Best DACs of 2020
The way that music is delivered to us has drastically changed over the years. Especially since music became predominantly mobile, and we’re used to carrying it around with us wherever we go.
Upgrading our music gear has become a sort of obsession. And one of the things you might often hear about but are not entirely sure what they are or how they work are DACs, or Digital-to-Audio-Converters.
Before you jump right into purchasing one, make sure you read our guide. First, you’ll determine whether you need one in the first place, and if that is the case, you’ll find some of the best models available.
See related: Best Stereo Amps
Best DACs of 2020 - Our Top Picks
1. Best Overall - Chord Electronics Hugo 2
- Size: 5.1 x 3.9 x 0.8 inches
- Weight: 15.8 oz
- 7 hour Battery Life.
- 768kHz Micro USB input
- Coax Jack input.
- Dual Data Mode jack input
- 96kHz Optical input
- Bluetooth Apt X input
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 Review
Chord Electronics Hugo DAC has been a fan favorite for quite some time now. And even though it had its share of downsides, just like any other piece of equipment, it feels like it didn’t need any more improvements.
Nevertheless, the guys at Chord decided to do some tweaking. Hence, the Hugo 2 was born. And it’s still a fantastic piece of audio gear. Now it’s just smaller and more expensive than its predecessor.
The first thing that’s noticeable from the get-go is that the edges feel crisp and smooth, and the overall build seems to be at the top of the game.
Like we’ve mentioned above, Hugo 2 is a bit smaller and compact than the first model. However, it’s still a larger model when DACs are considered. So, even though the manufacturer claims it’s a fully portable model, it might be a little far from the truth.
That being said, it is lightweight, but it’s just not easy to carry it around in your pocket whenever you need to use it. Check out our DAC buying guide.
All the Connection Ports You’ll Need
When talking about connectivity options, Hugo 2 offers pretty much everything you’ll need. Or at least, almost everything. There are digital optical input (TOSLink), digital coaxial, mini-USB, 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs, a couple of RCAs to connect the amp, aptX Bluetooth, and more. So, more than enough.
And most importantly, the sound. You’d be hard-pressed to find any faults in the Hugo 2’s process of converting and reproducing digital signals.
In fact, the bigger the file, and the higher the amount of information it has to deal with, you can bet the end result will be a crisp, detailed, and dynamic performance.
2. Best Portable - Audiolab M-DAC Nano
- Size: 1.8 x 1.8 x 0.5 inches
- Weight: 1.12 oz
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 30 mW per channel output
- 2 hours for charging
- 8 hours playing time
- 8-ohm impedance
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Review
Up until recently, finding a genuinely portable DAC option was kind of a hassle. In other words, if you wanted to get a DAC to make the sound of your phone or laptop much better, you didn’t have all too many options.
That’s where M-DAC Nano steps in. It is a really petite unit that can easily fit in any pocket. On top of that, it’s incredibly lightweight. But, even though these are all desirable traits, they’re not the things that separate this model from the rest of the portable ones.
No Adapters Needed
Convenience and ease of use are, on the other hand. To connect this device, you don’t need to carry any additional adapters around. All can be done wirelessly, via Bluetooth 4.2 version.
This means you can position it wherever you see fit once you want to connect it.
M-DAC nano does not use the power from your device when turned on. Instead, it uses an internal rechargeable battery which can last up to eight hours when fully charged. It could offer more in this department if you ask us.
When the device is inactive for 10 minutes, this DAC will automatically shut itself down. An excellent feature for preserving power. Check out our list of best subwoofers.
When it comes to Bluetooth dependent devices, the main concern tends to be sound performance. Generally speaking, it should offer a much better sound to compel you not to plug in your headphones straight into the phone simply.
In this case, that turns out to be the truth. The sound is obviously superior to that without the M-DAC Nano.
3. Best High-End - NAIM DAC V1
- Size: 19.3 x 14.6 x 9.8 inches
- Weight: 5 lbs
- 10-ohm impedance
- 1 x coaxial BNC
- 2 x coaxial RCA
- 2 x optical TOSLINK
- USB 1 x asynchronous USB (type B)
- 10Hz – 20kHz frequency response
NAIM DAC V1 Review
NAIM is a household name when it comes to audio production. This manufacturer usually tackles one area at a time, to make sure they’ve researched the market and got everything right.
So, it’s no surprise that this is the second DAC coming from this company. On the other hand, it’s the first one that can double as a headphone amp.
Hasn’t Changed Too Much Since the Beginning
Design-wise, nothing had changed about this model since 2013, when it was first introduced. It is packed in an aluminum body and sports an OLED display.
A bunch of menu buttons is placed at the front of the device, making it a breeze to make your selections. Or you can simply use a neat and user-friendly remote that comes with it.
As you’ll find out with many other DACs, this model, too, can also work as a preamplifier. For this purpose, you’ll find two optical inputs and three coaxial ones, so you can connect various other devices. Also, there’s a 6.3mm output in the front that serves as a headphone amplifier.
Since the introduction of this model, there have been a number of updates. Since the last one, there weren’t many changes to the overall sound of the DAC-V1. Which is a good thing, since the previous iteration worked perfectly fine.
It offers a well-balanced, subtle sound that is dramatic and punchy at the same time. Not many models can do that.
At times, it can be quite forward and throw itself at you. Therefore, sometimes you might even feel kind of overwhelmed by it, which in turn might make you feel unrelaxed.
4. Best Budget - Chord Electronics Mojo
- Size: 3.2 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches
- Weight: 6.4 oz
- Micro USB
- 3.5mm jack coaxial
- Optical Toslink
- Micro USB charging port
- 2. x 3.5mm headphone jacks
Chord Electronics Mojo Review
Want to get the best possible sound from your device, but lack the funds to go on a splurge? Then Mojo is a model for you.
It is a perfect fit for those who wish to get the same manufacturer’s high-priced Hugo model, but simply can’t afford it.
And even for an affordable price, this model is packed with a powerful processor. This is due to the manufacturer’s refusal to simply use just any DAC chipset to power its converters.
From the first glance, this model feels kind of strangely shaped, without all the Chord’s beloved trademark details. Then again, for a cheap product, it is an example of elegant, minimal built, with an eye-catching finish.
The whole build is in the spirit of minimalism. So, don’t be surprised that there are only three rounded control buttons. These take care of the power switching on and off and controlling the volume.
There is no display on the device, but rather those buttons change colors depending on various inputs. This can feel a little confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
For such a tiny unit, the Mojo is definitely packed with lots of connectivity options, like optical, coax, micro-USB, and a USB port that can be used solely for charging.
To get it fully charged, you will need to spend at least 10 hours, which is a lot, you’d agree? And after fully charging it, you’ll be able to use it for up to 8 hours.
But, this depends on the way you use the DAC. If you’re turning the volume up to the max, this number will decrease. So, it feels like it could do better in this department.
And lastly, and most importantly, it performs fabulously. It is able to handle a considerable amount of detail and sort them out in a cohesive manner.
If you’re at all into audio, and the sound performance in general, chances are you’ll want to enrich and breathe new life into your headphones or speakers. And there’s no better way to do that than with a DAC!
It’s just a matter of determining whether you actually need one, and how much you are willing to spend for that pleasure.