give a sonic boost to the music of any quality, the results are better with higher quality sounds. Therefore, the initial music quality is an important consideration.
- The quality of the systems to which you will connect the DAC
The degree of improvement is influenced by the quality of the audio components of your system. To make the most out of your system, it is best to use capable headphones or speakers.
- The features of the DAC
There are several DACs that enable wireless connectivity with large systems while others are wired. What features are ideal for you depends on how you wish to listen to your music. Some of the DACs in the market cannot be used with headphones, some are remote-controlled, while many others are super portable. These are important considerations when buying a DAC.
- Ease-of-use of the DAC
Plug and play, where offered, is the most convenient feature. Those DACs that do not offer this require certain adjustments and configuration which can be difficult to understand.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does DAC work?
A DAC is a circuit involving electrons that acts as a converter that changes digital information into a discreet analog value. The information enters as a digital binary code in most cases which, together with a known reference voltage, produces a current or voltage as the output. The number of ‘discrete steps’ can be increased by increasing the DAC’s resolution. As a result, the signal output becomes closer to a continuous-time signal with a reduced step size.
What is an ADC?
An analog-to-digital converter works opposite to a DAC; it converts a real-world signal into a digital representation. What happens is that the ADC compares the input voltage (analog value) with a reference voltage which is known, and gives a digital representation at the output. This output is mostly in the form of a digital binary code. In the case of an ADC, the resolution is higher if the ADC can resolve more digital codes.
Where can a DAC be used?
A DAC is needed when your device source cannot produce sound at the bitrate of your files. You could also use a DAC for signal processing to convert data into binary codes which are easier to process.
What does “jitter” mean?
When talking about DACs, “Jitter” refers to the phenomenon where the DAC’s clock, the device that informs when to sample, does no operate as well as it is expected to. In such a case where sample points are off schedule, the pitch can change for short periods. This problem is more likely to occur is the note being reproduced is high. Jitters usually happen only if the frequencies are very high
What is meant by aliasing?
Aliasing refers to the problem where an oscillating or warbling sound, not in the original recording, is produced because the sample rate was not high enough, so the DAC produced a lower frequency notes accidentally. Increasing the sample note can resolve this problem. Increasing data points will decrease the likelihood of error in a frequency set. A sample of at least two times a second should be good enough as sampling errors will only be possible in the highest frequencies.
What is meant by dynamic range and bit depth?
A bad dynamic range is one where the volume cannot be effectively ramped up and it is difficult to distinguish between instruments. Dynamic range refers to the difference between volumes in a particular file. The bit depth, on the other hand, is the dynamic range of an audio file. So, the range of volume notes in an audio file depends on the bit depth. A bit depth of 16 is the most common value. This means that there are 16 potential bits of information in each sample. This bit depth, although sounds less, is sufficient, particularly if you listen to music using headphones. This is because with headphones, the volumes are kept low and a higher bit depth is unnecessary.
Would I require a DAC for Bluetooth headphones?
No, Bluetooth headphones typically have a DAC chip installed in them to convert digital data into an analog output so you would not need a DAC. Using a seconds DAC would serve no purpose and would be redundant.